PCC Blog 61

We have four prisons in our county, all in Doncaster.

When men come to the end of their sentence and return to the community, many decide to stay here although they are not from here. We have, therefore, a fair sized ex-prisoner population and need them to integrate back into society well. Even if they return to their old haunts, we don’t want them to return to their old ways.

It’s crucial that their first steps back are positive and don’t lead to re-offending. We know that if someone is to re-integrate there are a few things they need either at once or very quickly: ID that the benefits authority will recognise, somewhere to stay, some money in their pocket, a phone to access benefits, a bank account, the possibility of a job or meaningful activity, and support. The latter may be the most critical because if someone is supporting you, they can help with other things; though not everyone has family to return to. Above all, the step through the gate must not be the moment when everything suddenly becomes very negative.

As far as money goes, ex-offenders have to wait five weeks before they can receive Universal Credit. I wonder how much money you think you might need to get by for that length of time – from leaving prison until your benefit claim came through? You might like to do a quick calculation – food, rent, cigarettes, travel, phone ….. Don’t even think about getting a TV licence or having your shoes repaired. How much per week would you need to survive?

What they currently receive is £46 – less than £10 per week. And it has been that amount for 25 years.

The good news is that it will go up on 16 August – to £76.

At least it’s good news if that calculation you did for surviving over five weeks came to less than £15 per week. Otherwise, you can see why too many ex-offenders quickly fall back into their old ways, robbing and thieving. If the government seriously wants the re-offending rate reduced, these first steps need greater attention.

The Departure Lounge

This is why I thought Doncaster prison’s idea of a Departure Lounge was so good.

A number of organisations came together – the prison, NACRO, MIND, REMEDI – to create the Departure Lounge. This is situated in the Visitors’ Centre, outside the prison. When a prisoner leaves they can call into the Departure Lounge to receive advice – how to apply for benefits and accommodation – and support – getting a mobile phone charged up, having a drink, collecting pre-ordered packed food, arranging to be collected, and so on. There is also a local job vacancies board which is regularly updated.

Family and friends are also able to use the Departure Lounge and wait for the prisoner to be released.

I am sorry that a bid for funding to continue and develop this concept has not been supported. It seems to me to be just the sort of simple idea that could make a real difference. Where we all say, why didn’t we think of that before?

Why a league table for wait times for 101 is a bad idea

Last week the government published its Beating Crime Plan. On the whole I welcomed this. Although there was very little in it that was new, it was a serious attempt to bring together a range of initiatives and approaches into something that was coherent, setting out the direction that the government believes policing and criminal justice should be going.

But one proposal is not a good idea – a league table for response times to 101.

All forces will try to reduce wait times and deal more efficiently with 101 calls. But as soon as you create league tables and set one force area against another, you can expect perverse results as police in one area seek to do better, or at least no worse, than police in another. But circumstances vary so much from area to area.

In South Yorkshire, while most calls now are answered pretty quickly most of the time and on most days, there are particular times when the system comes under huge pressure – at weekends, when the pubs turn out, and so on. There are peaks and troughs. If there is a collision on one of the motorways – and we have two –  dozens of people will start to phone in to report at the same time and this creates immediate pressure on the system.

Sometimes there are particular reasons why a call handler may take a long time with a caller. An elderly and confused person my take quite some time before she gets to the point of the call; and it would be wrong to rush her. Quality matters as well as quantity.

A Chief Constable always has to balance the need to answer 101 calls within a reasonable time and the costs and consequences of doing so. You could, for example, staff a call centre at levels that could deal with any peak in demand at any time of the day or night. That would require a big increase in call handlers at significant cost, most of whom would have little to do for most of the time. And the more staff you have in the call centre, the fewer officers you can afford elsewhere in the force. And the fewer officers you have, the fewer resources there are for dealing with those who dial in for help!

So, while continuing to improve technology, staffing levels and response times, in the end there has to be a balance between resourcing the call centre further and resourcing those parts of the force that have to deal with the calls that come in.

What we don’t want is for those judgements and decisions to be skewed by pressure to do better in a league table –  reducing waiting times at the expense of other aspects of service.

Stay safe and well