On 15 November 2012, members of the public will take to the polls across the country to elect 41 new Police and Crime Commissioners, but is the United Kingdom ready for the biggest change in policing in over 50 years?
The Home Office’s consultation ‘Policing in the 21st Century’ stated that despite pumping more money into the criminal justice system than any of its neighbours, including Ireland, the United Kingdom still has a relatively high rate of crime. The most recent Crime Survey for England and Wales, published by the Office for National Statistics in April 2012, states that statistically there has been no significant change in the total number of crimes committed in comparison with 2010, with evidence of increases in categories such as thefts and offences against adults (personal crime). This is not a reflection on the work of the officers within the police force, but the effects of austerity on an essential public service. And it is anticipated by Sir Hugh Orde, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), that the crime rate will actually rise by 20 per cent nationally within the next three years due to these austerity measures and budget cuts.
Policing and police accountability have have been widely covered in the media over the last few years, in both positive and negative terms, but how many of us can say that we take an active interest in our local police force? How many of us are aware of the changes that lay ahead for our local forces?
A recent Comres poll states that around 80 per cent of the public know nothing, or very little, of the elections or even what Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) are.
Traditionally, the structure of local policing in the UK has been based on two organisations working together, side by side: the police force (or Constabulary) and the police authority. The police carry out the ‘operational’ and ‘strategic’ side of policing in protecting members of the public. The authority is responsible for the oversight and scrutiny of policing, ensuring that the police force operates in an effective and efficient manner. It is an important distinction, but not one that many outside the policing or political environments are aware of.
Over the last decade, we have seen a number of incidents take place in the UK that have highlighted a lack of trust, respect and confidence in the police. In February, police chief Ali Dizaei, dubbed ‘Britain’s most controversial police chief’ by the Independent, was jailed for corruption for a second time for perverting the course of justice and misconduct. In June, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) began an investigation into claims that deputy chief constable Craig Denholm failed to act when he discovered that the News of the World had hacked Milly Dowler’s phone. In July it was revealed that Sussex’s chief constable Martin Richards was being investigated over allegations of misconduct in bringing undue influence on a criminal case.
The Guardian reported in May that whilst the police across England and Wales had recorded 8,500 corruption allegations in a three-year period between 2008 and 2011, only 13 officers had been prosecuted and found guilty. These allegations were said to include rape, sexual assault, fraud, and the misuse of police databases. The IPCC’s new chair, Dame Anne Owers stated in the article that there are ‘strong links between public trust and perceptions of police corruption’ and that the report displayed the kind of behaviour that undermines the public’s confidence in the policing service.
Incidents such as these have forced central government bodies to intervene in local policing on a number of occasions, in an attempt to bring accountability back to policing. Echoed again by the riots last year, this growing attitude towards the police, alongside financial considerations and the invisibility of police authorities (only 7 per cent of the public know of their existence), became the catalyst for change.
The Government wanted to see a fair, responsible society with greater freedom and accountability at local levels; a reconnection between the police and the public to put the public back in the driving seat of local policing priorities. They considered that this was best done through replacing police authorities with directly elected individuals to be the ‘face’ of policing; Police and Crime Commissioners.
At first, disbanding the invisible authorities and replacing them with an individual chosen by local communities, operating more efficiently, with greater freedom and accountability, sounds like a good way of achieving this. However, the implications of such a radical change are only beginning to emerge in the eyes of critics.
1. Politicising the police
The Home Office have promoted the role of Commissioners as a leading role in policing, and championing the voice of the communities they serve. As they are elected individuals, it won’t come as any surprise to you to learn that the majority of those declaring an interest in the PCC roles so far, have a background in politics. The overarching fear of those within the policing environment is the real risk of politicising police accountability, and ultimately ending up with a Commissioner who works more to a political agenda, than a local community one.
2. One individual taking on the job of 17
Currently, police authorities consist of 17 members, nine are elected representatives and eight are independent, who oversee and assist in the responsibilities of the organisation. As a result of the sheer number of members, there is the opportunity to bring a greater degree of diversity, experience and knowledge to decision making and scrutiny. On the other hand, PCCs will be flying solo and relying on their own experience and knowledge (or lack of) to inform their decisions.
3. The cost of PCCs
Although PCCs were initially thought to represent more value for money, in actual fact, the operational costs of the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner are likely to be on par with the costs of their predecessors, when you factor in all the ‘add on packs’, such as the Police and Crime Panel and an increase in the number of staff to support them in doing a job that was previously undertaken by 17 members. With the elections set to cost the Government £75 million, one has to ask what exactly the value for money is. Although it is agreed that democracy is a justifiable cost, £75 million is a significant amount of money to spend on elections when you consider the ongoing austerity measures being put in place to save money in policing, and that the re-elections are likely to cost similar amounts every four years. The Government appears confident that spending this kind of money every four years will improve policing, as there will be a great incentive for PCCs to deliver on policing priorities and efficiency; but the only thing to be confident about is the cost that will be coming out of the public purse.
