Policing and Fire - finances and local taxes

You may be reading this after receiving the bills for local public services across Staffordshire. I’ve written it to explain a little more about how, and why, I’ve made the decisions I have this year around local funding for policing and for the fire and rescue service.

Most local services are funded partly by Government from national taxes and partly from tax which is set locally and paid through the bills recently received. Since 2013, after being elected as Staffordshire’s PCC, one of my responsibilities has been to decide each year the local amount we all pay towards policing and community safety. In August 2018, the fire and rescue service also became my responsibility meaning for the first time I have made the decision about local funding for that service, as well as policing.

The amount for fire and rescue has increased broadly in line with inflation. Whilst finances are tight, demand and financial pressures are just about manageable with extra savings being made. For policing, Commissioners across the country have had to make unpalatable decisions which mean residents in all areas are seeing a bigger increase in the amount paid locally than previously. As someone who believes in lower taxes, it doesn't sit well with me although since 2013, including this year, I've managed to keep the overall increase in Staffordshire lower than anywhere else in the country.

Becoming responsible for the fire and rescue service in 2018, in addition to policing, has saved hundreds of thousands because the work involved previously in the governance of that service has been absorbed within my office. It means what was being spent can be reinvested into the front end of both emergency services. It also means that whilst the two services will remain separate, some of the support functions both currently have, can be combined. The savings achieved by doing that will mean more of the money can be spent on frontline fire and rescue services and frontline policing in local areas across Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent. The work to do that is now underway and will help budgets for both emergency services for the 2020 financial year. This year remains very tight for both, particularly for policing.     

The funding provided from central Government for policing has not kept up with inflation over the last five years but demand, complexity and costs have all increased. Whilst work to make policing more efficient is helping to mitigate some of that impact, extra investment is urgently needed as criminality changes and becomes more complex.

The challenges police face now to keep us safe have changed significantly in the last few years. Societal change and the evolution of crime involving technology means that police have had to adapt and change locally and nationally. The wider squeeze on public finances also means that often, issues end up being dealt with by police as a last resort rather than earlier by other public services.    

The need to protect society in a less predictable world also means they must be equipped and able to deal with the most unlikely of events.

The march of technology has changed the way most of us go about our daily lives. Criminals are usually first in line to exploit any new opportunities to steal from or harm others and that is what is happening. We’ve got so used to everyday technology we don’t think about the massive change, particularly in the last five years, but criminals are making the most of it.

Technology generally is positive, often life-changing, and it’s revolutionised the way people interact with each other. Instant and mass communications have evolved from what would have been a near impossible task not long ago, into a single ‘click’ today. Social media is changing the way we behave and exchange views with others. Messages, information and propaganda can be projected to individuals in a local area or to mass audiences across the globe. The use of technology can also provide anonymity and that in itself is a huge challenge and is increasing demand for law enforcement.

For the first time, online criminality is more than what is called ‘traditional’ crime, such as burglary or theft or robbery. Last year in Staffordshire, hundreds of people received emails from what appeared to be Revenue and Customs paying, historic tax refunds. It was clever and callous, large scale criminality. People lost money without ever seeing the thieves who were stealing from them. Each and every day, criminals, domestic and foreign, target local people using technology meaning crimes which cause harm to people here often have national or international complexity.  

‘Physical’ crimes can also be carried out with the help of technology. For example, the problem of vehicle thefts by criminals mimicking radio signals from electronic key fobs left by front doors in houses. Most grotesque is the internet being used to distribute material involving physical abuse of children to paedophiles across the world. That, and people trafficking, alongside other emerging forms of harm, brings complexity the police must deal with.

The investigation of non-tech crimes such as mugging, violence or sexual assault often now involves information found on electronic devices such as phones or computers. Many inquiries or investigations by police here, have some aspect involving technology or information from social media.

Use of social media is evolving at a phenomenal rate and it is extraordinary how people say and do things looking at a screen they would never do, face to face. In recent years, there have been thousands of complaints about threats or of bullying on social media. Many that are investigated are classed as ‘violent crime’ in official statistics nationally.

Even the most basic technology is becoming more secure and complex. The simplest mobile device when examined by police experts can result in hundreds of pages of information for investigators to assess. In Staffordshire alone, thousands of pieces of everyday technology are now being examined by forensic experts each year. Not long ago, several hundred thousand pounds was spent annually on forensic examination of technology… now it is several millions, and rising.        

