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Angela SmithAngela Smith on the government's failure to engage the public on its Police and Crime Commissioners policy

As the Coalition faces increased criticism for what appears to be a bizarre lack of enthusiasm for one of its key flagship policy, the launch of a new TV advert in an attempt to encourage voters has been greeted with both bemusement and derision.

The posts of Police and Crime Commissioners have been heralded by the government as a new era of accountability in policing. Concerns that the policy could bring political judgements into policing and was a waste of money at a time when the police are facing such huge cuts (that even HM Inspector of Police criticised) were ignored and Ministers forced through the legislation, even after being defeated in the Lords.

So the Coalition is forging ahead with these elections at a cost of £75m at the same time as imposing the worst cuts on policing for a generation. In my home County of Essex we will have lost one in ten of our front line police officers by 2014, police stations are being closed down or having their hours reduced and there is no longer a single 24 hour police station open to the public.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out the likely result of a poll to see how the public would choose to spend this money other than on elections.

But with such a strong personal commitment from the Prime Minister to these new posts, and such vocal praise for the value of Police and Crime Commissioners one could be forgiven for thinking that David Cameron had tapped into the psyche of the nation that is enthusiastically and impatiently waiting for the opportunity to vote for their local Commissioner.

If only.

In fact, the level of awareness of these posts is so small that that the Electoral Reform Society has voiced its fears that only 18.5% of voters would trudge to the polls and the government, having tried to get away with doing as little as possible to publicise the elections, is being forced into an embarrassing climb down.

Despite talk of wanting to engage with the public and encourage voters, the lack of any opportunity for candidates to distribute a free post leaflet as in other national and mayoral elections, the election date set for November when nights are long, a high possibility that it will be cold and wet, and information about candidates only being made available online suggests this election was yet another policy mapped out on the back of an envelope. Since then, the government has agreed to set up a helpline, but it won’t be active until 23 days before the elections.

The latest attempt to drum up support for candidates is the appallingly judged government advert, which other than a fly tipping scheme features a series of attacks by young people on property and on older people. It’s hugely negative and misleading.

All this is also insulting to the Police and Crime Commissioner candidates. We didn’t support the principle of the policy, but Labour know that policing is too important to leave to the Tories and that is why we have put our best and most talented people forward for these roles. People like Tony Lloyd, Alun Michael, Jane Kennedy, Vera Baird, Olly Martins, my colleague John Prescott and my own candidate in Essex, Val Morris-Cook.

We have yet to see if the government’s statements that charity leaders, key business people and independents will swell the ranks of candidates; or if extremist parties will try to take advantage of the lack of interest and predicted low turnout.

The Prime Minister’s prolonged lack of action over his Chief Whip’s arrogant and insulting behaviour at the gates of Downing Street has further eroded the respect the police have for this government. If these elections descend into farcical level of voter participation, it will not be the fault of the police or the candidates – but yet another shabby political gimmick from the Coalition.

Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon is a Shadow Home Office Minister in the Lords

Published 11th October 2012

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