The voice of the majority is no proof of justice
In less than one month, on November 15th, elections are being held for Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC). Not that you would know, given the nearly complete lack of publicity it has received. It doesn’t bode well for turnout numbers.
Ever since the Tories introduced the PCC concept, I’ve struggled with the purpose of it, or what benefits the average citizen would see against what the current commissioning structure provides. Will it usher in smarter budgets at a time of austerity, a louder voice for citizens, a better democracy, or will we be saddled with concentrated power, a draconian knee-jerk justice system or whacky pet projects?
Early on in the push for PCCs, some candidates withdrew from the process due to the punitive nature of the qualifying rules relating to the criminal records of candidates. A PCC candidate can’t stand if they have a past criminal record, even if those crimes were committed as a juvenile. Many were from petty crimes from many years ago, some committed as children, some as a result of circumstances and lifestyles which the candidates left behind long ago. People have been held back from engaging in a democratic process over long forgotten crimes. Not a good start for democracy.
It’s no surprise that the deposit for standing, a whopping £5,000, has put many people off standing a a candidate. Raising the money, and then being willing to risk losing it on an electoral gamble is a barrier that most people wouldn’t be able to breach. Labour have a clear advantage in the PCC funding stakes as the party will centrally fund candidates. Tory candidates are expected to raise their funds themselves from local party donors. Independents will have to find the money themselves, or enjoy the benevolence of a generous backer.
Add to that £5,000 deposit, any candidate who is serious about being elected needs to have funding for any kind of effective publicity. Just hoping someone will vote for you without any kind of campaign or media exposure almost guarantees electoral ambivalence.
Most of the candidates who will end up with their names on the ballot paper will come from party political backgrounds. That means they come from the same networks, the same social groups. Those connections give an access to business people, local government bureaucrats and politicians; an advantageous level of access to people and information that those on the outside of the political hot-house could only dream of. In addition, there is a support network for advice, marketing, press relations, even an army of feet on the high streets handing out leaflets and callers on the end of promotional phone lines. The result: political power will be further concentrated into existing party groupings.
Spent and forgotten crimes, a costly deposit, a lack of media exposure, no support network and the difficulty of breaking through a rigid political structure aren’t the best ingredients for an open democracy.
The new role, and the nature of it being subject to that next election in a few years time, could also present risks to existing structures and initiatives, where hunting the populist vote may mean less popular or complex and difficult to describe projects could be dropped in favour of policies designed to put sound bites before efficacy. As we saw with the Prof David Nutt episode, the electorally pragmatic temptation for politicians to put votes before evidence and facts can be just too tempting.
Drug treatment, youth crime reduction and offender rehabilitation schemes could all fall under the knife of a commissioner desperate to satiate the hang-em and flog-em blood lust of the daily mail commentariat. Such initiatives could face mortal cuts, funnelling money from prevention schemes to commission more visible policies, or even pie-in-sky headline grabbers (like Rangers) with an eye on the next election.
And once a PCC is in, they’re in. If they perform poorly, do something stupid or wrong, the electorate are stuck with them until the next election. Only the Secretary of State can remove them from post.
The goal should be the improvement of police services and crime prevention; lower crime rates and safer communities, and a police force that considers itself part of the community, rather than above it.
The Police and Crime Commissioners initiative risks making justice even more remote from the citizenry, locking decision making on budgets and commissioning into yet another cycle of political electioneering, and creating another professional political cadre detached from the realities of crime and justice and the concerns of the average citizen on the streets.