Harry Fone: Reserves should be used to limit Council Tax rises. If this isn’t a “rainy day”, what is?

13 Jan

Harry Fone is the Grassroots Campaign Manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

Less than two weeks into January and councils are already telling residents to expect another year of inflation-busting rate rises. Local authorities will be permitted to raise Council Tax by up to 4.99 per cent and many have already indicated they will do so. A typical band D household could see their bills rise by as much as £106.

However, there is promising news from the home of the concrete cows. Milton Keynes Council (MKC) has taken the welcome step of using its sizable reserves to implement a more bearable rise of 2.5 per cent. The council leader has clearly listened to the concerns of local residents, saying, “the time has come to use those emergency reserves during a crisis rather than cut vital services”.

According to the most recent figures, reserves from all councils totalled £25.5 billion. It seems there is plenty of money for a rainy day and residents of Milton Keynes will be grateful for the lowest rate rise in five years. But could the council have done more?

MKC has been no stranger to wasteful spending in recent times. In January 2020 as part of efforts to tackle climate change, £95,000 of ratepayers’ cash was allocated to adorn underpasses and bus shelters with moss. But this pales into insignificance compared to the cost of refurbishing council offices that went at least £7.8 million over budget. Perhaps MKC should focus on stamping out largesse before plundering its coffers.

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In Hampshire, the Police and Crime Commissioner Michael Lane – who enjoys a taxpayer-funded salary of £86,700 – has called for the policing precept, which makes up part of Council Tax bills, to be increased. Both he and the chief constable of Hampshire Constabulary are recommending a rise by the maximum permissible £15. The injection of cash will be used to fund the “early recruitment of 50 new police officers”.

But like Milton Keynes, could this hike have been averted? The Daily Mail discovered that since 2012 Hampshire Police and Crime Commissioners splurged £51,000 on merchandise such as keyrings and stress balls. Unfortunately as is so often the case the wasteful spending didn’t stop there.

In 2014, Thames Valley Police and Hampshire Constabulary combined their efforts and money to create a new 999 call management system. Like most public sector IT projects it has been plagued with delays and cost overruns. In July last year operators in the emergency control centre had to resort to pen and paper after the “cutting edge” system crashed.

Originally forecast to cost £27 million, the bill to the taxpayer has skyrocketed to at least £39 million. That’s £6 million that each force saw go down the drain. Given it costs around £75,000 to train and hire a police officer for one year, Hampshire Constabulary could have put 80 bobbies on the beat, never mind 50. More rigorous oversight and project management could have avoided punishing rate rises for residents and made streets safer.

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In recent years many councils have drastically cut staff numbers in an effort to balance the books and increase efficiency. News that Leeds City Council intends to axe 914 jobs recently caught my eye and made me wonder how the English “Core Cities” (Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield) match up in terms of the number of council employees to the number of residents. The results are quite varied but there are some noteworthy observations.

Using the latest data, Leeds had 12,868 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff. Birmingham, the biggest of the core cities in terms of population, had 696 fewer FTE employees, despite having a population around 40 per cent greater than Leeds. To put it another way, Leeds has 1 council employee for every 61 residents, compared to Birmingham’s 93. I was surprised to discover that Liverpool came out on top of all the English core cities, with 1 council employee for every 103 residents.

Of course, fewer employees per head doesn’t necessarily mean better results for ratepayers. But between 1997 and 2017 Council Tax increased by 50.5 per cent (in real terms) for Leeds and only 23.6 per cent for Birmingham.

There are undoubtedly more factors other than the number of employees that affect Council Tax bills. But, as staffing costs make up a large chunk of expenditure, local authorities should ensure they have the most efficient workforce possible – culling non-jobs would be a good start – saving their residents potentially millions of pounds in the process.

Why the Government is under pressure to confirm the date of the local elections

9 Jan

Last month, we looked at the measures the Government is bringing forward to try and ensure that this year’s local elections, having been postponed for a year due to the pandemic, proceed as planned in May.

These included increased campaigning expenses and proposals for ’emergency proxy voting’ for those forced to self-isolate.

Yet with the nation plunged back into lockdown, local government figures are again concerned about the prospect of delays and have demanded clarity from Ministers about whether or not the elections will go ahead. So what’s going on?

