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Letters to the Editor

by
01 October 2021

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Neighbourhood policing and a church comparison

From Professor Michael Mulqueen

Sir, — Whether the policing service and the Church of England amount to a valid comparison is open to debate. Insufficient care is evident in the Revd Dr Alan Billings’s article making such a comparison to support his criticism of “what some dioceses are currently embarking upon” (Comment, 24 September).

He has constructed several claims about the police service during austerity. While these claims are, ostensibly, accurate, I believe his presentation of them to be unfair.

Dr Billings is correct to root recent policing developments in the depletion of resources between 2010 and 2019. Within the police service, various senior leaders, with whom I engaged during that period, viewed initial phases of cutbacks as the overdue leverage necessary to trim inefficiencies that had grown up in the previous decade: generous funding had delivered patchy improvements for communities. A promise of short, sharp funding cuts, however, turned into multi-annualised austerity. By 2019, amid a 19-per-cent reduction in resources, police leaders were clear that cutbacks were corroding core service-delivery to the public.

Dr Billings asserts that, in the face of cutbacks, the police moved away from a neighbourhood-focused operating model. That may surprise police decision-makers whose aim was to maintain and, if possible, improve local policing delivery despite the burden of reducing resources.

Within the UK’s fabric of more than 40 police services — a construct in some ways similar to dioceses — differing approaches were taken as budget calculations met estimates of localised threat, risk, and harm to the public. At one polarity — the one to which Dr Billings exclusively refers — neighbourhood teams were re-rolled into response duties. At the other (and in between), officers and staff creatively formulated new, good-quality, high-value solutions to police increasingly complex communities.

Dr Billings overlooks such innovation and claims, instead, without supporting evidence, that using social media as a means to compensate for reduced officer headcount opened “a gulf between public and police, as trust and confidence in police ebbed away”. He states that the public were not consulted.

This writer introduced the UK’s first digital neighbourhood policing service. My officers and staff designed it so that we could, virtually, reach more people than we otherwise could, while reducing cost and carbon footprint. Among near-universally positive feedback was that from users with particular personal-risk or mental-health needs. Their profuse thanks came because heretofore the act of face-to-face discussion with officers was too daunting or dangerous a task. On public consultation, worth noting is how, thanks to my teams’ efforts, UK police services can enable their communities regularly to vote electronically for the policing problems that they wish their local officers to prioritise.

Dr Billings claims, without clear qualification, that neighbourhood officers’ concerns were “invariably brushed aside” and, more worryingly still, that police intelligence dried up. Quite how ventilating such unquantified claims in the Church Times maintains public confidence in policing is open to question. Instances of poor management practice towards officers did occur in the service. But Dr Billings deploys a sweeping argument, which, unfortunately, church leaders may take at face value and apply to current dilemmas.

Some communities were sorely let down by their police services in these years. South Yorkshire Police, of which Dr Billings has been Police and Crime Commissioner since 2014, went through an especially difficult period before re-emerging, to the credit of all concerned, as a measurably good organisation.

Nevertheless, is the localism of policing and Church which Dr Billings espouses itself unproblematic? One model prominent in campaigning during the May 2021 Police and Crime Commissioner elections proposes a permanent policing presence at micro-levels (e.g. one officer per parish-council area). Research to support such a calibration within contemporary UK policing is at an early stage, and its fit with criminological realities is uncertain.

For example, the Chief Constable of West Midlands Police (WMP) highlights that some four per cent of the WMP area accounts for 16 per cent of the region’s crime and is home to 14 per cent of offenders. Should such communities not receive greater resources, even if it means a less visible presence in areas with evidentially low demand for policing?

What Dr Billings terms “the British way” of localised policing may be instructive or invalid for church purposes. Church authorities, when making far-sighted decisions, ought to take a variety of advice, based on clear evidence. This letter, I hope, underlines some unfortunate gaps in one prominent contribution.

MICHAEL MULQUEEN
Professor of Policing and National Security
School of Justice
University of Central Lancashire
Preston PR1 2HE

 

Conservative MPs’ close interest in C of E affairs

From Dr Jonathan Chaplin

Sir, — Chris Loder MP claims to observe a marked increase in interest among Conservative MPs in the Church of England (Comment, 17 September). He sees “growing appreciation of the Established Church and the part it plays in society”. Parliament is “the most Christian it has been for some time”: the 2019 election changed not only its political complexion, but also its “faith make-up”.

