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Electing the region's first police commissioner
9:22am Wednesday 18th April 2012 in Features
York and North Yorkshire go to the polls on November 15 this year to elect the region’s first police commissioner. But what powers will they have? And should politics and policing ever really mix? STEPHEN LEWIS reports.
PICTURE the scene. It’s November, 2012, just six months from now. The elections for North Yorkshire’s first police commissioner are hotting up. York and towns and villages across the county are plastered with campaign posters. “Vote Grahame Maxwell,” reads one.
Okay, that’s pure imagination. There is nothing to suggest that North Yorkshire’s chief constable would be interested in running for police commissioner once he steps down from his position in May. He has certainly given no indication that he is thinking of doing so. But the point is, there would be nothing to stop him. In South Yorkshire, former chief constable Meredydd Hughes has confirmed he would like to stand.
That’s the thing about the Coalition government’s big new idea on policing. We just don’t know who we will end up with as police commissioner. It could be a retired top copper; or someone with no experience or understanding of policing at all. It could even – whisper it quietly – in theory be a member of the BNP.
Most likely, however, it will be someone from one of the mainstream political parties – the Conservatives, Labour or the Lib Dems.
The new police commissioner, in short, is likely to be a politician; and that carries its own risks.
Mark Botham, of the North Yorkshire Police Federation, which represents rank-and-file police officers, admits he would prefer candidates to be non-political. Recent political scandals – over cash for questions, MPs expenses, and cash for access – have given politics a bad name, he says.
“Until such time as politics clears up its act and there is openness and transparency about the links (financial or otherwise) of all politicians with think tanks and the media and those bidding for increased private-sector involvement in policing, we have every right to be sceptical.”
Of course, the newly elected commissioner will not necessarily have to belong to a political party. It is open to almost anybody to stand (see panel). But with candidates likely to have to put up a £5,000 deposit and to demonstrate they have the support of at least 100 people, it will be difficult for anyone who is not part of a party organisation to throw their hat in the ring.
All of which matters, because the job of police commissioner will be a big one. It will carry a salary of £70,000, for a start, and whoever lands the job will be in a position to help shape the future of policing in the county.
The new police commissioners will not be chief constables. They won’t be in charge of the operational running of the police, either here in North Yorkshire or in any of the 40 other forces in England and Wales where they are to be elected.
But they will wield significant power and influence over the way our local police work.
The political rhetoric from the Cameron Government is all about how the new commissioners will make the police more accountable.
“The election of the first police and crime commissioners… will mark a step-change in how policing is held to account,” said Home Secretary Theresa May, in a ministerial statement last November. “Communities will be able to voice their local priorities to a single, directly elected individual.
“Police and crime commissioners will be powerful local representatives, able to set the priorities for the police force within their force area, respond to the needs and demands of their communities more effectively, ensure that local and national priorities are suitably funded by setting a budget and the local precept, and to hold to account the local chief constable for the delivery and performance of the force.”
It is clear from the Home Secretary’s statement that holding chief constables to account will be just part of the commissioner’s job.
They will hire or fire the chief constable (one of the first jobs of the new police commissioner for North Yorkshire will be to appoint a permanent chief constable: once Mr Maxwell steps down in May his deputy, Tim Madgwick, will hold the job on an acting base only until the police commissioner is elected); establish policing priorities for the region; and set the police budget. They will also have the power to decide how Home Office police grants should be spent.
Jim Kilmartin, a former chief superintendent with York police, accepts that there is a need for reform of the way in which the police are held to account. He doesn’t believe that the current 17-member police authority is up to the job. But he can foresee problems with the idea of an elected police commissioner, too.
One of the dangers is that we end up with an elected commissioner who is inexperienced in police matters, or who simply does not understand the difficulties of policing a county as large and diverse as North Yorkshire.
The policing needs of York are not the same as of Richmond or Scarborough, says Mr Kilmartin. It may take 18 months for the commissioner to grasp that: or worse, we might end up with a commissioner with ‘tunnel vision’, who can only see the needs of the area he or she is familiar with.
More generally, Mr Kilmartin says that the new commissioner will need real strength of character if he or she is to succeed in his or her job of holding the police to account.