For its part, the Government continues to insist that it will be possible, using the safeguards it is putting in place, to conduct “covid-secure” elections on schedule. According to the Cabinet Office:

“Primary Legislation provides that the elections will go ahead in May 2021. We continue to work closely with the electoral community and public health bodies to resolve challenges and ensure everyone will be able to cast their vote safely and securely – and in a way of their choosing. Measures are planned to support absent voting at short notice. Guidance will be published in good time ahead of the polls and this matter will be kept under review.”  

Inside Whitehall, the difficulty is seen to lie less with polling day itself than with the broader campaigning period. If the Government isn’t able to start easing lockdown restrictions as swiftly as planned, it may remain illegal for activists to do in-person campaigning. And if different parts of the country are descending through the tiers at different speeds, that risks a regionally-unequal democratic process.

Moreover, there are legislative challenges to further postponement. The new election date is enshrined in legislation, and the power to delay them under the Coronavirus Act has expired. So any delay would require fresh primary legislation, and that – on top of the need to keep election administrators properly informed – places its own time limits on the window of decision.

(And that is before getting to the devolved administrations. Each of these has the power to delay their own elections, but in Wales the timing of the Police & Crime Commissioner ones are reserved to Westminster. Postponing these would also require fresh primary legislation, but that process can’t start until, at minimum, the Welsh Government has made its mind up about the Welsh Parliament vote.)

For all this bullishness, however, the Government is keeping the matter under review and delay has not been ruled out. There is also no sign that Westminster is exploring all of the options being explored by the Scottish Government, which include things like an all-postal election.

The consensus between Whitehall figures and Conservatives in local government seems to be that if the elections are put off, it cannot be for very long – perhaps just back into June, when the NHS is under that much less pressure and the vaccine rollout is more advanced.

Mark Shelford: Independent Police and Crime Commissioners are less accountable than party politicians

14 Dec

Mark Shelford is the Conservative candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner for Avon and Somerset

Bristol-born merchant, philanthropist, and slave-trader, Edward Colston, is not the only public figure to have fallen dramatically in public estimation in the West of England in recent months. As his statue was toppled in June, Colston also brought crashing down with him the reputation of the Avon and Somerset Police and Crime Commissioner, Sue Mountstevens.

It is quite a fall for Mountstevens, who was re-elected to her post as an independent in 2016. She is one of only four remaining non-party PCCs across England and Wales. Interestingly, two of the other three are from the West. The police forces covering Gloucestershire and Dorset also have independents attempting to hold them to account.

The cry of “keep politics out of policing” resonated in parts of the country in 2012 but has been increasingly silent nationwide ever since. In 2016, seven independent PCCs were replaced by Conservatives and after the events of the last few weeks, attitudes here in the West of England are also shifting.

The limitations of Independent candidates are being increasingly exposed. An analysis of ONS statistics published earlier this year highlights areas with the lowest crime rates, across a wide range of offences. These overwhelmingly have Conservatives in charge. Avon and Somerset is listed just once as a good performer, under “miscellaneous crime”.

The idea that frontline policing should not be party political is beyond argument. The police must enforce the law, and keep order, without fear or favour. Ensuring police forces and their Chief Constables uphold this principle is an important part of the job for the 40 PCCs in England and Wales, plus the Mayors of London and Greater Manchester, who fulfil the same role.

But in the West of England, while there is sympathy with the general sentiments expressed by those demonstrating in Bristol last June, attitudes towards how the police acted, and have policed large unlawful public gatherings since, are much less nuanced. Most local people I speak to, from across the political spectrum, remain aghast at local police leaders’ chosen approach.

Many hoped that the relaxed attitude to keeping order taken by the force leadership would be at least questioned by the PCC. Sadly, “independent” Mountstevens not only took no such action, she wholeheartedly endorsed the police leadership approach. Not long after Colston’s fall, Mountstevens issued a rather extraordinary statement, which suggested that if there were enough protesters, if they appeared potentially violent, and if they were protesting against something deemed politically incorrect, the current Police and Crime Commissioner was more than happy for the police not to intervene. And, as an independent, for her, that was the end of the matter. Would a party politician have been able to make such a statement and then move on unchallenged?

