We can now elect police officers: but will anyone bother?

Let’s not waste this opportunity.

It is now less than a month until the first police and crime commissioners are elected across the country. The policing minister Damien Green has described this as “the most significant democratic reform of policing in our lifetime”, and yet there is a real danger that hardly anybody, especially young people like me, will turn out to vote. Indeed, yesterday saw former Metropolitan Police Chief Sir Ian Blair urge us to boycott the election, telling Sky News “I actually hope people don’t vote because that is the only way we are going to stop this”.

Sir Ian is wrong: the Home Secretary has repeatedly stated that the elections will be legitimate whatever the turnout. The reforms are going ahead. However, there is a real danger that he will get at least part of his wish. The Electoral Reform Society recently estimated that only 18.5 per cent of the electorate will brave the November chill and head to the polls. Surveys suggest that 82 per cent don’t know who their candidates are, and the figures are probably even higher for us traditionally apathetic young people. An informal poll of friends in my home constituency of Essex drew nothing but blank expressions, and polite but uninterested questions as to what a ‘police and crime commissioner’ actually was.

This is a concern, because we are precisely the age group that should be paying the most attention to the election of PCCs. As research by the Transition to Adulthood Alliance shows, young people (16-24) are disproportionately likely to come into contact with the police, and are massively overrepresented in the criminal justice system – we make up 10 per cent of the population but one-third of those commencing a community sentence, one-third on the probation caseload and almost one-third of those sentenced to prison each year. We are also the most likely age group to be a victim of crime; 31.8 per cent of young people were victims of a crime in 2011.

The decisions PCCs will make will therefore have a disproportionate impact on us. The introduction of PCCs, however, also provides us with a huge opportunity to have our voices heard directly. PCCs have a duty to engage with the whole community, and hold the local chief constable to account on their behalf. They can set strategic priorities, and shine a light on poor practice in policing locally. This election is a chance to raise those issues around policing and crime that matter most to young people.

Despite the apathy about PCC elections, many young people have strong feelings towards the police, whether this is to do with the policing of protests or feeling marginalized and bullied by the police presence in their community. Young people involved in the riots, interviewed as part of the Guardian and LSE report, commonly cited anger at the police as a cause of their behaviour.  

Stop and search is one such issue highlighted in the riots report. These powers were used more than a million times by police in 2009/10, with a crime detection rate of just 9 per cent. We are more likely than any other age group to be stopped, while it is well known that black and ethnic minority groups in particular are disproportionately stopped. Organizations such as StopWatch are already lobbying candidates on these issues, and young people should take this opportunity, and use their vote, to push for a change in the way we are policed.

Other issues that are likely to have a disproportionate effect on young people are already being discussed. Candidates are issuing their manifestos and taking to social media to share their thoughts on issues such as zero-tolerance policing, anti-social behaviour and the policing of town centres at night. Candidates are already talking about us, even if we are largely not listening yet. Last year’s riots, as well as pervading negative perceptions of young people as "yobs" and "hoodies", make us a hot topic for some PCCs, particularly those who want to sound "tough on crime".

A boycott will not change these perceptions. It is vital that we do not let this national conversation on policing and crime become yet another case of politicians talking about us, but not with us. Young people need to grasp this opportunity to engage, register and vote, and get involved – move the debate beyond its current stale focus on turnout and implementation and have a say in how we are policed. Let’s not waste this opportunity.

The old days are over: a policeman in 1913. Photograph: Getty Images

Shane Britton is the research and policy officer of youth charity Revolving Doors.

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Women's bodies should not be bargaining chips for the Tories and the DUP

Women in Northern Ireland have been told for too long that the Good Friday Agreement is too fragile to withstand debates about their reproductive rights

When Members of Parliament are asked to pass laws relating to when and whether women can terminate their pregnancies, women’s rights are rarely the focus of that decision-making process. You need only look at the way in which these votes are traditionally presented by party leaders and chief whips as “a matter of conscience” - the ultimate get-out for any MP who thinks their own value or belief system should get priority over women’s ability to have control over their bodies.

Today’s vote is no different. The excellent amendment that Labour MP Stella Creasy has put before the house reveals not just the inequalities experienced by women in different parts of the UK when it comes to being able to make decisions about their health, but also the latest layers of subterfuge and politicking around abortion. 

Creasy’s amendment seeks access to the NHS for women who travel to England and Wales from Northern Ireland seeking abortion. Right now women in Northern Ireland are pretty much denied abortion by legislative criteria that limits it to cases that will "preserve the life of the mother" - (that’s preserving, not prioritising) - and pregnancies under nine weeks and four days. Rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality are not included as grounds for termination. The thousands of women who thus travel to England are refused free abortions on the NHS - confirmed by a recent Supreme Court ruling - on the grounds that this is a devolved matter for Northern Ireland. 

The idea behind devolution is that power should be more evenly and fairly distributed. It is not intended to deprive people of rights but to ensure rights. In refusing to exercise the powers available to him, Health secretary Jeremy Hunt is rightly acknowledging a difficult history of power imbalance between Westminster and Stormont, but he is also ignoring a wider imbalance of power, between men and women.  

There is so very much wrong with this arrangement. But a further wrong could be done if, as reports suggest, the Conservative Party whips its MPs to vote the amendment down in order to protect the regressive alliance with the anti-abortion Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that is keeping their fragile minority government in power.

Instead of taking this opportunity to respond to the demands of women of Northern Ireland, this government is setting out the parameters of its complicity in refusing to listen to them. 

It is not the first time. In 2008 it was reported that the Labour party struck a deal with the DUP to leave Northern Ireland’s abortion laws intact, in exchange for their support over detaining terror suspects without charge for 42 days. Labour said at the time that it was concerned about the impact on existing UK abortion laws if the debate was opened.

But not one woman has equality until all women have equality. Women’s bodies are not chips to be bargained and we should not be bargaining for one group of women’s rights by surrendering the rights of another group. The UK parliament has responsibility for ensuring human rights in every part of the UK. Those include the rights of Northern Irish women.

It’s time to wake up. It’s time to stop playing politics with women’s lives. Women in Northern Ireland have been told for too long that the Good Friday Agreement is too fragile to withstand debates about their reproductive rights – a fragility that was dismissed by the Conservatives as they drew up a deal with one side of the power-sharing arrangement.

It’s time to confront the fact that nowhere in the United Kingdom – taking Northern Ireland as a starting point rather than an end in itself – do women enjoy free and legal access to abortion. Even the UK’s 1967 act is only a loophole that allows women to seek the approval of two doctors to circumvent an older law criminalising any woman who goes ahead with an abortion.

As long as our rights are subject to the approval of doctors, to technological developments, to decisions made in a parliament where men outnumber women by two to one, to public opinion polls, to peace agreements that prioritise one set of human rights over another – well, then they are not rights at all.

The Women’s Equality Party considers any attempt to curtail women’s reproductive rights an act of violence against them. This week in Northern Ireland we are meeting and listening to women’s organisations, led by our Belfast branch, to agree strategy for the first part of a much wider battle. It is time to write reproductive rights into the laws of every country. We have to be uncompromising in our demands for full rights and access to abortion in every part of the UK; for the choice of every woman to be realised.

Sophie Walker is leader of the Women's Equality Party.

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