My letter to Nick Alston, Essex PCC

I have written to Nick Alston, Police and Crime Commissioner for Essex, following an article in the Yellow Advertiser. Here is what I have written:


I am a little unsettled by a report in this week’s Southend Yellow Advertiser, which quotes PC Martin Knight. (All vagrants are either ‘druggies or alcoholics’)

Firstly I must put it on record that I consider the Police I encounter in my role as a Southend-on-Sea Borough councillor do an excellent job in difficult circumstances.

I take exception to this report, which seeks to label the homeless as all causing anti-social behaviour and crime.

The quotes in the article are some way from the reality I have seen. All rough sleepers do not have substance abuse issues, although I accept that many do. Whilst some choose the streets live on, the vast majority are there not through choice.

In my experience, albeit limited (and I do defer to experts, like Shelter) there are many reasons for homelessness. Some are poor, some lose their jobs, some are evicted from their homes. Divorce and separation figure amongst the reasons people are forced to sleep rough, as do mental health issues. Some are escaping abuse. It is a far from simple picture, and the glib explanation that all who are vagrant “choose to live on the streets and take drugs and drink alcohol” is misleading. It is also harmful.

Some of the homeless acquire substance issues because of being homeless – it is a symptom of their homelessness rather than the reason. Many rough sleepers encounter violence and articles like this, in my opinion, help legitimise this.

I do receive complaints from residents about begging and anti-social behaviour caused by some in the homeless community, and the Southend Police do a good job in dealing with this. I take a zero-tolerance approach to this. But to label all who are ‘vagrant’ in the way described by PC Knight is plain wrong.

I hope you will be able to tell me that the article misquotes Essex Police. I hope you can also assure me that the Police in Southend will continue to do the fine job in treating the homeless with respect that all deserve. Homelessness is a growing issue, and we should be looking for solutions rather than stigmatising the most vulnerable in our community.




The shambolic PCC elections

Those of us involved with local elections have become somewhat inured to low turnout over the years. My election earlier this year saw only 24.4% of my ward vote; there were two wards in Southend-on-Sea who managed an even worse level of engagement. I recall by-elections where turnout was on or around 16%. It does question the legitimacy of the winners, although they cannot do much more than actually win.

Most of us involved in politics worry about turnout. Voter engagement cuts to the core of how effective our democracy is seen to be. Whilst there may be many reasons for not voting the net result is a weakening of the concept of society. The really worrying thing is that if we factor in the unregistered even our General Elections may witness less than half actually bothering to take part.

Since this is a discussion across the political spectrum I find it somewhat shocking that the PCC elections are run in such a way as to give the appearance of actively seeking a low turnout. Wary of hyperbole I still cannot find a better adjective to describe the November 15th elections than ‘shambles’. Irrespective of who wins where, those who are running this have not covered themselves in glory.

My first grievance is the choice of date. As an activist I am fully aware of what campaigning in the autumn is like. Contacting voters and getting a message out is hampered by dark evenings and poor weather.

It is no coincidence that there is a corollary between weather and turnout – and hence why most of our elections are now fought in May. To separate this election from the locals may have some merit as regards the distinctiveness argument (not one I subscribe to) but this will be proven to be an appalling decision if turnout is as low as predicted (18% by the ERS).

Separating the election from the locals has also made this a costly exercise. I do not know what the final bill will be for the tax-payer, but having elections on their own creates avoidable costs as polling stations and staff have to be made available as if this was a General Election. Add in poll cards, advertising, and the count and one wonders if the person who made this decision is at all aware of how tight public money is at the moment. (I have read that £350,000 of ballot papers have already gone to the shredder because the Government got the law wrong.)

There has also been a knock-on effect on the Register of Electors, as the annual publication is brought forward in an attempt to make it as accurate as possible for these elections.

