THE Government’s new flagship crime commissioner elections could create a worrying power vacuum at the top of the region’s police forces, a former chief constable warns today.
eredydd Hughes, who retired as South Yorkshire’s most senior officer last October, says a woefully low turnout which is predicted for next week’s elections could leave commissioners in charge without a real mandate at a time when three of the region’s four forces need to appoint a new chief constable.
The Government has imposed a ban on appointing permanent chief constables in the run up to the elections, with 10 temporary chiefs in charge nationwide, including West Yorkshire, North Yorkshire, Cumbria and Cleveland Police.
West Yorkshire chief Sir Norman Bettison resigned last month in the face of growing pressure over his alleged role in the Hillsborough cover-up, following Grahame Maxwell who stepped down in North Yorkshire earlier this year after admitting gross misconduct over nepotism.
Meanwhile, Humberside chief constable Tim Hollis, who has presided over a dramatic overhaul of the once-failing force, is to retire in March next year.
The unprecedented situation has sparked real concern among senior officers over the ability of new police and crime commissioners to recruit candidates of sufficient quality and experience to take over the reins.
“I would say the Government has completely failed to launch one of its flagship policies,” said Mr Hughes, who had put his name forward to become Labour’s candidate in the elections for South Yorkshire.
“This isn’t party political, it is about the police having proper democratic processes.
“Most people still aren’t aware of who or what the police and crime commissioner will do.
“This is about structures and the ability of one person to represent a community, it is not about individuals.
“It doesn’t matter what political colour you are, if there is a low turn-out then you run the risk that the successful candidate will not have a strong mandate to tackle local authorities.
“Whenever there is a low turn-out, an untried and untested candidate could be successful and they will be hamstrung in trying to build the links and networks.
“While I am certain that in South Yorkshire the police force will be run very well, I am concerned in other forces there is a potential leadership vacuum.
“We have lost experienced chief constables within Yorkshire’s forces and the incoming police crime commissioner will not be in a position to offer leadership to offset that.
“It is not their job to replace chief constables, but to appoint them.”
Mr Hughes has also warned that police forces have not yet felt the full extent of Home Office cuts to their budgets of around 20 per cent, and said the new commissioners are going to find it difficult “to implement any strategic changes in planning, if there is a cost”.
His fears have been echoed by shadow policing Minster David Hanson, who claimed the cost of the controversial elections will reach £100m despite predictions of a turnout as low as 18.5 per cent.
“We have got a big vacuum and that is why it is important people respond to these elections,” he told the Yorkshire Post.
“One of the things I would say to people is this is a big job for whoever is elected.
“I fear for the turnout and hope people will go out and vote to give a strong mandate to the crime commissioners. The point is, somebody is going to have to win it.”
On November 15 a total of 41 new police and crime commissioners are to be elected across England and Wales with the powers to hire and fire chief constables and set police budgets.
The Prime Minister admitted in the Commons last week it would be “a challenge” to encourage electors to vote, amid claims turnout could dip below 20 per cent.
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper accused the Government yesterday of making “a shambles” out of its flagship criminal justice plans. “Loads of people across the country still don’t know about the elections, what they’re for, so I am really worried about what turnout is going to be,” she said.
“We are doing our best to make it work, but the Government needs to be doing much more.
“They have made a shambles of this, for something that was supposed to be their flagship policy.”
Ministers have defended the controversial policy as giving the public a voice in policing,
A Home Office spokeswoman said: “The arrival of police and crime commissioners will be the most significant democratic reform of policing ever, giving the public a real say in how their communities are policed and will use their mandate to cut crime.
“Operational policing will not be politicised – a commissioner’s job will be to hold the chief constable to account for policing in the local area, not run the force.”