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Listening to victims and those on the frontline – not just the police

Source: Public Sector Executive Dec/Jan 2015

South Yorkshire’s newly elected Police and Crime Commissioner, Dr Alan Billings, talks to PSE’s David Stevenson about how he aims to tackle the issue of child sexual exploitation in the region.

Three months on since the Jay Report revealed that at least 1,400 children in Rotherham had been sexually exploited over a 16-year period; there are now wheels in motion to try to rebuild trust in the police and children’s services.

In the wake of the report, a number of high-profile figures quit or lost their jobs, including – eventually – South Yorkshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) Shaun Wright.

Prior to becoming the region’s PCC in 2012, Wright had been the councillor responsible for children’s services at Rotherham Council from 2005-10, where he failed to act when informed about the widespread abuse in the area.

Although initially refusing to stand down as PCC, in September Wright announced that his role had become “too prominent” in terms of public opinion and media coverage following the revelations about Rotherham and that this was detracting from the important issue of the 1,400 victims outlined in the report.

His resignation, in turn, led to a PCC by-election that was won by Labour’s Dr Alan Billings, a retired Anglican priest and teacher. He was elected to the position with just over 50% of first preference votes.

From promises to policies

During the campaign, he said his priority was to “root out child sex offenders, making sure they are prosecuted, giving victims the support they need and ensuring they finally get justice”. Shortly after taking up his post, PSE caught up with Commissioner Billings to ask how he, and the local agencies in South Yorkshire, intend to do this.

One of the first ways is through raising the awareness of child sexual exploitation (CSE) across the entire region – not just in Rotherham, he told us. The local partners have launched the ‘Spot the Signs’ campaign (see box out and posters), which Commissioner Billings fully supports.

 “It indicates a determination on the part of all the responsible agencies in this area to come together and work as a partnership to raise awareness of CSE in the community generally,” he said. “And that is a very important part of the campaign and moving forward: raising awareness.”

As well as raising awareness, Commissioner Billings stated that in order to ensure nothing like the ‘Rotherham scandal’ happens again he will be making sure the police have in place the personnel and the resources – both financial and human – to deal with it.

“This is especially important if more people do start reporting and the police are more proactive in discovering instances of CSE. That’s my task; to make sure it is all in place and happening,” said Commissioner Billings.

“To be fair, the police have made good progress in this regard – certainly since the Jay Report. What I have got to do now is look very carefully at what, and how, they are doing things with regards to CSE and make sure it really does work. It really is important that they [the police] learn the lessons from the past. Changing the culture of any organisation is a big deal and a huge thing; it isn’t always easy for an organisation itself to understand the journey it has to go on.”

Difficult to monitor

Commissioner Billings added that although it is difficult to monitor change, he is committed to making this happen during his tenure as PCC.

One of the areas where he feels improvements can be made is by the police listening to people. He said: “There are now quite a lot of people in the Rotherham area who have come forward and said: ‘We were abused in the past and were not listened to by the police’.

“It is very important that the police now listen to them again, and properly, and don’t think they know all the answers. At times this can be quite a hard thing for professionals to do because it takes a lot of time, you have to be very sensitive and it is often two steps forward and one step back as you try to make progress.”

To monitor the change over time, Commissioner Billings will confront the police directly, go and see what they are doing, listen to what they are saying and ensure they follow-through on their approaches to tackling CSE.

“As the PCC I receive information from a lot of people and sources, not simply the police,” he said. “Often people working on the ground who are working with victims. I have to listen to all sides, and all opinions, to be absolutely clear in my own mind that real progress is being made.

“It is very easy for people to put up a report to me saying we have made progress, but I need to be crystal clear that we are making real progress and it is not just simply words on a page.”

Spot the Signs - Say Something campaign posters

Firm but fair support

Going forward, Commissioner Billings noted that there are going to be a host of reports hitting South Yorkshire Police in the near future on a lot of issues – not just CSE.

“There is a lot coming down the track, so my job is to both keep them focused on that, to ensure they are not defensive or in denial, that they do recognise there has been poor conduct and bad behaviour in the past, and to recognise what they need to do to change and make this happen,” he said.

The new Commissioner, who until recently was a board member of the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales, noted that the leadership team at South Yorkshire Police are determined to get to the bottom of CSE and to get a grip on it.

“But they are going to need support at every level of the organisation and they will need to know they have got a PCC who is going to be hard with them in terms of facing what has to be faced, but supportive if they’re willing to make the changes and want to see a difference made,” he said.

He told PSE that in order to make change happen there needs to be greater collaboration and open lines of communications between all agencies in the local area.  “That’s why the campaign ‘Spot the Signs’ was launched.”

The former Anglican priest added that one of the biggest problems of the past has been silo working and people not communicating with one another or understanding the need for communication and why it is so important. This is something he hopes to change.


But Commissioner Billings added that all this work is being done against a background of funding and resource reductions, which make the pressures on all the local agencies “enormous”.

“I need to be satisfied that in order to do this work well the police are properly resourced.

So far, I have no reason to suppose that they are not,” he said. “But it is clearly something we are going to have to keep an eye on.

“Unless we’re making savings, as opposed to cuts, and finding better ways of doing jobs in other aspects of the services, then it is not going to be possible to deliver what we want. This has to be run together. We can maintain the proper level of resources if we can find genuine savings in other areas like IT, and working with other forces. But we have to be realistic.”

As well as tackling CSE in South Yorkshire, the new PCC wants to at least maintain the level of ‘bobbies on the beat’, who play a vital role in collecting information from their communities as well as safeguarding them.

“That is an area where, over and over again during my campaign, people said the police do have public support and approval,” he said. “Trust is in the neighbourhood police, including the PCSOs, and having a presence on the streets.

“It is also important for the police as that is where they get a lot of their information from. There will be pressures on that, as it is where a lot of the money is: on salaries and people.

“It isn’t going to be easy to maintain, but I’m determined that we’re going to maintain it.

“This will also help with our campaign and getting people talking to us about CSE, and that is one of the reasons why I want to see community policing maintained.”

Spot the Signs

The ‘Spot the Signs’ campaign is a partnership between South Yorkshire Police, all four local councils, Crimestoppers, the National Working Group (NWG) and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

The campaign includes a series of posters with 14 different signs that a young person is a victim of sexual exploitation. These will be displayed in prominent public locations including on buses, in shopping centres and doctors’ surgeries.

There will also be an online campaign to help raise awareness for young people and how they can report any concerns and where they can get help and advice.

HMIC Report

HMIC recently released a report, ‘South Yorkshire - Child Protection Inspection’, which was generated following a visit to the force in May 2014.

In general, the report commended the force’s significant increase in capacity within child protection teams. However, it also identified an inconsistency in child protection provision across the county. South Yorkshire Police stated that this is “clearly a cause for concern” but is being addressed through a comprehensive action plan that incorporates the recommendations identified within the report.

Recommendations included taking action to review the force’s plan for identifying, disrupting and prosecuting perpetrators involved in CSE against children in care homes; and ensuring that police officers know how to escalate their concerns about children at risk, and that senior officers raise these concerns with relevant agencies or, where appropriate, with the local safeguarding children board.

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