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Simon Blackburn: “PCCs aren’t solution to deeper and wider issues”

Tomorrow the Guardian are debating “whether police and crime commissioners will boost police morale at a time of privatisation and cuts”. Ahead of this, Cllr. Simon Blackburn, Leader of Blackpool Council, writes about how the police can retain the confidence of communities

The election of PCCs will mark a step change in the relationship between the public and the Police.  To the best of my knowledge, I have for a decade been the only politician in the UK arguing for the election of Chief Constables – nobody reading the recently published report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel could imagine that the hitherto existing methods of holding the Police to account have been fit for purpose.  The cases of the Guildford Four, the Maguire Seven, the Birmingham Six, and the heart-breaking tragedy of Stefan Kiszko, all stand as shameful testament to the inadequacies of our criminal justice system, and the reliability of the evidence base used to secure convictions.

I agree with the Government that Police Authorities have failed to hold senior officers to account, and I further agree that the services offered by forces need to reflect more accurately the needs of communities.  I believe that directly elected senior officers would be preferable to the commissioning model that has been chosen, but we are where we are.

It is interesting to note that as the Leader of one of two unitary authorities in Lancashire (and also Vice-Chair of the Police & Crime Panel) and writing this article only 49 days before the PCC election, there has been a notable lack of conversation or activity around the matter.  I have of course met with the Labour candidate, and, as you would expect, have confidence in both him and his agenda, I also know who the Conservative candidate is, and surmise that there appears to be nobody else in the frame.

The key area of influence for Blackpool (although I suspect not for the wider environs of Lancashire, particularly not our extensive rural areas) will come around drug and alcohol misuse, and the methodologies used by the Police to tackle the issue.  Treatment vs. Enforcement is a debate as old as the Pennines themselves, however I take the view (unsurprisingly, as a liberal, left wing social worker) that every £1 spent on treatment is worth £10’s of pounds spent on enforcement.  The current double-dip recession has seen a significant rise in low value acquisitive crime (people stealing food in order to eat, drink, and yes, acquire drugs).  Changes to the benefits system, and the increased (and in my view pernicious) use of sanctions, will only intensify this problem in anything other than the long term.

From April 2013 PCC’s will control funding through the Community Safety Fund which, the Home Office says, is intended to ‘support local priorities (for Blackpool, tackling drugs and improving community safety). These grants will encompass funding to community safety partnerships. This has historically included funding young people’s substance misuse services.  PCC’s will assume responsibility for the Home Office portion of the budget for the Drug Intervention Programme – which provides interventions for drug-misusing offenders (£35 million in 2011-12).

However, none of this money will be ring-fenced for drug or alcohol treatment – there being no requirement for PCC’s to invest in any particular community safety intervention.  Given that community safety funding is already due to be cut in real terms by around 58% – the Home Office states that the English portion of Community Safety Fund will total only some £28 million next year – it is vital that PCC candidates can provide a commitment over the future of this money, and are not tempted to use it for more headline grabbing initiatives, such as the favoured panacea of “more Bobbies on the beat”.  Reform? Yes.  Revolution? No.  More accountability?  I hope so.  The end of the story?  Certainly not.  Now that the genie of elected law enforcement is (rightly) out of the lamp, the debate will rage for years to come, and I doubt that PCC’s will be the solution to a much deeper and wider issue of how Police retain the confidence of communities.

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