The following four articles by Nick Davies track the confusion of Flat Earth News and government policy on criminal justice through the populist decision to spend many millions of pounds putting 'bobbies on the beat' and into the wider issue of the way in which government has gate-crashed the supposedly apolitical world of policing in order to score electoral points. These articles relate to a passage on page 38 of the book.
The Guardian, July 2003
There are a lot of chief constables who would happily strangle George Dixon. It's not so much that the old BBC copper with his folksy winking ways makes any real officer look inadequate, nor even that he had the infuriating advantage of scriptwriters to deliver his perfect results. The real problem is that Dixon is cemented into the public imagination - and he's not very good at his job.
Consider the case of the car park in the country. Ramblers used to turn up there, park their cars, head off on a hike and then return to find their car windows smashed and their belongings stolen. Dixon's answer would have been to get out his handcuffs, hide behind a bush until the thieves turned up, nick them and wobble off home on his bicycle. In the real world, another thief would have been back breaking into the cars before he reached Dock Green and the offenders he arrested would have been bailed to join in again the next day.
For decades, British police would have been happy enough with that failure: they had no option. But in the last 20 years, researchers in the United States and Britain have been urging them to think in a radically different way - to stop relying on the conventional tools of arrest and conviction and to start looking beneath the surface to manipulate the causes of crime, to stop being dragged around by events in favour of stepping back and trying to change them. They call it problem-oriented policing. More and more chief constables can see that when it works, it is a great deal more effective than the esteemed Dixon.
In the case of the car park, instead of reaching for their handcuffs, the local police stopped and analysed the crime. They realised that the real problem was simply that, once the ramblers hit the hills, there was nothing and nobody to stop the thieves doing exactly as they pleased, so, instead of making pointless arrests, they decided to solve the problem at its root - by building picnic tables at the side of the car park. To make sure that picnickers turned up, they arranged for a licenced vendor to sell drink and food up there. Natural surveillance. They cut the thieving by 48% in a year.
In the same way, there was a city force who had a problem with a take-away pizza parlour. Every Friday and Saturday night, groups of drunken people would gather outside, obstructing the pavement, disturbing the locals, occasionally fighting. The old-fashioned answer would have been to send a uniformed officer to stand there and arrest anybody who broke the law - inefficient and ultimately ineffective, because after a week or two, the officer would have had to be deployed elsewhere. Instead, they analysed the problem and discovered that the crowd was building up because the pizza parlour could not cope with the sudden rush of customers after the pubs closed, so they installed hot lines from all the local pubs to the pizza maker, who took their orders in advance and had their pizzas ready when they turned up: no more crowd on the pavement, no more trouble.
This problem-oriented approach is the heart of a far wider effort to bury George Dixon: to say that arrests and convictions have their uses but they also have their limits; to break out of the boundaries of the criminal justice system by pushing resources and energy into working with other agencies and delivering something other than punishment; to attack the infinitely complex roots of crime with infinitely flexible tactics. It's not so much criminal justice as crime reduction.
It is the simple equivalent of doctors admitting that they can't cure cholera with medicine alone: somebody has to find the source of the diseased water and clean it. It means reversing John Major's simple edict on crime that "society should understand a little less and condemn a little more" and working at three levels: to look at the deep reasons why some adolescents devote their lives to crime while a sibling in the same family will not, to deal with family, schooling, housing, health; to see the opportunities for crime as problems which can be solved (like the rural car park and the pizza parlour); to make maximum use of the 'target hardening' techniques of traditional crime prevention. It means giving George Dixon a brain as well as truncheon.
This is the story of the boldest departure in British criminal justice strategy in the last hundred years, the opening of a second front in the war against crime, drawing on the thinking of radical criminologists and pressure groups who were previously locked out of power. It has unfolded almost invisibly, largely unreported and sometimes misunderstood by news media, effectively camouflaged (by accident or design) by the government's relentless release of hard-line criminal policy statements. Most important, at this particular moment, this is a story which looks like it may have a miserable ending. Behind the scenes, this ground-breaking campaign has turned into the policing equivalent of the Flanders fields - misguided generals, destructive commands, confusion in communication, disorder in the ranks, brave young ideas broken and bruised on the ground. But the fight is not yet over. The great danger is that the ministers who launched the campaign may now desert it in its hour of need.
