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Speech Archive

"Speech on crime and communities", London 2009

Alan Johnson (Labour)

Location: London

There have been a fair few bills on policing in recent years, but the very first was exactly 180 years ago. The opening line of Sir Robert Peel’s 1829 Policing Bill, referred to the problem of the great increase in Offences against Property as the primary motivation for the creation of the world’s first police force.

It is representative of an era where the duties of the Home Office and indeed, the Home Secretary were seen as limited to enforcement, the protection of property and the need to uphold public order. I should add that the duties were expanded in 1875 – to insist that the Home Secretary should witness all royal births.

Today, the role of the Home Office has a much more profound significance. Keeping people safe is the single most important purpose of the state as we know and understand it today. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes, writing in the 17th century, saw the need that men and women feel to protect each other as the driving force that motivates them to form communities and commonwealths, governments.

Without such protection, as Hobbes famously articulated, life is: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

While others since have rightly rejected that other Hobbsian notion that the only way for the public to ensure that “by their own industry and by the fruits of the earth they may live contentedly” is to “submit their wills” to a higher authority, no one would argue with his fundamental principle that without safety, there can be no serenity.

It is the central hub on which any society functions. It is the cornerstone for all other aspects of a civilized life – health, education, employment, culture. The things that any decent, modern government is morally obliged to support, and which in turn, help to prevent crime and criminality.

All recent polls suggest that crime is the issue that people most worry about after the economy. It is also one on which there has been unmistakeable progress over the last 12 years, contrary to what you may have read in the newspapers this morning.

The overall trend shows that:

* Crime has fallen by 39 per cent since 1997

* Violent crime has fallen by 40 per cent

* Burglary has fallen by 55 per cent

* Vehicle crime by 57 per cent

I do not quote these figures to pre-empt all argument and debate about crime, but because they are emphatic – they cannot be dismissed as some mathematical slight of hand. They represent genuine achievement, which is the result of the dedication and commitment of the police and many others in the criminal justice system.

Unfortunately, these statistics belong in the government department where statistics carry least influence – unless the statistics are bad (as the coverage this morning testifies), whereupon they assume a particular importance.

But I’ve started so I’ll finish. There are now 14,700 more police on our streets and investment in the police has increased by £3.7 billion since 1997.

The number of people brought to justice for violent crime increased by 13 per cent between 2005/06 and 2006/07

For theft and handling stolen goods ,27 per cent.

If statistics were laurels, we could rest on them. But they’re not and we can’t.

What they do suggest, however, is that there is no reason to engage in any radical restructuring; no justification for a scattergun of initiatives. The focus must be on listening to the public, and looking at what practical steps need to be taken to make the current system, with all the powers and responsibilities that this government has introduced, respond to their concerns.

As you may have seen, I have made one policy announcement described in the Guardian as a “decision to press ahead with the main elements of the national identity card scheme,” and by the Independent as the last rites for ID cards. The Guardian actually got it right.

ID cards have a key role to play in the battle against identity fraud, which costs this country £1.2 billion annually, people trafficking, money laundering, and yes, the fight against terrorism.


They also provide several practical benefits to the public in a society where proof of identity and age are so frequently requested.

As we announced in 2007, the new biometric passport which all political parties support and which 80 per cent of the population will possess can be the identity card. Nobody will be under obligation to supplement this with an ID card.


But many people will find the option of having a credit-card sized ID card that fits easily into a wallet attractive, and a convenient, cheaper alternative to a passport when travelling around Europe.


For young people who feel they have to continually prove their age, it will save them the risk of their comparatively bulky passport dropping out of their back pocket on a night out.


For retailers and pubs and clubs, they are an easily identifiable proof of age, so they can be sure that they are not selling alcohol or knives to people who are underage, helping communities tackle crime and antisocial behaviour.

