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Looking back over two years

Alan-Billings-signing-the-Oath

Some good news to begin!

I became Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire in November 2014, just two years ago. I have been elected twice during that time. First in a by-election and then in the national PCC elections of 2016. It has been an extraordinary period for South Yorkshire Police. I doubt whether there is any other force area in the country or any other PCC that has had to face what we have had to face here and will go on facing for a year or two yet. But let me begin with some good news.

“Things have changed....”

I think my heart leapt when I heard that on Friday 4 November. They were the words of one of the child sexual exploitation survivors spoken at the end of the trial (Operation Clover 2) in which her abusers were finally sent to prison. What had changed were the attitudes and practices of the police and Rotherham Council. That was a hugely significant moment. This was not the police or council saying this themselves. It was not HM Inspectors saying it. It was a survivor.

This young woman, who was abused at the age of 13, went on to thank the police (headed up by DCI Martin Tate), the council, victim services and myself. My part was small compared with the others, but perhaps what we did came at just the right moment.

I had been Commissioner for just a short while when the survivor and her father came to see me. One of them said, 'You are the first person that has really listened to us'. I was taken aback but as a result of that I got to know them and they agreed to become part of the 'Victims, Survivors and their Families Panel' that I set up. I would like to think it was this Panel that gave them additional confidence and support as they prepared for the trial. And I think this is what she had in mind when she thanked me in her statement after the trial. (So thanks too to Sally Parkin in my office for managing it, and to the police officers who eventually met with panel members.)

This has been a terrible ordeal for the survivor and we wish her, her mother and father, and the other survivors, well as they continue to re-build their lives.

What has happened in Two Years?

I became PCC immediately after the revelations about child sexual exploitation in Rotherham. This stunned not just South Yorkshire but the country as a whole. Gradually, of course, people realised across the country that the failings by many agencies here had been replicated elsewhere. But progress has been made and we have seen that result in two successful trials at Sheffield Crown Court. However, there can be absolutely no room for complacency because somewhere in South Yorkshire are all those girls, now young women, that Professor Jay identified in her report and who at the moment are not known to the authorities. There are also the people that groomed and abused them.

I have been fortunate in being able to get to know some of the young women that have been through these dreadful experiences but now describe themselves as 'survivors' rather than 'victims'. They have been willing to help us improve the police response and I thank them for being willing to do this. We look forward to their continuing to help in the future.

Finding victims and perpetrators goes on, largely now the work of the National Crime Agency. This year they will be seeking to recruit over 100 officers to work on non-recent CSE making Operation Stovewood, as it is called, the biggest investigation of its kind in British history. The costs of this are enormous – heading towards £6m per annum – and we are unlikely to get help with this from the Home Office..

This has turned out to be one of the biggest worries – the cost to the present force of past mistakes. The Hillsborough inquests were another huge concern over these past two years. It was important to establish the truth and bring justice for the families of the 96 who died in the football disaster at Sheffield Wednesday. But again, the costs have been considerable. From start to finish the cost of funding the legal teams of officers has been about £25m – a figure that would have been almost impossible to sustain without government help. So I had to make trips to see the Home Secretary and plead our cause, and eventually Mrs May gave us around £20m of that.

This is publicly known. What the public did not know – because there were reporting restrictions at the time - was that twice during the course of the inquests I sought to cap the legal fees we were having to pay and this resulted in my being threatened twice with Judicial Review in the High Court. The first time the court found in my favour, the second time the case was withdrawn. But the longer the inquests went on, the more those fees mounted up. Capping the fees saved thousands of pounds; but it was highly stressful making these sorts of decisions and not knowing what the outcome would be.

The final area of extraordinary costs has been the unwanted demonstrations by far right groups claiming to be protesting at the lack of action over CSE. Managing these protests is costly - which is money taken away from day-to-day policing. The marches have damaged business in Rotherham town centre and done nothing for community cohesion. I am glad to say that some of the survivors have now denounced the protests and the successful trials means they can no longer use lack of action as an excuse.

But it has not all been gloom. I have met some wonderful people over these two years, both in the force and in the community. I have visited every part of the county, not least going to town and parish council meetings, listening to members and fielding their questions. And it has been a great privilege meeting so many people who willingly give much of their own time to work voluntarily in their localities.

So I think we can begin to look ahead now with some cautious optimism. We have a new chief constable, Stephen Watson, who is determined to give the force a real sense of strategic direction. And I am sure that people will respond to that as his vision begins to take hold.

But there are big issues to address: a new 101 IT system; a return to neighbourhood policing; and better engagement with communities to restore trust and confidence. So no room for complacency!

Posted on Monday 7th November 2016
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