by Matt Cavanagh
The government must have been grateful for the news of Gaddafi’s death this week, not just for the symbolic ‘closure’ of the Libya campaign, but also for distracting the media pack from a troubling set of quarterly crime figures, and from their own clumsy response to them.
When the previous set of quarterly figures came out, ministers tried to spin them as a ‘vindication of their reforms’, despite those reforms having hardly started – and despite the figures themselves being mixed at best. This time, ministers are trying to spin the figures as mixed, when in fact the bad news clearly outweighs the good.
The figures cover the year ending in June – so not including the riots – and show overall recorded crime down, though there were rises in recorded instances of serious sexual crimes, in some categories of theft, and in knife crime (though provisional figures for knife homicides are stable, at just over 200 per year). But – as the UK Statistics Authority impressed on the Conservatives before the election, and as they have now accepted – a far better guide to crime trends is provided by the British Crime Survey, which has used the same methodology for thirty years. The latest BCS results, published at the same time, estimate a 10% rise in burglary, a 7% rise in household acquisitive crime, a 7% rise in theft from the person, a 3% rise in robbery, and a 3% rise in violent crime. They also estimate an overall rise in crime of 2%, with the proviso that this overall rise, along with the apparent rises in several of the individual categories, is ‘not statistically significant’ – the phrase which a Downing Street spokesperson rather unfortunately seized on in trying to play down the figures.
It remains true, as I wrote after the last quarter’s results, that it is too early to be sure about the nature of the trend. This might be a blip, of the kind we saw in 2008-09 when the recession began, and when Conservatives and Liberal Democrats reacted to a much smaller increase in burglary by predicting a ‘recession crime wave’ – which actually turned out to be a rise of 1%, followed by a resumption of the falling trend. Or it might be a sign that the long downward trend since 1995 is flattening out, to be replaced by annual fluctuations. Or, the bad scenario, this might be the start of a belated surge in crime associated with the state of the economy, of the kind we saw in the early 1990s.
Which of these scenarios we are in will only become clear over the next couple of years. The August riots may actually bring some respite for the 2012 figures, if the reported effect of a larger than average number of prolific offenders being taken off the streets outweighs the brief spike in offences during the riots themselves. The real test of the government’s reforms – and the impact of their cuts – will probably come in the figures for the year 2012-13.
This may seem a long time away, and with the government keeping a low profile on crime, and the political media often focusing on other areas – the economy of course, but also Libya, the NHS, schools reform, Europe and so on – the Westminster village can sometimes lose sight of the fact that law and order remains consistently high in the public’s list of concerns. Since the election, as measured by the monthly Ipsos MORI issues tracker, it has vied with immigration for third and fourth place, behind the economy and unemployment. Since the riots, it has been a clear third.
The Conservatives still enjoy a healthy lead over Labour on the issue, but before the riots it had closed to single figures. The riots were another welcome relief for the government: calling for the appearance of leadership, for a politician to strike the right tone rather than have the right policies. After his initially dilatory response, David Cameron was able to provide this. But in the longer term this may just have postponed his problem, which is that his government has no real policy on crime. Cameron himself tends to skate over the subject, keen to avoid getting bogged down in a debate over police cuts. When pressed, he falls back on stock lines about what the government sees as its flagship reforms: online crime maps (actually inherited from Labour) and of course the new elected Police and Crime Commissioners, which are offered as the solution to every new problem from knife crime to the riots to hacking (despite the rather obvious counter-argument that most of these problems have been concentrated in London, which is the force which is already closest to the PCC model, given the Mayor’s role in policing). There is renewed focus on “problem families” (where again, the most effective policies were inherited from Labour) and some more interesting thinking around gangs, where a new approach is to be announced by Iain Duncan Smith next week – though even this seems for the most part to be just showcasing the successful approach which innovative police commanders in Strathclyde and parts of London have been pursuing for some years. Without any additional funding, and with the cuts affecting both the police and the other local services whose partnership has been fundamental to the success of these initiatives, it will be interesting to see how ministers propose to get other forces, especially the smaller ones, to follow the Strathclyde example, however impressive the results.
The only big policy change in the approach to gangs appears to be the proposal to make gang membership an aggravating factor for sentencing – a reasonable idea, though one which places further pressure on the incoherence of the government’s justice strategy. Cameron’s sleight of hand on knife crime has finally been rumbled by the Sun, with the celebrity campaigners he co-opted in his election campaign turning bitterly against him – bad timing just as the figures suggest knife offences starting to rise again. The deeper problem is that, having balked at the last minute at Ken Clarke’s half-baked package of reform and cuts, Cameron’s nimble public U-turn has still not been worked through at the level of detailed policy. The prison population is close to a record high, and the budget numbers simply don’t add up. The Ministry of Justice is a demoralized department waiting for the next crisis.
Against this confusing and inadequate policy backdrop, if crime does indeed start rising significantly as we move towards the next election, who will ministers blame? Mobile phone manufacturers, for continuing to churn out enviable new products? The public, for a lack of vigilance? They could try to pass the buck to the new elected commissioners, but having only just set them up, this would seem too obviously cynical. Why not blame the police themselves? In opposition, Cameron’s team developed a radical new philosophy for government, intent on weaning people off the old-fashioned idea that performance on crime or health or education was the responsibility of the government. Instead, Oliver Letwin insisted, “If a service fails, an interview at ten past eight on the Today programme should be with the direct local provider of the service and not the Cabinet minister in Whitehall.” This radical plan isn’t going well in the NHS, so the Conservatives might be tempted to stick to their guns on the police, given that they have already alienated most of them, from chief officers down to the rank and file. But before they get too carried away, they might reflect on a poll earlier this week: it showed that 77% of the public still thinks the Metropolitan Police is doing a ‘very good’ or ‘fairly good’ job, despite this summer’s sequence of crises and scandals – the kind of approval ratings that politicians can only dream of.