There is often an iconic photograph that we associate with a political scandal or crisis.
Some years ago now it was a picture of an ornate duck-house which seemed to sum up the scandal of MPs’ second home expenses claims. It never crossed our minds that someone might regard somewhere to house their ducks as essential expenditure, but they did and they asked us to refund the £1,645 they paid for it. (In fairness, this claim was refused – and the ducks turned their backs on it as well.)
However, gradually, everything came to light. We found that claims ranged from the substantial to the trivial – bin bags, I recall – and even the shameful – ‘adult’ videos. But it was a serious scandal about the abuse of tax-payer money and we were outraged.
This time, in the covid crisis, the iconic image is that of the Queen obeying the rules and sitting alone at her husband’s funeral when the night before, we now learn, some in Westminster were disobeying the rules and partying.
I think the anger this time is even greater than at the time of the expenses scandal. It is not hard to see why.
Covid has been a matter of life and death. Almost every family in the country has been affected by the disease and the restrictions that were placed on us. Some of us have lost family or friends. Many of us have been ill. We can all point to a funeral we could not attend or a relative we could not visit in a care home or hospital ward. I was unable to travel to officiate at my son’s wedding. The police worked hard to understand and interpret the changing rules and, when necessary, to enforce them. People were fined. We all did our bit because we thought that was how we would get through and we were all in this together. Or were we?
This feeling that there has been one rule for some and another for others has been deeply corrosive of the trust and confidence that holds society together. But it does, at every level. If our liberties are to be curtailed and if we are to accept that the police have a job to do enforcing those restrictions, we need to have trust and confidence in the police to do their job fairly and in the rule makers that what they are asking of us is also what they are asking of themselves. I am not surprised that some people who were fined are now wanting their money back.
Restoring trust should now be the focus. It’s the foundation of a resilient society.
Not so smart
I was interviewed by Nana Akua on GB News last Friday.
This was about the government’s decision to pause for five years any further roll out of smart motorways while they examine their safety.
The government is planning to convert around 400 miles of conventional motorway to ‘smart’ motorways by using the hard shoulder as a permanently live lane – called all lane running (ALR). This gives better traffic flow and helps to avoid congestion. We have 16 miles of ALR in South Yorkshire between junctions 32 and 35a of the M1. But it has raised anxieties about safety.
It was a live broadcast and I made my familiar arguments: stopping in a live lane with no hard shoulder is inherently dangerous because you have nowhere to go; there are many near misses as well as actual collisions; one of our coroners expressed concerns about safety; however sophisticated the technology, there will always be a time lag between a vehicle stopping and a controller activating the red cross gantry signal to stop any further drivers travelling in that lane. In 2020, there were 360 breakdowns along this part of the motorway and traffic officers attended 288 of them.
I sum up by saying that we should be designing danger out, not building it in.
But just before I spoke, Nana Akua interviewed Claire Mercer, the widow of Jason Mercer who was killed in 2019 after his vehicle stopped in a live lane, following a bump with another car. Since then she has campaigned tirelessly to have them stopped.
Claire, who lives in Rotherham, puts her point of view forcefully and with passion and always gets right to the heart of the issue. She comes across as a strong person – as I am sure she is – yet on Friday she spoke about how at times she has struggled with PTSD or something akin to a breakdown. I was very sorry to hear that, though not surprised given all that she has gone through. And all the time she is reminded of what happened to her husband on that terrible day as anniversaries come round and she presses on with the uphill battle to change government policy.
As usual, she summed up the present situation really well. If the government are sufficiently concerned to want a five year pause of further ALR roll out while they review safety, why are they allowing existing ALR to continue in the meantime? All they have to do to reinstate the hard shoulder is to flick a switch and put a permanent red cross over the live lane on the gantries. This is what they should now do while they look into the safety of ALRs.
It’s called putting safety first. Or in Yorkshire, common sense.
Down on the farm
At last, I am able to get out a little more and visit people in different parts of the county. This is always a good thing to do, but especially at this time of year when we are agreeing priorities and putting together the police budget for the next financial year – April 2022 to March 2023. The statistics I look at are often quite high level – types and numbers of crimes, numbers of officers and staff over whole districts, funding. From time to time I need to remind myself of the realities on the ground. What are the crimes and acts of anti-social behaviour that most concern people, and have we got the police response right, so far as resources allow? Can we do more or do things differently?
Last week I was at a farm in the north of Doncaster, listening to a farming wife and two local councillors about the issues they face. I was accompanied by officers from the neighbourhood team – the local inspector, sergeant and a police constable.
It was a good conversation – frank, with no punches pulled. And with the usual generosity of farming families, we had tea and cake. But in many ways, the most important part of the morning was that it developed the trust that everyone in the room needed to have in everyone else if together we are to overcome crime and ASB.
Trust and confidence. That has been the theme running through this blog.
It’s the currency we must not devalue.
Stay safe and well.