Free LGiU member briefing: Overview of the PCC elections

Below is a an LGiU member briefing on Police and Crime Commissioners. It is available to all members and non-members of the LGiU. Members can access the PDF version here.

Police and Crime Commissioners will be elected in each police area in England and Wales (except London, which already has the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime) on 15 November. Established by the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 the reform is a major plank of coalition policy, aimed at bringing direct democratic accountability to community safety.

Until recently, most comment on the elections was about the lack of interest they were stimulating among the general public. More recently there has been controversy over candidates barred from standing because of past convictions or because they served as magistrates, however, projections of a low turnout continue to be a key concern.

Candidates and parties

The party political response to Police and Crime Commissioners was, and still is, mixed. The three main parties initially remained fairly quiet on their selection intentions, leaving space for many to push for the positions to be independent.

Conservatives

At the time of writing the Conservatives have selected candidates in 37 of the 41 police force areas. The areas where they still do not have a candidate are Gwent, Merseyside, South Wales and South Yorkshire; arguably all areas that will not be high on their list of electoral targets.

The party used local selection via primaries with candidates from a centrally approved list.

Labour

Labour had a centralised selection process, with postal ballots of members, meaning that they had candidates in all 41 police force areas in June, although (as covered later) there have been some changes to their candidate line up.

Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrat position has been the least clear of the three main parties. Initially seeming to back the idea of independent candidates, they subsequently decided that while Liberal Democrats could stand, they would not receive funding from the central party. Currently only a few Liberal Democrat candidates have been officially selected, although many areas still intend to select.

Other parties

No other party is widely contesting the Police and Crime Commissioner elections. Both UKIP and the English Democrats are fielding a few candidates and there is currently a single Monster Raving Loony Party candidate in Cambridgeshire.

In Wales Plaid Cymru stated its opposition to PCCs, and said it would offer its support to any independent candidate in the four Welsh police areas that met its criteria and, if no independent candidate could be found, it would field its own. To date, however, they have neither endorsed an independent or named any official Plaid Cymru candidates.

Independents

Unsurprisingly the new positions stimulated a lot of interest in potential independent candidates, especially early in the process when the pressure for political parties to remain out of the fray was at its highest. Some were clearly never viable candidates (Katie Price denied rumours she would stand in Essex before Peter Andre even had a chance to mention their children) but there remain a large number of people actively considering independent bids.

However, there are few ‘household names’ remaining in the running. Perhaps the last was Simon Weston, who was considering standing in South Wales, but withdrew at the beginning of July having become “disillusioned by the fact it was getting too political and not serving the people”. He was also concerned about his legal eligibility for the rôle given a criminal conviction he received as a teenager for being a passenger in a stolen car.

Generally independent candidates tend to be drawn from the ranks of local government and former police officers, while there are at least two police authority chairs: Anne Barnes in Kent and Peter Williams in Surrey.

Resources

A number of useful and (largely) independent resources dedicated to the elections are available.

  • The Police Foundation have been maintaining a list of potential and selected candidates (PDF document) throughout the process. This is probably the most comprehensive overview available.
  • Police Elections aims to be a resource for voters and details candidates in each area, but is reliant on those candidates submitting biographical information.
  • Top of the Cops is a blog covering news and issues around the elections (and was the first to reveal the ‘ban’ on magistrates standing). Although run by the runner-up for the Conservative nomination in Lancashire it does a good job of following the issues in an impartial manner.

Current timetable

The Electoral Commission has published the timetable for the elections (Word document), the key dates of which are:

Date Event
8 October Last date for publication of notice of election
19 October Close of nominations
23 October Publication of statement of persons nominated
24 October Last date for candidates withdrawal
15 November Polling day

Current issues

Turnout

A lot of media coverage has focused on predictions of a low turnout in an unusual November election that has not captured the public’s imagination (the date was chosen as a concession to Liberal Democrats who feared police and crime issues would crowd out local government elections in a combined poll last May). The Electoral Reform Society recently projected turnout at 18.5% (PDF document).

The narrative of an electorate disinclined to traipse to the polls on a cold and wet November night might be premature. Crime and safety issues regularly come to the top of people’s list of issues and it’s not hard to imagine why PCC elections haven’t been at the forefront of people’s minds over the summer.

However, it has been hard to get anyone to predict a high turnout. When pressed on the Today programme policing minister Nick Herbert refused to be drawn on what a satisfactory turnout would be, saying a target would be “arbitrary”. There is clearly some expectation management going on.

While fears of extremist candidates winning are likely to be unfounded, simply because of the size of the constituencies and the electoral method, many have questioned the democratic legitimacy that would be conferred on a commissioner elected on a small turnout. (Although a counter argument could be that there is even less democratic legitimacy and accountability in a police authority consisting of appointed councillors and independent members.)

Eligibility

There has been controversy over candidate eligibility issues, with two candidates seemingly disqualified over juvenile and, arguably, minor convictions and a short period during which it appeared magistrates would be forced to resign if they sought election.

Criminal records

The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 s66 (3) states “A person is disqualified from being elected as, or being, a police and crime commissioner if –
(c)the person has been convicted in the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands, or the Isle of Man, of any imprisonable offence (whether or not sentenced to a term of imprisonment in respect of the offence).” Subsection (4)(a) clarifies that an imprisonable offence is one for which an adult may be sentenced to prison.

The first case involved Bob Ashford, who resigned as Labour candidate in Avon and Somerset when revealing he had been fined £5 as a 13 year old. He was followed by Cllr Alan Charles, who initially stood down as Labour candidate in Derbyshire because of a non-conditional discharge when he was 14. However, Cllr Charles subsequently reversed his decision after the Labour Party received a legal opinion that a conditional discharge did not amount to a conviction. The Home Secretary has also stated that it was not the intention of ministers to bar candidates over juvenile offences.

