South Yorkshire Police chief upbeat about force future

Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire Alan Billings.
Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire Alan Billings.

A year since he landed one of the most difficult jobs in South Yorkshire, Police and Crime Commissioner Alan Billings has announced he is to stand for election again - refusing to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenges facing the county’s police force as budget cuts threaten to take their toll.

The Rotherham child sex abuse scandal, Hillsborough disaster, unprecedented budgets cuts - just some of the issues Police and Crime Commissioner Dr Alan Billings has faced over the last 12 months.

South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner Alan Billings at home in Sheffield

South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner Alan Billings at home in Sheffield

His predecessor Shaun Wright resigned from the £85,000-a-year post when it emerged 1,400 children were abused in Rotherham while authorities turned a blind eye.

Mr Wright was in charge of children’s services at Rotherham Council for five of the 16 years when men of largely Pakistani heritage groomed and abused young victims - making his position untenable.

His failure to act led to his downfall, with Prime Minister David Cameron among those who called for his resignation.

Dr Billings, a retired Anglican priest, teacher and former deputy leader of Sheffield Council, was elected as his successor and said confidence in the force was at an all time low, with morale among officers at rock bottom.

South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner Alan Billings at home in Sheffield

South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner Alan Billings at home in Sheffield

Today, he accepts the force still has progress to make, but said the ‘tide had turned’ and confidence in it was returning.

Dr Billings ordered an independent review into the force’s handling of child sexual exploitation after the full scale of the abuse and cover up in Rotherham emerged.

The investigation, being carried out by Professor John Drew, hopes to find out everything that can be reasonably known about the past.

It will establish whether South Yorkshire Police understood and acted upon the findings of reports and inspections into the scandal.

Alan Billings at  a police-funded  SportFX celebration.

Alan Billings at a police-funded SportFX celebration.

It will also look at whether the force’s response to safeguarding was adequate.

“The force was dazed and bewildered because of legacy issues like child sexual exploitation and Hillsborough, and because the relationship with the previous Police and Crime Commissioner had broken down all that had to be addressed and built back up again when I was elected,” said Dr Billings.

He said past failures were still clouds ‘hanging over’ today’s officers, with modern day bobbies affected by the tarnished reputation of their predecessors.

But he said forces up and down the country are now turning to South Yorkshire Police for advice on how to tackle child sexual exploitation.

Alan Billings

Alan Billings

More police officers than ever are investigating CSE and Dr Billings was instrumental in setting up a ‘victims, survivors and families panel’, so victims and their loved ones can speak out about what went wrong and what improvements could be made.

“CSE has certainly dominated the last 12 months,” said Dr Billings.

“The panel is a remarkable group. They say yes these awful things happened and the police and local authority let them down but their primary aim is to help the police get things right so they can help other victims.

“Everything I have learned about CSE has come from that group and I feel privileged to be in a position where we can start to make a difference,” he said.

“CSE is not unique to South Yorkshire, but it was highlighted first in Rotherham and therefore Rotherham had the spotlight shone on it. It has probably happened all over the country.

“Other forces are now looking at South Yorkshire to see how to deal with it.

Alan Billings

Alan Billings

“We know what works and doesn’t. The force has had to learn the hard way.

“Other PCCs say it could have happened in their areas and they are grateful we have been through it first so they can learn from us.

“That’s not to say there are not things still to learn, but the Drew Report, due out at the end of the year, is looking to make sure we have covered everything.”

Police finances are another ‘challenge’ with Government spending cuts taking their toll.

Jobs have been axed, departments have merged with neighbouring forces and crime is increasing for the first time in years.

“We have done a lot of work in recent years that has saved a lot of money, such as partnerships with other police forces, but the problem is once you have done it once you can’t do it again so you are constantly looking at where the next savings can be made,” said Dr Billings. “Most of the budget goes on workforce so a further reduction is inescapable.

“There is a lot of anxiety around whether, if the cuts continue, the rise in crime we have seen this year will become the start of a trend.

“If we keep reducing the size of the organisation it is going to put huge pressures on us.”

He said the force had to be careful not to become ‘an arm of social services’ as other organisations have their budgets cut.

“We have to have some very serious conversations about how we handle things between us so it does not all fall to the police. The emergency services, NHS and local authorities all have to work together.”

South Yorkshire Police’s finances were given a boost last week when Home Secretary Theresa May agreed to grant another £5 million for legal fees for former officers involved in the new inquests into the deaths of 96 football fans killed at Hillsborough in April 1989. Dr Billings previously said former senior officers represented at the inquests could have to withdraw if their legal teams went unpaid. So far legal bills of more than £20 million have been racked up.

Alan Billings

Alan Billings