Bulldozer Blunkett wants it all his own way

I have no particular brief for Humberside Chief Constable David Westwood, nor for Councillor Colin Inglis, Chair of the Humberside Police Authority, but I do have a passionate belief in local accountability and a deep awareness of the dangers of concentrating huge powers in the hands of a single individual. The bullying of the local police authority by the Home Secretary sends warning bells clanging like mad.

There is a great danger of believing that left wing politicians are deep down really on the side of the angels and just happen to espouse some rather curious views. Not so. The Left is congenitally obsessed with power and how to exploit it. The endemic corruption of local Labour council fiefs was always far more a political corruption leading to the abuse of power than one of lining pockets financially - though there has been a fair amount of the latter.

David Blunkett is no pluralist. Instinctively he reacts badly at being thwarted. His high office is seen as a means of forcing his views through at whatever cost to the democratic and legal process. The courts decide against him - change the law. An individual gets away with behaviour unacceptable to him - "I'm going to get him", says Mr Blunkett. And in the Humberside case, the local police authority defies him - so go to court and force it to submit.

I served for some time on the West Yorkshire Police Authority, during the harrowing years of the Ripper enquiry, and am very much aware of the way the checks and balances of policing need to work in a democratic society. The Chief Constable was a servant, technically, of "The Crown" and was responsible for operational matters; the police authority was appointed by the Metropolitan County Council and was responsible, broadly, for personnel, budgetary control and accountability; the Home Secretary was responsible for national strategy and co-ordination and, through the inspectorate, for national standards and training.

What I soon realised, and accepted for the good of the police service, was that these boundaries were not, and could not be, defined with detailed accuracy. There were grey areas. From time to time the police authority would try to press the Chief Constable on some matter of local policing. He would hear the discussion out and tell us, gently but firmly, that he would take our views into account but that it was an operational matter and up to him to determine. Similarly, we would receive edicts from on high and endeavour to accommodate the latest Home Office thinking, but always with a view to its local relevance in West Yorkshire. As long as we all realised that the consequences of destroying this balancing act would be far more dangerous than its occasional frustration, the system worked.

Now we have Mr Blunkett who appears not to be concerned with the dangers inherent in undermining local accountability and apparently appears to believe that his will must prevail at whatever price. Now, it might be difficult to conceive of a more authoritarian Home Secretary but I can assure you that there are certainly politicians around, including some currently in parliament, who would simply adore to inherit the powers that Mr Blunkett means to arrogate to his office. The end never justifies the means. Indeed, in politics, the means invariably influence the ends. The evident pain of securing policy changes may not be worth the apparent gains that are otherwise desirable.

I well recall in parliament, when the Thatcher government was pushing through its legislation to control local authority spending, a Labour MP standing up and saying with great glee that, if the Bill was passed, he and his colleagues would look forward when in office to implementing it against Conservative local councils. There is a very healthy rule in politics: never introduce powers when in office that you would not wish another government to use. Even David Blunkett cannot believe that he will be in office for eternity, but it does not appear to bother him that a future Home Secretary with views very different to his own might well follow his precedent and run everything from Whitehall.

We bemoan the low turnout in local elections, but why should electors bother to vote at all when local accountability can apparently be swept aside on the whim of a Minister? Essentially, if the Humberside Police Authority does not do its job in investigating the criticisms made of its performance, and specifically of its Chief Constable, in the Bichard Report, the Humberside electors will certainly know about it and will be in a position to take action against Councillor Inglis and his colleagues via the ballot box at the next opportunity. If the Home Secretary removes this role from a police authority the electors will have no local redress and it will be yet another nail in the coffin of local government and of pluralism.

Finally, there is a further aspect to this case. Central government's long term emasculation of local democracy, and its antipathy to two-tier local government, has led to a proliferation of indirectly elected authorities, such as the Humberside Police Authority, whose members are elected or appointed by local authorities and not by the electors. I have always been opposed to such hybrids which lack the sense of public vulnerability that the old West Yorkshire Metropolitan Police Committee had. Mr Blunkett and his Cabinet colleagues would be far better occupied restoring strong two-tier local government than treating local opinion and local representatives in such a dismissive fashion.

28 June 2004