by Matt Cavanagh
A couple of weeks ago, the media were briefed to expect David Cameron’s first prime ministerial speech on crime. They are still waiting. Crime remains a top-five issue for voters, but Cameron’s problem is that he doesn’t actually have any big ideas on crime, besides cutting prison places (maybe, or maybe not, it’s not quite clear) and cutting police numbers (definitely), and these aren’t policies to which he particularly wants to draw attention.
He could talk about the development of online crime maps (though don’t expect him to admit that Labour introduced them), and of course elected police and crime commissioners, though he has talked about those quite a lot already. He’s in danger of looking like he believes these mysterious individuals will cut crime all by themselves; and, anyway, there isn’t much new to say about them, other than explaining how he proposes to stop the House of Lords scuppering the idea altogether.
He’s already used up a couple of crowd-pleasing pseudo-policies, on knife crime and “bashing burglars“, to distract the tabloids from the U-turn over Ken Clarke’s jail discounts for guilty pleas. There is nothing more to say about these either, and he might even face awkward questions about whether he was economical with the truth in how he presented them, as I set out here last week. (I pointed out that the “bash a burglar” policy simply restates the existing law, as Clarke confirmed yesterday in the Commons; and that the knife crime policy fell far short of Cameron’s pre-election promise, applying only to a small sub-category, and merely hardening existing sentencing guidance, as angry Tory MPs have started to realise).
The latest difficulty for Cameron is the news on today’s Times front page that burglary, robbery, and other “acquisitive” crimes are on the rise. He could try arguing that this is just what happens in hard economic times – and so is Labour’s fault, like everything else. But the problem is that the Tories already tried this argument. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, their spokespersons on crime and justice noisily predicted a massive rise in crime, arguing that the Labour government would clearly be “unable to cope”. Shadow home secretary, Chris Grayling, claimed that “Gordon Brown’s credit crunch” was responsible for a new “crime wave”. Shadow justice secretary, Dominic Grieve, said that “at a time of economic crisis, with hundreds of thousands fearing losing their jobs, an increased threat of theft and robbery is the last thing people need”. Chris Huhne even chipped in for the Liberal Democrats, complaining that “ministers were all too keen to take the credit for falling crime in the good years, but they must now explain what they will do now crime is on the rise”.
In fact, the home office and police forces around the country had been aware of the risk for some months, and had been working on a plan to deal with it, urged on by No 10, the strategy unit and the delivery unit. And, while burglary did rise, by one per cent between 2007-08 and 2008-09 – this in the context of a fifty per cent fall since 1997 – it then resumed its long downward trend, falling by nine per cent in 2009-10. Similarly, overall acquisitive crime rose by eight per cent in 2008-09 – again this should be seen in the context of a fifty per cent fall since 1997 – but then resumed the same long downward trend, falling by nine per cent in 2009-10.
This was a striking contrast with the previous recession, in which acquisitive crime rose by 19% in 1990, and then rose again by 18% in 1991, and then continued to build through to the mid-1990s. To put it another way: if the same thing had happened as in the early 1990s – if acquisitive crime had risen to the same extent – then almost 100,000 more people would have suffered a burglary during 2009 than actually did, and tens of thousands more would have been robbed.
What will happen this time? Is this the same kind of blip that we saw in late 2008? It is too early to say. But are the government and police forces jumping on the early signs as smartly as they did then? Nick Herbert famously asserted last year that the number of police officers has nothing to do with crime. Ken Clarke says the same about the number of prison places. If crime rises, their colleagues may find it increasingly hard to defend them from the charge of complacency – or of simply providing a cover for cuts.
It is true that the relationship between crime, policing, and prisons is complex. But Clarke and Herbert, and indeed Cameron and Osborne, would do well to look at the graph below, and start asking themselves how sure they are that crime will continue to fall. This, after all, is what matters, and what they will be judged on, long after the U-turns and announcements and speeches have been forgotten.
[Note: all the crime figures cited here come from the British crime survey – which, as the statistics watchdog had to remind the Conservatives before the election, is the “best measure of long-term trends”. I have used the latest full year figures, published by the Conservative-led government in summer 2010.]
Matt Cavanagh was a special adviser on crime and justice under the last Labour government.