POLITICS
04/07/2011 14:31 BST | Updated 02/09/2011 06:12 BST

Delay On Elected Police Commissioners Hurts Everyone - Except The Major Parties?

In May 2012 English and Welsh voters in 41 constabularies are due to go to the polls to elect Police and Crime Commissioners. But with the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill gutted by the Lords and unlikely to receive Royal Assent before the summer recess, the Home Office has now conceded that the Bill won’t become law until September at the earliest.

The delay has left the Electoral Commission casting fresh doubts on whether there is time to prepare for the elections at all. Local authorities, current Police Authorities, chief constables and potential candidates are still unsure what powers the new office will have, so managing the introduction of PCCs is set to become even more difficult once Parliament breaks for summer.

Elected PCCs will replace police authorities, which are appointed bodies of councillors, magistrates and others who oversee police spending and set local priorities. The government believes replacing these authorities with an elected person will rebuild public confidence in the police. Ministers also hope the increased pressure on chief constables will reduce bureaucracy.

But opponents are adamant that the elections will do more harm than good. "PCCs are the wrong reform at the wrong time," says Nathan Oley, head of press at the Association of Police Authorities. The APA claims the new commissioners replace a system "that has not been shown to be failing". They also argue elections could compromise the operating independence of the police, and add that it is an open question whether the new PCCs will be able to cooperate with their peers on regional or national crime once they are elected on primarily local issues.

Wherever you stand on the changes, the Home Office now concedes that the Bill will not pass by the summer recess. With the Lords not holding its third reading until July 19 it seems unlikely the Bill will become law before the autumn. A Home Office spokesperson committed only to "later in the year" when asked about the timeline for Royal Assent.

This delay is a concern for the Electoral Commission, which believes there might not be enough time for local authorities or candidates to prepare for the elections. In a briefing to Peers last week the Commission said that unless the basic regulatory principles of the elections are in place by July 19, it would be difficult for candidates, campaigners or local returning officers to start working towards the May deadline.

"Our concern lies with the impact that finalising the rules at a late stage will have on both campaigners and those administering the proposed Police and Crime Commissioner elections," the Electoral Commission said in its briefing.

Senior police officers are concerned that the more the Bill is delayed, the greater the risk the looming changes will affect public safety. Hugh Orde, president of The Association of Chief Police Officers, warned the ACPO summer conference on Monday that if the reforms were mismanaged they could “threaten the impartial model of policing that has existed for 180 years”.

Police Authorities also worry that the transition period to elected commissioners is looking increasingly difficult. "Time is skipping by," said Peter Williams, who is chairman of the Surrey Police Authority. "There is a huge amount of work to do with regard to staff and who owns them, assets and who owns them, dealing with all the legal transfers and paperwork that goes with it, and it would have been a help if it had been 12 months to do what is a huge huge task instead of perhaps 12 or 18 weeks."

The delay on PCCs also creates problems for candidates. Without the details on what the role will entail, some are finding it hard to commit to standing. Steve Waight - the current chair of Sussex Police Authority and a Conservative councillor - is still undecided. "When people ask 'are you going to throw your hat into the ring,' my response has been I don't know where the ring is to throw my hat into," he said. "I don't know what the process is. I'm not aware of anyone who knows what the process is. And it's becoming more of an issue day by day."

Candidates of all types, but particularly independents, will find it tough to gather the funds to run for office in areas such as West Midlands, which has more than 2.6 million people, or Sussex which has 1.5 million. And the longer the delay the more difficult it will become. Independents such as Ann Barnes, chair of Kent Police Authority, have already expressed fears that they will be priced out of the election.

Evidence is also mounting that the public don’t understand what elected commissioners will actually do once they’re elected. A recent study conducted with the help of Lancashire Police Authority showed that most members of the public would expect PCCs to take charge of local matters like low-level anti-social behaviour and even graffiti - neither of which will be in the PCCs' remit.

A process to inform the public should already be in place, Steve Waight argues. "The majority of the public really don't understand the roles and responsibilities of the police authority," said Steve Waight. "And currently there is no sign that any sort of information process is underway to do that."

It’s possible the delays with the Police Reform Bill could leave only the major parties in a strong enough position to fight the elections when they finally come next spring. The major parties will be able to mobilise their campaigning machines quickest, fund the elections with least difficulty and manage the technical and legal hurdles with greatest ease. Each of the three major parties are currently remaining quiet on their plans for PCCs, with perhaps the Lib Dems privately the most pessimistic on their chances.

Alternatively it might be that independent candidates will always struggle to match the parties when it comes to funding, delay or no delay. "One can't really envisage a scenario in which independent candidates are going to be raising huge quantities of money anyway... I'm not sure it will be exacerbated by the time delay," said Dale Bassett, research director at the think-tank Reform. "The reality is these delays mean we might not be having the elections in 2012 anyway, in which case there isn't an advantage or a disadvantage."

The delay on PCCs is increasingly dangerous for the government. If the Lords don't back down the Home Office will have to offer further concessions to those announced last week, or else face the prospect of delaying the elections for another twelve months. That would mean the commissioners being in place for less than two years before the General Election in 2015.

A Home Office spokesperson said: "We will deliver Police and Crime Commissioners, which will give local people more say in how their community is policed and replace invisible, ineffective and bureaucratic police authorities... We expect the Bill which will deliver PCCs to receive Royal Assent later this year and the elections to be held throughout England and Wales in May next year.”