Until a month or so ago, not many people had a view on whether the new Police and Crime Commissioners will be a success – for the simple reason that most people didn’t know anything about them.
Now, with just over three weeks to go to the election on 15 November, there has been a surge in publicity.
The Home Office has launched its controversial TV advert:
The Prime Minister mentioned them at length in his speech about crime yesterday.
The BBC has a dedicated website updated several times a day.
And I have to be much more selective about which coverage I update to the PCC Scoopit site that I curate:
As the debate has intensified, it has, inevitably, polarised.
Those in favour of Police and Crime Commissioners argue that the police should be locally accountable to a democratically elected figure.
They see considerable potential for co-ordinating local criminal justice systems, streamlining legal processes and improving overall impact which they say is particularly critical in the current financial climate with cuts in overall expenditure and the number of police (and probation) officers.
Some think that public services, particularly the police, have been over-funded and it will take an outsider to impose radical change.
They also say that the work of PCCs will be much more transparent and open to public debate than the current system of police authorities.
Those against the idea are most concerned about the politicisation of the process, with many seeing the motivation of introducing PCCs as a way of leading the privatisation or “outsourcing” of many police roles and duties.
The original idea – that PCCs should be independent local people of high calibre with great personal authority – has been much diluted with all the main parties fielding candidates and only a couple of independents expected to get in.
There has been increasing criticism of the calibre of candidates, including the case of independent Lincolnshire candidate Mervyn Barrett which is getting plenty of national media attention.
Most commentators are prepared to acknowledge that there is a varied field ranging from natural leaders with a clear grasp of the key issues to some distinctly underwhelming candidates who seem to lack any policies apart from the fact that they don’t like criminals.
Some have been much less charitable:
Others agree with PCCs in principle, but think that in practice many Chief Constables will out-manoeuvre PCCs who will have little or no impact.
There has generally been consensus amongst those for and against the idea of PCCs that holding a stand-alone election in the middle of November is a very risky strategy.
This decision (purportedly as a result of a compromise reached between the two coalition parties) has resulted in even the most optimistic predicting turn-out rates of 20%.
It will be interesting to see if turnout is higher in Northamptonshire, where it is likely that the Corby by-election following Louise Mensch’s retirement will be held on the same day.
I am also hoping that Lancashire will have a higher turnout rate since it has been running a full on campaign for months including even a specially commissioned song performed by the Lancashire Hotpots. (Follow @LancsPCC to see the whole range of promotional materials).
The other area where there is general agreement between both camps is a genuine curiosity over how one elected individual will fare in trying to lead the work of a number of different agencies who are all run by non-elected Chief Executives.
The proposed English and Welsh system is very different from the US one where the DA, sheriff and judges are all elected.
In London (and New York) the elected Mayor appoints his own Police Commissioner and is, consequently, confident that they will be able to work together.
Wait and see
In less oppositional moments, many are prepared to admit to a more honest assessment that they just don’t know how PCCs will work in practice.
Starting from 19th November, we will all get a better idea.
The only organisation I know that is absolutely convinced that PCCs are going to be the best thing since sliced bread is the Reform think tank which has just published a policy document advocating that PCCs should be in control not just of police and criminal justice agencies, but emergency services such as fire and ambulance too.
This is such a unique standpoint that I have saved discussion of it to a separate blog post.