Issues & Ideas | 17th November 2014

What's the point of Police and Crime Commissioners?

The furniture in Kevin Hurley’s office looks rather tattered, frayed at the edges. The […]

Photo: Flickr/Pride 2013

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The furniture in Kevin Hurley’s office looks rather tattered, frayed at the edges. The worn sofas were donated by his son. It does not feel like the office of a man who represents over one million people. Hurley is the Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) for Surrey, one of 41 PCCs elected in the inaugural elections two years ago.

If people remember these elections for anything – and few do – it is for the scene at Malpas Cricket Club. It served as a polling station for the PCC election for Gwent. Not a single person turned up to vote.

“It would have been much, much better if we’d had a bigger turnout,” admits Ian Johnston, who was elected as Gwent’s inaugural PCC on a derisory turnout of 14 per cent.

Turnout was scarcely higher anywhere else. On average, just 15 per cent of those eligible to vote did. No one should have feigned surprise. These were stand-alone elections for new posts on a cold and wet November day. A lack of support from the government, who did not fund campaign literature, may have depressed turnout further. “Its execution was appalling and it was an affront to the principle of democracy,” Hurley says.

The upshot was that the electorate did not know what they were voting for, or why it was important. “A number of people I’ve met since have said ‘Look, I’m sorry I didn’t vote for you because I didn’t know what it was about,'” Johnston says. The public evidently did not see much point, even those who bothered to show up to the ballot box. One feature of the elections was an unusual number of spoilt ballots. “The public probably didn’t want” the new role, admits Matthew Grove, the Conservative PCC for Humberside. It was not much of a mandate for one of the most innovative policies of the coalition – one that could be traced back to a paper on “direct democracy” written by one Douglas Carswell in 2002.

Two years after the first elections, PCCs have won some converts. One is Tony Lloyd, a former Labour MP who voted against the government’s Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act in 2011. A year later he was elected as the PCC for Greater Manchester. He describes PCCs as “massively better than the police authority structure. There is better governance of policing. It’s more transparent than it was in the former regime,” he says. The rationale for the introduction of PCCs was that policing should be made more accountable: the old police authorities wielded vast power without any mandate. Only seven per cent of the public were even aware of their existence. PCCs give”“local people an opportunity to actually influence a strategy for policing that matters to them,” Katy Bourne, the PCC for Sussex believes. She sees PCCs as “the epitome of local democracy.”

The responsibilities of a PCC are profound. They act as the link between the public and the police. They control hefty budgets, of several hundred million a year, and set out annual police strategies in their areas. Probably only the Mayor of London is a more powerful directly elected politician in the UK than PCCs. “If I wanted to skew the budget in eccentric ways there’s actually quite little they could do about that,” Lloyd says. “The checks and balances you would expect in a single person exercise aren’t there.”

One manifestation of this power is over appointments. While they are not allowed to interfere with the “operational independence” of chief constables, PCCs have the power to hire and fire them. The former chief constable of Gwent Police, Carmel Napier, retired last year, and alleged that Johnston threated to “humiliate” her if she did not. “She was extremely unhelpful,” Johnston says. “It just wasn’t going to work.” The relationship between PCCs and chief constables is a fraught one – constables have left in almost half of areas. But at its best they can strengthen each other. “My PCC has been a great help,” Mike Barton, the chief constable of Durham police says, although he believes that “the controversies elsewhere have resulted in diverted attention.”

PCCs also have complete freedom over their staff, including their deputies. A Home Affairs Committee report this year noted that this power led to “accusations of cronyism.” Matthew Grove was one of three PCCs whose appointments of their deputies were singled out for concern. He says that he “did what I was empowered to do by the legislation and I appointed him.” He jokes that the role presents “an opportunity for benign dictatorship.”

The great defence of PPCs is that they are ultimately highly accountable: as the sole elected representatives to oversee policing in their areas, they have no one else to blame at the ballot box. “If I do something that is not right, the public will see it. There are plenty of people who want to identify if I do anything wrong,” Grove asserts. Each police area has a Police and Crime Panel, charged with scrutinising commissioners although a National Audit Office report this year said that they “lack powers”.

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When David Cameron launched the idea of PCCs, he called it “a big job for a big local figure” and one that was not “just for politicians” but people “who’ve done things and run organisations.”

The nadir of this vision came in Humberside, where Labour selected a 74-year-old John Prescott as its candidate. Hearteningly for Cameron’s hopes for the role, Prescott lost. “My campaign was: vote for me, because I’m the only person who can beat John Prescott,” Matthew Grove says.

While 29 of the PCCs elected were from the two main parties, 12 independents were elected. “It was really good, the message that sent out affected all PCCs of whatever party persuasion,” Grove reflects. “Because I in effect can dip my hand in the pocket of the residents I represent, and take their money out whether they want to or not, there is nothing more political than that,” he says. Yet he argues “party politics really does not come into it. There are some things that are almost too important. We have to do the right thing because there are real consequences for getting this wrong.”

The public’s contempt for the politicisation of the post was made clear in pre-electing polling by Policy Exchange. Just six per cent of the public said they wanted former MPs or ministers to fill the posts, compared with 59 per cent who wanted the job done by former police officers. Hurley, who was elected in Surrey after calling his party Zero Tolerance Policing Ex Chief, took the message very literally.

