The general election, likely in the autumn, is not the only one in Britain in 2024. Alongside local elections on May 2 will be the elections, held once every four years, for police and crime commissioners (PCCs), in England and Wales. That will mean PCCs have been around for a dozen years. Have they been worth it? The likely low turnout to vote for a PCC of any political party will suggest that most think not, writes Mark Rowe.
Two ways of judging the success of the PCC idea are to look back at their origins; and to refer to their role. PCCs were one of the reforming ideas of the Conservative-led Coalition Government voted in, in 2010. Instead of local councillors having oversight of each police force, the people would vote for someone to have that sole task. That might be someone from outside the main political parties, and while some of the first PCCs were ‘independent’, by the last election in 2020 they were either Labour (in the metropolitan regions and London) or Conservative (the shires). PCCs have already become a sub-set of the occupation of politics: you become a local councillor and council cabinet member (which with expenses can give you a living), maybe become a deputy to a PCC. The salary for a PCC is, roughly, comparable to a member of parliament’s; you suspect that the calibre of person who is a PCC candidate is roughly the same as an MP. Another example of ‘mission creep’ has been that some PCCs such as in Cumbria and Essex have taken on oversight of the fire and rescue service.
If the aim was to add democracy to checks on the police, that has failed. Turn-out last time was at best 30 per cent, way lower than for a general election, whether because local politics engages people less or voters were unconvinced of the idea of voting specifically for someone to look after the police.
On the role, of holding a police force accountable, that work is inevitably done out of public sight and is deeply unglamorous (maybe a political problem given that as at least one PCC has put it, people want to see ‘visible and accessible policing’). What budget is the force’s finance director setting, and are they keeping to it? Does the force have a policy on anti-corruption, security against cyber-attack, data protection, handling Freedom on Information (FoI) requests? All may sound boring, until (as in Northern Ireland last year) police in error in the name of FoI release for online publication personal details of thousands of staff.
Readers of Professional Security, with a background, experience or interest in private security, will want to know what their local PCC (or PCCs in general if they are, say, security managers for a supermarket chain) is doing about crime against business. Here the verdict must be, patchy at best. Despite the low turn-out, a PCC must nod to voters’ concerns: and police besides have so many priorities: burglary, car crime, Friday night drunks in the centre of town and Saturday afternoon football hooligans, the illegal drugs trade, knife carrying, anti-social behaviour, domestic violence. Some if not all of those happen outside or on or affect business premises. The West Midlands PCC until 2020 ran a business crime evening ‘summit’ each January, even if he did tend to leave it to a deputy to attend later on. The PCC who took over (both Labour) did not continue the summit, which at least gave businesses a platform.
A force area stands to gain from a PCC who sets local priorities; 43 police forces while unlikely to be what you’d create if you started from scratch, at least offer the prospect of various forces coming up with good practice (which reminds me of a remark of Oliver Curran of University College London, who as chair of the campus security managers’ association Aucso gathers such good practice; every university security department is good or leads at something, he says). A business with national branches wants consistency in police response. PCCs, therefore, also need some mechanism, assuming they are coming up with bright ideas, to spread them. While there is an Association of Police and Crime Commissioners (APCC), judge for yourself whether, for example, West Midlands Police constable Stuart Toogood’s rehabilitation scheme for drug addicts who steal from shops to pay for their drug habit, is spreading, fast enough. The case, financial and moral, for addicts and others to be given ‘community sentences’ rather than prison, may seem obvious, yet a House of Lords committee report recently noted that such community sentencing in recent years has been much reduced.
That central Government and most PCCs are conservative may explain why the Home Office is making use of PCCs; the Home Office’s Safer Streets Fund that funnels cash, typically for public space CCTV, to localities has come by round five last year to pass money to each PCC for them to distribute (for example the Essex PCC recently showed the MP for Witham in the county, Priti Patel, what Safer Streets money had done in her constituency, largely on new cameras; as Boris Johnson’s Home Secretary, Safer Streets began under her). Some PCCs, such as in Thames Valley, are seeking to make force-wide public realm CCTV monitoring, by police, which makes sense given that traditionally council-monitored high street CCTV’s largest ‘customer’ is the police.
As featured in Professional Security in August, some small town councils in Wiltshire such as Warminster are investing in and renewing their public space CCTV. Would it make more sense for the Wiltshire PCC to grab such monitoring proverbially by the scruff of its neck and drive for a county-wide monitoring centre (whether in the main town, Swindon or at police headquarters in Devizes) and have economies of scale and CCTV as a crime prevention and detection tool of the police? That would require buy-in from all the councils, which may be practically impossible; it might not be value for money, let alone what proud towns want. But are shire forces even having this discussion, that a PCC would be the ideal middle-man to lead on, between police and councils. CCTV is only one example; others would be police response to retailers reporting theft (maybe including threats by the thief); car cruisers; fly-tipping; travellers’ incursions on property; metal theft. Meanwhile, like the police and councils, PCCs are forever spinning plates; responding to this week’s news or scandal, fulfilling a full diary.
Last but not least, how might May’s election go? The 2020 one came at a low point for Labour after Boris Johnson’s big general election win in December 2019. On a low turn-out, given that those actually voting on May 2 will be the diehards for Labour and Conservative alike, whether the mainly Conservative PCCs hold their positions may depend on whether Conservatives feel like turning out. If May brings more Labour PCCs, the question then, as after a general election that seems likely to bring Labour into power, is whether Labour PCCs or a Sir Keir Starmer government have more ambitious ideas than merely swapping with the Conservatives in the political driving seat.