Before social distancing: with Alf, a volunteer at a community club in Waltham Forest run by Voluntary Action Epping Forest
How quickly the situation changes. When I published my post The great outdoors on 16 March it already had a retrospective feel, and now most if not all of the activities I mentioned are no longer running. To take just one example, Abberton Rural Training tweeted on 18 March that that would be their last day of normal operations for the foreseeable future. Now they are looking at ways of delivering services by other means. The closure of cafés affects not just commercial enterprises but social ones too. Hadleigh Farm’s tea room is not just a tea room, it is also a training centre for people with learning difficulties, who do a real job by staffing the café and thereby acquire skills that they can use elsewhere. The Coffee Grind café behind the Castle Point Council offices in Thundersley, run by Carers Choices, is in a similar predicament. Drop-in centres like 57 West in Southend and Sanctus in Chelmsford are run by volunteers who may themselves be getting over some of the issues faced by those they are helping. As places like this are forced to close down the loss of services will have an impact on staff and volunteers as well as users.
In the greater scheme of things it is no more than a minor technicality that we have decided to bring forward the Declaration of my successor as High Sheriff by a few days, in the hope of ensuring that all the key players can be present. On these occasions it has become customary for the outgoing High Sheriff to deliver a report on their year, but what I shall be saying is not what I had intended; so I shall publish it here instead, with apologies for the length. Much of it may not seem particularly relevant in the current situation, but it deals with some of the values that form the basis of our society – in particular, public service and the rule of law – which are as important now as they ever have been, and will be greatly needed over the coming months.
So, my reflections after not quite a full year as High Sheriff are divided into three groups of three. The first group comprises the three themes that I chose to highlight during my year in office: litter, Travellers, and women offenders.
Litter seems like a bit of a first-world, middle-class problem, but it is of course an offence, it is one step away from the very serious problem of fly-tipping, and there is evidence that a litter-free environment, especially in built-up areas, is less liable to suffer from anti-social behaviour: the one breeds the other. There are a great many individuals and groups across the county who regularly go litter-picking and I hope I’ve been able to do something to support and encourage them, as well as making my own modest contribution with my shrieval litter-picking-tool. As with so many environmental issues, young people are often more aware than their elders and so-called betters, and inspired by a litter-pick Lucy and I did with the 4th Rochford Scouts I worked with Richard Pattison, County Commissioner for Essex Scouts, to organise a countywide litter-pick by cubs and scouts over the last weekend in March. [This, of course, was overtaken by events, but we hope it can be rescheduled for September.]
If, when I move on from litter to Gypsies and Travellers, you say to yourself that you can see where this is going, then you’ve fallen into my trap. If you nod knowingly when I tell you that most of the Travellers I have met and spoken to have been in Chelmsford Prison, then you have fallen even further in. I do not set myself up as a champion and defender of Gypsies and Travellers – that would be presumptuous – but I do deplore the stereotyping of this group of people, and the way in which they are talked about in terms that would not be acceptable if applied to other minorities. Like all groups of people they are made up of individuals, and while I would not presume to call them my friends I have spent some entertaining hours in their company, enjoyed their hospitality, and shared their food, and I think I am right saying that they appreciate a little non-hostile attention from an unlikely quarter. The bodies who work with Travellers – specific officers of local authorities, the County Council’s Countywide Traveller Unit, and Essex Police’s Rural Engagement Team – have all built up a good working relationship with them precisely because they treat them as individuals. Some good work is being done to bridge the gap between the Traveller community and the wider community, particularly in Basildon with the Council’s Traveller Wellbeing Group, and one of the High Sheriffs’ Awards that I was particularly pleased to make was to Southend YMCA for the bus which they take to Travellers’ sites, filled with help and advice and activities that enable Travellers to engage better with the wider community. After a gap of a couple of years the bus was back at Oak Lane (next to the site of the better-known Dale Farm) in March and, taking this as a model, plans are underway to introduce a similar scheme across the whole county.
The particular circumstances of women offenders is a concern that arose directly out of my experience as a magistrate. It has been well understood for many years that women suffer disproportionately compared with men as a result of their treatment by the criminal justice and prison systems, systems designed by men for men. Most women who are sent to prison are there for relatively short sentences, for non-violent offences, very often committed under the influence of controlling male partners to the extent that they are victims as much as they are perpetrators. Because there are fewer women offenders than men there are fewer prisons, further apart, which in the case of Essex means being sent to Peterborough. Their children are likely to be taken into care and it is well known that children who have been in care are more likely to become offenders themselves. Some good work has been done in Essex by our Community Rehabilitation Company working with Open Road, Wilderness Foundation and others, to provide programmes specifically for women that address offending and provide a realistic alternative to prison, and a major development took place at the end of 2019 with the opening of a women’s centre in Harlow by Safer Places: women’s centres have proved to be extremely effective in other locations, and this is the first of its kind in Essex. But we need more, and more needs to be done generally, and I was delighted to be able to work with Essex CRC and the national charity Clinks to organise a one-day conference at the end of March which brought together the various agencies from across the county to review progress so far and see how the situation can be improved. We were fortunate to have engaged as keynote speaker Vicky Pryce, the economist and author of Prisonomics who, you will recall, was sent to prison for taking penalty points on her licence that should have gone to her husband Chris Huhne. As Vicky’s journey through the criminal justice system started with being interviewed by Essex Police I think it was particularly gracious of her to accept my invitation. [This too was overtaken by events but we hope that this also will take place in September.]
