Star Interview: ‘Young people are being groomed and drawn into gangs for criminal activity – that’s the thing we need to keep an eye on’

Dr Alan Billings. Picture: Andrew Roe
Dr Alan Billings. Picture: Andrew Roe

It is, agrees Dr Alan Billings, time to seek real answers.

South Yorkshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner has been weighing up the background to a wave of violence that has left the county’s force facing an almost unprecedented demand – six murders since March, including five in just 13 days last month.

Two weeks ago a 17-year-old boy was shot in the back outside a convenience store in Woodthorpe, Sheffield, while on the same night a man aged 28 was stabbed repeatedly during a confrontation with a group of teenagers.

“These are not random attacks, they’re not people going out on the streets and knifing people,” says Dr Billings, speaking in his office at South Yorkshire Police’s headquarters.

“They are clearly targeted and often related to known groups of people. So the public can be reassured they’re not likely to be affected if they go out onto the streets. But it’s clearly coming as a bit of a surprise or a shock to some families that young people have somehow got involved with violence.”

Nothing, Dr Billings emphasises, shocks officers.

“The police deal with an aspect of human nature which the rest of us from time to time have to be reminded we’re all capable of – doing bad things. They’re never shocked. But they do understand they have to get on top of things before they really develop and take off.”

The big question, he says, is whether the incidents are merely a spike or the start of a new trend.

“That applies nationally as well as locally. There’s certainly a London issue which is now endemic, and I think very difficult for the Metropolitan Police to deal with, but I don’t think we’re on anything like that scale here. There are incidents like this all across the country and in Europe. So it can’t just be a South Yorkshire or Sheffield solution.”

One of the murder victims, Samuel Baker, was just 15 – ‘a worrying thing’, the commissioner says.

“My particular concern is whether we’re seeing something not unlike child sexual exploitation, which I would call child criminal exploitation, where children – young people – are being groomed and drawn into gangs for criminal activity. That’s the thing we need to keep an eye on.”

‘Clean skins’ who have had no previous involvement with the law are being targeted, thinks Dr Billings, who included criminal exploitation in his police and crime plan, a priority-setting document that is refreshed every year. He recommends getting ‘upstream of crime’ by identifying potential triggers.

“I think the old Blair government had it absolutely right when they said ‘Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ – the tough on crime bit is what the public clamour for, you have to take note of that and come down very hard, but ‘tough on the causes’ is the preventive work that will stop it happening in the first place. It’s much more difficult to do, but you have to do it and it’s generally with other people.”

Schools have a part to play; Sheffield’s exclusion rate is one of the country’s highest with one secondary, Outwood Academy City, issuing 1,533 fixed-term exclusions in 2015/16.

“What the police do not want to see are young people, of school age, out on the streets,” Dr Billings says. “I think it’s a real difficulty now that we have academies that are all separate, and isolated, and we don’t have a local authority running schools in the way it used to do.”

Councils could play a role in bringing academies together, he suggests. “I think the Government made an error when they allowed schools to go off on this independent journey without sufficient reference to a local authority.”

But he adds: “I accept some of the partners, like schools, think ‘Here we go again, we’re being asked to pick up something which we can’t do on our own’. And of course that is true. We must be careful we don’t simply say it’s over to the schools or local authority – it isn’t, it’s all of us. Otherwise you get into a situation where everyone’s passing the parcel.”

Dr Billings became commissioner in 2014, standing as a Labour candidate and succeeding Shaun Wright, who resigned over the child sexual exploitation scandal in Rotherham that involved the abuse of more than 1,400 children. On his watch there have also been the Hillsborough inquests – after which he sacked the then chief constable David Crompton – and the lengthy fallout from the controversial raid on Sir Cliff Richard’s home.

“I meet other PCCs up and down the country and they say ‘Oh we’ve got X, or Y’. Well we’ve got X and Y, plus Z and lots of other things as well. We seem to have everything here.”

One of the first things he did was set up a panel of CSE victims and their families in a bid to restore trust.

“Those victims, and survivors, would not speak to the police when I came in. We’ve gradually introduced them to officers who we felt understood the situation, and were sympathetic.”

The ongoing saga over the council’s felling of street trees in Sheffield has also risked harming the relationship between the public and police. “You can’t have a force that’s not trusted.”

All this has put financial pressure on the organisation, which has a £245m yearly budget. Dr Billings is calling on the government to help cover the annual cost of ‘legacy issues’, and has just written a letter to the policing minister Nick Hurd asking for at least £14m in special grants. Much of that sum stems from Operation Stovewood, the National Crime Agency’s investigation into CSE, but there’s more.

“We’ve got the Hillsborough civil claims coming in – we don’t know whether they’ll come in this financial year or the next, but we’re talking multiple millions there. We’ve got CSE claims from the groomed women in Rotherham – they’re coming in at the rate of hundreds of thousands of pounds. When your budgets are tight and stretched, they have the potential to push you into a very difficult place where you’re drawing on reserves all the time. There comes a point where we run out, and we have to avoid that.”

Day-to-day, the force is ‘functioning quite normally’, he stresses – in fact, the most recent HMIC reports have rated South Yorkshire as ‘good’, up on ‘requires improvement’.

Dr Billings, 75, was born in Leicester, studied at Cambridge and has been a teacher as well as deputy leader of Sheffield Council in the 1980s.

He is no firebrand politician, though. It might be the circumstances, but in conversation he is contemplative and quite solemn, a quality that perhaps stems from his other vocation as a parish priest – he has served in Broomhall, Beighton and Walkley. A decade ago he moved back to Sheffield from Kendal, Cumbria, to marry his third wife Veronica Hardstaff, a former MEP. He has two grown-up sons.

He is glad Labour has reconciled itself to commissioners, the party having previously wanted them scrapped. Re-elected in 2016, his powers have increased, too. PCCs are now able to take over fire authorities – Dr Billings chairs a police and fire collaboration board that has just made joint appointments for the services’ estate, fleet and community safety departments.

And, on top of everything else, he still keeps his hand in as a priest on Sundays, at Whiston Parish Church and St Mary’s. Can any parallels be drawn between his two roles?

“Both are about human beings and human nature. The important thing about the PCC is you have the power of moral persuasion and influence. That’s not a million miles away from a parish priest.”

But he won’t be drawn on whether he’ll stand again. “Are you asking me what I’ll be doing in 2020? I think that would be a mistake.”

Sacked because he didn’t resign

Dr Alan Billings blanches at the thought of ever dismissing another chief constable.

“I wouldn’t like to live through all that again,” says the police and crime commissioner, who fired David Crompton in 2016. The senior officer gave a statement following the Hillsborough disaster inquest verdicts that appeared to justify the questioning of fans’ conduct.

“No-one had anything other than condemnation for South Yorkshire Police at that time. It was immensely difficult.”

He can’t contradict the outcome of a judicial review which found his actions in forcing Crompton to resign were, in his words, ‘irrational, unlawful, and lots of other adjectives’, but he remarks: “At the time I did hope the chief constable would resign of his own volition, but he wasn’t willing to do that, so I took the action I did, and subsequently received criticism from the High Court.”

South Yorkshire’s present chief, Stephen Watson, was appointed by Dr Billings in 2016 from Durham, the country’s only ‘outstanding’ constabulary. “He’s not content with good, he wants excellent, and I see no reason why that shouldn’t happen.”

The region has national experts within its ranks – deputy chief constable Mark Roberts is in Russia overseeing England fans during the World Cup, while Det Supt Una Jennings advises on knife crime.