“No thanks, buy some police officers,” wrote one Bedfordshire voter on their ballot paper last week. Another elector tried to vote for “Humpty Dumpty”. A third wrote simply: “Spoilt Intentionally.”
This was typical of the Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections. And the voters who scrawled these messages – tweeted from the count by a BBC reporter – were in the minority, as most people didn’t even make it as far as the polling station.
When PCC elections were first held, on a grey day in November 2012, the outcome was so farcical that it prompted an Electoral Commission review. Asked to respond to polling figures showing a turnout of only 15 per cent nationwide, David Cameron said that the public would become more interested when the PCCs began their work.
In the years since we have read reports of misuse of expenses, sackings of chief constables, questionable staff recruitment, resignations, and the occasional example of good practice, but it is still too early to say if the public are any more interested in what these people do.
Each of the 40 police force areas that held elections last week saw an increased turnout compared to 2012. But warm, sunny weather surely helped – and most voters were also being asked to choose representatives for local councils or the Welsh Assembly.
This may also explain why candidates from established parties fared better. In 2012, 12 independent PCCs were elected; in 2016, only three were victorious.
Voter apathy was particularly noticeable in England, where only three police force areas – Merseyside, Northumbria and West Yorkshire – recorded turnout figures of 30 per cent or above. In the Durham, Cleveland and Leicestershire force areas, turnout was below 20 per cent. And we should not forget that many of the elected candidates had to rely on second-preference votes to get over the line, which is hardly a ringing endorsement.
Very little was spent on advertising the elections, and a survey published a week before polling day found that only one in 10 people could name their PCC.
All that could change, however, and these may yet prove to have been the most important elections that nobody cared about. Last week’s increased turnout probably makes it more likely that PCCs are here to stay, and it may even embolden ministers to grant them more powers in this parliament. This could be a mistake.
PCCs have already been given oversight of fire and rescue services. Extending their responsibilities into the areas of youth justice and court services, as has been mooted, is running before they can walk.
More concerning still are reports that Home Secretary Theresa May might wish to allow PCCs to set up free schools for ‘troubled children’, blurring the edges of police reform and education reform.
A more effective measure would be to ensure that PCCs continue to support the Howard League for Penal Reform’s campaign to reduce child arrests. The number of arrests has fallen by 54 per cent in the last four years, helping to keep as many children as possible out of the criminal justice system.
PCCs could also spend more time focusing more on the ‘and crime’ part of their job title. The chaotic privatisation of the probation service has left some excellent specialist services without funding and unable to support the people they work with. PCCs should step in and save these organisations, which reduce crime and help people turn their lives around. Funding the high-performing women’s centres that are at risk of closing would be a good place to start.
The PCC experiment has been in progress for less than four years, and it still needs time to bed in. Those citizens who turned out to vote last week did so to vote for someone to oversee policing and crime reduction in their local areas, not to set up schools or run the courts.
Tackling crime is an important task. Let us give PCCs the chance to learn their role and do it well before handing them extra responsibilities.
Rob Preece is Campaigns and Communications Manager at the Howard League for Penal Reform