Such was the relief when a woman exercised her democratic rights in the Devon town of Exmouth that staff broke into spontaneous applause. No such joy for their colleagues at one polling station in Gwent – they spent the whole day waiting in vain for a voter to darken their doors.
This time last year the Home Office and the political parties were desperately trying to whip up interest in the biggest shake-up in policing for a generation. They failed dismally: elections for the 41 new posts of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) were greeted with a collective yawn across England and Wales and just 15 per cent of voters bothered to cast their ballot.
Twelve months on, only the most skilful Home Office spin-doctor could present the arrival of PCCs as wholly successful. Several force areas experienced a break-down of the relationship between chief constables and their PCCs.
The Lincolnshire PCC became embroiled in a messy dispute which led to his temporary chief constable being suspended and then reinstated after a court hearing. The chief constable of Avon and Somerset also went to court, but lost, when his commissioner refused to renew his contract, while Gwent’s chief constable was instructed by her political master to retire or resign.
Enthusiasts for the new system insist it is already a success as 70 per cent of the public know of the posts’ existence, compared with a paltry seven per cent awareness of the previous system of police authorities.
Jon Collins, of the Police Foundation think tank, believes it is far too early to reach a conclusion about whether the experiment has worked, adding: “I don’t think most people would say policing on their streets has changed radically.”
Even Home Secretary Theresa May admitted the performance of the 41 commissioners had been both “good and bad”, but stressed there was “enough that is positive”. The Conservatives are now debating whether the remit of commissioners should be extended to oversee the fire and ambulance services. One supporter of the move says it is logical given that the “blue light” services increasingly work in tandem.
At the same time Labour, whose candidates were elected to 13 of the PCC posts last year, is preparing to drop its opposition to the policy. The party concedes some commissioners have made a positive impact. The former Scotland Yard chief, Lord Stevens, who is heading a review of the future of policing for Labour, is due to recommend the PCC network is retained, albeit with greater oversight to ensure they do not abuse their powers.
Whatever the outcome of the next general election, it looks like commissioners are here to stay.
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