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, Home editor Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 176.

    "If it ain't broke, why fix it?"

    I couldn't have put it better myself.

  • rate this
    -15

    Comment number 175.

    The BBC had a role in this. Yesterday, the fact that there were elections going on was barely reported. Now, all of a sudden, the 'low turnout' is a huge story (even before many actual results have materialized).

    Admit it BBC: you couldn't wait to write this story. You didn't want to spoil it by actually informing people about the elections when you had the chance to do so.

  • rate this
    +7

    Comment number 174.

    Well our leaders have what they wanted. How long before there is very public row between a chief constable and his PCC resulting in the chief constable being fired by his political master? We've already had ours in London when Boris Johnson fell out with Sir Ian Blair making Blair's position untenable.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 173.

    The voters apathy is matched only by the candidates apathy. No canvassing, no leafleting, no information from any of them...

  • rate this
    +11

    Comment number 172.

    The money which was wasted on this farcical mess could have paid for 3200 newly trained Met Police Officers, the yearly wages of these 41 Commissioners could also pay for 131 newly trained Met Officers. It is a disgrace and blaming the turn-out on apathy or the weather is disingenuous.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 171.

    I can only repeat what others have said: No information was given about any candidate except online. For those of us who don't have easy access to computers, our time is not prioritised to hunt down the information about the PCC Candidates. Being able to vote is important to me, but I value knowing what I'm voting for! Is it better to vote blind, or not to vote at all?

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 170.

    One Police Commissioner is far easier to control than a committee of Councillors. This is the whole point of this exercise. These people will have the power to hire and fire Chief Constables, but the Home Secretary will not even have the power to remove them. 'America sneezes and England catches cold' check out what is happening the other side of the pond.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 169.

    We all had the information we needed about this farce; it was to provide yet another lucrative sinecure for party hacks (the high cost of taking part proved it was being restricted to the wealthy or party-funded). Offered a choice here in Stoke between giving the gravy train ride to stooge A or stooge B, I made a choice to spoil my ballot with the word NEITHER.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 168.

    Omnishambles! Typical Tory policy of devolving all responsibility to the people, then blaming them when it all goes wrong! What a tragic waste of money. PCC should be independent or run by the police. Party politics has no place on the thin blue line...

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 167.

    No information about candidates through the letter box.
    Not everyone has easy access to or can operate a computer - this must limit the response.
    On the voting slip you are asked for a second choice? I don't have a second choice, Is my vote valid?
    Low turnout - surprising!

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 166.

    I had ballot paper advice in the post. The candidates were Conservative, Labour, Liberal and Independant. That was enough for me.

  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 165.

    150 Already did: every 6 months the local force hold a open house session locally covering basically the council ward I live in (5000ish) , open to all where local concerns are raised with the beat team, local councillors are there also and others. To achieve this feat the PCC will need to hold 8 meetings a day every day including weekends and public holidays. They simply won't.

  • rate this
    +7

    Comment number 164.

    In Essex the winning candidate took 31% of the vote on a 12% turnout ... less than 4% of the electorate - is this a record?

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 163.

    Police authority meetings were minuted. Open to public scrutiny. Will a representative of the LGBS community to the PCC have the presentation of their case recorded? What about the action points and targets set by the police authorities? In other words, who watches the watchers?

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 162.

    Electing 45 PCCs will just serve to extend the idea that we still need 45 different police forces all doing pretty much the same thing. Consider the cost of administering 45 HR depts, 45 pension pots etc etc. What a missed opportunity when all we really need is regional PCCs and forces divided as per the existing regional Govt depts. Good luck with the 10 week budget deadline!

  • rate this
    +11

    Comment number 161.

    Paragraph three sums it up....."voters were never persuaded they needed an elected police and crime commissioner".....

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 160.

    The political reaction of this sort of reminds me of the Greek politicians cheering at getting the austerity measures through, whilst thousands of voters demonstrated outside.
    It will be good for us you see, time will show us that you plebs were wrong again.
    Arrogance at its highest.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 159.

    Look on the bright side everyone please! At least it's another 41 off the number of unemployment ...though if the money is there to pay them when they're having to sell Scotland yard I'd personally prefer their salaries were combined so the police could have fielded another 120 or so police on the beat. But thats just me I suppose and who am I at the end of the day, just another dumb citizen

  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 158.

    This election is purely jobs for the boys, spending millions of pounds when joe public is hurting with all the cuts. Politics should not be part of our police forces. They cannot be impartial if they are tied to politics. When the government vote on police matters, will the party whips expect the commissioners to toe the party line? Surely the vote shows the vast majority are against this change!

  • rate this
    -10

    Comment number 157.

    I have seen many people complaining about 'political interference' in the 'running of the police'. But the existing police authorities are mostly drawn from local councils and reflect the political composition of those councils -- so there is ALREADY political oversight. The only change is that these politicians are now directly elected by the public.

 

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