We've been here before, or I have at least.
In 1998 the then relatively new 'New Labour' Government passed the Crime and Disorder Act, giving a statutory basis for local Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnerships (often called Community Safety Partnerships). As those of us in the field followed the various requirements to conduct Crime Audits, consulting the public, analysing local crime trends and spotting gaps in service to identify a truly local solution we all wondered what each area would come up with.
But all this localism was too much for one Home Office Minister, Paul Boateng, who had a rather curious tendency when you met him of referring to himself as “Deputy Home Secretary”, a role which doesn't exist. He sent us a letter telling us that, if we did all our local analysis right, we would obviously each find that Domestic Violence was a priority. Bang went localism and much of the point of the Crime and Disorder Act. We were expected to do what we were told, an impression reinforced as much by competition for central funding as by such ministerial directives.
I thought of this today when I read this report of Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper's statements. Police and Crime Commissioners are supposed to be the voice of the people, but Ms Cooper obviously has designs on being the oracle who hears that voice on behalf of Labour PCCs. Labour candidates will make tackling domestic violence a priority, says Ms Cooper.
Now, let's be clear. Domestic violence is a terrible crime. Victims are repeatedly targetted by the same offender. Their children are likely to also be at risk, and the one place which should be a place of safety, their home, is turned into a repeated scene of risk and crime. It is an offence that is hugely under-reported and frequently misunderstood. It could intelligently be picked by any PCC as a priority area for work, though my own feeling is that challenging some of the stereotypes around domestic violence has real potential (like accepting it isn't just “wife-beating”, addressing the mismatch between the real level of male victimisation and the general lack of services for male victims, and a break from political correctness to acknowledge that abuse and violence also happen in same-sex relationships).
However I object to one type of crime being pushed on to candidates as a priority for a number of reasons:-
1) Because having local elected Police and Crime Commissioners is a chance for local people to influence elected Commissioners, not to have priorities dictated from a political party's offices in London.
2) Because priorities should be few and far between if they are to be meaningful. If everything is a priority, nothing is, and this feels awfully like the beginning of anything and everything being a priority because it is a crime or anti-social behaviour and we don't like it.
3) Because it smacks of “something must be done”. With 41 different Commissioners, one of the most exciting possibilities is that they will each have different ideas to tackle different problems. Some of them will produce innovation that can then become the next generation of “what works” that they can all implement. But this will take local creativity and proper research, neither of which are necessarilly helped if crowded out by national direction.
4) Because it reinforces the idea that the Commissioner's prioirities should be crime categories, which to me makes the PCC the prisoner of crime statistics. Instead, how about Change priorities – not just a type of crime but identifying what needs to change, which may impact on many types of crime and other experiences of our citizens?
5) Because Commissioners should be more than slaves to their party. Candidates are individuals contemplating a very serious and important job. They should have ideas of their own, rather than just waiting for someone a hundred miles away to apply the ideology-of-the-day to crime and policing.
6) Because, where priorities are properly limited in number, forcing something on to the table pushes something else off.
7) Because it creates a preferred victim. In the report what starts off as “domestic violence” is rapidly transformed into “violence against women and girls”. These are not the same thing. I don't have preferred victims. I have sons as well as daughters and I don't want anyone beating any of them up, or if that does happen, indulging in the insidious practice of denying them help because they don't fit in with a strategy which spins the positive-sounding aspects of discrimination, while merely entrenching the inevitable negative side. Sadly, this applies to the current Government as much as it does to Labour.