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Police and Crime Commissioners – a solution or a problem?

Matthew Chatfield

There is a crisis of confidence in the way this country is policed. Not just the details – for example in the way policing is funded, or the laws which our police are bound to enforce – but the fundamental way in which policing is organised and linked to the communities it serves. The head of the police inspectorate in England and Wales said earlier this year: “Public trust in the police is hanging by a thread.”

This was a challenge that was recognised back in 2012, when police services in England and Wales were put directly under the charge of elected politicians: Police and Crime Commissioners. A decade later and that radical shakeup has been a worrying failure. Is it time to wrap up this divisive political stunt and find a better way to deliver community accountability?

The diagnosis was correct, though. Few would argue that the old police authorities were a good way to oversee police services. Too much power came directly from the Home Secretary, who had a strategic input into policing that overruled local concerns. But the treatment was not effective, nor has it got better with time. It appears we do not want more politicians, but we do still demand more accountability from our police services.

Despite this need, the commissioners, as politicians, have had little impact. Can you name our current commissioner? Do you know which party they represent, or what policies they follow? A straw poll amongst my family and friends gained zero positive replies. That’s not to suggest that the Commissioners’ work is worthless – only that it might be better performed by a professional and not a politician. Politicians can be controversial. As early as 2013 the Home Affairs Select Committee identified five commissioners who appointed political contacts onto their staff on salaries of up to £70,000. Two commissioners have resigned following allegations of inappropriate behaviour. By having a politician in charge who nobody knows or engages with, we have the worst of both worlds: a politicised police leadership without the corresponding community engagement.

In 2012, there was widespread criticism that the change was not necessary or supported. The first election of commissioners had such a low turnout at 15% that the Electoral Commission launched an investigation into it. Even two elections later and turnout in 2021 was only 34%. For comparison, in the 2019 general election turnout was 67%. Running an election is not cheap – government figures suggest the 2016 Police and Crime Commissioners’ elections cost £49.6 million. Money that might otherwise have been spent on policing.

Overall, the Police and Crime Commissioners have been an expensive experiment which did not deliver enough results. The concept has had time to bed in, but the prospect of American-style elected officials deciding our police priorities has gained little support, even after ten years. With another general election coming along, I sincerely hope we will see proposals from all parties to undo this unnecessary and costly political conceit.

Matthew Chatfield

Uncooperative crusty. Unofficial Isle of Wight cultural ambassador. Conservation, countryside and the environment, with extra stuff about spiders.

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