Due to the sensitivities of the pre-election period, I wanted to set out the background and rationale for the distribution of a booklet which features a small photograph of, and a short paragraph from the Police and Crime Commissioner Festus Akinbusoye given he is standing for election in Mid-Beds.
I made the decision to go ahead with distributing the violence against women and girls (VAWG) Safer Streets booklet because colleagues had worked incredibly hard to ensure that victims of violence, rape and sexual offences in Bedfordshire had access to information they needed to either report a crime to the police and get the help they may need, or to get support without reporting.
VAWG is defined by the Home Office as acts of violence or abuse that we know disproportionately affect women and girls. This includes rape and sexual offences, stalking and domestic abuse and there are other behaviours which affect women and girls in our county such as catcalling, inappropriate and unwanted touching, misogyny, explicit messaging, and groping, to name but a few. These behaviours sometimes may not all meet a criminal threshold, but we know that they could be precursors for further offending. Either way, they make women and girls in Bedfordshire feel unsafe and we want to ensure that all victims receive a sensitive and appropriate response according to their needs. There were 11,472 offences of violence against women and girls recorded in Bedfordshire last year, and 84 per cent of us do not know what to do when we witness street harassment happening.
Delivering an information booklet to every household in Bedfordshire was part of our Safer Streets VAWG project bid to the Home Office submitted in May 2022. For more than a year the booklet was earmarked for delivery in late summer 2023 in the Safer Streets project plan. With this timescale in mind, detailed design work and partnership consultation took place when there was no knowledge about a potential parliamentary by-election in Mid-Bedfordshire, or that Mr Akinbusoye was going to be a candidate.
Since 16 June 2023, when Mr Akinbusoye was selected as a parliamentary candidate for the by-election in Mid-Bedfordshire, the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner (OPCC) has been operating in unprecedented circumstances. This includes the well-publicised issues around when any by-election for the constituency might take place after Ms Dorries announced her intention to resign. The time in the run up to the regulated period was difficult to navigate with so much speculation around Ms Dorries’ departure and when the by-election would be called. However, it was important to maintain a business-as-usual approach as far as possible prior to the regulated period.
During this time, staff from the OPCC and our partner agencies, including local authority colleagues, were working to get the Safer Streets booklet designed, consulted upon, and approved by the Safer Streets statutory partners as well as other partner agencies. Mr Akinbusoye was only given a very small presence in the booklet, limited to one photo in a collage as well as a brief foreword. This is understandable given the project was led by the OPCC and this was agreed to by all other partners. I would not have approved anything that was politically orientated or could be seen as electioneering irrespective of the timing as that would not be an appropriate use of public money.
The booklet was circulated for sign off to a range of statutory partners early in August 2023 and the contract to print and distribute was signed on 15 August 2023, before the by-election was called. This contract stated that distribution would take place from 11 September 2023, the earliest possible delivery date available at that stage. On 5 September 2023, when a date was confirmed for the Mid-Bedfordshire by-election, and recognising the sensitivities associated with Mr Akinbusoye’s candidature, I asked that we urgently explored with our contractors, as well as directly with Royal Mail, the possibility of pausing delivery of the booklet until the outcome of the by-election was known.
We were told that at that stage all 287,135 booklets had been printed at a cost of £24,582.80, and we would be liable for this cost and for 100 per cent of the distribution costs of £19,726.17 regardless of whether we went ahead with distribution or not. Our Safer Streets grant criteria also stipulates that all projects must be delivered before 30 September 2023, leaving us potentially in breach of our grant agreement with the Ministry of Justice if the booklets were not delivered before this date. Given this information and balancing the need to use public money wisely and appropriately against complaints I anticipated might come in if we went ahead with distribution, I took the decision to proceed with the distribution as per the contract.
Most of the booklets were delivered during the week commencing 11 September 2023, but I acknowledge the small overlap of a couple of days between distribution of the booklet and the regulated period. However, we were left in a very difficult position where any alternative course of action would have resulted in significant cost to the taxpayer as well as a potential breach of a government grant worth almost £1 million.
To date, thousands of people have accessed the QR code on the booklet to find more information about how they can report that they have been a victim of crime and to receive support via the outstanding organisations who work tirelessly in the county to help victims of sexual abuse, violence and exploitation.