Six months ago, in November 2012, the Conservative vision of police commissioning became reality, thanks to the Coalition Government, with the election of 41 men and women, who from then on had ultimate responsibility for policing and crime within their force area. Labour was not in favour of Commissioners, but with it being forced upon us, there was no way we could stand back and allow even greater influence at force level, by a party that had already inflicted incredible damage on policing, across the country.
The Government did an appalling job of bringing this new phenomenon to the public, there was little or no publicity, a huge number of people had no clue about the process, the role, or the candidates that were standing on behalf of the main parties or as Independents. To top it off, some intuitive advisor suggested that a cold, grey day in November would be a good day on which to hold the election. Genius.
Add all this together and it should have been no surprise to anyone when turnout was so abysmally low, just 15.1% – the lowest ever turnout in an election during a time of peace.
There has been much analysis of the election process itself and the Electoral Reform Society slammed it in their publication, “How Not to Run an Election” – also keenly picking out the glaringly obvious self-sabotage, in their mock-up of the “Five-point plan to drive turnout into the ground.”
But that wasn’t all the Government did. This was a flagship policy, a mammoth democratic change in England and Wales; a massive investment of around £75million and yet, the Government didn’t commit to it. They allowed the whole process to be undermined and the mandate of those elected to be questioned, by not ensuring the general public had sufficient information to engage fully with the changes they were implementing.
‘No mandate’ is actually one argument that does not compute however. Despite the low turnout, in terms of raw votes, as PCC I received more votes in November, than those of all of the previous (elected) Police Authority Members combined, when they had previously stood as council candidates in elections in their own wards. I am sure this picture will be repeated in other force areas. This gives a greater democratic mandate to a PCC, but that now comes with the added scrutiny of the Police and Crime Panel; a check and balance that just did not exist previously.
Ask any member of the public for their opinion on policing and crime – and I have done, thousands of times, so I know first-hand – and you will never get “I don’t know” or “Not bothered,” in response. Everyone has an opinion on crime, anti-social behaviour, police and justice. So why were so many people “not bothered” when it came to electing their PCC?
This was a fantastic opportunity to engage the public in a vitally important, new democratic process but the Government failed to do it. Police and Crime Commissioner Candidates were expected to plug the information gap themselves, but with such large geographic areas, this was impossible, unless large amounts of funding were available. This clearly had a bigger impact on anyone who wanted to stand independently, although even the main political parties did not make huge amounts of money available to their candidates. Here in South Yorkshire, one independent candidate withdrew from the election because of the financial cost, unsurprising when the deposit alone was £5000. A big risk to take, if you haven’t got a good fund on which to mount your campaign.
It remains very clear that, because of the information void, people still do not know enough about PCCs and what our remit is. Consider this; I represent the people of South Yorkshire Police Force area, this covers the constituencies of 14 Members of Parliament; an enormous county area, with 1.3 million people. As PCC, I am directly responsible for holding the police and the Chief Constable to account on behalf of the public. PCC’s control the budget of the Police Force and as part of the Police and Crime Plan, set the force priorities. We also have responsibility for ensuring services to victims, crime prevention, reducing reoffending, the protection of vulnerable people and a massive responsibility for public engagement.
This direct power was given by the Government but the process did not underpin the gravity of the position, or the importance of public engagement with it.
Now, as PCCs, we must work hard to get the public involved and engaged with what we do. I spend a lot of time speaking to people in South Yorkshire, making sure I understand what they want from their police force, their concerns, their priorities and their needs. Hopefully, this work will pay dividends at the next PCC elections and we will see an increase in turnout, if we do, it will be because the PCCs have done what the Government should have done in the first place and generated public awareness and engagement.
It’s a tough job; we are dealing with a Government that has inflicted significant cuts to our police. These cuts have hit the force front and centre – no matter what Government Ministers say – affecting morale of officers and the resources Chief Constables have available to provide the service the public want. They are not only unpopular, they are reckless. It has been left to PCCs to make sure their Police Forces have the necessary resources to tackle crime and anti-social behaviour, keep our streets safe and achieve the priorities set in their Police and Crime Plan.
With budgets cut – 20% in South Yorkshire, meaning a loss of £43million by 2015 – this is a challenge. The Government can cut police budgets but they cannot cut the number of criminals and the public should not expect less from the police as a result of cuts either. This makes the job of a PCC and their Chief Constable a difficult task.
The challenge, politically, is to demonstrate that PCCs are doing the job the public wants them to do; addressing the issues the public have said are important to them.
This is not a process that can be changed easily, nor would I suggest it should be; the public has seen an incredibly significant change in their direct, democratic influence over law and order – something they have never had before – and we must allow them to realise the potential this gives them to become involved, to have their say in the direction and priorities of their police force.
Information really is power!
Then, when it comes to 2016 and the next PCC elections, I am sure the public will repay this by turning out at the polling stations. I have just one request, can we make it easier for them next time? Give them the information they need before election day, about all candidates, like we do for General Elections. Can we also try to make it so they will not have to do battle with icy weather and umbrellas on their way to vote? OK, British weather permitting, there is only so much within the powers of a PCC!
Shaun Wright is the Labour Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire.