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West Midlands police commissioner wins legal challenge against powers transfer

The police and crime commissioner (PCC) for the West Midlands has won a High Court challenge against Government plans to transfer his powers to the region’s mayor.

Simon Foster, a Labour politician, took legal action against the Home Office’s move to scrap his role in time for local elections in May.

His powers over the local police force are set to be merged with those of the West Midlands mayor – a role currently held by Conservative Andy Street.

On Monday, a judge ruled in Mr Foster’s favour, concluding the Home Office had not provided sufficient information when consulting over its plans.

Reacting to the ruling, Mr Foster said it meant an election for his PCC role will take place on May 2.

Mr Foster, who previously branded the plans as a “hostile takeover” and “cynical power grab”, argued the powers transfer decision should be reversed and claimed there were failings in a public consultation.

West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner
Simon Foster (left) was elected as PCC in May 2021 (West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner/PA)

At a hearing earlier this month, his lawyers argued the Home Office’s consultation was “no more than a tick box exercise”, with Home Secretary James Cleverly having a “closed mind” on the issue.

The Home Office told the court in London the transfer decision was taken “with an open mind following a lawful consultation and with regard to relevant information”.

In his 23-page written ruling, Mr Justice Swift said: “The Home Secretary did not, when consulting, provide sufficient information to permit an intelligent and informed response.”

Ms Foster said after the decision that he was “concerned that the transfer of PCC powers to a representative of the Government would lead to more cuts, more chaos and more crime”.

He claimed that the mayor and Home Secretary had “wasted everyone’s time and taxpayers’ money”, and caused “incalculable distraction and disruption” for West Midlands Police and local officials, and uncertainty for the public.

He added: “I am pleased that the mayor’s cynical, divisive, unnecessary and undemocratic attempted hostile takeover of PCC powers has been defeated. I trust that we can now all concentrate on what matters most to the people of the West Midlands, which is ensuring that we all work together in partnership to prevent, tackle and reduce crime.”

The judge said information should have been provided to support the Government’s move, including over the proposed impact on “economic, social and environmental well-being”, but what featured “on this occasion falls well short of this mark”.

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Mayor of the West Midlands Andy Street said he was ‘very disappointed’ in the ruling (Jacob King/PA)

Mr Justice Swift said a claim that the consolidation of powers has “the potential to offer wider levers and a more joined-up approach to preventing crime” was “left entirely unexplained”, and observed that the process of finding documents referred to but not provided in the consultation “ought not to become a treasure hunt” for consultees.

Elected PCCs set their local police force’s budget, decide what crimes it should prioritise, can fire and hire the chief constable and aim to make sure they are accountable to the communities they serve.

Every force area in England and Wales is represented by a PCC except London, Manchester and West Yorkshire, where the mayor holds the responsibility instead. PCC functions are also due to transfer to the South Yorkshire mayor in May.

Mr Street wrote to the Home Secretary in November requesting the powers transfer – an option that became available under the Levelling Up and Regeneration Act passed last year.

Later that month, Home Secretary James Cleverly decided to proceed with transferring the PCC’s powers for the May 2024 election.

Global Fraud Summit
Home Secretary James Cleverly decided to back the transfer (Jordan Pettitt/PA)

But following a legal letter from Mr Foster, who was elected to his role in May 2021, officials realised an “error” in the drafting of the law meant it imposed a consultation requirement.

This prompted a six-week consultation between December and January, after which Mr Cleverly again decided to back the transfer, a move that must be approved by Parliament.

In his judgment, Mr Justice Swift said: “I am satisfied that the responses to the consultation were conscientiously considered.”

He said he was not satisfied that evidence in the case “should be read as suggesting that the consultation undertaken was not in aid of a genuine re-taking of the decision” and that he did not consider that “it warrants either the conclusion that the Home Secretary undertook the consultation with a closed mind or the conclusion that there was a real possibility that he did”.

Mr Street said he was “very disappointed in today’s ruling, as I firmly believe that a change in governance is required to help tackle the rates of crime across the West Midlands”.

He added: “With crime having doubled and West Midlands Police in special measures, I was not prepared to stand by anymore and so followed the process as set out by the Home Office to merge the PCC role with the mayoral role at May’s elections.

“I have always believed that a merged role – as is the case in Manchester, London and West Yorkshire – is best for the West Midlands.”

A government spokesperson said: “We are disappointed by this outcome and intend to seek permission to appeal.

“We firmly believe the join up of public safety functions under a combined authority mayor offers a better scope for preventing crime. The success of the model is already evident in Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire and London where the mayors are already responsible for policing and crime.”