Big Debate: Bobbies Off The Beat

Illustration by Max Anderton

An expected low turnout for the Police and Crime Commissioner elections suggests the public are either lacking in interest or faith in the highly-paid role. This week Big Debate asks, do they matter?

YES: Ben Fisher

By the time you read this, we’ll know whether fears of abysmal turnout in the PCC elections were justified. To be honest, an election where so few people are sure what exactly they’re voting for and even fewer know who is standing is never going to be the most inspiring of events. The government, eventually, tried their best at giving us vague information about the entire thing, and candidates spent a lot of time and money promoting themselves to a generally unaware electorate.  This doesn’t sound like an argument for the relevance of the PCC elections does it?

Given the woeful lack of information out there, it still amazes me that Students’ Unions have been only organisations in the region that actually made a video to try and compare candidates on policy issues. But there’s a reason why we’ve put in that effort: these elections matter. It matters that students’ opinions are presented to candidates, and it matters that students vote in them.

Last weekend, Home Secretary Theresa May said that no matter what the turnout is PCCs will have legitimacy, and that’s the crucial issue. Someone is going to be elected, and that someone will have a £100k a year salary along with a huge amount of control over the funding and priorities for the entire police force in West Yorkshire. What if that person’s idea of what’s important is entirely out of touch with a huge section of our communities? What if a candidate from a party like the English Defence League is elected? What happens if someone is elected with a tiny turnout and works unscrutinized by the public to whom they’re supposed to be accountable?

Yes, it could be that no matter who is elected everything will just carry on being the same, but this is the most significant change to our police force for a long time. To say that it’s not important because nothing much changes in politics isn’t a good enough reason to dismiss it entirely.

When I’ve met the candidates in the last few weeks, each one has had a different take on important issues like hate crime, sexual assault, community safety and how best to listen to the views of students. If one of these candidates is going to decide on the priorities for our police, it’s crucial that the stance they take is one that reflects the needs and views of West Yorkshire. If people dismiss the elections as irrelevant, that is less likely to be the case.

I don’t doubt that the elections should have been better promoted. I’m certain that bad publicity has contributed a lot to people thinking that the election is all a bit stupid. But the procedural problems with the elections are in many ways separate from the role of Police and Crime Commissioner itself, and don’t take away from the significant changes these elections could make to the services that keep us safe. Even if you don’t agree that the roles are necessary, they do matter.

Anyway, if none of this has convinced you, and you woke up on polling day thinking that there was very little point to the election, I hope you at least spoiled your ballot.


NO: Natalie Oliver

I can’t recall a time in my life when I’ve said I agree with the Labour Party. Until now. Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary, said recently that “Labour has consistently opposed these plans as we believe this is the wrong policy, the wrong priority and at the wrong time. If Labour was in power tomorrow we would stop these plans and spend the cash on thousands more police officers instead”. In my view, she’s completely right.

There are an abundance of issues the government should be busying themselves with right now, and a Police Commissioner position is not one of them. Aside from the fact that the elected candidate (for West Yorkshire) now has a £411.7m budget to play with, this election isn’t remotely significant. The only real significance to highlight is that of political failure.

Firstly, the estimated cost of the election was £75m – rather a lot for a government making public spending cuts left, right and centre. Secondly, having party-political candidates is going to blur the boundaries between politics and policing. Having expenses-fiddling, second home flipping, I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here-ing politicians in Westminster clearly wasn’t enough, we now need them over seeing our police forces too.

Independent (usually non-political) contenders were additionally put at a distinct loss. Campaigning over large areas tends to favour those with a political background. The public are prone to blindly vote for their usual political party, without knowing anything about the candidate. This brings on the simultaneous fact that information about individual candidates has been remote and hard to come by.

Although saying that, knowing about each candidate isn’t necessarily uplifting. The three political candidates who stood in West Yorkshire have never been police. The independent candidate, at least, had. However, at the end of October, during the public meeting with the budding PCC’s, they each proved just how unsuitable they were. One remarked that their first priority would be to cut crime, but didn’t appear to have a strategy on how to do so. Unsurprisingly, this left me with roughly the same amount of voting enthusiasm as I’d have for a box of monkeys.

I’m not saying that it couldn’t have worked well, as having elected sheriffs in the US seems to work just fine. Though unlike ours, the US policing system is much more fragmented; they have more budgetary control, more power. Democratic accountability is of greater necessity there. The UK police force, on the other hand, is one organisation with different geographical areas overseen by the commissioners. But, the greatest difference, and way in which this new system is flawed is that unlike American sheriffs, UK Police Commissioners do not have to be trained police or have any experience in policing. A £100,000 salary is a pretty impressive reward for no proven experience.

To me, it seems commissioners have been introduced with one primary purpose: to be a scapegoat. As the cuts continue, and public discontent with the government rises, there is now someone in each community to partially bear the brunt of public disfavour. Managing crime isn’t an easy job, and should therefore be left to the professionals, not politicians clamouring for power.

So, should this election have happened? Probably not. Will it make a difference to you? Again, probably not. But should you have voted? Yes, if there was candidate you actually liked. If there wasn’t, you’re in good company with the (pre-election estimated) 80+% of the voting population who didn’t vote either.

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