… and the marketing opportunity of a lifetime for Brummie Dentists, if they’re quick.
Last Thursday, in the Ninth Delegated Legislation Committee of the House of Commons, the Government performed a U-turn on Police and Crime Commissioners that, by-and-large, has not been noticed. Most attention has focussed on the possible £3.7 million cost of the PCC by-election in the West Midlands, or in the chuntering from the House against those electors who had the temerity to ensure the election was held with the mind-boggling speed that had been insisted upon by….er, the House of Commons, when they passed the laws only 3 years ago.
Apart from a passing mention by Alan Travis in the Guardian however, there has been no attention paid to the fact the government were using the Committee to rush through emergency legislation to change the rules for the election so that candidates will have the opportunity to have their election addresses distributed by the Returning Officer to each household in the West Midlands in a booklet largely paid for by the taxpayer.
Brand-spanking-new Police Minister Mike Penning admitted that, inexplicably, the legislation had failed to make any provision for publishing information about candidates, and this would be remedied with about £700,000 from the Home Office budget and about £250 from each of the candidates, though their individual bill could go as high as £1,000 (though you would never work this out from the emergency legislation itself).
Getting a message printed and delivered to just shy of 2 million electors for 250 quid is about as good value as you can get – a fact not lost on Sir Bob Russell, Lib-Dem MP for Colchester, who said “before I became a Member of Parliament, we had a candidate standing in a general election, a local dentist, who was the smile candidate. I can see now hundreds of thousands of people across the west midlands having a candidate from whatever organisation, trade or whatever getting a free plug courtesy of the Home Office paying for free distribution to every household.”
Except, until you read it here, you probably didn’t know about the opportunity, and anyone who wants to take advantage of it needs to get £5,000 in cleared funds and 100 voters to sign their nomination papers by 4pm on Friday, a task that people outside of political parties might find difficult.
The Minister was happy to admit the sort of guilt one can admit to when one is in the first few days of a new job and it is painfully obvious it was someone else’s fault. Apparently, in fact everybody else’s fault. It hadn’t been raised at the Second Reading, in the Committee or Report stages of the Bill or the Third Reading, or in its journey through the House of Lords. The Government hadn’t seen the problem. The Opposition hadn’t. No-one had worked out that in giving the electorate the job of deciding between some candidates elected over vast policing areas it would be nice if they had the faintest bit of information about those candidates, except for their favourite colour.
I am in no position to contradict the Minister. No doubt he has faithfully been advised by his Civil Servants, but he, or they, might well have added that pretty much as soon as the law was passed, just about everybody began banging on his boss’s door about this very evident defect, and nothing was done about it.
In January 2012 the Chief Executive of the Electoral Commission mentioned the problem.
Early in February 2012 the Chief Executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators was going on about it.
Throughout the election here at TopOfTheCops we went on about it quite a bit, especially as the Electoral Commission went to the expense of distributing a booklet to every household explaining the election, but saying nothing about the candidates! This culminated in an attempt in September of 2012 to decode the signals emanating from a recently departed Police Minister about a lack of support in high places for radicalism in police reform, but none of this was mentioned last Thursday. Instead, a one-by-election-only change was made to the rules, to test to see whether it has a positive effect on turnout.
While pleased at this long-overdue victory, I wonder why it is done in such a hurry, when 2012 offered ample opportunity for this to happen at a more leisurely pace, and who in Government it was who compromised the entire PCC reform by blocking it from happening in the first place. It is as incomprehensible to me as the recent departure of Michael Gove, and the continued tenure of Theresa May.
The PCC elections nationally resulted in big wins by Independents, and the West Midlands PCC by-election will feature a candidate booklet for voters that overcomes a major barrier to Independents campaigning on anything like an even footing, but it has all been kept so quiet that no-one might notice, not even the dentists in Birmingham, and it is possible that only the political parties who made the change, and who are worried about not having enough troops on the ground in the summer holidays to get their own messages out, will feel the benefit.