On Tuesday we all had to deal with the sad news that Bob Jones had died, and almost immediately to consider the impending by-election in the West Midlands. As reported at the time, there is a 35-business-day deadline by which the election must be held, and given that people have to be chosen and formally nominated before 16 of those days have passed, you would expect some quiet announcements about election dates and the like.
Instead we have the Chamberlain Files reporting that the Leader of Birmingham City Council is seeking to have the election delayed by the Home Office till September. We all appreciate the desire for a sense of decorum when someone has died, but that doesn’t change the law, and even if the Home Office are sympathetic, the chances of both Houses of Parliament approving the required change in the three weeks they have left before their recess are slim-to-none, if you’re given to overestimating chances.
Which leaves us with the 35-day-rule.
So what does the law actually say in these cases?
s. 59 1 (c) of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 says that
(1) For the purposes of this Chapter, a vacancy in the office of police and crime commissioner for a police area is to be regarded as occurring…
…(c) in the case of death, on the date of death;…
(3) The appropriate officer must give public notice of a vacancy in the office of police and crime commissioner for a police area.
(4) The appropriate officer must give notice of a vacancy in the office of police and crime commissioner for a police area to the police area returning officer.
(5) Any notice under subsection (3) or (4) must be given as soon as practicable after the date on which the vacancy is to be regarded under this section as occurring.
Who are the “appropriate officer” and the “Police Area Returning Officer”?
Well this seems to suggest that the appropriate officer is the Chief Executive of Birmingham City Council?
And this seems to suggest that the Police Area Returning Officer is the Parliamentary Returning Officer for Birmingham, Edgbaston, who you might know better as the Chief Executive of Birmingham City Council. Seems to be the same guy.
So – he has to tell himself the news, as soon as practicable. I guess that removes the potential problems of “I couldn’t find his address”, or “I called, but he never got back to me”. One would think that was pretty much immediate – it would take no time at all.
s.51 of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 states that
(1) This section applies where a vacancy occurs in the office of police and crime commissioner for a police area.
(2) An election must be held to fill the vacancy.
(3) The police area returning officer must fix the date of the poll at the election.
(4) The date fixed must be not more than 35 days after the relevant event (computed in accordance with section 73).
(5) For the purposes of subsection (4), “the relevant event” means—
(a) in a case where the High Court or the appropriate officer has declared the office to be vacant, the making of that declaration;
(b) in any other case, the giving of notice of the vacancy to the appropriate officer by two or more relevant electors.
s. 73 by the way says that business days are anything that isn’t a weekend, bank holiday or, interestingly, “a day appointed for public thanksgiving or mourning”. So that’s 35 days plus weekends then?
So, you would think that the 35 business days starts the moment the Chief Executive of Birmingham City Council appreciates that there is a vacancy. The “relevant event” in s51 (5) would appear to be when he is told, and the thought begins to cross his mind. Perhaps he writes a note to himself – but it doesn’t take that long. That’s got to be Tuesday 1 July, or Wednesday 2 July if you want to be prissy about the s 59 (5) requirement that it must be “after” the date on which the vacancy occurs.
So I looked on Birmingham City Council’s website, and saw nothing relevant. So I called Birmingham City Council and got them to send me their statement to the press.
“This is a new situation as it is the first ever by-election for a Police and Crime Commissioner. We are currently looking into various dates and are making the necessary arrangements. We will be announcing details of the process in due course.”
Surely they are not buying time by pretending the Chief Executive doesn’t know what has happened and waiting for 2 relevant electors to contact him? If you are a voter in the West Midlands then you and a mate could each send an email to email@example.com saying “There is a vacancy in the office of the Police and Crime Commissioner for the West Midlands”, add the sender’s name and address at the end and copy it to Editor@TopOfTheCops.com, so I have proof. That ought to cover it.
Hmm. Time marches on, and by my reckoning, if they go to the far end of the 35 days and pick an election on Wednesday 20th August, then nominations close at noon on Thursday 24th July – not quite three weeks away. Pick a Thursday, such as 14 August, and nominations close at noon on Friday 18th July, probably 2 weeks after you read this. This isn’t a lot of time for parties to choose candidates or for any candidate of any stripe to collect 100 valid signatures from electors and the £5,000 they need to stand, but that precious time is potentially being squandered as the first few days pass without any official confirmation of the degree of urgency.
I don’t see a way out of this, and much while we would like people to have time to grieve, this is the election for the Police and Crime Commissioner for the West Midlands – the person who stands for law and order – and we can’t ignore the law.
The starting gun has yet to fire, but the race is surely on.