Dr Alan Billings
Police and Crime Commissioner, South Yorkshire
The purpose of this email is to give party members an update on what I have been doing since becoming PCC in a by-election in October 2014. This was in the wake of the Jay Report into child sexual exploitation (CSE) in Rotherham. It was a by-election UKIP thought they were going to win: Nigel Farage was expected at the count in Barnsley! Anyway, they lost. So what have I been doing since that time? This a snapshot of some of the issues over and above the many events and meetings I have been to across the county.
CSE remains a top priority. Initially I had to ensure that the police:
- accepted Jay and the number of 1400 victims without equivocation
- acknowledged the extent of the mistakes they made
- recognised that conduct and practice had to change.
We increased staffing for CSE and ensured that all officers were trained in how to recognise the signs and deal sensitively with victims. We are now co-locating police alongside local authority, NHS and Barnardo's workers in Doncaster, Rotherham, Sheffield and Barnsley.
I commissioned Professor John Drew of Bedfordshire University to check that what happened in Rotherham has not also happened in Sheffield, Doncaster and Barnsley. His review will launch in late September and conclude by Christmas.
As far as non-recent CSE cases go, a series of arrests were made and charges brought over the summer and there will be important trials at the end of the year. Hopefully we will begin to see prosecutions of perpetrators. The force now publish details of all CSE activity on their website, which is updated every month.
One of the most significant things I have done is to set up a panel of Victims, Survivors and their Families to advise me and the force on how we can improve police practice. This has been one way of re-building trust between victims and the police. We meet regularly and police officers are now included. The survivors have grown in confidence and this month organised their own conference in Rotherham (Women Against Grooming) with over 100 people there. This was unique: conferences about CSE are usually run by professionals for professionals, not by the survivors for the professionals. Needless to say, it was very moving and humbling. Assistant Chief Constable Ingrid Lee said she hung her head in shame at how these young women (they are now in their late 20s, 30s) had been let down. That was important for the survivors to hear. A father said I was the first person in authority that had listened to them.
CSE remains a standing item in my one-to-one meetings with the Chief Constable every week.
But we need to keep alert. Groomers are cunning and manipulative. They are moving increasingly from the street to the internet and that requires a new type of police officer, one that knows how social media work.
This is a serious, emerging crime. Turbulence in the Middle East and Eastern Europe is creating a lot of vulnerable people, including children, who will be exploited – sexually, in the workplace or as domestic slaves. But they will not be easy crimes to prosecute. As with CSE, many victims will not see themselves as victims. For some, life in servitude in the UK may look a brighter prospect than life in the places they come from. For others, the gang masters will keep them in fear of their lives.
EDL and other demonstrations
These remain a drain on police budgets (on average just over £100,000 a time) and are, of course, unwelcome in any of our towns. The demonstrators mainly come from the south. Each police operation is reviewed afterwards to ensure that the response was proportionate, but it is not an exact science and if on the day the police are below strength for what transpires, that could lead to serious mayhem and injury to the public. I am looking at the possibility of having a small independent panel of people who will observe what happens and report back.
As well as the Survivors Panel, I also have an Ethics Panel and a Minority Communities Panel to advise me on relevant issues. The Minority Communities, for instance, have been monitoring the Stop and Search activities of the police.
The inquests are into the death of 96 people at Sheffield Wednesday Football Ground in 1989. They continue in Warrington. I have a legal obligation to pay the legal fees of those officers who may be in jeopardy when the verdicts are in – next year. So far that has cost £17m – up to 31 March 2015. I met the Home Secretary to ask for help and she has now funded £14.5m. But for this financial year she has said that only £1m will be available. I am having to tell the legal firms that this puts me in a difficult place since I also have to fund an effective police force and we only have limited reserves.
Every town, parish, community and PACT meeting I have been to complained about 101. I have already taken some action here – changes to the technology, increased staffing – and there has been some improvement. But I have also ordered a review not just of 101 but of all the ways the public might want to contact the police in future – through email and social media, for instance.
Small grants scheme
I had to reduce the amount of money we had available to make small grants to local groups for work supporting the Police and Crime Plan priorities. Over 200 groups asked for a grant but we could only fund 26 – and we had to reduce the amount asked for in several cases. But some really good projects are funded – from women's refuges to diversionary football and boxing groups for young people.
We have become very concerned recently about the spread of so-called legal highs among young people. These are substances that act directly on the brain and are 'legal' – hence the name – though hardly healthy: there is no telling what they consist of. The packets actually say on them, 'Not for human consumption'. So in October we are launching a county-wide campaign, mainly through social media, to try to inform young people of the real risks they run with their health.
Looking ahead to 2020: the financial situation
Up to now, the police budget has been salami-sliced from year to year – mainly reducing officers and staff. We needed to be more strategic, so we have been looking ahead to 2020, which a fixed parliament enables you to do. Policing is an unprotected service, unlike the NHS. Since 2010 South Yorkshire police have had to make cuts and savings totalling £53m. Between now and 2020 they will have to find a further £66m. These are huge reductions and because 85% of the budget is salaries it means more job losses. We calculate that (approx) the force will reduce overall from 4693 to 3151. This consists of police staff from1792 to 898; PCSOs from 314 to 161; and police officers from 2587 to 2092. I have tried to give some protection to PCSOs because they are the friendly and familiar face of policing; but the scale of cuts means they can't be as protected as in the past. Some forces are set to lose PCSOs altogether. (The Metropolitan force will cut over 1,000.) In many ways, the good work of the last Labour Government is being undone. But knowing the approximate size of the force enables us to plan better: What are the priorities? What has to be done differently? What other agencies can we work with more effectively – such as the Fire and Ambulance services and other police forces in the region?
Police morale remains a worry. It was very damaged when I arrived. The police are a 'can do' service. Whatever they are asked to do, they do it, with whatever resources they have. But they are finding it harder and harder as numbers fall. More recent generations of police also find it hard because of the (justifiable) criticisms for some past behaviour. I see my job as being, on the one hand, to hold them to áccount, but on the other, to give encouragement where needed. It's a tricky balancing act!
Finally, if you would like me to come and talk to your organisation, I would be happy to do so. You can find the links on the website: www.southyorkshire-pcc.gov.uk.
Dr Alan Billings