David Wright discusses the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill and how it may indicate the future of the Fire and Rescue Service


The introduction of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill (PRSRB) onto the parliamentary conveyor belt will fundamentally reorganise the way the Police Service is controlled in the United Kingdom. In a wide ranging bill, the headline grabbing item is the introduction of a "police commissioner", who will take responsibility for the democratic control of the police service, usurping the current arrangement of police authorities. Having seen what had happened to attempted government enforced mergers in the last decade, the Bill, however avoids the issue and steers clear of making a decision, preferring police services to deliver mergers at their own volition. For the most part, however, given the history of 'read across' between the police and fire and rescue services (FRS), the implications for the FRS of the PRSRB could be both wide ranging and tectonic.


The Bill itself has a range of measures outlined which purports to have the objective of strengthening democratic control, fitting in nicely with the 'localism agenda' and bringing about a complete overhaul of the police service political leadership. The Police and Crime Commissioner will be directly elected by the community, one for each of the 43 services. The strategic role of the Commissioner is to provide a police and crime plan which will set out crime reduction and management intentions and then subsequently set the budget to meet the requirements of the plan. The setting of the precept will also be responsibility of the commissioner and collected through local authorities.


The Commissioner is responsible for the appointment of the Chief Constable and also has the ability to dismiss the incumbent. The Chief Constable, however, will retain operational control of the service and is responsible for the appointment of all other officers. The police authorities, currently responsible for the political steerage and oversight of the Service will be removed upon enactment. If all goes to plan, by May 2012 the first police commissioners will be appointed. Interestingly, and for no particular reason, the Commissioners will only be allowed to serve a maximum of two terms. Perhaps this is a move that should be considered with other political leadership positions including that of Local Authority Leaders, Prime Ministers etc - if it's good enough for the Russian and American President.


Providing oversight on the activities of the Commissioner will be a new body called the 'Policing and Crime Panel'. This committee is made up from local authority elected members, magistrates and other independent individuals. They will not be responsible for the monitoring the activities of the Police Service or of the Chief Constable but of the Commissioner and his or her plans.


For the Fire and Rescue Service, the issue is whether or not there is sufficient reason to consider such a move and the creation of the Fire Commissioner across the Service? There are many reasons to suppose that if it is good enough for the police then there is no reason why the FRS should be any different. But are there too many difficulties to implement such a move? No doubt there will be many more naysayers than those who are for it, including existing Chief Fire Officers, elected members of the fire authorities and representative bodies. The arguments that will undoubtedly be raised will include governance structures, role confusion, and the democratic representation of the community and others, most of which will be a rehash of the current arguments against police commissioners. Needless to say there are many who would wish to take up such a role including many in the ranks of the flood of soon to be retired Chiefs and senior Fire Officers!


Fire and Rescue Authorities as a structural device, unlike their police counterparts are a bit of a hodge-podge. Metropolitans, County and Combined Fire Authorities each have their own culture as well as governance. And let's not forget the devolved assemblies plus London and the Isles of Scilly! The imposition of a separately elected Fire Commissioner over the current governance structure - full authority or portfolio cabinet member - would undoubtedly be resisted by the present incumbents who represent the communities' interests. That said, however, the working arrangements in some County Council FRSs enjoyed by cabinet member (portfolio holder) and the Chief Fire Officer could be very similar to a Commissioner/CFO relationship. The very obvious caveats are that the portfolio holder is nominated by the authority and not the community and they have no power to appoint or dismiss without the backing of the full cabinet or authority. The current arrangements in London with a Mayor, Fire Authority and Commissioner would be expected to lie outside any new arrangements (as is the case with the proposals for the Police Commissioner within the Bill) unless a universal structure for a FRS could be agreed. This would be a first for the UK FRS!


Critics of the new arrangements point out that the changes are not going to be cost free. There will be a bureaucracy/secretariat function associated with any new level of governance. A commissioner will have support staff to enable the efficient management of the service. And there will also be the need for an oversight function to be provided, again with an associated cost. The process for an election will not be cost-free but could be merged into other local or national election sequences: preferably synchronised with a national election schedule as local elections are not always synchronised over an FRA's area.


Aside from the role of setting budgets, there are a number of areas in which the Commissioner of a fire and rescue service could influence or affect operational policy. Manifesto commitments, as seen in national elections, do not always get carried through into policy following election for a variety of reasons. Promises made during an election campaign may fly in the face of the logic derived from integrated risk management planning and create a difficulty for both the Commissioner and Chief Fire Officer, trying to provide a single approach to planning.


The ability to hire and fire chief fire officers also creates a potential issue. As was demonstrated with the enforced resignation of Sir Ian Blair, the Police Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service, controversy follows such moves and results in charges of political interference in the functioning of the police. Where candidate Commissioners are selected by political parties there will inevitably be claims and counter claims of the impartiality of the successful candidate which could detract from focus on policy issues and be laid open to accusations of the politicising of the service. Furthermore, American-style elections for Sheriffs and Marshalls etc could lead to manifestos based upon a 'Jerry Springer Show' popularity approach to issues, intended to bring in the votes and not necessarily taking a considered approach to the management of serious concerns of the community and service.


The way the CFO/CC and the Commissioner work together that has the potential to cause conflict. The fight for popular recognition and  credit in the massive reduction in crime in New York City in the 1990s led to an equally massive fallout between the Mayor, Rudolph Giuliani and his Police Commissioner (The system in New York allows the Mayor to appoint the commissioner), Bill Bratton, which ended when Bratton resigned over a relatively minor issue. Such are the tensions that can occur at the political/executive interface.


Senior levels of the Service have not yet made comments upon the read across for fire commissioners in the UK. Judging from the comments from senior police officers, there has not been a favourable reception to the bill and the issues above have been raised by Bobbies on the Bleat! In terms of improving local democracy and being attuned to the needs of the community, for the first time the public will be able to identify a single individual responsible for their fire and rescue service and how it operates.


So who will be vying for such a role - soon to be ex-chiefs, local politicians desiring autonomy? All could be possible. Watching what happens in the police over the next few years will be interesting. As in the past, where the police service goes, others will surely follow.


Date posted: 5.01.11