In the 1980s I was Deputy Leader of Sheffield City Council when the city was twinned with Donetsk in the Ukraine.
At that time the country was still part of the Soviet Union and the idea of twinning was to try to play some small part in breaking down the walls of suspicion between the communist east and the democratic west.
Ordinary citizens from community groups and organisations went from Sheffield to Donetsk and vice versa. I remember how delighted visitors were to discover John Lewis in Barkers Pool – sic transit gloria mundi. I was part of a civic delegation, guests of the Donetsk city council.
The communist party controlled everything – which is why the police were instructed to stop the traffic to allow our Zil cars to go from the airport to the hotel – the Shakhtar (Miner) – unimpeded.
Donetsk had been chosen because it was a mining and steel town. We were taken down the deepest mines in Europe and visited a mill with its ‘praise’ and ‘blame’ boards on which individual workers were named or shamed for their previous week’s productivity or lack of it.
The civic leadership – before Ukraine became a democracy – was communist and looked to Moscow. They were mainly ethnically Russian, speaking Russian rather than Ukrainian and had Russian names. It was a sign of things to come in parts of the Donbas.
What we are seeing now in the Ukraine is heartbreakingly depressing but a sharp reminder of how fragile are the freedoms we take for granted and how easily they can be lost. Respect for the law, whether international or national, is the bedrock on which our security and well-being always depends.
More motorway madness
I recently met Claire Mercer for the first time, in person. She is the Rotherham resident whose partner, Jason, was killed on the part of the M1 where the hard shoulder has been made into a live lane – a so-called All Lane Running (ALR) smart motorway. I have said before in these blogs that I will help her as much as I can in her campaign to get these motorways stopped and to return the hard shoulders.
Her story of trying to get answers from government departments or agencies such as National Highways (formerly Highways England) was depressingly familiar. Letters, emails and requests for information take months before they are responded to, if they are answered at all.
We need motorways to be as safe as possible. According to National Highways, four million vehicles use the strategic road network every year and 85,000 of them breakdown. 40% of those are due to simple mechanical failures that could be avoided – such as running out of fuel. But some stop in the inside live lane of a smart motorway and either do not realise there is an emergency refuge, or cannot reach it.
I asked Claire at one point why she thought the government had decided – after years of saying that smart motorways were ‘safer’ than conventional ones – to pause further roll out of more ALRs while safety was reviewed. She showed me a graph that I had not seen before. It showed the safety record over recent years of all types of roads – from major A roads to motorways. All showed an improving picture – which is good – apart from smart motorways of the type we have in South Yorkshire.
But if these statistics exist and if the general public, road users and the emergency services are pretty united in believing ALRs to be unsafe, why doesn’t National Highways advise the minister that the time has come to reverse the policy. Or why can’t the minister make that decision anyway. I have a feeling that the tanker is turning, but so slowly. One day I think we shall look back and wonder how we got to this position in the first place, But in the meantime we continue with the near misses and the potential every day for another fatality.
Better support for victims
Last week I went with the PCC for Humberside, Jonathan Evison, to a graduation ceremony – with a difference.
We jointly commission a support service for victims of crime. Under the Victims’ Code, a victim of crime has a right to be ‘referred to services that support victims and have services and support tailored to their needs’. (Victims’ Code of Practice)
The organisation that provides the service for us in South Yorkshire and Humberside is Victim Support and for the past three years its staff in our two areas have been working hard to increase their knowledge and skills by completing a newly recognised Independent Victim Advocate (IVA) accredited course. We were there to congratulate those who had successfully completed the ten modules and to give them their certificates. After these years of hard work – much of it in their own time and interrupted by the arrival of the coronavirus – they were graduating.
This course does two things. First, it increases the knowledge of staff, so that they can be more effective in giving information to victims of every sort of crime. They have to know and understand, for instance, what a victim may be facing in terms of their journey through the criminal justice system and what other services are available that they might need. Then second, they will also develop and improve their capacity to empathise with victims. The ability to put yourself imaginatively into the shoes of a victim, to feel what they feel, though without allowing that to cloud your judgement, is so important if you are to win their trust and help them through what can sometimes be a stressful and labyrinthine process.
I congratulated the individuals who obtained certificates, but also the organisation, Victim Support. They have pioneered this professional course – which is validated by the Open College Network – here in South Yorkshire and Humberside. So ‘our’ graduating students were the first in the country. It means that when I write in the new Police and Crime Plan that I want victims of crime to have more confidence in the criminal justice system, I know that Victim Support staff are among the best qualified in the country to give it.
Deconstructing government announcements
This week I held a special meeting of the Public Accountability Board. This was when I determined the precept for policing for 2022-2023. My proposal to increase the precept by 4.69% – an amount which is now less than general inflation – had been accepted by the Leaders of the four district councils, the elected mayor and the Police and Crime Panel – though two councillors on the panel voted against. (It equates to 13p per week for most residents.)
However, one of our local MPs seems not to understand what the government has announced for policing. He has written in a newsletter that an extra £17.2m is available for policing in South Yorkshire in the coming year. This is true – but only if the precept is raised by £10 on a Band D property – which is what I proposed but he opposes. This is because when the government says that funding for policing in South Yorkshire will increase by £17.2m in the coming financial year, it is not just talking about what it will give in grant but also about what can be raised in the precept.
Government grant will rise by £12.7m – an increase of 5.8%, for which we are grateful. The precept at the level I have proposed adds a further £5.4m – an increase in funding of 5.9%. Together this brings an additional £17.2m for policing and allows us to take on our full quota of new officers without damaging existing activities.
But unless there is this increase in the precept, the police budget cannot balance – without big cuts in what the police do or a substantial use of reserves or both. The chief constable cautions me strongly against the former and the chief finance officer advises me strongly against the latter!
Just to be clear.
Stay safe and well.