By promising to ringfence funding for vital local services, Labour can challenge forthcoming PCC elections’ narrow-minded, macho obsession with policing.
This month Labour members are casting their votes for the 41 Police and Crime Commissioner candidates who will be elected across the whole of England and Wales in November. Everywhere, that is, except London.
Both the Met and the City of London Police are excluded: one is already scrutinised by a directly elected Mayor, while the other is only answerable to the business voters of the City and is therefore, quite literally, a law unto itself.
It’s possible that the fact this flagship government policy won’t apply for miles outside Westminster is part of the reason why the conversation about what PCCs should actually do remains so limited.
Originally to be called sheriffs, a name change that only satirists will regret, police and crime commissioners were the brainchild of no less radical a pair of Tory thinkers than Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan, as long ago as 2002.
In the intervening decade, the proposed responsibilities have evolved considerably, and continue to do so; it’s vital that the public debate keeps up.
But from media coverage of high-profile candidates to the Home Office’s own recruitment leaflet, most of which seem to see PCCs doing little more than bossing chief constables around, it seems we’re not there yet, despite some honourable exceptions among the individual candidates.
Besides policing, PCCs will be in charge of a vast range of other services, perhaps less exciting but at least as important. They will be handed community safety funding in 2013: this is intended to be used “to tackle drugs and crime, reduce re-offending, and improve community safety”, but is unlikely to be ring-fenced and thus could end up being spent on anything else.
National funding for victims’ support services, possibly including the national Rape Support Fund, may also be devolved. In addition, PCCs are likely to be given a significant portion of the Drug Interventions Programme, introduced in 2003 to help drug-misusing offenders to beat their addictions.
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A bold Labour PCC candidate would argue that support for work like this is as important as catching those offenders in the first place.
These are vitally important services, and many of them were Labour achievements.
It may be that the economic situation means that commissioning them in future is indeed best done by a directly accountable local individual, who can judge where provision is and isn’t needed. But there are also obvious, serious risks such as inconsistency between areas, and a disproportionate focus on the needs of those constituents most likely to vote.
Labour and its candidates have strongly opposed the introduction of PCCs precisely for reasons like this. But we must now both adapt and capitalise on that by clearly stating the non-negotiable services our PCCs will deliver in all the areas we win.
For example, we should consider a commitment to meet the needs of rape and sexual assault victims by pledging both to retain Rape Crisis provision at its existing levels, if it is devolved, and to set up a Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC) in any area that doesn’t yet have its own.
But it’s the media tone, as well as Labour’s policies, that must develop and, frankly, grow up. Reducing PCCs to their policing role while laying on the machismo is not just irritating to policy pedants, or a sign that we watch too many American cop dramas.
It also blocks off one of the most important ways for Labour to embed itself back at the heart of the crime agenda: recognising that preserving safe communities depends on protecting vital services, and not just talking tough. And, excuse the irony, but we’re running out of time.
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