PCC Blog 33

The job of the police is to enforce the law.

But the law around coronavirus has repeatedly changed since the first lock-down and is set to change again as we go into the new Tier 3 and whatever might come after. We find it bewildering to keep up. The police must not only keep up but must also be able to distinguish between what the law says and what is good public health advice. They cannot afford to get that wrong because if they confuse the two and start to treat advice as if it were law that would quickly erode public trust in them. So an important feature of policing at the moment is the work of the legal department in ensuring that the officers who are out and about have clear guidance around every change and are confident in enforcing the law if they have to.

What also erodes public trust, as we have noted before, is when people can’t see the reasons for particular decisions, such as why we are in this Tier rather than another and how we get to a lower Tier. The government has made this more difficult than it should be because from the start they insisted that every decision was ‘led by the science’ or ‘based on the science’, or something similar.   In fact, as we now know, decisions have always been a mix of science – medical, public health, behavioural – and economics – how much strain can the economy take, which is also, in part, a health judgement, because the mental health of unemployed people is also a reality.

The worry now is that by relaxing the rules at Christmas and allowing more social mixing, we may be laying up trouble for ourselves in the New Year, when hospitals are in any case always facing winter pressures.

If a vaccine is not widely available by then, enforcing further lock-downs in the face of a wholly avoidable third wave is going to be a real test for both the public and the police.

Home/work balance

Last week the staff of the Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) had an away day.

But they were all at home. These days, for many of us, our home has become our office. But an away day used to mean meeting collectively somewhere other than in the office, in a conference centre or hotel. Whether the ‘somewhere other’ for the VRU away day involved moving laptops from the office of the back bedroom to the away day of the kitchen, or vice versa, I have no way of knowing. But after April next year – if the Prime Minister is right – we are going to have to re-think just what we mean by ‘office’ and ‘home’ and perhaps even ‘away day’ as we emerge from the restrictions.

There have been pluses and minuses. On the minus side, I think we have come to realise that what oiled the working day were those many informal chats that took place as we moved from desk to photocopier to kitchen to stationery cupboard, and talked to people as we did so. We built our relationships and passed on critical bits of information. All that has been lost – unless it is engineered in some way.

On the plus side, among other things, I have certainly gained by being able to have direct meetings with Home Office and Ministry of Justice ministers and senior civil servants on a weekly basis, zooming into their homes somewhere in west London or what used to be called the Home Counties. It has taken an hour out of my week whereas before I would spend a whole day travelling up and down to Westminster, sometimes only to find that ‘the minister is very sorry but she’s running late’ or once, sitting in the train as it left Leicester station, ‘We’re very sorry but the minister has had to go home because of a family emergency.’

Once we are no longer in the grip of the virus we shall have to think very carefully about what we have lost and need to get back, what we can let go and what we have gained and need to keep.

The virus has changed the landscape of work for ever.

The Spending Review – the headlines and the small print

Policing had a brief mention in the Chancellor’s government Spending Review statement last week. He reiterated the government’s manifesto commitment to seeing an additional 20,000 police officers by 2024 – which should get police numbers almost back to where they were in 2010. However, the funding available, as I suggested, will almost certainly not cover the full costs – though we won’t know how big that gap is until the detail of the police grant for next year is announced, probably just before Christmas.

The government realises there is a funding gap but believes it can in part be made up by increasing council tax. PCCs are being allowed ‘flexibility’ to set their precepts with up to an additional £15 on a Band D property. (Most properties in South Yorkshire are in Bands A and B and so this equates to something nearer £10.) Even this is unlikely to be enough to balance the books without significant cuts to the overall budget.

This puts PCCs in the less affluent areas of the country, like South Yorkshire, in a difficult place. A lot of people here are struggling financially, but if we raise the precept by less than £15 on Band D, we could not afford the uplift in police numbers. As it is, we shall still have to find sizeable savings from elsewhere in the budget to pay for the current service and the new officers.

All of which makes it feel as if the precept is being set in Westminster rather than South Yorkshire. But, of course, as ministers will point out, decisions around the precept are for the PCC, not the government.

Yes, minister.

Bloomberg Westminster Radio

Last week I had fifteen minutes of being interviewed live on Bloomberg Westminster Radio about policing in a time of lock-down, together with the PCC for Sussex, Katy Bourne. I don’t know what the audience is for Radio Bloomberg, but I was pleased that they understood that policing the law around the pandemic is not easy when the public – and even government ministers – often confuse what is advice and what is legally enforceable regulation. Over Christmas that will be put to the test more than a few times in Sussex and South Yorkshire.

I hope you are staying safe and well.