Cllr Sally-Ann Hart is the Cabinet Member for Tourism and Culture on Rother District Council.
As a district councillor, I recently chaired a licensing panel hearing which was held to review a local restaurant’s alcohol premises licence. The panel decided to revoke the alcohol licence for this premises after hearing evidence on operations carried out by both Sussex Police and the Home Office. On two separate occasions, the restaurant was found to be employing illegal immigrants, and on one of these occasions was also employing an underage child without the necessary Employment Permit (as required by East Sussex County Council).
It transpired, during the hearing, that not only was the owner not paying the illegal workers, but it appeared that he had also taken away their identification documents. As a licensing panel, we were not concerned with whether or not a crime had been committed (that is the police’s job), but whether the owner had complied with, and would be able to comply with the licensing objectives in the future; we did not have such confidence. Revoking the licence, which was widely reported locally, sent out a strong message to our local communities; that their Council expects licensees to do everything they reasonably can to comply with the law, and that those who choose not to do so can expect to face the consequences.
I found this glimpse of modern slavery happening in a rather gentle and fairly law-abiding town rather disconcerting; if such iniquitous criminality can happen here, goodness knows what goes on in other cities, towns and villages across the country. Crime prevention and the maintenance of law and order are generally seen by the voting public to be the responsibilities of the police. But they are equally the responsibilities of local communities, using a “working together” approach. To combat modern slavery, an initiative championed by our local MP, Amber Rudd (as a former Home Secretary), Hastings, and Rother’s Project Discovery brings together a number of local agencies and groups, including representatives from the police, fire services, Hastings and Rother Councils, a local church, Stop the Traffik, immigration, and local charities, all with the aim of ensuring that perpetrators are brought to justice, preventing modern slavery and seeing victims of modern slavery rescued and supported. It is a great example of partnership working. As Rudd has said, “we are all connected to modern slavery; and we all bear the solemn responsibility of seeing it wiped out”.
Listening to concerns that the police ‘do nothing’ at local parish council meetings in my Ward, I probed some local councillors and members of the public as to whether they knew about Project Discovery and the Sussex Police Modern Slavery (telephone) Helpline. As suspected, the response was overwhelmingly that they did not – only one person I spoke to knew about this project. The public’s lack of awareness, let alone that of elected local representatives, may not only inhibit effective partnership working, but also the success of an ingenious initiative – all vital in preventing and reducing crime to ensure that our communities are safe, secure and strong.
Modern slavery is not the only criminal behaviour present in Hastings and Rother; we have an increase in violent and sexual crime: ongoing drug abuse and drug related crime, an increase in a sordid practice known as ‘cuckooing’ (where criminal gangs use vulnerable people’s homes to sell drugs, making the drug dealers less easy to identify), cybercrime, and domestic and child abuse. Much of this criminal behaviour is committed behind closed doors, and the police cannot solve these problems alone; individuals, communities, public bodies, GPs, social workers, hospitals, schools, businesses and so on can all play our part. But to do so, it needs to be known what are the issues, what can be done and what a targeted working together approach will achieve.
To prevent crime, early intervention by the police working with partner agencies is key. Rother District Council is a member of the Safer Rother Partnership (and of the wider East Sussex Safer Communities Partnership), which includes East Sussex County Council, Sussex Police, East Sussex Fire & Rescue, and Hastings & Rother Primary Care Trust. The role of these Partnerships is to work with other statutory and voluntary agencies within the Rother district to develop and implement a crime and disorder prevention strategy. These partnerships also depend on engagement by individuals and communities reporting crime and anti-social behaviour.
Whilst Sussex Police and RDC’s websites, for example, contain detailed information and signposting to relevant services and helplines, it is clear that most people remain unaware of the local crime reduction initiatives. Active engagement with local communities and efficient, effective communication is key – and it needs to be improved. In the same way that crime prevention and the maintenance of law and order is not the sole responsibility of the police, the responsibility for open, efficient and effective communication and community engagement can be shared. We all need do our bit, and local authorities, through their councillors, are in an excellent position to do so, but they also need to be well informed. Over the years, the nature of policing may have changed, but Sir Robert Peel’s principle that “the police are the public and the public are the police; the police are only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interest of the community welfare” has not changed.
We just need to know how and be encouraged to help.