Sunday 28 October 2012

Introducing iPad Ellis

The gentleman to the left is Councillor Matthew Ellis. He represents Lichfield Rural East on Staffordshire County Council, and was until recently the local authority's cabinet member for Adults' Wellbeing - the fluffy sort of human resources speak all councils use to describe social services and public health. Why then am I expending blogging time on an obscure Tory like Cllr Ellis? Because he is Labour's Conservative opponent in the Police and Crime Commissioner elections in Staffordshire.

I have already written a little about these elections and why readers should place their crosses next to Labour candidates. But it's only right we take a look at the platform Cllr Ellis is offering the good people of our county. 

A PCC will be responsible for, among other things, the formulation of a county-wide crime plan and holding the police accountable in their delivery of it. It would therefore be preferable if successful candidates had a handle on the different types of policing different communities require, and have experienced how that policing plays out on the ground. Joy lives in and represents an inner city ward - she just has to walk out her door to see how policing makes an everyday difference to the people of Burslem. Matthew (who I'm told lives in a house, a very big house in the country), is, to a degree, insulated from this by his wealth and the area he lives in. Unlike Joy, most readers, and working class communities generally, crime, the fear of crime, and policing cannot impinge on his day-to-day life in the same way.

Unfortunately for Cllr Ellis, his cushioning from everyday life can lead to some ridiculous pronouncements. For example, at a local PCC hustings here in Stoke at the end of September, the man who would run the police informed the audience that Hanley (Stoke's city centre, for those not familiar with its peculiar geography) is, apparently, a "no-go zone". For someone who's been in and out of Hanley at all hours for the last 17 years and not experienced one iota of trouble, this came as news to me. The Bronx it ain't. If Ellis believes the fantasy that crime really is that appalling in the Potteries, it's a wonder he didn't attend the hustings in a stab vest.

Being out of touch is the only way you can explain the centrepiece of his policy platform. While Joy's big concerns are tackling anti-social behaviour, improving victim support, and opposing police cuts, the priority for Cllr Ellis is ... giving police officers iPads. According to "iPad" Ellis, spending £1.1m to equip the Staffordshire force with said gadget would free more police for the front line and yield significant savings. Oh really? How is the money for the outlay to be found when 20% budget cuts are coming down the line? How are the police expected to carry round these things out on patrol? How much will be spent on the necessary IT infrastructure, maintenance, replacements and upgrades? What happens when they become obsolete? And what impact could this have on the presentation of evidence in court?

It would seem the initial cost is to come from the perennial Tory favourite: "cutting red tape". No one objects to curbing unnecessary administration, but to find over a million quid from a budget already hammered by Tory cuts is going to be a tough call. But that's okay, because Ellis and his County Council colleagues have a novel way of driving down costs: wholesale outsourcing. In his capacity as Adults' Wellbeing supremo, Ellis earlier this year handed over the £137m social services department to an external Trust. In people terms, that's 1,000 social workers removed from public transparency and democratic accountability.

More worryingly, the next job lot of privatisation Ellis's colleagues are promoting has more than a whiff of sleaze about it. The Council is rushing to privatise £2bn worth of education services before next May's County Council elections. The council manager who designed the tendering process left his post only to pop up again at Carillion as their head of local government business development. Entirely by coincidence, the tax-dodging company is a preferred bidder for the contract.

With such a track record, how long will it be before a Commissioner Ellis cuts up bits of Staffordshire Police and serves the tastier morsels to some private provider?

The character of the Labour and Conservative campaigns could not be more stark. You have Joy's platform, which addresses the policing priorities of normal, everyday folk from across the county. And you have Matthew's campaign, which is big on IT gimmickry but quiet on the privatisation subtext. One is about policing. One is ultimately about the money that can be made from policing.

That's the choice before Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent voters on November 15th.

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