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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 July, 2003, 16:02 GMT 17:02 UK
Crime audit

Denis Sewell audits the Labour government's performance on crime. Latest assessment's indicate that crime figures are falling but also indicate that police are solving fewer cases.

Is that why we don't feel any safer and criminals still reckon crime pays?

While still in opposition, Labour stole the Tory's clothes, presenting themselves as the party of law and order and pledging, once in office, to get tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. Six years on, we've come to Nottinghamshire to see if this government really has made Britain a better policed and more law abiding society. We're asking: is Labour delivering on crime? Mansfield nestles on the edge of Sherwood Forest. "Robin Hood Country" says the welcoming road sign. But today's outlaws don't steal from the rich - they prey on the very poorest. Crime always hit the have-nots hardest and Mansfield is among the 30 most deprived districts in the country.

JOHN KAY: (Nottinghamshire Probation Service)
It's an area of very high levels of crime and particularly high levels of violent crime, high levels of domestic violence, high levels of street violence, high levels of racial violence. And it's an area which has suffered significantly in social and economic change in the last 20 years with the closure of the coal mines. And into that has come heroin in significant amounts, at very cheap prices, so we would estimate that 80% of the people we deal with are using heroin.

Back in 1996, Jack Straw, then the Shadow Home Secretary, came here to launch Labour's policy on "fast-tracking" juvenile offenders. Since then, these dilapidated estates have become a social laboratory for a string of government-sponsored experiments in how to crack crime, not just here but nationwide. The Home Office says it's got the villains on the run. Between 1997 and 2002, total crime, as measured by the British Crime Survey, fell by 28%. But, if true, can Labour take the credit? Stretch back a few years and you find the downward trend began in the mid '90s under the Tories, crime having risen steadily for decades. In any case, does the British Crime Survey tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

DAVID GREEN: (Civitas)
It misses out murder, it misses out sexual offences, it misses out drug offences, it misses out all those offences committed against under 16s, which is well over 600,000 crimes, and it misses out all those crimes where the victim is some kind of commercial entity or even an institution. So that, for example, misses out all thefts of lorries or commercial vehicles and it misses out shoplifting which amounts to several million crimes per year.

The survey's canvassers find it hard to reach ethnic minorities and people living in the inner cities so the figures are weighted-up to compensate.

MARION FITZGERALD: (Criminologist, London School of Economics)
If the people you interviewed in the first place were atypical, which is fairly likely, all you do by weighting-up their responses is to exaggerate the extent to which the replies for those groups, the high-risk groups, are likely to understate the level of crime.

Last year the British Crime Survey reported 13 million crimes. If that's an understatement, what about Police Recorded Crime that does include the crimes the BCS misses out? Well, last year's total was just 5.9 million. Why do so many crimes that do happen go unreported? The Home Office asked the public and 72% ticked the box marked, "the matter was too trivial" or "the police wouldn't do anything anyway." You might think two very different answers are conflated there but the Home Office can't, or won't, unbundle them. Police Recorded Crime is, perhaps, already controversial enough. Last year recorded crime went up 8%. But, says the Home Office, a new counting system was being introduced. Compensate for that and what really happened was it went down 1%. Burglary may look up 6%, but it's really up only 2%. Vehicle crime apparently up 2%, actually no change. Robbery seemingly down 1%, once adjusted by the statisticians down a more impressive 3%. I promise you I'm not making this up. Those are the official crime figures. As in other public services, the Government has set targets for crime reduction. As in other public services, the media often treats these targets not so much as a tool of Government as a test of Government. Hence, perhaps, when two thirds of the public say they sense crime is going up, the Government insists it's going down. There's a target for burglary, down by a quarter by 2005. In Mansfield it was up 54% last year. Residents tell the police burglary should be their number one priority. So, now when an alarm goes off, the police do bother. The Government's target on vehicle crime, down by 30% by 2004 is, say the Home Office, well on track. Nowadays, if your car's nicked, the police don't just shrug. Once recovered, stolen cars are scrupulously checked for fingerprints. Would they bother without a target?

STEPHEN GREEN: (Chief Constable, Nottinghamshire Police)
Targets were set perhaps in advance of the performance regimes being in existence to actually be able to deliver them, and I think there's got to be some realism about just what is achievable and what isn't. I mean I can't really sit here and say I dropped one or replaced one.