Now Mountstevens’ newly-appointed deputy (and conveniently for her, her former chief executive, John Smith) is being lined up to stand for election as an independent to replace her when she steps down next May. In what appears an overly-cosy relationship between the Avon and Somerset operational and political police offices, Smith’s appointment as deputy PCC was endorsed in writing by the current Chief Constable – on the face of it a peculiar blurring of the lines between operational independence and political oversight.

What will “independent” John Smith’s views be on holding the police to account, and how will voters know? What guarantee can there be that his independent views, whatever they are, will remain consistent, were he to be elected? What checks will there be, and from whom, to ensure this independent sticks to his campaign promises? And can residents be sure he will exercise effective oversight of a Chief Constable who recommended him for his current job?

Contrast such an independent candidate with me, running as a Conservative. Voters know what they will get from me on law and order – effectiveness and efficiency, support for frontline officers and putting the victims of crime first. If there were any question of me deviating from that position, there would be plenty of people, not least in my own party, ready to haul me over the coals. There is a democratic party structure which delivers checks and balances and protects voters. Independents have none of this to worry about. Once elected, they can do as much, or as little, as they please.

In the past few months, I have met community groups, parish councils, MPs, and councillors of all parties and none, across this region. As a former councillor myself, I know how important this direct contact is. I have talked to hundreds of party members, alongside members of the general public and serving police officers. A key role of the PCC is to be the voice of the public. My political links and experience would mean I’d have no choice but to be accountable to the public. I couldn’t get away with avoiding public meetings or not responding to concerns raised by the public. There is no way I, as a party politician, could retreat to a cosy cabal of advisers and cronies, even if I wanted to.

An independent PCC like Mountstevens or her prospective replacement, John Smith, is indeed independent of the day-to-day scrutiny which any party politician has to deal with, and especially Conservative politicians when it comes to law and order. The public know we have to deliver. It’s a leap into the dark with independents.

Across the West of England, the notion that those overseeing the local police should be ‘independent’ is an idea whose time has gone. Roll on the PCC elections next May. From what local residents are telling me, they can’t come soon enough.

Amanda Milling: We’re delivering on our promises – and couldn’t do it without grassroots support

12 Dec

Amanda Milling is the Member of Parliament for Cannock Chase and co-Chairman of the Conservative Party.

This time last year Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party secured a momentous election win. It was a win that gave us the majority we needed to end the gridlock in Parliament and move the country forward.

The fact that millions of people put their faith in us, many in seats that had been historically Labour, has allowed this Conservative Government to get the country moving forward by delivering on the promises we were elected on last year.

We promised to get Brexit done, and we left the European Union on the 31st January. We promised to take back control of our borders, and last month we passed the Immigration Act, which will see the introduction of a fairer points-based system with people coming to the UK on the basis of what they have to offer, not where they come from.

We promised to put more money into our NHS, and in March we passed the NHS Funding Act which has provided the biggest-ever cash boost to our frontline NHS services with £33.9 billion a year by 2023/2024. We promised to deliver 50,000 more nurses, and in one year there are over 14,800 more and 6,250 more doctors. We promised to recruit 20,000 police officers and in one year we’ve recruited nearly 6,000. We promised to invest more in education so that young people across the country can have a better start in life. That’s why we’ve delivered a £14.4 billion funding boost for schools over the next three years.

We promised to level up across the country and we’re investing in the biggest ever infrastructure project to link our country by rail and road. Our Towns Fund is providing 101 towns throughout the UK with money to improve their areas increasing jobs and investment.

Even with the fight against Covid-19 – which has seen us put in place a £280 billion economic support package to support jobs and livelihoods, provide over 30,000 ventilators to our NHS, deliver billions of items of PPE, conduct over 40 million Covid tests, and become the first country in the world to roll out a vaccine – we have remained determined to deliver on the promises we made to you last year.

However, none of this would have been possible without the many hours so many of you, our dedicated supporters, activists and members, put into the General Election campaign. In the cold, dark and rain you trampled hundreds of thousands of miles delivering leaflets and knocking on doors to get the Conservative message out there. You spent hours on the telephone asking people to vote.

