Commissioner crisis warning

Northamptonshire Police Authority chairman Deirdre Newham
Northamptonshire Police Authority chairman Deirdre Newham

THE chairman of Northamptonshire Police Authority has warned the county may be sleepwalking into a crisis with the change to an elected police and crime commissioner.

Deirdre Newham has warned that an unprepared and disinterested electorate will be asked to make a decision it does not want with the election of a civilian to set the force’s budget and priorities on November 15.

And she says a “badly thought out” timetable means the new commissioner, who is predicted by some to be elected on a turnout as low as 15 per cent, will have just six weeks to make multi-million pound decisions on how the county is policed for the next three years.

Mrs Newham said: “We go out and talk to people regularly. They care about safety and what’s happening on the streets, but I don’t think they care who does it as long as it’s happening on the streets. That’s the difficulty.

“Persuading people to go out on a late, dark November day is going to be difficult, but if they want to have a say they need to put crosses on a ballot paper.”

Police authority deputy chief executive David Peet, who is managing the transition to the new arrangement, said the commissioner will have to set out their plans within five to six weeks of taking up the new £70,000-a-year post because councillors on a new police and crime panel will need time to scrutinise them before council tax letters are printed ready for the new financial year.

The authority’s small staff of six will attempt to draft plans based on candidates’ manifestos so the new commissioner can hit the ground running.

The authority is also preparing information packs for potential candidates and offering face-to-face meetings to discuss the role.

The Association of Chief Police Officers is inviting potential candidates to its conference.

Mr Peet said: “They are not going to come in and there is blank piece of paper. We have been budgeting.

“We will look at the manifestos and as best we can marry that with a policing plan.”

In future the elections will be held in May, giving new commissioners six months longer to make their plans.

Some fear the new elected commissioners could politicise the police.

Commissioners of a different party to the Government could end up in a power struggle with the Home Office or Treasury over police budgets and priorities.

The Government has capped the amount police authorities can increase their element of council tax at four per cent, limiting their power to determine how much is spent on policing.

And a public that lacks understanding of police and crime commissioners’ local role may use the election as a referendum on the national government, as happens with council elections.

Mrs Newham said: “If you think of general elections, local elections become a way of making a protest vote. Will this be treated as a local election that people can use to make a protest vote or will they think very carefully about who they want to hold the office?

“I don’t think it has been thought through.”