On Thursday the 7th of April Cambridge City Council’s full council debated and approved new city wide police priorities.
All Liberal Democrats and most Labour councillors voted to drop burglary, robbery and cycle theft from the priorities and approved new priorities of:
- Alcohol-related violent crime in the city centre
- Repeat victims of domestic violence
- Repeat incidents of anti-social behaviour
(Domestic violence was previously a priority, and was being retained)
Prior to the debate I used the council’s public speaking slot to address the council. I said:
I would like to make some comments relating to the city wide policing priorities which you are going to set this evening. I know many of you don’t like calling the community safety plan priorities the city wide policing priorities but that’s what to all intents and purposes they are.
As you know Cllr Bick (The Liberal Democrat Executive Councillor with responsibilities for policing) is recommending that you drop cycle theft, burglary and robbery.
I want to make you all aware of what Chief Inspector Sargent said when I asked him about the removal of burglary as a city wide priority. He told me that dropping burglary “went against all of his long experience in policing crime”. He was speaking at the South Area Committee in November as the then chair of the Community Safety Partnership; he explained that the reason burglary was being dropped in in favour of antisocial behaviour was as a result of demands that an “evidence based” approach be followed. That evidence based approach though amounts to excessive reliance on small surveys of self-selecting individuals.
I think I understand why “anti-social behaviour” came out highly in those surveys, it is what the surveys pushed people towards and “anti-social behaviour” has become a sort of magic phrase which needs to be used to prompt police action and interest. You’ve only got to look at the anti-social behaviour meetings held by the police around the city at which you can see people trying to couch all sorts of crimes, even burglary, as anti-social behaviour to get heard.
Burglary as a Police Priority
The council’s north area committee and its community services scrutiny committee have both been given assurances that:
Burglary remains a priority for the police
After this claim was made at the north area committee, as an argument against councillors setting burglary as a local priority for when it ceases to be a city wide priority, I followed it up. I discovered that what was being referred to was a divisional priority and that divisional priorities are fortnightly, whereas local priorities are set for periods of three months or so.
The council officer Liz Bissett, who is now the chair of the Community Safety Partnership, refused, when invited, to answer the question of at what level burglary would remain a police priority, after assuring councillors it would.
If you are going to drop burglary as a priority this evening I’d like you to be clear about if it remains a police priority, at what level, and who monitors the police for their performance against the priority. That’s why these priorities are so important, you are selecting the subjects on which the police are locally, to an extent democratically and publicly, held to account.
Focusing on the Name of the Partnership
When these priorities have been discussed at the area committees and at the scrutiny committee I think there has been far too much focus on the name of the community safety partnership. For example dropping “cycle theft” has been repeatedly justified, by councillors from various parties, on the grounds it is not safety related. I suggest you don’t give too much weight to the name of the partnership and focus just on what the group of people there can achieve. I do think that cycle theft is a special problem in Cambridge, both due to the volume of the crime, and the fact that in Cambridge cycles are many people’s primary form of transport. Through the community safety partnership you’ve got the opportunity to influence the whole criminal justice system, even the judiciary – the magistrates are members.
Imagine if magistrates sentencing individuals for cycle thefts in Cambridge had an extra box on their sentencing guidelines, making clear to them that the residents of Cambridge, via their elected representatives, are not happy with the level of cycle theft, treat it very seriously and want to see it dealt with robustly. We might see them give sentences further towards the upper end of the range available to them. If we got that, and that started to happen, well that’s the kind of democracy I’d like to live in.
I am very uncomfortable with many aspects of police action against “anti-social behaviour” and am concerned about what the effect of prioritising it may be. I find many aspects of dispersal, particularly the pre-emptive dispersal used around the city, and making it a criminal offence to disobey an order from a PCSO to disperse as illiberal. I’m also concerned about the police’s use of Anti-Social Behaviour law as a route to avoid due-process and the courts in cases of speeding and careless/dangerous driving.
I think that setting these priorities is one of the most important things that you do as councillors. It’s not about money, it’s about influence. I urge to explain your decisions and to use your influence wisely.
Cllr Bick responded briefly to say no response was really required at that stage, and that obviously the debate would occur when the agenda item was reached.
