Ministers begged not to skimp on police commissioner elections

By Alex Stevenson

Yet again, the Electoral Commission is voicing concern with ministerial plans – this time over November 15th's police and crime commissioner elections.

This coalition-created post is a major innovation which will, critics say, end up politicising the police far more than is currently the case. MPs I've been speaking to this week say the elections are bound to become vehicles for the political parties, given the large constituency sizes governing each police force.

The Commission agrees. But its worries extend far beyond this simple principle. If anything, it has suggested today in its response to the government's proposals, the plans as they stand will make the large-constituencies problem even worse.

Usually in elections of this kind each candidate gets a freepost mailout to voters, paid for out of the public purse. The mayoral elections set to take place on the same day will benefit from this publicity boost. Not so the police and crime commissioner candidate, who are instead being offered a central website. Printouts will be available for those not online – but only if requested.

The Electoral Commission isn't impressed. It says around seven million people in England and Wales, excluding London, didn't use the internet at all in the last year. The argument is clear: cost-cutting risks undermining the elections. "Without clear processes and rules in place in sufficient time, trust and confidence in the system may be called into question not only by those who want to stand for election but also by voters."

Information for the voters is one issue; running the elections properly is another entirely. The Commission says it is already being deluged with enquiries from would-be candidates. It wants to issue its guidance at least six months before the elections. Alas, it's being held up by ministers, who are taking their time in drawing up the secondary legislation setting out the rules of the game.

The Commission is not happy, stating: "Any further delay by the government in finalising the draft secondary legislation would pose an increasing risk to our ability to provide timely and accurate guidance on the rules for the first PCC elections to campaigners and electoral administrators."

Labour would rather the £100 million being spent on these elections would be better spent on keeping police officers in work, but is happy to capitalise on the Commission's concerns. Shadow policing minister David Hanson said this afternoon: "If the Tory-led government is going to go ahead with this, then they need to heed the warnings from the Electoral Commission and provide people with proper and accurate information."

Having slapped both London and Holyrood on the wrists earlier this month for their skewed, biased Scottish independence referendum proposals, the Electoral Commission now faces challenges to another important voting occasion. The question now is: will the government listen?