A retired chief constable has raised concern at the ability of elected police and crime commissioners (PCCs) to fire senior officers and called for more checks to be put in place to ensure fairness. Bill Skelly, who led the Lincolnshire police until recently, criticised the lack of safeguards for chief constables who face the threat of being dismissed by their PCC. He told The Times’s crime editor Fiona Hamilton that this made the chief constable the ‘most vulnerable’ officer in a police force as they were ‘subject to essentially the views of a single individual’.
Skelly said that, as a result of this, chief constables may be more reluctant to challenge their PCC and take vital risks in their role if this could lead to them being fired. ‘You never quite know how strong that factor is in the decision-making of individuals, but nevertheless it’s there and it’s real,’ he said. ‘We don’t know whether it’s having this chilling effect on individuals but we know that it could. So let’s try and remove that factor.’
PCCs were introduced by the Coalition government as part of David Cameron’s Big Society and included what’s known as the section 38 power giving a PCC the authority to remove their chief constable. The innovation was opposed by Labour when it went through parliament and quickly became controversial. Elected PCCs must get approval to hire chief constables from a police and crime panel however, they are free to fire them without the need of external validation.
A 2020 report from Essex University last year echoes such concerns and argued that the the power of PCCs to remove Chief Constables from office was having a ‘corrosive’ effect on policing and police accountability. The study by Dr Simon Cooper of the university’s law school, interviewed PCCs, Chief Constables and members of Police and Crime Panels in five forces. ‘The interviews conducted for this research find the PCC’s power to remove their Chief Constable has already compromised the independence of these senior officers,’ he said. ‘As currently formulated, the PCC’s section 38 power creates an environment in which it would be possible for a PCC – effectively a lay person – to command, overrule and potentially even control a Chief Constable. We urgently require a select committee inquiry to re-examine a PCC’s power to remove their Chief Constable.’
Cooper argue that a PCC’s ability to remove their chief constable could cause ‘an instability in police leadership and a potential culture of compliance, as Chief Constables – many close to retirement – avoid conflict with their PCC’. ‘Second, Chief Constables could be developing a practice of abstention and risk, becoming indebted to their PCC,’ he argued. Senior figures interviewed noted ‘a ripple effect’ as progression to the most senior rank was ‘no longer seen as attractive’. ‘There has been a power shift, it’s a significant change and it’s no surprise that about half of the Chief Constables have gone,’ one PCC told Cooper.
Bill Skelly has called for ‘an additional safeguard’ to be put in place when PCCs attempt to dismiss chief constables, which should once again involve police and crime panels. He said “in the same way that the commissioner has to give a rationale for why they should appoint the chief, the commissioner would have to give a rationale as to why they wish to dismiss them or terminate a contract”.