On the 5th of September 2012 I observed a meeting of Cambridgeshire Police Authority’s Finance and Resources Committee.
Cllr Johnstone Calls for Illiterate People to be Recruited as Police Constables
Recently convicted Cllr Shona Johnstone who was chairing the meeting, and is seeking to become the Conservative candidate for Police and Crime commissioner, called for illiterate people to be be recruited as police constables, especially if they are black, or an ethnic minority. Cllr Johnstone urged the police to take people, especially minorities, on and provide them with remedial training and education in basic literacy. The Chief Constable was understandably baffled by this request; he noted that the current economic situation meant the police was getting a lot of applications for its jobs and was in a position to select highly capable individuals for recruitment. Unelected member of the authority, with responsibility for Cambridge, Ruth Joyce spoke to say that as a teacher it might be surprising to hear her say it, but she too didn’t want to see people not recruited as police officers if they lacked competence in basic literacy.
Cllr Johnstone explained that she thought some black and ethnic minority people might lack literacy skills, or perhaps especially written literacy skills, but have oral skills in languages other than English which would be of value to the force. A number of members of the committee joined Cllr Johnstone in asking the police not to rule people out from police constable recruitment due to a poor standard of written English.
On a related, but slightly different tack, Cllr Johnstone questioned if a grade C in GCSE English was required to become a Police Constable in Cambridgeshire, she said this might need to be reviewed after this summer’s fiasco if it was. Chief Officers assured Cllr Johnstone and the committee such a qualification was not required as far as they knew, but they would check.
I think we need smarter police officers; the make up of the police force needs to reflect society and the job we ask police constables to do. The ability to read and write accurately in English is an important skill all Police Constables need to have. Rather than seek to drop the bar to entering the force as a constable in the current economic situation we should be raising it, and recruiting the best quality people possible. I think we need to make policing a career which is attractive to some of the best and brightest in society, while not restricting access to the profession to those who have exceptionally high academic performance – we need a mixed intake and a range of career options within the force; with promotion on merit. We should in my view be moving in the opposite direction to the one Cllr Johnstone is pushing for.
I also oppose positive discrimination of the kind Cllr Johnstone’s proposals would lead to; where the standard required of black and ethnic minority applicants to join the police would be lower than those required from others.
Cllr Johnstone Proudly Declares Herself Technologically Illiterate
When committee discussed the IT Strategy Cllr Johnstone proudly declared herself technologically illiterate. I think it is very worrying that those who run our society still think, perhaps correctly, that this is something which will endear them to the electorate.
Cllr Johnstone requested the IT strategy document be dumbed down, saying she was struggling even with the first few pages.
Cllr Johnstone questioned the security of “cloud computing” and asked: “Does storing data up there [she gestured pointing up to the sky] in the cloud made it easer for someone to reach up and grab it?”. The deputy chief constable assured her it was possible to secure data stored off-site.
Cllr Darren Tysoe who is competing with Cllr Johnstone to become the new Conservative candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner spoke to me after the meeting saying he didn’t think it was right for me to report some of the comments his party colleague had said. He accepted she had said them, and that they were inadvisable, and that she must have expected them to be picked up; he responded to say that Cllr Johnstone has a large body of personal support within the Conservative party, suggesting, oddly, that in some way that ought put her above public scrutiny or that to report her less sensible contributions was not advisable. Cllr Tysoe’s views are similar to those taken by some of the professional media, often more outlandish remarks made by councillors or police authority members go unreported, presumably as they are seen as just too off the wall to be serious contributions to public debate.
The Chief Constable explained the force had historically been terrible at purchasing IT. He said the force bought a new system every time it wanted to do something different; and often bought new software and incurred ongoing licence costs when it already had the capability.
The Chief Constable explained his workforce was used to using IT at home which was of much higher quality than they had available at work; he said he wanted to change this.
Member of the authority Cllr John Batchelor was sceptical, he said that there would be lots of training costs associated with greater use of IT, he said he had been promised a paperless office for years and didn’t see any evidence of it actually happening.
