JesmondLocal speaks to PCC candidates

Tomorrow (Thursday 15th November), voters in England and Wales will get the chance to elect Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) for the first time.

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Each of the 41 policing regions will have its own PCC, responsible for devising a policing strategy, setting a budget and having the power to hire and fire chief constables. The police itself, however, will in theory remain operationally independent.In our region, Northumbria, each of the candidates for the three main parties has a direct link to Jesmond. JesmondLocal has spoken to each of them, as well as to the fourth candidate, UKIP’s Alistair Baxter, to see how they intend to shape policing in our area.

The Conservative party devised the concept of the new role and included it in its 2010 election manifesto, arguing it would make the police more accountable. Opponents, including the Liberal Democrats, worry about the politicisation of the police.

The Electoral Reform Society has predicted a national turnout of 18.5%, suggesting a lack of enthusiasm, or at least awareness, among the public.

The Tory candidate in Northumbria is Philip Butler, a former Newcastle police officer, specialising in fraud and cybercrime. Since leaving the force he has run an internet safety company and a forensic accountancy business.

As a detective sergeant in Gosforth in the early 1990s, he led a plain-clothes team of officers to tackle an upsurge in burglaries in the Jesmond area. The team disguised themselves as bin men in an attempt to identify repeat culprits.

Philip Butler told JesmondLocal he was successful in identifying the ringleader and reducing burglaries considerably in Jesmond.

When we asked him why he wanted to become PCC, he said, “I think it was the realisation that I didn’t want a politician in charge of the police. I was in the police for 30 years. I’m as well qualified as anyone.”

Labour’s candidate Vera Baird argues that communication skills are more important than police experience.

After practising as a barrister for a many years, Baird became MP for Redcar in 2001. From 2007 to 2010 she served as Solicitor-General, the second most senior legal position in government.

She lives in Sandyford, within the South Jesmond ward, so has experience of policing in our area.

She told JesmondLocal it was a mistake to think the role was about running the police. She argued her experience as a politician and a communicator would equip her best to represent the people of Northumbria and relay their needs to police officers.

“I’ve been a politician as the MP for Redcar for nine years, so I’m very used to talking to the public. But I’ve been running a violence-against-women charity with others for the last two years and I’ve been a barrister for 30.”

She said she wanted to protect the police from the front-line cuts imposed by central government. Labour, she said, would have limited spending reductions to 12%, a figure deemed “realistic” by the Inspectorate of Constabularies.

She said the best way to protect the front-line from cuts was to mark out priorities, which she identified as “neighbourhood policing, antisocial behaviour, drug crime and violence against women”.

Phil Butler, meanwhile, said that through “natural wastage”, most of the required cutbacks had already taken place. He also said he would cut down on bureaucracy and make use of technology to make the force more efficient.

He added that he was “wary” of privatisation in the police, a process that has already begun to take place in some forces and from which Vera Baird has pledged to protect Northumbria.

The other candidates lack the profile and political experience of Baird. However, with high profile comes closer scrutiny. In 2009 the Daily Telegraph reported that an expenses claim by Baird for £286 worth of Christmas decorations had been refused by Commons officials. She lost her parliamentary seat in May 2010 and made headlines again the following month by picking up a six-month driving ban after speeding at 98mph on the M4.

Baird told JesmondLocal: “I was exonerated totally of either claiming or receiving anything to which I was not entitled. Consequently I’ve got an utter clean bill of health for my expenses. That’s what the public needs to remember.”

Of the driving offence, she said she had been “apologetic” and it was “irrelevant” to how she would represent the public.

Liberal Democrat candidate Peter Andras is known locally as a North Jesmond councillor. He joined the race late in the day, as his party hesitated over whether to field a candidate.

The computing lecturer told us that he believed his qualities and previous experience, although they differ from his opponents, may give him an advantage.

“I have never worked with police but it is about experience of working with large organisations. I have experience of monitoring the value-for-money efficiency of large organisations, have set up companies and had a company enter the stock exchange in 2007.”

UKIP candidate Alistair Baxter argued that his experience of the business world, and detachment from the police and mainstream party politics, would make him most suitably qualified.

“I have worked for 40 years in business,” he told us, “including 10 at a large corporation at director level. I have very senior management skills.”

“The police is a business, not for profit, but it has customers – the public – and must operate within its means.”

On this point he emphasised his intention to improve taxpayer value for money, through what he called “working and systems efficiencies” – getting rid of waste within the organisation.

He also said his expertise as a published author in marketing would help engage the public with the police and facilitate better community policing.

Peter Andras also emphasised the notion of communication as key, and said he didn’t want party politics to interfere with the police.

Asked about his vision for the police, Andras said: “The PCC role is to channel information from communities, from organisations and from community leaders to the police. We can then channel back information from the police to those communities.”

He added: “I care about what local communities want, rather than my party’s interests.”

Baxter pointed to punishment as a deterrent and more officers on the beat as priorities for him. He also said his active church involvement gave him “strong values” and said it was a shame so many people had lost sight of Christianity, which he sees as “the whole basis of civilisation”.

What voters make of the candidates, and indeed the election itself, will become clear after tomorrow.