Having chosen to lavish money on autumn elections, the penny-pinching decision not to have a freepost delivery will leave many, if not most, voters largely ignorant about their candidates. These are not small constituencies, and personal contact with all but a minute percentage is impossible. Cost will be the reason – but why hold an election if you are not going to properly support it? I have fought two General Elections, on each occasion I took advantage of the freepost delivery of leaflets. I had a mere 70000 voters to contact, whereas PCC constituencies often exceed the million mark.

This is set to be a record breaker. Setting aside the arguments about whether we should be having these elections (and some voters will be abstaining because they object to them), many will not vote either through ignorance about the candidates, ignorance about the elections themselves, or because the time of year is no encouragement. This is set to be a record breaker, and for the wrong reason. It is almost certain that turnout have a new nadir. Those of us who cherish democracy will have cause for concern.

I am also puzzled about the decision not to have an election for the biggest police authority – London. It does look like a political decision. What is also worrying is that the bar for candidature is set higher than for any other election. No-one with anything resembling a criminal record can stand, somewhat in defiance of normal rules surrounding spent convictions. Whilst no-one wants criminals running for these jobs surely a life ban is unreasonable. These rules do not apply for any other elected position.

I welcome the use of the Supplementary Vote for these elections, but this does beg two questions. First is why? Is the likely transfer of minor party support seen as a boost for certain candidates – in other words, is this another political decision? Second, is this a step towards fairer electoral systems for councillors?

To cap it all, if my description of these elections is anywhere near accurate what will this do to the credibility of our new Police and Crime Commissioners?

Wanna motor guv?

I do not know what Mick Thwaites thinks he achieves by describing himself as ‘honest’, but it makes him sound like some spiv. Does he mean to distance himself from the other candidates? – honest Mick against the, err, others (who perhaps may not be quite so honest).

Mick Thwaites (100% policing, 0% politics) is guilty of trying to be all things to all men (and women). The “I’ll give you whatever you want” line can only fool some of the people some of the time. Being a mirror to everyone’s desires is superficially appealing, but I think the role requires leadership. Leaders should listen, but they also have to be big enough to take the unpopular decisions.

He may not want politics to intrude, but he must know that he can achieve very little without politicians. Like it or not, the Government has created a political role.

By the way, is that imprint legal? It does not look it to me – rather an amazing oversight for one wishing to lead our Police in Essex.

Autumnal campaigning, or how to choose a bad date for an election

One of my memories from the run-in to May’s elections was the weather – rain seemed to interrupt much that I was trying to do on the campaign trail. Without at least dry weather it becomes very difficult to leaflet or canvass. Some may cheer at this, but those who wonder at what little contact they have with their elected representatives, and those trying to get elected, will understand that dry weather and light evenings are essential.

May elections at least allow for evening campaigning which is not the case with November elections. Turnout is expected to be low, and I expect that many voters will not know who is standing. The ability to effectively campaign is hindered by the decision to hold this election in late Autumn. If it is raining on November 15th then this will be a further disincentive to vote.

I believe that high turnout at elections is the sign of a healthy democracy. If we want our elections to mean anything then we should do what we can to assist engagement, which means not holding them when it is dark and cold.

If the sensible decision to hold them in May had been taken it would also have been cheaper as polling stations and polling staff would already have been in place for the local elections.

East England PCC candidates

The PCC candidates for the East of England have been published.

Cambridgeshire has the most crowded field with seven candidates. (Nationally Devon and Cornwall will have the biggest ballot paper with ten candidates declared.) Only Labour and the Conservatives are fielding candidates in all contests.

I expect all six Eastern counties will boil down to a straight Con-Lab contest in the end. I do not anticipate any success by independent or fringe party candidates, and the Lib Dems can’t catch a cold at the moment.

My only other prediction is for low turnout – I do not expect 25% to be broken anywhere, and 15% is a real possibility in some places.

