By Bella Sankey
Many people don't know it – and possibly even fewer care – but in three months, the second cohort of police and crime commissioners (PCCs) will have been elected. The first elections in November 2012 attracted a turnout of just 15% – the lowest ever at a peacetime non-local government election in the UK.
Which is perhaps why the home secretary’s recent speech about the future of PCCs scarcely made a ripple – despite unveiling a catalogue of new powers so absurd they wouldn't look out of place in The Thick of It.
"I believe the next set of PCCs should bring together the two great reforms of the last parliament – police reform and school reform – to work with and possibly set up alternative provision free schools to support troubled children and prevent them falling into a life of crime," she told an audience at the Policy Exchange think-tank.
With a line surely straight from Armando Iannucci, Theresa May handed those charged with overseeing policing control over the education of children.
It's worth remembering PCCs are not required to be politically neutral, in fact many are politicians – disturbing enough when you think they’re directly responsible for hiring and firing police constables and setting force budgets and objectives, but worse still when you consider them having responsibility for some of society’s most vulnerable young people. It would be funny – if this wasn't a speech from one of our most senior government ministers.
As with so much of Theresa May's PCC project, the Home Office has presented no evidence whatsoever to justify this is latest experiment. On the surface, police-run schools sound like a throwback to Michael Gove's failed plan to fast-track training of ex-army teachers, both are likely to please fans of old-fashioned military discipline, but have little grounding in solid research.
In practice, these ill thought-through plans risk estranging troubled children further, fast-tracking them into the criminal justice system, rather than into the safe, stable environments they need.
In a largely evidence-free speech, May did cite Northamptonshire PCC Adam Simmonds, an unusual example to put forward, given that an investigation into his conduct was launched by the IPCC in 2015 over alleged misconduct in a public office.
Simmonds was the inspiration for a school that will offer crime science as a specialism and will work closely with police and fire services. Perhaps the home secretary should see how this school fares before rolling the idea out across the country.
PCCs are also set to gain more powers, but not until after the May elections, meaning voters will be left in the dark about what exactly they are electing them for.
If 2012's turnout and polling which suggested more than a third of people have no idea whether they even have a PCC, is anything to go by, the public appetite for powerful PCCs is non-existent.
By rooting police accountability at the ballot box, ministers are politicising policing. And by giving PCCs ever greater powers to try and justify their creation, the government risks making a questionable social experiment much worse. Police impartiality is as fundamental to the rule of law as the courts' neutrality and the judiciary's independence. It allows everyone to feel protected regardless of race, religion, class or politics. Police authorities maintained this independence and were made up of a representative cross section of the communities they served. They were democratic - incorporating local councillors – and were required to represent the views of a wide range of people in the area, including people with relevant skills, knowledge or experience, to promote diversity in the force and authority. By contrast, PCCs are overwhelmingly white and male.
Like so much coming out of the Home Office recently, Theresa May's determination not only to push on with her PCC project despite its "mixed" record, but to extend their powers into our children's lives and beyond is based on flawed ideology, rhetoric, point-scoring, and worryingly little evidence. Her plans appear to be an attempt to justify the existence of a politicised and unrepresentative role. Instead of distracting from PCC failings, the government should set about reviewing their performance so far.
Bella Sankey is the director of policy at Liberty.
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