The clocks have gone back, but time is rushing by

Since my last post the clocks have gone back, but that just seems to make my year as High Sheriff rush by even faster. The mix of activities I have undertaken recently remains varied, but they highlight the importance of volunteers, and the community and voluntary sector more generally, in making our communities safer and more caring places.

With my focus on issues relating to the criminal justice system, visits to the Aspirations Program in Southend-on-Sea and to the Open Road AGM in Colchester both highlighted the importance of effective services to those in recovery from addictions. They were inspiring occasions. Drug addiction in particular drives a large volume of acquisitive crime, though alcohol probably causes more harm overall. The support offered by very local charities like the Aspirations Program, or by larger county-wide organisations like Open Road is critical to effective recovery. Both organisations employ professional staff, many with lived experience of addiction, but they also rely heavily on volunteers.

At the Open Road AGM we heard from Dame Carol Black, who recently authored a major report into addiction. Her well-evidenced, and well-received report makes clear that a major shift in treating addiction is needed so that it can be treated alongside the mental health problems so often associated with it. There is a need, too, for the full range of services needed by those in – or seeking – recovery to be more joined up, with someone locally held clearly accountable.

Dame Carol Black, the guest speaker at the well-attended Annual General Meeting of Open Road (phot Seana Hughes)

I have commented before on the crucial role of magistrates in our criminal justice system. More than 300 people in Essex volunteer as magistrates and between them hear more than 95% of all criminal trials. I had the privilege of sitting with His Honour Judge David Turner KC and the Deputy Lieutenant for Essex, Dr James Bettley JP, himself a magistrate, as Judge Turner heard nine new magistrates swear their judicial oath in Chelmsford Crown Court. It was encouraging to see a diverse group of people, swear their oaths that day. I would encourage anyone over the age of 18, who can work flexibly or find the time to give a minimum of 13 days a year to the role for 5 years, to find out more – and you can do so here.

Essex Police also makes great use of more than 1300 volunteers who include more than 400 Special Constables. These volunteers support a force that is now, or will very shortly be bigger, in terms of officers and staff than at any time in its history. I was delighted to join other guests for the Long Service and Good Conduct Medal awards, held together with the awards for long service staff and special constables. The evening was marked with mostly happy memories and stories from those receiving awards, though as always tinged with the hard reality that too often our police officers have to deal with the harms and tragedies that most of us are protected from. It is right that our police service is held to account – and to higher standards than apply to most of us; they do, after all, have exceptional powers. But my experience is that Essex Police is constantly striving to improve, in terms of diversity, culture and performance, within the constraints imposed by sometimes challenging legislation, political interference at a national level, and under the unrelenting and quite often unreasonable spotlight of social media.

Deputy Chief Constable Andy Prophet hosting the Long Service awards for Essex Police, the Special Constabulary and police staff

The first of my ‘Conversations on Justice’ was held at ARU with Dame Vera Baird DBE KC and Dr Theresa Redmond a Dawes Senior Research Fellow at PIER – the policing research institute. Focusing on whether we are achieving progress in tackling ‘Violence against Women and Girls’ it was a stimulating but sobering occasion. Dame Vera outlined a number of key challenges. She argued that the still muddled legislation around ‘Domestic Abuse’ is a block to progress. The 2015 legislation on controlling and coercive behaviour, which lies at the very heart of Domestic Abuse, has helped, but it remains complex and hard to implement. Some changes are in hand, but the complexity makes it difficult for the police to investigate who, as a result, tend to default to charging with easier to prove assault offences. Those, in reality, are a symptom of the controlling behaviour and so the underlying offending behaviour, even if recognised, goes unpunished. In addition to these challenges with the legislation and policing practices, Dame Vera also outlined concerns with the thresholds for prosecution imposed by the Crown Prosecution Service in some area of violence against women and girls, and particularly sexual offending.

Dame Vera Baird DBE KC and Dr Theresa Redmond join me at ARU Chelmsford for a ‘Conversation on Justice’

Dr Theresa Redmond shared findings from her research, much of which resulting from her working closely with the victims of sexual violence; hearing the words of victims is so important. She called for much more, and better structured education on healthy relationships in schools, taught by specialists. She has written passionately about the subject of violence against women and girls in a blog here. It is encouraging that in Essex, tackling violence against women and girls is a high priority in the Essex Police and Fire Commissioners Plan, and that Essex Police is adopting firm and imaginative approaches to dealing with offenders. However, the impact of such offending on victims, and the scale of the remaining challenges in addressing the problem was clear from the powerful discussion.

The next two Conversations on Justice are on 7 December at Essex University with Stephen Kavanagh QPM, the Executive Director of Policing Services at Interpol, and on 25 January at Chelmsford Cathedral with Bishop Guli Francis-Deqhani, the Bishop of Chelmsford. More details can be found via the links, where you can also book for these free events.

So the year rushes by – and now very quickly towards Christmas. I am today tackling many invitations to events of all sorts as we approach the end of the year and in particular the many Carol Services and concerts that will be held around the county. It will be a busy and hopefully joyous Christmas season though no doubt this year tinged with anxiety around the cost-of-living pressures that are affecting individuals and organisations alike. There has rarely been a greater need for generosity towards those in need.

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