Dr Alan Billings Keynote – ARA Conference

The common thread of Dr Billings’s compelling talk was ‘trust’ andhow – in times where trust is tested to breaking point in our communities,the integrity of ‘the documentary record’ and those who manage it becomescrucial.

Summary of Dr Alan Billings’s Keynote, 30/08/17 – ARA Conference 2017

AlanBillingsOfficial Cropped 412x355 0The common thread of Dr Billings’s compelling talk was ‘trust’ and how – in times where trust is tested to breaking point in our communities, the integrity of ‘the documentary record’ and those who manage it becomes crucial.

As (elected) Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire in England, Dr Billings explained his role simply: if the police do not trust him, it impedes everyone’s goal of maximum public safety for the people of South Yorkshire; but equally, if the public do not trust the police (or the PCC) then the police are unable to do their job.

Dr Billings explained that South Yorkshire is struggling to deal with the legacy of past controversies. Two prominent ones from the 1980s, the Hillsborough disaster and the ‘battle of Orgreave’ dominate, but there have been more recent scandals, such as the authorities’ response to reports that young women/girls were being ‘groomed’ by gangs of men in Rotherham.

Dr Billings’s main focus in his talk was Orgreave. He wanted to know if the notorious police violence that took place in this South Yorkshire village during the 1984 coal miners’ strike in the UK – ‘one of the bloodiest conflicts in British industrial history’ - was planned by the authorities and/or whether the police allowed themselves to collude with politicians in a political campaign to defeat the strikers. For the communities affected by the strike in and beyond Orgreave, getting answers to those questions is the only way to restore their trust in the police, thirty years later. The answers, Dr Billings believes, ‘are in the evidence’, ie the union, police or government records of the time.

So, the question then turns to making that evidence available. Most of the records belong to South Yorkshire Police. Some of them may not be accessible for many years due to data protection, legal privilege and protection concerns (eg, names of police informers). But in order to make even these decisions, there is a need to know what evidence is out there and it is his experience that ‘the police don’t always know what they’ve got’. So, how to start on the road to a consensual ‘writing or re-writing of the Orgreave narrative’ and to better understand how South Yorkshire Police may have come ‘dangerously close to being an instrument of state oppression’?

For Dr Billings, the key was to have clear, watertight terms of reference at the outset: all documents connected to Orgreave must be captured and there must be no attempt to suppress evidence that relates to the above questions; the PCC’s office itself would fund the appointment of a records manager/archivist to catalogue and reference the documents (to avoid the perception that the police were ‘managing’ the process; and the PCC would look to create a panel of people trusted on all sides to assess the documents and decide what (if any) redactions or restrictions should be placed on their access (similar to the Hillsborough Panel model). 

As Dr Billings saw it, securing the cooperation and trust of the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign (OTJC) and the wider public in the process, and in his role as PCC, rests on ‘ensuring that everything is as transparent as possible’. Part of this meant that the OTJC were invited to meet the records manager/archivist as soon as possible and discuss how he would go about his task and be clear that he would not allow himself to be manipulated. As Dr Billings sees it, the Orgreave archives should be fully catalogued by the end of 2017. Then there will evidently be Freedom of Information requests and the beginnings of public access. In all this, there is an opportunity for South Yorkshire Police to rebuild its reputation.

Jon Elliott
ARA Head of Public Affairs
August 2017