The PCCs job – who’ll be best?

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There have been moments over the last day or two when I almost wish I hadn’t got involved in this PCC elections business. My reasons for voting are still the same and I’m certainly better informed about the candidates than when I wrote my first piece on the subject on 19 October. But now I think I’ve seen, heard and read enough. I was as much interested in the process as in the final result. In particular I wanted to see what might be done to stimulate debate on twitter and the blogosphere: that has happened to a reasonable extent not just on my blog but others too*. My thanks to the candidates who have joined in.

*See for example Thames Valley bloggers and

I set out to take a neutral stance, to be objective, to encourage debate and provide a platform for everyone. But unless something dramatic happens in the last week of campaigning I don’t think anything new will emerge. So instead of writing my own account of the Oxford hustings I started thinking about the job of the PCC. Drawing on past experience I thought about how I would select a PCC from a short-list of candidates – what qualities would I look for? What experience?

At which point it dawned on me that no-one really knows what the job is. We can read the publicity – representing the people, prioritising resources, liaising, communicating, managing the budget, determining strategy and so on, but until PCCs have been doing the job for a few years we and they won’t really know what they can and can’t be expected to do. Each PCC will be parachuted into a position where he or she has the power to fire the head of a large, powerful and culturally closed organisation. What will that be like?

One version is on Jon Harvey’s entertaining blog “The Secret Diary of a PCC“. My approach is to imagine the views of the people in the police force – how will they react to this new régime? I think the constables and PCSOs on the streets will generally ignore it and leave it to the higher-ups to worry about. The middle ranks are too busy to bother much as long as they’re left to get on with the real job and the new order doesn’t get in the way or interfere. For the top brass it means the likelihood of more meetings, more interference, more questions, more reports, and possibly someone trying to hold them to account without themselves adding any value. I would expect the police force’s reaction to be to close ranks and give away as little as possible while keeping a polite but formal relationship towards the newcomer who’s not ‘one of us’.

To make any progress a new PCC will have to cope in that environment. He or she must have a strong enough personality not to allow him/herself to be marginalised, and the patience to work on developing relationships over a period of years rather than months. At the same time as trying to earn the respect of the police he/she must find ways of communicating with the public, which means listening as well as telling. Hard as it may be, the PCC is expected to listen to everybody and treat their views with respect (or at least appear to). All at the same time as overseeing the disposition of the police budget, preparing strategic plans and running his/her own office and staff. It’s not going to be easy.

So I’ve decided the most useful thing I can do, with just a week to go before the elections on 15 November, is to use what I’ve learned about the candidates to see how I think they measure up to my view of the job. I set aside all the promises of action on this or that front, bridges to be built with one or other agency, more of this, less of that. None of the candidates can know whether they’ll be able to do any of it. I assume all of them are honest and truthful people who haven’t falsified or exaggerated their achievements – well, no more than a little bit here or there. And I won’t say in writing anything I wouldn’t say to their faces.

Starting from the bottom, here’s my appraisal.

Geoff Howard, Independent.

Geoff, I’m afraid you’re the least convincing candidate. You say you see your role as being “the voice of the people … the link between people … and their local police”. You will make yourself “accountable to the public at all times”. But you haven’t published any contact details except a postal address, which says to me you don’t want to hear from the public. If you had election leaflets at the Oxford hustings I didn’t get one. Your hustings preformance was, well, unmemorable. I don’t know who you are, what if anything you really believe in. I don’t know why you’re standing, and I can’t see you holding your own against the Chief Constable and senior police. I have nothing against you, but this job’s not for you.

Patience Tayo Awe, Independent

Patience, you have earned my respect for keeping your campaign going. It can’t have been easy and you’ve probably felt out of your depth at times but you’ve stayed the course. Well done! Credit too for being bold enough to speak your mind at the Aylesbury hustings. Your analysis of events before and after last year’s riots is not one shared by many people in the shire counties of the Thames Valley but it is a view, I believe, held by many in other parts of the community who do not always feel they have a voice. I’m sorry, though, that I don’t think you’ve yet gained enough political experience to carry off a job as big as this one. Please don’t abandon your community spirit and fighting for what you believe in. Maybe in future there’ll be a bigger role for you somewhere.

