‘I congratulate South Yorkshire Police on its performance in keeping people safe and reducing crime.’
Not my words – though I would echo them – but those of Roy Wilsher, one of His Majesty’s Inspectors of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS), who led an inspection of the force last year. The inspectors’ report was published last Thursday and it was very positive indeed.
As I said in a recent blog, during my time as Police and Crime Commissioner from 2014, South Yorkshire Police (SYP) has been on a remarkable journey.
In my first years, SYP was reeling from the Jay Report into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham, which said the force had failed many girls between 1997 and 2013, and then the verdicts of the inquests into the Hillsborough football disaster (1989), which blamed SYP for the deaths of 96 supporters, later rising to 97. Morale in the force, and public trust and confidence in them, was low. Then in 2016, there was an inspection of SYP by HMI who said the force ‘requires improvement’, and put it into special measures. This involved having to go down to London at regular intervals to set out and report progress on a recovery plan.
I appointed Stephen Watson as Chief Constable with a clear brief: he was to take a firm grip on the organisation and give it a clear sense of direction and purpose – which he did. In the last HMI report before he left to become Chief Constable of Greater Manchester, SYP were graded ‘good’ overall and outstanding in terms of their ethical leadership. When I appointed Lauren Poultney, the current Chief in 2021, the brief was equally clear and no less demanding: consolidate and take further. This is what the Chief, together with all her officers and civilian staff, is doing, and the verdict of HMI could not be clearer.
HMI have 5 grades for each area of activity they inspect: inadequate, requires improvement, adequate, good and outstanding. This was their grading for the force:
protecting vulnerable people
good use of resources
recording data about crime
treatment of the public
developing a positive workplace
responding to the public
So, 3 ‘outstanding’, 5 ‘good’, 1‘adequate’ and no ‘requires improvement’ or ‘inadequate’. The ‘adequate’ grade will require the force to improve its response times to incidents. It has not always met the targets it sets for itself. This is something that should improve as more student officers become fully operationally deployable.
In a nutshell, the force has now set itself a very high bar for the future! But the inspectors noted that this is now a force that does not rest on any laurels but is ambitious to continuously learn and improve its service.
Like the lead inspector, I congratulate them all.
Setting the precept
With this good report in my hand, I felt able last Friday to go to the Police and Crime Panel, meeting in Barnsley Town Hall, to put before them my proposals for the police budget and the precept (the policing element of the council tax) for the coming financial year, April 2023 to March 2024. I said that if we wanted to keep our force where it now is – among the best performing forces in the country – we would need to give it the funding it needed.
When the government announced the total funding that would be available for policing nationally this coming year, its figures assumed that every PCC in the country would increase the precept by the maximum permitted – £15 for a Band D property. There was a realisation that the small increase in government grant was nowhere near enough to cover for inflation and increased demands on the service.
In South Yorkshire we have to be especially careful if we should set a lower precept. This is because we are dependent on something called Special Grant – a separate sum of money from the main police grant that comes to us from the Home Office to offset some of the costs of the civil claims against the force from those who suffered as a result of the Hillsborough disaster and the victims of CSE in Rotherham. It is not money we can claim by right. It is a grant that is a matter for the Home Secretary’s discretion.
This year those civil claims are expected to cost us £5.8m with the rest (85% of the claims) coming from Special Grant. However, if I were to set the precept at a lower level, the Home Secretary might take the view that she was not prepared to pay as much Special Grant since I had not made the effort to maximise funding through the precept – and many in other parts of the country might well agree with her.
So I proposed the £15 per annum precept increase for Band D properties, a 6.7% rise on last year.
Most people in South Yorkshire will not pay this amount, because most people live in properties that are in lower bands. These are the bands, the percentage of properties in those bands, and the extra amount people will pay per week:
Band A (57.0%) 19p
Band B (17.3%) 22p
Band C (12.3%) 26p
Band D (7.2%) 29p
Band E (3.7%) 35p
Band F (1.6%) 42p
Band G (0.8%) 48p
Band H (0.1%) 58p
In addition, some in Bands A and B will also have discounts, so will pay less than 19p and 22p.
The figures above show how hard it is for me to raise big sums even with a maximum permitted council tax increase, because we have so many low value properties in SY. There will be some PCCs who will have most of their properties in Band D and above. Other worlds!
The Police and Crime Panel with councillors from each of the political parties – Labour, Liberal Democrat, Green, and Conservative – were supportive, with only one councillor not voting; and the independent panel member also supported the proposal.
In addition, I had undertaken a survey of public opinion, partly gained through an on-line questionnaire and partly through face to face meetings. Only 17% of those on-line said they were not willing to pay more, while 26% said they would be willing to pay in line with inflation – which is actually more than what I was proposing.
This marks the end of an intense period of activity when we have produced a balanced budget. Even so, it only balances if the force makes substantial savings and we use some reserves.
Bricks or bodies
I went to an interesting meeting called by Todwick parish councillors and their chair, Councillor Jim Dixon – a retired police superintendent – in their very fine parish hall. We also had present two members of the local neighbourhood police team (NPT), PC Felicity Williams and PCSO Amy Whaley. I gave an account of what I do as Police and Crime Commissioner and the two police officers spoke about how they tackle issues of crime and anti-social behaviour in Todwick. I was impressed by the detail of some of their local knowledge – which is what you want in NPT officers.
I hope we were able to reassure residents that as more police officers come through in this and future years, there will be more police for the Rotherham District. But we did have to make the point that funding is tight and while we are committed to increase police numbers, we were facing a budget deficit which had to be dealt with.
Just as the meeting was closing, however, I was greatly surprised to be told by a Rotherham Borough councillor, who was also present, that I had £2m of ‘underspend’ which I ought to use to provide a new police station in Dinnington. This received a ripple of applause, though the councillor did not say where his information came from.
It was news to my chief finance officer when I told her.
At the moment, the force may have a small underspend of about £50,000 by the year end (31 March) – though we still have two months of the financial year to go and that may get wiped out by rising costs. But even if it were true that we had £2m, would we spend money on a police building which would have on-going costs for heating, lighting, IT, repairs and maintenance for years to come?
The two police officers were quite indignant! They pointed out that the police these days do not spend much time in police stations. They are out and about in the community. In the past they had to return to the station from time to time to write up their reports on typewriters/computers. Now they carry their office with them – mobile phones in their pockets and laptops in the car. They make digital notes as they go. They and the retired superintendent were very clear: the need is for more bodies not more bricks. (It is, in any case, an operational decision for the Chief Constable.)
I was a little shocked to see a newspaper headline on Friday: ‘Chinese spy balloon over Billings’. Until I realised it was over Billings Montana, not Billings South Yorkshire.