There should always be a place for common sense and humanity within policing

Food banks have become a fact of life in Stoke-on-Trent as people struggle to pay for necessities.

Food banks have become a fact of life in Stoke-on-Trent as people struggle to pay for necessities.

As someone who often bemoans the softness of the judicial system in this country I have to confess I had something of a strange reaction to Saturday’s Sentinel splash.

There’s no doubt in my mind that sentences passed by courts in the UK are often too lenient and I’ve also criticised conditions in our prisons because they sometimes seem, to me, to be more akin to holiday camps than jails for people who have broken the laws of the land.

But when I read the story about ‘down-on-their-luck’ criminals being given food vouchers by Staffordshire Police I wasn’t outraged, unlike other readers.

Our story, which was picked up the following day by the national Press, prompted some people to claim the initiative effectively rewards or even incentivises criminal behaviour.

But are we honestly suggesting that people will start thieving on the off chance that some kindly police officer will give them emergency food vouchers?

I’m sorry but I just can’t see it.

Firstly, I looked at the figures in Saturday’s story.

Since March just seven food bank vouchers have been handed out by officers at the force’s Northern Area Custody Facility.

We’re hardly talking big numbers now, are we?

Then I read the case of the latest recipient of a copper’s goodwill.

If you believe the man (a shoplifter) – and I’ve no reason not to as the police verified his statement – he stole two items of food to eat as he’d spent his benefits on vet’s bills for his pet dog.

Wrong, certainly, but hardly crime of the century, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Having explained his actions, apologised and given the stolen items back, he was let off with a caution and the custody officer took the unusual step of offering the man a voucher which could be redeemed at Stoke-on-Trent Foodbank.

Now I’d hate for anyone to think I’ve gone soft but I would suggest that the officer in question was perfectly placed to make a judgement call that the man who received three days of ‘emergency food’.

Whether or not police officers should be making such calls is a matter of debate, of course.

Police Commissioner Matthew Ellis is quite rightly trying to re-focus our cash-strapped county force on policing rather than have officers tied up with issues he feels other agencies ought to be dealing with.

In the wake of our story he’s suspended the food vouchers scheme pending a review.

Personally, I’d like to think that there will always be a place for common sense and human decency within the police service – as exemplified by the officer who dealt so sensibly with the shoplifter.

Given that it probably took less than a minute to have a conversation and hand out the vouchers as the man was being discharged, I hardly think it can be viewed as a waste of valuable police time or resources.

I can’t, of course, excuse the behaviour of the shoplifter because there are many, many people struggling in the current climate who would never dream of stealing.
However, food banks like the one here in the Potteries wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t a need for them.

People who receive vouchers are deemed to be in extreme need by professionals such as doctors, health visitors, social workers, staff at the Citizens’ Advice Bureau and, until this story broke, local police officers.

It seems to me to be eminently sensible and reasonable for people in these professions to be the arbiters of who needs what with regard to emergency food provision and, in the absence of a better solution, I’d be more than happy for them to continue to do so.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

No parent has all the answers so this scheme must be a good idea

Every parent remembers the moment only too well. Dark circles ringing their eyes, they blink in the daylight as they stagger out into the fresh air to a waiting car or taxi.

The precious bundle swaddled in blankets and strapped safely in, they leave the grounds of the hospital and head for home, good wishes ringing in their ears.

That’s when it hits you. You’ve got a baby and life will never, ever be the same again.

This is because that little bundle relies on you completely during every waking moment and even when he or she is sleeping. Your life is simply no longer your own.

For those who have never had children I may as well be speaking Vulcan. They just won’t understand a word of this.

Being a mum or dad is the most rewarding job in the world – and also the toughest, most unrelenting role you will ever have.

It boils down to total responsibility for shaping the life of another who is entirely dependant upon you.

What’s more, children don’t come with a manual. There is no handbook which will calm you at 3am when little ’un is screaming blue murder for no apparent reason.

No matter what anyone says, you can’t help but keep nipping into the box room to make sure he or she is still breathing when you can’t hear nowt on the baby monitor.

Sleep-deprived, irritable zombies, we learn through our mistakes.

We suss the nappy-changing, the milk requirements, the sleeping patterns, growth spurts and teething through bitter experience – spurred on by occasional magical moments.

‘He grabbed my hand…’ ‘She lifted her head…’ ‘He smiled…’ ‘She said her first word…’ ‘He laughed…’ ‘She took her first steps…’

And so it goes on.

No-one sets out to be a bad parent but sometimes circumstances overtake the best intentions.

Some people are better at coping than others because they are built that way. Some people have help from their partner, family or friends.

But many parents don’t have access to a support network. Even some of those who do still struggle to cope with the punishing daily routine and the simple lack of time for themselves – time to recharge their batteries or just talk to other grown-ups.

Worse still, some mums and dads are barely literate, anti-social morons who never give a thought to anyone else – let alone their own offspring.

Most of us can figure out that sticking junior in front of the telly isn’t going to assist his or her development as much as stimulating play will.

By the same token, we know that using sweets and crisps to buy 10 minutes of peace and quiet is actually a bad idea.

But some dilemmas aren’t quite so straightforward.

How long should you leave a baby to cry? What do you do if little ’un won’t take his or her bottle? How do you take a baby’s temperature? How should you discipline and unruly child?

You could take the view that it’s remarkable that people need to be 16 to buy cigarettes, 18 to buy alcohol or fireworks and need to pass a test to drive a car but they are allowed to leave hospital carrying a tiny human being having had no training whatsoever.

Personally, I’m all for anything which helps to better prepare new mums and dads for this most challenging period in their lives which is why I welcome the Government’s pilot scheme for free parenting classes.

Slammed by some as interference by the ‘nanny state’, the initiative offers vouchers for £100-worth of parenting classes from high street chemist Boots and health professionals to parents of children aged up to five in three trial areas.

There will also be a new targeted NHS email and text service aimed at those expecting a baby or in the first month of parenthood.

It is designed to provide “regular, relevant and tailored” advice such as videos of baby bathing and other techniques, plus advice from other parents.

If successful, these schemes may be extended across England and Wales and I sincerely hope they are.

Some will undoubtedly criticise these moves and argue that what the country needs right now is more nurses, health visitors and social workers.

That may be true, but it strikes me that there are thousands of parents-to-be who would genuinely benefit from some help, advice and myth-busting before the poo actually hits the nappy.

I know I would have welcomed such an initiative and I’m pretty sure in this age of single-parents and non-nuclear families that those mums and dads without a traditional support network would too.

Thirty years ago, new parents would have perhaps turned to their parents or grandparents for help and advice on everything from breast-feeding to preparing healthy, nutritious meals for toddlers that don’t come out of a jar.

To an extent this still happens but I believe that the state can certainly play an important role in helping people become better, more responsible and caring mums and dads.

No-one has all the answers when it comes to bringing up children and anyone who says they wouldn’t benefit from a bit of advice is kidding themselves and doing their children a huge disservice.

Every child deserves the best possible start in life but many are hampered by both the environment in which they are raised and the capabilities of those looking after them.

It is by no means a silver bullet but I think the parenting classes initiative is a step in the right direction – one which will help to prevent neglect, health problems, accidents and ultimately broken homes.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday