Alan Billings Official
My time in office ends in May. So I thought I might briefly look back over this past fifteen months. This is a snapshot of a few of the things I have been involved with.
I started work as South Yorkshire's Police and Crime Commissioner in November 2014. This was after a by-election in the wake of Alexis Jay's report on Rotherham Council's flawed practice in relation to child sexual exploitation (CSE). My predecessor – a former member of the borough council - had been forced to resign and the force was reeling from the realisation of the extent of its own failures. Public trust and confidence in the force was badly shaken. All of this had to be my first and continuing priority.
I said then that confidence would only start to come back if three things happened. First, the force had to put victims at the centre of its concerns. Second, there had to be prosecutions of historic cases of CSE. And third, the work of those involved with child abuse generally and CSE in particular had to become very good. Over the past fifteen months all of this has begun to happen.
To help achieve these things, I made 'protecting vulnerable people' one of the three priorities I set the force in the Police and Crime Plan for 2105/16. I have just produced a Plan for the coming financial year (starting in April) and this remains the first priority. (The other two are: 'tackling crime and anti-social behaviour', and 'enabling fair treatment'.) I did other things as well. We put more staff into the Public Protection Unit to work on CSE. I set up a Victims, Survivors and their Families Panel to advise me and help the force improve their training and understanding of CSE. I commissioned a review of the force's handling of CSE across South Yorkshire from Professor John Drew – the Drew Review – to reassure me that nothing like Rotherham had happened in the other districts – Sheffield, Doncaster and Barnsley. The report was published in March 2016 and gave me that reassurance. Professor Drew also said the force was now in a very different place and was working to high standards.
In February there was the first of a number of trials that will, hopefully, see the victims of historic sexual exploitation achieve a measure of the justice that was denied them when they were young. The sentences passed on five perpetrators at Sheffield Crown Court amounted to over 100 years.
As a result of all this work, more victims and witnesses have felt able to come forward, knowing that now they will be believed and cared for. We could not have foreseen that a year ago.
One of the other things I did when first in office was secure funding for the Ben Needham investigation. In January 2015 the Home Secretary agreed to give £700,000 so that South Yorkshire Police could go to Greece and carry out a thorough investigation. Then in March 2016 a further £450,000 has been secured to allow the investigation to continue until October 2016. By this point the detectives are confident that they can reach a conclusion, one way or another.
Independent Ethics Panel
I also launched an Independent Ethics Panel to oversee policing and increase public trust and confidence in the way police officers carry out their duties. The panel allows for greater scrutiny of police activities and operations. This panel will also contribute to the newly established Independent Panel for Policing Protests recommended by Andrew Lockley and Imam Mohammed Ismail, authors of a report on how a demonstration in Rotherham in September 2015 was policed. This new panel will enable a small group of people to drawn from the local communities to advise on decisions about marches and demonstrations.
Visiting groups across South Yorkshire
I have also made numerous visits across the county to a variety of community groups: Town and Parish Councils, Neighbourhood Watch groups, Tenants and Residents Associations, Local Community Forums, local businesses, Probus Groups, churches and mosques, PACT Meetings, schools and colleges – and many more.
I recently visited Eastwood in Rotherham to talk to landlords and business leaders. I visited the Wicker area of Sheffield to talk to local business people, including Wahid Nazir, who featured on the recent Channel 4 documentary “Keeping up with the Khans”.
I have been to meetings in many different places, including Spotborough, Cusworth, Cawthorne, Bawtry, Penistone, Dodworth, Eastwood, Brinsworth, Cantley, Branton, Askern, Stocksbridge, Sharrow, Walkley, Upperthorpe, Grenoside, Crosspool, Darnall, Page Hall, Angram Bank, Hexthorpe, Mexborough, Rossington, Maltby and Langley.
I have been able to make grants totalling £261,000 to organisations providing help and services to vulnerable people, those affected by domestic abuse or child sexual exploitation, and those who help prevent crime and anti-social behaviour. I visited most of the recipients in person so that I could hear more about how they spend the grant funding and how it helps people within the different communities.
Grants have been given to a wide range of such groups. Street Pastors in Barnsley, Rotherham, Sheffield and Doncaster were given a grant to continue their work on weekend evenings helping the police keep young people safe as they enjoy the county's night-life.
Neighbourhood Watch received funding to provide alarms in each of the four districts across South Yorkshire to help drive down and eliminate burglaries and shed crime and promote feelings of safety. Other organisations promoted sporting initiatives aimed at encouraging community cohesion and proving young people with alternative activities in the evenings.
I also launched two major campaigns aimed at helping young people and victims. The South Yorkshire Restorative Justice Hub was launched in June 2015. This offers victims of any crime to have contact with those who offend against them – where both parties agree. The funding comes to me from the Ministry of Justice. At an event held in Rotherham on 9 March, it was said that 715 victims have been contacted personally by the South Yorkshire Restorative Justice Hub. 426 have been visited by a Restorative practitioner (from Remedi) and so far over half of these have expressed an interest in taking part in some form of Restorative Justice.
There was also the #ill_legalhighs campaign supported by all of the five South Yorkshire football clubs, Barnsley FC, Doncaster Rovers, Rotherham United, Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday, along with Doncaster Rovers Belles and Sheffield Steelers. The campaign raised awareness of the dangers of legal highs using role models that young people across the county listen to and look up to. The campaign is believed to have reached over 2.4 million Twitter accounts in its first week.
I was pleased to be able to support the building of two new custody and crime centres in Sheffield and Barnsley. A £12m building on Shepcote Lane was opened on 23 March and a £7m building replacing the old Barnsley custody suite is expected to be completed later in the year on the site of the central police station.
Senior Leadership Group
I have to work with the force's Senior Leadership Group. I have to hold them to account on behalf of the public. That doesn't stop me from being supportive of them when support is needed and acknowledging the considerable strengths that the different officers in the team bring to policing in the county. But by the end of the year the whole team will be different from the team I first met. We already have a new Deputy Chief Constable, Dawn Copley, from Manchester police, and the two Assistant Chiefs, Jo Byrne and Ingrid Lee, leave over the next few months. Finally, the Chief Constable, David Crompton, retires in November, by when the next PCC will have chosen a successor.
The SLG has had to be very resilient in the face of those legacy issues – non-recent CSE, Hillsborough - for which they are not personally responsible but with which they have to deal and take the criticism. The only thing I would say about that is that as long as they acknowledge and never seek to deny or evade the uncomfortable truths of past poor practice and conduct, seek to learn from past mistakes and work to put the present day force at the service of the people of South Yorkshire, they will have my support, in public as well as in private. I have always tried to make this clear in the many radio and TV interviews I have given over the past months.
Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner
Whoever is Police and Crime Commissioner is very fortunate in being supported by some very dedicated and able people in the Office of the PCC. I thank them for their help throughout my term.
All of this makes for a busy working week and although these have been and remain trying times for policing in South Yorkshire, with continuing cuts to police funding and on-going issues from the past I look back over fifteen months with some satisfaction at what has been achieved, though also with a recognition of what more has to be done.
Posted on Saturday 26th March 2016