Philip Wilkinson: My unexpected journey to becoming the Police and Crime Commissioner for Wiltshire and Swindon

9 Sep

Philip Wilkinson is the Police and Crime Commissioner for Wiltshire and Swindon.

I first considered applying for the post of Police and Crime Commissioner for Wiltshire when I was home on leave from Somalia sometime in 2018. Consequently, I approached the Devizes Conservative Association, where I am a member, but was told that they had already selected a candidate. I considered standing as an independent but decided to return to my challenging and stimulating job, working with the Minister for Internal Security in Somalia. With the Covid lock-down and travel restrictions, working in Somalia became impossible. Life then took a very pleasant turn, as my wife Ruth and I spent many hours exploring our lovely county on foot. As life started to return to normal Ruth returned to work albeit virtually and I set to writing my memoirs called ‘Sharpening the Weapons of Peace’, which I have now completed and are with the publisher. Retirement had finally caught up with me, or so I thought!

In May, having cast our ballots we were watching the news and saw the debacle of the Jonathon Seed saga unfold. My first thoughts were of dismay for the party but tinged with relief as I was not convinced that the Party had selected the best person for such an important role as the Police and Crime Commissioner. Over the next couple of days, it gradually dawned on me that as I was no longer intending to return to Somali, I could bring my experience and expertise back to Wiltshire and that I could serve my community here. I could also help to dig the party out of a reputational hole. When I had a phone call from our Association President asking if I was considering putting myself forward, it required one very short conversation with Ruth before I said yes.

For the next month, I was put through the Party selection process and was finally elected as the Conservative Party candidate for the Wiltshire post of Police and Crime Commissioner on June 23rd, with an election date of the 19th August. As I was experiencing this process, the true importance of the role of the PCC finally hit home, which was brilliant as it sharpened my focus and helped to prepare me mentally for challenges of the election itself. Essentially, I had two months to win over our seven constituency parties in Wiltshire in order that they would throw their weight behind my bid for election; and not through party loyalty alone but because they truly felt that I was the best person to make our lovely county a safer place. And I then had to persuade our voters that I was the best person for the job. Assessing my situation, which was clearly challenging, I knew that I was blessed in living in such a true-blue county; and with seven MPs and their associations behind me, I felt confident that I could take on all challengers and win.

My first challenge was personal in that I had never engaged in any form of local or national election before. I did not know the electoral processes let alone have any experience of running and managing a campaign. And this is where Head Office and Swindon and Wiltshire Conservatives stepped forward. Without the advice, guidance and support of my campaign team of Thomas James, Nicholas Stovold, Tamara Reay and the heavy lifting of Byron Quayle my campaign would not have left the ground. As the campaign progressed, I was given fantastic support from our conservative associations and a whole raft of councillors and helpers that are too many to mention. I owe them all a huge dept of gratitude. I really appreciate the shoe leather that they wore out to get me elected. I also want to thank our MPs for their support and advice. They were fantastic. I thought I was fit but Justin Tomlinson put me in the shade!

My only serious contender was an ex-policeman who was fortunately standing as an independent. I don’t think that a relatively junior police officer could perform the functions of a PCC effectively but he had a couple of years to put his campaign team together and I suspect that if had a party infrastructure in support, he would have been an even closer contender. His strap-line of less politics and more policing had a resonance on the doorstep. The most consistent complaint I faced related to the cost of the rerun of this second election and that Jonathon Seed had not stood down or been stood down by the Party pending the results of the investigation by the Thames Valley Police. In my view this was a serious error; it would have been the right thing to do and very nearly cost us the election.

I have now been in office for a week and I am blessed to have a great team to support me in my office and along the corridor in the Chief Constable’s office. While I only had two months to campaign, I met a great many of our residents and was able to refine and nuance my campaign pledges as I went along. In terms of crimes, my immediate priorities are drugs, rural crime and anti-social behaviour especially speeding and my immediate procedural challenges are the complaints process and the systemic challenges of case file development, disclosure and the backlog in court cases, largely caused by Covid. I’ve already dived into the police estate and I know I need to find a fix for Salisbury and to improve our training facilities in the Headquarters. Within Home Office guidelines, I’ve sharpened the complaints procedure that will now focus on my office, which I will reinforce for this purpose. Of course, the Chief Constable will remain responsible for the operational investigation of complaints but I will improve our communication processes such that by tracking and reporting on the progress of complaints, I am more responsive to our MPs, councillors and the general public. I will take our complaints process democratically closer to the people.

Stonewall controversy: More views from Conservative Police and Crime Commissioners

6 Sep

Last month, we reported on Lisa Townsend, the Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner for Surrey, and her comment that Stonewall had become “a well-funded lobby group for a dangerous ideology that threatens the safety of our women and girls.”  Three other Conservative PCCs went public to say that they shared her concerns – Donna Jones, the PCC for Hampshire & Isle of Wight, Marc Jones, for Lincolnshire, and Rupert Mathews, who serves as the PCC for Leicestershire.

Since then, we invited the other Conservative PCCs to give their opinion on the controversy – and several have done so.

