‘Watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.’ (Matt 25.13)
That verse sums up the Church’s pre-Christmas season of Advent: it is all about being alert and awake. We could say being ‘woke’.
People are ‘woke’ today when they are alert to matters of social injustice, especially racism. Although ‘woke’ in this sense has been around since at least the 1960s, the word only came into most people’s consciousness with the more recent Black Lives Matter movement. Activists called on people to ‘stay woke’.
But ‘woke’ has also come to be used in a pejorative sense, if not as a term of abuse – at least by some. People are ‘woke’ if their concern with issues of social justice seems like an obsession, or if their concern is merely apparent, a form of virtue signalling. In September, the Home Secretary told police chiefs to ignore wokery and concentrate on crime.
This may be well intentioned – we do want the police to focus on crime and not go in for symbolic gestures that are not backed by determined and thoughtful action – but it is not good advice. If it led the police to have less regard for the need, for instance, to have Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) policies, that could be disastrous. All good employers know that even if they are not motivated by the ethics of the matter, their company or organisation must have clear anti-discrimination policies in place, otherwise, if they are accused of racism, they are immediately on the back foot.
But police chiefs should be motivated by ethics as much as prudence or expediency. We want a police force that reflects our national diversity and welcomes into its ranks people from all backgrounds, sexualities and ethnicities. If the force does not reflect the diversity of the population it serves, how can it serve the different communities that make up South Yorkshire with the proper degree of knowledge, understanding and respect. And if it can’t do that, it will be harder for it to gain and maintain the trust and confidence of those different groups, something that is crucial if crime is to be overcome.
A good place for the police to start is with their own members. Is diversity recognised, valued and supported in the force?
I was heartened recently to join a conference organised by South Yorkshire Police’s (SYP) Equality Hub for the force itself. The Hub is an overarching group that bring together a range of discrete organisations within SYP that represent many different minorities. These are of many kinds: Association of Muslim Police; Race, Equity and Inclusion Association; LGBT+ group; Women’s Network; Neuro-diversity Association; Dementia Support Group; Christian Police Association, and so on. SYP needs to understand its own diversity so that it can support and strengthen the well-being of its own minorities and make the force a place where discrimination is not tolerated.
There are some areas where the force needs to be more diverse, more representative of the communities of South Yorkshire. In some respects, it has made substantial progress. The gender ratio in SYP, for example, is now: female 49.7%, male 51.3%. But when we look at the latest figures from the 2021 Census on ethnicity in the UK, recently released by the Office for National Statistics, there is clearly much more to be done. The county’s population defining themselves as other than white is now 12%, whereas the force representation for other than white stands at 3.7%.
The Chief Constable said at the conference why she thought Equality, Diversity and Inclusion were important issues for the police. This was not being ‘woke’ – in that derogatory sense – but a recognition that each of these must be addressed if SYP is to be a good place to work and good at what they do.
If this is what it means to be ‘woke’, then Advent takes on an extra meaning for me this year as I seek to stay woke.
I try to visit as many as possible of those who receive grants from us. We support projects in communities that contribute towards one or more of the three priorities in the Police and Crime Plan:
Protecting Vulnerable People
Tackling Crime and Antisocial Behaviour
Treating People Fairly
These are the priorities I set for the police, but I recognise that they will not be met by the police alone. We need strong partnerships between the police, other statutory bodies and the voluntary sector. So last week I visited a voluntary group in Intake, Doncaster.
The People Focused Group are found in two former shops on Montrose Avenue where they run The Wellness Centre (open Monday to Friday, 9am to 4pm) and Safer Space (open each day between 11am and 2am).
They provide a safe meeting space and peer support for many in the community who would otherwise be struggling, not least as the cost of living crisis bites. They have a number of groups meeting – such as the Muslim Ladies and LGBTQ+ group. They are also a place to which the mental health service and the local police can bring those who need peer support. I was pleased to see that the neighbourhood officers were well-known to the project and frequently drop in.
What struck me above everything else was the passion and commitment of those we met – Kelly, Michelle and Glyn. As with so many voluntary projects, for everything to work well, you need not only a well-thought out intervention but also people with the commitment to make things go well, people who go above and beyond what they may be paid to do, people with the imagination to adapt and respond as things develop.
When we talk about the fabric of society, this is what we mean. These groups, largely unseen and unknown to most of us, make such a big difference to the lives of many people who otherwise find themselves excluded from much that goes on in our communities. When that happens, they become vulnerable and are then targeted by the gangs and the unscrupulous.
I was not surprised to hear that the People Focused Group had received the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service in 2021.
And so to Conisbrough
I was also at a Police and Communities Together (PACT) meeting in Conisbrough last week. PACT meetings used to be more common than they are now. Many fell away during the years of austerity when numbers of officers fell and neighbourhood policing more or less disappeared. It became harder and harder for the smaller numbers of officers remaining to get round all the many meetings in their area, including PACTs.
But Conisbrough was resilient, and will be more so as the number of officers begins to increase over the next few years.
The meeting was attended by ward councillors, officers from Doncaster MBC and the neighbourhood police team – an inspector, a sergeant and two PCs – and on this occasion the Police and Crime Commissioner. The local MP, Nick Fletcher, was also in the audience.
The members of the public who came were given detailed briefings about what was happening in their area from the perspectives of the local councillor, council officials and the police. I gave an overview of where we are at as we prepare the police budget for next year (April 2023 to March 2024) and think about the precept (how much we need to raise in council tax). Everyone present that wanted to ask a question was able to do so and full answers were given.
Again, I was very pleased to see the police working in partnership with councillors and council officers because many issues – instances of anti-social behaviour, for example – required actions by all the agencies.
Each year I consult the people of SY on the priorities they want to see for policing in the county in the coming year and what they are prepared to pay in council tax for the service (the precept). The consultation is genuine and does influence what happens next. For instance, last year we discovered that foremost among the priorities that people had for the police was speeding – something we had not see before. I passed this on to the Chief Constable and asked her to take it into account when planning police operational activity. I would be interested to know whether other priorities have come to the fore for us this year.
I am required by law to consult on the precept. This is a worry because I fear that when the grant for SYP is announced by the government later this week, it will fall far short of what we need to support the budget, but there will be a limit to what I can reasonably ask the public to pay to make up the shortfall, given the cost of living crisis facing us all.
To help me with both the priorities and the precept I would be grateful if you would help with the on-line questionnaire.