PCC Blog 56

Sorry is the hardest word to say – or so it is said.

And sometimes a government will only say sorry by what it does, not by what it says.

I don’t think we shall ever hear a minister say that cutting police numbers by 20,000 between 2010 and 2019 was wrong and they apologise. But restoring the 20,000, which is being done, is the apology, the recognition that a mistake has been made and is being rectified. I call this an acted apology.

As with the police, so with the Probation Service. This was split in two by the government in 2014 against the advice of almost everyone. High risk offenders remained with the publicly run National Probation Service while low to medium risk offenders became the responsibility of a series of privately run companies – Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs). Many who worked for the old probation service had to compete for their jobs and some left the service altogether. The CRCs had to recruit and train new staff very quickly – and then retain them – as well as meet targets on which their funding depended. It was soon discovered that some offenders who were deemed ‘low risk’ became ‘high risk’ and should have had the closer supervision of the probation service. Two hundred went on to commit serious offences, including murder, and 24% re-offended. As HM Inspectors and parliamentary committees pointed out, it was a recipe for disaster.

The government abandoned the reform and from this week the two services have been made one again. We now have a new, publicly managed and accountable, National Probation Service. An acted apology if there ever was one. But at such cost – human and financial.

Community payback

Something the new probation service will have to get on with very quickly, is to re-start the community payback scheme. This is where an offender is sentenced to undertake hours of supervised, unpaid work in the community, as an alternative to prison. You may have seen offenders in high visibility jackets at work in this way. But the scheme came to a halt as a result of the lock-downs and the associated restrictions. So there are many offenders whose unpaid work in the community needs to be done as soon as possible.

I saw one of these schemes in Rotherham a couple of years ago. Offenders were redecorating a community centre – painting ceilings, walls and doors. It was hard work, there was no slacking, and some of the local community had come in to make them and their supervisor cups of tea and to say what a good scheme it was. ‘Better than doing nothing in a prison for a few months’, was how one resident put it.

The Probation Service is, therefore, looking for schemes. So, if you are involved in your community and need help with a big litter pick or clearance project, or want the village hall re-decorated, I would urge you to contact the probation service.

Hoarse whispering

Last Friday I went to the launch of a book by Helen Jackson, a former MP for Sheffield Hillsborough, about the municipal politics of Sheffield between 1970 and 1992.* David Blunkett was the main speaker. The launch was held in Millennium Square, by the Peace Gardens. As I came away I bumped into two police officers and their horses from the mounted section. I took pity on one of the horses, Treeton – they are all named after places in South Yorkshire – who looked rather down in the mouth. We had a chat – a bit one sided – and as I had just been talking rather a lot, I was a bit croaky – a little hoarse. So I tried to cheer him up with an extra strong mint, always a favourite with the horses. If he was won over, he didn’t let on.

But what was so noticeable was the number of people of all ages who were drawn to the horses and as a result chatted to the officers. I doubt whether there would have been the same interaction if two non-mounted officers had walked along the same stretch of road. The horses, of course, don’t speak – at least not in a language anyone over the age of nine understands. You need approachable and personable officers as well.

But wherever they go, the horses facilitate engagement. This might not be their primary job – the following day they were on crowd control duty in Batley and Spen – but this engagement is so valuable. People who would never normally seek out a police officer, cross the road to speak to the mounted officers and all this helps to build positive relationships between public and police.

There are very few police forces now with a mounted section – I think about 11 out of 43. Many were lost during the era of austerity. Our mounted section is now back at a refurbished Ring Farm, Cudworth, and I hope everyone in South Yorkshire recognises their value.

* Helen Jackson, People’s Republic of South Yorkshire. A political memoir.     

You’re Only Young Once (YOYO)

As well as being a truism, this is also the name of a project run across South Yorkshire by a partnership of the five local football clubs – Doncaster, Barnsley, Rotherham, Sheffield Wednesday and United – the police and the Violence Reduction Unit. YOYO Sport brings together boys and girls (though mainly boys) from some of our less prosperous communities with a programme of sport and workshops. It diverts them from getting involved in other kinds of activities – from anti-social behaviour to crime.

For the past year YOYO Sport has been severely restricted in what it could do because of the virus, but on Saturday they had the first day out with groups of young people from each of the districts gathering at the Keepmoat Stadium, Doncaster.

I went along to thank the partners, to hear about their future plans and to launch the day. There were football competitions, archery classes, workshops on how to steer clear of knife crime and a dancing class – to name but a few of the activities. Rosie Winterton, MP for Doncaster Central, also dropped in, and the young people had a really good time.

Sport is a powerful means of reaching young people, especially those who don’t engage easily. Those coaches, youth workers and professional footballers that I met on Saturday are the role models we want the young people to be influenced by.

I hope we can do more with YOYO Sport as we come to unlock.

Stay safe and well.