IF the size of the audience at a debate on the pros and cons of the soon to be elected Police and Crime Commissioners at the London School of Economics last night was anything to go by, turn-out will be around ten percent.
The fact it was held in London where PCCs will play no role may have also been a factor, but LSE’s Professor Tim Newburn, who chaired the debate, jokingly confirmed that the Conservative policy had certainly instigated a serious outbreak of apathy.
PCCs have been hotly debated and much derided since it was announced they would replace local police authorities – that are made up of local politicians, magistrates and ‘upstanding’ members of the public – in a bid to increase accountability and make policing more responsive to local needs.
Critics say they will be less representative of the community they serve, under pressure to make populist or politically influenced decisions and row back the operational independence of the police with PCCs hiring and firing chief constables.
Former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Ian Blair has been a strong critic of the policy and particularly on the effects on operational independence.
He said: “When you’re investigating the prime minister and a minister says ‘what the hell are you doing’, you can say I’m just doing my job, [but] how many times do you argue with the guy who can dismiss you at will?”
“Police authorities were not perfect … but they had a balanced view because they were independent. Is one locally elected politician better than a variety of people?” he asked.
Blair also expressed concern over the type of policing some candidates are advocating recounting one who called for a force of rat catchers, not a social service, but that ignored the reality of modern policing Janet Foster, a sociology lecturer at LSE, said.
“A lot of police work is nothing to do with crime. Looking after vulnerable people, people who’ve runaway from home – it’s a complex task and does act as a social service.
And, she said, while people do feel safer with more bobbies on the beat, referring to the regular calls for more visible policing, the evidence shows that that’s not necessarily the best way to tackle crime.
She also expressed concern over who was most likely to vote – those who are politically engaged – and thus be courted by candidates while the disengaged, who are most likely to come into contact with the police, will be ignored.
In a similar vein, she said, important but invisible crime such as rape or domestic violence could fall off the agenda with PCCs reacting to the latest headline: “What is newsworthy is what will count.”
However, Will Tanner, from the social policy think-tank Reform, believes the new PCCs will invigorate local policing through increased accountability to the communities they serve.
He said relations between police authorities and chief constables can become a little too cosy revealing that not a single chief constable had ever been sacked by a police authority.
“Police authorities are not fit for purpose”, he said, commissioners “will connect with the public and they will be under far greater scrutiny.”
However, he was unable to counter questions from Blair on effects to the operational independence of the police.
But Bob Ashworth, a Labour party member and former Avon and Somerset candidate, said their success or failure will ultimately come down to what the individual candidate was like as there were few safeguards to what he or she can do.
He said: “The power and budgets are immense. The fact that one person is responsible for such a big budget and huge area is going to be very difficult for one person.
“There are very few safeguards to limit what you can do.”
It was only Ashworth’s experience working with the Youth Offending Team and Youth Justice Board that made him feel he could make a positive impact on policing in the south-west, he said.
He sounded a worthy candidate; unfortunately he was barred from standing for a misdemeanour when he was 13.
* Police and Crime Commissioner elections will take place across the country on November 15th