One of the commissioner’s key roles, he believes, will be to ask questions: awkward questions, about why the police do things the way they do, about what action they are taking to solve a particular crime or spate of crimes, about how they intend to deliver on what most ordinary people say they expect of their police, which is simply to tackle crime so that they can live peacefully and safely.
They won’t find it easy to get answers, however, he says. Police forces are very good at not answering questions.
“The answers they get will be evasive. It is going to be a mammoth task.”
If the commissioner isn’t up to that, then it will be all too easy for the force to carry on doing things the way it has always done them, he believes.
If the commissioner is of the right calibre, however, he can see there being a real battle of wills between commissioner and chief constable over the way the force is run. “I can see some right battles.”
What most worries Mark Botham, however, is the uncertainty.
“It has all been rushed through,” he says. “What will be the outcome of all this? What do they want? What will we get? We don’t really know.”
So who can be a police commissioner?
CANDIDATES for police commissioner must be British, Commonwealth or EU citizens, aged 18 or over, who live in the police force area. Public servants – including civil servants, judges, police officers and members of the armed forces – cannot stand; and nor can anyone who has been convicted of an imprisonable offence.
The Press understands that candidates will be asked to put up a deposit of £5,000, which will be returned if they get at least five per cent of the vote; and that in order to stand, a candidate must have the support of at least 100 people.
People understood to have expressed an interest in North Yorkshire include Conservative county councillors Mike Jordan and Carl Les, and former deputy chief constable Peter Walker. Labour has also said they intend to field a candidate.
The vote will take place on November 15, and the new commissioner will take office a week later, on November 22.
To find out more visit homeoffice.gov.uk/police/police-crime-commissioners or email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
IN NORTH Yorkshire, the police force is at present held to account by a 17-member police authority. Nine of the members are county or city councillors, who were elected to their own local authorities and then nominated by them to sit on the police authority as well; and the remaining eight are appointees. None were directly elected to the police authority.
The new police commissioner will effectively replace this body, concentrating the powers they hold in a single, elected individual.
Jane Mowatt, of the Safer York Partnership, can see some benefits to that: the new system may, for example, offer opportunities to reduce bureaucracy, she admits. But does she really think it will be a change for the better? “It all comes down to who is elected.”
According to a Home Office document, the main responsibility of the Police and Crime Commissioners will be to “provide stronger and more transparent accountability of the police” and to make the police “answerable to the communities they serve”.
The commissioner will hire and, if necessary, fire the chief constable; set the budget and policing priorities; and ensure that policing is efficient and effective. Key responsibilities will include:
Issuing a police and crime plan, which sets out crime objectives and details the budget
Asking the public and victims of crime for their views on what should be police priorities
Making ‘crime and disorder grants’ (usually Home Office finding) to organisations (such as the Safer York Partnership) or individuals the commissioner believes can help reduce crime
Publishing information on police performance
• HANNAH BRYAN takes to the streets of York to find out what locals and visitors alike think of the idea of elected police commissioners
Mark West, market seller from Hebden Bridge: “I’ve not heard much about it, but I think it is a good idea that they are elected. If I knew more about it I’d definitely vote.”
James Pepperday from Northallerton: “I’ve seen John Prescott talking about it on Twitter a bit. I think it would be a good idea and I would probably vote in the elections in November but I don’t know much about it at the moment.”
Lilian Mills, retired, from York: “I think it’s a good idea as somebody needs to keep an eye on the police and what they are doing. I don’t know much about it yet, but I’m sure nearer the date of the election we will have more information and I’ll definitely vote.”
Steve O’Leary, a fireman from Wakefield: “They are getting rid of the frontline jobs that we need and making more jobs higher up – all it will do is create more paperwork. They are saving money by getting rid of frontline jobs, but then creating these jobs higher up. I don’t really agree with it at all.”
Edward Erswell, retired, from Kent: “I think it’s a brilliant idea and it’s about time somebody kept an eye on the police. I would definitely vote in the elections.”
Edna Russell, retired, from Sunderland: “I haven’t heard much about it but I think it sounds like a good idea. I would vote.”