Lynne Featherstone’s crime screed

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Lynne Featherstone MP has written an article on crime for the Meeting the Challenge website.

Lots and lots to digest there. Early thoughts are that it is a shame she saw fit not to mention anything about drugs and prohibition, particularly given that she started the article with the maxim that “when it’s a choice between reducing the number of future crimes and punishing people now we should take the tough choice and say – stopping future crimes takes priority.” I’d have been interested to see how that squares with drug laws which appear to make criminals out of desperate people.

She also talks a bit about my personal hobby horse “fear of crime”:

we should be willing to tackle fear of crime head-on. Far too often fear of crime is treated as if it isn’t really a proper problem to acknowledge – “oh the problem isn’t actual crime, it’s just people’s whipped up fears …” etc. But fear is real, it affects people, it hurts lives and it hinders freedom. So we need to tackle it as a serious problem in its own right.

No-one questions that the fear is real. What is questioned is whether a lot of that fear is rational.

The causes are a mix – actual crime levels, media coverage of crime, fear of strangers and so on. More and more people don’t know those around them so more and more people are strangers. Grotty or dark environments, the lack of reassuring safe official faces, and many more causes all add up to a greater fear of crime.

There’s an undertone for some people, especially older ones, of the good old days having gone and the world around them being different. This is more than just about crime, it’s about people feeling unsettled by the changes in the modern world and part of the nostalgia is for the good old-crime free days (that actually never were).

Indeed. We should be tackling this head on.

What all this boils down to is not so much crime but quality of life. Miserable, lonely people have a much greater fear of crime than happy, gregarious people. The point is, it isn’t nasty criminals making people frightened to go out at night but a lack of community spirit. And the more we talk up those nasty criminals, the tougher it is to create that community spirit.

Some examples of other actions – improving lighting, installing CCTV and clearing up areas of graffiti and grime are now common parts of the crime-fighting agenda, making people feel safer in these areas.

Does CCTV make people feel safe at night? It doesn’t make me feel safe. It makes me think I’m in danger of being mugged and I’m not at all confident that a bloke in a balaclava is going to be identified from a few pixels on a TV screen. More people in this country are convinced that crime it at an all time high than ever, despite it being the lowest in decades. Is it a coincidence that that irrational fear has coincided with the explosion of CCTV? We’re the most monitored countries in the world.

But why not do more and tackle more of the other causes of fear? Crime statistics will always be prey to the temptation of instant headline seeking, but why not invest them with more independent authority by taking them clearly away from the Home Secretary and the Home Office? But also look at the range of statistics published – where the basis of a statistic changes, we should do more to try to rework older figures on the same basis. Otherwise changing the way crimes are counted far too often leads to a false impression of increase. Yes – such recalculations will involve some estimates, but far better to give a realistic estimate as to what the actual change has been.

Seriously for a second. Do you really believe that making crime statistics independent of government is going to stop the Daily Mail one bit from playing its fun and games?

Sentences too should feature – it’s a common opinion finding that people greatly under-estimate how long jail sentences really are on average (because it’s the short sentences that generate the controversy and get the coverage). So why not have annual statistics published alongside the crime figures for average sentence length and so on?

Nice idea, but again, what is it going to achieve? Who’s going to report this when it doesn’t suit their agenda to do so?

Generally, I am a fan of the British Crime Survey over recorded crime statistics as the latter are far too vulnerable to under-reporting, miss-reporting and changing definitions. Perhaps we need to do more though than just address some of the criticisms of the BCS – such as extending the range of crimes it covers – for if it really is a better basis for making decisions (as I believe it is), do we not needed to massively expand its size so that statistics are available reliably for much smaller geographic areas? At the moment we have the BCS as the best indicator of crime at a national level – but when you get down to police forces and councils looking at their patch, they have to fall back on recorded crime. In addition to expanding the scope of the BCS, local crime-fighting partnerships should be monitoring fear of crime and have targets for it, alongside the more traditional approach of looking at crime figures.

It’s nice to see a Lib Dem spokesperson on Home Affairs support the BCS – I’ll happily quote this the next time I see a “CRIME OUTRAGE?!?!?!?!?” Lib Dem tabloid. And that brings me to my final point. This article is full of ideas about what the government should be doing, but as a political party we have a responsibility to make a change as well.

It is 2 days before Christmas. The solemn Lib Dem prediction of a “Christmas Crisis” fuelled by liberalisation of the licensing laws has proven to be completely wrong. Let’s make 2006 the year we stopped playing games with crime policy.

4 thoughts on “Lynne Featherstone’s crime screed

  1. Seconded; it really annoyed me when I heard LibDems were trying to block the changes; I’ve just got in from being out and about in Paignton, no problems at all that I can see; I live right in a busy town centre that people travel to to go out drinking, no problems here really.

    Ah well, what’s rationality when you can get a decent headline. Oh, wait, rationality is what we need.

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  3. I think you’re being overly pessimistic about some of Lynne’s proposals. You’re right that they won’t suddenly make all right in the world overnight – but some improvements are better than none. So, for example, better publicity about how long jail sentences really are won’t get through to everyone – but getting through to some extra people is better than nothing.

  4. It’s very thin gruel though, isn’t it? If the Lib Dems can’t be honest about crime statistics in their own campaign literature, then why should we expect others to?

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