Tuesday, 29 January 2013


I attended a meeting of Suffolk County Council's Cabinet today as a member of the public. It took place in West Suffolk House - the hub of localism and local authority partnership working in Bury St Edmunds. Positioned well out of the town centre it  perhaps discourages attendance by local people.

I was quite surprised at the lack of real welcome, bearing in mind these meetings are open to members of the public. No offer of refreshment (even water) nor checking if I or any of us had any specific needs. No introductions of the Councillors present and as a member of the public I was expected to pre-read huge swathes of documents and only able to ask questions submitted in advance. With no opportunity for debate and discussion.

I sat there wondering how many people across Suffolk directly impacted by the issues set out in the papers discussed and decided upon today knew anything at all about this meeting. Who is responsible for promoting democracy? Is it local Councillors? Local Authorities?  the Voluntary and  Community Sector? No one?

On the agenda was the budget - which was largely cheered through, meaning privatisation, including the erosion of public sector staff jobs and security continues to gallop along at pace.  One comment from Councillor Newman seemed to describe the end of social workers 'turning up with clipboards', ignoring the role and needs of communities. I reflected that the picture he painted was surely not a fair description of the hundreds of highly qualified and committed social workers working across Suffolk. Certainly not the many I have met.

There was another comment from Councillor Storey along the lines of the freeze in Council Tax being welcomed by those not on benefits and proud to be working. What I wondered of those proud to be working, but also unavoidably on benefits because of low pay in Suffolk? Or of those on benefits but desperate to be working perhaps previously employed in the public sector in services cut based on decisions presided over by Councillor Storey?

Questions about poor attainment in Suffolk schools seemed to be batted off. Amongst other things Councillor Newman blamed 'coasting schools' that had not had a recent OFSTED inspection. It seemed to me that there was no acceptance of any lack of appropriate investment or failures in political leadership. Rather, we were encouraged to believe the Raising the Bar initiative (£700,000 set aside for this) and growth of Academies would fix things. Not sure if there were any parents or carers in the audience today whose children are being let down.

The new all singing and all dancing travel card was also cheered through. The intelligent question about the impact on her (as her disability meant she would be studying longer), put by the only young person in attendance, went unanswered by Councillor McGregor. Other questions by Councillors Page and Martin about consultation with young people; information on the detail of the scheme; why concessions apply only up to the age of 19 and how the goodwill of bus services to offer a 25% discount would be monitored, again remained largely unanswered. Why cut the Explore card in the first place and offer no alternative for 2 years? Shocking. I was involved (as the leader of a local Charity) in meetings around the time it was cut. I know that the concerns of young people and their parents/carers were sought, half heartedly, at the time and then completely ignored.

There was a lengthy discussion about Sizewell C and significant criticisms levelled at EDF Energy consultation documents - who I am not sure were in the audience. I have an aversion to public criticism of anything where there is no automatic right of reply.

I have an aversion also to inappropriate discriminatory comments that go unchallenged by leaders. Councillor McGregor referred to people 'either being deaf or not listening' when describing the concerns of people in local villages as to the impact of Sizewell C.  Offensive.

I wondered whether the voices of the women I met in Leiston when on the Police & Crime Commissioner campaign would be sought when discussing what the impact might be on Leiston. These women had talked with me about their hopes and fears for their young people.
The 'Health and Well Being Strategy' was tabled and praised for its content and accessibility.  For me the discussion lacked detail and I wonder again how many members of Suffolk's communities know what the plans mean for them in terms of health provision. Mental ill health is a priority I was pleased to note. I was surprised, therefore, that there was no discussion or any assessment of the impact of the savage cuts facing Suffolk and Norfolk Mental Health Trust.

Overall this Cabinet meeting felt like an expensive unrepresentative club running along tramlines with a  predetermined direction. Praise was heaped upon those who represented the majority in the club; those who were in the minority were met with political point scoring or dismissively.

Local democracy then - by turns unrepresentative, unwelcoming, unfair, discourteous, shocking and offensive.

