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Police and Crime Commissioner Elections (Amendment) (No. 2) Order 2014

Volume 755: debated on Monday 21 July 2014

Motion to Consider

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Police and Crime Commissioner Elections (Amendment) (No. 2) Order 2014.

Relevant documents: 5th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, 6th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, this order was laid in Parliament on 9 July. The Government are seeking to amend the Police and Crime Commissioner Elections Order 2012, which sets out the rules governing the conduct of elections of PCCs in England and Wales.

Following the deeply sad and untimely death of PCC Bob Jones, your Lordships will be aware that a by-election for the West Midlands PCC is due to take place on 21 August. The instrument before the Committee today changes the existing provisions by making candidate addresses available online during ordinary elections and by-elections. The instrument goes further by seeking to raise voter awareness about candidates standing for PCC in their police area by providing for booklets containing candidates’ election addresses to be delivered to residential premises in the West Midlands by-election on a trial basis.

The Electoral Commission has been consulted about our proposals and it has lent its support to them. Indeed, the proposals stem from recommendations that the Electoral Commission made in its report on the 2012 PCC elections.

The police area returning officer—PARO—responsible for the by-election in the West Midlands stands ready to produce the booklets if the instrument is approved by Parliament. Before considering whether it would be appropriate to use printed booklets in future PCC elections, the Government will evaluate the impact on voter awareness during the trial.

I hope that the Committee will support these measures, which are intended to help voters make informed decisions when voting for their police and crime commissioner. Accordingly, I commend the instrument to the Committee.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, for putting some flesh on the bones of this proposal. None the less, I would address the cost of this.

As we know, at the time of the original elections, a YouGov poll showed that 65% of those polled did not want the system; 15% did and 20% did not know. None the less, the Government decided to go ahead with it and were a laughing stock when the election took place, when in some polling stations fewer than 10 people attended. I was told in the Chamber that the election cost £50 million.

Now, accepting that the whole system has cost £100 million to date, and if we pursue it until the regular time of the next elections we must accept that it will be another £100 million or so, is it right that this by-election money—another £4 million at the very least—should come out of the public purse as well? I know it is not in the Act, but when the Bill was passing through your Lordships’ House, like others I thought that if something happened to the police and crime commissioner, he or she would hand over to their deputy.

Did the Minister see the television production, “Meet the Police Commissioner”? If not, will he do so? It should be compulsory viewing for the whole Cabinet. It has not become a Whitehall farce but it is being talked about as a Westminster farce. It has become something of a laughing stock. When the police and crime commissioner in Kent allowed the television cameras in, she was asked by the interviewer about her daily workload. He asked, “What is the first thing you do when you arrive in the morning?”, and she said, “My nails”. She has paid herself £85,000. She has a staff of 16. When they get depressed and bored, she brings her dogs into the office to cheer them up. This really is an awful farce. If the Government do not do something to stop this, they will be the laughing stock.

If the by-election costs more than £4 million, could that come out of the money that has been set aside already for the running of the PCC system and not out of the taxpayer’s pocket, although inevitably at the end of the day it comes out of the taxpayer’s pocket anyway? I ask the Minister: how many more—and I mean more—accident and emergency departments are going to be closed in order to keep paying for it? We have already lost dozens of them. I know that the money has to come from somewhere. Would it not be better to spend that money on saving lives rather than saving red faces in the Home Office and the Government?

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his—albeit brief—explanation of the order. The comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Imbert, are very relevant to this debate.

I thank the Minister for his comments about Bob Jones. He died at the age of 59 very suddenly and it has been a dreadful shock to his family, friends and colleagues in the Labour Party. He was well loved and very highly regarded. His commitment to the post he held, despite the flaws in the legislation, was not new. He had been on the police committee previously and a local councillor for many years, and he is a great loss to the community. His drive always was to engage with the community and with young people so he leaves a huge gap in the lives of his family, friends and the community he served.

Given all the circumstances and the sense of loss and shock felt, it is all the more disappointing that a by-election has been called in the way it has. The legislation provides for just two electors to be able to call a by-election. I understand that one of those electors is a former candidate for the post. They have called a by-election, with the costs and issues that have been raised by the noble Lord, Lord Imbert, which has to be held 35 days later. That leaves us in the position of having an election on 21 August. I would have thought that there would be some kind of decency—that someone should be buried or at least have a memorial service before someone calls a by-election in those circumstances.

Having mentioned the tremendous loss of a friend and colleague that we feel, I am pleased that my old friend and colleague from the other place, David Jamieson, has been selected to stand as our candidate. I know personally of the commitment and integrity he will bring to the election from my work with him in the other place.

The noble Lord, Lord Imbert, raises some valid questions. When the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill started its passage through your Lordships’ House we opposed the position of police and crime commissioners. I also note the Kent police commissioner’s TV programme; “sad amusement” might be one way of describing it. I do not think that is typical of police and crime commissioners; however flawed the process and posts are, most of those elected do the best that they can in the job. The Minister will recall that Tony Lloyd, a police and crime commissioner from Manchester, was helpful to us during the passage of the anti-social behaviour Act when he suggested proposals to deal with child sex grooming and how to close down premises more quickly. He was using his role in a positive way.

That fact is that the legislation was rushed in. It became law only 10 weeks before the first elections. That illustrates that more time should have been taken to think it through, perhaps with some heed taken to our objections. Having said that, we fought those elections and put forward the best people because the posts were there. Those posts remain. We are not opposing the order today, but there are some questions on which we seek clarity. Some measures in the order seem to be there to prevent the Government facing further humiliation over the disastrously low turnouts we saw in the elections and, presumably, the by-election. Both the Electoral Reform Society and the Electoral Commission have raised concerns about the level of turnout and public engagement. The Electoral Commission feared that there would be a turnout of just 18.5% when these elections were held in 2012. What a disaster it would be if we had elections in which only 18.5% of people voted. In fact, it was grossly overoptimistic. Nationally, 14.7% took part in the elections. In the West Midlands, where we now face a by-election, only 12% took part. It was an almost perfect storm.

We had public apathy at best, public opposition at worst and a situation, which we raised again and again with Ministers, where the campaign was digital by default. People would find out information about their candidate by going online, because they would obviously be very interested, finding the details of all their candidates and rushing out to the polling stations to vote for them. Well, that was wrong, was it not? Even if it had been right and those who were interested had looked online, 7 million people on the electoral roll have no access at all to computers and to the information. That appallingly low turnout was therefore inevitable. Can the Minister say anything about the kind of turnout that he would expect to see in this by-election, particularly given its date of 21 August?

The Government are recognising the problem in that the order provides for what it calls a “trial”—I should have thought this was evidence that people should get certain information during election campaigns—of the mailing of candidate election booklets. The returning officer should be able to seek a reasonable sum from the candidates towards the printing of an election booklet. This is the kind of thing that we were saying when legislation went through before but which the Government rejected at the time. I am pleased to say that we have seen more interest in telling people that an election is on than we did then.

In the Explanatory Notes, as the Minister says, there is a partial response to the concerns expressed by the Electoral Commission. I mentioned the lack of awareness of the candidates at elections. Then it was an unfamiliar time of the year for elections: November. No other elections were being held and we rarely have elections in November, just as we rarely have elections in August. There was a lack of information, not just on the candidates. The point still remains about what the elections were for, what they were about, why they should stand, and what the PCCs could do. That has not been made up since those elections took place. When I talk to people in my local area, very few of them know who the PCC is, know what they can do, or have any awareness of their role at all. Therefore all those issues are of extreme concern.

The other issue that the noble Lord did not mention that I sought to address was that at the last elections there was a helpline for those who wanted information, albeit it worked for only 23 days before the election took place. Are there any plans for any kind of helpline this time? Also, there was no provision in the elections in 2012 for people with sight difficulties, or materials in any other language. Can the Minister tell me what has been done to address those issues?

We said at the time that the election was deeply flawed, but there was no great gloating, with people saying, “I told you so”—it was a bad day for democracy and for the police that there was so little interest and enthusiasm, or engagement and involvement with those elections. However, seeking to make changes for this by-election, and presumably to make an assessment of any improvement, comes at a cost. The noble Lord, Lord Imbert, was absolutely right to raise the issue of costs. I have been trying, from the comments on the order and from the Minister’s comments, to get to the bottom of what the costs are. It is a little confusing. There are few bits of legislation that have no impact assessment, and an impact assessment would have been helpful for this order today to try to get to the bottom of the costs.

The Explanatory Memorandum says that the figure is £300,000—£0.3 million—but the Government have since given out other figures. I have heard the figure of £700,000 raised; another figure was as high as £3 million. Why, then, does it say £300,000 in the memorandum if there are other figures as well? When the Minister winds up, can he clarify exactly how much it will cost and who pays? It is important that we have that precise information. We are losing front-line police officers—in my county of Essex we now have no 24-hour police stations, we have lost PCSOs and full-time police officers, yet the money is being spent on elections. How many police officers has the West Midlands lost, and how many could be paid for by the money being spent on these elections? Whatever budget that comes out of, whether it is the Government’s budget, or the Government try to force local councils in some way—and I cannot believe that even this Government would force more costs on local government—at the end of the day, the taxpayer is paying. I am sure that if I speak to any taxpayer in the West Midlands, they could find better things to spend this money on.

The Minister will be aware that the Explanatory Memorandum says that the Government will “track the performance”. Can he tell me how that will be done? He referred to that in his comments about how the marketing of the elections will be conducted, and that the Government will track its performance. If there is a very low turnout again, what conclusions will the Government draw from the turnout as regards any marketing campaign that is run? I am slightly puzzled by that, so any information that the noble Lord can give would be extremely helpful. Will it incur more costs, and has a budget been set aside to track the performance of the marketing exercise to raise awareness, or will it be done purely on the turnout on the by-election day itself?

I will address some other issues. My attention was drawn to some comments made by the head of electoral services in Birmingham, which I think are reflected throughout the West Midlands region. They relate to the number of polling stations that will be available. A number of the polling stations are in schools. The advantage of August is that schools will not be forced to close for the day for another election, but a number of those schools will be having repairs and maintenance undertaken. I am told that 136 out of 460 polling stations in Birmingham will not be available.

Can the Minister confirm whether enough polling stations will be available, but more crucially, can he say how many of those polling stations will be moved from their normal place? One way to encourage voter turnout is the familiarity of polling stations. People know where to go, because they always go to the same place. I am sure that the noble Lord and I have knocked on enough doors on election day to come across people who, as soon as they see that there is a change, say, “Where do I vote? I don’t know where to go”. How many of the polling stations across the West Midlands region will have to close, so there will be a different polling station for these elections?

Can the noble Lord give a reassurance that all polling stations will have disabled access in the normal way as required by law? Can he confirm what the staffing arrangements will be? I know that local authorities are very concerned, because staff will be on holiday during August when schools are away. There will be staff on holiday during the period leading up to and including election night. Can he address that?

There is also the issue of postal votes. In the debate in the other place, the concerns of the head of electoral services in Birmingham were again raised. He had said that the new postal voting arrangements had,

“the possibility to confuse electors”.

If the Minister could say what arrangements have been put in place to deal with that concern, again, that would be very helpful.

We support the order before us today. However, it is a very sad day for us for a number of reasons. We have lost a very impressive police and crime commissioner. The legislation creating police and crime commissioners has been shown to be flawed and unwanted. There has been a lack of interest and enthusiasm from the public. The unseemly haste with which the by-election is being organised is likely to disfranchise a number of people. The cost of this, when the number of front-line police officers is being cut and police stations are being closed, is to the great shame and discredit of the Government. This is a stop-gap measure, but I urge the Minister to give some clarity in response to the points that I have raised today. I would find that extremely helpful.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Imbert, for his contribution and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, for her comments. The choice of the date of the by-election is not the Government’s; it does not lie with the Government.

I said at the very beginning of my comments that it had been called by two electors, one of whom I understand is now a member of UKIP. Although he was an independent candidate at the time, I wonder whether he will pop up as a candidate for another party in these elections.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for making that clear. Yes, she did say that the by-election was called by two people. All I am saying is that, in law, the Government have no locus in fixing the date of a by-election. The by-election is unwelcome both for political reasons, in the sense that having a by-election in August would not be the choice of any of us who really believe in democracy, and because of the circumstances which led to it; namely, the death of Bob Jones, who was a highly respected figure. Although, rather like the noble Lord, Lord Imbert, he was not entirely in favour of police and crime commissioners, he realised that it was an important job and he did it well.

