Public unconvinced by PCCs

16 November 2012
Author: 
Sophie Farthing, Policy Officer

Britain enjoys a long, distinguished tradition of civil libertarian and pro-democracy policing, built upon policing by consent. That proud heritage is under threat as yesterday’s ballot is counted in order to elect 41 new Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) in England and Wales. Voting turnout is heading for a record peacetime low - possibly as low as 15 per cent. This is a clear message for the Government that it has failed to convince the public about this radical new policy.

Britain enjoys a long, distinguished tradition of civil libertarian and pro-democracy policing, built upon policing by consent. That proud heritage is under threat as yesterday’s ballot is counted in order to elect 41 new Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) in England and Wales. Voting turnout is heading for a record peacetime low - possibly as low as 15 per cent. This is a clear message for the Government that it has failed to convince the public about this radical new policy.

PCCs are a half-baked import from the US, where a number of their politicised “sheriffs” have overseen corruption and damaged race relations for years. The thinking behind abolishing Police Authorities is an impression that policing is too far detached from communities. Of course people should be able to have a say in how their neighbourhood is policed, and officers must be accountable to the public. But partisan visibility could easily have the opposite effect; alienating particular communities and undermining credibility. If the Government is serious about boosting accountability, the response to the deaths of Ian Tomlinson and Mark Duggan suggests they’d be better off reforming the Independent Police Complaints Commission and giving it the competence and bite required.

Instead, rooting police accountability at the ballot box will inevitably result in politicised policing. Police independence is as fundamental to the Rule of Law as the neutrality of the courts and independence of the judiciary. It allows everyone to feel protected regardless of race, religion, class or politics. How will such impartiality be maintained once forces fall under the control of politically-motivated figureheads? The candidates are overwhelmingly white and male – a marked contrast to the diversity of Police Authorities. Without true representation, traditionally under-represented groups might find themselves ostracised; further exacerbating tensions in communities already fractured along ethnic or religious lines.

While there might be protection for the Chief Constable to maintain operational control on paper, in practice many PCC functions will have the potential to influence police operations – from budget-setting to strategic planning. With the PCC position tied to the vote, policing priorities will inevitably be skewed by those who shout loudest and in favour of popular demands – risking topics such as antisocial behaviour being elevated above less visible police work vital to tackling crime. And there’s also no requirement for any particular expertise – despite the fact that absolute veto for budgets, priorities and the ability to hire and fire the Chief Constable will rest with PCCs. In fact, there are no criteria for selection whatsoever.

There’s simply no evidence for this reform, and yet the Government has ploughed on regardless. These elections alone will cost an estimated £100million. At a time when public spending, and the policing budget in particular, is being cut, it’s hardly surprising that less than one in five of us bothered to vote yesterday.