The Chief Constable said the Force Executive Board meetings were very different to authority meetings, and they were already paperless. The Chief Constable said he had to be careful when taking notes on the tablet he used as the system meant notes could be shared with all those present at the meetings.
The Chief Constable said that if necessary he would take away his staff’s pencils to stop them using paper based systems. Cllr Batchelor suggested taking away their computer printers too.
The Chief Constable reported a judge’s ruling given the week before allowing the use of signatures made using a stylus on a PDA to be admitted in court as evidence a Fixed Penalty Notice had been accepted. The Chief Constable said this meant a penalty notice could be transmitted from the street to the courts system with no paperwork involved at headquarters for 99% of cases.
The Chief Constable said there was the potential for huge savings; he described how he currently has staff who are employed to collate paper files, or just to scan documents, jobs which ought to have been made redundant by technology. The Chief Constable also said his force used a very small percentage of the IT capability it had and was paying for.
The Chief Constable referred to the “Athena” project for sending case files to the courts and CPS, he said adopting that would amount to a huge saving. The Chief Constable noted that IT systems didn’t have to be operated locally, and it made sense for them to be combined with other forces as there was no local human involvement in the processing so it didn’t matter where it was done.
Overall the IT strategy appears straight out of the “no one ever got fired for choosing Microsoft” school of thought, with a few current buzzwords and vague mentions of social media being thrown in. One odd element is a statement the force are considering moving to use Microsoft’s Bing maps, but this isn’t expanded on to explain how, why, or what exactly they will be doing. The detail required to allow proper public scrutiny by many eyes (and there are many capable people in the county who could comment on the substance if it was available) has not been provided.
Police Estates Sell Off
There was hardly any discussion of the strategy to sell off police stations and other police property including land next to police headquarters. Cambridge News journalist Raymond Brown was named, and came under fire from the authority’s chair, Ruth Rodgers, who used rather a rather odd phrase when she said he had “knitted a rather large sock out of the story”. The article, headlined Police stations will be sold to save £11m was based on, but did not link to, the report to the authority’s Finance and Resources Committee.
The public were told at the beginning of the meeting by the meeting’s chair Cllr Shona Johnstone that the entire agenda would be taken in public; however before the detailed discussion on police estates the committee unanimously agreed to eject the public and continue its deliberations in private.
In the short public discussion Cllr Wilkins obtained a commitment to some physical place in Histon with a police sign outside; even if not a police station, for example it might be a desk in the library or a corner of Tesco.
The Chief Constable said it made no sense to maintain police stations two or three people a week visited; he said he would prefer to spend the money on police officers rather than police stations.
Cllr Shona Johnstone noted there was a similarity between cutting bus services and closing police stations and laughed. She explained the similarity was the public opposition.
My view is that it is much more important that the police answer their phones promptly, and there are police available to patrol and respond to calls, than to have staffed and maintained police stations (which are more police posts, or police officers really) in villages.
Currently people do need reasonably easy access to police stations; as there is a need to do some things, for example present documents after being stopped while driving, in person; however with a move online this could be automated.
It was confirmed that the police are no-longer discussing with Cambridge City Council the option of opening an office in the guildhall and moving the police station out of town. They said that maintaining the office and Parkside Police station, which is required for its custody suite, would be an unnecessary duplication.
I think there should be custody suites reasonably local to major centres of population; not least so those arrested (and any of us could find ourselves arrested, this is not something which just affects criminals) are not driven tens or hundreds of miles to be released far from home.
The land next to the police headquarters is being considered for sale. I think this may be short sighted, as it is in the middle of a collection of property owned by various arms of the state; selling it would prevent future expansion of the police, ambulance, fire and other services and may constrain future options for co-locating services.
The decisions on selling off properties is to be held over until January 2013 when the Police and Crime Commissioner will be the one who decides.
Roads Policing Collaboration
The committee was told there were many problems with the proposed merger of roads policing between Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire, however the chief officers recommended the principle be approved even if the details were yet to be sorted out.
One detail to be resolved is the location of Cambridgeshire’s roads policing base, which the partnership wants based in St Ives, but Cambridgeshire’s senior officers want at Police HQ.
