HC Deb 28 May 1982 vol 24 cc1210-6 12.58 pm
Mr. John Wheeler (Paddington)

I advise the British Security Industry Association and I am a member of the Home Office standing committee on crime prevention.

This Government can claim a number of objectives successfully achieved in their crime strategy programme. The Criminal Justice Bill provides for much-needed flexibility and more powers for dealing with offenders. The Edmund-Davies police pay award was implemented in June 1979, since when the strength of the British police forces has reached the authorised establishment figure everywhere except in London. But even the Metropolitan Police, with over 25,000 officers, is stronger than ever. In the prisons, many of the May Committee's recommendations have been accepted and a major new prison building programme, involving eight new prisons, has been commenced. That is a commendable record.

In spite of all this, the crime figures continue to rise and, for the public, lawlessness remains a major concern. Unfortunately, for many decades, the public have been encouraged to believe that the control of crime is the responsibility of the police and the courts. Consequently, the public have assumed, quite erroneously, that what is called exemplary or deterrent sentencing somehow stopped people offending.

We are now in danger of encouraging the public into believing that the larger police force and more police officers on the streets will also stop crime. Anyone who knows anything about the nature of the crime problem knows that this is not true. More policemen on the streets is certainly a reassurance, but they do not stop much of the crime about which many people are concerned. Most crimes, such as burglary and mugging, are committed out of view of the public or patrolling police officers. The chance of the police stumbling on a crime being committed is extremely low. Most research studies confirm this, and the police only discover about 15 per cent. of crime, and most of that relates to road traffic offences.

As we spend more money on the police, we should ask increasingly if we are getting value for money. We certainly do so in respect of their public order duties. In London, the annual inclusive cost of a police officer is more than £23,000. Yet only 87 officers are employed full-time on crime prevention duties, and perhaps only 500 in the country as a whole.

For too long, crime prevention has been the Cinderella of modern policing. Fast cars to provide for response policing are all very well, but they are accompanied by an increasingly low detection rate for crime. The police have their successes, particularly with serious crimes, but these major investigations leave the bulk of the crime problem, about which the public are most concerned—such as burglary, auto-crime, mugging and vandalism—largely untouched.

Since the early 1970s it has come increasingly to be recognised that much crime occurs because of the ease of opportunity. Thus it is likely that 80 per cent. of burglaries occur in homes which are unoccupied. Understandably, the incidence of burglary increases when doors and windows are left unlocked. It is equally true that the physical layout of a housing estate or mansion block also contributes to the ease with which burglary is committed. Unpleasant crimes such as mugging and assaults are also facilitated by the nature of modern planning and design which provide public areas away from the streets, with lobbies, walkways and other areas which are not policed or supervised.

Of course, we have for long known that effective measures can be taken to prevent crime, but both the Home Office and the police have confined themselves almost exclusively to campaigns based on the dissemination of information, exhibitions or competitions to find good crime prevention ideas.

The Home Office standing committee on crime prevention, of which I am a member, has recently run a television campaign in some parts of the country designed to encourage the use of window locks. There is some encouraging evidence to show that householders have acted to improve home security, but exhorting people to help themselves is a very slow process. Perhaps I should also tell the House that the British Insurance Association has spent a lot of money on an imaginative "Beat the Burglar" campaign.

These measures are commendable, although often they only encourage the crime victim to do something after the crime has occurred. With rising crime and a failure of conventional police methods to halt this, the time has come for crime prevention to become a major strategy. If the home owners, or industry and commerce, are to be encouraged to be more responsible for their homes and property, there is an obvious need to use incentives aimed at encouraging people to act on police advice.

There are examples of success upon which the Government can build a successful crime prevention strategy. These include steering column locks on cars, metal grilles on the windows of jewellers, and toughened glass in school buildings—all of which make it difficult for the person intent on vandalism or theft.

The introduction of steering column locks on all cars on the road in West Germany in 1963, and afterwards in the United Kingdom, substantially cut auto-crime, and the Post Office virtually eliminated thefts from telephone kiosks by the introduction of the steel coin box. Then there are various forms of surveillance, including the security patrol, burglar alarms and closed-circuit television, which increase the risk of being seen. A less obvious form of surveillance is that provided by ordinary people going about their daily lives. For example, housing estates should he designed so that residents can easily see what is going on outside their dwellings and so that trespassers feel vulnerable.

