Draft Police and Crime Commissioner Elections (Amendment) (No. 2) Order 2014
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Edward Beale, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
Draft Police and Crime Commissioner Elections (Amendment) (No. 2) Order 2014
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I will say at the outset that we all would have hoped that the statutory instrument we are debating today would not need to be debated, not least since we are doing so because a police and crime commissioner, Bob Jones, has sadly died. I am sure that the members of the Committee would like to express our condolences to his family, friends and loved ones. I also want to say how disappointed we all are that certain individuals decided that they would push for a by-election before Mr Jones had even been buried. I know that has caused a great deal of concern and upset to his family. It was absolutely appalling. I hope the public in the west midlands know exactly what has gone on.
With those remarks in mind, it is my privilege to ask the Committee today to consider the draft order, which was laid before the House on 9 July. It is a quite a specific piece of secondary legislation about how we publicise the candidates. I have spoken to the shadow Minister about this already: until I looked at the order I had thought—I think we all had—that there would have been provision for that within the legislation already. In fact, I asked my officials to investigate fully whether the issue had been raised at any time when the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill went through the House. This anomaly—that is the best way to describe it—had not been raised in this House on Second Reading, in Committee, on Report or on Third Reading. Nor had it been raised during the Bill’s progress through the other place.
Sadly, the processes of the House seem not to have worked. I hold my hands up. I was not the Minister at the time, and I know the shadow Minister did not have his current role at the time, either, but if an amendment on this issue had been tabled, I think we would have accepted it. I can only go on the basis of what I have been told. I hope I am not wrong, but I understand such an amendment was not tabled; if it had been I think we would have accepted it, as it would have shown up the anomaly that we are dealing with today.
For the first time, there will be a by-election for a police and crime commissioner, in the west midlands—held in very sad circumstances, as I said. We now have to address how we make sure that the public have full knowledge of who the candidates are. We intend to use a pamphlet. The police area returning officer—I tend to call them that; that is what we all understand them to
As I have said, I would have hoped that we would not have to hold this Committee today. We would all have expected this matter to have been picked up during the passage of the original Bill, but it was not. Let us be honest: it should have been. With that in mind I hope we can address the anomaly and have a successful by-election, and increase turnout through the pamphlet. We will assess how the pamphlet works very carefully to see whether it increases the turnout.
Stephen Barclay (North East Cambridgeshire) (Con): I welcome the Minister to his new duties and wish him well. Will he confirm whether someone has already checked that there will be sufficient polling stations, in case of school building work or other issues there may be given the strange timing of this by-election?
Mike Penning: My hon. Friend raises an important point. I will not pre-empt what the returning officer has to say—I think it will be later on today—but the intention is that the by-election will be during the school holidays. A lot of the polling stations in our constituencies are in schools, some of which are having major repairs done. That question was put to me privately by some Members of the House before the Committee, and I wanted to check the answer. I understand that 1,208 polling stations will be required for the by-election to take place. As of today, we are short of 29, which I think is quite a remarkable result considering the timing of the election. Of course, contingency measures are in place to ensure that, for instance, portakabins will be available where necessary. I understand that the returning officer, whom I hope to meet next week—if not next week, certainly before the by-election—is content that it will be possible to find the 29 polling stations. A substantial number of polling stations are required at a difficult time, and I commend the work of the returning officer and his officials on the matter.
Mike Penning: No, not least because the by-election is in the west midlands. I understand the point, and I am being slightly flippant; I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. As I understand the situation, the cost to the candidate of the publication will be £250. However, it is up to the returning officer to determine the cost within a bracket of up to £1,000, and that is to be confirmed. However, each candidate has to put down a deposit of £5,000, which they get back. The rest of the cost of the pamphlet will be borne by the Home Office.
Mike Penning: My hon. Friend puts quite a difficult question. The west midlands is a geographically and demographically large area, and we are still looking at what the cost to the taxpayer will be—we still have to go
Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab): I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his new post and wish him well. I think he is in an invidious position. The Labour party opposed the concept of police and crime commissioners, principally on the grounds of cost. My concern is not only the cost that the Minister has already identified, which is in excess of £250,000, but the fact that this is another piece of controversial legislation that has been rushed through in haste. Another example of that is the surveillance Bill. If the House had had the chance to consider some of the potential problems and anomalies and consult more widely, some of the problems and costs could have been avoided. Does the Minister agree?