It all started in the spring of 1997. Labour had won the election, and Jack Straw moved into a Home Office which was unlike any other government department in two key respects. First, it had not been starved of resources and so, even though Gordon Brown imposed existing Tory spending plans across Whitehall, the Home Office still had money to spend. Second, other departments were trapped by Tory policies which were destructive but deemed to be politically untouchable (the sale of council houses, the privatisation of railways, Kenneth Baker's education reforms), but the Home Office had nothing. It was a policy wasteland. For nearly 30 years, the masters of the criminal justice system had resorted to a belief which they summarised in two simple words: 'Nothing works'. The last Tory Home Secretary, Michael Howard, had exploited the vacuum to embark on a cynical exercise in political populism, with other two other simple words: 'Prison works'. It didn't. Jack Straw inherited a police service which was detecting fewer crimes, courts which were clogged with delays, fines which were not being collected, community sentences which were not being served and overcrowded prisons which were failing to change the behaviour of prisoners. But he had money to spend and the political opening to do so.
Better still, he had the Prime Minister on side. Under the influence of 'radical realist' criminologists, Tony Blair and the Labour electoral machine had finally seen through the left's blind spot on law and order, understanding that crime was not some kind of romantic rebellion by an alienated working class attacking their middle-class tormentors: it was a miserable plague which was overwhemingly likely to be inflicted on the working class for whom they claimed to speak. For nearly 20 years under the Tories, an epidemic of poverty had swept through the old public housing estates, infecting them with burglary and mugging and harrassment, and it was no longer good enough to have a criminal justice policy which consisted of leaning back over the After Eights and sneering at the cops. Five years earlier, as shadow Home Secretary, Blair had come across the germ of a strategy.
He fastened on to a report by a management consultant, James Morgan, who had been hired by the then minister, John Patten, to look for a solution to rising crime. Morgan had come back with a radical plan to make it a legal requirement for all local authorities to form partnerships with their police in order to attack the causes of crime. Patten took one look at it, took fright at the idea that a Tory government would pass any power at all to local authorities and shelved it. In opposition, Blair met informally with chief constables and local government leaders who encouraged him to adopt the Morgan Report as Labour policy; he goaded the Tories over their failure to act on it. Now, Jack Straw took the Morgan Report down from the shelf.
At the same time, Straw told the Home Office's research department to trawl the archives for evidence of effective tactics. This exercise finally swept away the defeatism of Nothing Works and produced a report, Reducing Offending, which drew heavily on American experiments to pour a stream of fresh thinking into the Home Office. "Nothing works" gave way to "What works".
In effect, the researchers took the rule-book of law enforcement and tore it up. With tightly-argued evidence, they exposed the weakness of traditional policing technique (police patrols "do not have a marked effect on crime levels"; laying more charges against offenders "does not have any noticeable effect"; reducing crime by attacking drug "does not happen") and of traditional punishment (prison was no more effective than fines or community sentences and was so expensive that it would cost £380 million to cut total crime by only 0.6%.) Then they showed the alternatives: deep social programmes like the American pre-school scheme which worked with problem children so that only 7% of them went on to be arrested by the age of 27, compared to 35% of their unaided neighours; using design to cut the opportunities for offenders, like the Dutch programme which cut burglary by 70% by insisting that all houses be secured against crime, the banks who had redesigned their credit cards and cut fraud in half, the local authorities who had redesigned their wheelie bins to stop burglars using them as climbing aids. They recorded how the British car industry had finally started building security into their cars after the Home Office in 1992 published a Car Theft Index which diverted buyers from the riskiest vehicles.
One of these researchers, Professor Ken Pease, of Huddersfield University, later captured the theory of crime reduction in a single sentence: "It is probably not going too far to say that the best strategy for crime control is now clearly a combination of proven techniques for the reduction of individuals' tendency to commit crime through intervention in childhood, and the manipulation of environments to make that more difficult."
By the autumn of 1998, both these initiatives had taken off. The thrust of the Morgan Report had been converted into a legal requirement to set up 376 Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnerships (CDRPs), spread across England and Wales, in which police were compelled to meet with their local social workers, teachers, housing officials and health workers to deliver crime reduction. They were to recruit the wishes of local communities to set their priorities, using their local knowledge and contacts to come up with the infinitely complex tactics to fit each area's own particular needs. And the researchers' radical findings had been developed into the outline of a Crime Reduction Programme. University specialists were hired to direct it and to check its progress. It was backed by the Home Secretary, by Downing Street and by the Treasury. For its first three years, from April 1999, the programme was given £250 million, which soon rose to £400 million with a huge investment in CCTV. Those who were involved speak of a buzz of excitement inside the Home Office - like a birth.
