PCC 2016: Wisbech Hustings

First things first.  My health declaration: I joined the Labour Party when I was 17 and despite an especially trying year I do not anticipate this changing any time soon.  I’ll also state I have delivered leaflets for Dave Baigent but have not contributed, or been asked to, with regard to his campaign strategy.

wisbech police 2

Scene setting

The reasoning behind the role of Police and Crime Commissioner is to provide a means of direct public accountability for the operation of (primarily) the police service.  It is also proposes that the PCC will work with a range of stakeholders to implement public policies which reduce crime.  On the evidence of what has been delivered across the country since the election of the first PCCs this is clearly dependant on the personal interests and motivation of the individual, rather than a driver for any centrally derived priorities or programmes.

In Cambridgeshire, Sir Graham Bright (Conservative), was elected on a turnout of 14.77%.  It would be fair observation that this initiative did not capture the public imagination, and that still today very few people would be able to point readily to any significant achievements of the post.  It would also be a reasonable bet that very few people could name the PPC, describe the role, or even select the PCC from a police line up.  It is anticipated that because the voting will be taking place on the same day as local elections in 2016 the vote should be boosted.  It needs to be.

However, will any voter outside of the die-hard politicos have any real understanding of the different positions for the candidates?  Will the career CVs matter more in a role which is largely one of strategy and administration?  Or will voters simply put their mark next to a political party?  The mainstream political parties currently seem committed to the role and those of us (me included) who remain opposed to it must accept this and rather look to reform the agenda and in the meantime campaign for the best candidate for the role.  We cannot “keep politics out of policing” but we can campaign for greater transparency, community participation and accountability.

Policing is political.  It is an arm of the state seeking to control (for good reasons or bad) the behaviour of its citizens. How the police manage protest demonstrations, for example, or which organisations they class as a threat to law-and-order and so justify infiltration and surveillance, or whether or not they choose to investigate allegations of phone-hacking, are highly politicised matters.

So, I don’t have a problem with political parties sponsoring and supporting PCC candidates.  A question was asked about whether the role of PCC was better suited to an Independent rather than a party person.  An Independent candidate may have plenty to offer but will always have an uphill struggle getting their messages across against the organisation and resources of the political parties. But although some may question whether PCCs will really have much influence over their local police forces, if there has to be a figurehead then I see the introduction of an elected and accountable person as a step in the right direction.  I wonder what the long term impact of democratic Mayors might have in future.

Wisbech Hustings

In the 5 years in which I have been involved in local politics – including the 2015 General Election campaign – this was the best attended public meeting.  As far as I could see every seat was taken, and it was a good mix of people which ensured that every candidate started with a degree of support.
For the reason provided atop I don’t wish this to be seen as campaigning material (which it is not intended as).  I’m not going so provide an assessment of candidates before the vote but just want to provide a summary of the frustrations as expressed by local residents, and my observations of the candidates “corporate” responses as means to highlight what needs to improve if the democratic element of the PCC agenda is ever to be fulfilled.
Public Concerns
There were three main areas of questions.  To be honest these should have been “meat and vegetables” to any person who was serious about taking on the role.
  1. As articulated by several people and roundly applauded by most; the prevalence of low level crime and incidents.  The specific examples included illegal parking and public drinking.
  2. The absence of police patrols – to deter crime – but also failure of PCSOs to properly challenge poor behaviours in town centre.
  3. The poor response times by police in responding to calls.  One resident complained it had taken the police 72 hours to respond to his grandson being assaulted.
My personal view is that public perception and discussion contribute as much to people’s concerns as does actual crime.  But to date there has been an absolute failure to address this – a press release citing low local crimes does little to assure the wider population.  A positive which came from all of the candidates is a willingness to engage with local communities as this event did – and certainly it would be good to see PCC and local Councillors being regularly held to account in future.
Except for the Liberal Democrat (with unspecified proposal to prevent crime) all candidates gave a degree of assurance that additional police resources would be provided.  Labour is committed to trialling a scheme to provide additional police officers in Peterborough, Cambridge and Huntingdon before “rolling out”.  This went down badly – probably not the proposal but the terms.  Everyone in Wisbech feels we are “last to be fed” and very much the poor country cousins.  The methodology, the general approach, might be correct (although I would propose a pilot of City, Town and Rural) but all candidates should have been better informed regarding local sensitivities.  Both Conservative and UKIP candidates would provide “additional” Officers but no details on how this might be financed across the whole county.
Local Knowledge
I was taken by the apparent lack of local knowledge by the candidates.  I would suggest that reporting your number of visits to a town are meaningless unless you have gained knowledge or experience from it.  It should have been apparent to anyone who has invested time in the marketplace the strength of feeling within the town on crime and social issues.  But I saw little evidence of this being fed back in replies to questions, indeed all candidates seemed to me to be surprised by the strength of feeling in the hall.
To be honest, except for organisation and finance, there was very little difference between the respective platforms – just nuance of priorities.  But the apparent lack of briefing from local parties was self-evident – and aside for the need to properly engage with communities there is a need for more listening and engaging with supporters in forming policy and positions.  Certainly there should not have been any surprises for any candidate.
I also noted that the summaries of the candidates – outside of personal statements – were very similar too.  Great opportunity to present original idea or suggestion – but there was no innovation revealed over the 2 hours.  I would suggest that again we are asking for public to make a choice when overall there is little to choose between.  I also found it striking how little criticism was drawn by the current PCC, surely the party political record would be fair game?  After all since 2010 17,000 Police Officers have been removed from the front-line.
My questions:
  1. Wisbech marks poorly on social, health and education indices – which are all contributory factors in cause of crime.  How will the PCC engage with stakeholders to draw a strategy which addresses the failings and reduces crime?
  2. What is the role of the PCC in seeking to promote community relations and pursue policies of social cohesion to reduce anti-social activity.
  3. How will PCC engage with Young People – to improve relationships with police but also to act upon their concerns, and contribute to pro-social activities?
  4. How will PCC ensure that police resources are fairly distributed across Cambridgeshire.
  5. How will this be decided, and will public have sight?
  6. What additional steps will you take to actively recruit from minority groups to ensure that the police service is a reflection of the communities they serve?
  7. Do you have plans to further invest in technologies – either to reduce costs or improve effectiveness.
  8. How will you involve the voluntary sector, in community engagement for example.  Are there areas of your activity which might benefit from letting or participating in social enterprise?
  9. How will Cambridgeshire police respond to the reform agenda in the wider criminal justice environment?
  10. Will you, as PCC, and your staff publish membership, affiliation and sponsorship by all organisations, societies and clubs.
The Runners
Jason Ablewhite Conservative
Dave Baigent Labour
Nick Clarke UKIP
Rupert Moss-Eccardt Liberal Democrat

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