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Police and Crime Commissioners

Volume 543: debated on Wednesday 25 April 2012

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Francois.)

We on this side of the House were not in favour of the introduction of police and crime commissioners, but Parliament agreed that they should be introduced and the first elections will be held on 15 November. It is imperative that, in the run-up to the elections, every effort should be made to familiarise the electorate with the role of PCCs, with the candidates and with the electoral system that will be used—namely, the supplementary vote.

Members will recall that the elections for PCCs were originally planned for May this year, but the Government decided to delay them until November. The Home Secretary explained to the House that more time was needed before the elections to ensure that the general public were aware of the role of commissioners and of who would be standing for election in their local area. All well and good, we might think, but here we are, less than seven months before the elections, and as far as I can tell, the Government are making painfully slow progress towards deciding what measures will be put in place to facilitate them. It is vital that such measures be put in place as soon as is humanly possible, to ensure that the elections are part of the democratic process.

It is a well established principle that all the necessary secondary legislation should be in place at least six months before a poll. We are moving close to 15 May, so will the Government make a firm commitment that the necessary secondary legislation will be in place by that date?

Order. May I say gently to the right hon. Gentleman that it is not customary or desirable for Members to intervene from the Front Bench in these Adjournment debates? I gave an indication in response to a point of order yesterday of the distinction between an intervention and a speech in other people’s Adjournment debates, but that ruling referred to Back Benchers. This is a very unusual practice, and the right hon. Gentleman is not normally given to unusual practices, as far as I am aware.

That is absolutely correct, Mr Speaker. My right hon. Friend is not known for unusual practices in any shape or form. I think that he was about to make a fair point, however. It is strange that the Minister who is to respond to the debate is not from the Home Office, when it is the Home Office that has responsibility for the matter under consideration. Instead, we have a Minister from the Cabinet Office. Perhaps he will explain the reason for this when he responds to the debate.

The Minister—although he is from the Cabinet Office—will be aware that genuine concern has been expressed by Members in this House and the other place that the Government do not intend to have a publicly funded mailing or booklet distributed locally, giving details of the candidates standing in the elections for police and crime commissioners. Like the Electoral Commission, I believe that the Government have failed to recognise the importance of such material.

The Government’s assertion is that there will be a central website on which all our constituents can readily access information about the candidates. Has the hon. Gentleman examined the difficulties that that could pose, certainly for my constituents in Ceredigion and across the Dyfed-Powys area who have no internet provision?

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, and I agree with him completely. In the last Government, I was, among other things, the deputy Minister with responsibility for digital inclusion. I know only too well that some 7 million adults in England—excluding London—and Wales do not have internet access and have not used the internet at all in the past 12 months. Sadly, those people will not have the same access to information as those individuals who have digital computer access. The hon. Gentleman is correct to say that it is people in rural areas and the elderly who will be disadvantaged, as they will not have the same access to the kind of information that I believe they should have.

Does my hon. Friend agree that having a website is not bad in itself, but that it is a radical departure from how we usually run elections, particularly when the elections are new and are taking place at a different time of year under an unfamiliar voting system?

Yes, my hon. Friend makes entirely valid points. Nobody is against having a Home Office website with information about the candidates, but that must be as well as, not instead of, other forms of information. I think that the Government have made a mistake here.

The Government have, albeit wrongly, set their face against this proposal, so in the brief time available, I will not go over old arguments. Instead, I want to focus on a number of areas in respect of which I hope the Government will listen and improve their draft legislation. Before I go on to those points, I would like the Government to assure us that the website will be accessible to all and that the information on it will be provided in minority languages. In particular, as a Welshman, I would hope that a Welsh language version of the website will be available and that Welsh language speakers will be available for the helpline. Perhaps the Minister can provide information about that. I also hope that the information will be provided in alternative formats—in Braille or in large print, for example. I shall now move on to focus on other areas where the Government could improve their draft legislation.

Does the hon. Gentleman feel that the election of a police or crime commissioner should be based not on popularity alone, but on experience, ability and years of service? Does he have any thoughts on how that could be brought into the process in such a way that the bright person gets the job because they have the ability to do it well?

I think it is important that the electorate know what the position involves and the job entails, as well as the qualities of the individuals being put forward. I am a democrat; I have faith in the electorate to make the appropriate decisions, provided, of course, that they have been given the appropriate information on which to base their decisions. That is why I believe this debate is so important.

