Elections for new police and crime commissioners to oversee policing in the West Midlands risk becoming an embarrassing flop – according to the candidates themselves.
The election of police commissioners on November 15 will mark a dramatic reform in the way forces are governed, but critics have accused the government of failing to ensure voters are kept informed and encouraged to take part in the ballot.
Ministers have ruled out sending a letter to every home with details of the vote, even though this is standard practice for the election of MPs, MEPs and mayors.
Instead, there will be a website and a freephone number residents can ring asking for information.
The decision has been criticised by watchdog the Electoral Commission.
And speaking to the Birmingham Post, Conservative and Labour politicians hoping to become candidates in the West Midlands election said they were concerned lack of publicity, and the decision to hold the election in November, would lead to a tiny turnout – and might benefit the far right.
A very low turn out would also not give the person elected, who would wield considerable power, an electoral mandate for change. It comes as West Midlands Police faces fresh criticism over its controversial plans to sign deals which could be worth up to £1.5 billion over seven years in a partnership programme with private sector firms.
One of the first decisions a police commissioner will face is whether to press ahead with the scheme, which critics describe as “privatisation”.
But all the potential candidates the Post interviewed said they would either review the plans or scrap them outright. And the Commons Home Affairs Committee has published a damning report which suggests the force and its partner Surrey Police don’t know what the partnership programme is meant to achieve.
The report said: “The committee is not convinced that Surrey and West Midlands Police fully understand, or are fully able to articulate, the process they are undertaking.”
None of the political parties have so far selected candidates, but a number of front-runners have already emerged.
Labour activists in the West Midlands have been sent ballot papers to choose a candidate from a shortlist of two.
These are Wolverhampton councillor Bob Jones, who is finance chair on the existing West Midlands Police Authority, and Birmingham councillor Yvonne Mosquito, also a long-standing member of the Police Authority.
Barrister Ayoub Khan, who was a Birmingham councillor until local elections on May 3, is the only publicly-declared candidate for the Liberal Democrats.
And Joe Tildesley, a retired police officer who served for 30 years and became national chair of the Police Federation, hopes to become the Conservative candidate. He is a councillor in Solihull, where he is cabinet member for children and young people.
Coun Tildesley could face a contest to win the nomination, as applications to become the Tory candidate did not close until May 31. But he said he was concerned it was taking so long to choose a candidate, and to tell voters about the police commissioner plans.
He said: “I’m disappointed in the Conservative Party. I was writing to police minister Nick Herbert 12 months ago saying we need to get this sorted.
“I said we needed a campaign that lasts 12 months. We should have chosen a candidate months ago.”
The long delay in choosing a candidate would affect the Conservative Party’s chance of winning, but it would also mean less time to convince the public that it was worth voting at all, he said.
Electing a police and crime commissioner would be “the biggest change to policing since 1829”, when Parliament approved Sir Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police Act, said Coun Tildesley.
“There are 1.6 million people in the West Midlands who will have the right to vote, and I don’t think any of the parties have really begun to campaign or to make sure the public knows just how important this is. None of us are doing enough to get people interested.”
Labour’s Bob Jones warned that lack of publicity could benefit far-right candidates. Coun Jones said he backed retaining the existing police authority, but believed it was essential to have the right person in the police commissioner role if the government pressed ahead with the policy.
He said: “The website and freephone line the government has planned are grossly inadequate. They are worried that they are spending money on a new class of politician and they will be criticised if they spend money on a mailshot. If they held a referendum on creating police commissioners, as they did for mayors, people would vote ‘no’.
“We are having a November issue on law and order, and what is likely to be a low turnout. My concern is this could benefit the far right.”
Liberal Democrat Ayoub Khan said it was important lessons were learned from the mayoral referendum which took place in Birmingham on May 3.
He said: “In the mayoral referendum people didn’t understand the concept because it hadn’t been explained to them. This may be different. We will have to see how it pans out.”
Yvonne Mosquito, one of Labour’s two potential candidates, was more upbeat.
She said: “Once the selection is out of the way, people will find there is a lot of activity. I think there will be a lot of interest and debate. Policing is a big issue for particular sections of the community and I think they will be interested.”
The Electoral Commission has warned that providing information through a website rather than a mailshot would exclude people without internet access.
In a report sent to the Home Office it said: “Only providing information about police and crime commissioner candidates on a central website will disproportionately affect groups that have low levels of internet access, such as the elderly and those in rural areas.”