When it came to the debate Cllr Bick opened by putting forward his recommendation of dropping burglary, robbery and cycle theft, replacing them with anti-social behaviour and alcohol related violent crime in the city centre. He explained the priorities had been prepared and committed to by the community safety partnership. He thanked the city council staff who had been involved in the preparation of the plan. He told the council that statistical evidence had been used to come up with the priorities along with a “judgement on where the partnership adds value”.
Responding to my contribution Cllr Bick said:
The purpose of the community safety plan is to direct the work of the partnership which is a forum where the partners as a whole have decided where they can collaborate in a way which will add value. What it isn’t I’m afraid is a police scrutiny committee.
Cllr Bick added: “We do need to scrutinise the police, but the Community Safety Partnership isn’t the place for that”.
The Community Safety Partnership receives regular reports from the police updating them on progress in relation to the priorities set, so it that respect it does scrutinise the work of the police, it does hold them to account. During a break in the full council meeting the new chair of the Community Safety Partnership, city council officer Liz Bissett, gave Cllr Simon Brierley a briefing, in the chamber on the functions of the partnership. She told him that the partnership monitored all police statistics. Liz Bissett also expressed her view, contradicting that of Cllr Bick, that personally robbery was in-fact an excellent area for partnership working.
Cllr Bick complained about the lack of transparency from Cambridgeshire Police in relation to their priority setting.
Cllr Walker, joined him and added the Community Safety Partnership itsself to the list of bodies not operating as openly as they should. Cllr Walker noted that most crime/policing agencies are not democratic so there’s been a lack of openness arriving at suggested police priorities. Other councillors made similar points, saying the police and plethora of other crime and policing related agencies were not [locally] democratically accountable.
A couple of councillors suggested that bike theft was better dealt with as a local priority rather than a city wide one.
Green Cllr Wright commented on the surveys calling for a focus on tackling crime, not fear of crime.
Cllr Owers supported the comments I had made in relation to the dropping of burglary as a priority.
The full council was able to amend the priorities, or other elements of the plan such as the targets and approaches, but no councillors put forward any suggested changes.
It was noted that following the introduction of the “Integrated offender management” system the partnership will cease to have any influence over efforts to reduce reoffending, and how various supervision / community sentences are carried out. An additional priority of reducing re-offending was set, but only for one year while it remains within the sphere of influence of the community safety partnership.
Cambridgeshire County Council’s website states the new Integrated Offender Management programme is being managed by the Cambridgeshire Criminal Justice Board in the county (in other places its being led by the ever so slightly more locally accountable police). The board’s website isn’t very clear on what it does and the fact it still list Julie Spence as a board member and Chief Constable of Cambridgeshire doesn’t give me much confidence in its content. (Simon Parr has been Cambridgeshire’s Chief Constable since September 2010, about seven months). The latest published board minutes are from December 2009, over a year and a half old. Despite these indications, the organisation is not defunct, it’s front page shows its published a magazine in Spring 2011.
While the Criminal Justice Board isn’t formally subject to FOI (due to a loophole which means bodies owned by groups of public bodies are not covered) I’ve asked it to follow its policy of openness and comply with some basic standards of operating in an open and transparent manner. I’ve also asked for details of correspondence between the board and the partnership on the subject of reducing re-offending.
At the City Council meeting there was no explanation of why the Criminal Justice Board was not being invited to join the Cambridgeshire Community Safety Partnership, enabling some influence on re-offending, probation, etc. to remain at a local level within the city.
Cambridge City Council’s Public Speaking Rules
When I started speaking I was heckled by a large number of Liberal Democrats who objected to me not phrasing my comments in the form of a question. The problem is the public speaking slot is, like many agenda items, badly summarised in the titles of agenda items, and appears as “Public Question Time”, and the details given on the agenda refer only to questions. In fact, the council’s public speaking scheme, which residents can find as appendix C of the council’s constitution (On page 166 of 399) states that both questions and statements are permitted. Councillors wrongly heckle public speakers about this on such a regular basis I’d have thought they’d have learnt their own rules by now and taken steps to publicise them more clearly.
Residents of Cambridge are able to go to the council and express their views on an item up for discussion before councillors debate it.
- My article on the March 2011 meeting of the Cambridge Community Safety Partnership during which the plan was discussed
- The approved Community Safety Plan – includes priorities and targets
- Report to the 7th April 2011 Full Council on the Community Safety Plan
- The “Community Safety Plan Report” as presented to the 7th April 2011 Full Council