What’s the test of success of the Police & Crime Commissioners policy? It is, surely, whether the 41 individuals who will be elected tomorrow succeed in cutting crime and antisocial behaviour, and rebuilding public confidence in policing. This is not, however, the test which the BBC – and others – intend to apply. Their correspondent Danny Shaw told the Today Programme this morning that ‘the initial verdict on the success of the PCC experiment will hinge to a large degree on the turnout ….’
Setting aside the throwaway line that giving people a vote is an ‘experiment’, this is surely a deeply contentious comment. Who, you might say, are the poll-tax raising and entirely unaccountable BBC to deliver a ‘verdict’ about legitimacy? Their reporters never stop asking ministers to declare what the threshold for a successful election is, on the assumption that there must be one. Well, what’s the BBC’s? What proportion of the vote permits them to declare any election a failure? Because Parliament didn’t set one.
Hilary Benn was elected to the Commons in a by-election on a turnout of less than 20 per cent. Was he declared to have no standing as an MP? What about the councils that rule with a fraction of the votes of their local electorate? And forgive me if I’ve missed it, but when did the BBC ever question the legitimacy of MEPs (turnout in 1999, 23 per cent), never mind the European Commission? Yes, declining voter engagement in all elections is a real issue. But as the former President of the Association of Chief Police Officers, Ken Jones, said on Monday, this is a bigger question, a trend which PCC elections can hardly be expected to buck.
As Policing Minister I spent two and a half years or more listening to the invented horrors that this democratic reform would bring. The BNP would be elected (they haven’t even fielded a candidate). Independent candidates wouldn’t stand (they did, and some have a chance of being elected). Chief constables would resign en masse (not yet). PCCs might focus on issues of public concern to the detriment of policing (perish the thought).
A few weeks ago, I attended a regular meeting between West Sussex MPs and council leaders. One of my colleagues was bemoaning the lack of effective action – including by the police – to deal with travellers invading land and making the lives of the community a misery. Even a meeting with the chief constable had produced no action. We all nodded our heads and wondered what we could do about it. And then someone said: ‘Of course, after 15th November, we’ll have someone to sort this out.’
Indeed we will. Our Conservative PCC Candidate in Sussex knows there’s a problem. She’s surveyed residents and it’s one of the things they told her. Last Saturday, she visited one of the communities affected. ‘The law abiding who play by the rules are being let down,’ she said. One resident told me that if only a PCC had been in office, the community would have known who to go to in the first place.
The PCCs elected tomorrow might not be the celebrities the media wanted. Not all can be former four star generals or deputy prime ministers. But they will hold office by will of the people, not the patronage of politicians or the wisdom of an appointments commission. They will speak for the public. That’s why those commentators who recoil at any suggestion that the public might be right on crime dislike Police & Crime Commissioners so much, and it’s also why this reform will endure.
Nick Herbert is the Conservative MP for Arundel and South Downs and a former Policing Minister.