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Rising to challenge of serving law and order; From tackling drug cartels to youth disorder, it is all the responsibility of Merseyside Police Authority. Chief reporter Andy Kelly talks with chairman Bill Weightman.

Byline: Andy Kelly

T IS fair to say Bill Weightman has had a fairly challenging first year at the helm of Merseyside Police Authority.

First there was the little matter of Merseyside receiving the lowest government funding settlement of any force in the country - a rise of only 3% - and the major budget juggling required to cope with it.

Then, within weeks of his taking over, Merseyside Police was rocked by an email scandal as a large number of officers were investigated after alleged racist and sexist material was discovered on their computers.

Despite that baptism of fire, the Knowsley councillor and trade unionist has taken on the chairman's role with relish and was re-elected to the position for a second term at last week's annual meeting.

Engaging and straight talking, he is still not finished with the email issue, despite six unnamed officers being suspended following an inquiry.

Cllr Weightman, 48, said: 'I've got a fairly broad mind but I found some of the images very offensive.

'The general public need to know we have professional standards and they are real.

'We need to explain to the public why there were no sackings and reassure them there is no room for cover-ups in the force these days. There would be uproar if people thought we were returning to the bad old days.

'We will be explaining ourselves soon and releasing the ranks of the officers involved.

'I think the public will then accept the decisions were correct.'

Perhaps the central ethos of Cllr Weightman's leadership is to move the police authority from the margins right to the heart of Merseyside life.

'I want people both at the authority and other organisations to recognise we have a valuable role to play on Merseyside, not just about policing.

'We now have a cohesive police authority where everyone is engaged and we can have sensible discussions regardless of political colour.'

So what are the key issues facing the Merseyside force as Cllr Weightman begins his second year in office

THE BUDGET

The poor settlement from government this year led to what was basically a stand-still police budget, with Chief Constable Bernard Hogan-Howe unable to bring foward many of the new developments he had hoped for.

Balances and one-off savings were used to plug a looming pounds 12m deficit.

The formula used to calculate grant has been unfavourable to Merseyside because of a falling population and the fact more young men are now in employment.

It remains perhaps Cllr Weightman's biggest frustration.

He said: 'It just seems ridiculous that Merseyside is designated an Objective One area, receiving millions to get us back up to national and international standards, and then we get hit for being successful.

'Trying to get the Home Office to listen to our needs was one of the biggest disappointments of the year.

'We've now got to prove to Government why we need additional funding. We've spoken to the MPs and they've asked us to put the case together and we're doing that

ORGANISED CRIME

It is the presence of so many organised criminals in Merseyside which heightens the need for extra resouces for the force.

Cllr Weightman said: 'Our reputation for dealing with organised crime is second to none, we have a real expertise in it.

'But to increase it we'd have to take away from the neighbourhoods and the public don't want us to do that - most people will never come into contact with a major criminal.

'It's a national problem and that's why we need support. We're a West Coast port and a major importer.

'Organised crime is always more active in areas where there is a port because of the drugs market while there is also a historical issue on Merseyside. The amount of money these people have available to them makes our pounds 360m budget look embarrassing.

'We work with our partners like Customs of course but it can take years to bring them to justice. Even then there are young people who have seen apparent easy pickings and are waiting to take their place.'

One of the key weapons against organised crime is the new Proceeds of Crime Act which allows property to be seized unless suspects can prove it was legitimately earned.

Cllr Weightman is a keen supporter of the legislation

ANTI-SOCIAL BEHAVIOUR

From hoodies to happy slapping, there is no doubt anti-social behaviour, principally from gangs of youths, is the major policing question in the UK at the moment.

Merseyside is no exception.

Cllr Weightman said: 'It is our number one priority for the next 12 months. I've already asked the Chief Constable to review the use of Section 30 orders (dispersal powers over groups in specific areas, eg Waterloo train station). We've had some major successes but in other areas they haven't worked as well.

'I see this behaviour myself on my estate in Knowsley. It can be anything from having your car vandalised, to verbal abuse to physical assaults.

'The public do not always want to come forward because of the risk of reprisals.

We've got to reassure people that if they do we can help solve their problem.

'I think we are seeing a sea-change in the willingness of people to help the police but one of the things that worries me is witness intimidation.