Another group of opportunity-reducing measures consists of various management techniques—for example, the rapid repair of vandalised property and the quick re-letting of empty flats, so as not to attract additional damage. Other examples would be the location of pay-phones in places such as pubs and launderettes, where they will receive some supervision from staff; the employment of caretakers on housing estates; the provision of living quarters on the premises for school caretakers; the employment of conductors on buses; and the supervision of football fans on trains by club stewards. All of these have a demonstrable crime prevention value.

Once again, I turn to the Home Office crime prevention committee as an illustration of good work. That committee is making a number of detailed but entirely practical recommendations to car manufacturers to improve car security. These proposals are of great importance, if only because of the serious growth in auto-crime.

In the Metropolitan Police area in 1981 alone, all offences against vehicles—including pedal cycles—came to 198,621, an increase of 12 per cent. over 1980. Within this category, theft from vehicles which had not been moved recorded the greatest increase, at 26 per cent., to 83,145. There were 95,177 offences involving the theft or unauthorised taking of a motor vehicle, sometimes accompanied by theft of the contents, an increase of 4 per cent.

The cost to the public is measured in tens of millions of pounds, and much of this crime could be stopped. If the committee's recommendations are not followed, the compulsion of law should apply.

Most crime is committed by young males. It is casual rather than planned; it is opportunist. The Metropolitan Police arrest figures are an interesting pointer. In 1981, over 48,000 young people under the age of 21 were arrested for serious offences, and half of them were aged between 10 and 16 years. Of those arrested for burglary, 67 per cent. were under 21. Street crime, like mugging and opportunist burglary, is committed quickly, stealthily and without warning. Thus the young mugger strikes when the victim least expects an attack and always when there is no one else in the immediate vicinity. Likewise, the burglar enters the unoccupied home, often when little attempt has been made to keep an intruder out, and it takes but a few moments for him to find cash or property to steal and then make good his escape.

Thus more police officers patrolling the streets will have little impact on the control of these types of crime. These crimes are motivated by the ease of opportunity and the experience that the offender can get away with it and enjoy the proceeds as well.

Therefore, I am suggesting that the resources of the police should increasingly be deployed into developing policies to prevent crime. This is particularly important with mugging and burglary where the detection rate, for understandable reasons, is so low. The police can generally make an arrest only when the victim, or some other person, can give evidence of the offender's identity. In the case of mugging, the police should concentrate more upon the environmental factors that contribute to making the crime a possibility.

Questions to be asked include: what are the common features of a mugging location and is the absence of street lighting a factor or such features as concealed alleyways and gangway walkways on housing estates? For many crimes of mugging, situational prevention, with action directed at changing the design or immediate environment where these crimes occur, could bring rewards in preventing their occurrence in the first place. Of course, this means the police must be more involved at the design stage of housing estates and generally in the work of the local authority planning committees. One important consideration might be to look at entranceways which act as a through route and provide the mugger with a place in which to lurk and from which to make an easy escape.

Much more could be done to stop the distressing crime of burglary. In the cities, the answerphone, installed at the entrance to a block of flats, is essential. In large blocks, with a 24-hour porterage or caretaker service, the provision of closed circuit television to monitor corridors and entrances is the sort of facility that the police should be involved in pressing managements or councils to provide. To control burglary, the police should be more systematically involved in an analysis to prevent the crime.

No new buildings, especially houses or flats, should be erected without first involving the police in a review of the design, environmental features and nature of the materials to be used. Recommending toughened glass will help defeat not only the burglar but the would-be vandal. Strengthening door frames and doors and providing good quality mortice locks, window locks and metal grilles are all aspects of prevention which should be included in a new building from the beginning.

The job of the police should be to advise that these things are done. A modified use of our police resource could contribute much to the control of crime. For chief officers of police, this strategy will pose a challenge and has important implications for some police training and deployment. I believe that this policy should have a high priority if we are to contain crime.

This suggests that if we are seriously to develop this approach to deterring crime, we shall have to tighten up on the protection of services and property throughout society. Experience suggests that this would be most effectively achieved by using the tax system—offering companies and individuals tax relief on the installation and maintenance of approved crime prevention measures. Of course, it will be said that, in the present economic climate, this would be difficult to achieve, but then the regulating through law of such things as the adequacy of lighting on building sites, the improvement of car security and the design of homes—particularly windows and doors—should be considered.

