Alongside the Assembly elections in May, we will also be electing Police and Crime Commissioners.
In 2012, I was a candidate in the first Police Commissioner elections. I came a distant third in Gwent, amassing 6,630 votes across an area which included seven whole constituencies and part of an eighth. The fact that I polled nearly double that total as a Parliamentary candidate in Newport West tells you everything you need to know about the low turnout and relative lack of interest in the Police Commissioner role. With the vote coinciding with Assembly elections, it is reasonable to expect a far higher turnout but it is doubtful that public interest in the role has increased very much. Yet, despite this, Wales has been at the forefront of demonstrating the difference it can make.
The decision-making process, prior to the arrival of Police Commissioners, was down to a group of nominated councillors from across the force region with a few independent members co-opted. If the electorate was unhappy with the priorities of their police force, they had little scope to change the people making the decisions. Only a wholesale change at local government elections could affect the police authority and even then it would need to happen across a number of local authorities. Today, if you disagree with the priorities of the police in your area, you know what to do – go and vote for someone else in May.
During the 2012 campaign, this argument about accountability was often muddied by counter-claims of politicisation of the police. To me, the role was always about empowering the people to have a greater say on how their area was policed. Nonetheless, the argument regarding politicisation did resonate with many voters and played a part in the success of independent candidates across Wales and England.
These arguments will re-emerge in 2016, but this time we also have track records to look at. It is here we find what differences the role has made. It is for each reader to come to their own conclusion as to which are positive and which are negative – what is crucial, though, is to recognise that such changes could only realistically be delivered by someone with a direct mandate.
When it comes to setting the police precept, South Wales and Dyfed Powys have taken very different approaches. The precept is added to your Council Tax bill and contributes towards the policing budget alongside funding from the Home Office and Welsh Government. Alun Michael, South Wales Police Commissioner, took the decision to raise the precept by 7%, the highest rise in the country at that time. In another year, Chris Salmon, Dyfed Powys Police Commissioner, opted to cut the precept by 5%. These are two very different approaches and perhaps typical of their party affiliations. However, both showed the kind of radical decision-making that can be undertaken with a direct mandate and would have been highly unlikely with an old style police authority.
In Gwent, Ian Johnston, an Independent, was elected in 2012. He set about overhauling the way in which crime was recorded. Now let us be clear, this was no cynical attempt to spin the figures. His changes actually led to crime figures showing a higher rate of offending than had previously been reported. His intention was that the figures should be more reflective of the actual experience. Would a police authority have taken such a radical step? I doubt it.
There has been some upheaval since the Police Commissioner role came into being. I suspect there are still more who oppose its existence than support it, but a closer look demonstrates that it is working and that it is encouraging strong leadership and a diversification of approach in responding to the needs of the area.