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Is it time for real change in the police force?

Last week’s police commissioners’ election was the biggest non-event in a very long time. In terms of voter turnout it was truly abysmal. Were it not for the court jester’s candidacy – John Prescott – it would have been even worse.

Two Jags’ supporters couldn’t be bothered to stir themselves from the warmth of their slumbers on that cold November day

This lack of interest is a pity because crime in a recent poll was right up there almost on a par with benefits and pensions as an issue of great concern to the public. Why then this lack of voter turnout when it has been given a chance to do something about it?

First, unlike general elections and referendums, there was a marked lack of information and hype. It all seemed like one big yawn; we didn’t even know who was standing nor where we were expected to vote and what’s more, no one bothered to tell us. In my own case, on the day itself, I had to ring up the town hall to find out where to vote and ask for a list of candidates. It took them ages to find out. Then I had to Google each one to find out what he or she stood for and what their track record was. Who, apart from a few nerds like me, was going to go to all that trouble? I tell you, I was on the line all of ten minutes waiting for an answer – and then they gave me the wrong place to go and vote.

What then was so important about this particular election? First, law and order is something that impinges on the life of every one of us. We have more contact with plod, by far, than we do with our local MPs. And the person who heads up our constabulary is responsible for an area and population hugely greater than our MP – in my case the whole of Devon and Cornwall, where there are many MPs.

We have all for many years been feeling that our friendly neighbourhood policeman has been slipping away from us: his presence on our streets declines daily, his appearance grows more intimidating, and his friendly nick closed – except by appointment in increasing numbers. He cannot, as a matter of course, have guns because on this one we dig in our heels, but he says ‘in that case then let us have tasers’. He seems unwilling to listen to our pleadings and determined to go his own way.

We have always judged it important that, operationally, the police should be free from political interference. And while this has to be right, it is equally right that ultimate control of policy should rest with civilians. In theory this is the case, but every Home Secretary has found it next to impossible either to impose their will on a Chief Constable or sack him when it becomes necessary. The reality is that the police have many of the characteristics of an army: they learn to march in formation and salute; they are trained to obey orders; and they can hold you against your will; they have armouries; are licensed to kill; and they wear uniforms, even body armour. But we do not allow an army commander – even the chief of staff – to decide policy, much less to determine the magnitude of the lethal force to be used. If we did, then General MacArthur – admittedly an American but bound by the same military ethos – would have atom-bombed the Chinese in Korea. His insistence caused him to be sacked by the president.

Because the new police commissioners have hire-and-fire powers over chief constables, as well as budgetary control, we can now reasonably expect police priorities to move in the direction we would all like. What was important in this recent election was that we didn’t get a load of puffed up, power-hungry chancers make it through to these crucial positions. Nor did we want them to be over politicised. In the event, the public (at least that small part of it that voted) thought this too and the Independents, as a result, made a very good showing.

In a perverse sort of way the pathetically low voter turnout may have aided (this first time round) a good outcome. Elections are normally held during the better weather of the summer, and what with the lack of information and hype, Two Jags’ supporters couldn’t be bothered to stir themselves from the warmth of their slumbers on that cold November day. Yet the Polly Peck, compromised Michael Mates for the Tories couldn’t get his loyal followers out either so the field was left clear for that little band of determined, civic-minded individuals who saw the potential and understood what was at stake to make the effort. So, for the second time, Two Jags had egg on his face, but on this occasion managed to restrain himself from throwing a punch at his adversary.

May these elected police chiefs not be seen as part of the much touted ‘Big Society’ so beloved of the PM? David Cameron may not have planned it this way – that would have been too Machiavellian; too clever for him – but the fates conspired to keep the famous ‘plebs’ at home and leave it to the more dedicated. He may, as a result, have got himself some very good police commissioners. If the commissioners they do a good job, they can reasonably expect a new term with re-election.

For all the present government’s shortcomings, there is at last the prospect that many areas of public life will be the better for police commissioners having been brought into existence, albeit again – like the recent election – in an unplanned for way.

The coalition is hellbent on making us solvent again, although weaker on promoting growth; it is tackling welfare abuse and shrinking the bloated state; it promises a revolution in raising educational standards and it is not giving up on immigration. Only the police stand unreformed – a law virtually unto themselves with some horrendous practises coming to light. Now, at last, we may see some real changes there too.

