Monday, 12 November 2012

Why do we need elected police commissioners? Don't be fooled, this isn't about devolving power to local communities, it's a chance to shift the blame

After election fever comes the comedown.

As those days and nights spent sweating over the prospect of a Romney victory, watching Karl Rove's mathematical meltdown, and wondering whether Obama really could take Florida dissipate into the cold reality of "fiscal cliffs" and "grand bargains", elections junkies the country over are being forced to go cold turkey. The  psephologists have crawled back to their academic lairs and Nate Silver has been returned to his magic box.

But just when it seems nothing could top the thrill of seeing Romney vanquished and Obama re-elected as only the forth Democrat President to win two terms since 1900, a new election hoves into view. And this one you can actually vote in! Yes, that's right dear voter, this Thursday is the elections for England and Wales' 41 police and crime commissioners (PCCs).

Except, inexplicably, it seems the rest of the UK isn't exactly radiating with enthusiasm. Large numbers are completely oblivious to the fact it's even taking place, with voter turnout expected to dip below 20%, a record low for a national UK election, while the vast majority of people are unable to name any of their local candidates.

All of which suggests this was not a burning issue for the UK electorate. So why exactly is it happening? And what will the new commissioners actually do? According to the Home Office website, the PCCs will have influence over key areas like CCTV, street lighting, graffiti and tackling gangs, but their central purpose is to
ensure the policing needs of their communities are met as effectively as possible, bringing communities closer to the police, building confidence in the system and restoring trust.
In other words, it's all about local democracy: "Bringing more of a public voice to policing and giving the public a name and a face to complain to if they aren't satisfied."

Which is convenient, because with a 20% cut to the police budget in the pipeline and the loss of 15,000 officers by 2015, one would imagine there's a whole lot of people about to feel very unsatisfied. Notice a rise in anti-social behaviour or a drop-off in police response times a couple of years down the line? Don't bother the Government with your quibbling, your PCC clearly just hasn't been doing their job properly. Off with their head.

The idea that this is a genuine exercise in localism just simply isn't credible, because the Coalition is only interested in devolving power to two sectors: the private and the voluntary. If you want to know what Cameron and Osborne really think of local government, go and count the number of empty offices at council buildings across the land.

While I'm sure the individual PCCs will, once elected, work hard for their local communities, they ultimately look set, as Polly Toynbee put it in Dogma and Disarray: Cameron at Half-Time, to be "squeezed into insignificance between an interventionist Home Office and the private contractors lined-up to take over large slices of policing." This is, after all, a Home Office determined to decide where and how the money is spent like never before. Ironically, it's with the privatisation of the police that the PCCs could have the most - indeed, a worrying amount - of influence. As shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper pointed out in a piece for the Guardian:
The new commissioners will face serious decisions on the future of policing and private contracts. A strong push is under way both from Tory government ministers and from private companies to contract out large swaths of public policing, yet there has been no debate about the risks or the safeguards needed.
The introduction of PCCs also further politicises our police force. While the founder of the modern police force Sir Robert Peel's claim that the police should act "in complete independence of policy" was always a pipedream - the Battle of Orgeave, anyone? - there's no question that the PCC system has the potential to turn policing into a microcosm of party politics.

But let's not be pessimistic. My hope is that individual PCCs will use their position to hold central government to account: speaking up on swingeing cuts, vehemently opposing further privatizations and loudly voicing the concerns of their local communities. They might have been intended as political window dressing, but who's to say they can't make their voices heard?

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