Sheffield City Council has a new leader. Councillor Tom Hunt, who is 36, is the youngest leader the city has had since David Blunkett became leader in 1980. I was David’s deputy. I know Tom well. He is my ward councillor and a friend.
I am pleased that the Labour group on the council put him forward and pleased that the council accepted him. (The council is again in no overall control, so it needed the other parties to approve as well.) Tom is young and energetic. He is also thoughtful and modest, always open to new ideas, always willing to listen to others. These are all qualities the city desperately needs if it is to draw a line under some recent experiences and move forward in a positive fashion – which is what I think the public wants to see happen.
But what has this got to do with policing and criminal justice matters?
Quite a lot. In so many ways, if the police are to do their job they need the co-operation of partners such as the local authority. The same holds true in reverse. So, for example, police neighbourhood teams need to be able to work closely with officers from the local authority in their local teams. If we are to reduce violence and anti-social behaviour we need to be able to work together, pooling the information and data we each hold separately, and working to mutually reinforcing strategies, and so on. If these partnerships are to develop and flourish, they in part depend on establishing positive relationships between those who head up our various organisations. Sheffield City Council has a big workforce and they need to have confidence in those who lead them.
The election of this new leader in Sheffield offers the chance to re-set relationships and make a new and positive beginning. He will have my full support.
Down on the farm
For a number of years now people who live in the more rural parts of South Yorkshire have told me that they feel isolated when it comes to crime. Police stations are often a long way away and there is a perception that when it comes to deploying resources, the priority is always going to be the urban areas. I heard what people were saying and so in my Police and Crime Plan I asked for a focus on rural and wildlife crime. Rural crimes are those like burglary or theft that are done to the human inhabitants, wildlife crimes are those that are done to animals, birds and fish.
The police responded to this, producing a rural and wildlife strategy and proposing a team of specialist officers. For various reasons this did not work out quite as smoothly as we all hoped, not least because officer numbers were for a while too low to allow for the growth of such a team. This, of course, further fuelled the perception that the rural areas were being overlooked. Now, with the gradual increase in the number of officers, the time is ripe for a ‘re-set’ and a new focus on rural crime.
So for the last couple of weeks, members of my staff and the police have held a meeting in each district to explain what the force is now doing, to hear what those who live and/or work in the countryside feel about the proposals, and to hear about their experiences of crime and policing. Meetings have been held in the Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield districts.
The audiences have been very diverse – farmers, landowners, gamekeepers, villagers, people with businesses in the countryside, members of Neighbourhood Watch, a Victim Support group and so on. I attended the Rotherham meeting at the Lifewise Centre, Hellaby.
We had to hear a certain amount of anger and frustration from farmers in particular about what they saw as poor service in the past. But the meeting quite quickly realised that there is a will on the part of the police to get things better.
The police explained what they are doing. They have reinvigorated the rural and wildlife team. They have brought the police bikers into that team. They have trained some 40 officers across all districts as rural crime team specialist, alongside their main job. They talked about some of the equipment they use – the type of off-road bikes they use to get across country quickly, the drones that are becoming more available. Using drones, the police can spot people acting suspiciously from a distance and without being seen themselves.
We spent some time discussing the growing menace of quad bikes. The police gave a telling example of how farmers can be better prepared but how that preparation can be lost in a moment. We saw police photographs of a deep and wide trench that a farmer had dug around his fields to prevent quad bikes entering. This works well. Unfortunately the farmer had also erected palisade fencing on the field side. The quad bikers had torn down part of it and placed it across the trench to act as a bridge.
The police also spoke about how farmers can help the police and themselves by creating their own bespoke Whatsapp groups. The sergeant, who came from Derbyshire where this already happens, gave examples of how if a crime is committed on a particular farm, the subsequent movements of the offenders can be quickly plotted via a Whatsapp group whose members see them in new places as they move on, and this intelligence can be sent to the police. It is intelligence that is real time and enables the police to get to the right place to apprehend the criminals.
In turn, the members of the audience raised issues that they wanted the police to think about. So, for example, a number of questions were about whether the people who receive the 101 calls from farmers – the call handlers – were sufficiently trained to understand the serious nature of what was sometimes being reported. They gave an example. If a farmer called to say there were people on quad bikes about to enter one of his fields, would the call handler realise that this was not just a case of a few high-spirited youths who would cause noise and nuisance for a bit and then move on. They would destroy the crops in the field and that would cost thousands of pounds. It was serious criminal damage. It was the farmer’s livelihood. Fortunately, the head of the call centre was also at the meeting, heard the comments and could give reassurance.
The results of the four meetings will now be scrutinised so that we can draw out the common themes and improve practice.
Fifteen into one doesn’t go
In Scotland they are thinking about abolishing juries in rape trials, leaving the determination of guilt or innocence to the judge. This is what the Justice Reform Bill would permit. Women’s groups have for sometime complained about what they believe are low conviction rates for rape cases (as compared with other crimes), suggesting that this is because juries are swayed by ‘myths’ about victims of rape which lead to unfair trials. If jurors are prejudiced against victims this would be a serious matter since many rape trials lack conclusive forensic evidence and so in the end turn on who is believed, the defendant or the victim – ‘he said’ ‘she said’. These myths, it is said, result in victim blaming: how the woman was dressed, whether she had been drinking, what her past sexual history was. There is academic research which suggests that there are these myths in the general population and if so, it is argued, jurors could be unduly influenced by them. Hence the proposal to have rape trials decided by a judge alone.
There is, however, other academic research which suggests something different. Professor Cheryl Thomas of University College London, has surveyed real juries – lots of them – and her report – Are Juries Fair? – is available from the Ministry of Justice. Her conclusions are unequivocal: ‘Contrary to popular belief and previous government reports, juries actually convict more often than they acquit in rape cases (55% jury conviction rate).’ ‘Juries are not primarily responsible for the low conviction rate on rape allegations.’
So I am not sure why people in Scotland would want to abandon trial before a cross section of the population by age, ethnicity and sex – the fifteen people on a Scottish jury – for trial in front of, quite possibly, a single, middle-aged, white man – a judge.
We need to look at other factors if we want to see more rape convictions.