Police and Crime Commissioner rules: written by the Keystone Kops?

At last, we have a glimpse of the rules for candidates for November’s Police and Crime Commissioner elections. But it is just a sideways glimpse, filtered through the Electoral Commission’s public response to the Government’s unpublished draft rules, and the squeamish should avert their eyes.

For either the Home Office is being particularly obtuse, or it has an extremely cunning plan to test candidates’ desire to follow the law by making it as hard as possible to do something as basic as work out how much they can spend on campaigning.

For large scale elections, such as London-wide or European elections, there’s usually a clear easily identifiable limit. But bizarrely the Home Office has ignored both common sense and the Commission to create a formula of £2,362 plus 17.7p per elector. This leaves candidates chasing up to 16 sets of electorate figures from officers who have no obligation to share the information, whose attitudes to candidates range from very helpful to downright suspicious, and who also happen to be rather busy trying to organise the election at the same time.

The problem is compounded because it can be difficult even for officials to give accurate figures, and there is evidence that candidates and agents struggle to get the limits right in parliamentary elections, which also use a formula but only have one or two electorate figures to obtain. Commission research showed that 53% of candidates at the 2010 general election got it wrong – and for independents, it was as high as 70%. It’s also not unknown for electoral officers to give out the wrong limit. So candidates can go over the actual spending limit without realising they’re doing so – particularly embarrassing if it ends up with being investigated by the police force you’re overseeing.

The Commission’s response indicates that the government thought about putting police areas into bands, with each band having a particular fixed limit, but that changed this because it would result in some disparities between areas.

However, this concern isn’t dissipated by the formula, just hidden behind its complexity. In parliamentary formulas, rural areas have a slightly higher spend per elector due to the larger geographic area. Here, there is no such adjustment and no hint of how the figures for the formula were decided (generously assuming that some sort of logic was in fact applied). Densely populated Greater Manchester and more rural Durham are calculated in exactly the same way.

So let’s just give each area its own fixed limit, as the Commission suggests – it’s the sanest thing to do.

17 March 2012