Without your efforts on the doorstep and the endless nights of telephone canvassing, we would not have defeated Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party.

It’s why today the Prime Minister and the Chancellor are hosting a virtual members event to say thank you for your support and mark this momentous occasion one year on.
This is the biggest grassroots fundraiser we’ve ever held and you will be able to ask Johnson and Rishi Sunak questions directly on everything from the election to getting Brexit done and the unprecedented year 2020 has been.

This time last year none of us could have predicted a 2020 like the one we’ve had, but in the face of adversity we stepped up to the challenge and put in place measures to protect the NHS, jobs, and livelihoods. And with the roll out of the vaccine this week there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Next year we have a bumper crop of elections with local, Police and Crime Commissioner, mayoral and elections in Wales and Scotland.

So I hope you’ve got your delivery bags and boots to the ready as we get back out on the campaign trail, abiding by the latest Covid guidelines, working to get Conservatives in charge of your local services and strengthening our union with more Conservative voices in power.

There’s no denying these elections will be tough but I have no doubt that your hard work on the campaign trail will help. Conservative councils, mayors, and PCCs have a proven track record of providing good local services, securing vital investment to boost jobs, and keeping communities safe.

The alternative is Labour wasting taxpayers money and playing politics for their own personal PR rather than working to deliver for the people they represent.

Last year showed that if we work together as one team we can achieve great things. I look forward to joining you as we get out delivering leaflets, following the guidance, and hit the phones to get even more Conservatives into public office.

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.

Festus Akinbusoye: What serving as a Special Constable taught me about 21st-century policing

23 Oct

Festus Akinbusoye is the Conservative candidate for Bedfordshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner election.

After working over 200 frontline hours in two months as a Special Constable, and almost 200 hours of training, I am stepping aside from this eye-opening role to now focus my attention on campaigning for the role of Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) for Bedfordshire at the May 2021 election.

Though I applied to become a volunteer Police Officer long before I knew the incumbent was not going to be seeking re-election, having the opportunity to get stuck in and working alongside our truly remarkable police officers has revealed things I could not have known otherwise. The training was intense, the pass/fail assessments were more intense, and the actual job of working as a police officer was beyond intense.

Nonetheless, I would highly recommend this to anyone who genuinely cares about making a positive impact on the lives of others, protecting the most vulnerable and being at the forefront of fighting crime.

Policing is not for the faint-hearted, and the challenges of safeguarding our communities in the 21st Century is something many do not fully appreciate. So, when I read of uninformed people using the pejorative ‘ACAB’ epithet or talk about ‘defunding the police’, I wince, having had the experience of the last few months.

The truth is, we do not need to defund the police. We do, however, need to defund the serious organised crime gangs who prey on our young and most vulnerable. We need to defund the organisations who aim to sow seeds of discord and anarchy within our communities. We need to defund groups and ideologies that exist purely to terrorise us. Instead of defunding the police, we need to re-fund the police so that they have the tools, resources and backing to do their job.

For when it’s all said and done, and speaking from first-hand experience after being on the frontline dealing with mind-boggling crimes, the police are often the first and last line of defending those things which we all value the most – our life and liberty.

Of course, I see more clearly now than ever the reasons why accountability, constant learning, and effective oversight are essential. With any power must come commensurate accountability for the exercise of such powers. No group or body should possess powers as do our law enforcement officers without there being a transparent and effective check on those powers. This is good for policing and the policed.

With that caveat, I can attest to only seeing officers demonstrate impeccable empathy towards victims of the most awful domestic abuse incidents, or exceptional duty of care for someone who was under arrest for causing bodily harm to another while under the influence of drugs and alcohol. On other occasions, I saw officers show kindness in dealing with parents whose loved one had gone missing or was having a mental health episode. All these were done, irrespective of race, religion or ethnicity.

Invariably, I and the officers I worked alongside filled roles of medical practitioners, parents, social workers, arbitrators (very often) and on occasions, road sweepers. Far removed from what you might see on TV, policing in the 21st Century is not primarily about blue-lighting it or foot chases after gun-toting criminals. Much of policing is trying to deal with mental health, alcohol/drugs related cases, domestic incidents, missing persons, and concern for welfare. Also contrary to what some might have us believe, I suspect most officers do not spend much of their shifts doing Stop and Search. Instead, they’re being called to cases such as the ones above.

