Safety In London

As another New Year beckons there can be little doubt that the fear of crime and the scourge of anti-social behaviour are the two most critical issues facing us Londoners.

Since becoming your MP I have carried out constituency surveys about a wide range of issues and no matter whether it has been on subjects such as small business or tourism let alone law and order it has been clear that safe streets, a graffiti-free London and a sense of community are at the top of most people’s requirements to improve the quality of life in central London.

In every survey that I have read in the Capital, without exception, too many people ? regardless of their background, age or income ? simply do not feel safe on our streets. There is much evidence to justify this insecurity. Over the past three years, under Mayor Ken Livingstone, crime has continued to increase. Violent offences are up by a third and crime on the tube and buses has gone up by a quarter. The total number of offences has increased by over 80,000 per year.

Yet as Rudolph Giuliani, the former Mayor of New York City, observed, it is not headline-grabbing crime such as murders or bank robbery that induces fear of crime. Ironically, it is the physical evidence of low-level, anti-social crime and the sight of petty offending behaviour routinely being ignored that has the greatest impact on the quality of people’s lives. Graffiti, litter, vandalism and yobbish behaviour have a much greater influence on the quality of life for people in the capital.

Such anti-social "nuisance" crime is now universally judged to be worse -far worse – in London than in any other city in the UK. Paradoxically, the amount of money spent on policing has never been greater. There are now more than 28,000 police officers in London, the highest number ever, at a cost of over £2.7 billion a year.

Yet the detection rate of crimes in London has fallen to 14%, the lowest in England and Wales. This represents a sustained fall since 1998 when the detection rate in London stood at 25%.There have also been few signs of any increase in the visibility of police officers on the streets. A dramatic shake-up is needed in the way the capital is policed and that means that the management within the police force must be better directed.

The good news is that we know it can be done. We have seen how the crime reduction policies of Mayor
Rudolph Giuliani have worked in practice in New York. His pioneering approach solved many of the problems now confronting us in London. Although the two cities have very distinct and different cultures there is much we can learn.

Everyone talks about our police returning to foot patrols but that’s been going on for years and still very little is done. I would like to see the Mayor agreeing to minimum numbers of police officers who will patrol the beat in each borough. For too long, policing in the UK has been based on the so-called ‘rapid response’ theory. This assumed that if officers remained in cars or police stations, they would be able to get to the crime scenes more quickly ? and catch criminals more effectively. But the fact that clear-up rates in London are now so low suggests a fresh approach, coupled with new, innovative thinking, is needed. By getting police back onto London’s streets, we can prevent and deter crimes rather than just attempting to catch criminals long after the offence has been committed.

We need to have part of our police force focused on street crime alone and it needs a change in the psychological make-up of those officers whose experience to date has been to arrive at crime scenes in double quick time rather than preventing such incidents ever occurring.

London’s police are also required to take on all sorts of responsibilities because they are policing the Capital ? from major criminal investigations through to controlling demonstrations, combating threats of terrorism and royal protection duties. These are national concerns naturally occurring in the Capital city and they must be funded nationally. The Mayor needs to work with the Metropolitan Police to ensure there is a much clearer divide between the police working on London’s streets and these other national responsibilities.

A recent analysis showed that the £197 million provided by the Government to pay for these "capital" services does not nearly cover the full cost of the Metropolitan Police. It is our local taxes that are therefore failing to achieve the local police activity that we have every right to expect rather than managing the crowds celebrating our Rugby World Cup victory no matter how important and joyous that was.

Things are not getting better but there are many ideas for improvement that are circulated here in the House of Commons. How about the simple idea of ensuring that there is a minimum number of police in every borough or appointing a single person to take direct responsibility for crime reduction in the capital? In my opinion we should use technology better and replicate New York’s crime reporting computer system to enable police to determine precisely where and when crimes were being committed such that crime hotspots could be identified early. I believe the Mayor needs to work in close co-operation with every local authority in London to create strategies for preventing low-level criminal activity such as graffiti, vandalism and car dumping. Once a neighbourhood appears to be out of control – perhaps because of low-level graffiti or vandalism – very quickly more serious criminality becomes the norm.

Serious consideration needs to be given to fresh thinking by the Mayor, the Home Office and the Police. Unfortunately we start the New Year once again with a sense of desperation as London’s anti-social criminals (because that is what they are) go out for the night secure in their safety from detection by the police while the law-abiding residents stay in their homes with the doors bolted.