Matthew Barber: After clearing the court backlog, we need to reform the criminal justice system

19 Mar

Matthew Barber is the Conservative candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner for the Thames Valley. He is currently the Deputy PCC for that area.

Coronavirus has exposed many of the fragilities of the criminal justice system, but the challenges of delivering justice run much deeper.

In recent months, the backload that has emerged as a result of court closures due to lockdown has created stark headlines. More importantly, though, it has thrown fresh light on the fact that even before the pandemic the delays in getting cases to court could be significant.

In the world of criminal justice, it is no good to simply return to “pre-covid” levels of provision; we need to vastly improve on the situation. In the words of Gladstone, justice delayed is justice denied and that is true for all parties, both victims and the accused.

Policing often gets the attention when discussing crime, because the men and women in uniform are literally on the front line of preventing crime and tackling criminals. The arrest however is just the tip of the iceberg and we often neglect the work in investigation, prosecution, and ultimately punishment and rehabilitation. If we want to reduce crime, and improve the protection of victims, we need to ensure that the whole system is working effectively and seamlessly.

The separation between the police and the judicial parts of the process are absolutely appropriate and must be preserved, but whilst the decision-making at each stage needs to be independent, the system needs to be connected. Police and Crime Commissioners are ideally placed to bring about the change that is needed.

In Thames Valley, I chair the Local Criminal Justice Board. These exist in each region and provide the link between all of the agencies involved in delivering justice: the police, Crown Prosecution Service, prison governors, probation, the courts service, victims services, and representatives of the judiciary and defence counsel. Although this body has no formal power, the strong relationships built round this table – these days a virtual table – can deliver real change, both large and small.

It is fair to say that the goodwill and desire to collaborate that we have nurtured in Thames Valley does not seem to be repeated across the whole country. I hear some horror stories of different agencies seemingly working against each other rather than cooperating. That is certainly not the case here. Some of the achievements may seem incredibly small, such as ironing out problems with paperwork between agencies so that prisons understand all of the risks relating to prisoners being transferred to them. Some are significantly larger, such as the successful rollout of video conferencing for use in courts. Coronavirus has unsurprisingly accelerated the use of such technology but it was already embedded and saving police officer time well before the pandemic struck.

We need a whole system approach to deal with criminality from arrest through to reform.

In May 2019, Thames Valley Police launched a programme called Endeavour (an obvious connection with Morse from his old Force) to improve the quality of investigations. With a national shortage of detectives, and a focus on response, the often slow and sometimes unrewarding work of investigations can easily be undervalued. Of course, a large part of policing should be about prevention, but inevitably some crimes will still take place, and the response to these incidents, to find the truth, to hold those responsible to account, really matters. A great deal of police work overlaps with that of other agencies, but one thing only the police are equipped to do is to investigate crime and bring criminals in front of the courts.

Much of the Endeavour programme is about getting the basics right, but also about embracing new technology and dealing with current challenges such as disclosure. Over thirteen workstreams, officers are trained and supported to ensure that investigations are of a higher standard, that they more regularly meet the thresholds for prosecution, and that victims are kept informed of progress. There is still much work to do, particularly on liaison with victims of crime, but it is clear that these efforts are paying off. From April to December last year “positive outcomes” – that’s the jargon for detections – increased by 25.7% across all types of crimes. Serious offences have always been well investigated but this improvement shows a change in the way the bulk of offences are dealt with. It is a trend that must continue.

Progress through the courts is benefitting from new technology. The judiciary, who rightly guard their independence carefully, have engaged with other agencies to ensure that there are more opportunities for victims, witnesses, and police officers to give evidence remotely. Even before coronavirus, the new video suite at HMP Bullingdon reduced the need to transport prisoners to court and therefore reduced delays and costs to the system. One of the biggest frustrations for the public is the issue of sentencing. It is one area where judges have a surprisingly small amount of flexibility. It is an issue for Parliament to resolve, but more clarity about the sentence that will actually be served is essential and part of the solution can be the use of electronic tagging and monitoring to be used as part of a sentence.

Once the jury have delivered their verdict, and a sentence has been handed down, the prison and probation service is by far the most neglected part of the process. Prison should be a place of punishment, but that does not prevent it from also being the start of the process of rehabilitation. We all know that reoffending rates are far too high, and giving people a fresh start in life after prison with the education, treatment and support they need, doesn’t simply help them as individuals, but prevents more people from becoming victims of crime in the future.