These detectives are making an arrest based on evidence found in a stolen car. But most of us won't have our car stolen or our house burgled. Well not every year anyway. But we do have to walk past groups of street corner yobs, wondering whether it's best to make eye contact or not. Is this a police matter, or one for the social policy wonks?

BEN PAGE: (Director, MORI Social Research Inst)
When you ask people what most needs improving, which I'll show you on this chart, to make your area a better place to live, what is interesting is they don't actually prioritise crime per se. They prioritise, interestingly, activities for teenagers, facilities for young people, the public domain, this whole sort of liveability factor, how it feels when I walk outside my home. Interestingly, the public actually gives some of those things more priority as needing improving locally, than they would education for example.

INSPECTOR TIM MENZIES: (Nottinghamshire Police)
What we've got here was large scale anti-social behaviour in terms of youths gathering, causing nuisance, riding motorcycles around, drug taking, needles being left, dangers and hazards being left and it was really run down.

On the Ladybrook estate, police work with the council for neighbourhood renewal. Nottinghamshire police have put the bobby back on the beat.

INSPECTOR TIM MENZIES: (Nottinghamshire Police)
It's making sure the local accountability is there, it's making sure that we've got an identifiable presence, we've got a beat manager that is known to the community, works with the community.

Promoting neighbourliness, preventing crime rather than merely responding to it. All prompted by a 1998 law requiring councils and other agencies to link arms with the police and work together.

STEPHEN GREEN: (Chief Constable, Nottinghamshire Police)
The landmark piece of legislation that changed the world really was the Crime And Disorder Act. And I think that in its partnership working, though there is yet much to achieve, it has achieved some significant results and benefits for communities. I would say equally again, in turning the police away from this sort of agenda of reacting to consequences and tackling root causes, that must be better for the community at the end of the day.

Gareth, we need to talk to you, open the door. Gareth, you either open the door or we going to end up putting the door in.

The prolific offenders team, after one of the usual suspects. One of 100,000 known but elusive criminals who, nationwide, account for half of all crime. It's another partnership, bringing together the police, the Probation Service and drugs agencies.

Zone 1, can I have some backup please?

PC JO SMITH: (Nottinghamshire Police)
The problem is, as we drove up, there's that many different alleys, that many different routes, the people that live round here all tend to know each other and all tend to know every nook and cranny, as soon as someone starts running like that you've lost it, if you lose them and you don't see where they are going, that's it, it's lost really.

Another of the usual suspects. The majority of persistent offenders processed in the Mansfield custody suite show traces of heroin or crack cocaine in urine tests.

DC RAY PRUDEN: (Nottinghamshire Police)
I disagree with some comments that people make that the police don't care. I believe we do care. We do want to see these people put behind bars. They're persistent offenders. I don't think there's any other answer but I think the courts are tending to let us down.

The last drug dealer this detective arrested got bail and was back dealing on the streets the same afternoon. The magistrates, some officers say, haven't yet got the hang of "partnership". Mansfield's prolific offenders programme is only a few months old, but the partners are confident it will pay off.

(Nottinghamshire Probation Service) High levels of contact with offenders, seeing them four or five times a week, treating them seriously, saying: "You are an offender, you are a risk to the public, we are on your case, we are going to treat you seriously," seems to make people realise they have to stop and think and comply.

The other thing with prolific offenders is obviously is saying: "If you don't comply, then we are going to make sure that if you don't comply, your license will be revoked. We'll work with the courts and we'll get you taken back to prison."

Nottingham Prison, like most, has problems with overcrowding. Across the country, the pattern is that with all the shipping in and out, many prisoners don't spend long enough in one place to benefit from the offending behaviour or drugs programmes on offer. But there may be quite another sense in which prison works.

DAVID GREEN: (Civitas)
I would say that the biggest single explanation for the fall in crime, since 1993, is the rapid increase in the prison population that's taken place. Since then, it has increased from about 45,000 to between 65,000 and 70,000 in about five or six years. That's an additional 20,000 people in prison.

I'm on a post detox course and I must admit I wouldn't have got nothing like this outside from the community drug teams. This has opened my eyes a lot. The officers are spot on.

