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Four blogs in March...

1. Vacancy at the Met?


Dame Cressida Dick is unlikely to be offered an extension as Metropolitan Police Commissioner, according to a report in the Times. Other papers have picked up on the story, which is said to be based on "senior government sources", but hasn’t been confirmed.

Dame Cressida is on a five-year contract and she may well decide herself that five years as head of the UK’s biggest and most scrutinised police force is enough. Most of her recent predecessors served five years or less. Aside from Sir Bernard (now Lord) Hogan-Howe, who spent five years and five months in the role, you have to go back to Sir Paul (now Lord) Condon to find a Commissioner who served for longer: he was there from 1993 to 2000.

The current incumbent, who’s 60, has 12 months left on her contract - and those 12 months aren't expected to be any easier than the last. The policing dilemmas and difficulties of the pandemic are set to continue; the Operation Midland controversy is rumbling on; and various high-profile inquests and court cases will bring further questions about leadership, culture and practices within the force.

If there is to be a vacancy, the Mayor of London and the Home Secretary will have to start thinking soon about likely successors. Dame Cressida’s deputy, the forthright former chief constable of Police Scotland, Sir Steve House, might have a go, though he was turned down once before. Met Assistant Commissioner Helen Ball, who oversees professionalism, is another possible contender from within, as is her colleague, Nick Ephgrave, who has experience of leading Surrey Police for three years.

Outside the Met, the three most influential leaders in policing can't be ruled out either. They are Dame Lynne Owens, Director-General of the National Crime Agency and a former Surrey chief constable and senior-ranking Met officer; Dave Thompson, the well-respected chief of West Midlands Police; and ex-Royal Artillery officer Martin Hewitt, who took over at the National Police Chiefs’ Council after 14 years in the Met. Whether they’d want to have a pop at the Commissioner's job is another matter.

At this stage, though, the front-runner is undoubtedly Neil Basu, the urbane and confident Met Assistant Commissioner in charge of counter-terrorism. Despite a couple of missteps with the media, he has cut an impressive figure during some bleak moments. Basu is mixed race - part Indian, part White British (Welsh) - and has written powerfully about his “long life experience” of dealing with racism. If appointed, he would be the first Metropolitan Police Commissioner from an ethnic minority: what a message that would send.


However, as someone might have said: a year is a long time in policing. It's far too soon to write Dame Cressida off or predict who'll be in the frame if she does depart.


2. Robyn Williams update


I've written before about the puzzling case of Robyn Williams, the former Met Police temporary chief superintendent who was found guilty of possessing an indecent image and sacked.


Last month, the Court of Appeal rejected her attempt to overturn her conviction and the Court has now published its reasons. For those who are curious to know more about the background to the case, it provides a good summary.


The Court said: "The straightforward issue for the jury to determine was whether Ms Williams could satisfy the jury that she had not seen the image and did not know, nor had any cause to suspect, it to be indecent. The jury were entitled to reject Ms Williams’ evidence on that issue. The prosecution case...was a strong one. We are satisfied her conviction is safe."


Williams is challenging her dismissal from the Met at a tribunal but the chances of succeeding appear slim. Although each case is dealt with on its merits, separate allegations that other inappropriate images have been shared by police haven't helped the cause of leniency.


3. The right choice for Five Wells

In the middle of a pandemic, good news about prisons is hard to come by.

Most inmates have spent the past 12 months locked in cells for 23 or more hours a day with little access to education, rehabilitation programmes, training and work schemes. Family visits have been severely restricted. The damage to prisoners’ mental health can only be imagined; we will all suffer the consequences when offenders are released back into the community.

But it was heartening to hear that the person chosen to manage HMP Five Wells, an enormous new prison in Northamptonshire, will be John McLaughlin, one of the country’s most experienced governors.

Five Wells, operated by G4S and housing 1,680 men, will be the first new jail in England since 2012, when Oakwood Prison in Wolverhampton opened. It was at Oakwood in 2018 that I met McLaughlin; it was clear from walking around the wings and speaking to him that he commanded respect from both staff and inmates. He was an inspirational figure. Under his leadership, the jail once dubbed “Joke-wood” was transformed into one of the best in the UK.

Initially, G4S selected Brian Anderson to be director of Five Wells. Anderson had been in charge of Rainsbrook secure training centre, the MTC-run facility for children in Northamptonshire which was heavily criticised by inspectors last year. The choice of McLaughlin, who’s 62, gives Five Wells the best possible platform for success.


4. BBC blues


It’s a difficult time for many of my friends and former colleagues in BBC News.

As part of the BBC’s vitally important and long overdue mission to boost its presence across the UK, nine news programmes or departments are being moved out of London to Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow and Leeds. The announcement took staff by surprise and has, understandably, caused upset and uncertainty, particularly among those affected.

There is no reason, in principle, why news teams shouldn’t be based in the four cities - it’ll provide tremendous career opportunities and pathways for journalists there - but the reasons behind these individual moves are far from clear. Many of the existing London-based producers and reporters are unlikely to make the switch, meaning years of experience in specialisms such as environment, science, technology and education will be lost. Radio One’s Newsbeat programme, which I worked for in the 1990s, is one of those earmarked for a transfer north. Managers have always lauded Newsbeat for reaching parts of the population that the rest of the BBC can’t reach, yet, despite its successes, the team now faces being dismantled.

A better approach, which has been followed only to a very limited extent in a few other departments, would have been steadily, over time, to build network capacity in centres outside London, as vacancies arose and funding for new posts became available. What’s being proposed is a ‘big bang’ strategy in a short timescale, with staff having to make life-changing decisions (to live in Leeds, to move to Glasgow) in the middle of a pandemic when travel and overnight stays are severely restricted. The loss of production expertise when an entire radio network, 5 Live, moved from White City to Salford in 2011 should serve as a warning. Some presenters refused to uproot their families, deciding instead to leave 5 Live altogether, commute from the south-east or broadcast from studios in London - which defeated the whole purpose of the project.

Alongside the “Across the UK” changes, BBC News is restructuring many of its teams and cutting 150 jobs, on top of over 500 post closures announced last year. There’s no doubt the organisation must make savings, reduce duplication, work more efficiently - and tilt the balance in favour of digital platforms. But the process managers have opted for is at best, bizarre, and at worst, completely unfair.

Virtually all staff in News have been given just four weeks to decide if they want to leave - by applying for voluntary redundancy - or stay. But there appears to be no guarantee what job they’ll be doing if they do choose to remain; they’re simply being told to fill in a form with their three job preferences. It's hardly a vote of confidence in the BBC's most important asset - its workforce. Hopefully, common-sense will prevail and most staff will slip into their existing roles, though some won't. The prospect of a clash with the unions, who are still embroiled in a dispute about last year’s redundancy programme, is looming.

The BBC is not immune from budget cuts, nor should it be in these difficult times. But I question the handling of it all. A properly thought through, longer-term plan to create hubs of journalistic excellence across the country might have avoided some of the damaging instability that now appears inevitable.


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