Only 8% of people even know who their PCC is. These five questions will help us judge their success after the next round of elections
Tom Gash, Friday 8 April 2016 07.04 BST, published in The Guardian
The introduction of police and crime commissioners (PCCs) in England and Wales has not been a roaring success. Elections on a cold November day in 2012, when no other elections were taking place, saw just 15% of voters casting their ballots, which suggests the government’s plans failed to capture the public imagination.
A number of the PCCs appointed four years ago have showed questionable judgment. Ann Barnes’ misguided contributions to a TV documentary, as well as her payment of £15,000 to a 17-year-old “youth commissioner” who quickly resigned over abusive tweets, were particularly spectacular – although you could certainly argue that she raised the profile of the office. Shaun Wright’s desperate clinging to office after the Rotherham child abuse scandal was another time when people woke up to the existence of this new political office for all the wrong reasons.
PCCs do not have executive responsibility for police. Instead they have a limited budget-setting, appointments and strategy-setting role. Nearly three and a half years on from the first elections, one survey (paywall) showed that just 8% of people know the name of their PCC and only 39% know they have one.
It is clear that the prime minister and chancellor see PCCs as an unappetising second-best solution for police accountability. The preferred model, long in place in London, is for a directly elected mayor who will appoint a visible deputy to oversee the police and crime portfolios. Greater Manchester has now adopted this model on an interim basis, although it will not be formalised until the first mayoral elections there in May 2017. Other city-regions may follow suit.
But home secretary Theresa May is sticking with PCCs and knows, as does David Cameron, that city-region mayors are unlikely to reach all parts of the country. May argues that successes of PCCs outweigh their blunders; and the BBC recently highlighted ways in which they’re making a difference.
In fact, in many ways May is doubling down, taking steps to make the post more influential and, she hopes, more relevant to the electorate. May took on responsibilities for fire services from Greg Clark’s Department for Communities and Local Government at the end of 2015 and promises to pass these responsibilities to PCCs to enable so-called blue light integration. In February, she announced that PCCs will also be given the power to oversee local complaints about policing, something many PCCs were already doing less formally.
The next election on 5 May will, therefore, be an important moment for the home secretary. Here are five questions to ask that will help us judge the success or failure of PCCs.
1. Are the candidates offering the electorate a choice?
The best PCCs take a broad view of their role, recognising that their core job is not just to hold the police to account but to commission crime reduction and response activities, and to encourage other parts of government, the community and private sectors to take action on crime. If PCCs are talking about these wider routes to safer communities there is a much greater chance of spotting differences between candidates – rather than seeing boring posturing for more resources and bobbies on the beat.
2. Are people voting – even where local elections aren’t happening?
Turnout will flatter the government this time around, as there are National Assembly elections in Wales and local elections in most other areas. The real benchmark is what happens to turnouts in those few areas where local elections aren’t happening.
3. Are votes made on local issues rather than national ones?
A perennial problem in local elections, and a reason for the introduction of more powerful and visible elected mayors in London and Manchester, is that too often local elections become a way of expressing views on the incumbent national government. There is still a clear risk that voters will select PCCs on national issues – particularly when only a minority even know what PCCs are. Democracy will be seen to be working if PCCs performing less well are ousted – and if the number of PCCs that are not aligned to a political party is maintained.
4. Are the new PCCs energetic and capable?
It’s a tricky one to judge immediately, but watch out for early gaffes, such as giving big salaries to friends (which happened in one force post-2013). Many who got the job in 2012 have expressed surprise about how much work is involved, so there should be fewer people seeing this as an easy job – but this is another risk.
5. Does anyone talk about the results?
The truth is that the results of these elections will be a sideshow to the local election results, the elections in England and Wales, and the EU referendum that is dominating media debate and political activity. But it would be a positive sign if the mainstream media examines the results in their own right, not just as part of the wider “who’s up, who’s down” narrative.
It’s likely that, whatever happens, PCCs will continue at least until a change of government occurs. But if we can answer yes to all of these questions once the results are in, May will have gone a long way towards proving the worth of PCCs. If not, doubts will justifiably continue.