But this is not getting easier, and is why we must have a more joined-up, multi-agency approach to policing. It is also another reason why a greater focus on prevention and addressing reoffending is so crucial.

It is my view that there may never be enough police officers around to adequately deal with the societal impact of drugs and alcohol abuse, or weaknesses in the core pillars of society such as family and parenting. There aren’t enough prison spaces to address these issues, so we must simply do better at preventing those at risk of sliding off the rails from doing so, while supporting those who are off the rails to get back on track. There is no other viable option.

This is why I hope the Home Office will continue to fund programmes like the very successful Violence and Exploitation Reduction Unit we have established in Bedfordshire.

I am very heartened to see the level of investment now being returned to frontline policing by this Conservative Government. More officers are coming through, and it has been my pleasure to work alongside some of these over the last few months. However, retention remains a cause for concern and a review of the police funding formula is needed to ensure that our police forces are able to deliver 21st-century policing to our communities.

Our police officers are ordinary men and women, who are being asked to do extraordinary things under extraordinary circumstances – with great success. We should salute each and everyone one of them. I certainly do.

Frank Young: What drug dealers really think about legalising drugs

22 Oct

Frank Young is a Political Director at the Centre for Social Justice.

Drugs legalisation is a cockroach policy that is almost impossible to kill. Even now, as the country tries to contain a pandemic, there are calls in the press from Left and Right to legalise cannabis: rather like the arguments over grammar schools, it is a debate that seemingly will never die.

Dealers themselves are dismissive of calls to legalise drugs – as we found out when we spoke to some about arguments put up by political types for and against legalisation.  Today, we publish an account of what they told us: A raw deal: drug-dealing discussed with lived experience.

Our ex-pushers told us, very clearly, that like any entrepreneur they would simply undercut the (heavily taxed) market in any newly legal drugs. One former dealer told us that if high street chemists started selling legal cannabis, they would “either match that price or do better than that price”.

The supply of “recreational” drugs is immune to lockdowns, as a recent study of drug supply found. Ordering recreational drugs is now as easy as ordering a pizza. This isn’t just an issue that is happening somewhere else. The chances are that there will be drugs whizzing around a street near you, impervious to class or any other sort of social stratification.

One ex-dealer told us about dealing Xanax, a common anti-anxiety drug, to university students: “a lot of these people that I was selling drugs to in university, I was just their doctor”.

We were told about, in their words, “middle-class” students, who didn’t think they were buying drugs because they were getting brand name PfizerXanax at a fraction of the price of a high street pharmacist. These are the sons and daughters of our “ethical” consumers of ‘Cali’ cocaine.

What our conversations really taught us is how our debate in this area is increasingly out of date: the political class will forever discuss laws they can tinker with, but what we need to really talk about is how we provide support to help guide people away from the dangerous temptations of criminal activity. Our ex-dealers were caught in a trap just as bad as any poverty trap.

When you speak to young men ‘trapped’ in a cycle of drug dealing and violent offending, the idea of parallel societies is a constant theme. Our conversations with ex-drug dealers shed a spotlight on career routes in gang life and the drug trade.

They were drawn in by the easy cash, which then hooked them into a lifestyle of small-time dealing. Tougher policing through newly announced Serious Violence Reduction Orders will help, giving the police the chance to step in when they can see drugs all around them, making dealing in the spotlight a much less attractive proposition. But good ol’ Tory tough-on-crime is not enough by itself.

The solution to these problems is not endless debate over regulation, but to get serious about engaging early and scaling up tried and tested programmes focused on young people heading for the clink.

Take Josh Babarinde, who was awarded the OBE recently. Josh set up Cracked It: he literally went door to door to encourage young people to join his social enterprise mending phone screens and supporting ex-offenders into work.

For those much further down the path, charities like Key4Life who work with offenders stuck in prison and through mentoring and education put them on a path tolegitimate employment. A year after release,14 per cent of those who went through the Key4Life programme have re-offended, compared to a national proven re-offending rate of 64 per cent. There are plenty of charities stepping in to do this work: what we could do with now is a national effort to scale up what they do, bottle it and do more.

