Police

Why you should vote in the police commissioner elections

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, November 14 2012

IT is one of the ironies of the government's proposals for directly-elected police commissioners that public indifference to the idea is in stark contrast to the importance voters place on crime and safety.

(You see the same with Europe and voter turnout in the EU elections).

So, if the forecasts of pollsters are credible, turnout in tomorrow's ballot looks like being pretty dismal although there are some surveys suggesting that it might not be as bad as some fear.

Read our special report on the elections and find out who the candidates are

Plenty of people dislike the concept of elected commissioners and are uneasy about the idea that politicians who have to serve the twin interests of their party and residents may be in charge of such an important public service.

Many others remain thoroughly confused by what is going on and are labouring under the misapprehension that they are voting for American-style sheriffs, who will have control of the police force on a day-to-day basis.

Even some of Kent's candidates have failed to grasp the distinction between their strategic role, outlining pledges that stray into the chief constable's territory.

The government has to shoulder some responsibility for this confusion and apathy. It has not done as much as it should to promote the elections and explain clearly what they are about.

But this week's ballot is not on the government's handling of its flagship policy, much as some want it to be.

It is about who you think is the best person to do the job of ensuring Kent Police is keeping the streets, towns and villages safe and making sure that taxpayers are getting value for money.

And while there are undoubtedly imperfections in the arrangements for commissioners, the policy, for the first time, gives voters a direct say in who they want to do that job.

No-one has ever voted for anyone to be on the police authorities and the checks and balances on what they did were pretty non-existent.

Police commissioners, on the other hand, will have to be more transparent and accountable to residents. They will also be answerable to independent crime panels, who will be able to summon them to account - in public - about their decisions.

So, many may not like the idea but it would be wrong to stay at home as a way of registering disapproval.

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Making a prediction on the result appears to be beyond even those involved in masterminding their candidates' election campaigns.

The low turnout, coupled with a new voting system involving second preferences could skew the outcome in unpredictable ways.

For what it is worth, I would be surprised if any of Kent's six candidates win by securing a majority on first preferences.

Which brings us to which two candidates will make it through to the final round and the tricky issue of where second preference votes will go.

Best guess? There will be a run-off between the independent candidate Ann Barnes and the Conservative Craig Mackinlay.

But knowing where second preferences will go is virtually impossible. Possible scenarios? The Conservatives may pick up second preference votes from UKIP supporters - whose campaign has bordered on invisibility - and some of those backing the English Democrats.  

There is no natural second home for Labour supporters but I would guess they will go for an independent candidate (if they use it) as a strategy to stop the Conservatives winning.

Liberal Democrats have no candidate but it's a stretch to think they will back a Conservative or Labour candidate and are most likely to go for an independent and that will be Ann Barnes. Some may opt for Dai Liyanage who is a former Liberal.

One thing that could tip the scales is postal votes. Ann Barnes sent out a personal letter with the postal voting pack and her team believe it has paid dividends. For some reason, the Conservatives did not and feel they may have missed a trick.

Given all the uncertainties, perhaps the only safe thing to predict is that by Friday we will have Kent's first-directly elected police and crime commissioner...

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Categories: Police | Politics

Open to scrutiny? Why it could be hard to hold Kent's police commissioner to account

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Tuesday, October 30 2012

One of the many arguments advanced for  elected police commissioners  is that they will improve the accountability of police forces and will replace the bureaucratically-appointed police authorities.

It is claimed that as they are directly-elected, commissioners will be much more responsive to the public's concerns around policing.

You only have to read some of the candidates' policy pledges to see that this is something they are already attuned to, with many committing to populist policies like putting victims first, dealing with low level anti-social behaviour and being less harsh on motorists.

But if  you want greater accountability, you generally need greater transparency and arrangements for strong checks and balances in the system. Which is where the Kent and Medway Police and Crime Panel come in.

This panel, already operating in shadow form, is an important part of the new arrangements.  Its primary job will be to hold the elected commissioner to account - on behalf of the public. It will have strong statutory powers to call the commissioner to meetings, question them about decisions and policy and additonally can veto the commissioner's budget and the appointment of a chief constable.

Which is all to be welcomed, especially as these sessions will generally be held in public.