To return to the specifics of the draft legislation, under the Government’s plans, police area returning officers—PAROs for short—will accept or reject material from candidates standing for election on 15 November. They will check and approve the material they receive, and then pass it on to the Home Office so that it can publish that material on its website. It is pretty clear to me that this will be a sensitive role for these officers, so I urge the Government to ensure that the criteria by which PAROs have to assess the material are set out clearly and in detail—much more clearly, I would suggest, than in the draft secondary legislation.

Secondly, the Electoral Commission will, to its credit, produce a booklet for every household where PCC elections are taking place. This is particularly important because the elections will take place at an unfamiliar time of year in November, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) has said, and using a voting system—the supplementary vote system—that most people will not have used before. May I have an assurance from the Government that sufficient resources will be provided to the Electoral Commission for this information dissemination work to be carried out properly?

Generally, it is essential that guidance for candidates, agents, campaigners and returning officers is provided well in advance of the elections in November. The Government should note that the Electoral Commission wants most of these guidelines in place very soon so that they can be published and disseminated widely three months before the start of the regulated period. Of particular concern is the need to publish the limits on the amount of money that PCC candidates can spend during the last few weeks of the campaign, and I would hope that the spending limit for each specific police area—not a complicated calculation and a formula—is set out on the face of the secondary legislation. That is the way to ensure clarity.

The hon. Gentleman makes some good points. What worries me is that there will be no publicly funded mailing, and that individual candidates will be able to issue their own literature. That, surely, creates the possibility that the person who can afford the most literature will win the election, which is profoundly unfair.

The hon. Gentleman’s point reinforces the need for clearly defined limits to ensure that there is no confusion or ambiguity, and that every candidate in every police area is aware of the limits that apply to him or her. There should also be stipulations governing third parties to prevent candidates from receiving indirect financial support.

I am acutely aware that, in all probability, mayoral elections will take place on the same day as the PCC elections in some parts of England. Obviously no one can foretell what will happen in the elections that will be held in a number of English cities, but the odds are that they will take place concurrently, and I know that the two sets of elections will be overseen by two separate Departments, the Home Office and the Department for Communities and Local Government. Indeed, it is possible that a third will be involved. My right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) mentioned the Cabinet Office earlier. How will it be involved in all this? That is yet another ingredient in the mix.

Both the mayoral and the PCC elections will use the supplementary vote system, and I hope that voters will be presented with two differently designed ballot papers. That is important, because, as I have said, at least two Departments will be directly involved in running these concurrent elections. Government co-operation and a joint approach will be necessary, so that the electorate are not confused by the process. There will also be room for considerable confusion if PCC candidates are expected to communicate with voters through a website while mayoral candidates rely on locally distributed booklets, given that the elections will take place on the same day. Whether we like it or not—and I consider the position to be very unsatisfactory—there will inevitably be some confusion, because the basic means of communication will be provided through different mediums. I am keen for those difficulties to be minimised.

It is possible that the Home Office will find all this work a little too much. We are all aware of the difficulties that it is experiencing. I respectfully ask the Minister to suggest to his colleagues in the Home Office that they should consider having a word with the Deputy Prime Minister to see whether it would be possible to bring in some Cabinet Office experience. Being entirely objective, the Minister knows a heck of a lot more about these issues than the Home Office—which is supposed to be conducting the elections—and I suspect that that is why he is here tonight.

One issue that has not yet been clarified is the future of Victim Support, some of whose representatives visited me in my constituency last week. They expressed concern about what the implications for the expertise of the existing 7,000 volunteers, and about possible costs, bureaucracy and fragmentation of the service. Perhaps the Home Office will consider that as well.

That is a fair point. Similar representations have been made to me. There is genuine concern among people involved in Victim Support about the fact that the police commissioners will have that responsibility in addition to their other responsibilities. We are, after all, talking about finite resources, and the possibility that moneys allocated for one purpose will be used for another purpose as well is causing concern. However, I am sure that the Minister will be able to allay the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend and, indeed, others outside the House.

It is essential that the PCC elections on 15 November are successful. There must be a good turnout, therefore, and the electorate must be well informed. That is why this debate is important, and I hope the Government will get a move on and get the draft legislation made into final proposals that they then put before the House so everybody is clear where we stand and we can make genuine preparations for successful democratic elections on 15 November.

