Police and Crime Commissioners need your vote next month

By: James Sweetland

It’s fair to say that the creation of elected PCCs – that’s Police and Crime Commissioners – didn’t get off to the best of starts. 

Introduced under the Coalition government, these new politicians were first elected back in 2012. Prior to polling day, then CEO of the Electoral Reform Society, Katie Ghose, warned that: “Those pulling the strings have not done their homework and as a result this election looks primed to degenerate into a complete shambles.” 

So it proved. Both parties of government (the Tories and the Lib Dems) refused to fund the deposits for their own PCC candidates.[1] Turnout was just 15.1% nationally. And in Staffordshire, it was an even measlier 11.63% – with only two parties even bothering to field a candidate.

Equally damaging to the early perception of PCCs was the infamous Channel 4 documentary ‘Meet the Police Commissioner.’  Released in 2014, it offered the inside scoop on the work of then Kent PCC Ann Barnes. Unfortunately, it ended up somewhere between The Office and Weiner – an almost parodic political documentary-gone-wrong. 

Asked what a PCC does, Ms Barnes’ startled response is simply “Oh dear!” During her explanation, she then misspells the initialism itself, writing ‘PPC’ on her flipchart. She spends £15,000 on a public outreach van, dubbed Ann Force 1… And later says “I could have had a top-of-the-range Mercedes, but it’s not my image.” The next shot, inevitably, shows her driving a convertible Mercedes into work. That’s before we get to ‘the onion’, which I’ll leave readers to find for themselves.

It’s not that Ms Barnes came across as a bad person. She seemed genuinely well-meaning and, by the way, successfully pushed Kent Police to improve its crime recording practices. But the documentary offered the worst possible PR for PCCs. 

So, with 24 days until you can elect your local PCC again on 2 May, it’s worth asking what they’re actually for and why you should bother to get out there and vote.

PCCs – what are they for?

The creation of PCCs is one of those rare policies which can largely be attributed to a single think tank. In this case, it was Policy Exchange who’d campaigned for elected police oversight for years.[2] The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 formally established that PCC role, replacing the network of police authorities where councillors oversaw the work of local forces.

When the policy was formally announced, then Home Secretary Rt Hon Theresa May MP made the case for PCCs:

These new measures will place the public back at the heart of our drive to cut crime, giving them a say in how their local area is policed by electing a Police and Crime Commissioner, and strengthening the powers that police and councils need to tackle crime and disorder at a local level.

The policy was framed in the language of democratic accountability and devolution. With each force across England and Wales accountable to a single elected figure, communities would have more of a voice in how the police went after criminals. There were clear echoes of the infamous Peelian principles, with the phrase ‘the police are the public and the public are the police’ cited directly by the Policing Minister of the time.

And so, police authorities, which the Government claimed were mostly “invisible and unaccountable” and had “been unable to properly hold chief constables to account”, were abolished. PCCs were on the way. 

And with this role came a pretty significant set of powers. PCCs produce a police and crime plan early on in their terms, setting the objectives for the local police force. They set the force’s budget, provide scrutiny and oversight, and commission victims’ services in the force area for a whole range of crimes. They also have the power to hire and fire the chief constable.

As we head into the new election, the current PCC picture looks like this: across the 43 police force areas in England and Wales, 34 have regular PCCs. A further 5 have Police, Fire and Crime Commissioners – PCCs who also oversee fire and rescue services in addition to their police duties. 3 forces are overseen by Deputy Mayors for Policing and Crime. Only the much smaller City of London Police force retains the police authority model. 

On the political front, it’s a sea of blue. Since the 2021 elections, there are 10 Labour PCCs or Deputy Mayors, 1 from Plaid Cymru, and 1 who’s politically neutral (in the City of London). The remaining 31 are all Conservatives.

A mixed picture

Things have moved on since 2012. For example, turnout has improved significantly – more than doubling from 15.1% to 33.2%. And, in my view, some PCCs have done valuable work in changing how police forces operate – something I saw first-hand working at the Association of PCCs from 2021-22. 

Bedfordshire’s PCC delivered a police and crime plan that put prevention first. South Wales’ PCC has pioneered a new governance model around police use of facial recognition. And in her time as a PCC, Dame Vera Baird massively improved the support offered to victims of violence against women and girls. At their best, PCCs can give victims a stronger voice and serve as valuable convenors and connectors across local services. 

And yet, there have been PCC controversies. There have been inappropriate comments – one PCC is standing down after calling his chief fire officer a “bitch.” Others have been more specific to the PCC role. Wiltshire’s PCC was forced to stand down post-election after breaching rules that bar candidates with specific previous convictions from running. The PCC for Nottinghamshire, Caroline Henry, faced calls to resign after being convicted of 5 speeding offences over just 12 weeks. 