When it comes to what information the commissioner will be required to provide to the panel, the statutory requirements again appear robust.

The key word here is "appear." A document setting out the protocols - called the Information Sharing Agreement - has just been published and will be considered by the panel next week.

It raises some issues for me about whether there could be too much leeway for commissioners to withold from the panel information they have asked for and whether important discussions around the commissioner's activities could take place behind closed doors.

First, the positives: the protocol states that the panel will be able to review any decision taken by a commissioner and those decisions will have to be published by the commissioner. There will be regular performance reports to the panel as well as reports on a range of subjects from the budget, complaints and the police and crime plan.

The panel will additionally be able to request information "on an ad-hoc and unplanned basis" to help it  "scrutinise the actions of the commissioner." 

However, there are qualifications around such requests for information. The protocol says the information must be "reasonably required" by the panel. Unfortunately, there is no definition in the legislation of this - and it will be for the commissioner or their representative to determine whether a request is reasonable or not.

More concerning is the section of the protocol headed "Incidences when information will not be shared." Clearly, it is hard to counter the argument that information will not be disclosed where it might compromise the force's operational ability to tackle crime.

But the document states that "members of the commissioner's staff are not required to disclose to the panel..evidence or documents containing advice given to the PCC. This also includes political and legal advice."  

Suppose a chief constable was to advise a commissioner that a policy proposal, or spending commitment might be unviable or have adverse consequences for crime detection? Under the protocol, any written advice could be witheld.

Suppose a force chief executive was to advise a commissioner that their action strayed over into operational affairs rather than strategic ones? Again, it need not be shared with the panel.

It also states the panel will have no powers to "request information from the Force...other than general rights under the Freedom of Information Act" - which presumably means that police chiefs, including the chief constable, could not be asked about anything - something that the soon-to-be-scrapped police authorities do at their meetings. (It is not clear at all whether the panel has any powers to summon the chief constable to answer questions).

Another section, headed "Requests for information to be exempt from public disclosure" states that the commissioner will be entitled to request that information provided to the panel "is not published or [be considered] exempt from public disclosure".

It adds that while the commissioner "recognises the Panel has a duty to operate in an open and transparent manner, there is certain information which is sensitive in nature and which would not be appropriately released in the public domain."

Where the panel accedes, the sensitive information may be debated in "closed session."

The protocol emphasises that these occasions will be the exception to the rule but even so, it appears that there are loopholes that could allow our elected commissioner to be less accountable than they should.

If elected police commissioners are to gain public confidence , it is important they discharge their duties in as open and accountable way as possible.

That applies equally to the panel charged with scrutinising what commissioners are up to.

Read the Information Sharing Agreement here:

kentpccpanel.pdf (139.45 kb)

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Categories: Police | Politics

Are the odds stacked against independents in the police commissioner race?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, September 21 2012

IT looked like it was becoming a crowded field but the race to become Kent's first elected police commissioner has lost one of its hopefuls just weeks away from polling day.

Independent candidate quits police commissioner race>>>

Independent candidate Ian Driver has quit and says he is doing so because he cannot find the money to run a campaign. It is not just a question of the £5,000 deposit - not necessarily refundable - all candidates need, he says.

On his calculations, the minimum a candidate will need is £30,000 just to get a leaflet to Kent's 1.2million voters.

So, are the odds stacked in favour of the main parties?

Financially as well as practically, they may be as they have access to foot soldiers in the form of activists, councillors and party supporters who - even when their party is unpopular - can usually be co-erced or cajoled into helping knock on doors, stuff envelopes and yes, dip ino their pockets to pay for meetings and literature.

Where does the independent candidate get access to that kind of support network from a standing start? It's worth noting that candidates in Kent, will under the Home Office rules be able to spend up to £228,338 each on their campaigns.

Independents can't even really get an upper hand through social media - everyone, including the main parties - is attuned to how useful that is now in generating interest.

Ian Driver, who had some interesting if controversial ideas, says he won't be the last to have to drop out because of the costs and I agree.

The irony is that the coalition said it wanted to encourage candidates from outside the political mainstream to stand but in many areas will have elections in which the front-runners will prove to be conventional party stalwarts from fairly traditional political backgrounds.