Some were strongly supportive of Townsend’s stance.

Tim Passmore, the PCC for Suffolk, responded as follows:

“I think Lisa Townsend is absolutely correct with her desire to stop funding Stonewall. In my personal opinion, Stonewall has changed from an organisation which achieved a great deal in promoting the rights of gay people but it has now become far too confrontational in its approach. Some months ago I gave instructions to our finance department to stop paying any public money to Stonewall. I was unaware at the time that our police force had made such payments. Using taxpayers’ money for supporting political organisations such as Stonewall is at best misguided and in my opinion, plain wrong. I do not believe the majority of our local Council Taxpayers would approve of using their hard-earned cash in this way, especially after several years of above-inflation increases. I am also reviewing any other subscriptions to try and ensure such situations do not occur again.”

David Sidwick, the PCC for Dorset, agreed:

“My belief is that the law should define this issue and sex should be paramount when it comes to risk and safeguarding. It should be safety that is the primary consideration and therefore the interpretation has got to be law based and not lead the law. The police should uphold the law without fear or favour and therefore should not subscribe or support lobby groups with agendas. The issue here are the quite understandable concerns of women in areas such as refuges / prisons and with regard to the offences of sexual assault and rape. I know that there are fervent voices campaigning for self-identification to be the only criteria. I do not hold with that and certainly not in the context of a safeguarding situation. This is not about who people are or how they live their lives – it is about taking a sensible and pragmatic approach. Therefore record both sex and gender.  Lisa my PCC colleague for Surrey is right to make this case.”

Mark Shelford, the PCC for Avon and Somerset, said:

“I think it is very courageous for PCC Lisa Townsend to have spoken out about her position on Stonewall and women’s safety. Such a topic is a very complex and sensitive matter and I fully support her view. I have shared my concerns with the Temporary Chief Constable and I will be formally asking Avon and Somerset Police to consider their use of consultation and advisory services from Stonewall when their contract comes up for renewal this October. I will ask that they either work with Stonewall to change their policies to better reflect the public’s concern regarding the safety of women and girls or end their contract. I want to ensure that any advice taken by the police is inclusive and considerate to all those from communities with protected characteristics but also considers the public safety of women and girls.”

David Lloyd, the PCC for Hertfordshire, commented:

“Lisa is shaping up well to be a brilliant PCC – she recognises that we are in charge of strategy and the chiefs are operational. She also recognises that we have the power to force change in areas where there are divergent views and to take a position. As Paul Goodman says, “the one recently elected for Surrey is going about earning her salary, getting stuck in, campaigning for a cause she believes to be important – and risking the inevitable social media backlash.” I fully concur.”

Others were less emphatic.

Roger Hirst, PCC for Essex, responded:

“It is not an issue which has come up so far in Essex – we don’t have a women’s prison, and the governor of the men’s has told me we have never had a transgender inmate. So I have not had occasion to look into it.”

Philip Seccombe, Warwickshire’s PCC, gave the following reply:

“I am very supportive of efforts to boost inclusion and ensure we have a diverse police service which fully addresses the needs of local people. To do this I think it is vital to work closely with local organisations and representative groups who understand these needs best and can speak more authoritatively about what is happening within Warwickshire, including on subjects such as trans rights. Warwickshire Police does not currently employ Stonewall or make use of its programmes but does engage an extensive network of local independent advisory groups. I remain committed to ensuring local voices have the strongest possible say in how policies and practices are developed and would want to see this approach continue in the future.”

Many thanks to all those who were prepared to comment on this controversial, but important, issue.

Conservative PCCs back Townsend’s attack on Stonewall

24 Aug

I have reported previously on how many local authorities and police constabularies have ceased funding Stonewall. Surrey County Council is an exception among Conservative councils in continuing to send over Council Taxpayers’ money to the controversial lobby group. However, Lisa Townsend, the newly elected Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner for Surrey, has given some robust comments in the Mail on Sunday:

“Everybody has told me not to speak-out about this, that the debate is incendiary, but if women like me can’t or don’t speak up who will? 

‘Stonewall, which has drifted so far from its original mission is now a threat to women and risks putting feminism back 50 years.

‘Police forces, in an attempt to correct many of the wrongs committed against minorities in the past, are being naive if they believe that Stonewall are anything but a well-funded lobby group for a dangerous ideology that threatens the safety of our women and girls.

‘The single biggest issue that filled-up my inbox when I first announced I was standing as police and crime commissioner were concerns about gender self-identification.

‘They raised concerns about safeguarding, the recording of crime, the placement of trans women in women’s prisons and men identifying as women in changing rooms.

“Some were mothers alarmed about the influence of trans lobby groups in schools.“The women who contacted me were shocked that someone was finally listening to them. Some were anonymous – genuinely terrified to put their names to emails because the backlash for speaking out can be brutal.”

Townsend has been brave to raise her concerns – even though the majority of people would quietly agree with her. But it is heartening that other PCCs have expressed their support. Those backing Townsend on Twitter include Donna Jones, the PCC for Hampshire & Isle of Wight. Also Marc Jones, the PCC for Lincolnshire, who tweeted:

“Some services quite simply can’t function in a gender neutral way and we mustn’t put women and girls at risk by trying to make them.”

