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Opinion: Kent Police and Crime Commissioner role confusing to voters, leading to apathy and low turnout at elections

The creation of police and crime commissioners has had a chequered history and has rightly faced criticism about what they do and what they can’t.

As the latest set of elections for 41 commissioners loom, it could be argued that some of the flaws of the policy have been ironed out. The one that hasn’t been eradicated is the question of public confusion over what they actually do and are for.

Paul Francis gives his view on the latest in politics
Paul Francis gives his view on the latest in politics

The central question is where strategic oversight ends and frontline policing begins - the critical separation of powers and responsibilities.

This confusion was acknowledged by the politician who claims responsibility for the introduction of crime commissioners.

Dan Hannan, a former Kent MEP and Conservative commentator, was a party adviser who pressed it to adopt the idea, saying it would improve the accountability of police forces.

Giving the commissioners the powers that used to be exercised by unelected police authorities was not seen as a priority by voters, many of whom probably had more pressing concerns.

Unfortunately, it led to precisely the confusion the policy was designed to avoid when the public was invited to vote in 2012 on who they wanted to do the job under the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011.

Turnout was catastrophically low at about 15% - roughly half what you get in council elections - vividly illustrating the point that it was not that voters were disinterested but that no one had fully explained to them what they were.

In Kent, Ann Barnes, who held the role of the chairman of the police authority and publicly criticised the policy, stood for and was elected on a turnout of 16.3% - not the most compelling vindication of the policy.

Kent Police and Crime Commissioner Matthew Scott. Picture: Local Democracy Reporting Service
Kent Police and Crime Commissioner Matthew Scott. Picture: Local Democracy Reporting Service

Ironically, public indifference to the concept stemmed partly from the fact that many had no real idea of what it was that commissioners were replacing.

Hannan admitted the public had been led to believe the commissioners would be heroic crime-busting elected sheriffs who would stand in the frontline of the fight to bring criminals to book.

In fact, their role is not to break down criminal gangs but to oversee spending, hold the force to account and, where necessary, sack the chief constable.

For some, this was enough for the lines to be blurred, leading to misunderstanding that in turn led to antipathy.

Kent’s own chief constable Tim Smith felt the need to remind people of the difference between the force and the commissioner at a summit earlier this year, urging that frontline officers be allowed to get on with the job.

So, the concept of crime commissioners remains undeveloped, a little unloved and one that confuses voters.

Replacing one unelected body in the form of police authorities with a single individual democratically elected ticks most of the right boxes in terms of accountability.

But they remain frustratingly difficult to explain to voters. The solution? Who knows. But it will take more than a shiny sheriff’s badge.

Kent Police’s HQ
Kent Police’s HQ

• How much did it cost Kent Police to relocate from its Sutton Road HQ in Maidstone to new premises in north Kent? And how much did it cost when it decided that it would relocate back from north Kent, er, to its former HQ?

The force’s u-turn came after its plans to raise income by selling the site failed.

It’s certainly a matter of public interest given that the decision would have involved public money so what happened when we submitted a Freedom of Information request seeking the details?

The request was rejected on the grounds that at the time, publication of the information was deemed as imminent and that as a consequence, it need not under the exemptions in the Act, be required to disclose it.

Authorities are, however, required under the exemption to have already determined a date by which it would be made public; they can’t on receipt of an FOI request decide to invoke the exemption at some as yet undetermined time.

So, where are we with the release of this information? In limbo, it seems. The information is now expected to be released by the end of the year, apparently in line with the force’s ‘publication strategy’.

Green Party boss Stuart Jeffery appeared on the Kent Politics Podcast
Green Party boss Stuart Jeffery appeared on the Kent Politics Podcast

• We don’t want to put you off your lunch but we have important fashion news to impart. The Green councillor Stuart Jeffery, who represents Maidstone council, told the Kent Politics Podcast he had “been a bit of a hippy in my teenage years…when the Greens were hippies but we’re not any more.”

As usual, if anyone out there has the pictorial evidence to corroborate this, please let us know.

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