4. The elections
The elections are guaranteed to cause headaches across the country as the constituencies cross local authority boundaries. This will push those administering the elections into unknown territories as they try to understand constituency boundaries and re-organisation of the polling stations. Further confusion will be added with the use of the supplementary voting system, which is relatively unfamiliar to most. In addition to this, the mayoral elections are also set to take place in a number of cities on the same day.
With no public funding for campaign literature, the majority of information on the elections will be available online only; fantastic news for the environment, not so fantastic for the seven million individuals that don’t use the Internet.
In the latest PCC Bulletin, the Home Office suggests that they have been trying more creative ways to raise awareness of the elections: media coverage in national and regional newspapers, and nationwide candidate events. These creative ways of raising awareness do not, however, target the public in the same way, or with the same kind of information that would otherwise be provided by the campaign literature.
Concern has also been raised over the timing of the elections. Holding the elections in November, as opposed to May, may have serious consequences. It may sound ridiculous, but the weather has been proven to have an impact on polling turnouts, and with the elections in winter you can be guaranteed to have a wet and miserable day with half the daylight hours you would normally expect in May. In constituencies with high populations of students, the November elections could potentially impose a logistical nightmare also, as registration for the elections will take place over the summer months when the majority of students head home or abroad.
Given the ongoing apathy for voting in the recent local elections (average voter turnout was 33 per cent, with some wards recording figures below 10 per cent; the lowest since 2000), and the 80 per cent of the public that remain unaware of the upcoming PCC elections, it is fair to say that there is also a high risk of an extremely low turnout, which could jeopardise the quality of candidates elected. On 21 May, Lord Henley, The Minister of State, Home Office, stated in Hansard that it would be impossible to estimate the likely turnout for the elections ‘given their unprecedented nature’. In a recent interview with Total Politics magazine, Policing Minister Nick Herbert stated that ‘any turnout would confirm more legitimacy on Police and Crime Commissioners than on a currently invisible, appointed police authority that has little legitimacy’. Whilst it is accepted that police authorities have been somewhat invisible over the years, to suggest that a turn out possibly lower that that at the local elections would confirm more legitimacy on PCCs is somewhat overstated. With such a low turnout extremist candidates, including celebrities, could find themselves at a distinct advantage over local representatives due to their pre-existing social status or public following in the local community.
5. Police and Crime Panel
The idea of each PCC having a Police and Crime Panel is to act as a critical friend that can scrutinise PCC activities and hold them to account on delivering their priorities; they will not replace authorities or have the same powers. The relationship is intended to be one of support and challenge, but with limited powers, it is hard to see how much ‘challenging’ the Panel will be capable of. The Panel will consist of one elected representative from each local authority and two independent members, with a minimum of 10 elected representatives. Comparing this to the current membership of police authorities, who currently have nine elected members and eight independents, you can see why health warnings are being issued over politicising police accountability.
Is this new era of policing right for us?
It was only in July 2011 that Prime Minister David Cameron praised officers in 10 Downing Street, for being a part of a policing model ‘that is the envy of the world’, but just three months later, the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 came into force, introducing the Commissioners and fundamentally changing many dynamics of that long admired policing model.
In this era, we accept that change is inevitable. Indeed in the long-term interests of maintaining business efficiency and delivering a high quality service for the public, change can be positively necessary; but the key to its success lies with how it is managed. The Government thus far has not adequately managed this change.
There has been a distinct lack of public engagement for the elections, and a complete abandonment of campaign literature. This has left police authorities with a choice of promoting the elections within the constraints of their own budget, or facing the consequences of a low turnout at the polls. For those police authorities with surplus cash flow, of which there are few, this is less of an issue but for the majority of authorities it poses a real challenge in prioritising their financial commitments.
For some, this change will pass them by and they will be none the wiser, but for others, it has the potential to seriously impact on their lives throughout the layers of their local communities, in terms of changes to local policing and funding for local voluntary, community and social enterprise organisations.
You may not have taken an active interest in your local police force before, but would you take notice if Katie Price (she has said in the past she would stand for election as a PCC) was delivering key police and crime priorities for your local community?
Maybe weird and wonderful candidates are needed to at least boost awareness of the role and encouragement for the elections, but with a four-year term to serve and responsibility for millions of pounds worth of policing budget, it has every potential to go wrong. Sir Hugh Orde summed up the concerns of many in an article for the Guardian in May, when he stated that ‘my sense was the government were looking for some pretty high-profile, qualified individuals who would deliver a completely different style of governance. I’m not sure how happy they will be with some of the lists’.
Whether we are ready for it or not, whether it is right for us or not, this change is set to happen in November, and as a member of the public all you can do is vote for the individual that you feel is most capable of doing the job to the highest standards, even if that is Katie Price.