Rupert Mathews, the PCC for Leicestershire, emails me to say:

“I agree with the views my colleague in Surrey expressed when she said that ‘Stonewall pushes a dangerous transgender ideology’. We cannot, on the one hand, be focusing on tackling the scourge that is violence against women and girls, all the while ignoring their concerns and safety when it comes to allowing biological men into women’s spaces such as prison and changing rooms. Stonewall’s influence had become part of the problem.”

There could be some tension, of course, should the PCC and chief constable have different views. Or, more plausibly, that the chief constable is used to following whatever politically correct demands the National Police Chiefs’ Council or the College of Policing come up with. As Paul noted yesterday the PCC can sack the chief constable but it “might be just a bit excessive” to do so purely on this issue. However, the PCC is responsible for setting the budget and setting policy. Surely the issue of giving funding to Stonewall and of following its edicts comes under that category. Quite rightly, the chief constables have responsibility for “operational policing” – but if that definition is stretched to cover everything then the PCC is impotent.

Chief constables might be reluctant to disregard the wishes of someone who has been democratically elected. That applies all the more when those wishes have been publicly and strongly expressed. We shall see what actions follow the words. But words are a start. Townsend is to be commended for speaking out.

 

Jenevieve Treadwell: Rural communities also need “levelling up”

21 Aug

Jenevieve Treadwell is a researcher for Onward.

In the coming weeks, with the publication of the Levelling Up white paper, the Government’s agenda to deliver on its biggest domestic policy priority will take shape. It is an ambitious project, but this is necessary in order to tackle complex, ingrained inequality. As there is no one single problem, uniformly applied, there can be no quick fix. A fact illustrated in the Prime Minister’s levelling up speech. From fighting crime to football pitches, illness to infrastructure and high streets to homeownership, levelling up will work to create opportunity throughout the UK.

Yet in the face of such a far-reaching programme, it is important to remember that the devil often lies in the detail. These places, like the problems they face, are not homogeneous. Rural communities, like the rest of the UK, face hurdles to opportunity and success. But the type of obstacles faced differs wildly between places. In particular, levelling up rural communities will be complicated by demography and geography. These factors shape, among other things, the nature of crime, the experience of inequality and determine access to opportunity and facilities.

The demographic composition of rural areas differs from the other areas of the UK. As younger people move away from rural areas, these same places are becoming proportionally older than their urban equivalents, bringing with it higher associated social and medical care costs. Rural communities are also less densely populated than their urban counterparts. In extremes, urban centres, like London, have population densities as high as 5,700 people per square kilometre versus rural areas with population densities as low as 50 people per square kilometre.

Running a centralised service becomes significantly more costly and difficult when it needs to adjust to the low density and high degree of diversity of context and need across these areas. For instance, in rural areas, common crimes include dog attacks, fly-tipping and increasingly, cybercrime. As farms have diversified, farmers have increasingly taken on new technologies and practices, however, despite their keen adoption, knowledge of the risks of these services is limited. This has led to an increase in cybercrime. While the vast swathes of open countryside and back roads make the policing of many of these crimes difficult. As a result, the 20,000 police officers promised by the Prime Minister are unlikely to be of service to rural communities, where preventing crime cannot practicably be a matter of bobbies on the rural beat.

Similarly, large infrastructure projects, while undoubtedly important, will not make a vast difference in the day-to-day lives of rural communities whose local bus service remains unfunded. Rural communities often lack intra- and inter-area connectivity. In 2017-18, out of the 88 local transport authorities, 56 had either reduced or spent nothing on supported bus services. This is not a recent phenomenon and will be well known to some readers.

It is not only physical infrastructure that is lacking. While it is certainly true that in the two years since this Government was formed it has had huge success in the spread of gigabit connectivity – from 6 to almost 60 per cent coverage – it is also true that the spread has not been uniform. Access to a download speed of above 10 Mbps is a right according to Ofcom. However, it is one not enjoyed by 57 per cent of rural communities.

While this is in part a natural reflection of the challenging geography of rural areas it is also a consequence of insufficient funding. Visible in the downgrading of the government’s gigabit target from 100 to 85 per cent coverage.

This lack of connectivity is destructive. People are limited in their access to healthcare services, as well as educational and employment opportunities. Without the required infrastructure to take people to new jobs and training centres or connect them with online learning and working platforms, reskilling and upskilling are going to be challenging. With insufficient opportunity to better their situation, families and individuals are left with little choice but to relocate, leaving behind smaller and older communities. And so the cycle continues.

It is a vicious cycle but not an inevitable one. As the Prime Minister’s speech outlined, there is space in the levelling up agenda for local leadership and place-based solutions. To begin, all that is necessary is the recognition of difference. Happily, many community groups have been leading the way in this. Free, accessible training sessions on cybersecurity are being run by a diverse range of actors, from local charities like Rural Action Derbyshire to local police-led initiatives. While in Warwickshire, in collaboration with police, farmers are using drones to help in the fight against theft and other illegal activities.