If you want to kill supply, you have to kill demand, so get in early with young users – if you’re found with small quantities, you should be sent on a drug awareness course, like a speed awareness course, to learn about the damage you are doing.

This should be used as a funnel to scale up these charities – and pick out the young people heading to the clink,  or worse. Police Commissioners should be given a proper role to step in and deliver these programmes, and an innovation fund for commissioners should be set up, making them proper laboratories for fighting crime.

The next time someone tries to peddle legalisation to you, just say no – and ask them what they would do instead about the young men caught up in ‘the trap’, from tougher street policing to backing charities stepping in to change lives for good.

Frank Young: What drug dealers really think about legalising drugs

22 Oct

Frank Young is a Political Director at the Centre for Social Justice.

Drugs legalisation is a cockroach policy that is almost impossible to kill. Even now, as the country tries to contain a pandemic, there are calls in the press from Left and Right to legalise cannabis: rather like the arguments over grammar schools, it is a debate that seemingly will never die.

Dealers themselves are dismissive of calls to legalise drugs – as we found out when we spoke to some about arguments put up by political types for and against legalisation.  Today, we publish an account of what they told us: A raw deal: drug-dealing discussed with lived experience.

Our ex-pushers told us, very clearly, that like any entrepreneur they would simply undercut the (heavily taxed) market in any newly legal drugs. One former dealer told us that if high street chemists started selling legal cannabis, they would “either match that price or do better than that price”.

The supply of “recreational” drugs is immune to lockdowns, as a recent study of drug supply found. Ordering recreational drugs is now as easy as ordering a pizza. This isn’t just an issue that is happening somewhere else. The chances are that there will be drugs whizzing around a street near you, impervious to class or any other sort of social stratification.

One ex-dealer told us about dealing Xanax, a common anti-anxiety drug, to university students: “a lot of these people that I was selling drugs to in university, I was just their doctor”.

We were told about, in their words, “middle-class” students, who didn’t think they were buying drugs because they were getting brand name PfizerXanax at a fraction of the price of a high street pharmacist. These are the sons and daughters of our “ethical” consumers of ‘Cali’ cocaine.

What our conversations really taught us is how our debate in this area is increasingly out of date: the political class will forever discuss laws they can tinker with, but what we need to really talk about is how we provide support to help guide people away from the dangerous temptations of criminal activity. Our ex-dealers were caught in a trap just as bad as any poverty trap.

When you speak to young men ‘trapped’ in a cycle of drug dealing and violent offending, the idea of parallel societies is a constant theme. Our conversations with ex-drug dealers shed a spotlight on career routes in gang life and the drug trade.

They were drawn in by the easy cash, which then hooked them into a lifestyle of small-time dealing. Tougher policing through newly announced Serious Violence Reduction Orders will help, giving the police the chance to step in when they can see drugs all around them, making dealing in the spotlight a much less attractive proposition. But good ol’ Tory tough-on-crime is not enough by itself.

The solution to these problems is not endless debate over regulation, but to get serious about engaging early and scaling up tried and tested programmes focused on young people heading for the clink.

Take Josh Babarinde, who was awarded the OBE recently. Josh set up Cracked It: he literally went door to door to encourage young people to join his social enterprise mending phone screens and supporting ex-offenders into work.

For those much further down the path, charities like Key4Life who work with offenders stuck in prison and through mentoring and education put them on a path tolegitimate employment. A year after release,14 per cent of those who went through the Key4Life programme have re-offended, compared to a national proven re-offending rate of 64 per cent. There are plenty of charities stepping in to do this work: what we could do with now is a national effort to scale up what they do, bottle it and do more.

If you want to kill supply, you have to kill demand, so get in early with young users – if you’re found with small quantities, you should be sent on a drug awareness course, like a speed awareness course, to learn about the damage you are doing.

This should be used as a funnel to scale up these charities – and pick out the young people heading to the clink,  or worse. Police Commissioners should be given a proper role to step in and deliver these programmes, and an innovation fund for commissioners should be set up, making them proper laboratories for fighting crime.