My second group of three comprises events in the last year that have raised issues of concern to all those interested in law and order. The first was the Supreme Court ruling on the prorogation of Parliament in September. The ruling confirmed, except for those who strongly disagreed with it, the independence of the judiciary that is fundamental to our way of life in this country and underpins the rule of law that affects not just the judiciary but of course the police and everyone else who is responsible for maintaining law and order. It is arguably the first objective of the High Sheriff to support the judiciary, and I have no hesitation in doing that. I started out the year with a high opinion of judges, and during the year it has only grown. The job they are doing is particularly difficult at the moment, as a result of repeated cost savings made by the Ministry of Justice, to the point where it is increasingly being said, not just in private but in public, that the system is close to breaking point. Those who work in the courts are under increasing pressure and there are good reasons to fear for the long-term future of what is, or was, the finest justice system in the world. Our judges here in Essex do a magnificent job, and I’d particularly like to thank His Honour Judge Gratwicke, resident judge in Chelmsford, for his kindness and hospitality over the past months, and similarly to thank John Lodge who retired as resident judge in Basildon at the end of November. To be able to sit beside them on the bench is a real privilege, not to say an education.
The second event was the shocking death of thirty-nine Vietnamese migrants in Thurrock in October. Perhaps this incident led you, like me, to wonder what it is about this country that makes people go to such lengths and take such risks to get here. A part of the answer, not necessarily something that those migrants would have consciously thought about, may lie in the matter of judicial independence that I have just been talking about. Another great part of the answer may lie in the response of the emergency services and other authorities to an incident that is way beyond what most of us expect to encounter in our daily lives. I have spent many hours with a variety of police officers as they go about their work, and have been enormously impressed by their professionalism and, in particular, by their dedication to serving the public. I cannot deny that it has been fun dashing from one side of the county to the other on blue runs, chatting with police dogs and their handlers, exploring the police armoury, and cruising down the coast from the Crouch to the Thames in the Marine Unit’s launch. But the death of the Vietnamese migrants shows just how much we expect of our police and emergency services, and the impact of this event on the ambulance crew who were first on the scene, the police who had to investigate the crime, and the hospital staff and coroner’s officers who had their parts to play in the process, can barely be imagined by the rest of us. At such times these people, who do the vital jobs that the rest of us are very glad not to have to do, need all the support that the community they serve can give. I’d like to take the opportunity at this point to pay tribute to our senior coroner, Caroline Beasley-Murray, who this year has been president of the Coroners’ Society of England and Wales. The courtesy and sympathy with which she treats those who come before her in court, particularly grieving relatives, is an example to us all.
The third event was the equally shocking incident at Fishmongers’ Hall and London Bridge in November. For many in Essex this event was close to home because one of the victims, Saskia Jones, had studied at Anglia Ruskin University. The immediate reaction seemed to be that anyone convicted of a terrorist offence should be locked up indefinitely, until it was pointed out Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt believed passionately in the possibility of rehabilitation through education, the very opposite of lock ’em up and throw away the key. What the legal effect will be of this incident, and of the more recent knifing incident in Streatham, remains to be seen, but what happened at Fishmongers’ Hall did at least draw attention to the event that was being run there and the possibility of rehabilitation: such an important thing to believe in, and a deeply held belief which I have observed on many occasions in the last year on various visits to Probation, the Essex Community Rehabilitation Company, and the Youth Offending Service. I have heard more than one staff member describe what they do as a vocation, and we are very fortunate to have these dedicated people working among us. If as a society we lose faith in the possibility of rehabilitation of all offenders, regardless of their offence, we will have reached a very sorry state.
For my third trio, I offer briefly three observations on the shrievalty. The first is by François de la Rochefoucauld, a young French aristocrat who visited England in 1784. ‘It is an honour to have been Sheriff,’ he wrote, ‘but being it is very troublesome.’ It’s one of those pithy sayings that the French are so good at – it is worthy of Voltaire, and no doubt sounds even better in French. The duties of High Sheriff then were indeed onerous, and an unwelcome distraction from the normal routine of a gentleman. Now I think we can all agree that it is still an honour to have been Sheriff, but being it is time-consuming, yes; exhausting, at certain points in the year; but hugely rewarding and, very often, great fun.
The second is by Robert Erith, High Sheriff in 1997–8, who told me that being High Sheriff changed his life. Well, I think that’s probably right in my case too, although it’s still too early to tell.
The third observation was made to me by David Boyle, High Sheriff in 2002–3, although he does not claim to have said it first. ‘There’s nothing as ex as an ex-High Sheriff.’ I’m sure that’s true as well, as I am about to discover, but it has always been at the back of my mind as an incentive to make the most of every opportunity offered during the past year.