One of the many arguments advanced for elected police commissioners is that they will improve the accountability of police forces and will replace the bureaucratically-appointed police authorities.
It is claimed that as they are directly-elected, commissioners will be much more responsive to the public's concerns around policing.
You only have to read some of the candidates' policy pledges to see that this is something they are already attuned to, with many committing to populist policies like putting victims first, dealing with low level anti-social behaviour and being less harsh on motorists.
But if you want greater accountability, you generally need greater transparency and arrangements for strong checks and balances in the system. Which is where the Kent and Medway Police and Crime Panel come in.
This panel, already operating in shadow form, is an important part of the new arrangements. Its primary job will be to hold the elected commissioner to account - on behalf of the public. It will have strong statutory powers to call the commissioner to meetings, question them about decisions and policy and additonally can veto the commissioner's budget and the appointment of a chief constable.
Which is all to be welcomed, especially as these sessions will generally be held in public.
When it comes to what information the commissioner will be required to provide to the panel, the statutory requirements again appear robust.
The key word here is "appear." A document setting out the protocols - called the Information Sharing Agreement - has just been published and will be considered by the panel next week.
It raises some issues for me about whether there could be too much leeway for commissioners to withold from the panel information they have asked for and whether important discussions around the commissioner's activities could take place behind closed doors.
First, the positives: the protocol states that the panel will be able to review any decision taken by a commissioner and those decisions will have to be published by the commissioner. There will be regular performance reports to the panel as well as reports on a range of subjects from the budget, complaints and the police and crime plan.
The panel will additionally be able to request information "on an ad-hoc and unplanned basis" to help it "scrutinise the actions of the commissioner."
However, there are qualifications around such requests for information. The protocol says the information must be "reasonably required" by the panel. Unfortunately, there is no definition in the legislation of this - and it will be for the commissioner or their representative to determine whether a request is reasonable or not.
More concerning is the section of the protocol headed "Incidences when information will not be shared." Clearly, it is hard to counter the argument that information will not be disclosed where it might compromise the force's operational ability to tackle crime.
But the document states that "members of the commissioner's staff are not required to disclose to the panel..evidence or documents containing advice given to the PCC. This also includes political and legal advice."
Suppose a chief constable was to advise a commissioner that a policy proposal, or spending commitment might be unviable or have adverse consequences for crime detection? Under the protocol, any written advice could be witheld.
Suppose a force chief executive was to advise a commissioner that their action strayed over into operational affairs rather than strategic ones? Again, it need not be shared with the panel.
It also states the panel will have no powers to "request information from the Force...other than general rights under the Freedom of Information Act" - which presumably means that police chiefs, including the chief constable, could not be asked about anything - something that the soon-to-be-scrapped police authorities do at their meetings. (It is not clear at all whether the panel has any powers to summon the chief constable to answer questions).
Another section, headed "Requests for information to be exempt from public disclosure" states that the commissioner will be entitled to request that information provided to the panel "is not published or [be considered] exempt from public disclosure".
It adds that while the commissioner "recognises the Panel has a duty to operate in an open and transparent manner, there is certain information which is sensitive in nature and which would not be appropriately released in the public domain."
Where the panel accedes, the sensitive information may be debated in "closed session."
The protocol emphasises that these occasions will be the exception to the rule but even so, it appears that there are loopholes that could allow our elected commissioner to be less accountable than they should.
If elected police commissioners are to gain public confidence , it is important they discharge their duties in as open and accountable way as possible.
That applies equally to the panel charged with scrutinising what commissioners are up to.
Read the Information Sharing Agreement here:
kentpccpanel.pdf (139.45 kb)