Following successful trials, the National Probation Service are about to begin expanding the range of electronic monitoring available, including sobriety tags that can monitor an individual’s consumption of alcohol. These new options can make a massive difference when it comes to ensuring compliance with license terms when someone first leaves prison, and just as importantly it can be an important building block for ex-offenders to find work and a stable home.

In Thames Valley, the Police and Crime Commissioner works closely with several prisons and charitable organisations to provide support for those leaving prison with the aim of reducing reoffending. At the end of 2020 we hosted a virtual conference on the subject that brought together employers who were able to offer opportunities to those leaving prison. Now in 2021 the PCC is leading a bid across Thames Valley to improve provision for prison leavers. The more people who can find a job and a place to live when they return to the community, the more people we can stop from committing crime in the future.

Whilst the focus at the moment is understandably on the backlog in court cases caused by coronavirus there is so much more to do. In Thames Valley the courts are largely up and running as normal, with COVID-secure practices in place, but this is no time for complacency. We must take the opportunity that increased attention on criminal justice gives, in order to improve the entire system from the moment of arrest right through to release and reform.


Matthew Barber: To defeat knife crime, enforcement is not enough

29 Jan

Matthew Barber is the Conservative candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner for the Thames Valley. He is currently the Deputy PCC for that area.

The good news is that knife crime is down in the Thames Valley. The impacts of Coronavirus and the harsh restrictions on all of our lives as a result have undoubtedly contributed to this reduction.

This success should not, however, detract from the incredible work of the police in bearing down on those who carry knives. Stop and search is an invaluable tool in this fight, and one that has been exercised proportionately and carefully by Thames Valley Police. It is just one of a range of tactics that the police can and do employ in order to deter and detect those who carry knives and choose to commit crime with them. Everything from covert surveillance against criminal gangs and support from armed response teams through to increased patrols by PCSOs and neighbourhood intelligence is being deployed to tackle this problem, and the hard work of our police officers locally is paying off.

Of course, the downward trend in knife crime incidents looks weak when we see the stark and horrific results of individual incidents. Sadly, too many people – often young people – see their lives cut short or significantly harmed by the blade of a knife. On many occasions, the difference between a serious assault and a murder can simply be the matter of an inch or two, or by the speed of the emergency response to treat the injuries.

By the same strange twists of fate that can turn an already vicious attack into a fatal one, the police can have great successes in taking a large number of knives off the streets – but it takes only one knife in the wrong hands to end a life.

The enforcement efforts of Thames Valley Police to prevent knife crime and apprehend those who do use knives as tools of criminality will continue in every part of the Force. Officers are supported in their work by the Violence Reduction Unit, which coordinates many of the tactics used on the front line. Important though it is, the hard edged enforcement action by the police will not defeat the scourge of knives on our streets on its own.

For most of us it would be unthinkable to carry a weapon – even for self defence. The idea of settling an argument at the point of a knife would seem alien to us. Yet sadly there are some in our community who not only seem to consider it acceptable but for whom it has also become normalised. Until we defeat this attitude we will never defeat knife crime on our streets through enforcement alone.

This is a large part of the work that I oversee in the Violence Reduction Unit, seeking to achieve a generational shift in attitudes and change the life chances of those who may otherwise fall into knife crime. We are not talking about the hardened criminals who may seek to use violence as a form of enforcement but, often, young people for whom the difference between becoming a victim or a perpetrator of knife crime can be incredibly small.

Some of this work, such as partnering with local charitable organisations to engage with young people when they are actually in police custody – literally a captive audience – may not seem revolutionary but can make a real difference. Just as the tough enforcement approach by the police has to take knives off the streets one by one, so the engagement with individuals can seem slow, but it is where the real impact can be felt. Stopping someone from offending or reoffending will prevent someone else from becoming a victim – and in the case of knife crime that could mean saving a life.

The Violence Reduction Unit is a project overseen by the Police and Crime Commissioner, but it is a true partnership. Incredibly well led by Superintendent Stan Gilmour, the VRU director, we have brought together Youth Offending Teams, schools, councils, the NHS and the voluntary sector. There is large-scale work, such as providing materials to teachers across the schools in the Thames Valley, as well as those targeted interventions that will work with individuals who find themselves in hospital but would normally shun the involvement of the police.

The better use of public data is amongst the many innovative parts of this programme – not just to fight crime now, but to prevent it in the future. Big data is in fashion at the moment, but this is a real-life way of using the information that various agencies already hold in order to better understand the risks. This project is not unique in its concept – everyone wants better data sharing – but the progress being made is impressive, and could be a model for others to follow. These great innovations are down to a small number of police officers and staff with incredible insight and determination to whom we should be hugely grateful.