Collaboration may also be the answer to connectivity barriers. Community bus services, designed to cater to the specific needs of a community, have helped to fend off isolation experienced by individuals in hard to get to places while managing to avoid the prohibitive costs of wider-reaching services. These community-led initiatives have found solutions to geography that national operators struggled to overcome.

Supporting rural communities to get the most out of the levelling up agenda means empowering and financing those who are already taking responsibility for their areas. The application of a one-size fits all policy developed with an urban setting in mind is inappropriate and will ultimately be unsustainable. Instead, rural communities need and deserve innovative, tailored solutions.

Donna Jones: Red tape is thwarting the efforts of the police to fight crime

13 Aug

Donna Jones is the Police and Crime Commissioner for Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.

From meeting officers at stations across the patch, to getting an understanding of how the Hampshire-based Criminal Records Office functions, I have learnt a great deal about how policing and the criminal justice system functions, both on paper and in practice.

A well-functioning system requires support from partners such as from the NHS and local authorities to manage those people who commit crimes but do not belong in prison. It also requires sensible policies from the Home Office. In this respect unfortunately we have a mixed bag.

There are plenty of good initiatives coming down from Whitehall, such as the Safer Streets Fund and the Violence Reduction Unit programme, both of which provide extra money for targeted action against local crime hotspots. I welcome these and wish to see them expanded.

On the flipside, there are some initiatives out there that have the effect of diluting the fight against crime by wasting officer time on form fillings and meeting targets. One of the worst is the Crime Data Integrity (CDI) measure. Like so many bad ideas, this one started off full of good intentions and it sounds seductively reasonable: to make sure every crime is recorded.

The idea is simply that every crime the police are made aware of must be recorded – and who could object to that? On the face of it, no-one could. So perhaps it is unsurprising that when Theresa May brought this policy in during 2014, most people were supportive.

However, in the same way that Tony Blair’s four-hour target for Emergency Department treatment in hospitals just resulted in doctors prioritising treatment on the basis of who was nearest to (but not over) the four-hour limit rather than on medical need – so recording every crime results in vast amounts of red tape but does not lead to a single extra conviction.

When people call 999 or when witnesses are interviewed, they want to talk about the big thing that has happened to them. Were someone to break into your house and attack you, you’d want to talk about that rather than how the perpetrator damaged your car door mirror or garden gate on the way out. Moreover, any police investigation would focus on the important crimes and so would the criminal case. Were the defence to establish reasonable doubt in the break-in case, the broken gate case would fall automatically.

Recording all this results in a lot of extra work. Call handlers have to check and double-check that they have not missed anything. All reports have to be written up and handed over to an investigating officer, again at a cost in time. The constabulary has people whose entire job is to listen to old 999 calls to scan for any side issues that may have been missed. In due course, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate will request recordings of a sample of the calls received and will calculate how many crimes have been missed. Fall below the target and there will be trouble.

Sometimes this reaches absurd proportions. If a police officer enters a home and a small boy says ‘my brother hit me with his Lego toy’, this now has to be recorded as a crime – even though the alleged perpetrator may be beneath the age of criminal responsibility and the ‘crime’ is just a normal part of childhood. How does this serve the interests of justice?

Of course, the police should record every victim – and they do – but recording additional minor crimes that are not going to be investigated separately from the main incident and are not going to result in a summons is a waste of resources.

Police forces up and down the country are short of detectives. The Home Office needs to recognise that the more time they spend on paperwork, the less time they will have to spend on their real jobs of actually catching criminals.

Individual forces cannot change these policies, but collectively Police and Crime Commissioners have a voice. Some of the failings in policing are local and I will work to fix those that I find in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. Some though are national and I intend to use my role as a platform for speaking out when things are not working out, however good the original Westminster intention may have been.

Rocio Concha: If the Government wants to build back better, it must put the consumer at the centre

9 Aug

Rocio Concha is Director of Policy and Advocacy at Which?

As we start to look ahead to beyond the pandemic, the Government will have to grapple with how to stimulate an economic recovery and form public policy agendas for a society that in many ways looks different compared to 18 months ago. While there will be a natural focus on investment, innovation and competition, it would be a fundamental mistake to overlook the vital role which consumers have to play.

Because it will be everyday people that drive our economic recovery. The more confident they feel, the more they are likely to spend and shop around, to stimulate competition and to support innovation by trying new products and services – all things which the UK, and businesses large and small, are relying on to bounce back.

The challenge for the government is a daunting one – and the increase in the time we now spend online is illustrative of the delicate balancing act they must achieve. The ability to work, bank and shop remotely offers huge convenience. Many of the changes people have made to their lives will be here to stay. Yet the increasing move to a digital world has presented problems and risks, such as the significant increase in online scams, that haven’t yet been adequately addressed.

Harnessing the positives and neutralising the risks that have arisen for consumers won’t be easy. Changes that may have taken years have happened almost overnight in some cases and that needs to be caught up with.

At Which?, we believe the government should empower consumers to lead our economic recovery, and there are many ways it can do this. Building on already existing legislation or consultations, there are three areas where Ministers can make markets work more fairly, and bring an end to rogue business practices that all too often see everyday people get ripped off.