Is that what the Home Office hoped for? Cast your mind back to the Conservative party conference when Home Secretary Theresa May announced that Iraqi war veteran Tim Collins was in the frame for the Kent job as a Conservative candidate. He was, she said, an example of the kind of independent person the government wanted to stand for the job.

Collins lost interest but in one of his early interviews before opting out had said:

 It is important that it doesn't become just a talking shop for knackered old policemen or a sunset gig for some trough-loving councillor."

Perhaps the independents have one advantage.

It is that with a record low turnout predicted, a few could squeeze through the middle just as they have in council elections for directly-elected mayors.

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Categories: Police

The twists and turns in the Conservative race to become Kent's first elected police chief

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, June 8 2012

Having lost the Iraqi war veteran Tim Collins from the contest before it had begun, some may have thought that the race to become the Conservative candidate for the role of Kent's first elected police commissioner stood to become a damp squib.

Read our special report on elected police commissioners>>>>

But the final shortlist of three is more interesting than it might have been, notably because of the presence of Jan Berry, who was the national chair of the Police Federation for several years and then became a government adviser on cutting police red tape. She also rose through the ranks in the Kent force, which she joined in 1971 and retired 37 years later as a chief inspector.

So, no-one could say that she lacks relevant experience or expertise - although if I was the Kent chief constable, I might be a little disquieted at the prospect of having a former "shop steward" taking such a key role. On the other hand, rank and file police officers would probably be rather reassured at the idea. It's not entirely clear when Jan threw her hat in the ring with the Conservatives but she's certainly someone who, on paper, has a good CV.

The other two candidates are Francois Gordon, a former UK Ambassador to Aleria, the Ivory Coast and British High Commissioner to Uganda. He is also a European strategy adviser to Kent Police, although I have to admit I'm unclear what this entails.

The final name in the hat is that of Medway councillor Craig Mackinlay, who was brought up in Kent, trained as a chartered accountant and tax adviser and is now a partner in a Kent firm. He stood as a UKIP candidate in three general elections - the last for Gillingham in 2005 - and also stood as a candidate for the party in European elections before signing up with the Tories in 2005. (It will be interesting to see if UKIP decides to put up a candidate in the race).

The outcome should be known in a week after three hustings meetings have taken place.

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It seems Kent Police are determined to adopt a low key approach to the Olympics.

At least, that is the conclusion I have drawn from a response the force made to a Freedom of Information request I submitted trying to elicit a few details about its contigency plans to deal with various security and transport issues.

Apparently, the force will adopt a "business as usual" procedures at spots such as Ebbsfleet station and the Channel Tunnel - advising me that these are strictly the responsibility of the Port of Dover Police and the British Transport Police anyway. As to immigration matters, "such specific details relating to these locations will therefore not be held by Kent Police" as they are primarily the responsibility of the Home Office and the UK Borders Agency.

When it comes to dealing with illegal or ad hoc camping sites "there are no plans held" and "any such matters will be dealt with on a case by case basis" - wait for it - "as business as usual."

When it comes to dealing with contingency plans to deal with an incident involving mass casualties or fatalities "there are no plans held by Kent Police...that relate specifically to the Olympics."

One step the force is taking however is to restrict police leave "to ensure that a maximum number are available for any increases in demand throughout Kent" - an interesting phrase as it does not even concede that there will, for the biggest event staged in the UK ever - be any increased demand for extra officers.

I am guessing the response is designed to be reassuring. But for some reason, I can't help thinking it's not.

Indeed, as the chairman of Kent Police Authority Ann Barnes put it in 2011 when she complained about the lack of extra funding for security coming Kent's way to deal with the Games:  

"There's a £500m security budget and not a single penny coming to Kent despite the fact that because of the geography we have a huge policing operation here."

"We don't have events but we have dozens of training camps, we're the gateway to Europe, and we'll have hundreds of thousands of people coming through the ports and the Channel Tunnel."

Indeed, as we reported recently, KCC has already voiced concerns about the influx of tens of thousands of visitors through the county and the prospect of disruption and congestion at key points of the transport network.

Read the Kent Police FOI response here  PoliceOlympics.pdf (240.22 kb)

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Categories: Olympics | Police | Politics

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