Already, the police are working with a new data dashboard which helps local commanders and their officers better understand the pattern of knife crime in their area. This, however, is the tip of the iceberg, and if successful the project will help to identify risk factors for people in communities across Thames Valley and allow us to focus help on those who most need it. Changing their life chances, preventing crime, stopping people from becoming victims, helping whole communities and ultimately saving lives.

The challenge we face as a society is not just one of enforcement. Those who commit knife crime must be caught and they must be punished. The real battle though is the battle against the idea that it is acceptable for young people to arm themselves. Whether for show, for defence, or power, it is unacceptable. It must not be normalised. We must use every tool in our armoury: law enforcement; punishment; rehabilitation; diversion and intervention to defeat knife crime and the culture surrounding it.

This endeavour must continue and we must ensure that it remains a priority because every life lost at the tip of a knife is a tragedy, not just for the individual, not just their families, but for our whole community.

Matthew Barber: A new approach to defeat drug crime

27 Oct

Matthew Barber is the Conservative candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner for the Thames Valley. He is currently the Deputy PCC for that area.

Many people have declared that the war on drugs has failed. Instead of criminalising the use of certain psychoactive substances, some people argue they should be regulated. There are many challenges in this very emotive debate, not least the fact that many proponents of legalisation advocate a system where the state effectively subsidises and supplies substances known to be damaging to certain sections of the population.

One area where I do agree that our system has failed, is in dealing effectively with drug users in a way that makes them stop. There has been a focus – not unreasonably – over decades to focus on the suppliers and dealers of the narcotics that sadly ruin the lives of thousands every year. The recent emphasis on tackling county lines gangs is a great example of this. While the National Crime Agency tackles drug importation, police forces have been making arrests and breaking up gangs that move drugs around the country and exploit the most vulnerable along the way. This is admirable work and in the most recent national week of action, Thames Valley Police topped the league tables with 91 arrests and the seizure of 27 weapons, 91 mobile phones, as well as drugs and £50,000 in cash.

Dealing with those serious criminals higher up the food chain is of course vital, but tackling one gang and reducing the supply for a short while can often simply drive up the price and cause more harm and criminality along the way. There has been little effort to tackle the market. The real harm is to individuals, and those around them, who consume drugs either recreationally or habitually. The acceptance by many parts of society of what is known as “casual drug use” is no more than tacit acknowledgment of “casually breaking the law”.

Many people feel that the police already turn a blind eye to drug users, and police officers get frustrated by the lack of sanctions and the cycle of the criminal justice system that simply goes through the motions without ever seeking to fix the problem.

So I am delighted that in Thames Valley, as part of the work of the PCC’s Violence Reduction Unit, a new approach is being rolled out. Thames Valley Police are working with partners on a new scheme to reduce drug use and tackle those who are consuming the drugs as well as those who supply them.

The Drugs Diversions Scheme uses Out of Court Disposals (OOCDs) to direct young people under 18 who are caught in possession of drugs to a rapid assessment and education programme run by drug service professionals locally. The intention is to actually deal with the underlying problem, rather than simply pushing children through the courts, often ruining their life chances and pushing them further into drug use and crime.

There are additional sanctions in place for those who refuse to take up the offer of help, or refuse to attend; they can still be arrested and prosecuted. As will anyone who is suspected of supplying drugs to others. This approach makes it more likely that those taking drugs will receive sanction from the police and also means that, with help education and support, they are less likely to both reoffend and to commit other drug related crime.

We must, of course, continue to tackle the supply of drugs and while others may continue the debate about legalisation and regulation there is a much more urgent job to be done and that is stopping people, particularly young people, from embarking on a course that can ruin their health, lead them irreversibly into the criminal justice system and sadly all too often cost them their lives.

This new approach from Thames Valley Police has already been piloted and has had notable success in getting people to engage with the programme and therefore reduce drug use and reoffending. Some people have described this as a “soft touch”, but they are mistaken. Criminal sanctions remain available for those who do not take the help that is offered. But sadly in the past, we have seen the system failing to the extent that those prosecuted for minor offences find themselves on a one way street to greater addiction and criminality. This approach seeks to reduce the harm of drugs to the individual, but just as importantly to reduce the harm to society. Getting people to stop taking drugs means less crime, less addiction, and less of a market for those who seek to push their poisons on our streets.

Matthew Barber: The police must tackle non-violent crime too

27 Aug

Matthew Barber is the Conservative candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner for the Thames Valley. He is currently the Deputy PCC for that area.

