On November 15, the people of West Yorkshire will elect their first ever Police and Crime Commissioner. But, as crime reporter Sam Casey found out, the four candidates’ first job is to defy predictions of a record low turnout.
This weekend, polling cards started dropping onto doormats across Leeds.
It’s likely that they were met with bemused expressions by thousands of householders. Ask people what significant election is due to take place next month and it’s conceivable that, of those who would be able to offer any answer, a significant proportion, if not most, would mention the American presidential race.
However, while none of us has any say over whether Mitt Romney replaces Barack Obama in the White House on November 6, anyone who has received a polling card in the last few days will have the opportunity to take part in shaping policing in West Yorkshire in one of the most important changes in living memory.
On November 15, the first West Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) will be elected, replacing unelected police authorities.
Taking up the post a week later, he or she will be paid £100,000 a year to control police budgets, set priorities and hire and fire the chief constable.
They will have no direct influence over operational policing, which will remain the responsibility of the chief constable.
David Cameron insists that having a directly elected individual overseeing the work of uniformed officers means the public will have a greater say over how they are policed.
And yet, if the experts are to be believed, the public doesn’t seem to care.
Only one in five of those entitled to cast a vote – possibly fewer – is likely to bother, raising questions about the legitimacy of the mandate bestowed upon the successful candidate.
The Electoral Reform Society fears turnout in West Yorkshire could be even lower, making it, by some distance, the worst in history.
Katie Ghose, chief executive of the society, told the YEP: “Only time will tell whether enough was done to avert disaster.
“Our concern is that the government has a legitimate aim to build bridges between the public and the police and give people a say in crime and policing. If the turnout is as low as expected that will make it impossible for whoever it is to fulfil the role with a real mandate.”
The idea for police and crime commissioners – the government’s flagship policing and criminal justice reform – was conceived to make the police more accountable to the electorate.
It is hoped they will be much more prominent and identifiable individuals than police authorities, which have been dubbed “shadowy bodies”.
Those elected will be responsible for ensuring value for money by controlling police budgets and dictating what the force’s priorities should be by drawing up a five-year policing plan based on consultation with the electorate and other statutory organisations within criminal justice.
But participation in the election is likely to be hampered by the fact it is taking place in isolation – as opposed to being bolted onto another poll – and in winter.
A late push to improve turnout has involved television advertisements and, yesterday, the distribution of millions of pamphlets to homes.
But at the weekend former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair urged people not to vote because he believes the areas PCCs will have to cover are too large.
Stuart Lister, lecturer in criminal justice at Leeds University, called the introduction of PCCs “the biggest single reform to policing for 50 years.”
But he agreed with Sir Ian’s assessment.
“One of the problems is that they will be working across vast areas, which raises a question about how they allocate resources and which communities they are responsive to,” he said.
“The positives are that you will see the PCC as a relatively high-profile person who will act as a figurehead for policing in the local area and it may take the pressure off police in terms of having to respond in public to high-profile situations.
“The public are also more likely to know what to do if they feel they have received a poor service.
“But if 80 per cent of people don’t participate, that begins to call into question the democratic mandate of the commissioners and the extent to which they can legitimately provide the accountability and the oversight they were introduced to provide.”
Ms Ghose said voters lacked adequate information, especially because candidates have been denied the right to send out free election materials.
“One of the worst features has been the failure to give voters information about the candidates,” she said.
“If they don’t know who’s standing, and if the candidates don’t have the chance to talk to voters, they can’t expect to make informed decisions.”
In West Yorkshire the four candidates – three representing the three main political parties and one independent – face the daunting task of convincing more than 1.5 million potential voters to put the cross next to their name.
Labour’s Mark Burns-Williamson admitted getting the message across to people was proving difficult.
Mr Burns-Williamson, who is campaigning on a platform of opposition to cuts to the West Yorkshire Police budget and concern about the threat of privatisation of police functions, said: “There’s a low awareness and I think the government has to shoulder a lot of the blame for taking the decision to have an election in the middle of November and not allowing candidates to have Freepost election materials.
“It’s made raising awareness of the election an uphill struggle.”
Conservative candidate Geraldine Carter, who wants to see the volunteer special constables embedded with neighbourhood policing teams rather than assigned to division and wants victims of crime to be given greater attention, said PCCs would be preferable to police authorities.
“If you look at the police authority, it’s quite an anonymous body,” she said.
“Do they really have a voice? Are they really strong enough when it comes to holding the force to account? The PCC will be someone who is accountable to people in a way that hasn’t happened in the past.
“It’s also of use in terms of getting people to work together towards the same agenda.”
Andrew Marchington, who is standing for the Lib Dems, said the problem with the police authorities was that people did not know who to contact if they had a problem.
Mr Marchington’s campaign is based on cutting red tape, engaging victims more in the process of community sentencing and tackling violent crime.
He said: “This will be a really powerful position – leading crime and community safety across West Yorkshire
“We’re going to get one, whether we need one or not. It could be brilliant. If we have someone who’s doing it as a retirement plan and who isn’t really bothered, it will be a waste of time.”
Former police officer Cedric Christie, standing as an independent, makes up the list of nominees.
Campaigning on a platform of restoring trust in the police, he insisted there was enthusiasm among the public for the role of the PCC.
“The public really care about policing and how they are policed.
“I want the highest turnout in the country here in West Yorkshire and I’m happy we can achieve that.”
Twenty-three days from today, we will find out whether the voters of West Yorkshire have justified his confidence.