Bedfordshire Cambridgeshire Essex Hertfordshire Norfolk Suffolk
British Freedom Kevin Carroll
Conservative Jasbir Parmar Sir Graham Bright Nicholas Alston David Lloyd Jamie Athill Tim Passmore
English Democrats Stephen Goldspink Robin Tilbrook
Labour Oliver Martins Ed Murphy Val Morris-Cook  Sherma Batson Steve Morphew Jane Basham
Liberal Democrat Linda Jack Rupert Moss-Eccardt Christopher Townsend James Joyce
UKIP Paul Bullen Andrew Smith Marion Mason Matthew Smith Bill Mountford
Independent Rashid Mezanur Ansar Ali Linda Belgrove Stephen Bett David Cocks
Independent Farooq Mohammed Mick Thwaites

A dilemna

Something called the Supplementary Vote will be used for the Police and Crime Commissioner elections on November 15 here in Essex, and for every Police authority. This presents me with a dilemma.

Firstly, let me briefly explain how the Supplementary Vote works. The ballot paper will have two columns, one for your first preference, the other for your second preference. Each column should be marked with a single cross against the candidate of your choice. The lowest polling candidates will be eliminated (from bottom to top) and their second preferences re-allocated until a single candidate passes the 50% plus one mark.

The Supplementary Vote, whilst not a perfect method, is far superior to First Past The Post, and therefore is a welcome improvement. As an electoral reformer this pleases me, and this is one reason why I will be casting a second preference.

There will be many Labour supporters who will only cast their first preferences; the argument running that we should be in the top two and therefore our second preferences are irrelevant. There is also the view amongst some of my friends that only Labour presents a viable home for one’s vote.

A look at who is standing in Essex shows the dilemma for me. There are six candidates, and Labour will be joined on the ballot paper by a Conservative, someone from UKIP, the English Democrats, and two Independents. No other progressives – no Green or Liberal Democrat (I realise that describing them as progressive somewhat flies in the face of their role in Government).

Aside from the considerations surrounding electoral reform and my view that I must support it, and therefore fully use the opportunities it presents, there is a more pressing reason to cast that second preference – the presence of an extremist on the ballot paper.

The English Democrats provide a home nowadays for BNP supporters who have fled that party in the wake of its recent internal divisions. The English Democrats have effectively become an incarnation of the BNP, and their website, literature and candidates in my corner of Essex are indistinguishable from the BNP of a few years back.

The English Democrat candidate must not sneak in the back door. This will be a low turnout election, and extremists are usually more motivated as voters. I would hope that the Labour candidate would win out, but in the eventuality that Labour fail to succeed then anyone will be better than the English Democrat candidate.

The crux of the dilemma is this: I will have five choices for my second preference. The English Democrats are on the far right, so no chance. I cannot support UKIP, who whilst not extreme as the English Democrats, are to the right of the Tories. I have an abiding distrust of Independents. And then there are the Conservatives, a party I have spent more than forty years campaigning against.

Thank goodness it is a secret ballot.

The PCC elections are only 61 days away

Val Morris-Cook

On 15 November 2012 an election will be held in every police force area in England and Wales to elect a Police and Crime Commissioner to replace the police authorities.

At present, there are 43 police authorities in England and Wales that are responsible for the oversight of policing. They are made up of a mix of local elected councillors and independent members. Police authorities are the lawful employers of the police staff.

The 2011 Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act created the new role of Police and Crime Commissioner – a single elected person to replace each of the police authorities. Each Commissioner will be scrutinised by a new local government committee called the Police and Crime Panel.

Once elected the new Commissioners will:

Employ police staff
Set the police precept as part of local council tax
Decide the policing plan for each police force
Hold the chief constable to account
Commission policing services from the chief constable, or other providers
Work in partnership with other criminal justice agencies

The Coalition Government is cutting police budgets by 20%. By the end of the current CSR period this will mean the loss of 16,000 (approx 500 in Essex) police staff jobs and 2000 (approx 100 in Essex) PCSO posts – roughly 20% of the police staff establishment. Alongside these staffing cuts, Essex Police has been forced to close police stations and public enquiry desks as a result of inadequate funding from Government.

Val Morris-Cook is Labour’s PCC candidate in Essex.