I had a few days away from the office last week and watched part of the King’s state visit to Germany.
As the King spoke – auf Deutsch – to the assembled members of the Bundestag I became aware of something quite astonishing which we rather take for granted. As the camera showed the rows of MPs in the federal parliament building, what was noticeable was how very white they all are.
What a contrast with the House of Commons. If you look at our government front bench, for example, the three great offices of state – Prime Minister, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary – are all now occupied by members of ethnic minorities. And following last week’s election of a new leader of the Scottish National Party, the first minister of Scotland is also from an ethnic minority. We do not find any of this surprising; yet if you look at what has happened here and what has not happened elsewhere in Europe, the contrast is remarkable.
But it’s not only this diversity among our senior politicians that is so significant; it’s also the fact that we are not moved to remark on it. We now take these developments for granted in a way that continental Europeans do not, or do not yet. A German chancellor whose family origins are in the Indian sub-continent or a French president who is a practising Muslim, seems inconceivable at this moment in time. But in the UK and in Scotland we note it, but then move on.
It is, of course, a legacy of empire. More than that, it reverses those old racial stereotypes of empire about which ethnic groups were fit to govern and which not. When we discuss racism in the UK this is not something I hear remarked upon.
All of which brings me to a puzzle and a problem. Why can’t we see the same ethnic diversity that we see in our politicians in our police forces – and in all ranks, including and especially in the higher ranks?
I know the force in South Yorkshire, as in other places across the country, has been working hard to try to improve ethnic diversity. The big recruitment drives that have been taking place to increase police numbers provided an opportunity to do just this. But despite all the effort, there has been little progress. Some gains were made in numbers being recruited, but the task of making the overall proportion of officers from ethnic minorities in the force come closer to the proportion in the population as a whole, has become more challenging. This is because last year the latest Census figures were published, and they showed that the proportion of ethnic minorities had increased. We chase a moving target.
The more significant issue, however, seems to be not so much recruitment as retention. It is one thing to have people join the force from an ethnic minority background, but if you can’t keep them in the service then, if anything, you begin to go backwards.
This is an area that the force will need to think more deeply about. Those leaving will need to be interviewed with some care to see if there are any common threads or themes about why they leave. But if we seriously want to make a difference, this has to be done.
I asked a couple of Muslim friends whether their children ever considered joining the police. They both said that what was important to them as parents was that their children (now all adults) had a good education, did well at school and, if possible, went to university. They then encouraged them to join the professions – and six of the seven children had: law, medicine and accountancy. But they had never considered the police. Perhaps they would have done now with policing professionalising and requiring either a degree on entry or for a degree to be taken as part of initial training. So far, however, that does not seem to be making the decisive difference we might have hoped for.
The police do need to look like the communities they police. It is part of what gives them their legitimacy, enabling them to police by consent. That includes being able to attract people from all ethnic groups.
From Wetherby to Dearne
Some years ago I was a board member of the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales (YJB). The YJB is a national body that oversees the criminal justice system for those aged between 10 and 18. Among other things, I visited on behalf of the board a number of Young Offender Institutions (YOIs) in the north of the country, including HMP YOI at Wetherby in North Yorkshire.
YOIs are prisons for young people serving custodial sentences. At the time, the national juvenile prison population was just under 3,000 – though it has fallen considerably since then.
On one occasion, at a board meeting, we discussed a proposal to put a large pond or small lake into the grounds of Wetherby YOI next to the Keppel Unit. Wetherby takes up to about 336 young people aged mainly 15-17yrs and the Keppel Unit houses the most vulnerable – those with complex needs. I thought the idea of a lake was asking for trouble. Would they drown themselves – or one another?
I was wrong.
The lake proved a great asset and was very popular. It was stocked with fish and I recall visiting on one occasion and watching a 15 year old patiently sitting by the lake with his rod and line, occasionally recasting, waiting for a fish to bite. He had been diagnosed as having ADHD – attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Apparently, he was always restless, found it impossible to stay focussed for more than a few minutes and grew increasingly impatient if things didn’t go swiftly to plan. Yet he would sit and fish for hours!
So, I was intrigued to see that one of the applications last month for some funding from my community grants scheme was from a former prison officer at Wetherby. He has started a project called Angling for All in the Dearne Valley area. He will coach young people and their families who want to take up fishing. The young people will have complex needs and may, as a result, be at risk of offending. In addition, the project will help restore, re-develop and run a council fishing pond, the Bolton on Dearne Brickyard Ponds.
I shall be interested to see how they get on. Needless to say, we were more than happy to grant the money!
Rural Crime and Anti-Social Behaviour
We have been listening to those who live and work in rural areas speaking about the crime and anti-social behaviour there. Rural crime is of two types: crimes that are not specific to rural areas and crimes that are. A house may be burgled in a town as well as the countryside, but sometimes the rural setting can present particular difficulties for the police because it is more isolated. On the other hand, there are crimes that are only committed in rural areas. I have spent time with farmers whose crops (and livelihoods) have been destroyed in an evening by people on quad bikes, for example. And a major issue across all rural communities is fly-tipping, which seems to have grown worse during Covid and continued ever since – though fly-tipping is a matter for the local authority rather than the police.
So, in April and May I will be hosting with Assistant Chief Constable David Hartley a number of meetings for farming and rural communities across all four districts to come and tell us directly about the issues they are facing, to meet the Rural and Wildlife Crime Team and to hear about police activities. The team will give updates on the work currently being undertaken and take questions from the audience. The outcomes from those meetings will be used to shape the team’s forthcoming priorities.
The events will take place on these dates and the venues will be confirmed once attendees have been registered:
Barnsley – Monday 24 April at 6.30pm
Doncaster – Wednesday 3 May at 6.30pm
Rotherham – Tuesday 16 May at 4pm
Sheffield – Thursday 18 May at 4pm
If you would like to attend one of these events, please register your interest here.
In the meantime, I wish you a very happy Easter.