The Deputy Chief Constable said it was not possible to have the required numbers of appropriately trained officers always on duty to cover peaks in demand say for collision trained officers, or pursuit trained officers, and a judgement was needed as to what appropriate levels were. No details were given to the authority, and none was requested, on how often the police would be left without the officers they required.
The number of 1,011 police constables is the force’s often quoted figure. In fact the authority was told only 985 of those are actually available as some “on the register” are in fact on career breaks, secondments or otherwise not actually doing their jobs.
The Deputy Chief Constable said there was a poor quality of applicants, including transferees from other forces. The Deputy Chief Constable said he was personally interviewing applicants to try and maintain standards; he said he was trying to weed out unsuitable people before the force spent money on training them to reduce costs. I felt he was giving the impression he had to run the force single-handedly and wondered why he wasn’t able to get the service he feels he needs from his staff.
A member of the authority expressed surprise that 528 people applied for 40 positions; the chief officers explained the nature of the current national economic situation to the committee.
Riot Police Numbers
Riot police numbers in the context of the national strategic policing requirement were discussed. The Deputy Chief Constable said that numbers of public order trained officers required by the force for local use were in excess of those needed for national purposes and so no additional costs were being incurred locally for national purposes.
One member of the authority asked about the costs to the force of sending officers to London. The committee was told that operation by operation costings were “in the public domain” and could be provided on request. (The accounts actually show the Met Police as a customer, to which the force makes a large value of “sales” – an odd way to view policing).
- When the date of 15 November was mentioned, Labour’s prospective Police and Crime Commissioner candidate Ed Murphy heckled “takeover”, raising a smile from the Chief Constable.
- The committee was warned that changes to council tax benefit could amount to additional discounts being given reducing the council tax take and thereby reducing police funding.
- Cllr Wilkins asked about G4S, he said given the extreme nature of the company’s failure at the olympics he didn’t know what to say, he questioned how anyone could have any confidence in the company now. The Chief Constable said that Lincolnshire Police were happy with the service they were getting from G4S. The Chief Constable said he’d had private discussions with G4S and they said the Olympic failures were not all down to them, but other organisations were responsible too, but they would not “air dirty linen in public”. The Chief Constable said that the ongoing work was intended to determine if the forces should work with G4S or not and he was open minded about what the final conclusion might be.
- A meeting involving forty police officers had been held that morning to try and “iron out problems with uniforms” arising from the collaboration / merger of the Herts/Beds/Cambs forces. Previously the authority has heard police officers find precise types of plain white shirt that are force specific very important and they (or perhaps just their union reps) get very upset about changes.
- The committee was told a joint control system was being developed by the collaborating / merging forces. The chair of the authority noted it would be important to tell an incoming Police and Crime Commissioner “what we’ve created”, in other words to explain the extent of the merger that has already in effect taken place. She said it would be important for incoming commissioners to meet with each other and all chief officers as soon as possible after election.
- Unelected appointee on the authority with specific responsibility for Cambridge Ruth Joyce left early. She made no commitment to return any of her allowance to the taxpayer before walking out.
- The authority’s chair described a recent blue light run she had been on as a “theme park thrill ride”
- Having seen the state of Labour prospective Police and Crime Commissioner Ed Murphy’s car, parked on the [strengthened] grass verge outside the headquarters, both I and Prospective Conservative Candidate Cllr Darren Tysoe expressed concern to each other about his rather slick looking tyres.
- Labour prospective Police and Crime Commissioner Ed Murphy claimed, in the hearing of Police Authority Staff, to be walking out with a copy of the confidential paper on estates which was not intended for the public.
- Prospective Conservative Candidate Cllr Darren Tysoe said he would not have time to attend the forthcoming full police authority meeting as he will be busy preparing for that night’s party hustings as part of their attempt to select a new candidate.
- Another person described to me as a “part member” was also in the public seating, as was one other person – a total of five. I think the one described as a party member may have been the English Democrat’s Bill Rolfe, however Ed Murphy told me he thought he was from UKIP. I think his visitor badge said “William Rolfe”.
- The committee didn’t take any clear votes or make any decisions; they merely noted a series of papers.