Mike Penning: No, not least because I do not think that the hon. Gentleman’s argument stacks up. He used the word “rush”. I have sat on many Public Bill Committees, and the Bill received line-by-line scrutiny in this place and in the other House. As I have said, if—it is a big if—in hindsight, the anomaly that we are addressing today had been identified, we or the Opposition would have tabled an amendment or new schedule, but it simply was not picked up. I do not believe that it was a question of time. The legislation was based on a fixed term for commissioners rather than predicting that there might be a by-election. I put my hands up and say that that should have been addressed in the Bill. We all believe in parliamentary scrutiny, so if I have put my hands up, Members from other parts of the House, not least Her Majesty’s Opposition, should also put their hands up, because they did not pick up the anomaly either. If we are going to be honest with each other—I am brutally honest at times—I must say that we did not pick it up. The anomaly has nothing to do with the Bill’s being rushed through, not least because many hours were spent in Committee on the line-by-line scrutiny.
A lovely note on the expected costs was passed to me while I was taking an intervention, which was great timing. The booklet cost will be £700,000 and the cost of the by-election as a whole—the cost of running the by-election throughout the whole of the west midlands, including running 1,208 polling stations and counting—will be about £3 million. In good faith, I again admit that the anomaly should have been picked up when the Bill went through the House, and I hope the Committee will see the need for this order.
Our thoughts and prayers are with the family of Mr Jones. We hoped that this situation would not occur, but sadly it did. With that in mind, we need this order to ensure all the candidates have the ability to get to the electorate. Let us also hope that we get a much better turnout. We will scrutinise closely how the booklet works, in comparison with how the original PCC elections worked.
Jack Dromey (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his new post as the Minister with responsibility for policing. He is a decent, blunt, straightforward and—dare I say it, and I would, wouldn’t I?—well-spoken man. I pay tribute to his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), with whom I worked closely. He, too, was a decent man of great integrity. We had our disagreements, but I wish him all the best for the future.
Above all, I pay tribute to Bob Jones, who was a close personal friend. I launched his election campaign. He was one of the best police and crime commissioners. He worked hard, seven days a week. There was nowhere in the region that Bob did not visit in his constant attempts to connect with the communities, young people and black, Asian and ethnic minority groups in the region. He worked with the police and championed so many causes—above all, neighbourhood policing. He was a great man who will truly be missed. I will be at his funeral next Wednesday.
I make it clear from the start that we will be supporting this order, but we will be asking a number of questions that need to be answered. The first has perhaps been answered already. The Government must accept total, complete and sole responsibility for the mess we are in. But for the fact that we are in Parliament, where certain language is not acceptable, I am sure that both the right hon. Gentleman and I would use colourful language to describe the mess that we are in as a result of fundamentally flawed legislation.
Secondly, I want to press the right hon. Gentleman on the true costs of the elections, because it seems, from the calculations that have been forthcoming from the Government and the local authorities, that they are mounting by the day. Thirdly, I want to press the right hon. Gentleman on what the consequences will be of having an election on 21 August.
Jack Dromey: A straight answer to a straight question: we opposed the Bill throughout because we regarded it to be a flawed concept. Ultimately, it passed into law, but it was the Government’s Bill. No matter how hard Government Members try, the Government must accept responsibility for the legislation they put on to the statute book that has resulted in an election with an electorate of 1.8 million being called for 21 August—it is unprecedented in modern electoral history.
Grahame M. Morris: Can my hon. Friend estimate the opportunity cost? How many police officers would £3 million pay for, on the basis of a salary in the west midlands, at a time when police budgets are under such intense pressure?
Jack Dromey: I will return to that point, but I will say at this stage that more than 1,000 police officers have already gone in the west midlands. The thin blue line is being stretched ever thinner, with ever more serious consequences for neighbourhood policing.
