Blackburn leads the way on local accountability

Wasting police time is quite a serious criminal offence. The maximum penalty is 6 months in jail.

Last Friday I thought I came close to being charged with this

The particulars of the charge would have been these: that I had inveigled a police constable, a PCSO, along with the commander of our large police division, Chief Superintendent Bob Eastwood, to waste two hours at a public meeting for no particular purpose.

There were witnesses, too – at least eighty were present, so an alibi would have proved impossible.

The meeting was a regular residents’ meeting – this time for the Brownhill and Roe Lee area of town, held in Holy Souls’ Church Hall on Whalley New Road.

Now in their ninth year, these meetings follow a familiar pattern. There’s a detailed printed report on the area, prepared jointly by council officers and police staff, put round before the start.   Brief oral presentations are made by the Council Leader, the Chief Executive or Deputy, Mr Eastwood the police chief, the senior officer responsible for bins, litter, blocked gullies and similar delights, and by me. That’s followed by an open session with questions or comments from the residents. A full note is kept, and an action report subsequently sent to everyone who attended.

For some years after this cycle of meetings began in 2003 they were dominated by complaints about crime or anti-social behaviour. These days – as at the Holy Souls’ meeting – such complaints are a rarity. Indeed, at this lively meeting there wasn’t a single comment about crime.

There’s an easy explanation for this: the kind of crimes which really worry people, like house burglary, have fallen dramatically.

When, some years ago, Mr Eastwood was the inspector for the east side of Blackburn there might be fifty burglaries in a month. In contrast, in one month last year there were just twenty-five for the whole of his Division – Blackburn, Darwen, Hyndburn, Ribble Valley.

Joking aside, the police at the meeting were not wasting their time because they had no complaints to answer. Rather, that was a tribute to their effectiveness.

Coalition seems to be going soft on crime

It’s the end of the first term of this Conservative/Liberal Democrat government.

It’s been fascinating but above all extraordinary, as these two parties have entered a new upside-down world.

Take penal policy. I am tough on crime, as well as tough on the causes of crime.

What I could guarantee as a Minister is that whatever we did on crime and disorder as a Government, the then Conservative Opposition would shout ‘Not tough enough’.

Two years ago a national newspaper published photographs of long-term female prisoners at Holloway Prison performing in a fancy-dress show. A number of the prisoners were dressed a devils and vampires.

Some of these same prisoners were on life sentences for murder.

Understandably their bereaved victims were deeply offended by what they saw.

The newspapers called for a change in policy. They were backed by Conservative spokesmen.

I very rapidly changed the rules. I had no objection to prisoners taking part in drama, but I did say that there had to be a test of public acceptability.

Last week, out of the blue, the new (Conservative) Prisons Minister Crispin Blunt, evidently trying to out-liberal the Liberals, announced the repeal of my rules.

Prisoners could suit themselves in future.

I was castigated for ‘Dancing to the tune of the tabloids’.

This change lasted all of 24 hours before the Prime Minister took fright, and re-imposed my rules!

But he has not yet straightened out his Prisons Minister, or Justice Secretary, on the matter of short-term prisoners.

There are too many of them, we are told; they often go on to re-offend.

If we cut the 60,000 who receive sentences of six months or less each year we could reduce the record 85,000 in jail in England and Wales.

It’s simplistic nonsense. It’s true that 60,000 people a year are sentenced to six months or less. But precisely because their sentences are short – often very short – there’s only around 5,000 such prisoners in jail at any one time.

It’s true, too, that many go on to re-offend once they’re released. But these are the hard-core repeat offenders. All but a tiny handful – four per cent – have at least one previous conviction or caution; three-quarters have seven or more previous convictions.

So they are the people who’ve failed on community punishments, not the ones who have succeeded.

They are put inside not for trivia but for offences of domestic violence, assault on the police, robbery and such like.

But, on top of going soft on these offenders, the new Justice Ministers are talking of abolishing the ‘indeterminate sentence for public protection’ (IPP) introduced in 2003 with Conservative support, for serious repeat offenders who show no sign of reform via traditional sentences.

In one of the election Leader’s Debates, David Cameron spoke eloquently of how his mother, a JP, had felt compelled to jail such offenders, since every other thing had failed.

He was right in what he said then.

I just hope he uses a little of his summer to straighten out some of his colleagues in this very odd marriage which passes for a coalition.

Where will the cuts end!

The shortsightedness of Tory policy astounds me more each day.  With every day the TV news and the local press highlight more drastic cuts announced by the local Council and the national government.

There has been much publicity surrounding Blackburn Council’s decision to close Shadsworth Leisure Centre as well as a string of community centres in deprived areas.  What has received less publicity but is no less significant is the Tory Council’s decision to cut funding for Police Community Support Officers.

There has always been a sense of pride in Blackburn that we pioneered community policing – with police offices based in community centres and crime down.  PCSOs form a vital part of this.  They ensure a police presence on the street and have helped act as a deterrent to those considering criminal or anti-social behaviour.

The plans pushed through last week have put the Tory led Council in direct conflict with local police.  Surely if other facilities are shut and jobs are lost we will need more police not less!

It’s quite simple though to the Tories – they know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

My ‘Payback jackets’ plan has worn well

High-visibility orange jackets for offenders to wear when doing unpaid work as part of their punishment were introduced a year ago this Tuesday.

The jackets do not have the old prison arrows on them or “I’m a criminal” but they do say, front and back, “Community Payback”. That’s to tell the public why they are there – making recompenses, paying back, to the community against which they’ve offended.

Doing this was my decision. When I first announced this in the autumn of last year, there was a chorus of protest from some quarters (though none from East Lancashire). Requiring offenders to wear these jackets would be ‘recreating chain gangs’, ‘humiliating to offenders’ and, what’s more, I was warned, offenders would be subject to attack by passers-by.

A year later, and not a peep from the critics. The scheme has worked. I’ve spoken to many offenders whilst wearing the jackets. Some say they don’t like them; some have no view; but a surprisingly large number have volunteered to me that it’s part of the punishment, and that only they were to blame for committing their crimes in the first place. And I’ve not been made aware of a single attack on the offenders wearing the jackets.

As for ‘humiliation’, it’s the humiliation of the victim we should think about. They have no choice over their humiliation. Those who have committed the crimes did have a choice – and if through wearing the orange jacket they feel a greater sense of shame, and that strengthens their resolve not to offend again, that is a good thing.

Most importantly of all, the public now have a much better idea of what a “community punishment” from the courts means in practice. And in many areas local people can vote on which schemes they want offenders to work – doing things like cleaning graffiti, redecorations of community centres, tending gardens of the elderly and disabled.

This scheme, by which the public choose, is now being extended to young offenders as part of a new Youth Rehabilitation order, which has been available to youth courts from this week. It is a further stage in the strengthening of the youth justice service.

These reforms have overall been successful. Like many others including, ASBOs, they began in Blackburn. In the mid-1990s I’d received complaints from youth court magistrates and police alike, as well as victims, about the ‘revolving door’ of the courts by which same young offenders came round and around again and again without much effective punishment and reform in between. I then watched the youth court in operation, and saw for myself why magistrates and police were so frustrated.

Some offenders will always be beyond the pale – the ones who however cocky and selfish in their youth, end up with long jail sentences in their 20s and 30s.

But overall we are turning offenders away from crime. The statistics tell the story – between 2000 and 2007 serious re-offending by juveniles fell by nearly 20 per cent. But it’s the reduction in crime and its effect as a result on our communities which really matters.