Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Police and Crime Commissioners...

It has been a long time. I put this blog into suspended animation over twelve months ago and apart from a couple of test 'posts', neither of which were worthy of the name, I have maintained my silence...

But, without going in to the reasons for putting it up on bricks, many of which, including the main one, have ceased to subsist and so, I thought it might be time to give vent to an occasional new post and possibly re-publish some of those I deleted during earlier editing processes, all of which I saved to alternative storage against the time when I could consider dusting them off and putting them out again.

Explanations aside, the issue which brought me back to my keyboard is the forthcoming elections for the newly introduced Police and Crime Commissioner positions, due to take place on 15th November.

In fact, it's a little narrower than that, because I don't propose to touch on the prospect of a turnout so low in the elections that it will effectively remove any legitimacy from their mandate, or the fact that most of those elected, if a prospective turnout between 15 and 18% can be called that, will be either failed hacks from the main three parties, or 'wannabes' jumping on this particular bandwagon. Nor do I propose to address the woefully poor level of publicity this supposedly 'flagship' policy has been given by our increasingly unravelling government of none of the talents, or the almost universal opposition of the police in general and especially that of its leadership, to the entire concept, or Ian Blair's recent exhortation to abstain from voting to deny the process legitimacy.

No. I want to discuss the only piece of campaign literature to drop through my letter box as at today's date, which is on behalf of the Conservative Party candidate for the position of Lancashire's PCC, Tim Ashton.

First of all, I should make it very clear that I have never met or spoken to Mr Ashton, so I have no personal axe to grind with him, or any of the other candidates, of which there are three; unsurprisingly representing Labour, the Lib Dems and lastly UKIP.

The document describes Mr Ashton as a 'local businessman' and 'local resident'; local, that is if you live in Lytham St Annes, but not so much so if you live in Skelmersdale or Barnoldswick; but that's a side issue.

In his leaflet, Mr Ashton suggests that he will 'get tough on crime'; nothing to disagree with there, but really pretty general, ephemeral stuff, I think you'll agree. however, in order to effect this change, he has issued a ten-point plan, the second of which is to, and I quote: "Protect frontline (sic) policing and retain the number of Police & Community Support Officers (PCSOs)." All very laudable, and particularly so, when viewed in the light of the fact that as a direct result of government policy, a government led by the party Mr Ashton represents, of course, there are now five hundred fewer police officers in Lancashire than there were at the time of the last general election; that represents a decrease of one-seventh of the force's former strength. Will he be able to 'protect' the numbers of police officers currently patrolling the streets of Lancashire in the face of government demand for further cuts in the budget, above and beyond the 20% already imposed by Whitehall? Given that over 80% of police expenditure goes on salaries, I can't see any way in which he will be able to deliver on this promise, and I rather suspect that in his heart of hearts, he knows just that.

He goes on in point three to pledge that he will get more police out onto the streets by cutting the red tape which currently sees them deskbound. As I understand it, much of the 'red-tape' the police are forced to contend with is national in origin and government driven; for instance, he will not be able to unilaterally withdraw Lancashire officers from the hugely bureaucratic file submission system, beloved of Whitehall statisticians and CPS lawyers alike, and to pretend that he can is disingenuous at best and nigh-on dishonest at its worst.

His fourth point pledges to put 'more resources' into tackling organised drug dealers and organised crime in general throughout the county. Again, a laudable aim, but is it realistic given the drastic reduction in police numbers I highlight above? To illustrate my point, let us take a hypothetical number of police officers available for distribution to the various different areas which they are required to fill.

I'm sure Mr Ashton has read beyond the ridiculous headlines much beloved of the Daily Mail which scream about only 13%, or thereabouts, of police officers being deployable at any one time; because there is a reason for that. twenty-four hour policing requires shift work, so that, in its very simplest terms, on any given day, one team of officers will cover an early shift, one a late shift, the third a night shift and the fourth will be on a rest day, which despite appearances to the contrary from some sections of the media (yes, the Mail again), they are still allowed. So, that 13% has to be multiplied by four, giving a total of 52% of staff committed to front-line, response policing, to which he is committed under the second point of his ten-point plan.

So far, so good; we - or rather he - now has 48 officers left to deploy into neighbourhood teams, general criminal investigation, and road policing roles before he can really consider allocating 'resources' to specialist criminal investigation positions, such as drug, murder, or serious crime squads, unless he wants to leave one of the former groups understaffed and under resourced to such an extent that it is more likely to fail in its purpose.

Not as easy to put thoughts into practice when confronted with the current realities, is it, Mr Ashton?

Point five is always a favourite and will have Mrs May's heart trembling with joy: to cut out 'waste'. Because, I'm sure the Chief constable has been engaging in a campaign of extravagance and squander throughout his tenure, spending public money like a drunken sailor on shore leave, completely unnoticed by the regular HMIC inspections, so good luck with identifying what you believe to be 'waste', because it will be someone else's vital service.

Skipping point six, in which he pledges 'zero tolerance against all crime and to bring more offenders to justice' - because of course, the prisons are actually bursting at the seams due to police legerdemain, he goes on at point seven to pledge that he will, and I quote again: "Toughen up community sentences so there is no more 'softly softly when it comes to punishment." Now this would be funny if it wasn't so risibly inaccurate. The nature of punishments is not, repeat not, within the purview of the future PCCs, just as it is not within that of the Chief Constable or was not within that of the Police Authorities which are about to be scrapped; those matters are clearly within the competence of the Ministry of Justice and ultimately the courts. As such, neither Mr Ashton, or any of the other forty PCCs about to be elected, will have any power to change these sentences in any way and to pretend otherwise is, I'm afraid to say, simply misleading.

Skipping over point eight, in which he encourages the greater use of technology to cut crime and catch criminals - I'd be a wee bit disappointed if they weren't doing that already, given the existence and use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act - he moves on at point nine to suggest a greater focus on road safety at proven accident blackspots. Ye Gods; does he think that since the introduction of motorised transport, the police have yet to grasp that fundamental concept?

So all in all - and to be charitable - some well-intentioned (if occasionally simplistic, ill-informed and naive) ideas; but ones which simply do not stand up to a great deal of scrutiny.

Mr Ashton is in for a rough ride if he is elected on the basis of this manifesto and is held to it, because he will not be able to deliver on his promises, but at least he has had the decency to ensure that I can actually read what his plans are, unlike the other three candidates, so he is to be congratulated for that, if not much else.

Just one other thing, though.

On page three of the leaflet, there is what must be a library picture of two male police officers. Bearing in mind that Mr Ashton seeks election as the PCC for Lancashire, do you think it might have been an idea for him to ensure that the officers concerned (if indeed they are officers and not actors posing as such) were to wear Lancashire style helmets, instead of the coxcomb style utilised by Merseyside and Greater Manchester Police, amongst others?