The next time someone tries to peddle legalisation to you, just say no – and ask them what they would do instead about the young men caught up in ‘the trap’, from tougher street policing to backing charities stepping in to change lives for good.

Marc Jones: ‘Sobriety’ tags on offenders who commit crimes while under the influence of alcohol can makes us safer

21 Sep

Marc Jones is the Police and Crime Commissioner for Lincolnshire

Alcohol fuelled crime has always been and remains a significant concern across the United Kingdom.

Creative thinking and a determination to find new solutions by Conservative Ministers and Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) has provided a genuine opportunity for change which must be grasped.

This year the Government is rolling out a programme to allow courts to impose ‘sobriety’ tags on offenders who commit crimes while under the influence of alcohol. These tags are a true innovative game changer in supporting real behavioural change that can help make our communities safer than ever before.

From May this year, Magistrates’ and Crown Courts can require offenders to wear the tags by executing an Alcohol Abstinence Monitoring Requirement (AAMR) as part of a community or suspended sentence.

These tags perform around-the-clock monitoring of an offender’s sweat to determine whether alcohol has been consumed and if the presence of alcohol is detected in the system, probation services are alerted, and the individual is sent back to court.

No-one should be in any doubt that innovation is needed in the approach to this problem which is a blight on communities across the UK.

Crime fuelled by alcohol is estimated to cost £11 billion per year in England and Wales, with 40 per cent of all violent incidents are committed by those believed to be under the influence of alcohol rising even higher in a domestic setting.

In 2018, a staggering 8,700 people were killed or injured in crashes involving at least one drink driver on our roads. How many innocent lives were torn apart?

Excessive alcohol is not just an issue for the criminal justice system. Public Health England (PHE) estimated that in 2018/19 there were 358,000 estimated admissions where the main reason for admission to hospital was attributable to alcohol.

The overall social and economic cost of alcohol-related harm is calculated by PHE as £21.5bn per year and with the total budget for the NHS standing at £130bn next year the scale of the problem is obvious.

While we recognise solutions are required are sobriety tags a solution? Well, on their own they cannot provide a panacea, I can testify that they do work – and have made significant improvements to the lives and wellbeing of my constituents in Lincolnshire.

I was one of three PCCs to run the first tagging scheme outside London to trial the technology and the support system that works alongside it and the results have been astonishing.

A review of the project carried out for my office found that of the 226 individuals issued with an AAMR order a staggering 94 per cent successfully completed the order and 97.4% of all the days monitored were free of alcohol.

One offender claimed the wearing of a tag gave him three months sobriety in which his life has changed forever as it gave him the space he needed to seek help for his issues.

Much praise for this initiative should go to Kit Malthouse, the Minister of State for Crime and Policing.

During a lecture in Oxford University, Malthouse first heard of an experiment in South Dakota which was utilising such tags to tackle drink driving.

Malthouse, Deputy Mayor of London and de facto PCC at the time, quickly identified the ingenuity of such a system and a decade later we are now seeing his determination to bring this initiative forward pay dividends.

Now it is the turn of Police and Crime Commissioners to see this project through. Since 2012 PCC’s have a unique remit to protect and improve the communities they serve.

Unlike Chief Constables, a PCC has the responsibility to look beyond the operational necessities of fighting crime on a daily basis and to work with agencies and partners to explore and commission new ways to safeguard residents through crime prevention and rehabilitation in the long term.

This project offers that opportunity.

If I haven’t convinced you of the worth of this system then listen to the words of one offender who wore a sobriety tag during the pilot project in Lincolnshire:

“Since I had the tag removed I feel 100% in control of my drinking. I was worried to begin with that when I had the tag taken off I might go back to drinking again but the process gave me a better understanding of alcohol. I also didn’t want to go back to court.

“I no longer need a drink to manage my emotions which is down to the tag and my probation officer – I’m much happier with my life now and pleased that more people can benefit from my experience of wearing the tags.”

As Malthouse so eloquently says:

“This policy represents a revolution in our approach to alcohol crime, and part of the solution to a stubborn and ugly domestic abuse problem”.

“More importantly, it’s simple, corrective and it works.”

I could not agree more.