The race for Kent Police and Crime Commissioner is an election that for months now has been hotly contested but of late, after attending two recent hustings, it seems that the people of Kent, contrary to what the media says is general apathy nationwide, are also very much engaged with the process.
People in their vast numbers have attended these two debates on the University of Kent, Canterbury campus and at Midkent College, Gillingham, in which all six candidates took part This in part I think is a credit to the candidates, who of varying success have campaigned all around the cities and towns of Kent, but this is also because the people of Kent are aware that whoever wins this election has a huge task on their hands in order to coordinate the protection and prevention of crime in Kent which has disrupted far too many people.
Whoever wins this will have control over a £225 million budget and where this is spent, or not spent will have a direct impact over the safety of all in Kent. There shall be no time for bedding-in period for whoever wins on the 15th November. Whilst the role is new, the job of Police and Crime Commissioner is not one for a novice.
In Kent, under the traditional responsibility of unelected, target-obsessed and detached bureaucrats in the Kent Police Authority (KPA) over 70% of crime in Kent went unresolved. 84% of burglaries and 82% of car crimes have gone ‘undetected’, drug problems and the general influence of the Black Market over the lives of Kent residents are rife. This is before the impact of a 20% reduction of the police budget is felt. The move towards a more accountable police service, with a democratically elected Commissioner cannot be more timely and welcome.
Candidates Ann Barnes (Independent), Dai Liyanage (Independent), Craig Mackinlay (Conservative), Steve Uncles (English Democrats) , Piers Wauchope (UKIP) and Harriet Yeo (Labour) all attended the two recent hustings in which all put forward their own cases for becoming the first PCC of Kent. I was struck by the range of candidates on offer in Kent. Far from a bunch of career politicians, we have Harriet Yeo, a proud trade unionist, Craig Mackinlay, a local Magistrate and accountant and current Councillor, Dai Liyange, a former Liberal Democrat member and Mayor of Medway, Piers Wauchope, another Councillor, Steve Uncles, an activist within the English Democrats, and lastly Ann Barnes, formerly of the KPA. This variety is refreshing and shall only improve general attitudes to the newly formed PCC role at a time when public faith in traditional politicans in Westminster is at an all-time low.
The big issues which came up in both hustings were firstly drugs. All candidates conveyed their hard-line approach to drugs in Kent. All were in agreement that illegal drugs have no place in civilised society. Mackinlay and Yeo in particular, spoke candidly on the issue. Mackinlay, as a Magistrate in one of the most challenging wards in the whole country, reiterated that the overwhelming majority of crimes have a drug element to them, in which most of these criminals have a drug habit. Harriet Yeo challenged the notion that drugs are of no harm to society when she talked of how a helpless parent, which she met whilst on the campaign trail, could do little to prevent the damage of the fumes, spread from a neighbour from reaching her 3 year old child. A reminder that it is those around the drug user that suffers at the hands of illegal drugs. Mackinlay also supports drug rehabilitation programs as the way forward to help hooked users off the habit.
Another issue that was prevalent was fears of privatisation. Again all candidates appeared to agree that privatisation of the front line is not on the agenda. Harriet Yeo attacked Ann Barnes for her record on privatisation on the KPA. Yeo called for Mrs Barnes to be upfront about the private companies she oversees to carry out Kent Police roles.
Craig Mackinlay however was more realistic on the issue. Mackinlay reiterated that ‘capital P’ privatisation is something he will never bring onto the front line provision of the police, however he explained that for back-office functions, private companies can carry out functions at a cheaper cost to taxpayers whilst providing more effective service.
Another issue was an apparent dissatisfaction with the lack of police presence on the streets of Kent, meaning that police officers become detached from the public, who lack community ties with their local officers. Craig Mackinlay offered hope to Kent's rural communities, who many claim to have not seen a police officer 'in years'. Mackinlay's promoted his rural manifesto's six-point rural crime policy, emphasizing the need for increased police interaction with rural communities, the need for more Special Constables and better use of intelligence to combat crime in rural Kent.
However all candidates defended the closure of police stations in Kent. Ann Barnes acknowledged that they were too expensive to maintain. Mrs Barnes said that her policy would be to provide 'mini mobile police stations' to combat the 'emotive element' of station closures. Mackinlay said that the rise of technology and its widening distribution and usage meant that Police can be more responsive now, through the use of technology, meaning that the police stations purpose and effectiveness was diminishing.
Another issue in the forum was over the salary for the role. On a show of hands at Midkent College, very few believed that the position justified the £85000 annual salary. Dai Liyanage claimed he would only accept a salary of £40,000, whilst committing the rest of the allocated amount to police technology research.
Interestingly though, Mrs Barnes, Chair of the Kent Police Authority, whilst in her six year tenure oversaw a rise by 45% to her six-figure salary, this for her work in unelected position. This authority shall, come November 16th be abolished and replaced by the elected PCC . The salary for the role shall be significantly less than what Mrs Barnes paid herself whilst Chair of the KPA with taxpayers money in these roles. This salary for a new, elected and democratically accountable person seems far fairer than the previous regime and whilst at the same time as reducing salary cost, shall also increase democratic mandate and representation in our police force.
Craig Mackinlay in Canterbury led the concern at rising bureaucracy costs under the previous KPA, at a time when the police budget is being cut by central government. Candidates Yeo, Mackinlay, Liyanage, Wanchope and Uncles all expressed concern of this trend. Mackinlay said that these ever-increasing costs were unnecessary and , if elected he would ensure that the money allocated to admin would be spent on protecting the front line. Dai Liyange agreed that these costs will have to be brought back down under control.
Consensus on the issue however did not quite form around the podium. Ann Barnes, believed to be a front-runner for the job, defended the tripling of back office and admin costs spent by the KPA in the space of only six years, this whilst front line officers have been made redundant in Kent, conceded that she could not promise that these costs won’t continue to increase from the £1.5 million she already administers.
So as the event drew to a close in Gillingham, attendees at the forums will have much to ponder when it comes to their crucial choice in 22 days time. Each candidates respected campaigns shall no doubt step up in intensity as election day on the 15th November approaches. How the new Police and Crime Commissioners will impact crime and the police agenda is something that will be of much interest in the coming months and years. But for now, the elected Commissioner is here to say and it is essential that Kent selects the right one.