There were 36 million people registered to vote, but only 5.49 million cast their vote. The Electoral Commission cited many reasons for the lack of participation in the elections, several of which are relevant today. The first was the “lack of awareness” of either the election or its candidates. That is what the Government are now seeking to address. Secondly, it cited the “unfamiliar time of year” for the election. To say the least, this will be repeated, because the Government have created legislation which enables a by-election to be called in August, with the original elections just two years ago in November. Both were the worst possible times of the year.
Thirdly, the Electoral Commission cited the “lack of information” on what the elections were for and what the PCCs would be in a position to do. Is the Minister seriously saying that the proposals in the statutory instrument will be able to fund the information needed on not only what the candidates offer but, more importantly, the role of PCCs? Fourthly, the Electoral Commission referred to the short time between the original Act coming into force and the start of the election, with only 10 weeks between the two. Once again, the Government have realised too late that their legislation is flawed. When the original legislation was introduced, the Electoral Commission stated that the short time between the enforcement of the Act and the start of the election in November was too short. That was a 10-week gap, and it will be 6 weeks for the by-election.
It predicted a turnout of 18.5% in November 2012. We now know that the turnout was even lower, at 14.7% and just over 12% in the west midlands. The Electoral Reform Society lambasted the Home Office for having what almost seemed to be a
Its report was published in March 2013 and fundamentally challenged the Government in terms of the adequacy—or rather, inadequacy—of the original legislation. The Government have at last, 16 months later, placed a sticking plaster over the problems they created with the original legislation. However, the SI leaves a number of unanswered questions.
It is very unclear whether the SI has addressed the issues raised by the Electoral Reform Society about the documents in question being available in other languages or in formats for people with sight difficulties. It details how this will be tackled in Wales, with police area returning officers having a duty to translate any standard texts for residential purposes. It is extremely vague, however, how this would be implemented across England. That is especially true when it comes to those with sight difficulties, and I know that from my own work in Birmingham, where I work very closely with the Royal National Institute of Blind People. Concern has already
In answer to the earlier question from my hon. Friend the Member for Easington, if that figure alone—we have heard higher figures today—was scaled up for PCC elections nationwide, the cost would be £12.3 million, which is the cost of putting 527 police officers back on the beat. The statutory instrument states that the provision will be used as a trial period ahead of the 2016 PCC elections. What is the actual cost to the public purse—the taxpayer—of the by-election?
That is what the Government said last week. Today they think it will be £700,000, subject to tender. A fresh figure was given of £700,000 or, perhaps, as high as £3 million. Will the Minister give exact clarity on what it will cost and how much that cost will be to the public purse?
all of the costs will be met by the Home Office. What are the total costs and will they be borne by the Home Office? If not and the Government are turning to local authorities in the west midlands—Birmingham is already reeling from the biggest cuts in local government history of £800 million. It cannot be that, because of the Government’s inadequate legislation, local authorities are asked to bear some of the burden. Will the Minister give clarity on total costs and who bears them?
Turning to the unfolding chaos surrounding the elections, I refer to the assessment prepared by the head of electoral services in Birmingham. The meeting has been taking place this morning and I have had further feedback from that. What has been said and confirmed this morning on the issue of polling stations is:
“Due to the time of year a number of polling stations will not be available on the 21st. This is not just a Birmingham problem as all LROs are reporting similar issues. As of 12th July out of the 460 polling stations used in Birmingham in May, some 136 may have to be replaced because they are either already booked…or in the case of schools are not available”,
for example, because of essential maintenance. As a consequence, they are looking at where they have the polling stations and also the merger of polling districts—single polling stations for a combined polling district or, perhaps, two or three. The people who have voted in the same polling station for 20 or 30 years will suddenly have to travel some distance to vote in person.
“We have highlighted as a significant risk that a high proportion of polling stations may not be opened on time…it is worth noting that all election officers across the region have concerns about staffing not just on polling day but also for the count. It is also worth noting that key election staff will be on leave at various times during the period leading up to polling day. In Birmingham alone it is anticipated that at any given time between one third and a half of the permanent core team will be on leave during that time.”
In meetings all over the region, it was said yesterday and is being said today that there will be immense problems complying with the new arrangements, the consequences of which might well be that thousands lose their ability to vote.