The baby was no sooner born, than it crawled into trouble. Ministers took a decision which, at the time, was controversial and which, in retrospect, was startlingly destructive. They ruled that the CDRPs should have none of the money from the new crime reduction programme. Not a cent. James Morgan had wanted each of them to be given a small budget, just enough to hire one or two staff, an office and a phone, to keep the wheel turning. Ministers, however, over-ruled Morgan's plan and insisted that police and local authorities must fund the new partnerships from their mainstream budgets. The practical result on the ground was that, without staff or cash, the CDRPs had no fuel.
That immediately exposed the CDRPs to a second weakness, which was to cause even more problems: most of the partners were not interested in partnership. The whole initiative was being launched on to a public sector which was exhausted by years of Tory spending cuts, none of which had been reversed. Demoralised and distracted by survival, numerous local authorities could not see what crime had to do with them. In some cases, too, the police were suspicious that this was all about invading their patch. In other cases, the police tried to kick-start the scheme, only to find that this alienated some of their partners, who saw their own patch being invaded.
If the CDRPs themselves had no fuel to run on, and if many local agencies were not willing to invest any effort or funds of their own, the crucial task of analysing local crime simply did not happen. In the autumn of 1998, they were told to provide local crime audits by April 1999, but the deadline arrived, with the alarming news that 117 of the 376 CDRPs had failed to deliver any audit at all. Among those who did, according to a Home Office review, many simply supplied an executive summary without any real data and, even those who tried to collect data found that their partners were not willing or able to provide it: only 38% of the audits had data on school truancy, only 27% of them had health data on drug treatment, only 27% had social services data on offenders.
This was a serious failure, right at the root of the evidence-based, problem-solving philosophy of the programme. Having snapped off the root of the new plant, ministers now dumped manure on it. From April 1999 they started to release the £400 million from the crime reduction programme: the intention was apparently benign, but the result was destructive. They broke the money down into a series of perfectly sensible priorities - burglary, CCTV, prostitution, drug workers, school management etc - but these did not necessarily overlap with local plans, so, for example, a rural CDRP which was most concerned with traffic speeding through its villages would get nothing unless it could find some sex workers to help. Second, they did not offer the money specifically to the CDRPs, with the result that individual local agencies reached out for the cash, bypassing the new partnerships. Finally, they handed out cash only in response to bids, and the most fragile CDRPs lacked the time and energy to submit them effectively. Many CDRPs continued without any funds at all. Others eventually received cash through the police to tackle problems which had never been their priority.
Less than a year had passed, and the whole structure of the CDRPs had already been weakened at the base by three problems which were to continue to haunt it: the clumsy decisions of ministers; the lethargy and weakness of local partners; the heavy hand of Whitehall control. Now, the top of the pyramid also became weakened as, behind the scenes in Whitehall, a kind of craziness took over the other flank of the new strategy, the £400 million crime reduction programme.
The engine house for the programme was the Home Office's Police Research Group which had been given £25 million to feed research to the police and to evaluate their work. Since 1983, the group had been part of the Home Office's police directorate, where it could work directly with forces around the country. Just as the new programme was launched, it was moved, against the wishes of many of its staff, and became part of the Home Office Research and Statistics Unit. It lost its link to the real world. Worse, the group then became caught up in feuding between civil servants in different departments of the Home Office who had an interest in their work, variously ignoring it or attempting to control it. Some junior civil servants were reduced to drifting into other departments to complain about the antics of their bosses. One official simply shut himself in his room to escape the tension. Disunited and dysfunctional, the Home Office then became vulnerable to the demands of the Treasury.
Some of the researchers wanted to go out onto the ground with the police, to help them run their projects; but the Treasury said they must stand back and make objective evaluations without interfering. The researchers wanted to spend the money slowly, partly because they had so much of it that they were running out of academics to spend it on, but, more importantly, because it was the core of the new approach to work slowly, gathering data, analysing it, searching for the precise strategy that would work. At one point, the Treasury agreed to drop their demand for 'annuality' - that each tranche of cash must be spent before the end of the financial year - but rapidly they reneged on the agreement.
One source who was closely involved describes the administrative equivalent of a three-way bar-room brawl: "There were the ministers who had basically said 'Get on with it', which was fine. There were senior Home Office civil servants who were just desperate to spend the money before the Treasury started clawing it back. And there were the researchers saying 'Hold on a minute, this is wrong.' The civil servants were saying 'Spend it. Just get the money out of here.'"
Arguably the most important single initiative was a £30 million programme to run problem-oriented projects with the police. Like the rural car park and the pizza parlour, this can be simple: Oakham Castle in Leicestershire, for example, suffered a long spate of broken windows caused by vandals chucking rubble at the building. For several years, the police tried and failed to control the vandals by occasionally hiding in the building and running out to arrest them - "both expensive and ineffective" as a Home Office report later concluded. Then they adopted the problem-oriented approach, thought laterally and instead of going after the vandals, they went after the rubble. It was swept away, and the windows were safe again. In other cases, it can be hugely complex.
The American criminologist George Kelling was recruited to advise on the epidemic of crime in the New York subway in the late 1980s. The police were trying to deal with the problem by harrassing homeless people who slept in the subway; crime kept rising. Kelling spent a year simply analysing the problem, asking who was in the subway, why, where did they live, what did they do. Armed with this data, he discovered that all of the police officers and pundits who blamed the robbery on homeless people were wrong. The crime was being committed by a relatively small number of people who had homes and who treated the subway as a private playground. Once he had that under his belt, he could devise a strategy which targetted law enforcement on the core of robbers, helped the homeless people through social services, alerted the whole community through a publicity campaign and finally cut subway crime by 80%. Kelling now reports that there are days when the whole subway system is entirely free of crime.
In Britain, Lord Justice Taylor's 1989 report into the Hillsborough disaster is another striking example of wiping away crime with a prolonged and detailed analysis of its roots: his advice that all football spectators should be given seats, instead of wandering loose on terraces, by-passed conventional law enforcement and transformed crime and disorder in stadia.
But the very complexity of the approach was a danger. HM Inspector of Constabulary had just echoed the warnings of a sequence of earlier research that the police generally had not mastered the problem-oriented approach. HM Inspector found ("Beating Crime", 1998) that in 32% of the problem-oriented projects he examined, there was no evidence that the supposed problem even existed; that only 27% of the projects showed evidence of proper analysis; and that only 7% claimed to have succeeded. The researchers warned their civil servants that the new initiatives would succeed only if the police were given two vital supports: time and training. But the civil servants said that was impossible: they had to spend the £30 million before the Treasury's deadline. The result was that police were invited to bid for the money and given only one month to come up with projects. And, in order to get rapid results, they were given no time or funds for training. The researchers watched in dismay as their most important project was launched into dangerously choppy water.
At the same time, they launched another key part of the programme - the Reducing Burglary Initiative, funded by £24million. The plan was to use the problem-oriented approach to develop a package of measures tailored to local needs in a strategy that had been startlingly successful in earlier pilots: in Kirkholt where they cut burglary by 75% over three years; and later in Huddersfield where they cut it by 30%. The police bid for the money in two rounds: 60 special projects which were to develop innovative tactics; a further 186 which would use a more traditional approach. The researchers wanted to divide all the money between the 60 ground-breaking schemes, but senior civil servants over-ruled them and divided the cash equally between all 246. Less than £100,000 each: it was not enough, the researchers warned, to guarantee success from any of them. And why were all of them being given the same money regardless of their scope?
By early 2000, some researchers were so despondent that they considered by-passing the civil servants and going direct to ministers to warn them of what was happening. But they shrunk back from mutiny. In the meantime, the CDRPs had hit a new wave of troubles. Ministers who had already damaged them by denying them fuel now grabbed for the steering wheel and deliberately pushed them off course. Under pressure from Downing Street and the Treasury, who wanted quick, measurable and electorally attractive results, they used the 1999 Local Government Act to require all CDRPs from April 2000 to set new five-year targets for vehicle crime, domestic burglary and robberies. There was no longer any pretence of being guided by the voice of local communities.
In the original CDRP audits, 87% had put domestic violence at the top of their list, but this was nowhere in the new key targets; only 8% of the partnerships wanted to focus on robbery, yet now it was one of the three main national objectives. Those CDRPs who had come up with the same priorities as the government had offered very different aims. The Home Office itself recorded that CDRPs chose targets for reducing vehicle crime by anything between 2% and 25%; Whitehall now ordered all of them to make a 30% cut. In the same way, the local schemes had set targets to cut burglary by between 1% and 16%; Whitehall ordered a cut of 25% from all of them. Beyond that, local needs changed, but Whitehall's new targets were set in stone for five years. And this whole move was produced, in the case of vehicle crime, by an unscripted public remark by the Prime Minister; and, with burglary and robbery, by internal negotiations between the Home Office and the Treasury. There was no attempt at consulting the CDRPs or even the police, many of whom to this day remain privately indignant at the distortion of their work.
Cash was now pouring downwards. Ministers belatedly heeded James Morgan's advice to fund the CDRPs, but now the funding became part of the machinery of Whitehall control. All ten regional governments in England and Wales were told to hire a regional crime director whose job was not simply to get the partnerships working but to ensure that each of them hit the Whitehall targets, which meant a regime of business plans and audits and data-collection - "shedloads of paperwork" as one senior police officer put it - and more and more staff to handle more and more paper in the regional crime directors' offices. Simultaneously, as this series has already described, the same regime of micromanagent was being imposed on the police and the Drug Action Teams, their working lives silting up with bureaucracy.
Beneath the surface, the impact of this central drive began to erode the foundations of the new approach, forcing police back onto the conventional tactics of arrest and conviction in order to deliver the rapid and measurable results which Whitehall was demanding. George Dixon was making his return.
And while central control was tightening, local arrangements were coming unstuck as every outpost of the public sector was re-organised. One partner would reach out for another only to see it lurching away like a drunkard dancng. When the 376 CDRPs were created in 1998, they were told to link up with the 370 police Basic Command Units (the new jargon for a police division). Within 18 months, the police had shuffled their internal boundaries so that there were only 318 BCUs: some of them included several CDRPs; some of them shared a single CDRP with several other BCUs; only 120 now matched the area of their local CDRP. In the meantime, the network of less than 100 Drug Action Teams was expanded so that by the autumn of 2001, there were 149, only a few of which matched BCU and/or CDRP bundaries. (In Wales, the five DAATs were no sooner up and running than they were abolished and replaced by 22 Community Safety Partnerships). In the background, there were 54 probation areas, none of which matched the boundaries of any BCUs or CDRPs or DATs; and in April 2001, they were rearranged into 42 areas. A year later, the structure of eight regional NHS offices was radically altered into a new national network of 304 primary care trusts. The education authorities which had been organised at county level were ordered to devolve funding and powers to individual schools. And annually, the government issued new targets, new guidelines, new funding streams, new law.
There is a perfect glimpse of partnership life on the ground in a recent report by the Inspector of Probation, Rod Morgan, who looked at what happened when the government told the probation service to run the new Drug Treatment and Testing Orders, which allowed courts to order drug-users to accept treatment. The order came through in June 2000. Probation set off in October without any infrastructure to run the scheme. By that time, they were half way into reorganising themselves for April 2001 into their 42 new areas, eight of which were amalgamations needing completely new budgets and plans. By December, the DATs, who were their key partners in the exercise, were also being reorganised - new teams, new boundaries, more new plans. In April 2001, probation were given £36 million to run the scheme. Weeks later, half of it was taken away from them and given to the new National Treatment Agency which was to run the DATs. More new plans - but not until the NTA agreed who was going to spend what, and they didn't start work until the autumn. That dispute was still running in early 2002 when the entire national health service, which was delivering the key treatment for the drug users, was completely reorganised - more new boundaries and plans.
By now, some of the DATs had decided that the DTTOs were too expensive and so they refused to hand over the money that was finally being passed down by the National Treatment Agency. And some of the new primary care trusts, struggling for funds, refused to hand over valuable beds to help law-enforcement when they needed them to hit their own targets. To deal with that, probation had to agree to let the primary care trusts assess the drug users, in addition to probation's own assessment, with the result that only 20% of the assessments were completed within the three weeks required by government. The system was up and running, but only 24% of offenders were actually undergoing the twice-weekly urine tests which lay at its heart - and almost half of them were failing their tests more than 90% of the time. Many probation officers registered this failure but decided it was best to allow the offender to continue with treatment rather than being shunted back to the dead end of imprisonment. Among those who were taken to court for their orders to be revoked, some escaped because there was nobody to impose the revocation.
Around the country, police officers were trying to link up with probation, only to find that probation were too short of funds to do their work; drug action teams referred addicts to treatment, knowing that there was almost no effective treatment out there; social workers sent excluded children for education, but there were almost no out-of-school facilities; courts jailed homeless beggars because there was nowhere else to house them. Even when agencies had the funds and the plans to work together, they could be prised apart by clashing targets from the centre - like the CDRP plan in Bristol to send drug users on DTTOs to live in a probation hostel. The hostel had space, local probation liked the idea, but they had a national performance target which required them to keep their hostels at least 90% full and, since chaotic drug users were the least reliable residents, they had to block the plan.
In the autumn of 2000, the Home Office received a clear signal that all was not well on the ground when HM Inspector of Constabulary and the Audit Commission jointly reported that the new CDRPs were struggling. They urged government to stop over-riding local plans, to measure police against 'community sentiment', to set crime targets for health and education. And, in particular, they urged them to extend the Crime and Disorder Act so that it required partnership work not only from local authorities but from all central government departments as well. The advice was rejected.
As time passed, the researchers began to see the results of the crime-reduction initiatives which they had launched into this confusion. Their prized £30 million scheme to promote problem-oriented policing had crashed into the same barriers which had obstructed earlier efforts. Without the time or training to do the job properly, schemes generally had failed to gather the right data, failed to analyse it properly and failed to device effective solutions. This project was central to the whole crime reduction programme. In a report published earlier this year, two researchers hired by the Home Office, Karen Bullock and Nick Tilley, recorded: "The conclusions are not encouraging."
They noted the destructive impact of the Treasury's timetable: "A much longer initial period would have been needed to make progress.... In so far as the funding regime itself provoked premature closure over problem-definitions and measures to address them, ironically it may, of course, have undermined the problem-orientation it was intended to promote." And they noted the equally destructive impact of ministerial priorities. British police were now employing more analysts for problem-solving, they wrote: "What they currently do, though, appears to be more oriented to a detection and enforcement agenda and to satisfying performance indicator requirements, than it is to an agenda concerned with dealing with police-relevant community problems."
The former head of the Police Research Group at the Home Office, Gloria Laycock, co-wrote an analysis of the failure, pointing to the capitulation of the police to Home Office pressure to carry on arresting: "There are far too many cases where persistent problems are ignored and where, even when the police do think about solving a problem, they fall back on the standard approach of arrest and prosecution." The bold new programme had wandered far from home.
The £24 million Reducing Burglary Initiative had also suffered from the same cramping of the problem-oriented approach and from the Treasury's attempt to stop researchers intervening to help the police. Three consortia of university specialists were hired to follow the 60 most innovative schemes, to measure changes in burglary rates and to check the funding against the £2,300 average social cost of a burglary. The results were far from successful.
One of the consortia, led by Professor Tim Hope of Keele University, reported that only one of its 20 schemes had secured a significant cut in burglary at a cost-effective price; five others had scored a less significant cut at less than £2,300 per crime. The rest had failed: seven of them had had a more or less neutral effect on burglary at an unacceptably high price, with one of them costing eleven times the £2,300 for each offence it cut; and, worst of all, seven other schemes had stimulated a clear rise in burglary, sending it spiralling upwards in one case by 39%, usually at vast cost. Prof Hope told us: "We found all the implementation problems on the ground that need time and thought and effort to get right. Most projects were on a hiding to nothing from the start."
Most of the schemes had made a particular effort to protect 'repeat victims' - the 4% of the population who suffer 44% of all crime. But Prof Hope's researchers found that, out of their 20 sample schemes, none had reduced the risk of these victims, and six had actually increased it. And this turned out to be a crucial clue to what was going wrong. Just as conventional law enforcement often failed because it assumed that offenders would behave rationally and be deterred, so now crime reduction discovered that the victims of crime would not necessarily behave rationally either.
Most of the burglary schemes had used 'target hardening' as the core of their strategy, offering free packages of extra security to any household which wanted it. The problem was that the most vulnerable households were also the least likely to accept help: the victims were alienated from officialdom and suspicous of the approach; the houses were owned by absentee landlords who could not care less about protecting their tenants; the victims lived chaotic lives in short-term housing and had moved before the offer was made. In some cases, when the police target-hardened the most co-operative houses in the area, the effect was to divert all the burglary onto the most vulnerable, with a dramatic increase in the suffering of the repeat victims.
This clue, in turn, led back to the structural weakness which had been inflicted on the CDRPs who had been created to run schemes like this with the police. The researchers found clear evidence that the most successful burglary projects were planned from the bottom up, using community knowledge and contacts; when they went wrong, they rapidly understood why and adapted. The least succesful ones were imposed by the police alone who sometimes saw the emerging failure, knew no way to adapt the plan and reacted by simply deciding to spend all the money before it was clawed back.
