Crime and policing will inevitably be important issues at the general election but listening to Liberal Democrats' home affairs spokesman, Chris Huhne, debating on Radio 4's Today programme this morning and holding up the Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA) as an positive example of police accountability, was a reminder how out of touch politicians so often are. Huhne said:
Let's leave aside the impressive ability of all senior Lib Dems to lever proportional representation into any discussion and also acknowledge in passing that the MPA is more ethnically diverse than many other police authorities. Huhne's claim that the MPA represents local accountability still remains a serious case of wishful thinking – at best, it represents a pale imitation of accountability. In spite of its supposed role in holding senior officers to account, the MPA's track record of offering nothing more than a meaningless promise that “lessons will be learnt” is now almost legendary. That was its message in its ‘scrutiny’ of the Met’s conduct in the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes and its feeble investigation of media manipulation in the aftermath of the 2006 shooting of an unarmed man during anti-terrorism raids in Forest Gate.
"What we do need is for local communities to be properly represented on police authorities with the vast majority of police authorities being directly elected through a system that represents the proper balance of ethnic minorities in the area and so forth. And that's what you get in London, for example, where we have already got a Metropolitan Police Authority that's been elected by proportional representation. That seems to me the right compromise. You get the local accountability but you don't get the sort of populist concerns and Robocop style of policing that you would get with a Conservative proposal to elect just one person as elected commissioner who would represent quite a complex area."
Now, almost a year since the G20 protests in London, its Civil Liberties Panel will finally report on Thursday – and once again, the calibre of its investigation is extraordinarily poor, The problem, as I argued in July last year, is that the MPA simply lacks the will to step beyond the narrow confines of what it has decided ‘accountability’ means.
What exactly has Chris Huhne's 'model' MPA come up with after twelve months? More promises, of course, that 'lessons will be learnt', that goes without saying. There is a set of recommendations that do little more than back up last year's Inspectorate of Constabulary report on G20, plus some banalities about the need for better training and equipment, a call for a 'wider debate' about policing protests and the usual arguments about the challenges the police face “during violent demonstrations such as G20”. There is absolutely no acknowledgement that much of the “violent” behaviour came from the police themselves and therefore little attempt to address “ongoing understanding of civil liberties and human rights and the consequences this has for policing”, as set out in the Panel's terms of reference. And no mention of the death of Ian Tomlinson, which is astonishing.
Everyone who turned up at a public event at City Hall on 5 November last year might as well not have bothered.
I'm not convinced about the Tory argument for elected police commissioners, especially after the experience of living under the ruthless megalomania of a directly elected mayor in Newham. But holding up the Metropolitan Police Authority as an example of good practice, when it seems to exist solely to provide political cover to the Met, is a woefully inadequate position to maintain. No amount of ethnic diversity can make up for its utterly supine approach to actually holding the police to account. And, considering the years of argument about the need for a police authority for London, the sad fact is that if it was abolished, no-one would even notice the difference.
The draft Civil Liberties Panel report is available here