Letwin send for the sheriff

The late English actor Kenneth More starred with Jayne Mansfield in the film Support Your Local Sheriff, which bombed at the box office. It's now a key Tory policy, as Political Editor GRAHAM DINES reports from Blackpool.

The late English actor Kenneth More starred with Jayne Mansfield in the film Support Your Local Sheriff, which bombed at the box office. It's now a key Tory policy, as Political Editor GRAHAM DINES reports from Blackpool.

Blackpool: Monday October 6 2003

THE big difference between democracy United States -style and in the United Kingdom is that over here most local officials are appointed whereas in the US they are elected.

On presidential polling day, Americans in states and cities vote for up to 40 candidates, ranging from dog catcher to district attorney to police chief.


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It has been inconceivable that the people of Suffolk would be asked to vote for the head of the county's Crown Prosecution Service, or that Essex folk would be asked to choose their Lord Lieutenant.

That is up until now.

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But Labour having given the people of Hartlepool the option of voting for a monkey as mayor – an offer the residents of this Teesside borough accepted with alacrity – has emboldened the Conservatives to consider extending local democracy, and thus local accountability.

Police authorities are now appointed. In Suffolk, members put up council tax this year by an incredible 33% and there was nothing the public could do about it.

Under the Tory plan, police authorities will be elected. As will be the local sheriff, who will take political control of the non-operational aspects of policing.

It has become a key plank in the Conservatives' policy programme A Fair Deal for Everyone - and its origins lie with the man now charged with winning Harwich for the party at the next General Election.

Douglas Carswell, who was Tony Blair's opponent in Sedgefield in 2001, is the author of Direct Democracy, a book produced last year by the Tory think tank C-Change.

In a section on Direct Democracy, Mr Carswell wrote: "Responsibility for policing, and for prosecuting, should be handed to a directly elected sheriff representing each county, city or large town."

Mr Carswell is an influential figure among 21st century thinkers in the Conservative Party. "I proposed that each sheriff would be held directly accountable by local people for how effectively the law was upheld, the effectiveness with which suspected criminals were prosecuted, and the extent to which police and prosecutors worked together to reduce crime.

"Chief constables would report directly to locally elected sheriffs, who would assume responsibility for their local police forces, and who would be held accountable by local people for the effectiveness of the local police in upholding the rule of law.

"Where police incompetence resulted in a failure to convict, the elected sheriff could be held directly accountable for that failure by local people."

Some of these radical ideas - minus the prosecution role - have now become enshrined in Tory policy, taken on board by Shadow Home Secretary Oliver Letwin, one of the most socially progressive members of the party.

Douglas Carswell's proposal has been refined, but it is still recognisable as the proposal published in Direct Democracy.

Mr Letwin told Tory delegates in a law-and-order debate at today's Blackpool conference session: "The worst thing about the so-called low-level crime and disorder that wrecks so many neighbourhoods, is that law-abiding people feel powerless to do anything about it."

He gave some examples. "The small town, powerless to stop its police station closing at night; the old lady at the police community group, powerless to get a bobby to patrol her staircase where the addicts leave the needles; the owner of the local curry house, powerless to stop yobs jumping on his roof.

"Why should honest citizens be powerless in these ways? Its just isn't fair."

Oliver Letwin is no reactionary. On many policies, he is more liberal than the Liberal Democrats desperately trying to unseat from his Dorset West constituency.

But the policy on community law enforcement initiatives clearly went down well with a Tory audience traditionally noted for its hard line on crime and criminals - yet one speaker from the floor called for the return of hanging.

"We are going to give people a real say on the policing of their neighbourhoods," said Mr Letwin.

"It works in other countries. Why can't we have it working here.

"We will remove, by law, the Home Secretary's power over local policing.

"We will give every chief constable a cast-iron legal guarantee of operational independence. And we will put each local police force under the direct, democratic control of local people.

"That mans wherever you live, the chief constable will answer to someone you elected. If you don't like the way your neighbourhood is policed, with a Conservative government, you will be able to vote for a change."

Mr Letwin is one of the few Conservative MPs who has star quality. He is tipped to be the next Conservative Prime Minister - but not the next Tory leader. He's likely to stand aside while Tory candidates for the most thankless job in British politics fight like pole cats to lead a party which in unrolling many good policies but treading water in the opinion polls.

"As we go out from this hall and work together towards the re-election of a Conservative government, we take a single, simple message to the inhabitants of the hard pressed estates, to the victims of crime who have been left behind, to the hard-working police officers who have been held back by stifling bureaucracy, to the people of this country - we are on your side."

With his speech yesterday, the Shadow Home Secretary will have done his future prospects no harm at all.

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