So wrote the anti-slavery campaigner, poet and hymn writer William Cowper, who lived much of his rather troubled life in East Anglia. I can affirm that it is true for a contemporary High Sheriff. With just a few days until Christmas and then three, I suspect short, months before the end of my year in office, it is tempting to do a bit of a stock-take. The past few weeks give such a good feel for the variety of opportunities that I have had as High Sheriff, and also point to some of the insights I have gained into relevant issues.
At this time of year there are invitations to many and varied carol concerts and services. Over three weeks I have attended three Advent carol services or concerts and nine Christmas carol events (with one still to come). They are joyful and increasingly inclusive events. A highlight was to join a small group, with Salvation Army band members too, carolling around HMP Chelmsford. Standing in deep, virgin snow outside some of the wings, and on some being able to sing and play inside on cell corridors, felt a privilege as prisoners joined in – with cheers and applause. Around 75% of the men in HMP Chelmsford are on remand, often for very many months awaiting trial. They, and the victims of crime surely deserve speedier justice.
Exploring and supporting the criminal justice system is close to the heart of the traditional role of High Sheriffs and I have seen several aspects of it at close quarters over these weeks. I spent an excellent day with Essex Police on patrol with a roads policing team and then meeting new officers in Harlow. Essex Police now has more officers and staff than at any time in its history, though demand remains high as crime changes, much driven by the criminal use of the internet. The police also continue to spend much time responding to incidents where individuals are in mental health crisis. I am uncomfortable with some other police forces saying they may not respond to such cases. It does seem obvious to me, however, that there is a strong case for setting up properly resourced specialist mental health response teams working alongside the police and ambulance services, but fully integrated with and funded by the mental health trusts, an idea now being quite widely talked about.
Our judges and magistrates play such a central role in the criminal justice ‘system’ and I have been privileged to spend time with some of them recently. The Chelmsford Crown Court judges kindly invited me to join them for a conversation over lunch on a very busy day. It is good to see the courts working again at full capacity, tackling the backlog that built up during the COVID pandemic. I also had the privilege of addressing the magistrates of the South Essex bench on a video call, and the Chairman then hosted me for a morning at Basildon Magistrates Court. I observed several hearings, expertly managed by the very hard working legal adviser (the court clerk) supported by the court usher. It continues to surprise me that 95% of all criminal cases are heard by volunteer magistrates advised by their clerks. The shortage of magistrates – and legal advisers – severely restricts the volume of cases that can be heard, adding to the many challenges in the criminal justice system. Anyone over the age of 18 can apply to be a magistrate and I commend it as exceptionally valuable volunteering.
Month by month I have met dedicated people working very hard in each area of the criminal justice system – police, prosecutors, courts, judges, magistrates, prison, probation staff and others. It is hard, however, to understand how all their good work is drawn together and ‘managed’ as a system at our local, county, level. Indeed the evidence seems to suggest that this not working as well as it could and should; and most of those I talk with seem to agree. I do hope that improvements to the ‘system’ can be identified and implemented.
On a jollier note it remains so rewarding to visit the many not for profit organisations that do so much to enrich our communities. In the last few weeks among other things I have opened a playground in Rochford, joined in an inspiring music therapy session in Braintree, visited a homeless charity in Chelmsford, started a Saturday Park Run in Chelmsford, and spent time with Julie Taylor, the grandmother of a murder victim Liam. She is fundraising for, and supplying, ‘bleed packs’ to pubs and other venues where they can be available to treat stab victims. Such incidents, thankfully, remain relatively rare in Essex, but immediate first aid with the right equipment can make the difference between life and death.
Relatives of those who have died recently may well find Christmas a particularly difficult time. We will all know those who have lost loved ones this year, indeed our own family and several friends have been affected. It also looks like being a tough winter for many reasons. I commend all those who volunteer to help those in need of all sorts; and to those struggling in any way – please seek the help that I know is available from the many wonderful organisations around the county.
So as the Christmas holiday season comes, and many of us joyfully celebrate the birth of Jesus, whatever your faith or none, I wish everyone a blessed time and a happy New Year.