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Police and Crime Commissioner Elections

Volume 551: debated on Friday 19 October 2012

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

It is now less than four weeks before the police and crime commissioner elections on 15 November, and I have to tell the Minister that there is acute concern about the likely turnout. A wide range of people have expressed concerns. For example, Peter Neyroud, the former chief constable of Thames Valley police, former chief of the National Policing Improvement Agency and now a respected academic at Cambridge university, has expressed concerns about the PCC elections. He stated:

“If you could have constructed a manual on how not to conduct an election, the Home Office have managed to tick just about every element of it.”

The result of the Home Office’s cack-handedness will be that the turnout, again in Mr Neyroud’s words, will be “pretty shocking”.

Concerns were also expressed at the Liberal Democrat conference, by the new Minister of State in the Home Department, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), who advanced the opinion that a turnout in the PCC elections of 20% would “not be good”. Worries have been expressed in the other place, by the Police Federation and by PCC candidates, whether representatives of a particular political party or independents.

The clearest and most strongly worded concerns have been expressed by the Electoral Reform Society, which stated some weeks ago that the PCC elections are set to have the lowest turnout of any election in modern times—18.5%. To all democrats, that must be of profound concern. If turnout is that low, it could unfairly advantage extremist candidates who would never succeed in winning over a larger proportion of the electorate. It would also place a massive question mark over the role of elected PCCs. Let us not forget that the stated purpose of police and crime commissioners is to improve the accountability of the police, and reconnect the public with them. That objective would clearly be placed in jeopardy if there were such a low turnout.

To date, the Government have shown few indications that they comprehend the gravity of the situation. Despite protestations that the winter is the worst possible time to hold an election, and particularly a first-time election, the elections are being held in the middle of November, having been postponed by the Government from May. All who have experience of elections know full well how difficult it is for us to persuade voters to come out in the middle of winter, when the nights are cold and dark. That was borne out by distinguished academics Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, who conducted research into seasonal factors affecting voting in which they concluded that turnout in council by-elections fell by an average of 6.6% when held in November as compared with May. If that happens with council elections, there is a risk that it will happen with PCC elections.

From the start, it was always going to be difficult to generate enthusiasm for, or even interest in, these elections, but it must be said that things have not been made easier by the Government’s attitude and inaction. Despite the concerns expressed by the Electoral Commission and others, the Home Office has refused to provide information other than online, unless someone specifically asks for written information. The result is that some 7 million people who do not regularly have access to the internet are unlikely to know what is happening. Thankfully, the Electoral Commission is providing a booklet to all households, but it will provide information only about the elections and the electoral system to be used—the supplementary vote. Crucially, no information will be provided about the candidates in any of the police force areas. The result is that electors will have to rely on information provided to them by the candidates themselves.

My hon. Friend is speaking extremely well. There is very little awareness of the elections in my patch of the city of Leicester, although the excellent Labour candidate, Sarah Russell, is reminding voters that the Government are cutting 200 police officers from the Leicestershire force. There is a great deal of awareness about that; it is extremely unpopular.

My hon. Friend’s example from Leicester is replicated the length and breadth of the country. There is tremendous concern about policing and police numbers, but many people are not making the connection between that and the PCC elections. The Labour party will certainly do its utmost to make the connection.

Police force areas are huge in terms of geography and population. It is therefore difficult to disseminate information door to door—it is a huge task. The Government’s position prompts a question: if comprehensive information, including details of the candidates, can be provided for mayoral elections—it will be provided for the Bristol mayoral election on 15 November—why cannot the Government provide candidate information in the PCC elections? Surely that would increase public knowledge and interest, and enhance the democratic process.

There is also a concern that there are no provisions for information in accessible formats for people with sight difficulties, and no information is provided in any other languages, despite the assurances given in an Adjournment debate on 25 April by the then Minister with responsibility for political and constitutional reform. Incidentally, I would appreciate an explanation of why a Cabinet Office Minister responded to that debate on PCC elections, but a Home Office Minister will reply to this one. Why the change? Is the switch indicative of the confusion at the heart of the Government about the conduct of the elections? Who is really in charge of these elections? Is anyone in charge of them?

I referred a moment ago to minority languages. I am incredulous that the Government have messed up on the production of bilingual ballot papers for Wales. Despite repeated reminders from the Opposition, the Home Office has only this week tabled the order to enable the production of bilingual ballot papers in Wales. It is likely that Parliament will approve the order to allow the ballot papers to be sent out as postal votes in Wales and I guess that this will be done in the nick of time. But there is of course no certainty that the Government will meet the deadline, and they belatedly realised this some weeks ago.

Having wrongly believed that there was no need for such an order, the Home Office, in its wisdom, then decided to play safe and give the go-ahead for the production of two sets of ballot papers—one set in English only and one set in English and Welsh. Which set will be used depends on whether the Government get their order through before the deadline. The unused set of ballot papers will then be destroyed—I kid you not, Madam Deputy Speaker. This is the first time in modern electoral history that the Government have, through sheer incompetence and stupidity, been obliged to throw away more than 2 million ballot papers before an election. How much is this act of folly costing the taxpayer? The Government are reluctant to say, for understandable reasons, but it is estimated that the cost runs into many hundreds of thousands of pounds—taxpayers’ money wasted by the incompetence of this Government.

I am sure the Minister will point out that the Government are engaged in a public awareness campaign with television, radio and newspaper advertising. Those advertisements are making a contribution to raising public awareness. That cannot be denied, and I sincerely hope that they will continue to help raise awareness, but I have to say that these advertisements are unprecedented as a way of increasing knowledge of elections and they are not risk free. In this respect, I would point out to the Minister that concerns have already been expressed. It has been suggested by some that the adverts unfairly depict young people, imply criticism of current policing and suggest that PCCs will have a role in day-to-day policing priorities, which of course is not and should not be the case.

As I said at the outset, there are only a few weeks left before the elections. I hope that the lessons of the campaign so far will be learnt and I know that the Electoral Commission is already focused on this, but I also hope that the Government will mobilise more resources, even at this relatively late stage, so that a concerted effort can be made to raise public awareness. I would hope that all Ministers will make an effort to refer to the PCC elections at every opportunity. Labour Members will certainly do our best to make people aware of them.

While all of us in this House have differences about the role of PCCs and what their priorities should be, all of us must surely believe that it is important for democracy that there is a good turnout in these elections. That is something on which all sides of the House should surely agree.

I would normally congratulate the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) on securing this debate but given the content of his speech, the thought occurs that perhaps we would both be better engaged in being out there and campaigning for some of our respective candidates in the PCC elections on 15 November. In that regard, I feel I should put it on the record that I did indeed spend this morning in Stevenage and Hitchin campaigning with the excellent Conservative candidate for Hertfordshire, David Lloyd, and meeting people working on crime prevention in the area—

I just wish to make the point that I will be out tomorrow morning with the excellent Labour candidate in Gwent, Hamish Sandison—

Order. If we have finished the comments about people’s diaries, perhaps we could return to the important subject of this Adjournment debate.

I will happily do that, Madam Deputy Speaker, because it gives me the chance to correct a number of inaccurate assertions that the hon. Gentleman has made.

I will deal with the hon. Gentleman’s final point about whether Members are doing their best to increase interest in the elections. I cannot remember whether he attended Home Office questions on Monday, but, as the Home Secretary observed, many Government Members took the opportunity to refer to the elections and individual candidates. The only Labour candidate referred to by name, however, was the right hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael), and he was referred to by himself, so, although I agree that Members should help to raise public awareness, I think I can say, in the fairest and least partisan way possible, that the hon. Gentleman might want to spread that message on his own Benches. It has been well spread on ours.

The hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) mentioned police numbers, so it is worth putting it on the record the fact that crime in Leicestershire has fallen by 5% in the past 12 months, which shows how effective the current arrangements for policing are there.

I remind the House why we are introducing police and crime commissioners, the most significant democratic reform of policing ever. It will introduce greater transparency and accountability to a service of which we are rightly proud but which can sometimes be too distant from the public it serves and can fail adequately to reflect their concerns and priorities. For too long before the Government came into office, the Home Office interfered too much in local policing and cared too little about national threats. The introduction of PCCs is a step along the road to reversing that trend. The creation of the National Crime Agency to focus on serious and organised crime nationally is another. PCCs will not just focus on their local area but will have a duty to co-operate in dealing with national threats under the new strategic policing arrangement.

Within four weeks, we will find out who the first PCCs will be. They will be the first people elected with a democratic mandate to hold their local force to account, set the budget and draw up the policing plan. Of course, the wider landscape into which the new PCCs will enter is also evolving fast. The college of policing will be launched later this year, and PCCs will sit on its board. Crucially, then, direct representation of the people of England and Wales will also be introduced on to that board. The purpose of the college will be to enhance professionalism across the service. Everyone in the country cares about the continual improvement of professionalism in the police, and the college will play a significant role in making that happen.

The issue of public awareness lay at the heart of the speech by the hon. Member for Caerphilly. It is worth putting that in the context of the picture we now have of crime. By happy coincidence, the latest crime statistics were out yesterday, and they are very pertinent to this debate. They show that on both measures—the crime survey for England and Wales and police recorded crime—crime is falling. It has fallen by 6% in the crime survey and by 6% in the record crime figures. Most significantly, the fall is across the board—violence, burglary, vandalism, vehicle theft, robbery and knife crime are all down.

PCCs will be taking up their posts, therefore, in a time of a continuing downward trend in crime rates that proves—this is relevant to the point about Leicestershire—that it is not how many officers we have but what we do with them that counts. Wise PCCs will understand that point when they take up their offices and start deploying the police plans that they will need to operate. We are replacing what were bureaucratic and unaccountable police authorities with democratically accountable PCCs so that, for the first time, the public will be given a voice and a seat around the table when key decisions are made about how their communities are being policed and how their money is being spent. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman would agree that that simply does not happen under the current system, and I genuinely hope that the tone of his speech did not reflect an underlying unease about greater and better democratic control of the police.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman confirms that it did not.

I suspect that the hon. Gentleman and I can also agree that for all the good work that people on the police authorities do—many do very good work—we know that police authorities are often invisible and unaccountable. Inspections have shown that fewer than a quarter of police authorities perform well on their basic functions and that fewer than a third engage well with their communities. In part, that is because only 7% of the public know what a police authority is. The hon. Gentleman adduced survey evidence showing the level of engagement with the PCC elections, but none of the figures is as low as the 7% of people who have heard of police authorities. That figure represents a huge failure in democratic accountability, because it is the job of a police authority—as it will be of a PCC—to spend the public’s money in a way that guarantees that the police in its area are doing what the public need. However, it is impossible to do that when 93% of the public do not even know what police authorities are. There is simply no possible measurement of success in that area. Up to now—and up to next month—the public have been simply unable to do anything about those failures. PCCs will have a clear incentive to perform better than that. If PCCs fail to represent their communities, engage properly and deliver on their priorities, the public will be able to tell them what they think of them at the ballot box.

The hon. Gentleman made the point about the November elections. He will be aware that the legislative timetable meant that this was an early date, but the Government correctly took the decision that further delay would simply mean that it would take longer before we could apply what are appropriate democratic controls. He also made the point about the weather. On the whole—but not always, in these troubled climatic times we live in—the weather in May is better than the weather in November. However, I should also observe that every four years America holds what is possibly the most important election in the world in November and the American electorate seem to engage in it, so it is not insuperable for people to go and vote when it is a bit cold and wet.

It is also clear—this is hugely relevant—that with more than 90% of the public not even aware of what a police authority is, we are starting the procedure from a very low base of public engagement. We could have a long, academic debate about what the turnout may or may not be in a few weeks’ time. The hon. Gentleman made it clear that there is no shortage of commentators criticising the date of the election or demanding that ever-increasing amounts of money be spent on strategies to engage the public, which may or may not work. What is neither academic nor remotely in doubt is that whatever happens—however many thousands of people turn out to vote in each force area—every PCC will have more legitimacy to make important decisions about what the police do than unelected, unaccountable and, as I have said, largely invisible police authorities.

There is no question but that there is huge public interest in policing issues. They regularly come near the top of issues that people want addressed, particularly when they are asked about antisocial behaviour, which many feel is not taken seriously enough in some areas. The Home Office advertising campaign, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned and about which I shall say more shortly, is focused precisely on telling the public that PCCs will respond to those priorities. The hon. Gentleman made some critical remarks about the content of the advertisements, but that content is dictated by what the public care about. That is what they think about when they think about crime, and that is what they will want the PCCs to address.

There is evidence that the public are engaged. Our crime-mapping website is the most successful Government website ever. There have been more than 500 million hits since it was launched, and—perhaps because of the elections next month, and the gradually increasing public awareness and willingness to discuss crime-related matters—the traffic to the site has increased markedly in recent weeks. This month alone, it is averaging more than 360,000 hits each day. I know how much of an increase that is. Because I am relatively new to my post, I still remember my initial briefing just over a month ago, when I was told that the average was 250,000 hits a day. I am fairly sure that the only reason for the increase—an extra 100,000 hits a day—is the advent of the PCC elections, as nothing else has changed.

We are expanding the website to respond to that ever-increasing demand for information. We have added justice outcomes so that people can see what happens when a crime takes place, measures to compare similar areas, and mug shots of convicted criminals, all of which are proving popular with the public.

We know that the public care about crime, that they want to know more about crime in their local areas, and that they want their voice to be heard. The elections on 15 November will give them an opportunity not just to talk about crime, but to take action to make a change in their communities. A week from today, information about every candidate who supplies such information will be published online. That will give the candidates an opportunity to set out their stall to the electorate, and to reveal their vision for policing. Let me stress again—I have said this many times, but it clearly has not got through to the hon. Gentleman yet—that the information will be delivered free of charge, in written form, to anyone who asks for it, via a phone line.

I am aware of that—if the Minister had listened carefully to my speech, he would have heard me make it very clear that I was aware of it—but why on earth does he not follow the example of the mayoral election campaign, and send information directly to households?

There is a certain amount of confusion among Opposition Members. Half of them complain that the elections are a waste of time and cost too much, while the other half demand that we spend more on them. The hon. Gentleman falls into the latter camp, which is entirely consistent with his general approach. That is fine from his point of view, but I have to tell him that there is no such thing as a free mail shot. The so-called free mail shot would actually have cost the taxpayer more than £30 million. If the hon. Gentleman wants to go and decide, along with his colleagues, whether he wants more to be spent or not, he can do so.

We should publicise this information. The address of the website is www.choosemypcc.org.uk, and the telephone number—which is Freephone from landlines—is 0800 1 070708. It is very easy for people to obtain information about the elections. Details of both the website and the phone line will appear on every polling card that is delivered to every registered voter in England and Wales outside London. We launched an advertising campaign this month that explains the reforms, encourages participation in the elections, and provides a phone number. No one will be denied information. I hope that the hon. Gentleman has seen our advertisements. We have calculated that 85% of the population will see the television advertisement alone an average of six times. In addition, every household will receive information about the elections from the Electoral Commission, which will include information about the role of PCCs and, crucially, about how to vote.

The hon. Gentleman has been consistent in saying that every effort should be made to familiarise the electorate with the role of the PCCs, with the candidates and with the electoral system. All that has been done. In addition, a large number of candidates have already started campaigning and will be doing much of that work themselves. So not only will the public be made aware of the elections, but they will have the information they need to make informed choices. Beyond that, it is up to the candidates locally to make these elections a success. Given that the three main parties in this House are fielding candidates, it is incumbent on us all to go out to explain to the public why the competing visions for policing and tackling crime are worth turning out for, and how PCCs can best ensure that the public get the policing they deserve.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.