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25 October 2012

Vote for police and crime commissioners

Vote for police and crime commissioners

In a couple of weeks elections will take place to choose who oversees the police forces in all of England and Wales except London.

On 15 November the first elections for police and crime commissioners will take place to elect an individual who will replace the current police authorities in 41 areas. However, despite being a flagship part of the Conservative's 2010 general election manifesto and introduced by the coalition government, the elections have failed to capture the public's imagination and there are fears that the low profile could lead to a very low turnout.

The police and crime commissioners will set the strategic priorities for the police force, agree the budget and will have the power to recruit or dismiss the chief constable. In a similar way to the local councillors who currently have these powers through the local police authorities, the new commissioners will not take day-to-day decisions about police operations.

Most of the candidates standing for election are part of the main political parties, but a significant number, 28 per cent, are independent. Only 17 per cent of the candidates are women. The Labour party opposed the plans when discussed and approved by parliament but are fielding a full slate of candidates for the role including MPs Tony Lloyd and Alun Michael who have stood down from parliament this week to fight the elections. Former deputy prime minister, John Prescott and Labour minister Vera Baird are also standing for the posts.

Further controversy has surrounded the elections after senior figures criticised the plans, and in particular the likelihood of a low turn out. Former Metropolitan police chief, Lord Ian Blair, said people should boycott the elections to stop them going ahead. This was because he felt they had too large an area to control. Chris Grayling, justice secretary, hit back saying: "Nobody should ever look at a democratic election as something they should not take part in. We should not have a former senior police officer making a silly comment like that."

The former chief constable of Thames Valley Police, Peter Neyroud criticised the organisation of the elections and warned of a low turnout: "If you could have constructed a manual on how not to conduct an election, the Home Office have managed to tick off just about every element of it."

The government have attempted to stir interest in the elections by running prime time adverts in response to warnings from the Electoral Reform Society that turn out could be as low as 18.5 per cent. Adverts were run in the middle of high profile programmes such as Downton Abbey and leaflets with information about the elections are being sent to 21 million householders.

While the purpose of the elected roles is to increase democratic oversight of the police force, there are fears it could create further disillusionment with both the police and elections. The constituencies are so large that local independent candidates with links to their community are unable to afford a campaign across the whole area, and in several locations have pulled out. A further problem has arisen because some candidates including Falkland's veteran Simon Weston have been barred because of long since spent convictions.

Most of the competition for the roles has come from the traditional political parties, often inspired to put energy into the race because they don't wish to see their opponents gain power. While it may be an imperfect election with a low level of public interest, any roles up for election should be taken seriously and as an important opportunity to have a say in how key services are run and delivered.

   Photo credit: West Midlands Police via Creative Commons