Why did we vote for PCC?

Friday, 23 November, 2012

Why did we have a vote last week for a Suffolk Police Commissioner? What exactly will the new Commissioner do? Will it make any difference to anything?

As I was knocking on doors in Risbygate in Bury St. Edmunds the other Saturday morning, I was not only congratulated for voting against the bloated EU budget increases. I was also asked - very pointedly - the following: “Why are party politics being dragged in to the running of the Suffolk police?”

It’s a fair question.

I was Shadow Minister for Police Reform between 2007 and 2010 and so I know a fair bit about the issue. I predicted that electing Police Commissioners would be controversial.  

In the old system that the elected Commissioners replace, Suffolk Constabulary was overseen by the Suffolk Police Authority. It comprised seventeen members - councillors, magistrates and independent members. Mr Cameron believed Police Authorities were unrepresentative of Britain as a whole. He observed only nine per cent of Police Authority members were from minority ethnic backgrounds and only thirty per cent were women.

And, of course, none of the seventeen were directly voted into office by any of us. They were appointed; they were not directly elected.Their democratic legitimacy – who put them there? – was obviously questionable in some people’s eyes.

We certainly need an overseer of the police who can assist the force in improving its responsiveness. The police service, like all of us, has to raise its game in these austere economic times. That is to say, we all have to do more with less. All of us have to get much more efficient and more productive. The police are not exempt.

From my own personal experience as a Suffolk resident and council taxpayer, I found Suffolk police officers helpful and courteous in the case of the theft of my laptop and an attempted burglary at my Suffolk home.

But that is not always the experience of constituents who write to me. Nationally, only 56 per cent of the public say that the police do a good or excellent job.

If you want to ring up and complain it is not always the case that you will know the name of an officer or police staff member on the other end of the line. The former Policing Minister commented:

“Only 7 per cent of the public understand they can approach their police authority if dissatisfied with policing.”

In short, up till now it’s been unclear who you can complain to. Enter the new Commissioner. The election of Tim Passmore as the Suffolk Police and Crime Commissioner will make policing more open, more accountable, and more transparent.

He will oversee police budgets, set the Council Tax precept, and set police and crime priorities for Suffolk. The Commissioner also has a power to appoint or dismiss the chief constable.

The Commissioner will NOT take over the operationally independent running of the Suffolk police from police officers. But the Commissioner will look urgently at cutting the unnecessary bureaucracy that has been piled on the police - so that officers can spend more time on the beat and less time tied to a desk.

As well as being accountable to the public at the ballot box, the Commissioner will answer to a Police and Crime Panel, comprising representatives from each local authority plus independent members. The Panel will have the power of veto over excessive precepts and the appointment of chief constables if they disapprove of a Commissioners’ decision. These are vital and welcome “check and balances”.

The Panel can also demand that the Commissioner releases documents or summon the Commissioner for questioning if they feel it is necessary. The Commissioner can be held to account by the public at the next election in four years’ time. The Panel can hold the Commissioner to account month by month. So no Commissioner can abuse their position or get away with laziness.

You may still ask how this affects you. Well, say you live in the centre of Bury St. Edmunds and, three nights in a row, rowdy thugs make a real antisocial nuisance of themselves in your street but there are no police in sight.

Who can you call to ask for police to come to your area? Simple: Tim Passmore, the Suffolk Police Commissioner – the point of contact whose name you know and who will listen to your complaints.

Fear of crime is always with us. But Suffolk compared with the rest of the UK is well behaved in general. Last year Suffolk had an average of 61 crimes reported per thousand people. This figure is well below the highest in the country: the Metropolitan Police force area had an average of 102 crimes.

Last year per thousand people there were 7 burglaries, 10 incidences of violent crime and 55 anti-social behaviour incidences. In the same period in London per thousand people there were 12 burglaries, 13 incidences of violent crime and 60 antisocial behaviour incidences. Our neighbour Norfolk had more incidences of antisocial behaviour with 64 incidents for every thousand people.

But there is scope for the new Commissioner to get crime even lower. And scope to get more police officers visibly out on the beat.

The founder of modern policing, Sir Robert Peel, said nearly two hundred years ago that “the ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon the public approval of police actions”. If the Suffolk Commissioner doesn’t help to improve our local constabulary and communicate the priorities of the Suffolk public then the Commissioner can be voted out of office in four years’ time. The Commissioner is answerable to you, the voter, at the ballot box. That’s democracy. That’s people power. And it should all make for more responsive policing.