PCC Blog 186

The fragility of freedom

27 January is the annual Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD).

The date is significant. It marks the day the concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated and the full horror of what had happened in Nazi Germany began to be fully revealed and understood.

It is particularly important that the day is kept this year in the light of all that is happening in the Middle East and the antisemitism that this has given rise to across the world. We have been fortunate in South Yorkshire so far. While there have been antisemitic incidents since 7 October, they have been few in number. This is no doubt in part because the Jewish community here is quite small. It is also because relationships between different religious/community groups is, on the whole, good and well maintained. And the police have made it very clear that the law will be enforced if anyone chants antisemitic slogans or carries banners or flags supporting proscribed organisations in any of the pro-Palestinian rallies or marches.

Many years ago, when I was part of an academic group studying in Israel and on the West Bank, I visited Yad Vashem, the holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. Seeing the stacks of day to day objects – like pairs of shoes and glasses – that had been taken off the men, women and little children who passed through the death camps, was a heart-aching and unforgettable experience. Yet without occasions of remembrance, such as HMD, we do forget – as individuals and collectively.

As a child of World War 2, I resented the fact that my father was in the armed services fighting in North Africa and away from home. He was not demobilised until 1947. He never spoke about the war, save to say that the Nazis and their doctrines about race had to be defeated.

They were defeated, which meant that this country was never invaded, I was not raised by the state as a little Nazi, and I now have a daughter-in-law who is Jewish. I also have three grandchildren who, had the war been lost and had they been born at all, would not have been allowed to survive to adulthood.

But if two states, Palestinian and Israeli, living side by side, is the solution to the conflict in that part of the world, the tragedy for the Palestinians must be Hamas and for Israel the present Prime Minister, since neither wants it. And what may be a faraway dispute will continue to play out on the streets of South Yorkshire.

Budget, precept and consultation

It’s that time of year when I have to set out with the Chief Constable the policing budget for the next financial year – April 2024-March 2025 – and set the precept (the amount of council tax to be levied for policing services which appears separately on council tax bills). This is the last time I shall do this.

In preparation for that, I have to hold a public consultation. This is a legal requirement and I have to have regard to what people say. We started this in November last year and closed it earlier this month. The results are very encouraging and quite different from some previous years. There have been times in the past when people have indicated that they were not happy at paying more for policing: they were struggling financially and they were not convinced that the police were doing a good enough job.

This year there is strong support for the police and a much bigger response. The survey was shared widely through social media, promoted in face to face meetings and by way of my blog. The 55,000 people who are signed up to police alerts also received it. As a result we had a record 3,886 respondents (last year it was 2,870) from all parts of South Yorkshire.

Although there were a number of high profile cases of poor, and, in some instances, criminal police conduct last year across the country, people here do not seem to have allowed that to affect their judgement of the performance of the police locally. People in South Yorkshire not only support their police but are willing to put their money where their mouth is.

The ability to convene

Many people will be familiar with the various statutory roles of the Police and Crime Commissioner – appointing a Chief Constable, producing a Police and Crime Plan for South Yorkshire, setting the police budget, determining the precept, commissioning services for victims, holding the force to account. What is less understood is the role I have in bringing groups together. Yet this can be just as important for the better working of the criminal justice system in the county.

For example, I chair something called the Local Criminal Justice Board. I can’t require those who come to the Board to do things, but by meeting together we can share our mutual problems and frustrations with the workings of justice and see how together we might improve matters. It also helps us to appreciate and share one another’s difficulties and to offer suggestions.

The organisations/individuals that come include:

The Police

Head of Criminal Justice Unit (SYP)

The Youth Justice Board

Youth Offending Teams

Probation Service

Victim Support

Witness Service

Legal Aid Agency

Courts and Tribunals Service

Crown Prosecution Service

Doncaster Prison Governors

Justices Clerk

NHS Head of Clinical Strategy (Health and Justice)

Violence Reduction Unit

The Judiciary

Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner

Among the issues we have been thinking about recently, two have been especially important.

First, we have been concerned at the way many victims drop out of the justice system. We need to understand what we call ‘the victim journey’ – the process from the time a crime is committed to the point where a trial is concluded, and sometimes beyond that. We know that the longer victims have to wait for their case to go to trial, the more likely it is that they will give up. So what causes delays and are there things that together we can do to make a difference?

Sometimes things happen that are unforeseen and beyond the control of any of us. When Covid struck and social distancing had to be observed, the courts had to be rapidly reconfigured to prevent impossible backlogs building. Similarly when RAAC (reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete) was discovered at Doncaster magistrates court and the building closed, alternative arrangements had to be made. But we can share the problems and think together about the implications.

Second, we have had a focus on the resettlement of offenders. We know full well that when someone leaves custody – and we have four prisons in the county – there are a number of things that have to be in place if the ex-offender is to make a successful transition back into the community and one of the most basic is appropriate accommodation. So we have discussed ways in which we can support Sheffield Probation Delivery Unit in their dealings with Sheffield City Council. But we also know that when it comes to providing housing, those leaving prison are the least likely to command any sympathy. Again, we can share the problems and work towards solutions.

Most of the issues that we face in the criminal justice system are like this: they are not the sole concern of one agency or organisation. They can only be resolved if we build good, personal and professional relationships. A PCC’s ability to convene makes this possible.

Pastures new

But sometimes we have to say farewell to those with whom we have built good relationships over the years. This month it was Luke Shepherd, the head of Probation in Doncaster. He has been a most thoughtful and committed member of the Local Criminal Justice Board. We shall miss him, but we wish him well. He will be working in West Yorkshire in future, though sensibly continuing to live in Barnsley.

Stay safe