In a world of competing demands we must have some way of prioritising. This is true in our own lives, our personal finances, and in public policy. We expect our doctors to prioritise those most in need of care, and so similarly we all expect the police to prioritise as well. In recent years, senior police officers across the country have developed an approach to prioritisation that looks at harm as the driver of decision making. The challenge is to balance competing harms.

Police forces up and down the country have adopted various acronyms for their methods of prioritisation such as THOR (Threat Hear Opportunity Risk) or THRIVE (Threat Harm Risk Investigation Vulnerability Engagement). Fundamental to all of these decision making-models is harm – and with good reason.

We all expect the police to protect us and our families from harm. Some would say it is what the emergency services exist for. It is easy to look at the extremes of harm in society, such as serious violence, sexual assault, and child abuse. We would all agree that these are areas that the police should prioritise for prevention and response. So far so good.

Thankfully, however, a majority of people will not become victims of these “high harm” offences. When presented with a list of possible offences, I would expect most of us would identify these most serious of crimes as the highest priority. However, in the abstract, the concerns regularly raised by residents are much more likely to relate to anti-social behaviour, speeding, or theft. These are the issues that are most likely to affect our communities and there remains a need to address these real life concerns.

In the complex system of policing, it must be possible to address multiple priorities at the same time. There is no simple trade off: a sexual assault may trump speeding, but both matter, albeit in different ways. This is critical not just because the offences themselves should be dealt with, but more fundamentally because we need to maintain confidence in the police.

Many of the high harm priorities that Forces will rightly put significant resources into tackling will take place behind closed doors, or at least away from the public gaze. If you have been a victim of what the police will often tellingly refer to as a “volume crime”, it could still have a huge impact on your life. This is where the supremacy of the harm assessment can be problematic. In many cases the crimes that many people will sadly experience cause very little harm. It will often involve the loss or damage of property. No-one has been physically hurt by the events, and so the harm is considered very low.

The logic of this approach is entirely reasonable, however it often ignores the non-physical impacts. If the bicycle that has been stolen is someone’s only means of getting to work, or the theft of tools from a van also stole someone’s livelihood, or repeated criminal damage causes someone to live in fear in their own home, then there is significant harm that is not always taken into account because it may not always be obvious.

Beyond the individual cases, the biggest loser in this game of chasing harm may be confidence in the police itself. In a system that still prides itself of policing by consent, confidence is everything. The police want, in fact need, the public to report incidents and intelligence in order to do their jobs. Yet, if the public have little or no confidence that their time spent reporting a crime will be worthwhile then they will simply stop doing so.

The problems with the 101 non-emergency telephone service are a good example of this. Much of the country has suffered with poor performance for some time and Thames Valley has been no exception. Things have improved and continue to do so (the latest stats show an average wait of just one minute 36 seconds). However problems still exist in reporting “volume crimes”, and too many people who have not even used 101 themselves know all too well the stories of being kept on hold for 20 minutes. So why bother?

The answer is not simply a populist approach. I am not advocating for the abandonment of victims of abuse and serious violence, who are numerically thankfully lower, in favour of the larger group who may have experienced lower level crimes. However in speaking up for the public, Police & Crime Commissioners have a role to hold Chief Constables to account for how they are serving the whole population.

There is another part of the THOR (Threat Harm Opportunity Risk) model which is often overlooked, and that is opportunity. Dealing with crime is increasingly complex and there are sophisticated organised criminals seeking to exploit our weaknesses. Whether it is cyber criminals working online to defraud people of their savings, or gangs working in rural areas to steal machinery and traffic it out of the country, there is often little physical harm. In some circumstances there may even be threats of violence, and certainly menace, but once again, if no-one is actually hurt, then it does not always attract the attention it deserves.

There is a fantastic opportunity to tackle these gangs that can often generate a disproportionate amount of “volume crime”. Some of this work has already begun and certainly in Thames Valley, the Force have taken advantage of the period of lockdown to advance work against some of these groups of organised criminals who cause so much pain to local communities, but do not always score so highly in the normal harm rankings.

There is much more to do, but it is vital that we seize this opportunity for renewal, accompanied by the increase in officer numbers. There will undoubtedly be difficult financial times ahead as a result of COVID-19, but now is the time to reinvigorate local policing and ensure that as well as continuing to deal with the high harm crimes that undoubtedly deserve the utmost attention, the police demonstrate that they can address the concerns of residents that may not directly cause physical harm, but can undoubtedly bring about misery for communities.