Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Here's a crazy idea: Maybe we should let the electorate decide who become PCCs

There has been a lot of noise in the last few days about how terrible it is that Bob Ashford has been barred from standing as a Labour candidate to become a Police and Crime Commissioner in Avon and Somerset due to a crime he was convicted of when he was 13 years old 46 years ago. This is because of a rule that was included in the bill that created the positions whereby a candidate cannot stand if they have ever been convicted of an offence that could have resulted in them being sent to prison (even if they weren't). There are also others who have stood down as a result of this rule include the decorated Falklands war hero Simon Weston due to an offence he was convicted for when he was also a child.

As Mark Pack has pointed out, this is not an "unintended consequence" of the legislation but very much intended as the parliamentary record shows. This very point (candidates being barred due to offences committed when they were children) was specifically debated and there appeared to be broad parliamentary consensus that this was "the right thing to do".

As an aside, I find it intensely depressing that such illiberal laws can be passed through our parliament without any real understanding of how ridiculous the consequences of said laws will actually be in practice from those who are supposed to be legislative experts. I really hope this episode will give the unthinking authoritarians (in all parties) pause for thought the next time they are debating legislation.

Mark Ferguson has done a sterling job on LabourList in recent days highlighting the absurdity of this rule and calling for an urgent change. The Home Office has already indicated that nothing can be done until after the first set of elections in November.

On that LabourList posting linked to above there is an interesting debate in the comments. Some commenters agree the rule is wrong but there are others who point out that it is going to be difficult to define precisely where the bar should be. They suggest that ruling on what would be an acceptable and unacceptable criminal conviction will be tricky. They are essentially saying that there will always be edge cases that seem to fall on the wrong side (either way) wherever the line is drawn.

I agree it would be tricky. But here is a radical idea. The entire point of having these Police and Crime Commissioners was in order to allow voters to choose them. So why not allow the electorate to decide? If they consider a youthful misdemeanor by Mr Ashford should prevent him from becoming a PCC then they won't vote for him. You can certainly bet your bottom dollar that if Mr Ashford's opponents think it will count against him the details of it will be plastered all over leaflets. The same would apply for any of the other candidates who have withdrawn (or may do so in the future).

Perhaps instead though what we will find is that people who have had dealings with the law from the other side as youngsters but have learned their lesson and gone on to be highly productive and trustworthy members of society might just have something very useful to contribute to the role.

Stranger things have happened.

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