A large part of my job – on your behalf – is holding South Yorkshire police to account.
I do that in many ways, both informal and formal. Informally, for instance, I meet with the Chief Constable each week, usually on Mondays, and we talk about any pressing matters we each have on our minds. It’s an opportunity for me to say I think the police need to do more about things that I am picking up as I go round the various communities of the county. The Chief Constable listens and either tells me there and then what she might do, or says she will go away and talk to her staff and then report back – or whatever. On the other hand, the Chief Constable tells me about matters on her mind, sometimes positive and good, sometimes causes of concern.
I also have a more formal occasion. Each month I have a meeting with the senior command team (SCT) – Chief, Deputy Chief, Assistant Chief Constables, the (civilian) Chief Officer and the District Commanders. These meetings alternate between a private gathering and a public. The latter is live streamed and recorded and is accessible from the website. The media are present, local councillors and any members of the public who wish to come. The public can also ask questions.
At these meetings the SCT present reports showing how the priorities in my Police and Crime Plan are being met and whether the spending is keeping to budget as the year progresses. These formal public meetings are important as a means of showing to the wider public that their questions and concerns are indeed being raised with officers and properly and satisfactorily dealt with.
I am also helped to hold the force to account in other ways. There are, for example, some key committees and panels that I rely on for doing some of this work. These consist of small numbers of people with independent chairs, recruited through open competition, who look in some depth at particular areas of activity. The Joint Independent Audit Committee considers the operation of the police as a whole and asks whether it is fulfilling its tasks, seeing and mitigating risks and managing the finances prudently and with value for money. The Independent Ethics Panel looks at ethical issues, current and emerging – such as the potential use of facial recognition technology – and the culture of the force – particularly important at the present time.
I also have small teams of Independent Custody Visitors (ICVs). These are volunteer members of the public who go in pairs, unannounced into our three custody suites – in Barnsley, Doncaster and Sheffield (which serves Rotherham as well). They have a checklist of things to look out for to ensure that those who are detained in custody are treated reasonably. I met two new recruits last week who had come into my office at police headquarters to be given training. One was an MA student at one of our universities. The other was a nurse.
And I rely on the external inspections of His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS). HMI inspected South Yorkshire police last summer and their report is due out later this week. I would urge you to look out for it, either in the media or online. I need their detailed report to check against my own feelings and findings.
It is particularly important this year because since the last inspection we have had a new Chief Constable and a new SCT. The last report said the force was ‘good’ overall – a great achievement under Chief Constable Stephen Watson, now leading Greater Manchester police – especially when you remember that in 2016 the inspectors had found SYP ‘requires improvement’. When I appointed the present Chief, Lauren Poultney, in 2021, therefore, I said the task now was to consolidate that position and steadily improve on it. The impression I have from all my holding to account mechanisms is that this is the position. But I need the external check of HMI to be sure.
So this is an important week for South Yorkshire police as we wait to hear the verdict of the inspectorate. I hope for more than Im Westen nichts Neues.
This is an important week as well because I will be asking the Police and Crime Panel – councillors from each of the four district authorities plus an independent member – to approve my proposals for the budget and the precept (council tax) for the coming financial year. I have already made a presentation to local council leaders and the elected mayor. While being supportive, they asked me to be absolutely sure that we had carefully scrutinised all spending and made all the savings we could, because of the cost of living crisis – inflation – and the need not to impose unnecessary extra burdens on people. I had to point out that inflation applied to the police finances as to individual households, which the leaders understood very well, of course, because they face the same issues with their own budgets. As well as the cost of such things as energy and fuel rising, we also have increases in pay to meet.
I was interested to hear the policing minister, Chris Philp MP, talking about police funding last week at a general meeting of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs). (The meeting was at the Guildhall in London, but I was able to listen and watch remotely.) He understands very well that the increase in funding that the government is allowing PCCs this year – 3.4% – falls far short of what would be needed to cover inflation. In real terms it is a cut. But also, the increase in funding assumes that every PCC in the country raises council tax by the maximum the government is permitting this year – £15 on a Band D property – something they call ‘precept flexibility’. The minister, carefully briefed by civil servants, knows just how tight the finances are this year. He made no bones about it and said: ‘I encourage all PCCs to use their precept flexibility in full’. In other words, levy £15 per annum on Band D properties, because without that, we will struggle.
Even so, one of our local MPs has already said he sees no reason why the precept should go up at all, though in fairness he has not seen any of the financial papers or spoken to me about it, or, presumably, the minister for policing either.
Meanwhile, as I reported two weeks ago, we have consulted the public of South Yorkshire. Almost 3,000 responded to an on-line questionnaire and while 17% said they would not want to pay any more towards policing in the coming year, the rest indicated they would with 26% saying they would be willing to pay a rise in line with inflation – which would take us beyond the £15 maximum. That confidence in the police is encouraging. But people do want to know their money is being well spent – which is why we need to hear the judgement of His Majesty’s Inspectors.
I have a Jewish daughter-in-law, so my concern that we keep Holocaust Memorial Day has a very personal focus. This is the statement I issued last Friday:
The Holocaust was the greatest crime ever committed in Europe and made us realise how fragile civilisation can be. As we keep Yom Hashoah and call to mind the terrible events of that time, we commit ourselves anew to ensure that nothing like this can ever happen again anywhere in our world.
I particularly welcome the focus this year on ‘ordinary’ people. It is a reminder that it was ordinary people, people like us, who facilitated the European genocide and people like us who were its victims. The same is true of more recent attempted genocides as well.
It is a reminder also that ‘ordinary’ people resisted the genocides and did what they could to help victims, often at great personal risk and cost.
January 27 is a day each year when we can reflect on what once happened, remember the victims and commit ourselves to remain vigilant in our day.
Luck will still smile on us
It is not often these days that a national anthem is played at the end of a concert, but on Sunday in Sheffield’s City Hall, this is what happened. Except it was the Ukrainian national anthem. The cast and the orchestra for La Boheme were Ukrainian and at the end of the opera, as they took their final bows, they held up a Ukrainian flag and then sang, with real passion, their anthem, which contains the above words. The South Yorkshire audience made it very clear that they stood in solidarity with them.