Julia Mulligan is the Police and Crime Commissioner for North Yorkshire
This is a challenging time for policing, as for all public services. Budgets are being reduced, trust and integrity are being questioned; all at a time when the police face real operational challenges, including the abuse of children and vulnerable people, terrorism, fraud and the growing threat posed by cyber crime.
To me, a successful police service is not one that necessarily has the lowest crime figures, although they are an outcome of good policing, but one that is truly responsive to the communities it serves. In turn, that means different forces will have different priorities, which is no bad thing – localism in action, based on local needs. North Yorkshire is for example, a very different place to West Yorkshire.
This is one reason why the priorities set out in my police and crime plan are largely determined by the community. As an elected individual, I am accountable to the public across the whole of North Yorkshire and therefore truly shaping policing around their needs is my raison d’être.
This can very often be quite different to how Local Authorities approach the way they shape services. Local councillors are directly accountable to relatively small numbers of people; PCCs are responsible for hundreds of thousands, even millions. Despite the woeful turnout at PCC elections, this means very few other individuals in local government have either the mandate or accountability across the entirety of the populations they serve.
This brings real benefits at a strategic level as we have to assess demand across our areas and deliver services accordingly. What’s more, around the country, the range, scale and sheer variety of engagement being undertaken by PCCs is impressive, as can be seen by our response to the enquiry currently being undertaken by the Committee for Standards in Public Life. The openness and transparency we are demonstrating is also second to none; largely because as an individual we are clearly responsible and very much in the public eye.
In North Yorkshire, over 90 per cent of the public put protecting vulnerable people as their number one priority (reducing crime and anti-social behaviour came second). As well as the police responding to this priority, as a consequence of the government’s devolution of funding for victims to local PCCs, I can too. This means I am able to help transform victim services. For example, I have increased support to victims of domestic and sexual abuse by 140 per cent, potentially reaching 570 additional victims, including those at medium risk as well as high risk.
Another benefit of being elected is our ability to work with other local and national politicians. In particular, Police Authority Chairs simply did not have the remit that allowed them to work with government as PCCs do. For example, when I took up my post, North Yorkshire was the only place in the country not to have a health based place of safety for vulnerable people detained under the mental health act. Following a high profile local campaign, combined with lobbying Health and the Home Secretary, we now have three with a fourth on the way.
Locally, I have developed strong working relationships with colleagues regardless of political hue. They too have worked with local health commissioners to improve services for people in mental health crisis. And we are working collaboratively on some important initiatives, including a campaign to keep people safe in York’s night time economy following the tragic deaths of three young people in York’s rivers earlier this year.
Next year will see a further significant development in victim services with the launch of a dedicated victims’ unit. We are also investing £10m in technology that has the potential to deliver significant improvements in productivity through a better understanding of how resources are deployed across the largest and sparsest policing county in England. Gains will also be made through mobile working and investment in systems to better identify and disrupt travelling criminals. We also believe that through supporting the workforce better, we can reduce absenteeism and improve the productivity of individuals at work. There are also other improvements to be had by streamlining our estate, working collaboratively with other public sector partners and sharing more expensive, specialist policing services with neighbouring forces.
As we approach the general election, there will be a lot of noise about funding, the size and remit of the public sector and whether those of us with responsibility for shaping and delivering services will be able to so effectively in the future. I have no illusions about the difficulties of delivering policing in such circumstances. However, I do not share the doom and gloom expressed by others – North Yorkshire Police is not about to go bankrupt, nor make immediate, drastic cuts in police officer numbers, although it is likely there will be reductions as we go forwards. Instead, I am determined to do everything possible to maintain the capability and capacity of local policing. And there is much to go at. I am a ‘half full’ type of person and believe in the police service’s ability to continue to keep people safe, cuts to funding notwithstanding.
There is no quick fix or panacea to this complex issue. Getting rid of Police and Crime Commissioners is not the answer. Suggesting that it will save significant amounts of money is disingenuous, especially as future elections will be at the same time as others. Indeed, my office will cost over £500,000 less than the former Police Authority. Secondly, people would lose the ability to directly influence local policing and shape their police service.
Forcing unpopular police mergers on the public is not the answer either. As has happened in Scotland, the cost would be the empowerment of local communities. What’s more, merging North Yorkshire with others in Yorkshire and the Humber would be a disaster for the police and people in our county. We pay more for local policing than the others and inevitably West Yorkshire would suck resources out of our county. Instead, PCCs and the police need the space and time to get on with the job of delivering savings and reshaping services. Top-down structural change would only divert time and money away from the real challenges we face. The answer lies in strong, effective leadership, allowing the police to get on with the job, alongside transparent, robust and accountable scrutiny.