Lisa Townsend is the Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner for Surrey.
You would be forgiven if, during that hazy fog between Christmas Day and New Year, you missed Labour’s latest announcement on tackling crime.
Thirty years after Tony Blair first vowed to get “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”, a less-impressive leader has decided to recycle his predecessor’s policies, although this time round it’s “prevent, punish, protect” that we’ll be seeing on billboards in the run-up to the next general election.
Crime is back on the agenda (if it ever went away) and Steve Reed, the shadow justice secretary, is vowing that under him offenders will be able to “tackle the trauma” that led to their criminal ways, by offering “specialist treatment” from “criminal psychologists and therapists”. It seems the latest magic money tree has been planted in Reed’s garden.
You will hear no arguments from me about the terrible impact of the austerity measures on policing and it can be of no surprise to the Conservative Party leadership that Labour are brazenly coming after the law-and-order crown, which most of our voters consider, along with economic competence, to be a foundation stone of Conservatism.
The rights and wrongs of specific austerity measures is a debate for another time. The reality is that despite falling levels of traditional crime, including violent offences and burglary, the numbers relating to detection and solve rates are far too low, and the public are right to demand better.
Admittedly, the pandemic caused unprecedented court backlogs that are still resulting in long delays for justice, and anyone who knows a criminal barrister (or judge) will be well aware of the massive shortages at the Bar and the problems that causes.
But the issues relating to detection rates and the arresting of suspects go back long before Covid.
While I am optimistic that the current Home Secretary and Policing Minister are serious when they talk about common-sense crime recording, I remain sceptical of league tables and the unintended repercussions of measuring success based on crimes solved – it encourages senior police officers to get crimes ‘off the books’ and ultimately leads to a poor service for victims.
So how should Conservatives react? By accepting the challenge. This doesn’t mean paying some expensive agency to engage in a battle of the slogans and it doesn’t even require some bright young things in CCHQ to come up with clever policies. It means doing, and we already have the tools for that.
By now, you’ll be very familiar with Boris Johnson’s pledge to put 20,000 extra officers into police forces across England and Wales, which would bring us back to pre-austerity levels of police numbers.
That three-year deadline is fast approaching and even Zoe Billingham, a former HMIC inspector who appeared on the Today Programme recently to criticise austerity and policing, admitted that we are on target to meet the March 31 deadline,
It’s not been an easy journey getting here, particularly in a county like Surrey which has an average house price of £645,000 – even with the salary uplift of £1900 for officers of all ranks last year, it’s always going to be a tough sell.
Despite this, there are literally hundreds of mostly young people who are still attracted to a policing career in Surrey, and thousands across the country who want to protect their communities in the best tradition of public service.
The significance of these extra officers is huge in terms of delivering what the public want (and deserve): more visible policing; an appropriate response to reporting crime; and criminals brought to justice.
The key to this delivery is not in re-writing 90s slogans or carrying out a review that looks at New Zealand’s approach to trauma in criminals, it’s in ensuring that the basics get done. Turning up to every burglary, looking for forensic opportunities at every crime scene or, as Billingham calls it, “good old-fashioned detective work”.
Coupled with a strong desire to really focus on crime prevention, it will mean fewer victims, requiring fewer convictions, and less demands on the wider criminal justice system, including our over-crowded prisons and stretched probation service.
Of course, there will always be a need for punishment, but as every Conservative knows, prevention is better (and cheaper) than cure. More officers means safer communities.
We should not shy away from tackling this head-on and it will do the Party no favours at the next election if we are seen to be defensive or to suggest that the uplift in police officers means that our job is done. Plainly, it is not.
Conservative PCCs need to continue to be bold in holding their chief constables to account. We are at our best when truly representing the needs of our communities and communicating to our forces what they, and we, expect. Deeds, not words, is what the electorate want.