Ricky almost prefers prison because outside things aren't well organised enough for him, a demanding consumer of social services.

There's a six-month waiting list for any medication. That makes mandatory drugs testing a joke, not only that, if I've got to keep a habit going on the outside, how am I meant to get to any interviews and any probation without breaching?

The trick is to establish a smoother transition between what happens inside and outside. They're working on it, you could say it's "almost joined up". But prison isn't the only break in the chain. Last year, the Audit Commission published a report on the whole route through the criminal justice system.

SIR ANDREW FOSTER: (Controller, Audit Commission)
We found that very often the victims of crime felt that the system didn't give them a fair crack of the whip. Witnesses that had come forward felt they were pushed from pillar to post. The average citizen is very fearful of crime, yet the system that brings together the courts with the police and with the prisons, is run by three different Government departments. It does not have a coherence. It is not brought together in a way that is judged to give an equable feel for the victim or a reasonable feel for the witness. There's a long way to go to make this an overarching system that you know makes citizens feel they live in a society that protects them from crime or if they come forward in difficult situations that they will be dealt with properly and justly.

It's striking how many of the new schemes do come from the centre. The police are genuinely grateful for the academic work done by criminologists.

STEPHEN GREEN: (Chief Constable, Nottinghamshire Police)
Ten years ago, it produced little that the police saw as usable. A huge amount's being produced now, which is able to drive some of these initiatives. I think what the Government needed to do and I think it's certainly been a key part of its agenda, was to say, as new thinking emerges, as it appears to be proven in delivery of results, we have to find ways of getting it out into the mainstream somehow.

And "mainstreaming" is the big idea. The police aren't supposed to rely on government grants for ever. Operation Abridge, an exercise in high-visibility policing of Mansfield town centre at night, had government start-up money and is now mainstreamed. Already it's hard to find the money to keep it going. The Government holds back 36% of policing money for initiatives. Core funding only keeps pace with inflation, pay and pensions, if council tax goes up. In education, the standards funds were mainstreamed and much of that money vanished without trace. Police and probation services are anxious.

I think we need stability, not just stability of funding. All of us are going through massive amounts of change, all mainstream state organisations are going through massive processes of change. It's not always clear that the pace or the direction of those changes is synchronised. And, I think a process of greater joined-up-ness, right across the public sector which has law and order connection, I think if that was delivered, Government and the communities would find that the much maligned criminal justice system could actually demonstrate that the political ambition to reduce crime can be realised, and can be realised without the massive expenditure of increases in the size of the prison population.

Unless their core funding goes up, there's a real danger that all Nottinghamshire's clever problem-solving policing will lapse back into bad, old-fashioned responding to crime. The Home Office has a tough time getting money out of the Treasury for police and prisons. And crime is something this Government ought to take seriously.

PETER KENWAY: (Director, New Policy Institute)
Almost the thing that defined New Labour originally was a commitment to dealing with crime, its causes and its consequences. And yet I don't think the perception on the streets is that enough has been done about this. What's interesting is the extent to which the police service has, perhaps, not been put under the sort of pressure that, say, the teachers have been put under, or the Health Service. It's very difficult to look at the crime statistics and the inequality in crime, and the effects of crime, and feel that there's been very much progress in the last five or seven years.

More and more, the Government talks about fear of crime, even setting a target for reducing that, implying that ordinary people's apprehensions are unreasonable, whipped up by the Sun and the Mail.

The Government's starting to realise that the ambitious targets that it set for reducing certain types of offence, are now not going to be met, and these are delaying tactics before journalists realise that that's the story. With the next general election coming up, they're bound to realise that they may be caught out, and therefore there'll be a strong incentive to engage in obfuscation of the statistics.

One figure emerges clearly out of the statistical fog, under this Government, the detection rate, the proportion of crimes actually solved, has gone down from 28% to 23%. Research shows that what really limits crime is increasing the likelihood that an offender will be caught, brought to justice and punished. Today, a criminal contemplating an offence knows that he has a better than 3:1 chance of getting away with it.

Newsnight can be seen on BBC Two at 2230 BST 2130 GMT, or in Real video, either live or on demand, by clicking on the latest programme button.

Dennis Sewell
audits crime figures under the Labour government

Tory vow to tackle drugs 'crisis'
03 Jul 03  |  Politics


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