First, let me say that unlike in the previous Government, Ministers from different Departments in this Government speak to each other. We work closely. I am here tonight because I work closely with my colleagues in the Home Office. The Cabinet Office has overall responsibility for electoral policy—owned by the Deputy Prime Minister—and I work closely with Home Office Ministers. My officials in the Cabinet Office work very closely with Home Office officials. We are a very joined-up operation. That may be a new notion to the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David), as he served in the dysfunctional last Labour Government where the Prime Minister and Chancellor could not bring themselves to speak to each other, but things have changed since the last election.

I am saddened, and rather surprised, that the Minister should make a factional and crudely political point in a debate that is about democratic involvement and popular participation.

I am also surprised by what the Minister said about the Home Office. Taking his logic to its conclusion, he or one of his departmental colleagues should answer questions on PCC elections at Home Office questions, but that is not the case.

The Home Office leads on policy on PCCs, but that also involves elections. The situation is just the same as in respect of the Department for Communities and Local Government: I work closely with my colleagues in that Department, and its officials work closely with my officials. We have joined-up policy across the Government. That is sensible.

As the hon. Gentleman raised the issue of departmental responsibility—and the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) tried to raise it—I thought it was worth making that initial point in response. I was also going to say that I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his very complimentary words about me; I wish to be suitably gracious about what he said.

The directly elected PCCs represent a radical reform of policing. The hon. Gentleman’s party was not initially in favour of them, but I am glad that now that Parliament has passed the legislation, it is participating in this process. Indeed, many prominent Labour figures will, perhaps, be candidates in these elections, including Lord Prescott, who has now been converted to the merits of PCCs and the importance of giving more power and control to the public—letting the public choose the people who set policing priorities, rather than their being set by the Home Office.

The PCC elections will be very valuable, and the public will be very interested in them. The website has had 47 million hits. The public are interested in local crime matters and how police officers conduct their work and how they are deployed. I know from conversations with my constituents and chief constable that people are very interested. I therefore think people will get engaged in this process, despite the fact that the elections will be held in November. There will be a decent turnout, I believe.

The hon. Gentleman who secured the debate spoke for just over half the time available, so let me address at least some of his questions before taking interventions from other Members.

Our view is that top-down control, with chief constables looking upwards to the Home Office, did not work particularly well, so we want locally democratically accountable figures setting policy. However, operational matters will, of course, remain the responsibility of the chief constable. There will be police and crime panels to ensure that there is scrutiny and transparency.

The hon. Gentleman made a number of points about the elections themselves and I shall deal with some of them in turn. As I said, I am pleased that so many Members of this House and the other place are stepping forward and that we are seeing candidates from across the country. I think we will have a good slate of experienced people. To pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), I believe that a number of people who have had experience in the criminal justice system, some of whom are former police officers but others of whom have been involved in that system, have put their names forward. So I think that the public will be offered a good range of candidates—people with practical experience and people with policy-making experience. Like the hon. Member for Caerphilly, I trust the public to be able to sort out the qualities that they want in police and crime commissioners and to make the right decisions in November.

The Government agree that it is important that candidates get their message out. To pick up on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams), candidates obviously have a responsibility to do that themselves. Of course it is not the case that candidates can spend a limitless amount of money; there will be limits on expenditure, which will be broadly proportionate to those for other types of election. So candidates will be able to spend some money, but they will not be able to spend limitless sums. We thought carefully about how we could assist candidates in doing that, and provisions will be made in the draft legislation to enable candidates, as the hon. Member for Caerphilly said, to publish information on the centrally funded website.

In addition, if the public are not able to use the website, they will be able to call a freephone number and request, on demand, printed information to be sent to them directly. We recognise that this is a novel approach, but we think that that blend of online and on-demand information will be very helpful. The website and the print-on-demand phone number will be printed on polling cards sent out in advance of the election.

If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I will adopt the same stricture as I did in respect of Labour Members. Let me deal with the points that the hon. Member for Caerphilly raised, as it is his debate, and if we have time, I will be happy to take further interventions.

Polling cards will contain this information, so it will be widely distributed to voters. The Electoral Commission, with which we are working closely, will include that contact and access information in its own literature—indeed, this will be in the booklet that it is distributing to households, which will provide some information about the elections and the supplementary vote system.

The hon. Member for Caerphilly raised the issue of internet access. Although 77% or so of the population can use the internet, we recognise that there are people who cannot; my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) referred to people who live in his constituency in this regard. That is why we have the combination of online and print-on-demand information. I am pleased to tell the hon. Member for Caerphilly, as I anticipated that he would ask about this, that the information will be available in both English and Welsh. Candidates will be able to submit their information to go on the website in either language, and we will make sure that the website content and the printed copies are available in both languages. We will of course make sure that the information is available in a range of accessible formats for those voters who have some form of disability, to make sure that we maximise the opportunities for people to see the information.