For several years, the Police Foundation think-tank have been trying to ring alarm bells warning that constables can be inherently conservative and even cynical and tend not to do very much about initiatives that are handed down from on high without any kind of consultation with them. A scheme works its way from Whitehall down through the ranks until finally it arrives on the desk of a duty sergeant along with a whole lot of other paper and becomes, for the constables, just the latest fad that they are expected to deal with. It is an exact echo of the problem of crime victims who do not co-operate with burglary initiatives which are passed down from distant desks. From the Home Office's point of view, abandoning the reality of consultation, it was the opposite of rolling a snowball down a hill and watching it gather weight, more like throwing a vase off a rooftop and watching people on the ground pick up bits and wonder where that came from.
Supporters of the burglary initiative were dismayed by the results but not defeated. The research had done precisely what it was supposed to do: by mid 2002 they had identified the problem and so now they could deal with it by strengthening the partnerships and using their local knowledge to adapt tactics on the ground. But now something else went wrong: the Home Office lost its nerve. They simply sat on the research, denying the police and the CDRPs the chance to learn the lessons. A year passed, and last month (June 2003), a brief summary was published amidst such controversy about its claims of success that Prof Hope's consortia demanded that its name be removed from it on the grounds that it was "highly misleading and selective".
At a conference on criminology last month, Prof Hope complained that the Home Office summary simply failed to say anything about whether the burglary schemes had been cost effective and undervalued the fact that burglary had been falling across the country, crediting the schemes with a success to which they were not necessarily entitled. The Home Office summary, he said, "produces results that at best contradict our own and at worst seriously distort the actual pattern of project outcomes as far as we can judge. These tend to point in a much more positive and favourable direction than our own." This looked, he said, like "the regrettably familiar government game of policy-led evidence". "What works" had started to give way to "Pretend it works."
In the background, the Home Office was rapidly discarding other elements of the new programme to beat property crime. In 1999, they commissioned a group of specialist insurance executives, police officers, fire officers and academics to advise them on imaginative new approaches to burglary, arson and criminal damage. They were known as P-crat, the Property Crime Reduction Action Team. In May 2001, they produced an initial report which was full of energetic ideas.
They wanted building regulations to include a requirement for all new homes to be secured against crime; a £1 computer chip installed in all new electronic goods so that they could be rendered inoperable if they were stolen; a national database of stolen valuables to make it harder to fence them; a new library of good practice in crime prevention; an expansion of the CDRPs to include more local agencies, including fire officers. They had already negotiated preliminary figures from insurance companies who were willing to slash premiums for home owners who took up their ideas and they had set up five working parties to carry forward their plans.
Their work was welcomed by the then minister, Charles Clarke, who said: "I look forward to the delivery of their full report and to doing all I can to help them to achieve reductions in property crime." But there never was a full report. P-crat was quietly disbanded. None of the ideas has materialised in the Home Office, although their arson ideas have been taken over by John Prescott's Arson Control Forum. One of those closely involved with P-crat told us: "There was an election; there was a new Home Secretary. The whole thing lost momentum."
At the same time, the Home Office had funded work by a Department of Trade inquiry, chaired by Lord Sharman, into technology and crime. They too produced innovative ideas, based on the advice of 60 experts and 26 seminars, to protect computer systems from hacking, to allow the police to record crime and to appeal for help through the internet, to build crime prevention into the life cycle of every product, and to tie central government into the kind of partnership work which was now required of the local CDRPs. They undertook to make sure that all their ideas were acted on. "Crime reduction is not the priority for everyone that it should be, and we need to change that," Lord Sharman wrote in his foreword to the report. Thus far, the government has set up funding for more research, but none of the other ideas has materialised. Sharman warned, in particular, that mobile phone companies should design their products so that they could be blocked if they were stolen: nothing was done until the theft of mobile phones soared.
Part of the difficulty seems to have been a resistance from mainstream business. One of P-crat's problems was that they pushed hard for a compulsory scheme for new houses to be 'secured by design' with high quality doors and window frames and estate lay-outs which expose thieves to the natural surveillance of neighbours. As a voluntary scheme, this scored startling success in the early 1990s, with some projects reporting that burglary fell to zero. But the big construction companies soon discovered that buyers were not willing to pay extra for the security and stopped co-operating. P-crat wanted to compel them, but one insider suggests that the steady fall in burglary since 1993 has weakened the government's will to take on the construction industry.
