Dave Hill: Should London Mayors, not national governments, decide what the Met’s ‘basics’ ought to be?

Dave Hill: Should London Mayors, not national governments, decide what the Met’s ‘basics’ ought to be?

On Friday, a report Home Secretary Priti Patel commissioned criticising Sadiq Khan over his removal of Cressida Dick as Metropolitan Police commissioner made news. On the same day, Patel sent a letter to Dick’s incoming successor Mark Rowley. She told him a restoration of trust and confidence in the Met is “absolutely vital” and that she expects it to “get the basics right and provide the first-class service expected of it”.

Given that Patel is widely expected to be shown the door within days by the new Prime Minister, her instructions might be thought beside the point. But what is striking about her letter is that she lists some of the same sickening recent episodes the Mayor cited when moving to make Dick step down: the strip searches of children; the sewer attitudes at Charing Cross; the failure to spot serial killer Stephen Port; the still belief-beggaring fact that Wayne Couzens, a known sex pest and woman-hater, was not turfed out of the Met long before took his chance to rape and murder Sarah Everard.

Striking, yet not surprising. For all the muttering about Khan’s handling of the matter back in February, he and Patel agreed that the Met was in a mess. The Evening Standard reported that Dick did not turn to Patel for support because she knew a forthcoming review by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) of anti-corruption procedures at the Met, which followed the damning Daniel Morgan report, was going to make unhappy reading (and so it proved). Something drastic needed doing. But who would do it? And who should?

The questions arise out of the arrangements for hiring and firing Met chiefs and the distribution of powers and responsibilities for policing London between the Home Office and City Hall.

In law, commissioners are formally appointed by the queen on the recommendation of the Home Secretary who is required only to “have regard to” the wishes of the London Mayor (in practice the PM has to be happy with the choice too). Also in law, London Mayors can suspend commissioners and ask them to resign or retire, but only with the Home Secretary’s approval.

However, in practice, the removal of commissioners has twice, famously, not happened in that way. Dick’s departure confirms that if the Met chief loses the confidence of a Mayor it is effectively impossible for them to carry on, whatever a Home Secretary wants. Precedent for this was set in 2008, when the newly-elected Mayor Boris Johnson, accompanied by his then deputy for policing Kit Malthouse – now policing minister – did the same thing to Ian Blair.

Khan’s actions are described in the critical report, compiled by former HMIC chief Tom Winsor, as having been “oppressive and unreasonable” towards Dick, as failing to follow due process or treat her fairly, and as having subjected Dick to “a classic instance of a constructive dismissal”. And although Winsor is at pains to state that he did not examine the Johnson-Blair episode in detail, he does write that “from the information I do have, I would have similar concerns about the Mayor’s approach to the Commissioner then”. Labour ministers expressed their own concerns at the time.

But setting aside the obviously important issues about Mayors following the rules, are those rules up to scratch in the first place? Are they fair to Mayors and in the best interests of good policing for Londoners? Whatever you think about the actions of Johnson or Khan, both could and did make arguable cases for doing what they did. Khan’s was that Dick was not convincingly addressing the malaise in the culture of the Met. Johnson’s was that Blair had taken to publicly pontificating about social issues outside of his brief and was embroiled in distracting controversies and legal challenges.

The backdrop here is that although the Mayor, as London’s police and crime commissioner, is accountable to Londoners for the performance of the Met, more power over who leads it lies with the government – power with limited responsibility to Londoners.

Tom Winsor spends some time in his report exploring arguments he heard – including from Sadiq Khan – for simplifying the rather muddled Met governance arrangements, by separating the Met’s national functions relating to terrorism and royal protection from those of policing London, and giving Mayors primacy over Home Secretaries – after all, it is Mayors who have a direct mandate from Londoners to set priorities for the Met through their statutory police and crime plans.

Those arguments did not persuade him. Winsor maintains that the very size and national importance of London makes the Metropolitan Police “a quasi-national institution” whose leadership is “a matter of national as well as local significance.

And he is critical of Dick and the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime, which effectively discharges the Mayor’s policing responsibilities, for a document they signed up to in 2017, which committed both to working to deliver the police and crime plan, when the relevant legislation says the commissioner is required only to have regard to it. He calls the document’s provisions “misconceived and unsatisfactory”.

The thrust of Winsor’s conclusions is that Khan has over-reached his legal authority in a number of ways during his time as Mayor and that this is not acceptable. He produces eight options for changing the situation, none of which would strengthen the Mayor’s hand.

What will happen next? Liz Truss said at Wednesday’s London Tory leadership hustings that she does not favour the Mayor’s responsibility for policing in the capital being, in the words of Nick Ferrari, “removed or reviewed”, despite lambasting Khan over crime in London and recycling the fiction that Johnson was effective at “cracking down” on it when he was at City Hall. She insisted that she supports the elected police and crime commissioner model and that “the best decisions are made locally”.

Given the readiness to turn policy somersaults Truss has demonstrated during the leadership contest, we might take that with a pinch of salt. She or Patel’s successor might – perhaps unlike Patel, so far as we can tell – like the look of some of Winsor’s recommendations. But the advantage for national governments of the current dual responsibility set-up is that it conveniently lets London’s Mayors take the heat when crime hits the headlines while allowing them to score political points if the Mayor is of a different political party – just as Truss did last Wednesday – while at the same time being in charge of most of the money the Met receives.

Winsor’s report argues that Met commissioner’s need more protection from London’s Mayors, not less, and worries that going in the opposite direction would put policing in the capital at too great a risk from political whim and interference. But while one can quarrel with Winsor’s knowledge or experience, is it not the case that policing and crime have been routinely abused as political footballs for decades, with the media in the thick of it too?

Patel’s remark in her letter to Mark Rowley about “the basics” raises questions about what she thinks “the basics” are. A reference to “visible policing” suggestions the usual Tory preoccupation with “bobbies on the beat”, when the relationship between crime rates and officers walking the streets has long been a matter for debate. But if “the basics” means things like efficient intelligence gathering, responding promptly to 999 calls and having a respectful attitude to the London public rather than, to be blunt, a head full of shit, then the more the better please, and now.

Which elected representative is better placed to make sure Met commissioners deliver those good things – a Home Secretary in Whitehall or a London Mayor directly elected by Londoners?

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