Perception/fear of crime

The achievements in crime reduction need to be balanced against the fact that people's worry about crime isn’t declining at the same rate. Compared with say, health and education (my last two jobs), success in tackling crime is measured as much by perception as reality. And this is entirely rational.

The public are right to be concerned about issues such as knife crime – particularly among young people. The relative rarity of such events makes them no less shocking and brings no relief to the people affected.

Too often, when we talk about the perception gap, it’s as if the public are at fault for not having faith in the figures.

But for those who live in neighbourhoods where threatening behaviour, harassment and intimidation are part of everyday life, the national picture offers little reassurance. Who on earth would draw comfort from the fact that they may be a statistical anomaly?

What the statistics can never quantify is the personal impact of being a victim of crime. For older people who are burgled, it's not just the loss of their possessions – the trauma can and does reduce life expectancy.

And worry about crime – whether about being robbed, or intimidated or harrassed – is seriously debilitating. If on some streets or estates, there are people who feel they can’t step out after dark to buy a bottle of lemonade because they are fearful of the people they might find hanging round the stairwell or outside the off-licence, it has a profound impact on their life.

If the duty of the Home Office stretches beyond enforcement to upholding quality of life, then we cannot be satisfied with a year-on-year reduction in crime. We also need to give serious consideration to the issues that deflate public confidence and make them feel less secure. Perception of crime is every bit as important as reality. Confidence is as relevant as experience.

We know that public confidence is at its highest in areas where police are a constant, visible presence, and where they make themselves easily accessible to local people, and working with local authorities, tell people what they are doing to tackle crime in the area, and listening and responding to people’s concerns.

Those who feel informed about measures that the police are taking t in their area are nearly twice as likely to feel that crime is being properly dealt with.

This is why the 3,600 neighbourhood police teams, working with residents and local partners are critically important.

As Louise Casey’s Crime and Communities review showed, the public wants to not only hear more about the measures being taken in their area to tackle crime, but to see miscreants punished. For example, young offenders having to spend their Friday or Saturday night cleaning up graffiti, or working on other projects perhaps selected by local people.

One of the most important measures we have introduced is the power to reclaim the proceeds of crime – the cars, fur coats, luxury flats of the swaggering criminal. Community Cashback allows people to decide how money confiscated from criminals is spent in their community.

Focusing on the citizen perspective was not traditionally a central theme of any public service. But it is probably fair to say that for the police, it presented a particular challenge, which is why the Policing Pledge is so important. For the first time, it sets out the minimum standards the public can expect from the police and the priorities of their local force. It is the essential adornment to the neighbourhood policing teams, helping make them accessible and accountable to the public.

The scale of the problem is obvious from the statistics. While three quarters of people say they feel informed about the service provided by their local GP surgery, fewer than half would say the same about their local police force.

The police need to do two things simultaneously . They need to be a police service for the law-abiding majority, and a police force for those who engage in criminality. These two objectives are not contradictory – as any good police officer knows. Where there are good relationships between the police and the local community, people are much more likely to come forward to help them tackle serious crime.

The statistics on confidence in the police’s abilities to do their job are much, much better. 60 per cent are confident that the police do enough to tackle serious and organised crime.

But that confidence does not come with a lifetime guarantee. Particularly if the public are not equally confident about the ability of the police and local authorities to tackle the issues that directly affect their neighbourhood.

In an era where people’s expectations across all public services are higher, and in meeting those expectations, the police cannot afford to trail behind, or else confidence will become increasingly fragile.

But if they show they are acting in response to issues of public concern, and demonstrating leadership to tackle local problems, public confidence increases. A good example is the 35 Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnerships who have said they want to do more to prevent burglary and personal robbery, and through Operation Vigilance, targeting offenders who are known to communities and cause real harm, making sure that they track and apprehend them swiftly if necessary.

And it is also important that the police demonstrate that they can act proportionately. So for example, it’s right that the police and local councils take tough action to tackle alcohol-related crime and disorder – if necessary, by curbing drinking in public places. But in doing so, they must recognise that there is a difference between someone quietly enjoying a beer on a family picnic, and someone who’s drinking heavily on the street or intimidating passers-by.

But the best way to restore public confidence – which is of course, the only remaining central target set for the police, is through tough action on antisocial behaviour. If the public sees that antisocial behaviour is being addressed, and if they appreciate that local councils are prioritising tackling graffiti, litter dropping, broken windows, abandoned cars, - the kind of behaviour that has a profound impact on people’s health and wellbeing, confidence and appreciation will multiply.

Councils and the police now have more powers to deal with antisocial behaviour than ever before. The 1998 Crime and Disorder Act gave the police and other authorities powers to issue antisocial behaviour orders and introduced parenting orders.

The Antisocial Behaviour Act of 2003 gave police the right to disperse crowds of people in areas where antisocial behaviour is a problem, and also gave landlords the right to evict tenants who persistently engage in such behaviour. And since the introduction of the 2008 Criminal Justice and Immigration Act, police have been able to close premises which are regularly being used by drug dealers and users.

When these powers are used, they are highly effective. And they demonstrate clearly that the authorities are on the side of the public. Against those who seek to damage their communities and damage lives.

Nearly two thirds of people desist from antisocial behaviour after the first intervention by the police or other local partners. Ninety-three per cent desist after the third intervention. This is in the context of behaviour that was occurring not once or three times, but often, 365 days a year.

But much troublesome and intimidating behaviour goes unreported – sometimes, because it’s not criminal, and people feel guilty about bothreing the authorities, despite the fact that it may be having a serious impact on their daily lives.

And at other times, because, people genuinely don’t know who can help them or worry they won’t be taken seriously.

Two basic messages

We need to communicate effectively two basic messages.

No one should assume that these are problems they are expected to live with. And no one who reports antisocial behaviour should be made to feel as if they are the ones causing the nuisance, not the perpetrator.

I do believe we’ve followed intensive activity with a certain degree of complacency on this issue.

In responding better to public concern about antisocial behaviour, we need to look at what more can be done in the following three areas.

First, services must be more visible and accountable. While the vast majority of people know where to go if they have a question about their council tax bill or rubbish collection, few know who to contact if they have a problem with antisocial behaviour. There must be much more transparency – which is why the antisocial behaviour website will provide people with contact details for who is responsible locally. And we will also provide people with more information about specific measures that are being taken in their area to deal with antisocial behaviour. Those who aren’t online will be able to access this information through leaflets that will be delivered to their door.

Second, there needs to be better partnership and co-ordination at a local, or more specifically, neighbourhood level. Too many people who try to bring antisocial behaviour to the attention of the authorities find themselves trapped in a never-ending circle of phone calls – they phone the police, who tell them to phone the housing people, who tell them to phone social services, who tell them they need to talk to the police. Tackling antisocial behaviour effectively – particularly persistent offenders - depends on strong, local partnerships that have the expertise to address complex problems within communities.

We have already created the Antisocial behaviour Action Squad, which is up and running across the country and helping local areas to tackle antisocial behaviour more effectively. To improve local partnerships, I want to use this squad to establish local panels which will provide advice and support to frontline professionals who want more help to deal with problems that are having a severe impact on the community – such as underage drinking on an estate, or a family that’s causing widespread chaos. The service will be offered first to areas where the public think antisocial behaviour is a real problem, but it will be available for any local area who feels they might benefit.

Third, there needs to be more support for victims who report antisocial behaviour, particularly those who have had to endure the most extreme forms of intimidation and harassment over many years.

While the majority of perpetrators stop their behaviour after the first intervention and the vast majority after 2 or 3 interventions, there is a persistent hardcore who don’t respond at all.

And the fact is that, in dealing with the 7 per cent who prove the most obdurate, there isn’t a quick fix - it can sometimes take up to two years to secure an antisocial behaviour order, during which time, there is no hope of respite for those reporting the problem. In many circumstances, it gets worse. Persistent harassment, defacement of property and intimidation encroach upon every aspect of life.

I know that victims of antisocial behaviour, and frontline professionals feel frustrated by delays in bringing cases to court and getting them concluded. I will explore, with the Secretary of State for Justice, what more can be done to speed this process up – in particular, how we can break down any barriers there might be between the courts and people bringing cases before them. Some of the ideas we might want to look at include better training for practitioners so they can present cases in court themselves where possible, and exploring whether we could set maximum waiting times and limits to the number of times a case could be adjourned.

I would also like to explore specifically what further support we can give victims of persistent and long-term antisocial behaviour – particularly during the time that it takes their case to reach a satisfactory conclusion. Should we consider providing greater support to peer networks, or should victims of long-term and persistent antisocial behaviour be entitled to victim support in the same way that victims of crime are?

I began by talking about the social purpose of the Home Office, in that its duty to protect people from crime is fundamental to the things that any progressive government wants to achieve.

It is also true, and indeed, it has been long understood that tackling poverty, investing in health and education and services for children and families, are in their turn fundamental to preventing crime.

The cycle of deprivation, long-term unemployment, poor education and poor parenting that can push people into crime is well-documented and long understood.


You may be aware of the startling fact that children in care represent about 0.5 per cent of the child population and, when they get older, 25 per cent of the prison population.

Henry Fielding, in the inquiry he published in 1751 into the increase in robbery in London, which ultimately led to the creation of the Bow Street Runners, understood this all too well. His report devotes many pages to the laws relating to poverty, and cites what he described as the “nasty and scandalous condition” of the poor in England as one of the reasons for the dangerous nature of London’s streets.

It is perhaps no coincidence that Sir Robert Peel, the most famous of all Home Secretaries, is remembered in equal measure for the creation of the police force, and the repeal of the corn laws, which had kept the price of grain artificially high for many years, to the detriment of the poorest and the benefit of Parliament’s landowners,

In today’s world, sometimes seems that Home Secretaries are presented with a stark choice – between siding with those affected by crime and antisocial behaviour, and tackling the underlying causes of criminal activity It’s presented as if somehow, any drift towards the latter undermines the former.

But I don’t believe this is the case. There is no inherent contradiction between the need to bring offenders to account and protect people from the immediate dangers of crime, and the need for longer term strategies to prevent criminal activity.

The Youth Crime Action plan is testament to this – with tough action for young people who break the law, as well as preventative measures to address truancy and investment in diversionary activities. Family intervention projects work to address the sprawling and complex problems that some families face and lead to exclusion, long-term unemployment, and underachievement. Alcohol referral pilots are helping reduce alcohol-related crime by referring those apprehended for treatment.

Being tough on the causes of crime has been in many senses, the raison d’etre of this government over the last twelve years.

The greatly increased investment in Sure Start, education, housing, health and youth services, together with measures to tackle child poverty have had a phenomenal impact on communities across the country. And they have undoubtedly helped to reduce crime and antisocial behaviour.

The fact that their children are likely to achieve more at school, ,that in every neighbourhood, there’s a children’s centre providing childcare and other family services, that there’s more apprenticeships, that there’s more training and other support to help people get back into work – these changes too provide people greater security and peace of mind, as well as the opportunity and support that can break the vicious circle where poverty and unemployment are passed on from one generation to the next as if they were a genetic condition.

The police, engaged as they are in neighbourhood policing, involved as the are in local strategic partnerships and concerned as they are to be rersponsive to the public they serve have made huge advances and achieved magnificent results.

I do not claim today that every community has been transformed into something off the set of Larkrise to Candleford. And I know how realistic those at the frontline are about the challenges still to overcome.

But I can think of few government departments where so much has been done over the last 12 years to improve the quality of people’s lives or few periods in history where a new Home Secretary could say with confidence that they had the tools and the craftsmen to finish the job.

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