It does not seem likely that the proposed system of police and crime commissioners will be able to meet public needs better than the existing police authorities.
On November 15 people on the electoral register in England and Wales will have the opportunity to vote for police and crime commissioners. The idea of these commissioners is new. In setting up this new system, the government’s aim was to ensure that policing needs of the various communities are met, and that communities are brought closer to the police.
To suggest that there has been a marked lack of public enthusiasm for the concept of police and crime commissioners is a major understatement. The case for having them has not been made with anything like convincing logic.
The present – and soon to be abolished system – has been based on police authorities. These have been independent bodies, with a membership of people local to the area for which they have been responsible. Their membership – in most cases17 people – has consisted of nine local councillors (who, of course, have been elected); and eight independent members, selected following local advertisements, at least one of whom must be a magistrate. Two years ago, just under one third of police authority members were women, and just under ten per cent were from ethnic minorities.
Police authorities were not perfect vehicles for ensuring that the views of the community were taken into account, but in my view it would be preposterous to argue that the new system of police and crime commissioners will be anywhere near as good. I am not alone. The lack of public enthusiasm for the idea of commissioners is exacerbated by the fact that there has been very little information about them.
What is known is not particularly encouraging. The candidates include a number of politicians. If a politician is elected as a commissioner there is bound to be a feeling, regardless of how strongly he or she plans to approach the job with an independent mind, that the approach will be affected by party preference. It is not clear how that will be better than the old police authority, including a mix of councillors from different political backgrounds.
Another point of concern is that the election of the commissioners will not coincide with any other election (such as a local government election). The question, therefore, is how many electors will bother to vote. Local elections of any kind do not usually attract a high proportion of the potential voters, and November weather does not provide much incentive to turn out.
Can't say 'don't vote'
My serious concerns, shared by many others, about the whole concept of commissioners as a vehicle for ensuring that public needs and wishes are taken into account, are strong and, I believe, realistic, but whatever the limitations of the new system they will certainly be more serious if the commissioners lack a convincing public endorsement. For that reason, a statement by the former Metropolitan Police commissioner, Lord Blair, that he did not want people to vote, was widely – and rightly – thought to be ill judged. Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, criticised him, saying it was inappropriate for a former senior police chief to urge people not to exert their democratic right to vote. On a BBC programme he said that nobody should ever look at a democratic election as something they should not take part in.
That is surely right. Anyone seriously interested in democracy must recognise that the right to vote is important – and a right of which many people in different parts of the world are deprived. The right should be exercised.
The issue for me over police and crime commissioners is not that the system of choosing them is undemocratic, but whether, when elected, they will truly represent public opinion and views better than the police authorities that they are replacing. My answer to that is emphatically that they will not – even if the number of electors who vote is high – for the reasons I have outlined. If the turnout of voters is small, the weakness of the new arrangement will be underlined by lack of support. That we shall know after November 15.
Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK.