The PCC elections tomorrow are about more than they seem

4 May 2016

The inaugural Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections were held – to much criticism – in cold, dark November. Little was done to ensure the public understood the role, or their choice of candidates, and as a result voter turnout was a woeful 15 per cent. Few could deny PCCs got off to an inauspicious start.

Turnout tomorrow should be much higher than in 2012 – it coincides with council and mayoral elections (local election turnout in May 2012 was 31 per cent, in 2014 it was around 36 per cent) and PCCs are now established local figures. The 2014 Home Affairs Committee report on PCCs pointed out that “public awareness of police and crime commissioners has increased greatly”, quoting a poll that found that 62 per cent of respondents were aware they had a PCC. Previous polls had found just 7 per cent of the public were aware of the former police authorities.

Nonetheless, this year’s PCC elections are still not receiving a great deal of attention.  Held in the shadow of the EU referendum, PCC coverage is minimal.

Maybe this is fair. Crime was conspicuous in its absence from the most important issues cited by voters ahead of the 2015 general election – perhaps unsurprisingly given the dramatic falls in crime over the past decade and the continued confidence in the police. And whilst police recorded crime was up in April’s crime statistics, this was largely, according to the Office for National Statistics, due to improvements in police crime recording and increased confidence amongst victims of sexual offences to come forward. The crime survey data showed a further fall in crime. Overall confidence in local police actually increased slightly, from 76 per cent in 2013/14 to 78 per cent in the year ending December 2015.

There are, however, two compelling reasons why PCC elections deserve greater exposure. Firstly, crime is not just falling, it is changing. Police forces are dealing more and more with complex offences such as child sexual exploitation and cybercrime. As conventional crimes such as theft continue to fall, crimes committed in private spaces are making up an increasing proportion of police demand. The traditional policing model of bobbies on the beat must be updated to reflect this new frontline. PCCs, in setting force priorities, will be leading this transformation.

Secondly, PCCs look set to get more powers. The ‘crime’ element in their title has, up to now, been somewhat of a misnomer, but the Government has hinted that this might change. In a speech early this year the Home Secretary stated: “I would like to see the PCC role expanded even further still. Together with the Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, I have been exploring what role PCCs could play in the wider criminal justice system.” The 2016 Budget announced the devolution of further criminal justice powers to Greater Manchester, including over prisons and probation. It is feasible that the PCCs elected tomorrow will, at some point during their four-year tenure, play a much bigger role than that which they were elected to undertake. In this scenario, the transformative potential of PCCs is huge – but so too will be questions about capability.

As voters head to the polls tomorrow they should therefore cast their vote with this bigger picture in mind. At the very least their PCC will have to ensure that the policing priorities they set are fit for tomorrow’s crimes. In fact, they may be voting for someone to do much more than that.

Charlotte Pickles, Deputy Director and Head of Research, Reform

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