PCC Blog 185

The Post Office scandal contains a number of warnings for many public sector organisations, including the police service.

First, there is the matter of IT. The full story of what went wrong and why no one in a senior position in the Post Office picked this up, remains to be told. But enough has been said to show the dangers that lurk wherever an organisation relies on IT that it commissions from an outside body and seems to have no internal expertise or form of governance capable of scrutinising what is happening.

Yet the police service is embarking all the time on a greater and greater use of and reliance on new technologies. Two weeks ago I wrote about developments in Facial Recognition technology and the use by the police of such extensive databases as driving licenses and passports. If that technology has glitches the consequences could potentially be as devastating as those for sub postmasters and postmistresses.

We need to look carefully at issues of governance (oversight) but also at the question of internal expertise. This almost certainly means that the police will have to find ways of paying for highly skilled civilian staff with expert knowledge and experience in IT. But they are people whose skills are in great demand in the commercial sector where they can command salaries that will not fit easily into police (and other public sector) pay scales.

And it will not only be a matter of recruiting such expertise, but of retaining it. This has been a headache for some time. The Post Office scandal shows the urgency and has brought it to the attention of politicians and the public. This is the moment to get this right.

The second warning that has come from the Post Office scandal is not new but shows how slowly some things change. Interestingly, this is a matter that began with policing, and policing in South Yorkshire. To be precise, it began with the Hillsborough disaster of 1989 and all that followed from it. As with the Post Office, that was a scandal that went on for decades and as with the Hillsborough families, the postmasters and postmistresses were up against what the former Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, called ‘the patronising disposition of unaccountable power’.

People who had the power to make a difference but who, for whatever reason – and that will come out in the Inquiry – chose instead to look the other way. There must surely have come a point where someone at the top of the organisation ‘heard’ what hard-working sub post masters and mistresses were saying about the Horizon computer system and could no longer believe that they were employing so many crooks – yet they failed to act. An organisation needs people in positions of leadership at every level who will not just listen to what people are saying but also ask pertinent questions as a result of that and then take action.

For a number of years I kept a copy of the Bishop’s report on the Hillsborough football disaster, written in 2017, close at hand, looking from time to time at the list and ages of those who died. As I recall, the youngest were three 14 year olds and the oldest was 67. It was a way of reminding myself that ‘holding the police to account’ was a key part of my job description.

How you ‘hold to account’ is something I have been seeking to work out in practice all the time. How do you hold to account such a big organisation and in a way that is meaningful, helping the police to improve their practice without causing them to withdraw, turn inward and not change. I believe this is the progress we have made in the police force here because we took the warnings of Hillsborough to heart. But we need reminding of them all the time, and not just the police – as this latest scandal shows.

There are two things that are easy to say. One is ‘sorry’ and the other is ‘lessons will be learnt’. But both are meaningless if you are not clear what then follows in practical terms from saying ‘sorry’ and ‘lessons will be learnt’. You have to set out a way forward and how evidence of change and progress will be measured.

The Bishop’s comments provided the title for the report he presented to Parliament in 2017 – ‘the patronising disposition of unaccountable power’. The subtitle said it was ‘A report to ensure the pain and suffering of the Hillsborough families is not repeated’.  In the case of the Post Office, I fear it has – and for the same basic reasons as at first and for too long, with Hillsborough.

Holocaust Memorial event

Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) is on 27 January each year. But prior to that, Sheffield District Reform Jewish Congregation are arranging a concert – yiddish music and readings from the ghettos prior to liquidisation by the Nazis. There will also be an exhibition: ‘How Christians and Muslims saved Jews during the Holocaust’. This is material from Yad Vashem’s database of Righteous Among the Gentiles.

This will be on Sunday 21 January at 7pm in the URC Church on Norfolk Row, Sheffield, S1 2JB. Early bird tickets £7, £5.


Child abuse – a better understanding

There is a danger in our part of the world of thinking that child sexual abuse and exploitation (CSAE) is all about the sexual abuse of children who are picked up by grooming gangs on the streets of our towns and cities. There is, of course, abuse of this kind. But a recent report has revealed something far wider than that and with growing areas of abuse that we may not have realised.

The National Analysis of Police-Recorded Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation Crimes Report has never been attempted before. It analyses data from 42 police forces across England and Wales and includes profiles of both the victims and the perpetrators. It is invaluable in helping the police to understand what is going on, how crimes are changing and what steps a force will need to take with partners and the public to safeguard children better in the future.

A few of the key points that jumped out at me were these.

First, offences are on the rise. In 2022 there were 107,000 cases of CSAE. This was an increase of 7.6% over the previous year and a quadrupling over the decade. 25% of these related to indecent images of children. Some – perhaps many – young people (mainly males) are, in effect criminalising themselves by sending intimate photographs of girlfriends or ex girlfriends to others on their mobile phones, though not realising they are committing an offence by doing so.

Second, the number of on-line recorded incidents of sexual abuse continues to grow. It currently accounts for one third of all child sexual abuse and exploitation. We could probably have anticipated this, given the fact that in the last few years every teenager in the country seems to have become glued to a mobile device or laptop for large parts of the day. The majority of reports of CSAE (52%) involve children aged between 10 and 17 offending against other children. The most common age is 14. The report authors say this is a growing and concerning trend. It may also be related to the fact that growing numbers of children find it easy to access pornography on their devices.

Since the report was written we heard of the shocking case of the under sixteen year old girl who spent much of her leisure time on line in a virtual world with others. In that virtual world her virtual self – her avatar – was violently assaulted and raped by other virtual characters.

She was deeply traumatised – as if the attack on her had been in the real as opposed to the virtual world. This has left a number of questions for the police and crown prosecutors: what crimes, if any, have been committed if everything was virtual and there was no physical contact? If there were crimes, how do you get hold of the others involved when they could be anywhere in the world?

The New Year suddenly seems as dark a place as the old.

Stay safe