Anyone travelling on foot over Westminster Bridge in recent months will have sadly noticed that it has been playing host to a large organised criminal element, shamelessly running scams and pick-pocketing operations across the length of the Bridge, spilling over on to the South Bank and the Embankment (particularly by the piers).
Westminster Bridge is an iconic part of London’s history and also a place of remembrance following the terrorist attack which took place in March 2017. To see it being used by petty criminals in such a way is nothing short of a disgrace.
Back in in 2016 Westminster Council and the Metropolitan Police implemented Public Space Protection Orders (PSPO) regarding activities on the Bridge, which seemed to be successful for a time. However, in recent months the presence of unlicensed gambling operations on the Bridge (usually involving a ‘cup and ball’ game) and associated anti-social behaviour and criminal activity has increased, even compared to levels seen in previous years.
Indeed there appears to be a far more orchestrated and coordinated element to this activity than was the case previously, including the use of lookouts loitering near the roadway. These accomplices are often standing on the protection barriers that have been in place since 2017 to keep an eye out for Police or Local Authority patrols, who alert their friends to the presence of any such officers to enable a speedy getaway on foot.
It is concerning that tourists and visitors to central London, especially those for whom English is not their first language, are relieved of significant amounts of money during these games which are nothing but a scam. To have this happen within the shadow of the Houses of Parliament is disappointing to the extreme and does not reflect well on the open and welcoming place London, and Westminster in particular, should be.
Furthermore I have been contacted by a number of local residents and visitors to Westminster regarding the activities on Westminster Bridge as they describe to me their experiences and concerns. Many have reported feeling uncomfortable on the Bridge, with the presence of the gambling scams reducing levels of access on the pavement to the extent where pedestrians (particularly those with pushchairs or wheelchairs) are unable to travel across the Bridge easily. This also provides ample opportunities for pickpockets to act unseen, as well as allowing the chance for more brazen thieving. For example a visitor to Westminster reported having items stolen out of their backpack.
My office and I have been in correspondence for some time with Westminster City Council and the Metropolitan Police regarding the state of the Bridge. The police has been targeting the illegal activities on the Bridge by conducted focused operations and exercising their powers under the Gambling Act 2005 by arresting those directly involved in gaming. Their operations have resulted in approximately forty arrests just within the past six months, with custodial sentences being issued.
Westminster City Council are working alongside the Metropolitan Police and were successful in obtaining a new PSPO which enables taking enforcement action by issuing fixed penalty notices to individuals engaging in street gambling on Westminster Bridge. The Council also has partnership operations with colleagues from the police, both in uniform and plain clothes, to enforce the PSPO and are increasing the number of patrols in the area.
As part of the Metropolitan Police’s efforts to crack down on the criminal activities taking place on and around Westminster Bridge, I have given an Impact Statement to officers to help with their efforts in applying for tougher sentences, Criminal Behaviour Orders and deportation where applicable (a significant number of those involved in the scams, and presumably the pickpocketing as well, appear to be from Eastern Europe). Hopefully this, combined with other Impact Statements provided by local stakeholders, will help give the Met the clout they need when taking those they have arrested and charged to court. Officers have informed me that my Statement has already been used and resulted in Criminal Behaviour Orders being issued.
I will continue to offer my support to the Council and the Metropolitan Police as they tackle the crime on Westminster Bridge and return civility, peace and order to this important and symbolic gateway into our constituency.