Barry Cooper, UKIP

Barry, it was a close call whether I gave you fourth or third place. You come over well and have been very willing to join in the debate. I still disagree with you about the boundary between ‘strategic’ and ‘operational’ when it comes to arming the police, but that’s not the reason. My reservations are over your UKIP allegiance: I find your (and UKIP’s) politics too unpredictable: I can be having a perfectly reasonable conversation with a UKIP supporter when they suddenly come up with something completely out of the blue, as you found when you suggested cutting the ‘green’ budget and provoked howls from the audience, or dragging in your opposition to HS2 at Aylesbury – bound to be popular, but hardly relevant to policing. So sorry, although I’d rather have a drink with you than the next candidate, having you as PCC would worry me too much so you’re in fourth place.

Anthony Stansfeld, Conservative

Anthony, what can I say? You probably don’t care what I think anyway. You showed that in Aylesbury when you couldn’t be bothered to listen to the audience’s questions to the first four candidates, preferring to read a book on local churches instead. It doesn’t say much for your willingness to listen and represent the views of the whole community. You stress your leadership qualities, developed in a successful army career and in business. I think, though, that your leadership style is one best suited to the command-and-control environment where one person has to take responsibilty and sometimes make quick and difficult decisions. It doesn’t fit with a role that needs to be consultative, consensus-building, inclusive. I put you third, though, because for better or worse I think people would know what to expect if you were elected.

John Howson (Lib Dem) and Tim Starkey (Labour)

Well, you two are my joint first place! I do have a preference but I’m going to try to keep a vestige of impartiality by not saying which of you will get my vote. The other will get my second choice. So in alphabetical order:

John, you give a good account of yourself and I think you’re capable of doing the job. You would think about and understand the issues and although it might take time I think you could earn the respect and co-operation of the police force. You admonished me for saying that at the Oxford hustings Tim was the most engaging speaker: my tip to you would be to try to put more visible energy into your public speaking. As a magistrate you’ve been part of the system and in that sense won’t be seen as a complete outsider. I’m glad you care strongly about young people’s welfare and would use the PCC role to try to improve it.

Tim, you already know I’m not the only blogger to have put you in top place (jointly in my case). Your work as a lawyer means you must be good at arguing your case and putting it coherently and convincingly. You are part of the criminal justice system so again not an outsider. You too care about vulnerable people – victims of domestic violence –  and want to make changes for the better. I feel you would stand your ground in any difference of opinion with senior police officers. I think both you and John would do your best to make sure you listened to all sections of the community.

This probably won’t be my last blog on the elections, but enough for now. Thanks for reading: I hope it’s been worth the effort. Don’t forget to vote next Thursday!

Oxford PCC Hustings

This was my first try at live tweeting an event. I felt I spent too much time head down looking at my phone instead of looking at the candidates, but luckily there were several others adding their impressions.

I’ll write my own report on the evening shortly, but meanwhile here’s a Storify timeline of events as they unfolded.

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PCC Elections – two more questions

Having looked at the details of the voting system for the PCC elections I was amused to find that in the event of a tie, the Returning Officer will draw lots to decide the winner (Section 4.8 of Schedule 9 of the Act*). Drawing lots sounds much more civilised that “decided by the toss of a coin” or even “truncheons at dawn”!

Drawn lots or not, the elected Commissioner will take office on November 22 and will serve until the next election, scheduled for May 2016. After that elections will be held every four years. The Commissioner can only be elected for two consecutive terms.

I’m grateful to the candidates for engaging in the debate on this blog. To keep the ball rolling here are two more questions.

Question 3) British Cycling, the national governing body for cycling, is calling for urgent action to make the justice system fairer for cyclists and other road users who are hurt or seriously injured on the country’s roads. They believe the charges brought and sentences given do not reflect the seriousness of collisions when drivers are at fault and cyclists are injured or killed. This was debated in the House of Commons on 17 October and Justice Minister Helen Grant MP agreed to meet with British Cycling to discuss the issues. Question 3 is: although sentencing is not part of the PCC’s remit the importance the police attach to investigating criminal driving offences, and the line they take discussing appropriate charges with the CPS is. What are your views on the merits or otherwise of British Cycling’s concerns, and what would your guidance to the Chief Constable be?

Question 4) The Government says "PCCs will be required to swear an oath of impartiality when they are elected to office". However as far as I can discover the Act* creating PCCs does not mention ‘impartiality’ and the wording of the oath has not yet been decided. I suspect that the oath of impartiality is little more than a gesture to placate the “keep politics out of policing” faction. So Question 4 is: apart from obvious conflicts of interest in personal or financial matters which would be illegal anyway, can you give an example of a situation in which a PCC might justifiably be accused of failing to be impartial?

*The Act is The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011

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