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The PCC elections – I’ll definitely vote, but I do wish the choice was easier.

The PCC elections – I’ll definitely vote, but I do wish the choice was easier.

🕔08.Nov 2012

Life’s simply too short for me normally to bother taking sides in an argument between a gaffe-prone ex-Met Police chief and a hardline Conservative Justice Minister. In this instance, though, I feel the Minister just edges it.

The former Sir Ian Blair, now a Labour Peer, wants us to boycott next Thursday’s Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections – his great idea apparently being that, if only 8% of us voted instead of perhaps 18%, the Government would somehow unelect the successful candidates. It was, as Justice Secretary Chris Grayling put it, ‘a very silly thing to say’ – the headline-chasing ex-cop once again opening mouth before engaging brain.

All the same, these elections really are a shambles. The Government wants us to light the blue touchpaper setting off a controversial reform, that’s only been even partially tested in, as it happens, the Met Police, and – oh yes, I remember – of which the afore-mentioned Baron Blair was a Day One victim. There’s coincidence!

As with elected mayors, Ministers have again provided minimal public information. In huge constituencies, manageable only by the major political parties, we must select one or two names from a list of seven candidates, all unknown to most of us, who have been refused even the normal free mailshot to introduce themselves. We’re to use, moreover, an unfamiliar and exceptionally voter-unfriendly electoral system, in polling stations that for six of whose 15 open hours we must reach in the dark. So, even without the lordly intervention, turnout will doubtless be derisory.

All of which would matter less, were the reform itself not so damned important, as we’ll surely recognise by the time these Police AND Crime Commissioners – the full name is a useful reminder of the scope of their powers – come up for re-election in 2016. These Commissioners will change immediately and visibly, for better or worse, the accountability of arguably the least accountable public service leaders in the country.

Which is why I always intended to vote, even before I was incentivised by being exhorted not to.  But I honestly can’t decide for whom. In David Cameron’s vision, my ballot paper would comprise “big local figures …able to lead the fight against crime and hold the police to account if they don’t deliver – not just politicians, but community leaders and pioneers, people with real experience, who’ve run organisations, whether they’re charities or companies”, and who could reassure us that policing would not be party politicised.

With due respect to our seven candidates, I’ve no idea if they’re big figures even in their own households. Four are or aspire to be party politicians, and their relevant “real experience” is mostly as councillors, police officers or members of the West Midlands Police Authority (WMPA) – one of the bodies whose invisibility and perceived ineffectiveness are precisely why they’re being replaced by Commissioners. All seem closer to the problem than to the Government’s envisaged solution.

I’m really not terribly demanding, but two things I do want from a Commissioner are hard, not spun, information about what the WM Police are doing with my money, and clear answers and changes when they appear to be getting it wrong.

First, the information. The WMPA is required to send to every household an annual Local Policing Summary, assessing how the police force met its priorities for the year and giving the most recent gradings of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC). The Home Office suggests these Summaries should also compare their area’s performance with similar policing areas elsewhere.

There is apparently no Birmingham 2012 Summary, which, given the minimalist 2011 effort, is probably no great loss: one page, concerned mainly with the arrival of Commissioners, plus a few recorded crime figures. The Authority appeared to have given up already. No priorities, met or unmet; no HMIC gradings; and the numbers rendered virtually meaningless by the lack of any comparisons, with previous years or other policing areas.

My last even half-serious Policing Summary, therefore, was South Birmingham’s for 2009/10.  One page was a friendly newsletter, while the supposedly meatier page provided a grand total of eight local ‘crime figures’. Six showed a pleasing decline since 2007/08 in domestic burglaries (of 9%, though I had to do the sum), an impressive 24% fall in vehicle crimes, and what seemed by any standards an alarming 33% increase in robberies. Not, however, by those of the WMPA, who offered no explanation, and again no comparisons with other forces.

The final two statistics concerned the quarterly ‘Feeling the Difference’ residential surveys commissioned by the WM Police to assess our views on crime and policing. Just one result from the several hundred: 81.5% of respondents agreed “that police and partners are dealing with anti-social behaviour and crime that matters” within our area. Dealing with well or badly wasn’t specified, but it was revealed that the 81.5 figure fell well short of the 85% target.

The police love their targets and milestones, even when they miss them, as they regularly do. Take the 2011 ‘Feeling the Difference’ surveys, summarised in the WMPA’s 2011-12 annual report.  The police set themselves 10 of these ‘community perception’ milestones. Some are positive, which should be exceeded: the percentages thinking that the police deal with things that matter, treat everyone fairly, and so on. Others are negative, which should be undershot: the percentages feeling crime or anti-social behaviour are increasing.

The researchers’ findings: “none of the 10 milestones met their targets for 2011-12”. Yes, that’s 10 self-assigned targets, and not one attained. The Police Authority didn’t tell me why; hopefully a Commissioner will feel it’s both their and my business.

There are milestones too for detecting, as well as recording, crimes – a vital distinction. Most police statistics are for recorded crime, while the public, and certainly victims, also want to know what happened next.

Detections are offences ‘cleared up’ by the police, normally through offenders being formally sanctioned – charged, cautioned, reprimanded, but not necessarily convicted. Convictions refer to offenders and, if several are involved in one cleared-up offence, they’re separately counted. Our concerns are detection milestones: the proportions of recorded crimes cleared up. The subject has been touched on before in these columns, but such is the recent record of the WM Police that it justifies revisiting. See this piece as well.

The WM Police set six detection milestones in 2011: most serious violence 50%, hate crime 40%, serious sexual offences 35%, robbery 19%, domestic burglary 15%, vehicle crime 10%. Yet, despite what some may feel is the modest ambition of some of these targets, only two were achieved: hate crime (43%) and robbery (20.7%). Elsewhere, performance fell short, worst cases being most serious violence (43.6 per cent) and domestic burglary (11.7%) (WMPA Annual Report, 2011-12, p.9).

In a comparative context, even these dispiriting results look worse still. With the HMIC’s Value for Money Profiles, we can do what WM Policing Summaries don’t attempt: compare its performance with that of ‘peer forces’. These are the forces – Cleveland, Greater Manchester, Merseyside, Northumbria, West Yorkshire – whose demographic, social and economic profiles most resemble the WM’s and whose crime patterns should be most meaningfully comparable.

Among these six peer forces, WM Police are well staffed, with proportionately the largest workforce apart from Merseyside: 4.3 full-time equivalents per 1,000 population, compared to a national average of 3.5. It’s an odd mix, though: highest proportion of constables in the country (74%) and almost the lowest proportion of community support officers (8%). At £229 per head of population, total costs are below the peer force average.

So too are detection rates, embarrassingly. Total crimes 2011/12: peer force average excluding WM 33%; national average 27%; WM 22%, making it 40th out of the 43 England and Wales forces. Violence against the person: peer force average 54%; national average 44%; WM 35% and 38th out of 43. In no major crime category is the WM higher than fifth out of the six peer forces. I’m looking for a PCC candidate who can persuade me they’ll interrogate and improve statistics like these, and just wish the Government hadn’t made the search quite so hard.

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