Who polices the police commissioners?

Written by Andrew Hawkins on 8 November 2012 in Opinion
While the initiative looks good on paper, Andrew Hawkins reveals what the public thinks of the creation of the police and crime commissioners

This article is from the November 2012 issue of Total Politics

Police authority reform featured in both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat 2010 election manifestos, so there was little surprise that the coalition agreement contained a commitment to create police and crime commissioners (PCCs) across England and Wales, but not in London, for which elections take place on 15 November.
 The new posts are intended to be filled by elected individuals to whom chief constables will be held account for the delivery of a ‘police and crime plan’. 
But what will the public want from PCCs? The operational priorities are very clear, as the graph shows.
The level of importance of tackling gun and knife crime in these national poll figures is augmented by the inclusion of results from London, where no PCC election takes place. The top two priorities for areas that will be electing commissioners, therefore, are antisocial behaviour and burglary. PCC candidates, take note.
A lot of negative words have been written about the new posts – not least because they are untested within the UK political culture and because few people are aware that elections are taking place – so the political establishment is bracing itself for a very low turnout, and thus a poor mandate. There is a case here for the government to answer: why on Earth are we holding PCC elections in November when we know that turnout will be depressed by the weather? The obvious course would have been for these elections – it’s estimated currently that they will cost £50m – to coincide with local elections, thereby reducing the cost.
The concept, though, is a good one: never before have we had a single, public person to whom we can go when the car gets nicked and the rozzers don’t turn up for hours. So far, so good, but there are a number of pitfalls ahead.
First, there are the candidates. The public overwhelmingly believes that the most suitable applicants would be former police officers. Next in popularity are those ‘ordinary’ people with an interest in the issues, and third are people who have a military background. Only six per cent said that former government ministers or politicians would make the best candidates. The fact, however, that candidates need 100 signatures and a £5,000 deposit has led inevitably – and unsurprisingly – to the major parties dominating the lists of proposed contenders. Having an independent, accountable individual in the job is deeply alluring, but party-backed candidates, with the professional campaigning machine behind them, will be very hard to beat.
It is also unfortunate that few party-political candidates will see the PCC job as the pinnacle of their career. Retreads include John Prescott, Tony Lloyd and former MPs Jane Kennedy and Michael Mates, the latter of whom will forever be remembered for his friendship with Asil Nadir...
No polling figures exist concerning whether Nick Ross, former Crimewatch co-presenter, would have made a good PCC – he’s based in London. He did, however, confess on the Daily Politics Show in September last year that he “wouldn’t mind” having a go, before voicing worries about the selection criteria: “It’s not as though we’re electing people who know a lot about this... Most people are going to be lay people...” 
There were rumours that Katie Price was thinking of applying, after her comments to the Sun in July 2011: “My dream is to go to really dark prisons where you see rapists, paedophiles, Hannibal Lecters, murderers and get inside their brain”. These rumours were later revealed to be overinflated.
Several candidates have had to stand down after revelations of murky pasts, and this has led to the Labour party criticising the whole venture. However, it should also be a reason for congratulation, since excluding people who have ‘form’ from a job like this will reassure the public that dodgy candidates are rightly being sifted out.
A second pitfall is timing: is now the right time to create a new layer of politicians? The annual cost of running PCCs and the support required amounts to between about £45m and £80m per year. It’s claimed that removing costs from other areas of police administration will save some of this, but only the most optimistic would expect those savings to be readily realised.
Third, there are concerns about impartiality. The government has been at pains to emphasise that the PCC is not there to take operational decisions about policing, but part of the explicit role is to ‘appoint and if necessary dismiss the chief constable’, and most incumbents will probably be in office by virtue of the debt they owe their party. Nick Herbert, the policing minister who oversaw the Police Reform Bill, said at the time that the new commissioners “will introduce democratic accountability to policing – they will not politicise it”. In that case, why risk letting party candidates dominate the posts?  
Sadly, Katie Price did not follow up her interest in standing as a candidate, but even had she weighed in, it’s unlikely that turnout will be much more than around 20 per cent.
PCCs are a good idea, but they’re sullied in the short term by a daft electoral timetable. In the longer term, it can only be hoped that the party grip on them does not prove detrimental to the imperative of keeping policing and politics separate.
Andrew Hawkins is chairman of ComRes

Tags: Andrew Hawkins, Issue 52, PCCs, Police commissioners

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