Rachel Rogers has written here of the duty of care the relevant PCC should have shown to a seventeen year old thrust into the limelight for the gutter press to feed on. David Cameron once said everyone is entitled to a private life before they enter politics, but social media means history can come back and haunt someone more easily than when he was a young person. There is a lesson to be learnt for anyone involved in appointing to a high profile post, or thinking of applying for such a post: check the digital footprint. Even if past indiscretions are not a reason not to appoint, there is no point leaving them hanging around for someone to find later.
But there is a broader point raised which is why would it make sense to ask a seventeen year old to take on a full time salaried role as Youth Commissioner?
It is a weird version of democracy that involves appointing a single person to represent all views and make decisions. As I have said before, the position of Police & Crime Commissioner is unique in this country. Ministers failed to ensure there were adequate checks and balances. They ignored the arguments put forward in parliament and overturned Lords amendments. The Lib Dems price? Not the checks and balances promised in the coalition agreement, but moving the election to November.
My view of democracy is much wider than ensuring that people have a right to vote. It is about ensuring that they are able to be involved in decisions which affect them – by having information and an opportunity to give their views. In my time working for local authorities and for the police authority, it was rare for there to be a vote. Even where there were strong opposing views, it was usually possible to find a compromise that everyone could live with.
Of course that isn’t always the case and sometimes there are genuine differences of opinion and a committee voting is the only sensible way of resolving the disagreement.
But a system of governance which means that one person can decide what will happen before they have even heard what anyone else thinks is a bad system. In my election campaign last year, I made no secret of the fact that I disagreed with the system and would not behave in the way that the law allowed, but would instead operate with the utmost integrity and seek consensus on my decisions.
I intended to do this by ensuring that I was regularly engaging with people across North Wales and in particular with the full range of stakeholders, including young people. I can see that Commissioners who have decided to appoint a Young Commissioner are doing so because they think it will be a mechanism for engaging – but I think it is a very weak one compared to alternatives already in place.
In Wales, we have a Children and Young People’s Assembly – Funky Dragon. This is drawn from Youth Forums in each of the 22 counties in Wales. They vary of course in terms of the resources and attention given by the council and the number of young people involved. But it is a really good starting point for engaging with a cross-section of young people and to find out what they think. The Police Authority had been involved in a previous event with young people in Denbighshire and Conwy and after I became a candidate I met some of the representatives and was looking forward to working with them.
Engaging with representatives in each of the six counties would make far more sense than expecting one person to represent all of those views and distil them for the benefit of the Commissioner. It would also give a more authentic voice: however good they are, someone who works full time as Youth Commissioner is no longer going to be representative of young people as a whole.
Whether it is engaging with young people or with the wider population, it is important for Police & Crime Commissioners to work with other agencies. It shouldn’t be necessary for the member of the public to negotiate which agency is responsible for a particular issue – if the agencies consult together they can then each take away the actions which are their responsibility and ensure they are completed.
But all of this once again reinforces the advantages of a system where a group of people are given overall responsibility for police governance: the key issues of hiring and firing a Chief Constable, setting the priorities and budget and holding the Chief Constable to account for delivering on them.
It is important to remember that the low turnout in November wasn’t simply apathy. The errors in organising this election have been catalogued by the Electoral Reform Society and by the Electoral Commission. The ERS survey found that 45% of people who did not vote said they “didn’t have enough information about the candidates to make a decision”. A further 19% of voters said they didn’t participate because they “don’t agree with electing police officials in this way”. That is more than the percentage of the population who actually voted.
Those people who were elected as Commissioners have a job to do. Some of them are excellent and are using the opportunity to make the connections with other agencies, engage with local people and make their communities safe. Others appear happy to take the money and let the system run itself. Before their terms of office come to an end in 2016, we really need to have a more sensible system in place.