' There is more we can do to protect people. For example I think if people need to move because they are being intimidated then we need to be able to do that very quickly.'

Cllr Weightman also called for courts to be given more freedom to decide on penalties locally where the impact of the crime can be assessed better.

'The shackles need to be taken off our magistrates, at the moment the penalties are fixed. We should be able to determine locally what sentence should be laid down. ' Local authorities also need to put more resources into diverting young people away from street corners.'

On a more positive note, the police force itself is currently recruiting a young cadet force.

'We're not just using this as a recruitment tool but also to show what it's like to be a good citizen. We're starting in north Liverpool with about 70 people. One young lad up there has been emailing me every week to make sure we push it forward

POLICE NUMBERS

Every crime survey always comes back with the same message - the public wants to see more police on the streets.

Cllr Weightman is keen to deliver. He said: 'We made a pledge of 600 extra officers and we managed 250 this year, well above government estimates; 150 brand new recruits and 100 brought from the back office.

'But that's 250 across three shifts and six areas. Even 600 would not be enough and though we're still committed to that, it has proved very difficult to increase police numbers. We've got 4,500 officers for 1.5m people across three shifts, it's not a lot of people, never mind holidays and sickness. Both Norman Bettison and Bernard Hogan-Howe though have made a real impact on sickness and ill-health retirements.

'We want to put more police officers on the streets, 86% of our budget goes on people. But we are told to make efficiency savings of 3% every year and on a pounds 360m budget it does not give you much scope unless we're going to hit people

RESPONDING TO THE PUBLIC

Nothing annoys the public more than making a call to the police and apparently getting little or no response. Improving police call handling has been one of the key tasks of Cllr Weightman's first year.

'We've put pounds 1.2m into the call centre with 43 more call handlers and are putting extra money into training because we know it is the first contact members of the public have with the force.

'Callers are often angered by the questions they will be asked by the operator but they are all necessary for us to help grade the response needed.

'The volume of calls simply goes up every year.

' With the mobile phone culture, we can now get 20 or 30 calls to one job when previously it would be just one

B UREAUCRACY

The burden of paperwork is angering many police officers at the moment, particularly the amount required after making an arrest.

As one officer told the Daily Post: 'The criminals know the best time to be active is when we've just made an arrest because we can spend three or four hours just sorting out the paperwork, it's madness.'

Cllr Weightman shares their frustration.

He said: 'Bureaucracy is a national issue at the moment and a taskforce has been set up to look at how to reduce paperwork for officers - of course they usually produce more paperwork. We're looking at technology to hopefully cut it down

PENSIONS

It is a scary thought that funding for the police force on Merseyside now pays for more retired officers than those currently serving. With no separate police pension fund, all pension costs must be met from annual budgets. With those recruited in the drives of the late 1970s approaching retirement soon, there has been growing concern about a possible pensions timebomb.

Cllr Weightman said: 'The government has indicated they will introduce a central pension scheme from March 2006 so they would take on responsibility for all newly retired officers.

'It would not affect our current liability - pounds 60m a year - but could save the people of Merseyside millions in future years.

'I've asked our MPs to press for an introduction in March 2006 though. Being rather cynical though, I'm sure they won't do it without taking the money away from elsewhere

CAPITAL OF CULTURE

Cllr Weightman is concerned that with thousands of extra visitors expected in Capital of Culture year in 2008, no-one is considering the possible impact on policing.

' There has been no indication from the government that we will have any additional money to police Merseyside between now and 2008. We've not even been invited into any discussions on Capital of Culture, it is a major policing issue but there is nothing to say we will get any additional resources.'

A busy year stretches ahead at the Police Authority. Cllr Weightman is already organising a major gay and lesbian conference for the autumn as he continues to support minority groups in the region.

But it will be the experience of the wider public, from the struggling estates to the wealthier suburbs, which will determine how successful his year will be

CAPTION(S):

Cllr Bill Weightman's challenging year as chairman of the Police Authority; Inspector Ian Shaw with some of the drugs recovered after Operation Hawk, in Birkenhead; CCTV pictures of vandals, left, and footage of a drugs dealer in Liverpool; A hoodie roaming the streets; Chief Constable Bernard Hogan-Howe
COPYRIGHT 2005 MGN Ltd.
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Copyright 2005 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Jun 27, 2005
Words:1807
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