PCC Blog 88

The troubles with policing in the capital took a dramatic turn last week with the resignation of the Commissioner, Dame Cressida Dick.

We should all be concerned. The Met is the biggest police force in the country with over 45,000 officers and staff – nine times the size of South Yorkshire police. So it consumes a lot of resources. The Met also has national responsibilities – such as counter-terrorism. And it ensures the security of some of our most important national institutions – such as Parliament. If confidence in the Met is shaken and if morale within the force is damaged, that is bad news for us all.

At one point, my path and the former Commissioner’s crossed for a short time. After the urban riots of 2001, we served together on a Community Cohesion Panel set up by the Home Secretary to advise him on how we might bring about more integrated communities in those urban centres where there had been rioting – particularly Bradford, Oldham and Burnley. She was much more junior then, of course.

The Panel was chaired by Professor Ted Cantle. He had produced a report following the disturbances. This concluded that although the different ethnic groups in those places lived side by side, there was little or no interaction. People lived ‘parallel lives’. Hence the need for ‘community cohesion’. (I remember reading Benjamin Disraeli’s Sybil, or The Two Nations, on the train journeys down to London – a novel about the social divide in Victorian Britain, though that was about class rather than ethnicity. The basic theme of the novel was also the inspiration for the One Nation group of Conservative MPs.)

As a result of the report and the work of the Panel, ‘community cohesion’ became a huge agenda for towns and cities across the country, bringing together people in the public, private, voluntary and faith sectors to work for more integrated communities. Cressida Dick’s contributions to the discussions were always among the most perceptive, so I was pleased when she became Commissioner.

I am sorry and concerned that the Met now finds itself where it does. But for me it raises different questions from those which have largely dominated the public debate so far. (I write this at the weekend.) I would ask: Is this police force simply too big and unwieldy for anyone to effect cultural change in all its parts with the urgency needed? Should the national responsibilities be given to a national body, such as the National Crime Agency? Does it make sense to have the Mayor as the police and crime commissioner? How can he find the time to do all that being Mayor involves and get to grips with the issues facing this huge force as well? After all, in South Yorkshire as PCC, I work a full week,  often with evening and weekend engagements, yet I am PCC for a police force and population only a fraction of London’s. How can the Mayor – any mayor – give policing the time and attention needed? How can they properly hold the chief of police to account if they don’t have the time to do it?

This may not be the time to ask these questions. But unless they are asked, we may be here again with another Commissioner, another set of issues, and another unhappy ending.

Gun control

Last week I met representatives of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) – Duncan Thomas, the Regional Director and Martin Parker, Head of Firearms. If, like me, you are a hopeless townie, you may find the juxtaposition of ‘shooting’ and ‘conservation’ jarring. But, of course, if you shoot quarry, you have a keen interest in ensuring that birds and animals and their habitats are conserved.

In this country, you need a licence to have a gun and the licence is granted – or withheld – by the local police – hence the meeting.

There are two types of licence – a Firearm Certificate (FAC) and a Shotgun Certificate (SGC). Before an FAC is given, the police must be satisfied that the applicant has a good reason for wanting one and has a secure place to keep it. Similarly for shotguns, there must be secure storage.

Until I became PCC I had never met anyone who kept a gun. Now I have met city dwellers who belong to clubs and keep guns at home, as well as farmers who have them for shooting game or for controlling vermin.

BASC exists to represent the interests of those who shoot. Part of their remit, therefore, is to ask on behalf of members whether a force is, for example, fully digitised in its systems of applying for licences and record keeping – which we are. They were also interested to hear whether there were any issues in South Yorkshire for applicants seeking the necessary medical and other background checks.

The importance of medical checks was highlighted in August last year when a lone gunman in Plymouth shot and killed his mother following a disagreement, and then went on to kill four others, including a 3-year old girl. It transpired that the gunman had mental health issues and had been on an anger management course. The police had taken away his licence and shotgun after an incident in December 2020, but then restored them just one month before the fatal shooting. Exactly why this happened is subject to investigation.

But it all goes to show how important some jobs are within policing that most of us rarely see and quite possibly do not even think about.  We all rely on these members of the police staff making the right judgement calls about who should have a gun and a licence and who should be refused. Their decisions can be, quite literally, matters of life and death.

A good outcome

Last week I mentioned the Broomhall Homework Club and how they needed some funds to keep going. I had this email on Thursday from Peter Sacker, the secretary of the Broomhall Centre, where they meet:

I have just seen your blog. Thanks very much for your supportive comments about the Broomhall Homework Club. It is resulting in more donations. We have now done so well that we can consider re-opening a second evening (doing coding) and replacing some of our ancient laptops. We will certainly be applying to your small grants scheme but most likely for next year – the hunt for funds goes on endlessly!

I like a happy ending.

Stay safe and well.