These are not good times to be a Police and Crime Commissioner.
An awkward birth – a muddle of shifting election dates, public apathy and party mismanagement – has been compounded by a series of public gaffes and missteps which have led to serious doubt over the future of the role. With rumours that Labour is set to follow the Liberal Democrats in making a commitment to scrap the position if elected in 2015, the days of the PCC look like they could be numbered.
But does the portrayal of elected police commissioners as unaccountable, unqualified and out of control match the reality?
Clearly, there have been some PR clangers which have done little to help. The Channel 4 documentary on Ann Barnes, the Kent Commissioner, which portrayed her as a well-meaning David Brent-like figure, turned into a nightmare for PCCs already fighting accusations of irresponsible spending and a lack of clout.
But the impression that PCCs as a group are completely freewheeling and unaccountable is a result of the design of the system and, to some extent, the will of the electorate.
The appearance by South Yorkshire Commissioner Shaun Wright before an openly hostile Home Affairs Select Committee this week arguably marked a new low point in the perception of PCCs. However, the calls being made by a number of Committee members for the Commissioner to step down from his post were essentially meaningless, simply because – as Wright pointed out in a manner that it is safe to say did little to ingratiate him to Keith Vaz et al – he is an elected public official subject to exactly the same ballot box accountability as those MPs gunning for his resignation.
Much has been made of the public apathy towards the role, and it is true that a turnout in the low double figures stretches the limits of electoral credibility. But the outrage at the (admittedly very low) turnout figures for the by-election caused by the death of West Midlands PCC Bob Jones seemed, again, to reflect shock at the fact that the mechanism to replace an elected official was an election to replace him (and yes, democracy involves spending public money) rather than genuine shock that an August by-election for a two-year old role in a very safe Labour area resulted in such poor turnout.
Whilst Shaun Wright’s efforts to cling to his position may seem unedifying in the extreme, as a publically elected official, surely his record and personal history (and his failure to resign) is exactly the kind of thing which the next PCC election campaign will be based on and something that, in turn, will drive public engagement. It is difficult to believe that, given the chance, the voters of Rotherham and South Yorkshire will display the same lack of engagement that resulted in a 14% turnout in 2012.
The actual performance of PCCs is also worth closer examination. Whilst wary of drawing early conclusions, the Home Affairs Select Committee did note in their recent review of the performance of Commissioners that PCCs “have provided greater clarity of leadership for policing within their areas, and are increasingly recognised by the public as accountable for the strategic direction of their police force”. There was also praise for the collaborative work being undertaken by Commissioners across policing boundaries, with the majority of the criticisms in the report aimed squarely at the Home Office rather than PCCs themselves.
Much was made of the election of a number of independent, non-party affiliated Police and Crime Commissioners in 2012 as a democratic breakthrough and a vote against the politicisation of policing. Maybe. But this also means a rejection of the normal codes of political behaviour. The lack of a powerful representative body for PCCs – and a system designed to encourage local independence – has often rendered calls for ‘something to be done’ (such as in the Shaun Wright case) impotent. What needs doing, and who needs to do it?
Whether we should politicise police control in this way is a separate argument which was never conclusively settled amidst the administrative clamour of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill. But it is an argument that must be won before PCCs are able to begin to build their own ‘norms’. The buzz around likely manifesto commitments, however, suggests that they may not get that chance.
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