Published: 06:00, 27 January 2021
They were meant to galvanise public interest in the fight against crime and champion the needs of victims of crime.
But as the third election for the job of Kent police and crime commissioner looms, how much do voters really care? Political Editor Paul Francis reports.
If you are looking for an indicator of the success or failure of a political reform, one place to start would be how people express their views - either through the ballot box or in consultation.
In the case of the installation of crime commissioners a decade ago, the electorate’s verdict has not been so much hostile as indifferent.
In Kent, turnout in 2016 was just 21% - while four years earlier it was a paltry 16%, it was still below the national average of 26%.
You could hardly call it a healthy democratic mandate, particularly given it was, at the time, one of the government’s flagship crime initiatives.
Crime commissioners replaced unelected cross-party police authorities - and there is certainly no great clamour for their return.
But explaining the indifference and lack of engagement among voters is difficult. Surveys on people’s priorities for their community routinely cite crime, anti-social behaviour and the need to support victims of crime.
So, why, when an opportunity arises to have a say on these issues, do voters choose not to - given that in the case of Kent, the commissioner is in charge of a £347 million budget and oversees 3,780 police officers?
One explanation is the misapprehension that commissioners are directing frontline operations in the fight against crime, when in fact their role is strategic.
This confusion can lead to unrealistic expectations - with the public believing that commissioners have powers more akin to American-style sherriffs.
Theresa May, the Home Secretary who pushed through the idea, admitted ahead of elections in 2016 she feared the government had “created a monster.”
But her pledge to explore giving commissioners more powers was a signal that the initiative was not going to be scrapped.
Henry Bolton, who stood under the Ukip banner in Kent in 2016, believes public confusion about the commissioner’s duties is at the root of the problem.
Some commissioners had also “brought about a situation where there is less communication between the police and the population... The other problem is that actually some are not competent enough and do not have the skills and experience to do the job."
Current commissioner Matthew Scott, who is standing for a second term, sees things differently.
“I think the role is a success. That's why the government's looking at extending our powers and not taking them away. I think you only have to look at the successes that we've had, with regards to police numbers to crime prevention, the launch of other schemes such as the police cadets and the retention of police stations: the public has got someone who's speaking up for them who's fighting crime and putting police back on the streets that's exactly what this model was supposed to do.”
He says those initiatives couldn’t have been done under the old system, which he remembers as "bureaucratic committees that had lots of meetings and were expensive to run".
“We're more directly involved and we provide absolutely clear direction," he added but concedes there remains some confusion over the limits on his powers.
He said: “People constantly refer to us as police chiefs or police bosses when we're nothing of the sort.”
The commissioner’s office and his team cost £1.4m for 2020-2021 - Mr Scott's website stresses that is less expensive than the former police authority, although the comparative figure is not provided.
Graham Colley, who is standing for the Liberal Democrats, is blunt about the public’s diffidence: “I just don’t think people consider them very important. Our view is that they should be abolished and replaced by a committee.”
He is sceptical the solution is to give commissioners more powers: “Their role is not to get involved operationally and if you give them more powers, the closer you get to bringing them into operational matters.”
The party committed to abolishing commissioners at the 2019 election, saying they would be replaced by panels of local councillors.
The government announced a review of the policy last September, which would focus on giving them more powers.
It did not, however, say anything about the democratic deficit and what could be done to increase chronically low turnout or attract more independent candidates.
Gurvinder Sandher, who heads the Kent Equality Cohesion Council, stood as an independent in 2016.
He said it is hard to compete with parties who can rely on an army of activists to help campaign.
Add in the £5,000 deposit prospective candidates need, along with 100 signatures needed to get nominated and it is, he argues, already an uneven playing field.
“In this day and age, for an independent to win, they have either got to be really wealthy or have some kind of party behind them," he complains.
“Commissioners do have a lot of powers but the government did say the role was not party political... if you look at the 43 in post, there are only a couple who are independent.”
Labour candidate Lola Oweyusi says if the election is to take place against a backdrop of the pandemic, there needs to be a drive to get people to use a postal vote.
“People need to stop complaining from the sidelines... it is absolutely necessary for voters of all ages to get involved and have their say.”
With some candidates offering fairly bland pledges, she has already raised her profile with her support for the decriminalisation of cannabis - although it is not an issue the commissioner has any say in.
If the election does take place on May 6 - and there is no guarantee it will - turnout could be better as it would coincide with the Kent county council election.
But if the third election draws a similar turnout as the previous two, the government may need to find some answers to some awkward questions sooner rather than later.
Kent’s police and crime commissioners - and some who wanted to be:
Ann Barnes: was the county’s first holder of the post in 2012. An independent candidate, she was, at the time, the chairman of the Kent Police Authority and had criticised the idea of commissioners, saying it risked the politicisation of the force.
Her term in office was punctuated by mishaps and she faced criticism over a fly-on-the-wall documentary that led to her having to make a public apology. Her appointment of a youth crime commissioner - her flagship initiative - also ran into trouble. Paris Brown, the 17-year-old who took up the role, resigned over offensive tweets.
Matthew Scott: Elected in 2016 in a tight battle with then Ukip candidate Henry Bolton. He served as a councillor in Bexley from 2006 to 2010. Although he had no direct experience of policing, his father and brother were both serving officers. During his term, he has focused on recruiting more police officers - claiming since his election an additional 800 jobs have been created.
He is aiming for a second term and has been re-selected as the Conservative candidate.
Henry Bolton: A former police officer, Bolton, who lives in Folkestone, contested the 2016 election as a Ukip candidate.
He went on to become leader of Ukip in 2017 but was forced to quit in 2018 after revelations about his personal life and relationship with Maidstone model Jo Marney which led to a vote of no confidence at a special meeting in 2018. He has not ruled out another tilt at the election.
Craig Mackinlay: Now Conservative MP for South Thanet, he stood in 2016 but lost out to Ann Barnes, whose campaign centred on a pledge to resist the politicisation of the force.
Steve Uncles: The ex-regional leader of the English Democrats stood in 2016 but came last. A year later he was convicted of electoral fraud after Kent County Council elections in 2013.
He was found guilty of putting forward fictional candidates as well as people who had not agreed to stand.
Uncles, from Dartford was jailed for seven-and-a-half months.
Fergus Wilson: The often controversial former landlord had hoped to stand as a candidate in 2016 but was thwarted after he posted his nomination papers rather than handing them in, one of the conditions for would-be candidates.
He lost an appeal against the decision at the High Court.