First, competition and consumer policy requires reform to give such regulators as the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) sharper teeth, with proper powers to act as deterrents for unscrupulous companies that break consumer laws. In practice, that means swift and effective redress when customers are wronged, and proper accountability for businesses using unfair practices in dealing with consumers – as some have during the pandemic.

In the digital space, a handful of dominant tech giants, including Facebook and Google, can no longer be allowed to stymie competition and reduce innovation in the sector. The newly-formed Digital Markets Unit, operating out of the CMA, is a step in the right direction – but it won’t protect consumers unless it is equipped with the necessary enforcement powers, including the ability to hand down heavy fines.

Second, if consumers are to feel more confident engaging with new technology and new markets, then they will need to feel safe being online. It is no coincidence that fraud has surged by a third compared to last year. Yet with some of the most sophisticated technology in the world, there are measures that giant online platforms – such as those named above – which so many of us use everyday, can and must do to prevent the avalanche of fake adverts that makes it far too easy for fraudsters to target victims from appearing on their sites in the first place.

Which? research earlier this year found that four in ten investment scams begin online. The government has taken positive action to tackle aspects of online safety by introducing the draft Online Safety Bill – but, as it stands, it will fall short of swiftly dealing with all online fraud. Unless it provides online platforms with the legal responsibility to prevent, identify and remove fake and fraudulent content on their sites, including paid for ads, then fraudsters will continue to exploit their systems and services to carry out a crime that can cause a devastating amount of financial and emotional harm for its victims.

Third, as numerous new tech products furnish our homes, customers must be confident that they are safe to use. Smart gadgets and devices can bring huge benefits to consumers’ lives, but these products must be properly safeguarded with strong security protections to prevent cyberattacks.

The Government’s upcoming Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill will scrutinise this. However, if Ministers are serious about cracking down on insecure and unsafe products in our homes, online marketplaces and retailers must be given additional legal obligations in the Bill for ensuring the safety and security of the products sold on their sites – and for customers to get appropriate redress when they buy faulty products.

Taking action in these three areas means that the Government needn’t magic legislation out of thin air to begin empowering and protecting consumers. Indeed, the government pledged to give the CMA enhanced powers to tackle rip-offs in its manifesto.

Here are the foundations from which to make people feel confident that the economy is working for them. To do so would really build back better.

Having my phone stolen was bad. But the bureaucracy that followed was almost worse.

5 Aug

On Saturday night I had an experience that has become all-too common among Londoners – and, indeed, other city dwellers. My phone got stolen.

I had been walking home, looking at my phone (stupidly), when a boy on his bicycle snatched it out of my hands. My brain took a second to process what had happened. And then my first instinct was to scream and shout for help.

Although the crime did not exactly warrant screaming – it is not the most serious – I was in effect trying to draw attention to him and encourage someone to come out, stop him and/ or call the police. “F**k you” I yelled down the street, interspersed with screams. I also sprinted after him for about 100 metres. I really, really didn’t want my phone to go.

Maybe the most disappointing thing about this experience was that no one did anything when I screamed. I wonder what if it had been a more serious crime? Victims get blamed when they don’t call for help. But nothing happened when I did.

My neighbourhood is a very woke area. It has signs boasting that it’s anti-fascist – and there are other symbols of social justice. Yet when it came to the crunch, no one was there. Perhaps a more sympathetic explanation is that people are desensitised to petty theft, so frequent has it become.

Afterwards some women stuck their heads out of their windows. “Are you okay?” One said. I clearly wasn’t and was crying. “I’m coming down”, said another. But she didn’t, and I just went home.

Luckily I have an amazing support network. I was able to get help quickly from my parents when I got home and was touched by everyone who checked I was okay. Despite this being such a “normal” crime, people were incredibly empathetic on Twitter and Facebook – and took it very seriously that I was upset.

Too many people replied that this crime had happened to them. They used the words “shaken up”, “gutting” and other terms I, through the hard way, now fully understood. I hate how accepted theft has become. It makes me feel that we’re too soppy about it, generally (“well if only we hadn’t made cuts to the youth club”), and it’s something I have resultantly become more interested in as a political matter.

Part Two

The second part of this piece is about the admin that followed – which was almost worse than the event. On Sunday the following morning I went to my phone store, thinking I could get mine replaced right there and then, in what turned out to be a very optimistic estimate.

When I went in and told the staff what had happened, they came across as nonchalant – as though they needed their morning coffee first – and got me to phone their insurance line. One of the most “catch 22” things about having your phone stolen is that you have to phone for help. As I live alone and cannot borrow a phone, I was reliant on using the shop’s.

Next problem. The phone line at the store was close to inaudible. When I pointed this out to the staff, they told me there was nothing they could do. “But you’re a phone shop,” I replied. For me to just about hear the line, the security guard had to close the store door, turn down the music and let me stand in a corridor next to the staff room.