“has the possibility to confuse electors. Whilst this has been flagged up with both the Home Office and Cabinet Office (who have responsibility for the PCC by-election and IER respectively) the rules require us to do it this way. Through no fault of our own”—
What is happening on the ground is not just concern about the timing or cost of the by-election, but utter chaos in the by-election’s conduct, due to the Government’s fundamentally flawed legislation.
Birmingham and six other boroughs—seven proud boroughs—have the largest electorate outside London, with 1.81 million people and 1.1 million households. The flawed legislation has allowed two individuals associated with UKIP to trigger a by-election within days of the death of Bob Jones for 21 August, before Bob was buried and to the great distress of his widow.
Due to the Government’s flawed legislation, we will see costly chaos—cost to the taxpayer, and chaos in the administration of the by-election. Worryingly, thousands could lose their ability to vote. It is not just the confusion about polling stations, but, to take just one example, hard-working families who are on the register but not yet matched will have to apply afresh, including supplying national insurance details. If they cannot do so in time because of the tight time scale, and they cannot vote in person because they are on holiday, they will not be able to vote. The outcome of the costly chaos will be thousands unable to vote.
Once again, the risk that we run, which is being talked about in boroughs across the region, is that we might have an even lower turnout than the 12% last time round; perhaps it is premature to put an exact figure on that. The Government have not said anything by way of an impact assessment. Have they made any calculations?
The Government have no one to blame but themselves. The by-election is an insensitive and costly farce and should never have happened. Having said that, at least this sticking plaster today is to be supported. We are where we are and in these difficult circumstances we have to make the best of it, but the Government have a lot of serious questions to answer.
Sir Bob Russell: I would also like to congratulate my right hon. Friend on his promotion. My earlier intervention was to draw attention to the possible unintended consequence of providing at very low cost the equivalent of an Argos catalogue to be distributed free by the public purse through thousands of doors.
The reason I raised that point is that many years ago, before I became a Member of Parliament, we had a candidate standing in a general election, a local dentist, who was the smile candidate. I can see now hundreds of thousands of people across the west midlands having a candidate from whatever organisation, trade or whatever getting a free plug courtesy of the Home Office paying for free distribution to every household. That is a serious consequence.
I also question whether serious candidates should be on the same pamphlet as a by-election leaflet that we are talking about. I raise that as an unintended consequence. Many of us in the coalition did not approve of police and crime commissioners but it was part of the coalition package. My hope is that there will not be a need for the re-election of commissioners. That said, I want to put on record that the police and crime commissioner for Essex is an exceptionally good man, even though he is a Conservative.
Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): I rise to welcome the new Minister to his position. I believe he has some knowledge of blue light services. Even though I will probably disagree with everything he does, I wish him the best of luck with his promotion.
I want to extend my commiserations to Bob Jones’s family. It was a very untimely death and very shocking for his immediate family and everyone who knew him. I want to make the point that the Labour party was fortunate when seeking our candidate for this by-election in being able to choose from a good range of candidates, including Councillor Yvonne Mosquito, who is long-standing councillor, qualified lawyer and member of the police committee, very well dug into her community and her church. She was, of course, Bob Jones’s deputy. However, it was not to be.
Clearly, in the circumstances it is important that this piece of legislation goes through. If we are going to have this by-election it is important that the maximum number of people get the basic information in order to exercise their vote. I hope that for as long as the PCC system is in place all parties make a point of encouraging a wide range of people to stand for election.
I will say at the outset that no one wanted this by-election at this time. It has been called for political reasons by another political party. The best way I can describe them is as abhorrent reasons; that someone’s death should be used in a political way such as this. However, they have used local councillor rules under the Local Government Act 1972. That is what has happened. Two people calling for it is exactly the same rule as we have for councillors. The sad thing is that if Bob had been a councillor they could have done exactly the same. I fully accept that. That is on the statute book and we duplicated that in the legislation when it came through. That might be wrong and something we need to look at.