Magistrates

Magistrates had also faced ineligibility. While the legislation did not bar magistrates from election to the post, Senior Presiding Judge, Lord Justice Goldring, issued guidance stating that serving as a magistrate was incompatible with being a police and crime commissioner, serving on a police and crime panel or active participation in the electoral process. Several candidates were affected by this restriction, with reports citing up to a dozen candidates affected.

Following a minor outcry, which included threats of legal challenge, Lord Justice Goldring revised his guidance significantly, stating that magistrates should take a leave of absence during a campaign and resign as a magistrate if elected. Those appointed to a police and crime panel will no longer have to resign from the bench.

Impartiality oath

Perhaps in response to criticism that the position of Police and Crime Commissioner politicises the police the government has announced that those elected will be required to swear an impartiality oath.

The oath contains promises to serve all the people, to give a voice to the public, ensure transparency and, almost jarringly, finishes with a promise the commissioner “will not seek to influence or prevent any lawful and reasonable investigation or arrest, nor encourage any police action save that which is lawful and justified”.

In fact the oath is largely superfluous. The UK model of Police and Crime Commissioner would be remarkably constrained compared to examples elsewhere, like elected sheriffs or mayors with policing mandate in the United States. UK law already has number of safeguards which prevent direct political interference in operational police matters and even those powers that might seem wide-ranging, such as the appointment of chief constables, will be limited to appointment from those that have successfully passed the police’s own selection processes.

Narrow focus of candidates

A future update will look at candidate manifestos in more detail, but it is already apparent that most, at least in public, are adopting a narrow interpretation of the PCC role – focusing heavily on the police rather than the crime part of the title.

Unless and until detailed manifestos are published or candidates are in office it’s impossible to tell whether this is a general tendency to focus on police matters or simply a campaigning tactic which assumes – probably correctly – the public are more likely to be stimulated by police issues than policy statements on integrated offender management and multi-agency working. A factor that perhaps suggests this focus is a reflection of campaigning is that independent candidates, who often cite (alongside a belief that the PCC role should be apolitical) a background in criminal justice, tend to present a more balanced policy platform.

Response

While the Police and Crime Commissioner elections may not be capturing the public imagination a large number of groups are responding to the reform.

Most relevant to councils, the Local Government Association is bidding strongly to provide support for Police and Crime Commissioners (having amended its constitution at the Birmingham conference this year to allow PCCs membership) through its successful community safety programme.

The Association of Police Authorities has been named by the Home Office as the body which will transition into the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners.

However, at all other levels varying degrees of lobbying is taking place. PCC candidates will have received a plethora of glossy leaflets from the likes of the Probation Association and the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise Sector (PDF document) while others are going even further, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, for example, are offering candidates one-to-one briefings.

Comment

Issues for local government

Partnerships

It is often the case reform actually results in relatively little change at a practical level. Undoubtedly for many, existing partnerships and working arrangements will continue under a PCC just as they did with a police authority.

However, it is not impossible that some incoming PCCs will have priorities that are significantly different to their predecessor authorities and this may have funding consequences.

Remit creep

There are also risks for local government in what seems to be an expanding remit for PCCs. While the statutory powers are clearly defined, government consultations and comments have expanded the PCC role, for example, citing them as having a leadership role for the whole criminal justice sector.

There is the additional consideration that some individual PCCs may well settle on an expansive interpretation of the post (despite most candidates taking a narrow definition, as mentioned above) and start taking a view on issues connected with crime, but within the remit of local government.

Clearly PCCs will change the community safety landscape, and the personal nature of the post means that there might be 41 different approaches across England and Wales. Councils will want to consider how their relationships might change and how they can ensure the best for their residents from their new PCCs.

More direct elections?

Directly elected police and crime commissioners is a flagship policy of the coalition. While speculative, there is the possibility that it will pave the way for more directly elected commissioner-style posts in the longer term. Despite the seeming lack of appetite for the PCC elections such posts are not entirely off the agenda; the RSA recently published The Missing Middle (PDF document) arguing the case for elected education commissioners (and covered by a Children’s Services Network briefing).

Such reforms would require primary legislation, and are therefore unlikely in this Parliament. However, if the coalition remains in office until 2015 PCCs would have had two years to settle in and their impact assessed before the political parties start to finalise their election manifestos; if PCCs are deemed a success, there may be temptation to extend the model to other public services.

Providing feedback

The LGIU will be publishing a regular update to members on the Police and Crime Commissioner elections. If you have any feedback on the content of the first update, or suggestions of what you would like to see in subsequent updates, please contact Janet Sillett, Briefings Manager, at janet.sillett@lgiu.org.uk

This briefing was written by James Cousins, LGiU Associate.

    1. John Fisher says:

      Here in Wales Plaid Cymru, who appose PCCs, will not be offering candidates but will offer support to any independant candidate meeting the criteria. A contradition in terms if I ever heard one or is it just a clever move by Plaid.
      I feel that all independant candidates in Wales are now either blighted by Plaid’s statement or are in fact supporters of Plaid. Either way many will loose votes because of this.
      Is there anything wrong with the current system of police authorities?

    2. James Cousins says:

      Similar to national elections PCC elections are funded centrally. Usually an advance payment is made which covers most of the cost, with returning officers claiming any additional amounts afterwards. However, the Home Office has yet to publish the order detailing how much and what returning officers can claim.

      With just over two months before election day this will leave those responsible for actually conducting the election with some uncertainty; ROs are effectively being asked to run an election in hard economic times without any assurance that the costs being fully compensated.

    3. CllrJim Eanger says:

      You do not mention who is paying for the cost of the election. Is this a Govt cost or do Council’s have to pay?

    Comments are closed.