PCC Blog 192

The Prime Minister has called some of the pro-Palestinian protests that have taken place across the country, though especially in London, examples of ‘mob rule’ and a threat to democracy.

Last week, police chiefs were called to Downing Street and told that when protests were held outside MPs’ homes, for example, there should be an ‘immediate’ police response. This type of demonstration, the Prime Minister felt, was going too far. It seriously threatened our democratic traditions: people are entitled to make their views known through peaceful protest, but gathering outside an MP’s house was intimidatory and an attempt to influence an elected member by means other than reasoned debate and discussion.

The government is making £31m available to police forces to do more and act more quickly. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the pro-Palestinian march organisers have reacted badly to the charge of ‘mob rule’ and organisations such as Amnesty International have called the prime minister’s remarks a ‘wild exaggeration’.

Having heard one of the MPs say how frightening it is when a large group of people arrive on your doorstep and start chanting, I am sure there is something here that can’t be ignored. Similarly, there is something wrong when Jewish friends tell me that they won’t go into central London any more on Saturdays because the presence of so many who are hostile to Israel makes them, rightly or wrongly, fearful for their safety. So the only question is: how can we prevent the sense of intimidation without eroding the right to state publicly an alternative point of view?

As with many things in British life, we depend here to a large extent on people behaving with self-imposed levels of what seem reasonable and fair. A protest outside a public building, such as a town hall, or an MP’s office, is one thing, whereas gathering in the street where an MP and their family and neighbours live, seems quite another. The MP might have stepped into the public arena, but his/her eight year old daughter didn’t and neither did his/her next door neighbour. But common sense, even common decency, gets overridden when someone believes their particular cause trumps everything else and nothing should be off limits. This is the tendency which, I believe, we have seen developing over the past year or two and especially since the Israel/Hamas conflict began. It can create a climate in which a few can think that violence can be justified. It is now routine for all of us involved in public life to think every day about our own personal safety and that of our staff.

But there is something else happening with the pro-Palestinian protests that I had not understood before. A government minister made me think about this when he said that there was no point in holding these weekly mass protests since we all knew what the issues were now; and they may even be counter-productive. I am sure that is true; in which case there may be other, less conscious reasons why the protestors carry on. I look for a more psychological/sociological answer.

There is a word for acts that we go on repeating: it is ritual. The protests have become forms of ritual and ritual is performed for the benefit of those taking part: it binds people together. (Think of the way each school day in the USA begins with pupils pledging allegiance to the flag.) This may be especially necessary when the people who come together do not otherwise have a great deal in common. So they perform a common ritual. The more they perform the ritual, the deeper the bonding. Ritual transforms individuals into a cohesive community. The more they act as one, the more they feel as one, and the more they think as one. It also means that an attack on the group – and I mean verbal rather than physical – is taken personally, as an attack on the individual.

I am not sure whether the movement that has been created will endure once a ceasefire is agreed or hostilities end in Gaza. If it does, the values that are being committed to and that bind people together, will become clearer. But what it will mean for our politics and community life longer term is, as yet, unclear. Unclear to me, at any rate.

In the meantime, the police, being operationally independent of both home secretaries and PCCs will have to rely on their own professional judgements.

Act II

And so to Dinnington.

I attended an evening meeting in the Middleton Hall last October to talk about crime and anti-social behaviour (ASB) in the town, which lies just south of Rotherham. It was called by local councillors and the Member of Parliament for Rother Valley.

I spoke about government funding we had received – some £1m – to tackle ASB across South Yorkshire by additional, high visibility patrols – over and above what might normally be done. I promised to return in the new year to say what progress had been made. Hence a second visit last week.

I always try to meet my two engagement officers in a local pub/restaurant before these evening meetings: it’s an opportunity to pool our information, and we sometimes find those who serve us are quite chatty about local issues. We met at Monk’s Bridge Farm Restaurant.

At the meeting, I spoke about how the ASB funding is not simply given. We have to make a case by carefully evidencing ASB ‘hot spots’. We analysed 4 years of data! Each of the districts – Sheffield, Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham – has 12 tightly drawn ASB hot spot areas. They range from town centres to a few streets – where higher levels of ASB have been recorded by either the police or the local authorities. The funding can go to both the police and to uniformed local authority officials for patrols between the hours of 2 and 10pm. The detailed plans have to be agreed with the Home Office. The patrols started last July – twice a day in 6 areas – amounting to 121 hours to the end of December. And we have secured funding for the coming financial year as well – subject to further detailed plans.

On this occasion I came with an officer from Rotherham council, the District Commander and some of the Neighbourhood Police Team – a Chief Inspector, a Sergeant and a PC. They outlined in more detail where the patrols had been carried out and what other work they were doing to tackle ASB and crime, including visits to schools and support for youth groups. There was a chance after the meeting for those who came to meet the police officers directly.

As well as the patrols, there is also a regular Community Speedwatch in Dinnington, especially on Oldcotes Road. In the latest operation, 100 vehicles were checked and 7 received warning letters. At the same time, officers from the Safety Camera Partnership have also been active in the area and 169 notices of intended prosecution have been issued.

When officers are patrolling they may do more than simply provide a visible presence in order to deter – and ASB has fallen in the areas patrolled. They may also, for instance, stop and search individuals or vehicles. One of my engagement team went with one of the patrols down the high street that called at each of the businesses there – receiving good comments about police responses to their concerns.

There was one issue that neither I nor the police can agree to pursue: a desire for a police station. (The neighbourhood police use the Resource Centre as a drop in.) This could not be a priority in the present financial climate for two main reasons.

First, the cost. I asked the estates team to work out the cost of acquiring premises or building a new station. This would involve making the building safe and installing a safe system of IT. The new build cost was £595,000. The purchase and convert cost was £325,000. The annual running costs for either would be circa £20,000. We have no capital grants any more so these sums would have to come from the police budget. Buildings or officers is the choice.

But in the second place, there are many other capital proposals that would have a higher priority. The most obvious is the need to replace Doncaster’s custody suite.

This may have had hands raised in favour of a station in the meeting, but in my recent consultation of over three thousand people, providing more small police stations was not considered to be money well spent.

Stay safe