4 September 2018

How to get crime falling again


For decades the crime rate in the UK was rising. Then in 1993 Michael Howard became Home Secretary. He was told by his officials that it was inevitable that crime would increase by five per cent a year. His response was to declare defiantly that: “Prison Works”. The crime rate fell on a sustained basis for the first time since the First World War.

Howard’s Labour predecessors broadly continued his policy — albeit with fluffier rhetoric. Fewer criminals on the streets, more behind bars. Correlation is not automatically causation. The reasons for the fall in crime are disputed. But it is a matter of statistical fact that more people were imprisoned and fewer crimes were recorded.

In 1993 there were 44,500 prisoners. Today it is 86,000. Of course, it could be that locking people up for longer was a factor in crime reduction — but not the only one. Howard himself says that technological advances — such as CCTV and DNA databases had a lot to do with it.

Then, during David Cameron’s premiership, crime continued to fall. In 2015 it was 20 per cent lower than in 2010 as measured by the Crime Survey. This was despite police budget cuts.

But recently this benign trend has stalled — and on some measures gone sharply into reverse. The latest figures from the Crime Survey suggest some success in combating computer viruses and fraud but also that violent crime has started to increase. The alternative measure — crimes recorded by the police — shows a clear increase. This is despite the prisons still being at bursting point.

In London the news has been especially grim.

Last year the homicide rate was up 12 per cent nationally. In London it was up by 51 per cent. Burglary was up six per cent nationally — in London up by 12 per cent. Robbery was up a startling 30 per cent — in London even worse with an increase of 36 per cent.

So what is to be done about it? Being “tough on crime” is always a popular message. It is also an important part of the solution. In London there’s been a huge increase in moped theft — the mopeds are often stolen by throwing acid into the face of food delivery drivers. They are then used as convenient vehicles to undertake further crime. We have the absurd situation that the police are constrained from chasing thieves who are not wearing helmets — for health and safety reasons: take off your helmet and operate with impunity.

There has also been the reduction in stop and search. It is true that innocent black teenagers were stopped a disproportionate number of times. But far more serious is that innocent black teenagers have been the greatest victims when the police walk by on the other side. The police now have body-worn video that holds them to account. Both the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, (a former human rights lawyer) and Theresa May, when she was Home Secretary, are culpable for putting political correctness first to constrain robust, no-nonsense policing.

The Crown Prosecution Service must also take some responsibility. It used to be understood that a lot of traffic legislation required specific exemptions for the police when in pursuit of criminals. Of course under such circumstances it is reasonable for the police to break the speed limit or drive past a red light. It was always taken as obvious that the CPS would exercise discretion — the police officers I have spoken to no longer have that confidence.

But to get the crime rate falling again it is also crucial to press ahead with bold reforms of the police service. The rigorous pursuit of value for money may be at times unpopular with the police and the public — or both. For instance, “Save our police station” is a campaign for which it is easy to gather signatures on a petition.

There is a warm glow of nostalgia for Dixon of Dock Green. Yet since that era there’s been a big shift from reporting crimes at police station to using the phone, internet, and email. Victims of crime now have the option of a police officer coming to visit them. Keeping a police counter open 24/7 is a huge expense — often the number of visitors is tiny. Closing police stations allows the Metropolitan Police to have more officers out on the beat rather than shut away in grim buildings which are expensive to maintain.

Proceeds from selling buildings can help to pay for new equipment vital to increase police effectiveness. Shaun Bailey, who is seeking the Conservative nomination for Mayor for London, has noted that in New York, the police department’s Domain Awareness System has helped reduce crime by reducing the burden on police officers of administrative tasks.

Another way of improving police effectiveness is for more contracting out of non-policing functions. The latest figures I could find state that the Metropolitan Police employs nearly 31,000 police officers — but also 8,000 non police staff. Competitive tendering to ensure the back office costs are kept down is sensible. But it is also politically sensitive with the alarmist (albeit misleading) potential for critics to portray it as “privatisation of the police”.

The Mayor of London’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC) had a budget of £47.6 million in Sadiq Khan’s first year. He has put it up to £58.1 million. While blaming spending cuts for forcing him to cut the number of bobbies, he has spent more on bureaucracy and diversity officers.

So there is plenty of scope for greater innovation and efficiency. But choosing that path will not be without controversy. These days the Police Federation is much like any other trade union in resisting reform and seeking to defend entrenched public sector vested interests. Politicians are nervous of provoking attacks from it — or from police chiefs.

The election in 2020 for Mayor of London is set to see crime as the dominant issue. Whoever the Conservatives choose as their candidate will surely find that challenging Khan’s failure will resonate. The hard bit is setting out an honest agenda of how to get crime falling again. That involves giving police more power — but also holding them to account for their performance. It also means persuading Londoners of the case for that new direction.

Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist.