By George Hollingbery
Thursday November 15th is shaping up to be a ‘Super Thursday’ in British politics. A mayoral election in Bristol, parliamentary by-elections in England and Wales and, perhaps most significantly, elections in the 41 police force areas in England and Wales outside London to elect the first police and crime commissioners (PCCs).
The public debate is gathering pace. But that debate is still revolving around the merits of the post. Now, it is certainly fascinating to contrast the benefits of a single, directly elected local champion with the drawbacks of a remote and anonymous police authority. I followed those debates closely as the police reform and social responsibility bill made its way through parliament in the months following the general election. But that debate was had two years ago when police and crime commissioners were still a possibility. Now police and crime commissioners are about to become a reality it is time we moved the debate on from questions of process and started to talk about what police and crime commissioners can do to deliver better policing and safer communities.
PCCs’ first concern will be to cut crime. Cutting crime means fewer victims and safer communities. PCCs will have a mandate from residents from right across their areas. To get elected they will need to engage with people from all backgrounds and from all areas and listen to their concerns about policing and crime. These experiences, and the network of contacts they will build up with local groups, will mean they are firmly rooted in the communities they serve. When commissioners sit down to write their local crime plans they will remember the older people who shared their experiences of anti-social behaviour, or the victim of a crime who told them about how frustrating it was trying to work their way through the criminal justice system.
The process of getting to know, and getting to be known in, a local area is one which MPs and councillors are familiar with. The constituency link is one of the great assets of our democracy. Many who object in principle to the democratic reform of policing which PCCs’ represent just don’t understand this. As a locally elected, democratically accountable police and criminal justice champion in an area, the PCC will also develop an important informal role as a trouble-shooter, standing-up for local people, making sure that services work in an effective, joined-up way. Who really thinks that police authorities do that today?
As a constituency MP I am hugely looking forward to working with the new Hampshire PCC from November. Having one, single, accountable figure holding Hampshire Police to account will allow me and my neighbouring MPs to deal with constituents’ concerns about crime and policing much more effectively and directly. It will be the same for councillors.
It isn’t just about policing – PCCs will also be crime commissioners. With nationally commissioned victims’ services the varying needs of local communities have counted for little. Commissioners, as local commissioners for the victims of crime, will ensure that the services provided are the best suited to their areas.
The victim of a mugging or the witness to a robbery is forced to navigate their way through the crooked byways of a criminal justice system which can be intimating and off-putting. PCCs will soon be there to join-up and humanise often impersonal and disconnected agencies.
The police service is never far from the headlines, locally or nationally. Individually PCCs will revolutionise police accountability in their own local areas. Anyone with a complaint or a compliment, a concern or a suggestion for improvement about policing or criminal justice in their area will now know who to go to. But nationally too, PCCs will provide an important new element of accountability which in the past we have lacked. Ask yourself if some of the long-running and notorious miscarriages of justice which have come to light in recent years would have taken so long to resolve if campaigning police and crime commissioners had been in place, subjecting themselves to the judgement of the people every four years.
For too long local police and crime policymaking in this country has been a remote enterprise, conducted by anonymous, unelected officials, for the benefit of the public certainly, but without their direct participation. Ordinary people – the family whose house is broken into, the community group whose premises are vandalized – could not contribute to setting local crime priorities or holding their police service to account. Many of those who continue to oppose PCCs continue to think that the public cannot really be trusted to play a part in that process. That is a view from another age.
The elections on November 15th will begin the most significant democratic reform of policing in our lifetimes. It will put the public and their concerns centre stage – and not a moment too soon.
George Hollingbery is MP for Meon Valley and parliamentary private secretary to home secretary Theresa May. Follow him on Twitter. Follow @George4MVMP
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