Tribalism is a much weaker force among PCCs than in Westminster. Winston Roddick, the independent PCC for North Wales, says that he “had misgivings about handing over responsibility to a political party” but they “haven’t manifested themselves.” PCCs have regular regional collaboration meetings to discuss policing challenges and solutions. The hope is that this will lead to a more dynamic process than in the previous system, in which police authorities consisted of 17 authorities. “Decision-making is certainly being quickened up in terms of a PCC being able to make decisions as opposed to a larger body,” Johnston asserts.

The new system should allow successful policing techniques to be replicated elsewhere. “An evidence-based approach to policy has got to be right,” Lloyd says. “If they’re doing it better in a Conservative-controlled PCC area, we’ll steal their ideas if it’s good for the people of Greater Manchester.”

As welcome as such collaboration might be, PCCs are not above ideology, as conflicting approaches on stop and search reflect. Hurley believes that Theresa May “has got it completely wrong trying to get the police to do less stop and search” and “people who want to shoot and stab other youths can walk around with guns and knives with impunity because the police are stopping less of them now.” Tony Lloyd takes a very different view. He has tried “to make the police account for stop and search” and even advocates police wearing body-worn videos to “narrow the potential for conflict because both parties know that what’s taking place is there potentially to be seen and reviewed.”

Contrasting takes on stop and search also hint at a wider tension between PCCs: between those with a political background, and those with one in policing. Ian Johnston, a recipient of the Queen’s Police Medal for distinguished service, won in Gwent on the platform to “Keep Politics out of Policing”. He asks: “How the hell can you do the job if you don’t know anything about policing?”

While Lloyd admits, “like everything you have to learn,” he argues that his political experiences have prepared him for dealing with the council. “That kind of challenge is better wielded by politicians – that’s nothing to be ashamed of,” he believes. “You can’t make me into a 30-year police officer. I’m not there to do that – I’m there to represent the public with respect to crime and policing. I don’t really think it’s a major handicap.”

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Lloyd’s party would effectively sack him from his role. Yvette Cooper used her party conference speech to declare: “The next Labour government will abolish Police and Crime Commissioners and put the savings back into frontline policing instead.” Exactly what would replace them is unclear. Lloyd says that a new system would have to “keep the best of the accountability structures in the commissioner model.” Other PCCs fear a replacement would only give more power to unelected bodies and make policing less transparent.

If they do remain, PCCs will be under pressure to get a far more powerful mandate when they are up for re-election. As well as avoiding another deserted polling booth, Johnston asserts that the institution’s credibility requires “35-40 per cent minimum” turnout. Moving the polling date to coincide with the local elections in 2016 will help. Another byproduct would be to drastically reduce the cost of the elections, which amounted to £75m in 2012 and making the whole experiment appear self-indulgent in an age of austerity.

Even the staunchest defends of the institution accept that the quality of PCCs varies widely. One PCC complains that some colleagues “know absolutely nothing about policing but it doesn’t stop them talking the whole time.” While Hurley describes most PCCs as “extremely able” he worries about “Young Turks who seize on doctrinal issues.” Grove believes that some commissioners are “pretty poor” and “we need a couple of election cycles to have that cleansing process.”

Whether that will be allowed to happen seems to depend upon the result of the general election. But if the Conservatives form another government and PCCs become established, they could spawn imitations. “The health service could do with an equivalent,” Grove suggests.

The powers that a PCC enjoys means that a life as a backbench MP is not appealing. Lloyd says that he had “a lot more capacity to make and translate into practise decisions that shape people’s lives” than when he was a parliamentarian. While his offices are rather less plush than those of MPs in Westminster, Kevin Hurley is not envious. “I wouldn’t step out of this role to be a backbench MP – what are they?” he asserts.

Backbench MPs also tend to earn less. They receive £67,060 a year, while PCCs earn between £65,000 and £100,000, depending on the size of the population they represent. Still, Hurley does not believe that is enough for a role that consumes 70 hours a week, pointing out that police authority chiefs often earned over £200,000 a year. He earns £70,000 as Surrey PCC. “Do you know what that is to me? That’s crap. I can easily earn much more than that.” He suggests that, unless salaries are significantly increased, “They’ll get a few duffers in. If you want a top quality act like me you’d better pay more.”

PCCs are overcoming the environment of apathy in which they were elected to become increasingly prominent figures. They are ubiquitous in the local media, with Hurley one of a number of savvy PCCs to webcast monthly meetings with superintendents and the public. PCCs also hold regular surgeries, moving around the areas they represent. “I’m probably the best-known politician in the county now,” Hurley says.

“Who’s in the local papers the most? Who’s in the local electronic media the most? Who’s on the local radio the most? Without question it’s the Police and Crime Commissioner for whatever county.” He has even hired someone specifically to engage young people on social media though his claim that he is “moving towards having the second most effective social media of any politician in the country” amounts to extraordinary bluster: Hurley has only 2,000 Twitter followers.

Whatever the future of PCCs, some of the first batch may use the position as a springboard to more prominent political positions. They are well placed to exploit anti-politics feeling and present themselves as mavericks distinct from the political class that runs Westminster. Hurley is eyeing up running for Mayor of London in 2016: “I rule nothing out.”

This post also appears on the Staggers, the New Statesman’s rolling politics blog.