PCC Blog 85

At one time I had three dogs in my life. They varied in size. Daisy was a dachshund, Murphy was part-German shepherd, and Magnus, was a Weimaraner.

It was only when they had gone that I fully appreciated the part they played in my life, and that of my children, over many years.

They rejoiced when we did, and when I was fed up, they listened to my outpourings of frustration with great fortitude. They curled up at or on my feet (the dachshund), offering sympathy and understanding. They never complained.

So I am not surprised by the latest initiative of South Yorkshire Police to help the well-being of staff and officers by using Well-being and Trauma Support Dogs from an organisation called OK9.

There has been a growing realisation in recent years that the well-being of officers and staff must be taken far more seriously. Those who work for the police can be faced with significant trauma on both a regular and an occasional basis. And it is not only those officers who have to go to the scene of some horrific road accident or homicide. It can also be those who, for example, spend many hours having to look at images of child abuse.

In addition, the period of the lockdowns and working entirely from home, meant that everyone’s mental health and well-being might have been affected. (None of this, of course, is to suggest that people in other occupations cannot also be affected in similar ways.)

The Oscar Kilo (OK9) dogs and their handlers (who are mental health first aiders) are brought into the workplace to help people’s well-being. There is a scientific basis to what the dogs trigger when introduced for a session. Humans and animals share a hormone that engenders affection and trust and a sense of security. In doing so, cortisone levels are lowered and stress and anxiety are reduced.

At the time of writing, some thirty police forces (and some Fire and Rescue Services) across the country are part of the OK9 network of Well-being and Trauma Support Dogs. It is surely one of those simple ideas that can help make a significant difference.

A Taxing Time

At this time of year, I have to make some decisions which potentially will affect every household in South Yorkshire.

They start with decisions about the size of the budget for the police and the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner (OPCC) for the financial year April 2022 to March 2023. The OPCC budget is relatively small and is mainly about funding services to victims of crime. But the police budget is substantial – around £300m.

There are three principal elements to it.

First, there is what we might call business as usual – continuing next year what the police are doing this year. This will, however, cost more because the cost of everything is going up – from heating and lighting police stations to paying the salaries of officers and staff. They are due a pay increase, which has yet to be negotiated, so it is hard to know just how much to allow for in the budget; but an estimate will have to be made. As it is sometime since the police had a pay rise, and with the cost of living rising, this could add substantially to the cost of policing next year. So the very thing that impacts on people’s cost of living, making them hesitant about supporting an increase in the police precept – inflation – is the very thing that makes some precept increase necessary.

Second, there is the cost of improvements. For example, the police have to keep abreast of technological change, otherwise the criminals will be ahead of them – and that would be disastrous. But technology can be expensive. Also this year, the government has said we must increase police officer numbers to meet their national target of an extra 20,000 by 2023-24.

And third, there will have to be savings. We have to do things more efficiently and switch the money saved towards paying for some of those additional costs. Getting value for money is always important for public services but especially when money is tight for us all.

At the same time we have to work out how we are going to pay for all this.

There are two main sources of income: government grant and local tax (the precept). The government tell me just before Christmas each year how much they will give in grant and also the maximum they will allow me to raise by way of local tax. I then consult the public, the Leaders of the four district councils and the Police and Crime Panel (local councillors and independents) and ask them what they think the police need and the public can bear by way of a precept increase. I then take all that into account in making decisions.

This year, however, this part of the process is rather different. In other years, if I thought the increase in precept was looking too much, I could set something lower and ask the police to reduce the budget accordingly. Since the budget is mainly salaries, they would have to take on fewer officers than they planned – and this way the books would balance. But this year I have little room for manoeuvre. The government have said that we must increase police numbers – there is no discretion – and much of the increased grant is tied to that.

The government knows the grant will not cover the full cost of these extra officers, especially in future years, which is why they are ‘allowing’ me to raise the precept by up to £10 on a Band D property. If I don’t do this, we have no hope at all of producing a balanced budget – without using more reserves. And that is one of the most difficult decisions of all to make because the reserves are rather like the saving accounts you and I may have. Once we have dipped into them, they are gone, and you are just that little bit more insecure.

And all the time there are the on-going costs of paying for past mistakes – civil claims from victims of both the Hillsborough football disaster of 1989, and child sexual exploitation in Rotherham between 1997 and 2013. And there is the cost of the National Crime Agency investigation into those non-recent CSE cases which is set to continue until 2027.

So if I look a little stressed at the moment, it’s nothing to do with the coronavirus but everything to do with a tax increase, a balance sheet and a bottom line.

If only I had a dog to talk to.

Stay safe and well.