Surely its time for a new type of local politics before it is too late?


Monday, 28 January 2013


I have been listening to debates today on the proposal by Sir Peter Fahy Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police to change the law. He wants to introduce positive discrimination to address the woeful lack of Black Asian and Minority ethnic (BAME) police officers across the ranks in the police service. Apart from the absence of female commentators on the issue - leading to conversations largely referring to police officers in the masculine - I was struck at the lack of voice from BAME individuals, campaign groups and officers.

I have worked in the police service with responsibility for recruitment. I have worked locally and nationally with BAME officers (& women too for that matter), all facing sarcastic comments when gaining promotion (notably only to Sergeant level) that it was their skin colour (or gender) that secured it for them. They have told me that they always felt they had to be twice as good as the majority (largely white men) & of their fear of challenging the institution.

What is needed is much more than a change in the law. As it happens this Government is not only eroding equality and general employment rights, it is also making sure only those of significant financial means can access justice. The law is really of no consequence if it cannot be accessed or enforced.

The definition of Institutional Racism was a sound one as set out by Lord McPherson in the Stephen Lawence report 1999, but one that never really led to cultural change. A leading race equality public figure once told me that 'we were sold a pup' when referring to the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000. I know from direct experience that it became a public sector paper exercise to prove how 'non racist' services were, rather than to achieve meaningful change.

The legacy of this is the lack of significant progress towards race equality in recruitment in Suffolk Police and across criminal justice agencies. Additionally the continued rise in racial inequalities, again across criminal justice agencies, as evidenced, for example, by unfair use of stop and search powers. Unequal treatment by institutions is certainly a deterrent to some people from BAME communities when making career choices.

Government policy, as it translates locally also plays its part to deter BAME individuals from applying to be police officers. The PREVENT agenda (part of governments attempts to address the 'threat of terrorism') led to the police and other agencies taking more time to work with the 'muslim community'. To engage with communities only because of the 'threat' of terrorism is a flawed engagement model and not conducive to building trust and confidence.

I remember once meeting Mr Neville Lawrence (the father of Stephen Lawrence) when I was leader of the local race equality council. I  was facing a sea of indifference & active resistance in Suffolk when bringing concerns from BAME communities  to the attention of institutions. I spoke with him about my aspirations that one day Britain would no longer need a race equality movement. He advised me with no bitterness that there would always be such a need. I believe him.

Today there was talk of the need for political will to effect change along with changes in the law. David Hanson Shadow Policing Minister spoke about the loss of current Government leadership on the issue of race and policing. The 2009 National Black Police Association report (Crichlow) 10 years on from the murder of Stephen Lawrence identifies the continuing barriers facing BAME officers and staff.  

In these times of austerity we need the courage to radically rethink policing services. If we can fundamentally shift attitudes towards entrenched racial inequalities, we could start to make the changes needed. I was told during my Police & Crime Commissioner campaign that because of the cuts Suffolk Police '.. are replacing leadership with procedure' Procedure does not allow for innovation, empowerment and change.

Suffolk's Police and Crime Plan (PCP)currently up for consultation, refers to the need for increased numbers of BAME officers. It makes no reference however to this being important across all the ranks and is prefaced with bland words 'where possible' - these words are negative.

The plan  (PCP) is supported by a Performance Assessment Framework which is supposed to identify how the Police and Crime Commissioner will measure performance against the Police and Crime Plan. This framework makes no reference to measurement of inequalities of any kind, let alone recruitment and promotion of BAME officers.

There are some inspirational individuals pressing for change within the service. Sadly their impact either stops when they move on, or they have insufficient power to infuence & deliver lasting change.

So that is it and in reality how it has always been. The achievement of race equality in policing reduced to just a few words in a glossy document. This combined with leaders and policy makers who seem bereft of any strategy or operational plan to make it a reality.

Individuals, organisations, communities are there with the answers. Leaders, policy makers and practioners need the humility to listen and then act on what they are hearing.

Should we ask more of our Police and Crime Commissioner on this issue. I think so - do you?