Let me deal with why we have chosen that option rather than completely free mailings paid for by the taxpayer. We did consider funding mailings of the type used for UK parliamentary and European elections. We are minded to conclude—this is our preferred option on the website, rather than our final position—that at a time when budgets are tight, it is difficult to justify those mailings for PCC elections. There are also some logistical difficulties involved in producing a candidates booklet, such as those used for mayoral elections. The difficulties are partly to do with the size of the PCC areas and having to produce the 41 booklets simultaneously; this would be very difficult to co-ordinate across the country. We think that the approach we have adopted is a proportionate one that will give people access to the information. We will, of course, look at the experience in practice; we will look very carefully at what happens. I am sure that hon. Members in this House will not be backward in coming forward about any issues, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be sure to tell us of issues in his area in Wales. We will look at this carefully but we are confident that we have adopted a sensible approach; we have worked closely with stakeholders and we think it will be successful.

As I mentioned, the Electoral Commission will be working on some public awareness information. This is in its plan, so it is in the money that it has bid for and had approved by the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission and by the House. This is something that has been in the Electoral Commission’s programme, so I am confident that it will be effective.

The hon. Member for Caerphilly also asked about the conduct rules. The elections, as he said, will take place in every police force area in England and Wales outside London, although it is worth saying that the first time that people will be able to vote for the directly elected person who will control policing will be in the London mayoral election, now that the Mayor has that responsibility. The detail for the other elections will be in the secondary legislation that we intend to lay before the House shortly. I can confirm that “shortly” means by 15 May, so that legislation will be laid before the House six months before the elections.

We have, of course, worked closely with the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators, returning officers, the Local Government Association, the Welsh Government, the Wales Office and the Association of Police Authorities, among others, to check that the legislation is in good order and that it will work in practice. Preparations have started. The police area returning officers will be administering the elections across the police force areas, a number of meetings have taken place and the preparations are in good order.

The hon. Gentleman asked one or two other questions and I have dealt with his question about the language. He raised some concerns about the website and I can make it very clear that the Government have ensured that they will have no role at all in the content on the website, which will be dealt with by the police area returning officers. The Government’s role is to set up the function and ensure that the information is posted; we will not have any editorial control at all, as is appropriate.

I accept entirely what the Minister is saying, but I was making the point that it is important for any Government—whatever their political complexion —not to be accused of any kind of interference. That is why the clarity of the secondary legislation is so important.

I can confirm that the legislation will be drafted—I am sure this will be tested when it is debated in the House—to ensure that it is clear that there will be no opportunity for the Government to have any role in deciding the content of the information. That would clearly not be appropriate.

Let me come to the final point about victim support services, which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies). It has been proposed—the consultation by the Ministry of Justice finished just a few days ago—to move from a national to a local model. The Government’s view, on which we consulted in our consultation document, is that rather than Whitehall attempting to pick those services and fund them across the country, the police and crime commissioners, who will be accountable to local people, will do a better job of making those judgments. I have read through the Ministry of Justice consultation document in full, as a local victim support organisation wrote to me in my capacity as a constituency MP and I wanted to ensure, having worked with Victim Support in the past, that I was confident about what would happen. I have been through the consultation document and I think the proposal is a good one that will mean more money gets spent, rather than less, and that decisions will be taken more locally. That makes sense, rather than trying to have a one-size-fits-all policy. The Ministry of Justice will consider the responses to the consultation very closely to see whether it needs to alter its policy in any way.

I think that I have answered all of the points raised by the hon. Member for Caerphilly, so, as we have one or two moments, do any of my colleagues who jumped up to intervene earlier want to do so before I sit down?

I thank my hon. Friend for what he said about the Welsh language, which is very important in large parts of Wales. What costings were made to examine combining the Electoral Commission’s booklet with an insertion from candidates?

We did consider that and we discussed it with the Electoral Commission, which is, of course, producing one booklet to be distributed to every household across England and Wales. The difficulty is that if a booklet is going to be produced with the candidate information, 41 different versions will have to be produced. Logistically and for cost reasons, that is quite complicated. It is not quite as straightforward as my hon. Friend put it.

I hope that I have dealt with colleagues’ concerns and I am pleased that the debate was so well attended. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Caerphilly for raising points in the way that he did.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.