THE Government’s handling of the first elections to the post of police and crime commissioner was branded a “comedy of errors” as voters went to the polls across England and Wales today.
The Electoral Reform Society said polling stations were “standing empty” today, and called for those responsible for “avoidable errors” in the delivery of the elections to be held to account.
In the most radical shake-up of the service for half a century, the new commissioners, who are expected to earn up to £100,000, will control police budgets, set priorities and have the power to hire and fire chief constables.
Elections are being held in 41 police areas outside London but experts are forecasting a low turnout, due to a combination of apathy, lack of awareness and dark, cold weather.
Former deputy prime minister Lord Prescott is facing a close fight with Godfrey Bloom, Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire Ukip MEP, for the role of Humberside PCC.
Voters will be able to list their first and second preferences under the supplementary vote system, which is being used in force areas where more than two candidates are standing.
The first-past-the-post system will be used in Dyfed-Powys, North Yorkshire and Staffordshire where just two candidates are vying for the new job.
The Electoral Reform Society has predicted a turnout of 18.5%, which would be below the previous record low in a national poll in peacetime of 23% in the 1999 European elections.
The society’s chief executive Katie Ghose said: “This election has been a comedy of errors from start to finish.
“Polling stations are standing empty because voters knew next to nothing about the role, let alone the candidates they were expected to pick from.
“The Home Office has operated under the assumption that ‘if you build it they will come’.
“Democracy just doesn’t work that way.
“There have been avoidable errors at every step, and those responsible should be held to account.”
Following the electorate’s rejection of proposals for mayors in a number of English cities earlier this year, Ms Ghose said Prime Minister David Cameron needed to rethink his “localism” agenda.
“It’s clear that the architects of the localism agenda need to get back to the drawing board,” she said.
“Few people could object to the idea of bringing power closer to the people, it’s just the cack-handed way the Government has tried to deliver on that promise.”
Critics claim the police reforms will lead to the politicisation of the service, with police and crime commissioners (PCCs) championing populist measures at the expense of less headline-worthy initiatives.
Although the commissioners will be there to hold the force to account, opponents fear they will attempt to interfere with day-to-day operational matters.
A number of former senior officers have raised concerns about the reforms.
Ex-Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Ian Blair initially encouraged people not to vote, saying the posts were “very strange” because the police areas were too big for any individual to properly represent, though he later backed away from this position.
Sir Hugh Orde, chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), said there would be “huge issues” if the proposed commissioners demanded local needs were met at the expense of national priorities, such as child protection, anti-terrorism and major crime units.
But supporters insist it will improve accountability among police forces and make them more aware of the priorities of local demands.
Home Secretary Theresa May argues the commissioners will become the “voice of the people” and will be “visible, accessible and accountable”.
Labour is opposed to the creation of the new role but is fielding candidates across the forces, claiming it will do what it can to make the system work.
Party sources say they do not expect to win the highest number of PCCs but are aiming to take control of most major forces and, therefore, the majority of policing outside London.
Some 54 of the 192 candidates standing are not linked to a political party.
A number of current and former politicians are standing, with by-elections sparked in Manchester Central and Cardiff South after Labour’s Tony Lloyd and Alun Michael quit parliament to stand.
Counting in Wiltshire will begin after polls close, with a result expected in the early hours, but all other areas will tally up tomorrow.
The Government has come in for criticism for refusing to cover the cost of leafleting to give voters information about the new posts and basic details about the candidates standing for them.
Instead, it set up a central website covering every candidate in England and Wales.