On 15th November the people of England and Wales (excluding London) will vote for their Police and Crime Commissioner for the first time. The idea behind this is to make the police directly accountable to the communities that they represent, and allow those communities to set the priorities for their police force.
The new Commissioners appoint and remove the Chief Constable, write the strategic plan and set the budget for the force, giving them control over where police activity is directed. They will be accountable not only to the electorate but also to a Police and Crime Panel, made up of representatives from the local authorities in the area.
The idea has been criticized by the police federation, who argue that political pressure could have damaging implications for the operational effectiveness of the police. Ian Leyland, secretary of Merseyside Police Federation, argued that the public desire to quickly conclude high profile cases, such as that of the murder of Rhys Jones, could mean that elected Commissioners put pressure on the police to cut corners in their investigations.
Of more concern is the type of candidates who will be elected. The high cost of running in the elections favours candidates with the backing of established political parties. In Sussex, my own area, there is a spending limit of almost £220 000, which is unrealistically high for independent candidates. The candidates put forward by the major political parties are all ex councillors or failed parliamentary candidates. The sanity of the independent candidates is highly questionable, one running a campaign to expose three local MP’s for being jointly involved in a murder. It seems likely that the party candidates will both present better arguments than this and also outspend him, pretty much guaranteeing them victory.
If the result of these elections is to hand strategic control of the police to local political parties, what are the likely implications? Local parties are not well known for their ability to actively engage their communities-can you name your local councillor, or say anything about what they do? People will likely vote based on party allegiance, effectively making the elections a referendum on the national government rather than a real choice about local policing. In areas which are highly partisan, for example North East England for Labour or the Home Counties for the Conservatives, the most interesting politics will be internal to the favoured party. After all, Police Commissioners will be paid up to £100 000 per year, which is a very tempting reward for a long term party hack. Are long term party hacks really the best people to be running the police? We may be about to find out.