To achieve this, there should be an expansion of the crime prevention service in all police forces. This service should be made more generally available—perhaps for a realistic fee—to commerce, and perhaps even to individuals. Unless the major challenge of developing new crime control strategies can be accepted, all serious crime will at least double before this decade is out. I suggest that, within existing financial resources, the Home Office should spend more money on developing crime control strategies.

1.14 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Timothy Raison)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington (Mr. Wheeler) for introducing the debate. The House knows that he is not only extremely expert in the subject of law and order but always constructive in his approach. It is not often that we get a chance to debate the subject, and I welcome the opportunity that we have today.

The Government share the general anxiety about the level of crime. We have made it clear on many occasions that we attach the greatest importance to the maintenance of law and order. Our achievements, to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention, speak for themselves. We have strengthened the police and raised their morale. We have implemented fully the Edmund-Davies recommendations on policy pay. That has dramatically improved police recruitment and stemmed the high level of wastage. As my hon. Friend said, police manpower is up by over 8,000 and most forces are up to strength. The Metropolitan Police strength, long well below establishment, has increased by more than 3,200 to over 25,000. The House is well aware, too, of the changes contained in the Criminal Justice Bill particularly to encourage parents to face their responsibilities. Under the Bill courts will be able to make parents, in certain circumstances, pay the fines, costs or compensation imposed on their children under 17.

I take my hon. Friend's point about the difficulties facing the police. There is no doubt that street crimes and burglaries in which stealth plays a major part are the most difficult to prevent and detect, but the police are conscious of the need to adjust their methods to meet the changing pattern of criminal activity, and they are having their successes. In March my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary referred in the law and order debate in the House to the success that the police are achieving in their operations against highly organised criminals at international, national and local level. Drug importers and distributors, operating on a world-wide scale, have been broken up.

At a local level, the police are also making an impact. The good results being achieved in Surrey against burglars are one example. Successes are also being recorded in some parts of London and the Midlands in combating street crime. In the West Midlands, teams of detectives have been concentrating on small areas in which these offences are prevalent, and have brought about an encouraging reduction. The lessons to be learnt from these initiatives are being studied and they will be disseminated to police forces generally.

The recent increase in police strength has enabled chief officers to deploy more men and women on foot patrols. The Government firmly believe that the presence of more constables on the streets of our towns and cities will deter many individuals from being tempted into crime. Public confidence is improved by the reassuring sight of more police on the beat. There is another important aspect of that. The ready accessibility of more police will encourage people to give them information about crime and criminals. Criminal intelligence is the life-blood of successful policing.

My hon. Friend referred to the work of crime prevention officers. I take the opportunity of paying tribute to the very valuable work that they do. Much of their work involves lecturing on crime prevention to citizens' groups and commercial and business associations. They distribute crime prevention publicity material, carry out crime prevention campaigns and assist in the conduct of regional campaigns organised by the Home Office. A Home Office campaign of that kind has recently been conducted in the North of England to persuade people to fit window locks. That has been highly successful. We are now considering whether it would be possible to conduct a national campaign.

Crime prevention officers are available to carry out surveys of homes and business premises to advise the occupants on suitable crime prevention measures. At the planning level they are often called on to advise local authority planners and architects. My hon. Friend is right in saying that there is a need for the work to be carried out more widely, and I join him in hoping that our debate today will serve to encourage its further development.

My hon. Friend also referred to the number and status of crime prevention officers. In recommending an increase in their numbers he will, I am sure, accept that the deployment of resources is and must remain a matter for chief constables. As for the status of crime prevention, I cannot accept that it is the Cinderella of the police service. Whatever the position may have been in the past, I know from discussions that have taken place with chief officers that the importance of crime prevention is now fully recognised. Important though specialist crime prevention officers are, the key to effective crime prevention on the part of the police lies in the recognition of its importance in a force as a whole and the willingness of all policemen to be involved in it. I therefore welcome the move to greater integration, which has occurred in many forces, of crime prevention officers and crime prevention activities into the mainstream of operational policing.

