Response To Precept Debate
Dorset Police and Crime Commissioner, Martyn Underhill:
This week I made a big decision. A decision that Parliament, through the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 (The Act) placed on my shoulders alone as the democratically elected and publicly accountable Police and Crime Commissioner for Dorset. That decision was to raise the police element of the council tax by 1.96%.
I made this decision (which will cost the average Band D council tax paying family an extra £3.60 per year) in order to help safeguard policing over the next four years in Dorset. This decision has been taken in the context of huge cuts to funding and increasing demands on emergency services.
The Act states that my proposals for the precept must be considered in public by a Police and Crime Panel, which happened on Thursday 6 February.
The Panel is made up of 17 members, many of which are councillors from the local authorities across Dorset. The Panel is not a decision making committee but has a role in scrutinising my proposals. The Act says that they can veto a precept proposal once, if two thirds of the panel vote for that course of action.
At Thursday’s Panel hearing, after much debate, a 16 strong Panel voted 9 / 7 against the proposal. I stand by my decision as I am deeply involved and informed on the issues and I am of the firm belief that it is in the best interest of Dorset over the medium term. Importantly, I have been consulting for months on these proposals and 64% of respondents support them. That response was an essential element of my consideration.
Unfortunately I feel that many of the Panel members yesterday arrived having made their minds up due to external pressures and parochial political influences.
I have received three questions from the Bournemouth Echo in response to Thursday’s hearing. I would like to answer them publically:
1) What is my reaction to criticism from Dorset Police and Crime Panel?
It was quite clear at the Panel, that local politics swayed some Councillors. In particular, local pledges to not raise Council Tax dominated a ‘pan Dorset’ discussion on our policing budget. I have always said that the Police and Crime Panel should consist of members of the public directly elected to the Panel at the same time as the local elections, to hold the PCC to account. This would prevent this kind of local party political agenda swaying decision making. Those members of the public should represent the eight authority areas in Dorset and should be paid posts for 25 days per year. They would work to a mandate set by the public, to scrutinise pan Dorset policing decisions.
2) Is the process of setting a precept fair?
The role of Police and Crime Commissioners and Police and Crime Panels is set out in statute. Democratic accountability for policing is the responsibility of Police and Crime Commissioners who were elected to hold forces to account. The majority of members of the Police and Crime Panel are appointed from their own local authority. Panels provide a scrutiny role and have a power of veto, but are not directly elected by the public for this role. As set out in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011, the Panel can veto on the first occasion, the precept proposed by the PCC, but only when two thirds of the Panel members vote for a veto. Ultimately, the decision regarding the role and powers of the Panel was agreed by Parliament and not locally. For this to change, Parliament would need to revisit the Act.
3) Was the decision made democratically?
Yes. I was democratically elected to oversee policing and crime in Dorset. A key responsibility of this post is to decide on the precept tax level that is in the best interest of residents and Dorset Police over the medium term. I am determined to hand over a debt free and efficient police force to my successor. I owe that to Dorset.
I have been left disappointed by events over the last few weeks and at the panel itself. I received intense political lobbying by Bournemouth politicians, intent on receiving my support to help them achieve their promise not to raise the council tax in Bournemouth before the next local elections. To pledge a 4 year zero rise in Council Tax during a deep recession and unprecedented cuts to public spending is naïve at best, and foolish at worst. This is particularly so when it is understood that the Police and Fire elements of the council tax are not a decision for the Council to make. I was disillusioned to find that some panel members voted according to their local political manifesto and not on the pan Dorset needs of Dorset Police.
I am proud that my democratic responsibilities are to the whole of Dorset. The reason I stood for election was to keep politics out of policing. I will make decisions based on fact, knowledge, understanding of policing and the views of the public, not on political influence or lobbying.