Will Tanner is Director of Onward and a former Deputy Head of Policy in Number 10 Downing Street.
In the past six months, five cars in my neighbourhood have had their windows smashed in and a further two have had catalytic converters stolen. Earlier in the summer, a house on the next road over was burgled. Drug dealing has become almost comically brazen.
It feels like a crime wave is hitting our neighbourhood. But no one appears to be doing anything about it.
Each incident leads to a crime reference number and a visit from local officers. Then, invariably, an automated email arrives, informing that the investigation is being closed. There is no noticeable investigation. No visible patrols. No prevention advice.
So far, so anecdotal. But government data shows how commonplace this experience is becoming in Britain, and how big a problem it could be for Liz Truss if – as the polls suggest – she is crowned leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister on Monday.
Overall crime has been on a downward trajectory since the mid-1990s. But the latest data shows that violent and sexual crimes, anti-social behaviour, and fraud are now rising, in some cases steeply.
While the pandemic suppressed crime nationally, a recent study by the LSE revealed that crime was higher in 2021 than it was in 2019 in a third of local areas. These are invariably the places the Conservative Party has promised it will level up.
More important, though, is the sense of lawlessness that stems from plummeting police clear-up rates. Between 2015 and 2022, the share of recorded crimes resulting in charge and/or summons fell from 16 per cent to 5.6 per cent, a fall of nearly two thirds. For theft and criminal damage, the police charge in just four per cent of cases. In other words, a burglar has a one in 25 chance of being charged, which is, frankly, not bad odds.
The effect on public confidence is noticeable. Between 2016 and 2020 the share of people who had confidence in their local police fell from 79 per cent to 74 per cent, and the share who think the police do a good or excellent job fell from 63 per cent to 55 per cent. A third (34 per cent) of victims of crime now say they are not satisfied with the police, up from 25 per cent in 2013/14. Only a third of anti-social behaviour is reported to the police.
This backdrop would be damaging to any government, but it’s particularly harmful when your opponent is led by a former Director of Public Prosecutions. Not for nothing has Keir Starmer made crime a priority issue. The strategy that is starting to pay off; Labour now holds a polling lead over the Conservatives on the issue.
Despite all this, policing and justice policy has been scant in this leadership race. Truss has pledged to bring in league tables ranking each police force against performance targets, including a 20 per cent cut in murders, other violence, and burglaries within two years. She has also railed against the policing of hate speech, urging police to “investigate crimes not tweets”.
These are good crowd-pleasers for a leadership race, but not yet a reform agenda. So what should her Government do, if indeed she wins?
Put simply, she must focus relentlessly on driving up the likelihood of criminals being caught and the swiftness of their sentencing. That is what will reduce crime, drive up confidence and restore voters’ trust in the Conservatives as the party of law and order.
Multiple studies from the UK and elsewhere show that higher detection rates and swifter sentencing, rather than the traditional answer of longer prison sentences, are the critical factors for deterring crime. One British study found that a one per cent increase in detection leads to 11 per cent fall in burglary, a 20 per cent fall in theft, and a 14 per cent fall in fraud.
To achieve this, the police need to be held to account not just for overall crime rates, but for how many crimes are solved and how quickly perpetrators are brought to justice. This is best done not through the long arm of the Home Office, but locally, by mandating police and courts to publish outcomes data regularly for every crime type in each local area and allowing local people to apply scrutiny.
Accountability could be further strengthened by merging Police and Crime Commissioners with regional mayors, and by forcing the Metropolitan Police to focus on local crime by handing its counter-terrorism functions to the National Crime Agency. Given its explosion in recent years, it is also extraordinary that there is no dedicated agency for tackling fraud.
Such stronger accountability should provide a clear incentive to chief constables to get back to basics, re-prioritising neighbourhood and hotspot policing which we know work at suppressing crime and restoring public confidence, and de-prioritising activities that don’t. The warranted powers of police officers are, ultimately, better deployed at crime scenes than Pride marches.
This is starting to happen organically. Stephen Watson, the new Chief Constable in Greater Manchester, credits it with starting to turn around his force. He sums up his approach simply: “What we do is to pick up the phone, get to people more quickly, make accurate records of what they’re telling us, investigate crime, bring people to justice, and look after our victims.” Rocket science, it isn’t.
The next prime minister will enter Downing Street with the worst economic backdrop in decades. Their in-tray will be dominated by inflation, the energy crisis, Ukraine, and looming recession. It will be hard to focus on other things.
But they must not forget that law and order is fundamental. You cannot level up when people fear for their livelihoods and you cannot attract investment to places people do not feel safe.