It is important to address the question of money, because there are two sides to it. If you are going to hold an election, you need to spend the amount of money that it costs to have the clerks and the polling stations open and you need to meet the bare costs of an election. In this case, we estimate the cost to be £3 million. What we are discussing today is the cost of the leaflet and its provision. I understand, as noble Lords have said, that these are difficult times, and the Government are mindful of the need to keep public expenditure under control. However, the balance of advantage in this case is for there to be an informed electorate and the leaflet provides an opportunity for that to be the case. We consider that the leaflet will cost somewhere between £700,000 and £1 million, although we cannot be certain. We know that in certain forces the cost would have been as low as £300,000, but in the largest forces, of which the West Midlands is one, the cost is estimated to be £1 million. The Explanatory Memorandum makes that clear. I hope that there is no suggestion that this is not good value for money, because democracy never comes cheap. Those of us who have been involved in democratic politics all our lives know how important it is that people are engaged in democratic processes.

I should also emphasise that this money is not coming out of police budgets; it is coming out of direct Home Office budgets. Of course, it is funded by the taxpayer, as all government money is, but it is not at the expense of proper policing or the role that we would expect of the police.

I have to say that I did not see the “Panorama” programme; I read things about it but I have not seen it. As I think the noble Lord will understand, I am usually quite busy, not least in the House, and I do not see television during the week at all, so I missed it.

You have only to look at some of the successes that PCCs have brought. Consider the role that Bob Jones played in the West Midlands. The noble Baroness made reference to her former colleague in the Labour Government in the House of Commons, Tony Lloyd, and his role in Manchester. I can talk of Nick Alston in Essex, Adam Simmonds in Northamptonshire or Martin Surl in Gloucestershire. There are so many examples of individuals who have really made something of the job and brought something to effective policing. As someone who, I know, has spent his life extolling the importance of effective policing, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Imbert, will accept that.

The noble Baroness asked particular questions. She wanted to know about helpline accessibility. We intend to provide the booklets in alternative formats, such as Braille, and provide a helpline for the election. Of course disabled access will be available, because it is required by law at all polling stations. It is unfortunate: 21 August is not the time to hold a by-election. However, the law is the law. We have to have it on 21 August and deal with it, so not all the polling stations will be the normal ones. That is all the more reason why it is important that the electorate is informed in the proper way.

There has been a lot of ribbing about turnout. I shall not estimate the turnout. All I can say is that I am sure that all noble Lords present would want a better turnout at this by-election than the 12%-odd turnout in the West Midlands when we had the first PCC elections. Those elections were held, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, said, at a time of year when we do not normally hold elections. Next time round, as she well knows, they will be in May, alongside local government elections. I believe that the opportunity of this by-election—unsought as it is—and this order will inform us about public response to the opportunity to elect their police and crime commissioners and seek to make those elections as effective as possible.

If it is necessary to bring legislation forward in future—secondary legislation, most likely—of course the Government will not hesitate to do that. I hope that we will have the general support of the Opposition in bringing it forward, because I am a little confused as to where they stand on how they are to provide for people to vote for police and crime commissioners in future if they are not fully in favour of the system. It will be interesting over the next few months, when the position will no doubt be clarified.

Over the weekend the PARO’s team confirmed that the polling stations had indeed been identified. Some will need to move from their existing locations, as I said, but those who are responsible on the ground for arranging these elections have done very well. Any elector who already has a postal vote will be retaining it for this particular by-election so they will receive their ballot papers by post. Nobody has mentioned that as far as I know, but it is an important addition.

I have spoken entirely from notes from the Box on this issue rather than reading the grand speech that I have here, but I hope that noble Lords will support the order. It is designed to provide the people of the West Midlands who have the unfortunate duty of finding a successor to Bob Jones with the information that they need to make a proper choice. It is an important job. PCCs have shown themselves to be extremely effective and I believe that it is an important election. I hope that the order we have presented to the House will be supported by the Grand Committee.

Motion agreed.