Neil Lewis , is the Liberal Democrat candidate for the role of Police and crime commissioner which goes to the polls on the 5th May. Few people know about the role and the first elections held in 2012 achieved a turnout of below 14%. The voting system used was the Single Transferable Vote allowing voters to select their first and second choice candidates.
Neil, who has worked with technology and digital marketing for most of his life chatted about what the commissioner actually does, and why he is standing for the £75k a year role.
This blog does not seek to endorse any one candidate and an invitation has gone to the current PCC, John Dwyer for an interview.
Why are you standing for election?
I joined the Liberal Democrats in May last year. I felt a strong sense that we didn’t want to loose a liberal, open minded, evidence based approach to our public life. I looked at the parties values and found my values matched. Traditionally Liberal Democrats haven’t been in favour of having a PCC but we want our politics to work by being involved in it, rather than being outside it.
So what does the PCC actually do ?
The commissioner will spend a thousand pounds per voter across Cheshire while in post. The commissioner holds the Chief Constable to account- they have independent operational responsibility. The Commissioner is managing the budget and giving strategic directions. The purpose of the commissioner is not to stand alongside the police force, looking like another police chief, which is what the current commissioner does, but actually that they are a conduit to enable the people of Cheshire to understand what the police are doing in their local area.
How legitimate is the role considering hardly anyone voted ?
The commissioner is extremely powerful. There is a committee and a board running Cheshire west council, and they have an opposition party who scrutinise what they do. Hence we have interesting and exciting moments when we debate budgets in Chamber. It is messy and chaotic, but its called democracy. It’s not perfect but it’s better than anything I know. The commissioner has a strategic responsibility to the Home Office, but apart from that their role is lightly scrutinised monthly by the Police and Crime panel. Apart from that, pretty much nothing.
The election matters. But quite frankly, as long as we make it legitimate, we win. We want to make this democratic, and for people to understand this role and how important it is. That’s why we have worked out the figure of £1000. By engaging people, we start to open the conversation, and until we get that , its not democratic.
Previously all the power was held in Whitehall. I’m told that the cost of running the previous police authority was about 1.2 million per year. The cost of running the commissioner’s office is £700,000 a year. It is less than before. Where it gets value is when local people get to see what is happening in their name, and engage with it. You cant get a powerful prevention force, if you haven’t got the democratic accountability.
What sort of issues does the borough face?
The future of crime is frightening. Abusers have gone behind closed doors, and online, and crime is globalised.
The police are changing. We are fortunate in Cheshire that we have a good to very good police force. We are starting in a good place. The police are changing from purely being about response to a prevention role. In rural crime, the way to tackle it is to get local people to give intelligence to the police. Half of Cheshire’s geography is rural, the police cannot physically be there. The local people have to have confidence that the police want to hear from them. Its a bit like how the Fire service have evolved into a prevention role over the last 25 years.
This is the key argument as to why you should have an outsider in the role, I see it as a resident of Cheshire, not someone with 30 years experience in the police looking out.
Has the current commissioner done a good job?
Voters have a clear choice. He’s an ex police chief, you could argue, that if you want another police chief they don’t cost £700,000 a year. He has put some good things in place, restorative justice , reduces re-offending and gives victims a way of recovering and moving on, that’s a truly Liberal principle and I support it. I support the work with victim services, and the work on domestic abuse. I support the outsourcing of youth ambassadors, instead of having them stuck in Winsford.
We have the ongoing challenges of orthodox crime, but a large part of what’s going on now is largely online. There was a quote in the paper which said “police chief celebrates drop in crime by 1%.” Which basically means 500 less crimes. At the same time, when you calculate from national figures, there are 132,000 cybercrimes in Cheshire . This is a 50% increase, and about 30% are financial. That’s a massive hole. He says “that’s national business”
I don’t agree with that. If we went round asking people, we would find that their digital backdoors are unlocked. Their ten year old kids have just gone online and thrown open the door. Its about education and the way you tackle that is the same way we tackle bike theft. You go out into the community. ..
It’s not just cybercrime, but crimes facilitated by cyber activity. It could be trafficking networks, could be people, could be drugs, could be puppies. Overall the police do a really good, sometimes excellent job, but there are areas of weakness. The first issue is they have duplicated and weak out of date records of missing young people. The second issue is the stop and search , the Inspectorate have said they can’t condone what we are doing because we have insufficient records. So again, its about record keeping. It’s data and computer systems. The third area is that information from the national crime agency is not reaching the local level. We have a commissioner who does not get technology. We have an arms race going on, criminals are starting to use drones. The whole shape of crime is changing.
As a county we have been slow to recognise cybercrime. If someone has money stolen from their eBay or bank account, they get the money back. What we’re doing is like paying a ransom. We are equipping criminals with money and they are ahead of the game. We have to start with shutting the front door. The current commissioner thinks cybercrime is the responsibility of the “cyber industry”.
We are doing a lot online, reaching out to people on facebook. We are reaching out to schools and businesses and doing street surgeries. I have also put out a request that we have a debate. David Keane, Labour candidate has responded. John Dwyer has not responded. In order to raise the democratic legitimacy of this role, we have to debate it. The current commissioner believes that he should arrange thing behind closed doors, a quiet word with the Home Office, or a letter to Teresa May. He does not seek to hold the Home Office or the Treasury to account. I can find information in the foyer of HQ about police performance which is a month ahead of the information on the commissioner’s website. That’s a fundamental failure.
Given that the Lid Dems got wiped out in Cheshire West and also in the parliamentary vote (last place behind UKIP)… have you got a chance of winning?
Yes I think we can win. We stand for moderate evidence based politics and policing. We are not seeking to politicise this election, we want to give it democratic legitimacy. We’re here to win it but if we don’t win it we will still believe we have won if it becomes legitimate.
The Police and Crime commissioner vote is on the 5th May.