'The force has changed, but it’s not there yet'
With another tax rise for services, we speak to the police, fire and crime commissioner about his term in office
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By Sarah Ward
Northamptonshire’s police, fire and crime commissioner Stephen Mold would rate his performance to date as eight out of ten (he says he’d be tempted by a nine if taking into account the situation he inherited).
Elected into office in May 2016 Commissioner Mold is now into his fifth year as the civilian elected to hold Northamptonshire police force to account. He intends to run again this May, with his manifesto out next month. The commissioner’s role is to hold the chief constable accountable to the public.
“If you look at the situation I inherited, we’ve made really good progress”, says Mold. He came into office after a term by the controversial Adam Simmonds, Northamptonshire’s first ever police commissioner, who ended up in court over alleged data breaches during his tenure.
“When I arrived this office was something of a basket case. It lacked any form of respect. The relationship between the chief constable and the police and crime commissioner was being communicated through legal”.
One of Mold’s first acts as the new commissioner was to put a halt to Simmond’s plans to sell off the police’s headquarters at Wootton Hall. His first police and crime plan published in 2017 pledged to have a focus on keeping children safe, increase community engagement and protect people from harm.
In the four years since, he has become the joint police and fire commissioner - a pledge made in his election campaign - and has gone about transforming the police forces estate, with plans for fire and police to share some operational buildings.
New initiatives have also involved employing ten youth workers as part of his team and last month he announced that off the back of a further council tax increase this April, the number of neighbourhood policing constables will increase from 50 to 100 in the next 18 months. The force currently employs 1367 officers and wants that to increase to 1500 by March 2023.
The first public judgement of how well Commissioner Mold was holding the force to account came in January 2019 when Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary of Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) inspected. When the police effectiveness, efficiency and legitimacy (PEEL) report was published eight months later, it rated Northamptonshire Police as requires improvement and crime investigation was rated as inadequate. Only ethical and lawful workforce behaviour was graded as good.
The inspector’s report said the forces’ handling of missing children cases needed to improve, pointing to some children going repeatedly missing for extended periods and said the low conviction in domestic abuse cases indicated victims may not be receiving an effective service.
It said the force did not have enough trained investigators and found 300 unallocated crimes when it inspected, some of which were more than six months old. It criticised officers for an over reliance on releasing suspects under investigation (RUI) rather than using bail, pointing to a lack of knowledge as the reason. Inspectors said the force lacked capability in tackling serious organised crime and criticised delays in investing in IT equipment for seized devices.
Shortcomings in victim care were also highlighted. HM Inspector Zoe Billingham said she was especially concerned about how the force protects vulnerable people.
At the time Mold said the force had improved significantly in the months between the inspection and its publication and today is almost dismissive of the inspectorates role.
“We are not determined by what HMIC says.
“In the 2018 report, this might sound very odd, but I was pleased that finally HMIC had accepted what I had been telling them - that the force was quite frankly in a real mess. And one of the challenges in 2017, was that they (inspectors) said to me - there are green shoots and I said, I do not believe you. Sadly I was right.
“I value their input but I will not be judged by where they are. Subsequently they said we were getting worse whereas we had actually got better. In some respects HMIC is not the arbiter of whether Northants Police is good.”
The inspection came just six months after Nick Adderley had become the force’s chief constable. His first top job, Adderley won the role over five other candidates and appears to be well respected by his officers.
There is no set date for the next inspection but asked if he would step down as crime commissioner if the force did not progress to a good rating, Mold resolutely says no.
He says he expects to see some elements rated good and continued improvement when inspectors next arrive to take an assessment.
“I’m quite comfortable with this chief constable,” he says. “And I’ve never been more confident with the team that we’ve got in place now. They are making real progress, but we are absolutely not there yet.”
A focussed report by the inspectorate in early 2020 into how the force records crimes gave it a good rating and said improvements had been made.
According to his office’s latest annual report for 2019/20 there were just under 63,000 crimes in Northants - a rise of 3.3 per cent on the previous year. During that time there were just over 10,000 arrests, down 9.6 per cent on the twelve months prior. Within that violent crime is up by 19 per cent and domestic burglaries were down by 31 per cent.
While the commissioner’s role is to put the chief constable and the force’s performance under the microscope, he in turn is scrutinised by the police and crime panel - a body he reports to in public every two months.
His annual report for 2019/20 came under some criticism with one panel member saying the report did not give assurance the commissioner was holding the chief constable to account sufficiently with regards to the force’s performance.
Asked which area he thinks the force does particularly well at he points to its recent record on burglary. He says there is an eleven year low (pre lockdown figures) with a thirty per cent reduction in residential burglary. He also says a lot has been done about improving checks on registered sex offenders living in the community and praised a recent focus on road safety. This however came against a steep rise in road casualties in 2019, when it hit an eight year high, with 42 people killed on the county’s roads.
Asked if he has any regrets during his five year term he says he would have made some difficult decisions earlier and has given a number of people them the benefit of the doubt when he perhaps should not have. He would not be drawn on the specifics. Within his remit is the power to hire and fire the chief constable and chief fire officer.
“No matter whether I come back or not, I’m really comfortable with some of the things we have done. We will never have enough money but sharing the buildings with fire, will mean they continue to free up the money so more of the money continues to go to the front line,” he says.
Police and fire services are paid through a mix of local taxes and central government funding.
When commissioner Mold came into office the council tax precept being charged for police services was £204.96p to every (band d) household. It is now set to rise to £263.04 from April as this coming financial year Mold is proposing to increase the amount by 5 per cent, putting an extra £13 on the household police bill. His biggest rise was in the 2019/20 financial year when he upped the levy by almost 11 per cent asking residents for an extra £24 a year.
Around 45 percent of funding for Northants Police comes from local taxpayers and the rest from central government. Commissioner Mold has often spoken of the unfair level of funding he thinks the county receives from government - in autumn 2019 he wrote to the home secretary and said Northamptonshire police force was receiving £8 less per head than other areas. However in the absence of a significant change in central government funding he has asked Northamptonshire residents for more each year. He says this has put the force on a firm financial footing for the future.
“More so than in any other year the financial strain is quite significant - there is quite a lot of uncertainty in terms of jobs. It is never easy, but at the same time if the public want decent public services, they don’t come for free either,” he says.
Claire Pavitt, who stood in the last Kettering parliamentary election, is Labour’s candidate for the police commissioner job. Former police officer Ana Gunn is the Liberal Democrat candidate. The elections take place on May 6th.