Looking after the victims

Dame Vera Baird is looking forward to speaking at the LGA’s anti-social behaviour conference, when we meet in early October. She reflects on her “really happy experience” of working with local authorities as the former Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria, but warns she will be “moaning a bit” at the conference.

This is because the recently appointed Victims’ Commissioner is championing her predecessor’s last report, on anti-social behaviour (ASB), which was critical of police, local councils and housing providers for letting down victims.

The report found examples of police and council staff failing to appreciate the cumulative impact of persistent anti-social behaviour; a culture of playing down ASB as being ‘low-level’; and that many police forces, councils, and police and crime commissioners make no reference to the statutory ‘community trigger’ mechanism that victims can use to help resolve ASB.

“People who’ve had three experiences of anti-social behaviour – who’ve made reports and haven’t got a solution or had a satisfactory outcome – are entitled to press this trigger, which requires all the relevant authorities to come together to discuss how to put it right,” says Dame Vera.

“My predecessor Baroness Newlove’s report shows a 37 per cent increase in ASB. There has to be an annual report in each local authority and they are almost all nil returns for the community trigger. It’s just inconceivable that people don’t want to seek further help if they are in this position. Inevitably, the conclusion is that they don’t know about it – it’s not being promoted.”

Dame Vera is very clear that victims of ASB should attend the meetings they have triggered and that, ideally, these should be chaired by someone independent. Otherwise, victims may feel – wrongly or rightly – that the authorities are coming together to find a way of “getting rid of this nuisance”.

“Domestic abuse will never be top of anyone’s list if it’s not a statutory responsibility

She adds: “There is a lot of work to be done about ASB. You shouldn’t talk about crime and ASB as if the second is a lesser version of the first.

“If somebody broke into my garden shed and stole my spade, that would be a crime. But it isn’t going to cut me to the quick; it isn’t going to fundamentally undermine my personality. But if I live in a house and somebody’s kicking a ball against the wall, throwing stuff at my window, calling me names when I come out, drinking outside every Friday night and generally being monstrous, it would definitely undermine my personality.

“I think ASB is capable of being extremely damaging to a lot of people in the long term. So it’s key that we get this right. By the time it’s happened three times, people are getting in a state of worry and concern, so the community trigger is very important.”

Aside from the trigger issue, Dame Vera is positive about the work of local authorities, and says she is keen to work with them on other common interests – domestic abuse, gangs and knife crime, and modern slavery.

Domestic abuse, she believes, “will never be top of anyone’s list if it’s not a statutory responsibility”. But it has to be properly resourced, and it needs a renewed focus on preventative work.

You shouldn’t talk about crime and anti-social behaviour as if the second is a lesser version of the first”

“Refuges are constantly under threat because local authorities can’t sufficiently fund them. Follow-on accommodation is a rare commodity,” she notes.

“And you do need local authorities to be able to fund programmes for perpetrators. When I was a police and crime commissioner, I had six local authorities, and there were perpetrator programmes in five. Then they just declined, because these weren’t a legislative requirement and they just couldn’t be afforded.

“We got some money from the Home Office for a whole-system approach to domestic abuse, which included perpetrator programmes, so we funded them for a few years. They were pretty beneficial. You have to get the right people on them; if somebody is very advanced into coercive control, there is no point putting them on a perpetrator programme – there has to be a wholly different approach. But if you get them at the right level, these voluntary programmes can be quite effective.”

Local partners are key to identifying perpetrators, she says, citing an example of council housing staff picking up on punch holes in walls or broken front doors.

With the Domestic Abuse Bill carried forward from the last parliamentary session in the Queen’s Speech, Dame Vera wants to see the proposed reforms and changes “accompanied by a very powerful public information campaign, so that people can understand domestic abuse and try to change the culture”.

Much like the change in culture in respect of drink driving, she says we “need to get to the situation where, if someone says something about what they intend to do when they get home, or are criticising their partner in a demeaning way, other people say ‘hang on a minute’ and intervene”.

Dame Vera also predicts a “big drive” to get children recognised as victims – not just witnesses – of domestic abuse in the Domestic Abuse Bill. “It would have a powerful effect on how the family courts deal with domestic abuse cases,” says the former Solicitor General for England and Wales.

“There’s a presumption of shared contact now, which is consistent with the notion that you can be a domestic abuse perpetrator and still be a good father [it’s 90 per cent men to women]. Whereas actually, children are damaged by domestic abuse and they need to be seen as victims.

“If they are, then the court will, I think, disabuse itself of that notion that you can be the two things simultaneously. And it will give children a lot more rights, and a lot more support at an earlier stage.”

Dame Vera takes a similar line on the issue of children caught up in gangs and ‘county lines’ drug-running activities.

“We were looking at the whole knife crime, gang crime thing. The first thing we realised was that it is our business, because victims and perpetrators are the same people,” she says.

“The perpetrator is someone who brings the kid in, and then the kid becomes a perpetrator, but they are also a victim of having been brought in, in the first place, and having nowhere else to go.”

She adds: “If you criminalise a kid, you’ve lost them for a decade, so what you need to do is support them, and try to cut off the links that are making things worse.”

She cites an “absolutely fantastic” example of good, local authority-led partnership work on children in gangs – in Newton Abbot.

“What is significant is that nobody thinks this is going on in Newton Abbot; they think it’s in London, in Birmingham, maybe Liverpool, metropolitan areas. But, actually, it seems to be almost a bigger problem in small towns, in the sense that that’s not what they are used to, and they are a smaller population.”

The local authority, police and health sector had identified an issue with young people becoming more violent. When outreach youth workers were rebuffed – “the gang leaders were saying just don’t have anything to do with these people” – they persevered and brought parents together to help tackle the issues.

Some had to be told by social services how heavily their children were involved, but it proved to be a “galvanising force with local neighbours who are less ready to talk to your middle-class leadership types and more likely to talk to their own”.

Dame Vera concludes: “You can only really have local solutions to problems like these. It all has to be tailored through the local authority.

“We are very interested in any way we can help, and any engagement that there can be with our core business – which is protecting and promoting the rights of victims and witnesses.”

Recommended
The latest British Election Study report highlights just how volatile the electorate has become. When…