Our obsession with crime is crushing our freedoms
Between talk of broken society and ever-increasing powers of police surveillance, there seems to be a competition between politicians to make us miserable
- The Observer,
- Sunday September 7 2008
The story of Milly, an eight-year-old cat who disappeared out of window in Whitstable two weeks ago, has much to tell us about the petty-minded forces that have come to replace proper policing in this country. Her owners, Stephen and Heather Cope and their son Daniel, 13, searched high and low for Milly, then, failing to find her, did what any normal person would do: put up posters to see if anyone had seen her. The next thing they heard was from one of the local council community wardens, who rang the telephone number on the poster and threatened them with a £80 on-the-spot fine for antisocial behaviour.
Seldom can there have been a more officious, twerpish enforcement of the law, but this kind of action is now one of the established parts of this dreadful government's legacy. As the police retreat from the streets, we are prey to every type of snoop, informant, busybody and vindictive martinet, all of them licensed by the government's accreditation scheme so that they may demand our names and addresses, photograph us, check car tax discs and seize alcohol, issue fines for truancy, rowdiness, graffiti and dog fouling.
In Colchester, litter wardens are taking pictures of alleged offenders to publish them in the local paper. One local council has been reported as using officials to check car numbers outside homes to see who is sleeping with whom, for God knows what purpose. Children as young as eight are among 5,000 private citizens across the country recruited as paid 'covert human intelligences sources'.
The speed with which our dear, familiar democracy is vanishing under the weight of totalitarian pettiness is appalling and one wonders when this easygoing nation will rise against the trends set so blithely by that authoritarian basket case Tony Blair and continued by mediocrities such as Hazel Blears and Jacqui Smith.
Even police officers have doubts about the blurring of lines between uniformed officers of the law, whom we know to have received standard training, and these upstarts and busybodies wearing red-and-white prefect's badges. Peter Smyth, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation said on the BBC recently that the public would not understand why someone with a 'small badge was telling them what to do'. He added: 'I think it's going to lead to confrontation.'
I hope it does, because only then will people begin to understand what we have allowed Labour do to our society with its informer networks and child spies. Only then will we begin to question the right of a nightclub bouncer with 20 hours' training and maybe a criminal record lurking in the background to challenge citizens and issue fines.
The mystery in all this is: where are the police? Since Labour came to power, the police have basked in the sun, though, like farmers, they always complain about their lot. The facts are these. Between 1997 and 2007, spending on law and order rose by a half a percentage point to 2.5 per cent of GDP. Last year, the criminal justice system received £22.7bn, about £15.13bn of which went to the police. In the past decade, the police have received a budget increase of 21 percent and the police workforce rose by 50,000, which includes an extra 15,000 officers.
To put these figures in perspective, we spend more on law and order than any other OECD country including the United States, France, Germany and Spain. It is fair to say that Britain is in the grip of law and order obsession, yet we seem incapable of putting police officers on the beat to patrol our streets, investigate crimes and keep order with an eye to proportionate and sensible use of their powers. By that, I do not mean three officers on mountain bikes pursuing a colleague on his racer through crime-ridden Hackney to issue him with a £30 fine because he had avoided dangerous roadworks by briefly using the pavement. I don't mean texting the victim of a burglary, as happened to a friend of mine, to see if she had anything more to report.
Despite crime figures going down, we continue to spend more and lock up proportionately more people than any other free country. The most recent figures for London show falls of 14 per cent in both knife and gun crime and a 7 per cent reduction in violent crime generally. Since 1997, the official figures for the country claim a drop in the crime rate of 35 per cent. Academics suggest this figure is hugely inflated, but the downward trend is undeniable and could be claimed by Labour as a victory for its policies were it not for its sinister need to keep us in a state of permanent fear about crime.
The estimable Cherie Booth put her finger on the problem and inadvertently (perhaps) provided a grand analysis of her husband's cynical use of crime to push his authoritarian programme. On the release of a very good report from the Howard League for Penal Reform attacking the government's policy of building Titan prisons, which will hold 2,500 brutalised souls, she used the word 'punitive' a lot and referred to 'the hysterical rhetoric of politicians attempting to ride the tiger of public opinion'. Or what is perceived as public opinion, she added.
We have forgotten all our empirical skills when it comes to law and policing. Instead of assessing what the problems are - the fact that prisons do not reform offenders, that crime is caused by complex social issues as much as by individual moral failure, that police officers at their desks or in squad cars do not deter crime as well as those on the beat - we have allowed a blind and vengeful regime to skew our sense of reason and what is right for a liberal democracy.
Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, also came out with an excellent report last week, which attacked the creation by Labour of 3,600 new offences - nearly one for each day in power - and pointed out that England and Wales had experienced an 11 per cent drop in crime at the same time as an incredible 45 per cent increase in the prison rate.
Last week, the prison population reached 83,000. The conclusion is clear: we are sending too many of the wrong people to prison and for too long. This impression was supported by the Chief Constable of Kent, Mike Fuller, a contender to succeed the besieged Ian Blair at the Met. He complained last week that his force was 'over-inspected' and that officers were demoralised because sentencing policy was dictated by availability of places in prisons. Criminals who deserved prison were avoiding jail.
Huhne's report nails the politics behind the degraded policy of banging up more and more people. When Blair took over the Labour's home affairs brief in 1992, he skilfully moved on to the traditional law and order territory occupied by the Tories and so began a policy war in which the main parties tried to best each other with, as Cherie Booth put it, 'the hysterical rhetoric about crime'. David Cameron's hyperbole about a broken society and Dominic Grieve's announcement about new surveillance powers for police are both part of this competitive pessimism about our society.
So let us start thinking logically about crime, punishment, policing and the cause of our problems. Let us end this punitive regime. Let us put policemen back on the beat, throw the likes of Jacqui and Hazel out of office and return all their spies and accredited jobsworths to the twilight of their power-crazed fantasy lives.