I went to the phone shop three times in total. After my second trip, I emailed a claim, via my Gmail account, to the insurers. I got a receipt and learnt that it would take two days to process. Then I got a new problem: I got locked out of Gmail, as I have always used two-factor verification – and had no mobile to log in.

So off I went again to the shop – to phone the insurers and tell them to use another email (which I wasn’t logged out of). This time the phone line was even more inaudible, but I could make out the woman who answered telling me that they had not received my insurance claim (a day after I had sent it) – and could I send it again?

I am afraid, feeling very fed up with things, I cried. For the first time, the staff in the phone shop seemed to care. A staff member offered me a tissue and lent me her own phone for the insurers to call back on, which was slightly more audible.

During my time getting this sorted out, I had to listen to another stressed-out woman in the shop (as well as a preacher yelling outside!). I won’t go into too many details of the woman’s complaint, but she had been charged £400, and was – as you might imagine – upset, to the point of threatening she “wasn’t very nice” when she was in this state. Being in the shop for three days honestly made it look more like a counselling service – with customers constantly venting to despondent staff.

Even though I found the staff unhelpful – the man serving coffee outside was more sympathetic to my situation – I don’t blame them for being so checked out, as they were often middlemen/women between angry/sad customers and bureaucracy. So often these companies boast of their social justice credentials – their commitment to climate change and helping people and so forth – but the human aspect of their service has become non-existent.

We hear that banks end up “too big to fail”, but perhaps organisations have also become “too bureaucratic to help”, with staff that lack soft skills – because there is no incentive – and have little impact on the outcome for the customer. Central bureaucracy calls the shots, with the customer ever short of power to get what they need, and ever bewildered by their contracts. With the growth of big tech, I wonder how much further this imbalance will go.

Again, this made me think about matters bigger than my phone (a replacement of which I am still waiting for…).

Adrian Crossley: The Government should be commended for its preventative measures to clamp down on crime

29 Jul

Adrian Crossley is the Head of Addiction & Crime and Joe Shalam is the Head of Financial Inclusion & Housing at the Centre for Social Justice.

This week we’ve already seen a raft of announcements from government on its plans to clamp down on crime. Catching much of the media’s eye was the Prime Minister’s suggestion that people convicted of anti-social behaviour would carry out their community service adorned in fluorescent jackets in the full gaze of the public.

Yet the media furore around the PM’s remarks should not divert us from the other important messages that have emerged on the role of family, housing and work as the most effective routes out of crime.

Yesterday, the Ministries of Justice and Housing made a welcome joint commitment to addressing the drivers of re-offending. After all, prevention is just as important as cure (even if it is harder to soundbite).

Among the host of initiatives highlighted are previous commitments to an extra £80 million for rehab centres and 1,500 more probation officers. But strikingly, the Housing and Justice Secretaries have transcended the walls of their Whitehall departments, coming together to announce a plan to break the cycle of crime and homelessness.

Far too often prison leavers end up on the streets. Ministry of Justice data shows that in 2019-20, of 70,000 individuals released from custody, fewer than half found settled accommodation on release. Data in London shows a conveyor belt of several hundred prison leavers becoming rough sleepers every year, while national data reveals this number to be in the thousands.

And so it is welcome that Government have announced a new scheme providing prison-leavers with “basic” temporary accommodation and improved access to addiction support. This builds on an earlier cross-government initiative to open up employment opportunities for people with convictions, and new plans to recruit at least 1,000 ex-offenders in public roles.

Even so, the barriers prison leavers face to turning their lives around cannot be overstated. CVs are rejected outright. Addiction issues are left untreated. A lack of family contact while inside can leave them isolated from the only support network they have; family breakdown is often the result on release. This not only keeps people trapped in a vicious cycle, but ultimately leads to more victims of crime. Some £18 billion a year is incurred as a cost to the taxpayer as a result of reoffending.

Addiction can drive social breakdown and crime. It is estimated that just under one third of people are in prison for crime related to addiction such as theft or burglary, while the drugs trade is thought to cost the UK some £19 billion a year. This week’s announcement that project ADDER (Addiction, Disruption, Diversion, Enforcement and Recovery) will be expanded with an additional £31 million will be embraced by the communities that will benefit.

There are also signs of a renewed sense of ownership and direction in the Government’s response yesterday to Dame Carol Black’s review of drugs unveiled earlier this month. And Dame Carol’s welcome appointment as an advisor to help the newly formed Combating Drug Unit suggests government is listening. Given that official research shows offenders engaging in treatment commit a third fewer crimes, the benefits to be realised are significant if this strategy is delivered properly.

Similarly, the Government has made an ambitious commitment to end rough sleeping by 2024, but critical to meeting this will be scaling up the successful Housing First pilots across England. International and domestic evidence set out in the recent Centre for Social Justice report Close to Home shows Housing First helping people to break the cycle of homelessness, reduce substance use and anti-social behaviour much more than conventional accommodation programmes. Every pound spent on Housing First saves taxpayers £1.56 as the demands on the state are reduced.

Nevertheless, what we have seen this week is encouraging and indicative of efforts made by the Prime Minister and indeed the cabinet to connect departments on key issues. Indeed, the cross-Whitehall approach is a useful model through which wider social issues – many of which have sadly festered during the last year-and-a-half’s lockdowns – could be addressed by government coming together.