If the economy starts to recover it would be a mean person who would not give the government on whose watch it all happened some credit.

The weighty matter of elected police chiefs

Nothing has filled me with despair recently so much as the news that that tired old retread John Prescott is to throw his hat into the ring to become the new Sheriff of Uddersfield. You come up with a good idea, and who leaps in to ruin the whole concept but the man we all thought had been finally put out to pasture: the former prize fighter/deputy prime minister.

The idea of elected police chiefs is for us to get a form of payment by results. That is to say, the chief increases the clear up rate of crime, brings order to our streets and thus enables us to sleep easier in our beds. And in return for performing this valuable service, he or she is awarded (and paid) with a fresh mandate and a continuance of his (or her) £70,000 stipend. It does sound like a good arrangement to me to me! So let’s look at this particular applicant’s CV.

He’s certainly been a busy boy during his long career – although, at 72, I worry a bit that that it’s just too long. His cheeky-chappie approach would undoubtedly go down well with the binge drinkers of a Friday night (the same people he’s promised to sort out). And his beer belly should also appeal to many, allowing him to empathise – always a most important consideration in this touchy-feelie age. But against this there’s the risk that if he’s provoked he might strike out. After all, he has got form in this department and a GBH charge is not something that would sit well on a police commissioner’s record.

But let’s get serious for a moment and look at Two Jags’ actual record. It is acknowledged that he was appointed deputy prime minister not just as a sop to the unions, but in order to keep peace between the warring prime minister and his chancellor… a sort of honest broker. Ten years of backstabbing and plotting between the two made a mockery of that and proved even beyond Prezza’s giant abilities.

Ever resourceful, and looking for something meaningful to do, he came up with the idea of regional authorities. What an ineffectual and horrendously expensive exercise in futility that turned out to be. But not to be deterred, he pressed on.

His next idea was to knock down street upon street of houses right across the land which his office deemed not fit for human habitation. It later emerged that they could have been renovated for a fraction of the cost of replacements and kept vibrant communities from disintegrating. But Two Jags, as he will freely acknowledge himself, was never very good at sums in school.

He wanted more development, so his next ‘Big Idea’ was to allow rejected planning applications (often sent back for good reasons) to be sent to his office where his expert eye could peruse them and tell whether the planners had got it wrong. As a result, large numbers of outrageous appeals were sent back to the planners with instructions to allow the development. Prescott could never leave it – nor for that matter some of his office staff – alone. He could never accept that he was, in fact, a man of limited talents.

It adds to the gaiety of nations for every administration to have its own court jester, and ‘Prezza’ was happy to fulfil that role for New Labour – although he never fully understood how much they were all taking the you-know-what.his own side included.

His opposite number in the Tory Party is Boris Johnson. But there is one very big difference between the two of them: Boris is superbly educated. Plus he comes up with ideas like getting rid of London’s hated bendy buses and returning to the much-loved jump on/jump off version. Then there’s freezing of congestion charges and, best of all, the world-beating, environmentally friendly replacement for Heathrow: the Estuary Airport. Most of his ideas make a lot of sense and are in accord with the public opinion. I’m personally looking forward to Boris stepping forward as Master of Ceremony for the London Olympics. Quite what Johnny Foreigner will make of him I wouldn’t like to guess, but I think there’s a good chance that, like so many of us, they’ll love him. At the very least we can be sure that he’ll create a sensation of some sort.

But returning to the hoped-for revolution in policing: this is a once in a lifetime chance to get the system sorted. The last thing we need is for a plethora of failed has-beens to prove all over again how useless they are; it is desperately important that we have people of proven track record and of the highest calibre if we are to have any chance of success.

We have strayed so far from policing as we would like it to be, and in many respects the Force no longer commands the respect which should be its due. We spent well over a million pounds on a state of the art police station in my suburb of Plymouth just a few years ago and it’s not any longer open to the public. You can only visit by appointment.  Many officers, sad to say, couldn’t even give chase to a baddie. With all their Inspector Gadget accessories and body-armour weighing them down – not to mention their Prescott-style waists which so many seem to be developing – it’s small wonder police chiefs recently dismissed a move to introduce compulsory annual fitness tests for serving officers.

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