PCCs and the democratic deficit


Some count centres reported having empty ballot boxes

And so the inquest begins. Why were the people of England and Wales so emphatically indifferent to being given the power to elect their police and crime commissioners (PCC)?

There will be arguments about the wisdom of holding an election in November, the lack of information, the fact that many details were only available online, concerns about politicisation of the police, the vast constituencies, the shortage of high-profile candidates and on and on.

Those were contributory factors, but I suspect the real flaw was something more fundamental - the voters were never persuaded they needed an elected police and crime commissioner.

The creation of PCCs was the centrepiece of Conservative proposals to reform the police in England and Wales. "Giving people democratic control over policing priorities is a huge step forward in empowering communities," the party manifesto claimed in 2010.

The coalition's Programme for Government retained the idea, arguing for radical reform of the criminal justice system, with directly elected individuals to make the police "much more accountable to the public they serve".

Start Quote

It's an American idea - they even vote for their sewage man”

End Quote

Earlier this year I met Gordon Wasserman, now Lord Wasserman, who was the architect of the Conservative party's PCC policy. A Canadian by birth, it was his experience of US law enforcement, particularly in New York and Philadelphia, which shaped his ideas.

"I want people to see their police commissioner in the street and say 'Hi Commissioner! How are you doing?'" he told me. When I suggested to him that this sounded rather un-British behaviour and that most people wouldn't even recognise their MP or council leader in the street, Lord Wasserman dismissed my scepticism.

However, I had reason to recall our conversation when I was in Lancashire recently, talking to local people about the PCC elections. "It's an American idea," one man told me. "Over there they vote for everything. They even vote for their sewage man. We don't do that here."

There is a perfectly good case to be made for greater accountability of the police.

The old police authorities were, in some cases, less than inspiring - "unaccountable and invisible" as the 2010 Tory manifesto put it.

Recent allegations of police corruption and institutional cover-up help make a case for more scrutiny, and all three major political parties at Westminster have talked about a need for reform of police governance.

David Cameron delivers election leaflets to support the Tory party's candidate for Avon and Somerset police and crime commissioner David Cameron out leafleting for the PCC elections

One can understand how some policy wonks and politicians became enthusiasts for extending democracy into policing - part of a wider agenda of community empowerment, localism and transparent governance.

Start Quote

I want people to see their police commissioner in the street and say 'Hi Commissioner! How are you doing?'”

End Quote Lord Wasserman, architect of the PCC policy

But it was a vision that never really escaped the rarefied world of Westminster think tanks. The public were not excited by the language of democratic empowerment - they were much more interested in someone stopping kids creating mischief and local dogs turning pavements into obstacle courses.

With both recorded crime and people's experience of crime and anti-social behaviour at their lowest levels in decades, the issue has slipped down the list of public concerns. Confidence in how the police are doing their job has been rising in recent years - the latest official figures suggest 62% of people agree with the statement "police and local councils are dealing with the crime issues that matter in the local area", up from 57%.

Neighbourhood policing has been a great success in most areas and there seems little evidence of profound frustration that police priorities are seriously awry.

As a consequence, getting the public out to vote for a highly-paid and relatively remote politician, to tackle a democratic deficit they weren't persuaded they had, was always going to be a hard sell.

It wasn't just that the weather was a bit chilly or that the candidates all seemed to be saying the same thing. It was that the electorate had not been convinced there was a need to change the system.

As a man in Lancashire put it to me: "If it ain't broke, why fix it?"

Mark Easton Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    What an utter farce! The only thing that would have persuaded me to leave my home and vote would have been if the monster raving looney party had stood a candidate. Because that would have been a 100% fool proof way of making sure that there would never be another elected police commissioner ever again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    There was no vote because there was noone to vote for, No information about the candidates, what their history was what they have achieved. You cannot put two unknown peoples names on a piece of paper and then expect people to make an informed choice. You might as well of drawn lots. If this was to work all candidates should of been given a large budget to advertise themselves otherwise pointless

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Changing Police Priorities - the reality is too much work and not enough people. This is why you get the service from the Police you do. Thankfully the public are blissfully ignorant of the true demands on the Police and, in some cases, the pitifully few resources there are to deal with your problems and that’s the way I think most of you want it to stay. It would scare you to death!

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    "the voters were never persuaded they needed an elected police and crime commissioner."
    That sums it up. I didn't vote. Not because of apathy but because I actively chose not to vote for something I firmly didn't believe should be happening. In these times, paying such a huge amount of money for something it is obvious the majority of people don't care about, seems somehow obscene.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Mark Easton, voting for a PCC won't impact on past police mistakes! People have to make formal complaints to highlight police corruption, and the public know that already. Your better point is the mistake of importing North American thinking to the UK, and the low turn-out highlights the differences!

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Totally agree. No information, no real choice at all. Plus all that will happen now is that Chief Constables will have to waste their time educating the new commissioners. I spoiled my vote deliberately - in a way that was clearly not accidental - and I hope all those spoiled votes are counted.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    The Conservative in our area said it was a position where the person would need to "work well with central government" I took that as a good reason to vote against him. Politics and policing should not be connected in this way.
    And, why is there a need for another obscene salary?

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    I'm rather annoyed at all the people claiming I didn't vote out of apathy or ignorance - I didn't vote because I don't believe any of the candidates will do a better job than the authority they are replacing, and a vote will endorse this stupid policy.

    It angers me that Tories think the police democratisation but the House of Lords should remain firmly rooted in the 14th century.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    The time of year has little to do with it. If the election had been on something like our future in the EU there would be people happy to battle through snow drifts to cast their vote!

    For the record I turned out to vote - and spoiled my ballot. If this was an exercise in increasing transparency in policing it should not have been dominated by representatives from political parties.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    I do not always agree with Mark Easton but on this occasion he is spot on.

    I work in the Police and can say PCC’s are not needed, the public do not want them and I believe that their ability to dramatically change police priorities from what they are will just not materialise.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    This is the first election in which I have deliberately not voted.

    I don't want this system and don't feel - even here in S. Yorks where there have been problems with police accountability - that adding another highly paid politician is going to help.

    With a turnout like this we'll probably end up with another numpty like the Mayor of Doncaster. Ho hum.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    I didn't find out candidate info had been consigned to a Home Office website rather than fund a mailshot until this morning, 12 hours too late. With 3.91m disabled people never having been online at all, that raises the question of whether the Home Office have breached their Single Equality Duty under the Equality Act 2010, never mind the Act's general accessibility provisions

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Yes to much of what was written in this article. Too little (information) too late, serious concerns about political control of the Police, why the need for an expensive payroll for a job that may not be needed? How can a polititian with no idea about policing be given such power? Accountability could have been achieved quicker, simpler and cheaper. This is just another political seat for some

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    "It was that the electorate had not been convinced there was a need to change the system."

    I couldn't agree more. Imagine - perhaps it was because there *was* no need, or we'd at least be aware of the issue surely?

    Now, give us a vote on Europe, and you'll see a real turnout. But.. we won't get that one now, will we?

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    For me the issue was political parties standing for the PCC role - the running of the police should be independent of party politics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    For me the big issue was the complete lack of any information available without time, and access to a computer to do the searching.

    Then finding that the Conservative candidate is an on-the-record supporter of a fraudster and yet is still deemed worthy to oversee the police force in Hampshire.

    The whole thing is a farce.


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