As we approach winter, and as the pandemic continues to bite while much of the emergency support withers away, the Prime Minister would be wise to get ahead of further social breakdown by developing a self-confident poverty strategy. This should similarly unite departments to help people live independently and thrive following the adversity of the last year-and-a-half.

The gaze of the public will no doubt be looking for this too.

Toby Lloyd: Two years since Johnson promised to level up Britain, has the detail proven better than the spin?

27 Jul

Toby Lloyd is a former special adviser to Theresa May and Chair of the Create Streets Foundation’s No Place Left Behind Commission on prosperity and community placemaking.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been over two years since Boris Johnson stood on the steps of Downing Street for the first time and promised to “level up” the country. I missed the speech, as I was slipping out of the back door of No 10 at the time, having been stripped of my pass, phone and laptop, along with the rest of Theresa May’s advisers, as part of the brutally clinical hand-over ritual that each outgoing PM must go through.

To us policy hacks, regrouping in the sweltering heat of a nearby bar, “levelling-up” seemed like one of those sound bites that would be quickly dropped, to join May’s “burning injustices” and David Cameron’s Big Society in the pile of unifying concepts that never quite worked.

After all, few people know what it means, and many of those that do actively dislike the idea, as Rachel Wolf pointed out on this site – and even ministers have been accused of a “complete lack of understanding” of the agenda. In the wake of the Chesham and Amersham by-election, the logic goes, it’s time to drop all this nonsense and pivot back to the base.

But instead of dropping it, the Government has doubled down on levelling-up. There’s a £4.8 billion government fund bearing it’s name. The appointment of Neil O’Brien to lead the development of the forthcoming levelling-up white paper shows real commitment to the agenda – not just lip service to an electoral strategy. And Johnson chose to speak for a full hour on the subject recently. Clearly, levelling-up is here to stay.

Which makes it even odder that it’s still not clear what it actually means, and no agreed indicators to measure success or failure by. Last week Johnson seemed to imply that disparities in life expectancy were the best indicator of regional inequality, and even that he had single handedly raised the life expectancy of all Londoners in his term as Mayor.

Life expectancy is an excellent proxy for all sorts of things, and a very robust data point – so if the Government is making that it’s central metric of levelling-up it could silence the carping of the wonks.

And it’s obviously a good policy aim to level up life expectancy across the country. Given the new shift in electoral geography it may be smart politics too. But it’s not necessarily great comms to tell your new voters that they’re going to die sooner than your traditional base – especially if you don’t have a really good plan for how you’re going to change this.

In this regard, Johnson’s latest attempt to flesh out the vision was rather thinner. Much of his emphasis was on crime, big transport infrastructure, better broadband connections, and education. All of which are excellent subjects for public investment – but it’s hard to see how they will turn around the sense of neglect accumulated over decades in some of our most left behind places. HS2 is certainly not about to increase life expectancy in seaside towns that have seen better days.

Part of the problem is that whenever Johnson – or anyone else – tries to explain levelling-up, they have to grapple with big economic structural forces at the same time as hyper local factors; hard infrastructure as well as a more intangible senses of pride and community.

While big national kit is expensive, and often controversial, it’s at least something clear you can announce and eventually, hopefully, cut a ribbon in front of. Dealing with local issues from the Prime Ministerial pulpit can seem incongruous at best, patronising at worst. Although all politicians love a positive message of national pride for all, with or without implied criticism of all other nations for being just not quite as good as us, the resentments between different parts of the country are much harder for a PM to speak to.

The result can be vague, even incoherent, and easy to ridicule: you’re not going to reverse 50 years of deindustrialisation with a few quid for removing chewing gum from pavements. But despite all these vulnerabilities, it is the right approach, because the problems of left behind places, and of geographic inequality more broadly, really are both big and small, hard and soft, at the same time.

The dog mess and graffiti that spoil the local park really matters – as does the damage to town centres wrought by 1960s urban motorways and the decline of seaside tourism. Levelling-up, and left behind places, work as concepts precisely because they speak to both dimensions at once.

If you want proof that being left behindness cannot be boiled down purely to economic data, look no further than the Brexit referendum. The Index of Multiple Deprivation, an excellent source of data on poverty, tells you almost nothing about the likelihood of a place voting Leave or Remain.

By contrast, the Community Needs Index, formulated by Local Trust to identify which places really are left behind, has a strong correlation with voting leave. Poverty matters, hugely, but it doesn’t describe everything. We need a more subtle, more human, understanding of why some parts of the country feel neglected. Elected politicians often have a better nose for this sort of thing than policy wonks like me.

The politicians also have an answer to the technocrats’ critique that levelling-up lacks a precise metric. Goodhart’s law states that once a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. This is because individual and organisational behaviour adjusts to hit the target, but frequently misses the point. This iron law of policy surely applies to concepts as messily human as levelling up: there can be no simple measure of levelling-up – but we’ll know it if we see it.

More serious is the risk that such a broad agenda creates the perfect conditions for waffly speeches with impressive but context-free numbers, and reports celebrating nice things happening in diverse places.

These are invariably a means of avoiding difficult decisions and trade-offs. Isn’t it lovely that this community group has got a grant to bring that abandoned Victorian workhouse building back into use as hub for local business and community activity! No need to ask why it had been left empty for decades, raise the spectre of tricky tax changes, or to worry about the future viability of those lovely new micro-enterprises.

The solution to these tensions is to return to the beginning. The entire levelling-up agenda is about place: places that feel left behind, people who live in places that have been poorly served by state and market alike for too long. Here the Government’s strategy is better than Johnson’s speech. There is real money on offer for improving town centres, for local transport, for communities to take ownership of the assets they need to shape change. To make this investment work, it has to be combined with a coherent attitude to localism, as Paul Goodman argued.

I would add that Whitehall also has to start trusting local people and, yes, local government a bit more and get over its addiction to competitive bidding for time limited pots. These waste huge amounts of energy as councils and community groups complete endless bids promising subtly different outcomes for the same projects – and inevitably mean that those best at playing this game win at the expense of the others.

This is no way to overcome division and level up. Better to follow the call for “localism on steroids” from Bill Grimsey, the former CEO of multiple high street business, and empower local communities to redesign their town centres to meet the needs of the 21st Century.

This is the territory that the Create Streets Foundation’s No Place Behind Commission is exploring – and in the next few months will be proposing real reforms and investments to turn the good intent into reality. The real test of the levelling-up agenda will not be how it scores on socioeconomic metrics, but whether it can start a process of empowerment, improvement and investment that makes left behind places look and feel better. for the communities that live in them.

Snap guide to this session’s Government legislation 4) The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill

11 Jul

The Bills announced in each session’s Queen’s Speech are the fulcrum of the Parliamentary year.  But they are easily lost sight of, separately and wholly, as the political cycle moves – and a mass of other news and events crowd them out.

So during the coming months, ConservativeHome will run a brief guide, on most Sunday mornings, to each Bill from this year’s Speech: what it is, whether it’s new, its main strengths and weaknesses – and whether it’s expected sooner or later.

1. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill

What it is

As well as police, crime, sentencing and the courts, this Bill covers aspects of prisons: the rehabilitation of offenders and secure 16 to 19 academies. Plus “the removal, storage and disposal of vehicles”.

There are twelve parts to this groaning beast of a Bill, and the best-known section of these is the third – which covers “public order and authorised encampments”, and would give the police greater powers in relation to restricting public meetings and protests.  The “Kill the Bill” protests have been a response to it.

Responsible department

The Ministry of Justice – and the Bill has already worked it way through the Commons, gaining Third Reading recently.  There have been claims that the protests have delayed the Bill’s progress.

The sponsoring department isn’t the Home Office, and thus the combative Priti Patel, but the Ministry of Justice, and the more emollient Robert Buckland.  However, Victoria Atkins and Chris Philp, Home Office Ministers both, took the Bill through Commons committee.

Carried over or a new Bill?

New.

Expected when?

Sooner rather than later in the Commons with Lords amendments.

Arguments for

There is an individual case for each of the twelve parts of the Bill, but Ministers clearly intend it to send the broad message that the Government is tough on crime.  Right at the start of its briefing on the measures, the Home Office (not the Ministry of Justice) declares that the Bill will “back our police” and “introduce tougher sentencing”.

If you itch to crack down on unauthorised encampments and non-violent but disruptive protests, or want to see longer prison sentences and more searches of people convicted of knife offences, this is the Bill for you.  Its third main purpose is “to improve the efficiency of the court and tribunal system by modernising existing court processes”.

Arguments against

One of the main charges against the Bill is that it deliberately wraps up the contentious with the uncontentious – or, to view it from another angle, elements that most MPs support with others that some don’t.  This case was put on this site earlier this year by Steve Baker and Dominic Grieve, and found echoes even in a largely supportive article by Richard Gibbs.

So if, for example, you view the public order provisions in Part Three of the Bill as draconian, but back the plans to reduce custodial remand for children set out in parts eight and nine, you have a dilemma at Second Reading and, still more, at Third Reading – by which time opportunities to amend it in the House concerned have been exhausted.

Politics

Part of the purpose of rolling these different elements into a single Bill has undoubtedly been to put the Opposition on the spot.  Labour was thus faced with the forced choice familiar to oppositions, and plumped to oppose Bill both at Second and Third Reading in the Commons.

“Given chance after chance, Labour voted last night against tougher sentences for not just violent offenders, but also burglars, drug dealers, sex offenders, dangerous drivers and vandals,” Robert Buckland tweeted in the aftermath of the Third Reading vote.  There will be plenty more where that came from.

Controversy rating: 9/10

If the Opposition didn’t like it in the Commons, it will like it even less in the more rarefied atmosphere of the Lords.  And protesters will hate it no less intensely than before.  The average voter may have clocked the protests but won’t be aware of the Bill.  If it leads to better policing, less crime, speedier courts and better sentencing, he will be pleasantly surprised.