PCC Blog 124

Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the expulsion of Asians from Uganda by its ruler, Idi Amin. Most of them came to the UK. Indirectly it also brought me to South Yorkshire.

I was a junior member of Leicester City Council in 1972 when we heard that General Amin was pursuing his policy of ‘Africanisation’. He believed that the Asian population of his country had monopolised the jobs and the wealth that ought to be for black Africans. He gave them ninety days to leave the country. Many had British passports – a consequence of Empire – but no one had envisaged that people who were so successful in Uganda and contributed so much to its economy would be forced to leave and seek to come here. To his credit, the Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, admitted them, despite opposition from many in his party and the country. A devout Anglican, he saw it as his Christian duty.

Leicester was one of the cities chosen to resettle them. But the council – Labour and Conservative – was deeply opposed and tried to prevent it. Resolutions were passed saying there was no room in the city, no places in schools and no housing. The council even went so far as placing adverts in Ugandan newspapers telling the Asians not to come to Leicester. Seven Labour councillors opposed this bipartisan policy. I was one. Our views were not shared by most citizens and we found ourselves isolated in our political group and condemned by many of our fellow citizens. Feelings ran very high.

At the council meeting when all these matters were debated and decided, there was a packed public gallery. Those, like me, who said we had a moral obligation to do what we could for the Uganda Asian refugees, were met with jeers and protest. Several hundred National Front supporters gathered in the square outside the Town Hall and when we left at the end of the evening, we were jostled and pushed. I was struck on the head with a National Front placard. With my head bleeding, I appealed to a police inspector for help. He said, ‘What do you expect with views like yours.’

In the weeks and months that followed my wife and I received a great deal of abuse, but when we began to have phone calls in the middle of the night threatening the life of our small son, we finally decided to leave the city. We came to Sheffield.

We sometimes think that we have made little or no progress in defeating racism, but when I recall that time in my earlier life, I know that is not true. Openly racist attitudes were commonplace and largely unchallenged in the early 1970s. While not being complacent, we should not forget that we have made progress. The idea of a Hindu Asian prime minister who was the son of African immigrants would have seemed absurd and impossible in 1972.

I made a number of friends among the Ugandan Asian community – Hindus, Sikhs and Jains. They brought with them important values – family, faith and a work ethic – that have enabled Leicester to become such a vibrant place today. Visit the city in Diwali! They never complained about their treatment, their lost businesses and homes. But rather, they sought the welfare of their new city, recognising that in its welfare they would find their own.

What more!

Last week I travelled with one of my engagement officers along part of the M1 that is a smart motorway – where the hard shoulder has been turned into a live lane (known as All Lane Running or ALR). As we drove along, we saw on one of the overhead gantries that the lane we were in had a red cross displayed above it. We had to move out. Fortunately, traffic was light and there was no danger in moving to the next lane. But by the time we came to the end of the smart motorway stretch, we were left puzzled as to why there was a red cross: the lane was empty all the way along – no obstructions, no broken down vehicles, no road repairs.

I thought nothing of this until the following day when the BBC telephoned. Did I know what had been happening across the smart motorway network the day before?

It seems that National Highways, who are responsible for the motorways, had apologised after ‘unexpected issues’ had led to random closure signs being displayed or different speed limits on ALR parts of the M6, the A1(M) and the M1. In some cases, the agency said, the overhead signs were ‘unreadable’.

Andrew Page-Dove, a spokesperson for National Highways, said, ‘As with any technology, there are occasional outages and so we have well-rehearsed procedures to deal with issues which arise.’ These consisted of extra traffic officer patrols and virtual cctv patrols – whatever they are. ‘We took the decision to re-set the systems to ensure any errors were rectified as swiftly as possible.’ It seems that it took ten hours to rectify the systems.

I found the remarks of Mr Page-Dove quite chilling and wondered what more there is to learn. To my knowledge, no one has ever said publicly before that there are always going to be ‘occasional outages’ that have this kind of effect. It is further evidence of how this form of motorway introduces new hazards that did not exist previously. So I say, give us back the old technology – a hard shoulder.

The frustrations of the present time

I am currently trying to set a budget with the chief constable for the financial year April 2023-March 2024. This is principally for policing, though I also fund other groups, mainly concerned with victim services.

In normal years we can make some reasonable, though prudent assumptions about the main ingredients of the budget. On the expenditure side, we ask what resources the police need to do their job; what extra funding will be needed to meet any vital improvements or additional costs such as inflation; and so on. On the income side, we make an estimate about what the government will give us in grant (about 70% of our funding) though we won’t know the actual figure until December. I also ask the force to generate income where it can and make savings by working more efficiently.

When we know all these things – expenditure, income, savings – I can see how much we might need to bring in from council tax (the precept) to balance the books. I can then consult the public on  how much they are prepared to pay towards policing – something I am required to do. If we are still going to be short, I go back to the police and ask them to reduce their spending further. Finally, I have to take all my proposals to the Leaders of the four District Councils and the Police and Crime Panel for their views. All this has to be in place in order for me to set the precept for next year. This is a lot of work and a lot of meetings in a comparatively short period of time.

This is what happens in a ‘normal’ year. But since July, this has not been a normal year. There has been turmoil in government at the top and in each government department as prime ministers, Secretaries of State and junior ministers have come and gone. There is a cost of living crisis. There was a mini-budget in September that is being reversed, though what that means will not now be revealed until 17 November in an autumn statement.

The assumptions of the ‘normal’ year are all now highly precarious. What assumptions do we make about government grant, when all we know is that it will not keep pace with inflation? What assumptions do we make about inflation or the cost of borrowing (we borrow for capital schemes)? What assumptions do we make about pay for next year? What assumptions do we make about police officer numbers? (After all, if the government needs to reduce public spending, slowing down recruitment would be an obvious and relatively pain free way of saving some money. It would not make a lot of sense to go on recruiting officers on the one hand while not filling police staff vacancies or, worse, making them redundant, on the other.)

In the eight years I have been doing this I cannot remember a year when there was so much volatility and uncertainty surrounding finances in the public sector.

The night time economy

I ended my week by going to Sheffield city centre – along with hundreds of other people, filling the restaurants, pubs, bars and clubs. There were people of all ages, though mainly students and those of younger, middle age, many in Halloween costumes. There were supporters of a Greek rugby team. I thought about how the police plan their operations for the night time economy over the weekends, making judgements about numbers and potential flashpoints and any intervention they might make. Not easy.

For me it was good to see Ekaterina Floria (a Ukrainian) dancing in Swan Lake. I always admire these visiting ballet companies. They perform at such a high standard, night after night in a different town or city. Their itinerary for just four nights from Friday 28 October to Tuesday 1 November was: Basingstoke, Sheffield, Newcastle, Halifax, Buxton…. And they do all this while thinking about their families and friends at war.

Stay safe