Last week’s budget was quite a surprise, even though most of the big announcements had been well trailed.
The surprise was realising just how much spending and how much taxing it all implied – record amounts of both. Policing is a case in point.
The Chancellor was first able to announce that the Spending Review (SR) was for the next three years. In other words, we now know the overall amount of funding that policing can expect over that period of time and this allows for more sensible financial planning. We are grateful for that. It means that we can take, say, a decision to fund an expensive project in year one knowing that we can pay for it over a number of years because the funding in those later years is secure and won’t suddenly reduce.
We also know that the policing minister has secured more money overall than many of us expected a few months ago. We had assumed that the Chancellor would now be anxious to start to pay off the huge debts that have been run up over the past eighteen months, largely as a result of the pandemic. We were wrong. Spending continues.
But there was a sting in the tail. More will be spent on policing in the coming years but this will not all come from government. Police and crime commissioners are being given the ‘flexibility’ to raise council tax (precept) by up to £10 p.a. on a Band D property, and government figures assume that PCCs will exercise this freedom to the maximum. (In South Yorkshire this would be more than 4% for each year of the SR period.) If we fail to do that, we should not be surprised if any requests for more funding in the future were met with a frosty reception: we had the chance to raise more from council tax – in our case perhaps as much as £17m over three years – and we didn’t do it.
(In our case, some of those extra ‘asks’ include wanting help paying the civil claims arising out of the Hillsborough football disaster and child sexual exploitation in Rotherham. We have made a lot of progress with both but big sums of money remain to be paid out. I shall have to continue asking the Home Secretary for help.)
The question of the precept is a real dilemma for those PCCs – I would see myself as one – whose police force areas have within them many people living in relative poverty who can ill afford any increase in council tax. These parts of the country, often the most urban, are also places with some of the most serious crimes. I will feel pressure from the force, therefore, for extra resources to combat serious crime while also recognising how hard up many of our residents area – the very poverty that lies behind some of our young people being drawn into crime in the first place.
The police precept may not be large in cash terms, but it is a few more pence per week that someone has to find at a time when other parts of the council tax bill are going to go up as well – to pay for services and social care – and the cost of living is rising fast. The point about council tax, and one reason why people can be so angry about it, is that unlike many other costs which they can control – the cost of heating and eating, for example – council tax is beyond our power to reduce; and we have to pay up.
In December we shall know what the share of government funding is per force. By then I shall have asked people in an on-line survey what they want from their police and what they might be prepared to pay. Then the hard choices will have to be made.
The dog that didn’t bark
From time to time people ask me to take something seriously. This is sometimes a veiled or explicit threat. If you don’t take this seriously, I’ll go to the papers or put something on social media so the voters can punish you at the next election. Taking seriously usually means making a statement of support and then spending money on something. Quite often, a statement is not enough. You have to find some money, otherwise you are guilty of ‘talking the talk’ but are not prepared to ‘walk the walk’.
But for me, ‘taking seriously’ has to mean looking into what someone has drawn my attention to, looking at the evidence for it and then, but only then, deciding what if anything could or should be done.
Last year, for example, I was asked – more like told – by one of our local MPs to take dog theft seriously. Taking seriously, I was told, involved committing to have a force lead – no pun was intended – to oversee the tsunami of dog thefts that was occurring because of the lock-downs. More people were buying a dog to accompany them on what they were now doing as a result of working from home – going for a daily walk. As a result, it was said, the value of a dog had risen sharply and they were a target for thieves who were now having a bonanza.
I did take dog theft seriously by first enquiring by how much this particular crime had gone up. Not a lot in South Yorkshire, it seemed. There are dog thefts. There always were and I expect there always will be. But there was no tsunami and no one has raised the matter with me now for several months. So I am beginning to think we were in danger of talking ourselves into a drama that was scarcely there.
Sometimes it really is a matter of the dog that didn’t bark in the night.
Ten people expressed an interest in becoming a half-time Deputy PCC. I considered each carefully before asking one of them to take on the role. I wanted someone who could offer something that I couldn’t, and in the event I asked someone from one of our minority ethnic communities who is also a magistrate. We need to help the police strengthen and improve relationships with those communities, not least by enabling young people there to consider the police as a possible career choice.
I will be submitting their name to the Police and Crime Panel later this month.
Stay safe and well.