Kent’s Police and Crime Commissioner Ann Barnes has just a matter of months left in the job unless she decides to stand for relection in May – and wins. Neill Barston talks to her about her time in office which has sometimes attracted controversy…
Having been appointed Kent’s first Police and Crime Commissioner in 2012, Ann Barnes has overseen a turbulent time in the force’s history.
There have been major cuts with hundreds of officers losing their jobs, while the demands on its services have increased with ever-evolving terrorist threats.
Despite these factors, Mrs Barnes, a former chairman of the Kent Police Authority, has welcomed latest annual figures revealing crime is down three per cent across Kent, though there has been a slight increase in Tunbridge Wells.
As she admitted, there remain plenty of challenges to win over the public about the work of her office. She described the original process for national election of commissioners as having been handled “disgracefully,” which resulted in the worst post-war electoral turnout figures for the UK of just 15% across the country.
During her time in office to date, Mrs Barnes has come under the media spotlight on several occasions, most notably for a behind the scenes Meet The Commissioner Channel 4 documentary in 2014, which met with public criticism.
Other incidents have unfolded, including the resignation of Mrs Barnes’ two Youth Commissioners, which has added further to the pressures of the role.
However, as she explained, with crime down in the county, improved recording of incidents and additional victim support services, there were causes for optimism.
Speaking to the Times, she answered questions on some of the big issues affecting the area, including how Kent’s force is coping with reduced resources.
Neill Barston: With Kent Police having lost 500 officers and hundreds of support staff in the past five years, how challenging is it to maintain frontline policing?
Ann Barnes: “It has been really difficult over the last four years, with losing millions in funding and around a fifth of the workforce, including 500 police officers and 620 staff who have not been replaced.
“The demand is still the same, which is a credit to all those who are on the force still trying to give the same level of service, which means we have to keep them on the streets for longer.
“We have to make greater use of technology as we’re in the 21st century, with things like equipping officers with body cameras that can be used as evidence in court.
“As a result, there have been more first-time guilty pleas from offenders, which has modified offender behaviour.
“We are also equipping officers with computer tablets, which enables them to record incidents while they are at the scene.
“We are living in an age were there are fewer resources. We are not going to get more money, so we have to be creative working on local issues, which is the first thing that I looked at with the chief constable in developing our new policing model for Kent.”
Though countywide crime levels are down, incidents in Tunbridge Wells have risen slightly in the past year (despite still being the lowest in the county), with domestic abuse cases flagged as being a significant part of this increase. How concerning is this?
“Domestic abuse used to be a hidden crime, but we are seeing more first-time reporting of incidents. I am not happy that abuse is happening, but in reporting it people are able to get the help they need.
“Domestic violence is something that affects all genders and ethnicities, and there has been a slight recorded increase in Tunbridge Wells.
“However, violent crime overall in the town is decreasing, with domestic violence accounting for around one third of all violent crime figures.”
Overall in Kent, crime is down by three per cent, so how are you proposing to help ensure this is maintained?
“I am really pleased that crime in Kent is down by three per cent as we are one of the few forces where that is the case, with crime up by around six per cent in the country.
“We are working very hard to keep the number of those who are victims of crime as low as possible – as well as putting support for victims at the heart of what we are doing. We don’t have crime targets for officers – if you are delivering a quality service, then everything else follows from that.”
Before coming to your role, you reportedly expressed concerns about the concept of police commissioners while serving with the Kent Police Authority. Several years into your post, have your views changed?
“I wasn’t against Crime Commissioners, but I did want to see if there were other models of governance that could have been used.
“The old Kent Police Authority itself wasn’t ideal, as it was quite bureaucratic. Its committee always had its paperwork piled high, and it didn’t really answer to the electorate. The Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) system is on more of an electoral model.
“It has been a rewarding role, and I know that all those who are crime commissioners work really hard. They have made the role their own, as there’s no actual job description in how they perform their duties in holding chief constables to account.
“In Kent, we also have a People Board, which is not something I am aware any other commissioner has, which examines every single decision that is made.”
In 2013, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) carried out an investigation on policing in Kent. It found that despite a high quality of initial incident call handling, 10 per cent of crimes were not being correctly recorded amid a ‘target-driven culture’.
How confident are you that this has improved?
“I asked for the HMIC review in 2013, and it found that around one in 10 crimes were being under recorded, which was not acceptable.
“But the force has put that right and that has improved to a figure of 97 per cent over the past two years. I am not sure that is possible to achieve 100 per cent as it is a question of people making decisions about crimes.
“We are achieving the best that we have ever done though – especially with the average for UK forces being a figure of 80 per cent of crimes being correctly recorded, with some as low as 60 per cent. Improving this figure came from the greater focus placed on the victims of crime.”
You have called for households to contribute £5 more each towards putting additional armed officers on our streets. Have there been actual terror threats to Kent that have prompted this?
“The terror attacks in Paris last autumn changed everything. The terror threat to Britain remains at severe, but the nature of that threat has changed. Kent is in a unique position as the gateway to Europe, so Kent Police must be able to respond if the unthinkable happens in our county.
“After Paris, the Home Secretary asked all forces to increase their firearms capabilities by up to 50 per cent. I propose raising an extra £1.2million through the council tax precept to pay for 24 of the 37 additional firearms officers the Chief Constable tells me he needs.
“I realise this will add to the burden of each family’s council tax bill, but for years people in Kent have paid less for policing than almost everyone else in the country.”
Do you regret the Meet the Crime Commissioner documentary on Channel 4, which provoked a high level of public criticism when it was screened two years ago and showed your role in a poor light?
“I did it at the time as I don’t think people had known what they were voting for in their crime commissioners, which was why the turnout was so low – though Kent was among the highest.
“I was disappointed with the TV programme, but I can honestly say that whatever has happened to me, I have not let it distract me from my job.”
Was it a mistake to appoint the country’s first youth commissioner, given that your original candidate, Paris Brown, was forced to resign in under a week over complaints to Kent Police over allegedly posting racially abusive posts on Twitter before her appointment?
“I would disagree that it was a mistake to take on a youth commissioner. We had to choose someone who was likely to be able to engage with young people – one third of the county is under 25, and they are the hardest age group to reach, so we wanted to be able to give them a voice.
“Paris Brown made a mistake, but I have a lot of time for her as she was able to admit that she made a mistake and that she would learn from it.
“How many other people in public office, or politicians, would do that? Rather than a youth commissioner, we have now created a youth advisory group.”
What are your priorities going forward into 2016?
“We have created a four-year plan for policing that is researched annually, based on what is happening local and national needs.
“Some of the issues that we will be focusing on include tackling cyber crime and human trafficking – which is something I saw first hand from a visit to France to see the UK Border Agency’s work – I was at Coquelles and saw that British officers had pulled over a lorry and in the back were 20 girls who were destined for the sex trade. One of them even looked a little like my daughter, and that was upsetting to see. There is so much misery surrounding human trafficking.”
What have you been most proud of in your time as commissioner so far?
“For one, I think the fact that crime is down and knowing that crime recording is the best it has been.
“We have also managed to maintain our levels of policing in Kent, as well as crime victims getting a better service since we set up our centre in Ashford at Compass House. It’s a real resource that people can access themselves.”
Are you able to speak about whether you will be standing as a candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner again?
“It’s not that I am not able talk about it, but I think it’s a distraction to the job, and the election is not until May (5).”