One of the many ways in which the work of crime prevention officers links directly with community efforts to prevent crime is in the activities of crime prevention panels. Most police forces have set up panels which comprise representatives of the local community—for instance, teachers, business men, local authority officials, and crime prevention officers. There are 180 or so panels now. Co-operation with the police takes many forms. Together they have fitted door chains to the houses of pensioners, conducted crime prevention seminars for local shopkeepers and business men, arranged competitions and quizzes on crime prevention themes in schools and assisted with local crime prevention publicity campaigns. Many of them have been helping recently with the "Beat the Burglar" campaign being run by the British Insurance Association, to which my hon. Friend referred. I pay tribute to the valuable work done by panels. Their members give up their spare time and in so doing represent an excellent example of local voluntary action to prevent crime.

The setting up of crime prevention panels arose from the formation in 1966 of the Home Office standing committee on crime prevention. As my hon. Friend said, he is a member of that committee and he attended the most recent meeting on Wednesday. The committee is, in effect, a national crime prevention panel, comprising representatives of commerce and industry together with the police and Home Office officials. The committee is a good example of what can be done by co-operative effort. It was responsible for persuading the motor industry to fit steering column locks to home-produced cars. The setting up of the security liaison office in 1969 by the tobacco industry was prompted by this committee. That office succeeded in its first year of operation in reducing the losses, mainly from vehicle hijacks, to a quarter of their previous figure. I think that was a remarkable achievement.

The committee now has in hand the production of a training package on law and order for use in secondary schools. Other current projects include the preparation of reports on shoplifting and car security. I must also mention the committee's success in persuading the British Standards Institution to prepare a code of practice on the security of dwellings. This gives a guide to architects and planners on what should be borne in mind when planning public housing estates as well as private housing. My hon. Friend's remarks in this respect were particularly pertinent.

In recognition of the importance of the committee, and crime prevention in general, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has decided that its chairman should be a Home Office Minister. My noble Friend Lord Elton will take the chair at the committee's next meeting. In addition, membership of the committee is to be expanded to include representatives of other Government Departments and the main local authority associations are to be invited to send representatives to it.

My hon. Friend is aware that the Government have taken a particular interest in the work of the Home Office crime prevention centre. The centre has recently been rehoused in purpose-built accommodation, the staff increased and the equipment improved. The centre trains police officers for crime prevention duties and provides an information and advice service to the police, commerce and industry. Staff of the centre are regularly engaged in lectures at conferences and seminars of commercial and industrial associations.

We have the suggestion that the police might charge for crime prevention services. I wonder whether it would not be counter-productive to the objectives of crime prevention if people were deterred from seeking advice or assistance if charges were levied for it. But this is essentially a matter for chief constables and their police authorities. The other side of this coin is, as my hon. Friend has said, the question of tax relief for crime prevention devices.

The Government certainly wish to encourage everyone to take all sensible precautions to protect his property, but questions of giving any form of special relief, for example from VAT, pose considerable difficulties. Relief could be granted on only the most stringent social and economic grounds. Care would need to be taken to ensure that any relief granted did not open the door to equally justifiable claims for relief in other directions and so lead to a serious erosion of revenue. I understand that, although domestic householders would not be eligible, traders registered for VAT are entitled to recover any VAT that they incur in the course of their business activities. That would include VAT on the installation of crime prevention devices, such as intruder alarms. I do not see any hope at present that the Government could go further than that.

Legislation for the prevention of crime presents special difficulties. The Government, as hon. Members know, are opposed to restrictive legislation except where absolutely necessary. The problems presented by crime prevention are not simple ones, capable of being dealt with by blanket solutions. All the evidence points to the need for solutions to be tailored to meet specific problems. The right course is for all involved in the problems to work together voluntarily for a solution. The examples that I have already given of successful police-community cooperation support that precept.

I have taken the opportunity provided by this useful debate to set before the House examples of crime prevention activities in which the Home Office and the police take the lead, supported in many cases, as I have shown, by members of the public. But crime prevention is the responsibility of us all. It cannot begin and end with the Home Office, police and a few enthusiasts. Every individual and community has a duty to take sensible precautions to prevent crime. Central and local services have an obligation to be crime-conscious when they formulate policies and deliver their services and to be constantly aware of the need to adjust what they are doing to tackle the factors that lead to crime. My hon. Friend will agree that that is an important point. I repeat our gratitude to him for raising the subject.

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