On Monday the 15th of December 2014 I observed Cambridgeshire’s Police and Crime Panel who were holding a confirmation hearing for the appointment of Josie Gowler to the position of Chief Finance Officer (Director of Finance) and Deputy Chief Executive of the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner.
The best question asked during the session was ruled out of order by the panel’s chairman Cllr Mac McGuire:
Cllr David Over (Peterborough City Council): You are an employee of the Commissioner so would he have an editing role or an opinion about what you would produce?
Candidate Josie Gowler: [Silence]
Dorothy Gregson, Chief Executive, Office of Cambridgeshire Police and Crime Commissioner: I think what I would say is that this is a matter of policy for the commissioner so that’s out of scope.
Chairman Cllr Mac McGuire: Yes. Are you happy to leave that for now?
Cllr Over: Yes. I understand.
Cllr McGuire: It’s better than what I was going to say anyway.
(See 31:20 on the video)
A key thing I want from the Chief Finance Officer is accurate and complete accounts. I think it’s reasonable to ask the candidate how they would react to a request from the Police and Crime Commissioner, or anyone else, asking them to “edit” the accounts.
The question was a broader version of a question I had suggested to a number of panel members for asking. I focused on an example of where someone, perhaps the Chief Constable, the Police and Crime Commissioner or the Home Secretary, asked for something to be omitted from the accounts on national security grounds, and suggested Josie Gowler could be asked how she would respond to such a request.
I chose my more specific example because we have recently seen Cambridgeshire Police refusing to release the size of a Home Office grant citing national security as the reason. Also when we had a Police Authority there were some police constables under the control of the Chief Constable who were funded directly, and secretly, by the Home Office rather than through the public Police Authority accounts.*
It is of course possible that the Police and Crime Commissioner might have another motivation for asking for an “edit” to be made to the accounts than so called national security grounds.
I was surprised to see the Police and Crime Commissioner’s Chief of Staff suggest that an edit to the accounts would be a policy decision the Police and Crime Commissioner could make.
If the Police and Crime Commissioner was to improperly direct the staff of the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner to make a change to the accounts I would expect them to challenge him and to report the attempt to the public, including perhaps via the Police and Crime Panel.
This exchange raises the question of who the staff of the Police and Crime Commissioner’s Office consider they work for. Is their allegiance to the current holder of the office of Police and Crime Commissioner or is it to the wider public?
Calling Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner’s Staff to the Police and Crime Panel
Cllr Peter Reeve: Some of the officers, certainly the Chief Constable, sees his role as being scrutinised by the commissioner rather than by us. Should we want to question you and scrutinise you directly would you see that being done via the commissioner or would you welcome this panel inviting you to come forward and asking you questions directly?
Candidate Josie Gowler: Certainly in my role at Newnham College used to various committees holding my role to account. IT, the scrutiny committee, the audit committee and I give you my role as commissioner’s CFO should I be confirmed in post as being exactly the same. I relish the check and balance which this sort of panel or committee brings.
Cllr McGuire: May I just clarify that the important thing is that we hold the Commissioner to account, that’s our role. And who the commissioner requires to support him from his office is of course his decision. And we would look forward to having you if he chooses. I wouldn’t want you to do away with the impression that we might be calling you. We would not. We would invite the commissioner. Clearly I think that was what you were intending.
Cllr Peter Reeve: I was just exploring whether our request would be welcomed by the officer or not and I was pleased with the answer.
(See 25:00 on the video)
I think chairman Cllr Mac McGuire was badly wrong when he suggested the panel has no powers to call the staff of the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner to appear in-front of the panel. Section 29(1) of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 states:
A police and crime panel may require the relevant police and crime commissioner, and members of that commissioner’s staff, to attend before the panel (at reasonable notice) to answer any question which appears to the panel to be necessary in order for it to carry out its functions.
Clearly the panel is empowered to call staff before it in their own right. The chairman was wrong to suggest that the only way staff can appear before the panel is if the Police and Crime Commissioner decides to bring them with him.
I think Cambridgeshire Police and Crime Panel chair Cllr McGuire made a mistake by promising Josie Gowler that if appointed she would not be required by the panel to attend before the panel. Cllr McGuire’s comments may though reflect a lack of interest and willingness from the panel to use its powers and opportunities.
Cllr Reeve’s question was perfectly reasonable and the chairman McGuire’s dismissive intervention was ill-informed.