Others have argued, much more simply, that the quality of PCC candidates has simply been too low for the post to prove successful. At a think tank event last year, ex-Home Secretary Amber Rudd said: “they haven’t worked because… we needed people of a really high calibre and there are only a few of those [serving as PCCs].”

Politics and the police

But the biggest risk is that of political interference. The separation of politics and policing is the hallmark of a functioning liberal democratic state; the doctrine of ‘operational independence’ is fiercely guarded by the police. So, do political PCCs inevitably undermine this essential principle?

This issue came to the fore during the Suella Braverman sacking – as covered by one of my fellow contributing writers last year. But it’s about more than just one incident. 

recent HMICFRS investigation noted that, while most chief constables said PCCs hadn’t engaged in political interference, there was one example of “an MP implying that a more senior political figure would become involved if a particular action was not taken.” Worrying, if rather vague. And Kent Chief Constable Tim Smith recently called on politicians to respect this boundary, saying: “They need to leave policing to us and focus on rightly questioning us about the service we deliver.”

Because PCCs can hire and fire chief constables, they’re in an especially powerful political position. Though they’ve only used the latter power once, it didn’t end well.

In April 2016, South Yorkshire PCC Alan Billings suspended and then sacked Chief Constable David Crompton, following criticism of the force after the Hillsborough inquest verdicts were published. Just over one year later, the High Court found this decision “unlawful” and “irrational”. Leaving aside the human element here – someone at the very peak of their professional life being unfairly dumped out of a job – the story is simple: a senior police officer was unlawfully removed by an elected politician. 

It is, thankfully, an extreme rarity. Yes, former Surrey PCC Kevin Hurley also revealed that he planned to push Lynne Owens to resign, before she became head of the National Crime Agency. But there’s been no wave of removals akin to Dominic Cummings’ purge of top civil service mandarins a few years ago.

That’s not to be complacent though. At a Home Affairs Committee hearing last year, Sir Tom Winsor, former head of HMICFRS, made pointed comments which gained less attention than they should have. He said:

I had a very disturbing conversation with one of the PCCs a number of years ago… She said, “Yes, but I don’t trust him. But I have appointed somebody I can control. And if he doesn’t do what he is told, I’ve told him I’ll invoke the removal procedure.” 

The individual matter on which she wanted to exercise control was keeping a police station open and requiring the chief constable to deploy officers to it. The chief had said, “You can keep the police station open—it’s your police station—but I am not deploying officers somewhere I don’t think they are needed.” She said, “Well, I will, if necessary, invoke the removal procedure.” 

I explained to the PCC that that would be illegal, and if the matter ended up on my desk… I would do everything in my power to stop it. 

Some PCCs—I certainly don’t say most—do not understand where the line of operational independence is, and some PCCs do not care. That was much more true of the first generation of PCCs… I think the present crop of PCCs are far better.

Why PCCs should matter to you 

For now, the jury’s still out on PCCs. That’s reflected in the spectrum of views among the different political parties of England and Wales.

The Lib Dems have pledged to outright “scrap PCCs and invest the savings in frontline policing instead.” The Greens want local referenda, giving each force area the option to abolish their PCC and revert back to a police authority. Reform UK advocate “scrap or reform”, so that PCCs either “get the power to make a real change or they should go.” What those powers are isn’t entirely clear. 

The main two parties are less critical. While Labour supported scrapping PCCs in 2014, the policy’s since been dropped according to the BBC. No doubt helped by an electoral map that – since 2021 at least – has been painted blue, the Tories have backed PCCs during all their years in power. 

But when the new election takes place on 2 May, that map could be coloured rather differently. With Labour riding high in the polls, could a new red wave see it become the party of the PCC and open the door to more critical Tory voices?

However the politics shakes out, PCCs remain quietly powerful figures for now. They set policing priorities where you live in. They choose your next chief constable and might end up sacking them too. They manage victim support services available to you or someone you love if they suffer a serious crime. 

So whether you think PCCs are a wonderful idea or dreadfully misconceived, they matter if you care at all about policing, crime or how victims are protected in our justice system. So, on 2 May 2, you have a simple responsibility: get out there and vote. 

James Sweetland. 

James Sweetland is a freelance researcher, writer and consultant who works on government reform, policing and tech policy. 

The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.

[1] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/conservative/9497754/Tory-police-candidates-must-find-5000-deposits-while-Labour-fund-theirs.html#

[2] See Damian Green making this very point during a speech at Policy Exchange: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/damian-greens-speech-to-the-policy-exchange-on-23-october-2012