It is the scale of all these changes in crime and potential harm, over just a few years, that has been bigger, and of a greater impact, than could have been predicted. The potential threats I eluded to earlier, everyone hopes will never happen, but police can’t think like that; they have to be there, ready to counter whatever the threat is. That risk is no longer just from organised terrorist groups, but potentially from individuals whose minds have been polluted and inspired to commit devastating acts of violence. Highly specialist police assets are out and about in Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire, each and every day, to protect us all… just in case.

Criminals building alliances with other criminals across regions and countries means the threat from ‘organised’ crime is increasing. The harm inflicted on communities and individuals from drugs for instance, often has its roots in another part of our country. The ability of the police to tackle this scourge is also growing but it is complex and expensive requiring cooperation across forces and sometimes internationally.   

Increasing, demand isn’t only about new crimes. Some harm has been hidden, misunderstood or ignored by society. Domestic abuse has always been there, but often stayed ‘behind closed doors’ until a few years ago. Thankfully that is changing, as is society’s attitude towards it and specialist training and more police resources to tackle it means agencies work now better together to find and to support victims of domestic abuse than ever before.

In Staffordshire last year police received nearly 25,000 reports relating to domestic abuse. Whilst that’s depressing, a big part of the increase over the last few years are individuals who have suffered in silence, but are now being identified and helped because the support services and understanding are so much better. My office is also spending more than ever to support victims of this horrendous crime and policing has committed substantial additional specialist resources too.

Crimes involving sexual assault and child abuse are utterly incomprehensible to most of us. Honesty about historic failings across the UK and improvements in the way these complex and sensitive issues are investigated has meant a surge in reports to police nationally and here over recent years. Further societal change to understand and address this harm and more effective joint working with better information sharing between public bodies is now happening. The signs are more positive than ever and the additional investment is in place. Harm on a large scale is now being dealt with when historically, it often was not.

Whilst the complexity of crime shows little sign of waning, the fact is that most people here just want a stronger sense of local policing in the heart of communities. Some because there are crime issues where they live and many because of the reassurance it provides.

Most people live in places where crime isn’t a major problem, but for some it is, and the police need to tackle that robustly. We also live in a time when on some television channels every other programme is about the fly-on-the-wall fight against crime. Being able to see first-hand the amazing, often dangerous, work that police officers across the country do every day is fascinating and illuminating. There’s no doubt, however, that it can add to a disproportionate fear of crime.     

The extra funding for policing from people in Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent this year will help police to deal with evolving crime and will also be used to recruit more warranted police officers…. at least 69 more to bolster the most local policing. As part of a wider redesign of policing here, more police officers are now moving back into neighbourhoods…140 officers over the next 18 months.

Everything I’ve written so far is the reason why policing locally and nationally is undergoing enormous change. Dealing with complex new crimes on a scale not imagined a few years ago whilst ensuring specialist services are available when they are needed is crucial. I have also allocated multi-million-pound investment for technology which will ensure police have the right tools and the right information for the increasingly difficult job we all expect them to do.

And the biggest challenge? All this necessary change to help police tackle new threats and ever more complex crime has come during a period where budgets have been tight, but new investment, huge investment, has been essential. We all have to play our part in helping to equip policing for a changing society and ever more varied criminal landscape. A ‘perfect storm’ that remains a difficult path to navigate locally and for wider law enforcement across the country.

My strong view remains that, at its heart, policing must be local. Anti-social or inconsiderate behaviour and the things that blight local places for local people, like drugs and low-level violence on our streets, all matter a lot, as does burglary or car crime or shoplifting.

All these crimes, and many more, are important because if they aren’t dealt with effectively by the police, it eats away at the fabric of our communities and risks people feeling that their public services aren’t there for them when needed.

That difficult balance to ensure police deal with the most grotesque and harmful crime, whilst not losing sight of issues that matter most to local people every day, has been tough over recent years. The police have done a good job in balancing many different priorities but I am in no doubt that the policing across Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent does need a boost, and that is now happening.   

Law enforcement must continue to evolve as there’s no evidence that the evolution of crime, of harm, of technology and of society will slow anytime soon. Work being done and the investment being made in policing by all of us will help them to meet their commitment to keeping people here safe into the future.

Matthew Ellis

Staffordshire Commissioner – Police - Fire - Crime