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Why elected Police Commissioners will be less democratic and accountable

May 31, 2012 11:11 AM
By David Hennigan in Liberal Democrat Voice
Originally published by East Midlands Liberal Democrats

Firstly, let me declare an interest. I am against elected Police and Crime Commissioners. I see them as a step backwards, allowing personality politics at the top of our police forces. It was in the Coalition Agreement though, so you would think the Liberal Democrats would be taking their strong message about tackling crime to the country.

On November 15th, we see the first ever Police and Crime Commissioner Elections in England and Wales. London has already plumped for Boris, who will take on this remit as Mayor of London. Let's just say that the lack of interest in these elections is startling but unsurprising. Exactly a year out from these elections, on November 15th, 2011, I wrote a piece for this website setting out why I felt that the Lib Dem attitude to fighting these elections was 'baffling. Six months down the line, we have seen little or no progress. This is the biggest reorganisation at the top of our police forces and the Liberal Democrats have seemingly adopted the position of bystanders.

Meanwhile, Labour who were initially against Police and Crime Commissioners are approaching these elections with gusto. Figures like former Deputy Prime Minister Lord Prescott (Humberside), Jane Kennedy (Merseyside), Vera Baird (Northumbria) and Alun Michael (South Wales) are all tipped to make a comeback to public life. According to the Police Federation, in the 44 Police Authorities who will be holding elections, they are only aware of 8 'interested' Liberal Democrat candidates. I am happy to be corrected if there are any other areas planning to put up a fight. Of these, few confirm more than a passing interest and the name Lembit Opik crops up in Northumbria with the comments - "Liberal Democrats have hatched …a plan to bring in Lembit Opik as their candidate." I like Lembit but I will believe that when I see it.

Prime Minister David Cameron recently wrote a column for my local paper - the Manchester Evening News. In his article, he proves wildly out of touch saying that:

"We're scrapping unelected and invisible police authorities whose duties hardly anyone understands and for the first time you'll be able to vote directly for a powerful new local champion instead - a police and crime commissioner".

For the life of me, I couldn't understand his point. It is simply not true to say Police Authorities are 'unelected'. Take Greater Manchester Police Authority for example, the bulk of which is made up of elected members. Every Council democratically sends one member and they vote for the leader. I would argue that with all the power in one person's hands, our Police will be become less democratic and less accountable.

Then there is the cost - A question in the House of Lords by Chris Rennard revealed that the cost of holding these elections in times of extreme austerity was an astonishing £75 million. That's £75 million for an election that no one asked for. The cost for taxpayers in Manchester will be higher, after Tony Lloyd MP announced he was standing down from his Manchester Central Parliamentary seat to fight these elections. This by-election in November will cost many thousands to run. I look forward to Mr Lloyd trying to justify Labour's 'criminal' record over 13 disastrous years.

Further in his piece for the Manchester Evening News, Mr Cameron makes a plea for more candidates to stand - '…this is a time for great candidates to come forward' he says. Well yes, if you've got the £5000 it costs to enter the race. Turnout is set to be dreadfully low, especially in the light of the decision not to allow candidates a freepost address. According the Electoral Commission, this will disenfranchise up to 7 million people without access to the internet and put independent candidates at a distinct disadvantage to the major political parties. Is this what we call democracy?

The whole Police Commissioner elections has been a farce right from the start.. While we cannot change the fact that these elections are happening, our Parliamentarians can ensure that the process is as fair as possible. Our Federal Executive and other party bosses can get their act together to ensure that the Liberal Democrats play a part in the debate about the future of policing.