PCC Blog 189

This week, the government is seeking to raise consciousness about fraud through a campaign called: “Stop! Think Fraud”.

This is absolutely right since this type of crime is among the fastest growing and most concerning, accounting for almost 40% of all crime.

It affects organisations and individuals alike. With the internet, the perpetrators can be in this country or anywhere in the world. Fraud catches out everyone – young and old, sharp witted or feeble minded. The more savvy we think we are, the more foolish we feel when we fall for it. Many criminals are not so bright. Fraudsters can be very clever. And they learn quickly about what works. And we fall for it.

It is highly likely that everyone who reads this has already had numerous phone calls that we have come to recognise as attempts to defraud us and have learnt to put the phone down. But this just means that criminals have to get cleverer and more convincing. And they do.

The government launched a Fraud Strategy last May. It has three strands to it:

– pursuing perpetrators

– blocking frauds from reaching the public

– enabling people to avoid it and respond appropriately when it gets through

The current campaign has been developed by the City of London Police (the lead force nationally), the National Cyber Security Centre and the National Crime Agency.

What the fraudsters are good at is behavioural psychology. They understand instinctively what many of our young people seem keen to study in school, college and university; what makes us behave in the ways we do.

I recall reading about Richard Thaler’s ‘nudge’ theory in the early 2000s. He realised that if you tell people directly to do something, they are likely to resist. ‘Eat healthily’ does not work. But putting eye-catching displays of appetising foods in superstores does. Sending harsh letters to people who do not pay their taxes on time may not work. But telling them that most of their neighbours have paid, and they are, therefore, in a small minority in the place where they live, does.

The fraudsters use similar behavioural insights. They know that one way of getting us to act foolishly is to get us to act quickly – because if we don’t we miss out on something. A phone call or an email saying we are due a tax rebate or have won a prize, but we must respond immediately because of a deadline, puts us mentally in a ‘hot state’ when we make mistakes and do foolish things. The campaign seeks to get us to “Stop!” and “Think Fraud”.

One other aspect of this which probably does not feature in the campaign, but should, is explaining to the public what the implication of all this is for policing. Among other things it means that we need more invisible police – not people in uniforms on the streets, but people behind computers, tracing fraudsters and blocking their activities.

This is generally not something people in community meetings want to hear.

PCC functions

What is the most important part of the role of the Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC)? As I come towards the end of my term (and time) as PCC, I think I can give an unequivocal answer.

I could have said: appointing a Chief Constable. That is a considerable responsibility because you know that, while a police force has many good people working for it who all play a key part in making the organisation function efficiently and effectively, poor leadership at the top can quickly demoralise the whole. I have appointed two chiefs, very different people, though each making vital contributions to SYP.

I could have said producing the Police and Crime Plan. That matters because it sets the priorities for the force.

I could have said that the most important thing I do is set the revenue budget and the (council tax) precept. That too is a responsibility that should weigh heavily on all PCCs, not least when an election comes into view. It would be very tempting – but wrong – for a PCC to cut the budget, and so the precept, if s/he thought that would win a few votes. The PCC must set a budget and precept that gives adequate funding to the police service. Getting the finances in good shape is an important part of the job.

I could go on and speak about giving grants, the commissioning of victims’ services, the work of the Violence Reduction Unit or the Local Criminal Justice Board, and so on. But the work that I think is the most important part of the PCC’s role is that of holding the police to account.

This can be misunderstood. People write to me from time to time and want to know why I don’t condemn the police for this or that. Media statements have their place but it is a limited place. If a PCC is taking to the air waves or making pronouncements all the time, we would soon grow tired of it and any impact would have diminishing returns.

Holding to account is about ensuring that a police force takes responsibility for what it does – or decides not to do – taking all that it does with proper seriousness. The temptation for any organisation is to guard its reputation and not admit to shortcomings. Again, we see this with the Post Office. ‘Holding to account’ means encouraging the force to recognise when mistakes have been made and to say what they are – at first to themselves – because you cannot put right what you don’t first acknowledge: you have to name it.

A PCC can help this process by talking, asking questions, encouraging and supporting, both personally and through his or her officers who engage with the force. If the professional relationship between a PCC and senior officers is good – and that takes time and patience to build – holding to account happens naturally, as part of the weekly interactions; it is not something forced. But it is the most important thing I do.

Interestingly, in the Government’s response to the consultation on transferring PCC functions to the Mayor, the Home Office gives a list of the key functions to be taken on by the Mayor. While there is a general acknowledgement that all the things I mention above are transferred, ‘holding to account’ is not explicitly referenced in the list at all. It would be top of my list and I hope it will be top of the Mayor’s list as well.

Flexible release

Many blogs ago I wrote about how difficult it was to ensure that a prisoner could access the various services they needed if they were released from prison on a Friday. Services – from banks to Housing Services – may close earlier on a Friday or may have fewer staff available – and it is then a long weekend to the following Monday. This was made even more difficult if not impossible when on release an ex-offender first had to travel some distance from the prison back to his or her home district.

But if the date on which a sentence ends was a Friday (or the day before a public or bank holiday), prison governors had no choice other than to release a prisoner on that day. I said I thought this was just compounding problems for the future, almost guaranteeing that an ex-offender would struggle from the very first moment of release. We know how vital it is that some basic needs are in place, not least finance and accommodation, for successful reintegration.

Just before Christmas, this was changed. What I argued for in that distant blog will now happen as far as most prisoners are concerned. Where an adult prisoner is due for release on a Friday or the day before a public holiday, they can be released one working day earlier. Children and young people will be released two days earlier.

This is a relatively simple change with little or no cost implications. I am glad it has happened. I just wonder why it took us so long to get there.

Stay safe