Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections are now just weeks away and the Government advertising campaign has finally begun. It highlight the elections and their date but the advert inadequately describes the job and could sow further confusion.
The advert shows yobs committing criminal acts and says that the PCC will set local priorities but don't police chiefs do that already?
The campaign misses an opportunity to explain PCCs which are brand new posts, unique in the world as far as I can see, and whose holders carry much power and local cash.
We are not electing a chief constable or any kind of police officer but a high-vis public representative. Their main job is to consult the public in sometimes large police regions and then distil what they want from the police into a five year policing and crime plan to be agreed with the Chief Constable.
The idea is to bring the police and the public closer together by having somebody accountable for sculpting police priorities in a more tailored way. The PCC must then monitor and scrutinise delivery of the five year plan, again by contact with the public, to ensure that it works.
The PCC must manage the budget, receiving the Home Office element and fixing the council precept to make up the amount available. They appoint and can remove the Chief Constable. They are scrutinised and made accountable to a Police and Crime Panel, made up mainly of councillors seconded from the local authorities in the policing area, who have, in turn, powers to reject the budget and disagree with the appointment or removal of a Chief Constable.
The idea is clearly to democratise oversight of the police on behalf of local people. The idea reaches back to Peelian principles of the public being the police and vice versa and there is much to commend at least the notion of introducing a modern way of doing this. That is why it is particularly ironic that there has been so little explanation of the role and its significance. Given this, the turnout could be low.
Even less well known is that the role extends beyond the police and into crime reduction and community safety. Some of the cash that currently goes to local authorities for this work will be re-routed to the PCC as will the victim support grant from the Home Office. All ring-fencing will be removed and so policing will compete with all of these elements, a position that will require very careful prioritising by the PCC.
PCCs could be very influential over how criminal justice is delivered in the regions. The already existing PCC equivalent in London is already playing a key role in researching and implementing effective ways to prevent and reduce crime, as well as sharpening up enforcement.
This is also for Labour an opportunity to remove some power over local policing and crime from the Tory Government and put it into safe hands. Our policies such as neighbourhood policing have played a major role in cutting crime by the 43% it has fallen over the last decade.
We vigorously tackled violence against women, though there is still far to go but we can at least partly reverse local cuts to those resources by giving them priority.
Anti-social behaviour is a major bug-bear given that some officers are less responsive to what they see as low level nuisance rather than crime. This shows an incomplete understanding of the very undermining impact of repeat and targeted harassment on people who are usually victimised in or near their own homes.
Drug crime is the only kind currently on the increase and we have to back diversion and rehab to tackle demand whilst heavily sentencing professional suppliers and backing brave officers who work often in secret to block and disrupt supply.
Finally we must oppose privatising the police. Morale is extremely low amongst officers. The Tories seem to see them as at the last bastion of old fashioned trade union solidarity and are determined to break them by cutting pensions, lowering pay, bringing in Tesco-type management at command level and creeping privatisation.
Of great concern is the advertisement for civilian investigating officers put by the infamous G4S into a Warwickshire newspaper in August. Responsibilities include investigation, statement taking, preparing cases for the CPS and other duties currently done by police officers.
We do not want a frightened pensioner whose house is being pelted with stones or a victim of domestic violence phoning the police and getting G4S, on payment by result, low wages, short term contracts and obligations to company shareholders rather than the public.
PCCs will need experience of working with the public, of taking strategic decisions and have an understanding of the police but complete separation from their culture. They can encourage chief constables to give beat managers and patrol staff broader power to use their local knowledge to prevent crime rather than mopping up its consequences. That is a kind of independence for junior officers that should limit institutionalisation and militate against any modern day top-down Hillsborough type cover up too. These elections can bring new policing horizons and Labour should fight them keenly.
Vera Baird is the Labour candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner in Northumbria