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Can commissioners give policing power back to the public?

By South Wales Evening Post  |  Posted: November 13, 2012

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THE biggest change in policing for 50 years is just days away. In the first of a two-part special, Evening Post crime reporter JASON EVANS looks at the new police commissioners.

ON Thursday the public will be going to the polls to choose police and crime commissioners, powerful — and controversial — new jobs.

Each force in Wales and England, except in London, will have an elected commissioner who will come with the power to control police budgets, hire and fire chief constables, and decide local policing priorities.

Their introduction is the most radical change in policing for generations.

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The UK Government says the commissioners will make police forces more accountable to the communities they serve and will give the public a powerful say in what the police do — but opponents say they will lead to the politicisation of policing.

James Gravelle, from the Centre for Police Sciences at University of Glamorgan, said the introduction of commissioners was a major change.

"Commissioners have been described as the biggest change in five decades," he said.

"They are a major change in system of oversight and accountability — the idea is to have a single, visible, person rather than the existing police authorities.

"Commissioners will also have wider responsibilities for crime reduction, strategy and budgets, and will be able to move money around and commission services.

"The fact is nobody knows how this will work — there will be success stories but I am sure there will be problems along the way too."

The functions of the future commissioners are currently carried out by police authorities which are made up of 19 members — a mix of councillors from the local authorities covered by the forces, and independent representatives.

But all that will change after November 15.

The battle for the South Wales Police commissioner job is a four-way fight between Labour and the Tories and two independent candidates, while voters in the Dyfed-Powys Police area have a straight choice of Labour or Conservative.

Neither Plaid nor the Lib Dems are standing. Some people have questioned whether one directly-elected commissioner can represent an entire force area, especially ones with big and diverse populations like South Wales Police, or those that cover large areas like Dyfed- Powys, which is geographically the biggest force in Wales and England.

However, Tory Home Secretary Theresa May has said they will help to "transfer power back to the people".

Candidates have been allowed to spend no more than a fixed sum on their campaign — in South Wales Police area it is £174,179 and in Dyfed-Powys it is £72,622 — but there has been no free mailshot to every home like candidates get during General Elections, leading many to claim the process is stacked in favour of party political candidates and against independents.

Once in office, the commissioners will have a wide range of responsibilities from drawing-up local policing priorities and an annual plan, through to setting the police budget and council tax precept, scrutinising the performance of the force and handling complaints against the chief constable, commissioning victim support services, and giving grants to community groups.

He or she will also have the power to hire and fire the chief constable.

However, the Home Secretary has insisted commissioners will not interfere with the operational independence of chief constables.

The post of commissioner comes with a decent wage too — the South Wales commissioner will earn £80,000 a year, while the Dyfed-Powys job comes with a £65,000 salary.

The work of each commissioner will be scrutinised by a police and crime panel, made up of councillors and independent members, which will publish reports on his or her performance.

How the vote works...

THE election for police and crime commissioner will be run using the Supplementary Vote (SV) system — but it will operate differently for South Wales Police and Dyfed-Powys Police.

In the South Wales force area the ballot papers will contain the names of the four candidates standing, and alongside them two columns.

Voters choose their preferred candidate by putting an X in the “first choice column”, and can select a second favourite by putting an X in the “second choice column”.

However, voters do not have to chose a second favourite if they do not want to, and can just pick a first choice.

If a voter picks the same person and their first and second choices, only the first choices will count.

If no candidate gets more than 50 per cent of first choice votes, all but the two leading candidates are eliminated and their second choices will be redistributed to the surviving two to decide the winner.

Ballot papers in Dyfed-Powys will only have one column, and people will only be able to mark one “X” for their preferred candidate — because there are only two candidates there is no second choice option.

The votes will be counted on a local authority basis on Friday morning, then the figures will be collated centrally and announced on a force-wide basis.

The results are expected after lunch.

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