Yesterday the West Midlands Police Authority gave business owners the opportunity to see how their tax pounds are being used as they held their business crime conference in Birmingham. The WMTPA went along on behalf of local taxpayers.
West Midlands Business Crime Conference 2010
It’s a shame that events like these, in this case a six hour conference, consistently fail to attract the very audience they’re aimed at. Looking at the delegate list (found in the jazzy folder provided) for this conference it appears that fewer than 20% actually came from the business community with the majority of the 110 attendees hailing from the public sector and the multitude of quangos established in the name of crime prevention. In short, it’s easy to preach to the converted, and essentially that’s all this gathering was successful in achieving.
For an event where speakers spoke avidly and frequently about the value of ‘engaging with the business community’ and the associated achievements of the West Midlands Police Authority (WMPA) in this direction, the reality struck a stark contrast to their over-emphasised intention. We were told that the “scale of the attendance” showed “significant progress” in the collaborative relationship this body has been seeking to forge with business leaders, but with just over 20 present this had a rather hollow ring that organisers were loathe to acknowledge. Such a low turnout from their intended audience seemed to dilute any justification they might put forth for holding an extended conference rather than a short meeting as in previous years.
And from the content of the speeches, the extra expenditure sunk into this full day event is something that the West Midlands Police can ill-afford.
In many ways it’s hard to knock the police. Although Assistant Chief Constable Gary Cann openly acknowledged that statistics can be open to criticism, interpretation and fairly easily manipulated, on the face of things this service is performing well:
- 14.8% reduction in recorded crime (though there do seem to be big problems with under reporting as speakers constantly urged business owners to keep them up-to-date. Many business owners don’t seem to believe it’s worth their while).
- 18.8% reduction in business crime (though both of these are down from 2007/8 with no mention of the percentage reduction from 2008/9).
- 5% reduction in shoplifting
- 20% reduction in burglary other buildings
- And fraud is – suspiciously – at ‘similar levels’ to 2007/8 so we might assume there has been a slight increase.
Few of us would deny that the police do a difficult job, especially within a large urban area like the West Midlands conurbation, which is why it was heartening to hear that the WMP have the second lowest precept in the country (£100 compared to £170 in Staffordshire), the lowest management overheads, the second highest number of officers per 1,000 of population, below average levels of crime and the highest public satisfaction when compared to the most similar forces (e.g. Manchester).
But now there are money issues, big money issues it seems, with a Government White Paper asking the force to make £545m of savings by 2014, something that WMPA treasurer Mike Williams claimed they had ‘no chance’ of doing. The West Midlands Police are looking at having to make a 5% reduction in spend over the next three years, and with around 80% of police spend going on people, job losses are looking more than likely but Williams gave no indication of where these might come from.
So here comes the incongruity. A September pay award of +2.6% for all staff? It’s hard to remain sympathetic when in the wider economy people are taking pay cuts and losing their jobs. With a 31% increase in staff at the West Midlands Police over the past ten years, this will surely represent a sizeable chunk of public cash. If in some departments pay awards are overdue then perhaps it’s worth reviewing whether this not significant rise could be more discretionary than the current plan to implement it across the board to officers and back-room staff alike.
In addition, and when considering the budget, the number of initiatives and associated ‘boards’ and ‘partnerships’ that have crept in over recent years start to look particularly questionable, especially when there seems to be little accountability and no real monitoring of their actual impact.
Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnerships (CDRPs), a Retail Crime Action Plan published by non-other than the National Retail Crime Strategy Board, Bishop Webley (Chair of the WMPA) mentioned a recent “Listening Campaign” in Dudley, we were told about Links Consulting undertaking an “extensive crime mapping exercise”, there was the “Small Retailers Capital Grants Fund” where £5m has been allocated for small retailers to apply for £3k lump sums to combat business crime, and yet when will we hear of the positive impact and the tangible results of this hefty investment? Certainly the latter speaks of the scattergun approach to crime reduction. With lower rates businesses could secure themselves at their own cost, or pumping the same investment into frontline policing in problem areas might mean they don’t have to. Equally dubious was the mention of the “Design Award and Project” which encouraged students to think of ways to tackle shoplifting, and we can only hope that this was at nominal expense because, though the concept is fairly admirable, with thousands of professionals on payroll and consultants charging exorbitant fees the taxpayer might hope that ideas were already flowing thick and fast within the police force itself.
Strange then that Derek Webley, when citing the four central tenants of the WMPA ethic, first named the importance of ‘keeping it simple’ and secondly spoke of ‘not creating new structures unnecessarily’. Needless to say, no-one enquired after how much could be saved if the West Midlands Police Authority itself was abolished…
As with all of these events, speakers attempted to distract us with positive verbiage. They were ‘listening’, ‘engaging’, ‘taking action’ as part of their ‘new crime narrative’ but ultimately, as a lay person, it’s difficult to establish how or whether these support mechanisms, focus groups, boards and ‘innovative new’ schemes actually support our police officers on the front line in dealing with crime day-in-day-out. Has the 20% increase in spending over the last ten years combined with the 31% increase in staff to give us a safer county? Well the fact is we don’t know, they didn’t tell us. We have to take them at their word, and that smacks of a total lack of transparency and accountability. They need to be plain and they need to tell us what works and what doesn’t before any new structures become completely entrenched.
Towards the end of the first session before lunch, it seemed as though their budgetary worries had led them to both scare monger and plead for sympathy. As difficult times descend, it seems as though the West Midlands Police Authority will have some pretty tough decisions in their unelected hands, and rather than culling officers, scrimping on equipment provision and compromising their visibility, for the sake of business owners and the general public alike we can only hope that they’ll review bureaucracy, middle-management and attempt to stop their unharnessed experimenting with our cash and turn the crackpot ideas machine off.