Openness to the Public
I believe I was only able to observe part of the meeting. Panel chairman Cllr Mac McGuire appeared to find a novel way of side-stepping the law allowing the public to observe local government meetings by declaring the meeting “closed” part way through and then re-convening a previously unpublicised meeting of the panel.
I was assured by one of the panel’s officers that the re-convinced meeting considered (and apparently passed) a resolution to exclude the public (See 37:02 on the video). I doubt this actually happened and I expect the officers were as confused and surprised by chairman McGuire’s decisions and rulings.
Cambridgeshire Police and Crime Panel’s rules of procedure which have been considered many times by the full panel which simply state:
17.4 The confirmation hearings will be held in public and the candidates will be questioned in relation to their appointment. Candidates must attend, either in person or by video link
There is no mention there of any private, secret sessions or unpublicised panel meetings.
When compared to the way the previous confirmation hearing was handled this time there was a little more clarity, but it was still farcical.
I would have rather seen a clear resolution by the panel if they wanted to enter private session, making clear what was happening, and why, and in this case that would have probably involved explaining what additional information would be revealed in the part of the meeting to be held in private when compared with that held in public.
Public Speaking Slot
Cambridgeshire Police and Crime Panel’s rules of procedure provide, in section seven, for questions from the public. Chairman McGuire ruled there would be no such agenda slot at the meeting – this went against the repeatedly expressed views of the panel as a whole who have considered and supported the rules on a number of occasions.
The public question slot was also inexplicably absent from the 12 June 2013 meeting; then officers stated it was as the meeting was the “annual general meeting”; despite the rules of procedure having no exemption for that meeting either.
Cllr McGuire said:
Although this meeting is held in public, and you are probably aware we do allow people to film and record at our meetings, it is not a normal meeting of the Police and Crime Panel it is a hearing to agree your appointment and to that extent we do not have… It is a single item agenda. We do not have public questions at this meeting. OK? Now I know there is often some controversy over the interpretation of the rules but that’s how we’re interpreting it at the moment.
Anyone who wants to challenge that and get clearance on it can do that through the officers. But as far as we’re concerned at the moment. No public question time.
I think Cllr McGuire is wrong to suggest his rulings can only be challenged via officers. Any member of the panel could raise a point of order and make an argument to Cllr McGuire urging him to reconsider a ruling. Cambridgeshire County Councillors can also use the question slot at full council meetings to question Cllr McGuire on his role on the Police and Crime Panel. Members of the public can use the public question slot at meetings, where he permits one, to challenge him as well.
I asked a panel’s officer about the mechanism to challenge the chair’s rulings and he offered to send me Cllr McGuire’s phone number.
Cllr Sinnott’s Contribution on Behalf of Cambridge
Cllr Sinnott, representing Cambridge, asked a question which had already been asked, and well answered, three times. She asked what the candidate what she thought the major challenges arising in the near future, the next three years would be.
I was impressed that when answering this question Josie Gowler noted the potential for civil unrest and a strain on policing should Ebola arise in Cambridgeshire.
Six of the thirteen members of the Police and Crime Panel had sent apologies: Cllr Oliver, Cllr Palmer, Cllr Herbert (substituted by Cllr Sinnott), Cllr Shellens, Cllr Davidson and Christine Graham.
I’ve written previously about High Level of Turnover and Absence on Cambridgeshire Police and Crime Panel.
Police and Crime Commissioner’s Absence
I think the Police and Crime Commissioner should have attended the meeting. He attended the confirmation hearing for his friend Brian when he was seeking to appoint him Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner.
My Further Views
I was encouraged by the candidate’s repeated commitment to transparency and look forward to more detailed accounts and budgets being published. Given the response to the panel I hope that as well as spending over £500 being published we will soon see total spending for each cost centre / area of business.
I have previously suggested exploring seeking the services of a firm of accountants to service the Police and Crime Commissioner’s office. This could be a cheaper approach.
There’s a question of if the Police and Police and Crime Commissioner both need highly paid Chief Financial Officers, especially given the Police and Crime Commissioner’s arrangements which do not involve operating his office and the police force as two completely separate entities.
I think a number of quite different roles are being combined here, from accountant, to senior strategic advisor to potentially even an acting Police and Crime Commissioner. The Deputy Chief Executive role could routinely be significant given the Chief Executive only works part time. I would have expected more adjustment of the role to fit the available candidates and their skills and desires.
* I would love to be able to provide a reference for this but can’t quickly find one. I recall the issue being raised at the Police Authority on a number of occasions, and on one occasion the number of constables was quoted as X funded by the Police Authority plus X others. I think it might have been me asking what was going on that stopped that practice.