A Church of England WhatsApp group apparently has “dozens” of Conservative members. There are now theology graduates on the back benches, some going on pilgrimage together. The Second Commissioner now faces more “Church Questions” than there is time to answer.

All these developments could, of course, be a source of great encouragement for those who desire a more prominent place for faith in public life. I, for one, would certainly welcome any signs of spiritual renewal in the parliamentary Conservative Party, just as I would any appearing in other parties. But, in spelling out what might follow from this renewed interest in the Church, Mr Loder reveals a fundamental problem with establishment which the Church can no longer live in denial about.

Conservative MPs, Mr Loder reports, are disturbed at several things: the Church’s overly restrictive lockdown policies; its lack of political neutrality; its loss of commitment to the parish as a focus of community and tradition; the tendency of its leaders to “grandstand” to journalists; and the “bloated woke bureaucracy” ruling it. Such opinions are perfectly legitimate concerns for any member of the Church of England to hold (although I don’t happen to share them), and there is no reason that, when such members become MPs, they should relinquish them.

As church members, they remain entirely free to advance such concerns through the normal channels of church governance, such as the General Synod or diocesan synods. Or they could, for example, join the Save the Parish campaign.

But Mr Loder is announcing that such MPs are poised also to use their privileged constitutional platform in Parliament to try to influence the Church’s internal affairs. Indeed, he reminds us that it is “not well known enough that the General Synod is a delegated body of Parliament”, the laws of which must be approved by Parliament via the Ecclesiastical Committee. He also notes with approval the Early Day Motion recently tabled in the Commons seeking to annul the General Synod’s own legislation reforming the governance of the Church Commissioners.

We should be crystal-clear that, in warning that he and his colleagues are prepared to deploy Parliament’s authority over the Church to amend or overturn the Church’s own plans or decisions, Mr Loder is doing nothing whatsoever constitutionally improper. This is precisely what establishment entails: it is one of remaining legacies of 16th-century Erastianism. Those who defend establishment are of necessity defending these legacies, and thus the possibility and legitimacy of MPs, of any party, driven by any concerns, using Parliament to seek to constrain the Church’s ability to govern itself.

So, let no defender of establishment utter one word of complaint against Mr Loder’s announcement, even if they deplore his substantive views. If they don’t want Parliament to be “watching closely” what the Church does, and ready to throw its weight around when the Church adopts positions disapproved of by MPs, they should gather up their courage and start working for disestablishment.

JONATHAN CHAPLIN
19 Coles Lane, Oakington
Cambridge CB24 3AF

 

From the Revd Dr Alec Corio

Sir, — If Chris Loder wishes the Church of England to “bring people together [and] not favour one group of a community over the other because of a political viewpoint”, perhaps he should lead the way by adding Anglican Opposition MPs to his “Church of England WhatsApp group” that includes only Conservative MPs.

ALEC CORIO
The Vicarage
1 Spring Close
Barnet EN5 2UR

 

House of Bishops meetings should be public

From Mr Harry Olsen

Sir, — With all the talk of reviewing the governance of the Church (News, 14 Septmber), might the proceedings of the House of Bishops be looked at? My own parish church publishes its PCC minutes, as do various synods and committees in the Church of England; are the Bishops above such scrutiny? Well, yes, it seems they are. And they do this by opening a legislative loophole every time they meet.

The law allows for members of the public to attend meetings of the House. In recent years, however, it has been the practice of whichever Bishop is chairing to move Standing Order 14 so that the House may meet as a committee in private. This is a deliberate pre-emptive move against openness, transparency, and accountability. (Incidentally, the other two Houses, Clergy and Laity, lack a comparable Standing Order; quite why the Bishops alone need such protection is unclear.)

It has long been the case that various bodies (e.g. school governors and the local council) can invoke a confidentiality clause for all all or part of the agenda if they are discussing sensitive issues. Fair enough. But that should be the exception, not the norm. For the Bishops to start every meeting with that as a matter of course seems like an abuse of process. Furthermore, I believe that, during the pandemic, meetings of the House have been held online — making attendance by the press and public even easier to arrange. Can the Bishops set a better example and end this unnecessary secrecy?

HARRY OLSEN
Little Barn, New Yatt Road
Witney
Oxfordshire OX29 6TA

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