My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester raises an important point. The Electoral Commission has recommended the booklets, so we will almost use this as a pilot. We will evaluate how that works. Each candidate still has to put down £5,000. It is up to the returning officer or the police area returning officer to make the decision as to where he puts it in the scale. I say he because it is a he in this case; I am not being sexist. I understand that he is going to put it at the £250 limit. I have a personal view but perhaps I should not share it with the Committee, because I do share some of the concerns my hon. Friend has raised.
I thank the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington for her kind comments. We have known each other for many years. It is an interesting situation because as a paramedic in the military and a member of the fire brigade I was on a blue light. To now have the police job, as well as many other responsibilities, is a great honour. I pay tribute to the work that the police do across our country in difficult circumstances.
May I press the Minister on the questions of cost? He may be about to come to it, but the full cost has gone from £300,000 to £700,000 to £3 million in less than seven days. What is the full cost? What will it cover? Will it all be borne by the Home Office or will any fall on the local authorities concerned in the west midlands?
Regarding the impact assessment referred to—that is, the lack of one—has the Home Office looked at the likely turnout as the seven boroughs are now doing? If so, what is the Minister’s assessment of the likely turnout?
Until a couple of days ago, I was the disabilities Minister. One of the first questions I asked about the booklet was how people with all types of disability, particularly those with visual impairment, would access it. I have been assured that that has been addressed, but it is right that I take it up again.
I will reiterate the comments I made to do with cost. All costs will be borne by the Home Office. There will be no cost to the local authority and certainly not to the
To touch on some of the issues to do with polling stations, the figure I gave was for the whole of the PCC authority. I have the figures for Birmingham as of last night. Birmingham needs 460 and had 440 available last night. I have been assured of that by the returning officers and if it is different to the information that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington has, I will share it with him. What is going on is not a secret. I applied pressure last night to ensure that polling stations were open. I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern that people might be on holiday and will not be able to vote, but it is exactly the same legislation as it would be for a local authority, which comes under the Local Government Act 1972.
Party politics has a time and a place. This, on the death of Bob Jones, is neither. I hear from not only the shadow Minister, but from others, that Bob was an excellent and dedicated police and crime commissioner. I stress that if he was dedicated, he was doing a good job and one that Her Majesty’s Opposition opposed. We need to let the position continue for a bit longer because what we have seen from the PCCs in most cases—not every case—is that where people were opposed to them initially they have seen them doing an excellent job. Bob Jones was doing an excellent job. It will be for the electorate to decide how good a job Bob was doing, and to decide about any of the other PCCs around the country. I fully respect the fact that in its passage through the House the Bill was opposed. When I was sitting on the Opposition Benches not so long ago, we had Bills that we disagreed with. We tabled amendment after amendment to try to make them better, or, if we were fundamentally opposed, we tabled wrecking amendments, and often we were voted down. No amendment relating to this matter was tabled at any time during the progress of this Bill, and there was plenty of time to have done that. If Her Majesty’s Opposition had seen the anomaly, they could have tabled an amendment. If we had seen it, we would have done so.
I fully accept that in government the Minister take the flak—that is right and proper—but the anomaly could have been picked up and no one did so. We are listening to the Electoral Commission. It wants us to do booklets and we should trial that. A by-election will give us that opportunity in a very large base. The west midlands has the second largest in the country for the PCC. Let us see how the booklets work and whether they increase turnout.
Mike Penning: One thing I am not capable of doing is guessing, which is what the local authorities are doing. Their guess is based on what the turnout was last time, and on by-elections and local elections in the summer period. I will not get into those realms. We will work as closely as we can with the local authorities to make sure—
Mike Penning: No. I have given way so many times. The hon. Gentleman made a long speech. If we are to support this legislation, we need to get on. We are working enormously closely with the local authorities. I have been in the job only two days, but I have asked them serious questions about making sure polling stations will be available, and I have had assurances on that. If my information is slightly different from the information
By-elections are always difficult, as in the council and parish elections in our own constituencies when the turnout is always very low. We must make all efforts, and I hope all the candidates will make all efforts, whether or not they oppose the legislation. Let us hope we get a candidate as good as Bob, who did the job for his people in his part of the world, putting policemen on the front line and listening to what people want in their constituencies. That is the crucial part. We are going to have PCCs—it is on the statute book—so let us make them work. The booklets are an opportunity to try to do that.