Archives for July 2015

Keep Justice Local

On Llandeilo’s newly restored Town Council is a plaque. It records that the building, now housing the Dyfed Archaeological Trust, was once a “Town Council, Police Station and Magistrates’ Court”.

Michael Gove, the new Justice Secretary, wants us to go back to that old tradition. He wants courts held in town halls, community councils and other public buildings. He wants video links and remote access. He wants he court service to be more flexible. On that, he is right.

Courts serve the public. They should fit in much more closely with the public’s needs. They should open in the evenings and at weekends. We need to get cases before them much faster.

If someone breaks into your garden shed they should be before a court in days. It takes months at the moment. If you are a victim of crime who wants to move on, you suffer while you wait. The same is true, possibly more so, if you are falsely accused and want to clear your name. Justice delayed is justice denied.

In Dyfed Powys 90% of cases are minor offences like this which can be tried by magistrates.

If your shed was broken into today it would take an average of 171 days, around 6 months, for your case to appear in court. It could take over a year. Half of all cases do not go ahead on the day originally planned.

If you have been a victim of domestic abuse you have to continue your life while you wait, with your abuser still at large.

That is simply not good enough. But it will get worse if courts like Brecon and Carmarthen are simply shut without fundamental reform to how they are administered.

Closing courts will pull justice further away from our remote communities. That must not happen. Rural communities must not suffer unfairly. They do not need to, with proper reform and accountability in our court service. But that reform is not evident yet.

If we want justice to stay local, where we can see it and reach it, we need local control. At the moment decisions are made in Whitehall or Cardiff. No wonder Brecon and Carmarthen drop off the map.

I made bringing people to justice a priority after my election in 2012. Some crimes were not recorded and too many avoided proper justice. We now record 19% more crimes and use 10% fewer cautions. That means we can give more victims their day in court.

If that good work is not to be lost as courts close, we need joined up local decisions. That is why I believe the government, in pursuit of its aims, should devolve court budgets to Police and Crime Commissioners. They can ensure everyone works to the same priorities, hold bureaucracies to account and insist on a better service to the public.

We have a great opportunity to fix one of the most neglected parts of our justice administration. Shutting courts alone will not work. Strengthening accountability and allowing local flexibility will.

Then we can return courts to being places of civic pride. Who knows, one day we might see plaques which read: “This building was Brecon’s Town Hall, Video Court and Community Centre”, though they will be virtual holograms, of course.

 

My survey for Dyfed Powys residents on local policing and justice is here (justice questions follow the police station questions).

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Bobbies: To Beat or Not To Beat?

Nick Alston, my Conservative colleague in Essex, is wrong to dismiss ‘bobbies on the beat’. He describes the language as antiquated and calls for more specialists in detective roles.

He is wrong because he misunderstands the phrase as much as he accuses the public of misunderstanding policing. And he is wrong because he misses the point about crime.

Crime happens to people, in places. People, when fearful, want to talk to people they trust. And trust depends on familiarity, some kind of pre-existing relationship and human interaction.

As a former Naval officer, I’m sure Nick will understand the importance of winning over a population in order to beat insurgents. As with terrorists, so with criminals. You have to win public support to gain information, whether about shoplifting or domestic violence. That information is what catches your criminals.

You have to maintain the trust of the public that justice will be done. That has been the basis of law and order and the fundamental challenge of government since time began. You have to give the public ownership of the institutions which serve them. That means listening and talking in their language.

Nick reflects an expert’s obsession with specialisms – the sexy stuff of investigation, pursuit and intelligence – over the practical wisdom of the crowd – the mundane stuff of knowing your public, listening and watching.

Expert obsessions swamp not just policing but whole swathes of the public sector, too often at the expense of what is blindingly obvious. At least with elected PCCs the professional obsession meets its challenge in public debate. We can have these disagreements in public. That can only be healthy.

All of which brings me back to my first criticism. Nick misunderstands the phrase: ‘bobbies on the beat’ is shorthand. It sticks because people get it. The public are not idiots. No one wants to see officers hanging around needlessly on street corners.

A ‘beat’ could be digital. ‘Bobbies on the beat’ could mean officers who know their local streets but also local activity on Twitter and Facebook. It could mean bobbies on bicycles. What is doesn’t mean is bobbies screaming past in pursuit cars.

For all the modernity of technology, we still live our lives in relatively small corners of the world. Indeed, one of the great surprises of the global internet is how it has fostered the proliferation of hyperlocal communities, news sources and activities. The phrase may be old but the work is modern.

More than that, ‘bobbies on the beat’ is the opposite of ‘chiefs in offices’. It means officers on the front line, protecting us.

Public affection for ‘bobbies on the beat’ is a reminder about where our priorities should lie. If we want savings, they lie not in the bobbies but in the chiefs.

Our priority must be to tackle the towering, managerial hierarchies that stop professional… wait for it… bobbies protecting us on their… beat.

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Never Give Up

If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. There can’t be many more valuable lessons in life. Farming teaches it well. So does the army. I have learnt it again over the last two years. Persistence usually beats brilliance. It’s certainly easier to come by.

There have been plenty of times since being elected PCC when I’ve felt like giving up on the Ammanford private finance initiative (PFI). Now that we’ve reached an agreement I’m glad I didn’t. It means we’ll save over £3m over the next 15 years, which we can now spend on policing our communities.

When I was first elected I received a brief on Dyfed Powys finances. One item stood out. The police spent nearly 20% of their estates budget on a single police station, more than £700,000 each year. What’s more, only 60% of the station was in use. And the final insult: the station had closed to the public.

Opening the station was the easy bit. When I appointed a new Chief Constable, Simon Prince, in 2013 he looked at the situation and ensured common sense prevailed. He ordered that the station, along with all Dyfed Powys stations would be open whenever officers were in: “when we’re in, we’re open”, he said. Local officers removed the mobile police station from nearby Carregamman car park.

But the other problems were more tricky. We can’t change the building, I was told, because we don’t own it. We can’t change the contract, I was told, because it’s too expensive. We can’t cancel the contract, I was told: previous chief constables have already tried.

That was the situation when I described the station as ‘a state of the art station, in the wrong place, for the wrong price’. That is not the fault of the provider, Dolef. They signed a deal in good faith. It was the police authority who signed a bad deal. As PCC, I inherited that deal and I promised to leave no stone unturned to achieve a better outcome for the public.

After two years of work we have reached a voluntary agreement which releases me, as the contract owner on behalf of the public, from the PFI deal. That is thanks to the professionalism of my team and of Dolef. I should record my thanks to both.

To my knowledge, this is one of only a handful of PFI deals to terminate early. These are phenomenally complicated contracts, involving loans, construction, maintenance and repair. They are like a mortgage, build and a maintenance contract combined. In theory they transfer all the risk to the private sector. In practice they are hugely expensive for the public sector, which has an appalling record in contract management and is frequently diddled.

Nothing will make this PFI a good deal for local people. Too much has been spent for that. But, this agreement does make it a less bad deal. And it certainly makes it a better deal than the options I was presented with back in 2013.

We reduce the cost of the station, in today’s money, by £3.1m, compared to the cost of continuing the contract until 2030. This cost us £160,000 in professional fees, but it releases us from those annual payments, gives us full ownership and allows us to use the savings to protect frontline policing.

It shows the value of clear scrutiny, accountability and decision-making provided by PCCs. This could never have been achieved by committee. It required a strong team and clear leadership.

Most of all it shows the value of determination. Never give up. Rely on others’ brilliance, as I frequently do. But persistence works. I’ve just learnt that lesson again.

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