This week is a first in UK politics – the first time we will see the election system being used in areas outside the local, national and European governments.
We will go to the ballot box on Thursday 15th November 2013 and this time, it is for the election of the UK Police and Crime Commissioners. The commissioners will work closely with the 41 UK Chief Constables to direct and decide strategic issues relating to policing in their areas.
Who are those seeking to be elected as police and crime commissioners? Across the UK, many of those seeking election are retired politicians from the leading parties and a number have political party associations. It is only a minority who are ‘community’ or ‘independent’ individuals who have not been involved in politics before.
UK residents have had their ballot papers, some publicity has been distributed by the hopeful commissioners and it seems that ‘let the election begin’.
Before Thursday, let us reflect on a number of key issues:
1. Do we need police commissioners? What is the nature of the evidence that we do? What will happen if the commissioner pushes forward on issues that matter to the community and this conflicts with professional advice? The classic capital punishment issue springs to mind.
2. What about accountability? Will this be enhanced with the election of the commissioner? One would certainly expect that the commissioner would be more visible for the community than the police authority system it replaces (the sheer matter of turning up to vote might create this, thus enhancing public accountability, but what about other types of accountability including professional and market forms? What about the commissioner who drives strategic issues on the basis of electoral popularity? We might see a greater focus of policing on our streets and visibility overall but what about the ‘back office’ and national strategies? Can one police force really go off in the pursuit of electoral popularity?
3. What about devolved public services in Wales and Scotland and the new commissioners? Policing is not a devolved matter – however, the commissioners in the devolved areas will relate extensively to the elected bodies there. Will this put pressure on the extension of devolution?
4. Finally, where will it all end? Police today, fire, social services, education and other public services tomorrow. Where will it all end? Commissioners in all public services? How many elections will this involve? Will the different commissioners work together? What would this do for collaborative public services?
When we turn out to vote on Thursday, if indeed we do, think about the significance of this as a first and keep an eye on what happens next…
Professor Catherine Farrell