Party’s fury over budget threat to flagship panels

Concern: Coun Colin Ross.
Concern: Coun Colin Ross.
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FLAGSHIP community justice panels are set to be hit as part of Sheffield Council’s budget cuts – despite success in cutting reoffending rates among petty criminals.

Since the panels were launched in the city, more than 300 cases have been dealt with, involving minor crimes where offenders meet their victims and reparation work is agreed.

The panels reduce court costs and take up less time than traditional prosecutions, while criminals are made to see the impact of their crimes from a victim’s perspective.

But preliminary council budget documents seen by The Star show the authority’s £220,000 discretionary community safety budget, which funds the panels, is recommended for a 10 per cent cut.

The documents state: “The proposed cut will be secured by minor reductions to drug and alcohol-related work to save about £3,000 and the remaining savings secured through streamlining the community justice panels. While the staffing will be required to stay in place, reductions in publicity and room hire will seek to secure £18,000 savings.”

Officers have not revealed whether there will be a reduction in the number of cases dealt with or a move to cheaper venues.

Sheffield was one of the first large cities to set up the panels, which were pioneered in Somerset. The first two panels were established in Broomhill and Ecclesfield before being rolled out city-wide.

They were seen as a flagship policy of the previous Lib Dem administration.

Up to October this year, 345 cases had been dealt with by the panels and the Lib Dems said reoffending rates for criminals dealt with were ‘3 to 4 per cent instead of 34 per cent in magistrates’ courts’.

Coun Shaffaq Mohammed, leader of the council’s Lib Dem group, said: “If approved, this cut would be a short-sighted decision. The panels have been effective and will save money in the long term by reducing reoffending rates and consequent costs of court hearings, imprisonment and dealing with the actual crimes involved.”

Coun Colin Ross, deputy Lib Dem leader, said: “We are also concerned this report has been issued when the council is still consulting with the public about what services it should protect.”

The ruling Labour group has so far revealed few details of its plans for next year, barring that up to 690 jobs could go and its £300,000 funding towards police community support officers will be retained.

Coun Julie Dore, council leader, said final proposals would not be put together until the New Year and no decisions have yet been taken on what cuts should be made over the next year.

However, the authority has had a headstart in making savings in 2012/13, with £15 million of efficiencies identified before any services have to be cut and a predicted underspend of £1.4 million in the 2011/12 financial year.

A council spokesman said: “The panels are an important part of how the city tackles anti-social behaviour and continues to support community safety and dealing with low-level crime.

“What is important is Sheffield people will have the same service, level of support and number of officers dealing with issues that matter to them next year.

“Not spending so much on publicity and finding other meeting rooms that save money are the proposals councillors will be asked to consider. No decision has been made.”

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