Candidates for Police Commissioner urge free mailshot

 

A group of independent candidates for Police and Crime Commissioners in England and Wales have urged the Government to level the playing field by giving them a free mailshot.

Candidates for the November elections, which will lead to police authorities being replaced by the commissioners, say the polls will be unfairly weighted in favour of political hopefuls backed by parties because information is not going to every voter.

The Home Office has said information about every candidate will be published online and, for everyone who wants it, delivered in written form.

But Ann Barnes, who is standing in Kent, said the failure to give candidates a free mailshot to voters was "perverse and undemocratic".

"There's a very real threat that our police force, with its very long and very proud history, will be under the control of a political activist," she said.

Mrs Barnes, who has been chairwoman of Kent Police Authority for six years, is handing a petition to Downing Street today.

The current system means candidates backed by major political parties - and their money - will be at an advantage over independents, she said.

The first elections for Police and Crime Commissioners, who will set force budgets and have the power to hire and fire Chief Constables, will take place in 41 regions on November 15.

A Home Office spokeswoman said: "The election of Police and Crime Commissioners will give the public a real opportunity to choose who they want to represent their views on crime.

"Every household will receive information about the November elections for Police and Crime Commissioners from the Electoral Commission.

"Furthermore, information about every candidate will be published online and, for anyone who wants it, delivered in written form.

"Everyone will be able to get the information they need about every candidate standing."

The Electoral Commission warned in March that, as a result of the Government's decision, up to seven million people who did not use the internet could be disadvantaged.

Former deputy prime minister Lord Prescott, who is standing as a candidate in Hull, described the move as "scandalous".

"In my area of Humberside that will mean 170,000 people, mostly elderly, will be denied their democratic right to information on the candidates," he told the Lords.

His concerns were echoed by former head of the Metropolitan Police Lord Condon, who said it seemed increasingly likely that talented independent candidates would be "frozen out of the process".

Independent crossbencher Lord Condon, Met Commissioner from 1993 to 2000, said: "It seems increasingly likely that the only candidates that will succeed in November will be party political nominees or personalities who are already household names.

"The flaws exposed by the Electoral Commission will actually deter talented independent candidates from either standing or, if they do stand, they will frozen out of the process."

Policing minister Nick Herbert said a mailshot would be too expensive and suggested candidates should turn to local and social media to raise their profiles.

"The cost of an election address would be between £25-35 million. We simply felt that in the current climate that that was not a justifiable expense," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"I also think it is just a mistake to think the success or failure for an independent candidate depends entirely on one thing, which is whether they get a free election address that is sent to every household because, surely, there is the local media, all the meetings they have to capture public attention through local media, surely there is new media with the internet and social media?

"In the end, what candidates have to do, whether they are from parties or not, is capture the public imagination, have something interesting to say about why they wish to stand and get local media attention and that counts for far more than one leaflet."

Mr Herbert refused to set a level of voter turnout for the November poll that the Government would deem to be a success.

"I'm not going to be drawn into setting a target or a threshold because it would be arbitrary."

Asked if a 15% turnout would be acceptable, he said: "I want the highest possible turnout and any turnout will confer a greater legitimacy than a police authority has, which is an appointed body and doesn't have any democratic legitimacy at all."

A study by the Institute for Government last year said the success of the crime chiefs will "depend heavily" on the right applicants, including independents, standing for election.

But it found the three major parties had taken "few concrete steps" to select candidates in the 41 police force areas.

"While all parties agree that they would be happy for strong independent candidates to come forward, it also appears that few concrete steps have been taken to ensure that independents will stand," it said.

"This is worrying, not least because high-calibre candidates are urgently needed to motivate voters to turn out at the ballot box."

Last week, the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners' transitional board said it would talk to the Government about changing the law so juvenile convictions could not bar candidates.

It came after several candidates, including Derbyshire councillor Alan Charles and Avon and Somerset's Bob Ashford, stepped down.

Labour MP Tony Lloyd, who is standing for the commissioner's post in Greater Manchester, said: "Even though I am a candidate nominated by a political party, I totally agree with the independent candidates in their demand for a free post.

"The Government seem unprepared in what is a new election to treat it with the same seriousness as a parliamentary election.

"People's security, crime, and law and order are far too serious to be treated this way."

Peter Wardle, the Electoral Commission's chief executive, said: "The Electoral Commission recommended that the Government should arrange for a booklet to be sent to voters with information about all Police and Crime Commissioner candidates in their area.

"Ministers decided against this approach in favour of a candidate information website, with printed copies available on request."

He went on: "We are now working with the Home Office to make sure voters have the information they need to take part in the November elections.

"We will send a booklet to every household so that people know about the elections and how to cast their vote.

"We also have a responsibility to monitor and report to Parliament on how the elections were run.

"As part of our assessment, we will look at what impact this new approach to providing candidate information had."

PA

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