Sophie Chambers says that a low turn-out in next week’s elections would undermine the legitimacy of the new system
On Thursday next week 41 force areas in Wales and England will elect a Police and Crime Commissioner for the first time. These individuals will be required to consult with Chief Constables to determine local policing priorities in a Police and Crime Plan; set the police budget and policing precept; commission police related services within the force area; improve the accountability of the police to the public; and engage with the public on policing decisions. Existing police authorities (comprised of local councillors, magistrates and independent members) will be abolished and replaced with Commissioners.
This is arguably the biggest change to policing since Robert Peel established the first modern police force in London, and has been strongly opposed by the Welsh Government. Indeed, the Welsh Local Government Association have also opposed the policy, arguing that emulating an American-style directly elected system has not been proven to be effective and questioning whether one individual can effectively represent the diverse communities found across all force areas in Wales. Carl Sergeant, Minister for Social Justice and Local Government, proposed a compromise of maintaining Police Authorities but having an elected Commissioner as the Chair. This proposal was rejected by the Home Office.
The Police and Crime Commissioners will be subject to scrutiny from Police and Crime Panels, who will review and make recommendations on the Police and Crime Plan. These panels will be organised differently in Wales. In England local authorities will put forward and appoint members onto the panel according to the geographical and political make-up of the force area. In Wales, instead of local authority committees, they will be free-standing public bodies. These voluntary public arrangements will be set up and maintained by the Secretary of State, who will invite local authorities in Wales to “take a leading role in setting up the panels” (Home Office Website).
Elections were originally scheduled for May 2012, but were delayed by six months in an attempt to improve public awareness of the policy. Despite attempts by the Westminster coalition government to engaging the public in the policy interest has been vestigial. In the cabinet reshuffle this year, the policing minister Nick Herbert who was a strong advocate of the elections, stepped down from government when he was not offered a promotion to the cabinet. It is only in recent weeks that David Cameron has mentioned the elections in a belated attempt to drum up interest.
Mirroring the government approach to the policy, candidates have also been slow off the starting blocks. Some have even sought advice from the Home Office as to when they should start campaigning. This surely begs the question of whether they are the right candidate for a job that will involve strategically organising policing in geographically and demographically vast areas.
Some independent candidates have complained about ‘unfair competition’ from others supported by parties. Party-affiliated candidates are likely to have campaign materials paid for them, such as leaflets, as well as being provided with the £5,000 deposit needed to stand, which will be returned providing they receive 5 per cent of the vote. It is little wonder then that political party-affiliated in candidates form the largest group across England and Wales – 140 out of a total of 192.
In the four Welsh areas there are 15 candidates, six of whom are independent. They range from local business men who have shown little interest in politics up until this point, to former Cardiff South and Penarth Labour MP Alun Michael who is standing in South Wales Central, and his son Tal who is standing in North Wales. Independent candidates have made much of their ‘non-political’ stance, but it is hard to envisage how a directly elected role enjoying significant power and influence could be anything other than political.
Although Police and crime Commissioners will have no operational power, they will make strategic decisions in their police and crime plan. However, many operational decisions have strategic implications, such as road checks and patrolling. The line between operational decision-making and strategic oversight has become so blurred that demarcation seems impossible.
Consistent campaigning could have saved this ill-fated policy, but with turnout rates expected to be lower than 20 per cent – the lowest in British electoral history – the legitimacy of the democratic mandate held by a successful Police and Crime Commissioner could be called into question. Ironically, this very point has been made by Labour’s Lord Prescott who himself is standing in Humberside. Labour opposed the policy until they realised the benefits of having high public profiles dotted around the country in time for the next general election. Despite the likelihood of such a low turn out, Home Secretary Theresa May confirmed this week that a minimum threshold for turnout would not be set.