PCC Blog 94

Tim Nye is a successful business man in Sheffield. His cafe, Marmadukes, is one I like to drop into when I am in town. Situated in the heart of the city, he knows on a day to day basis what happens there.

Which is why I take notice when he says there are issues there that need to be addressed – numbers of people with mental health problems, aggressive begging, people dependent on drugs or alcohol, thieving, and so on. It is not that nothing is being done so much as more needs to be done – because, he says, the problems are growing. I don’t doubt that at all.

He is also a former police officer, so while calling for more police resources in the centre he is also a realist and acknowledges that for a decade until relatively recently police numbers were cut year on year. Now all across the country the consequences of those cuts are being felt. It is true that the government is putting back the officers that were lost. But, as we have said before, that only takes us back to where we were in 2010. Yet over these ten years, the population has grown, crime and anti-social behaviour have changed and we are all struggling to keep on top of things.

I see parallels here between spending on internal security – the police – and external – the armed services. Both budgets have been cut. We were lulled into a false sense of security as far as policing went because at first, despite the cuts, crime did not rise. But now in town centres we see how stretched policing has become. Similarly, in light of events in Ukraine, we are seeing how relatively unprepared we have become for a land conflict in Europe: the army has been run down.

What I am proposing to do as far as the city centre goes is to call together a City Centre Summit. The issues Tim Nye highlights and the police face are not just a matter of policing and enforcement.  People can be and are locked up. But they are soon out of custody and back on the streets and if their problem is drug or alcohol related, they will shortly be back to their old ways of aggressive begging or petty thieving. And if they have a mental health problem, custody may make matters worse not better. We need longer-term solutions if we are to stop these endless merry go rounds.

But the issues of town and city centres are also giving us a window on to what is happening more generally. People are finding it harder and harder to make ends meet. Some will seek solace in drink or drugs. Some will fund those habits through crimes. Some will simply fall into a life that is largely spent on the streets. Some will find their mental health deteriorating. Those who make their way to urban centres will come to the notice of the public – and the police. The police will have to understand in each individual case what they are seeing and make judgements about what to do next.

Given the state of the economy and the fact that we are going to see this year the biggest fall in living standards since records began – according to the Office for Budget Responsibility last week – the emergence in town centres of more aggressive begging and all the other issues Tim Nye notes, can be expected. We need to think now about what we can do collectively to ameliorate matters – hence the Summit.

Reaching the young

If we are to keep young people safe, we need to help them understand life’s dangers from an early age.

For may years now, South Yorkshire Police (SYP) and South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service (SYFRS) have jointly supported the Lifewise Centre at Hellaby in Rotherham district. This is a building on a small industrial estate that has been turned into an educational centre. A large part of it consists of a series of ‘sets’ – rather like a film or television studio – of a cafe, a shop, a kitchen, a sitting-room, a garden, a road layout and so on. Each set is designed to illustrate potential hazards or dangers that people might face in daily life. Children from primary schools across the county visit and SYP and SYFRS staff help them to appreciate the risks.

During the pandemic visits were severely curtailed but when I look at the figures for last year the results are impressive. The number of schools that brought children were: 84 of 86 from Rotherham; 73 of 78 from Barnsley; 88 of 91 from Doncaster; and 119 from 124 from Sheffield. In total, 5,921 pupils came from 158 schools.

In addition, 28 sessions were delivered by staff to 4,960 older students on Guns and Knives programmes. And a new programme called Your Life, Your Choice about how gangs can draw young people into criminality has been trialled in two schools for those in year 9.

All this is work that continues on a regular basis about which we probably hear little. But we should thank those at the Lifewise Centre who seek to keep our young people safe in this way.

Making justice work better

Last week the Justice Secretary, Dominic Raab, said that too many victims were being let down by police and prosecutors. He said it was appalling that 60 per cent of victims of crime did not report them and a third of victims dropped out of the criminal justice system because of delays and having to re-live the trauma of what had happened to them in court. (He didn’t, of course, mention cuts to the courts, the truncating of legal aid or the shortages of prosecutors; but leaving that to one side…)

I agree with most of what he says and broadly welcome what he proposes to do about it.

I do think it’s right that more victims of rape and human trafficking, for example, will be able to have their cross-examination pre-recorded – if the court agrees – outside the live court proceedings and in advance of them. This should make for a less traumatic experience while still enabling a defendant, through the barrister, to cross-examine. This is being trialled now in a number of courts.

I also welcome the £440m being made available over three years for victim services. I commission services to victims and know well how difficult it is for those who work in the voluntary sector to plan sensibly if funding is only guaranteed for one year at a time.

I give a more cautious welcome to the plan to introduce local criminal justice and rape ‘scorecards’. This will enable the public to see how well or badly the police and other parts of the criminal justice system are doing in each area of the country. But if scorecards become a rather crude set of league tables this could be unhelpful.

As I have reported here before, I have asked a member of my staff to chart what happens to a group of women who were all sexually assaulted during one month last year. Many have already dropped out of the system and we need to understand why. But there may not be either a single or an uncomplicated reason. If the scorecard does not allow for some explanation and commentary we may only succeed in creating a great culture of blame, but without knowing what we must do to make a difference. Blame cultures lead to people ‘gaming’ the system or passing the buck or simply retreating into denial – none of which is helpful.

This is something I will come back to as the results of our research become known.

Stay safe and well.