Some of the big car park operators have resisted a long-standing programme to win 'secure car park status' by installing CCTV and other crime-prevention, even though car parks are the site of 22% of all vehicle crime and the secure status cuts crime by an average of 70%. The government aimed to have 2000 car parks in the scheme by the end of 2000: more than two years later, they still have only 1,210. Like the hoteliers, car park operators profit from consumer law which omits them from the definition of 'goods and services' which would otherwise make them liable for thefts on their property. Similarly, at various points, the Home Office has looked at amending the 1956 Hotel Proprietors Act to stop hotels denying liability for the theft of their guests' possessions. In France, for example hotels are legally responsible and, therefore, are far more security conscious. But British hoteliers have dug in their heels.
Four years after its official launch, the crime reduction programme now is buried in a rubble of disappointment. But it is not dead. There are signs of some partnerships finally beginning to work. In Bristol, for example, where the CDRP was particularly weak in its early years, there has been a revival, brought about from an unlikely source. Tony Blair's 2002 Street Crime Initiative on mugging, which was a classic example of centralised control reinforced with a rigid performance regime, appeared to be a further blow to the CDRPs by imposing yet another law-enforcement requirement on the police, but ironically the sheer political pressure to come up with a result forced local agencies to work together. The chief constable of Avon and Somerset, Steve Pilkington, chaired a special leadership group to run the initiative: he pulled together the same agencies who were failing to work together in the CDRP and gave them a chance to succeed. That has now had a knock-on effect on the CDRP, which finally is showing signs of life.
And some of the schemes run by the crime reduction programme appear to have done better than their initiatives on burglary and problem-oriented policing. The Youth Justice Board has established Young Offender Teams and Youth Offender Panels in every area to divert juveniles from prison and into constructive schemes. Parenting Orders and Anti Social Behaviour Orders - both of which received a bad press when they were announced - have proved to be less repressive and more constructive than was feared. The huge Sure Start programme has generated projects around the country to work with pre-school children, on the same model as the successful American schemes, but the long-term nature of the work means the evaluation will not be finished until 2007.
And whereas P-crat was dumped, the equivalent action team for vehicle crime, V-crat, has done better, with a little help from the Department of Transport. Their key idea, of having immobilisers fitted to all cars so that they can not be driven away by thieves, fell foul of technical problems but they persuaded government to tackle the wrecking of stolen cars by scrap-metal firms and to make life more difficult for car thieves by improving the data flow to the police from the DVLA, car insurance companies and MOT records, with the aim of clamping down not only on drivers without correct paperwork but on the apparently large pool of cars which exist nowhere in official records and are routinely used for crime.
But the drum beat from the Home Office is not so encouraging. It recently posted a one-line message on its website, noting that the crime reduction programme which was originally conceived by researchers as a ten-year project, had closed in March last year after only three years. The Home Office say it has been replaced by a new funding stream, the Safer Communities Initiative, but its £20 million last year was a trickle compared to the original programme's £400 million. The officials who ran it have been dispersed throughout the Home Office. Some of the local schemes are still running, but there is no more central funding or training for problem-oriented policing or radical new initiatives on burglary. Indeed, the Treasury, which was blamed for many of the problems with the burglary projects, used the weak results to claw back £26 million which had originally been earmarked for a second phase of 250 more schemes. Funding for other schems including design against crime drained away last year. Crucially, there is no more central guidance from researchers; and no more central funding for the kind of evidence-based innovation which lay at the heart of the original programme.
The CDRPs themselves now benefit from direct funding and will receive some £84 million a year for the next three years - but this is a substantial cut compared to last year, because £25 million of their funding has been diverted to police BCUs. Although some local police commanders are now committed supporters of the CDRPs and will spend the money with them, others are being encouraged by the Home Office to spend it on DNA banks and car number-plate recognition systems and new finger-print databases, all the new technology of old law enforcement.
As the Home Secretary ratchets up his rhetoric for more detections and longer sentences, there are clear signs that the balance of policy has tipped back towards law enforcement. The crime reduction programme aimed to cut the prison population by 10%; but it has risen as the government pushes a conventional agenda. It has just set up new criminal justice boards across the country with the specific task of achieving its central performance targets.
The whole radical new strategy is now balanced between the power of its underlying thinking and the weakness of its implementation. The law still requires that police and local authorities work in partnership. There is still money flowing through the CDRPs. More than ever before, there are police officers and council officials and health workers and teachers and social workers who can see the value of solving problems instead of merely trying to punish their results. They can see that if police make the roads safer, hospitals will have fewer casualties to treat; that if schools work well with their truants, police will have fewer burglaries to handle; that if any of them can break through on drug treatment, all of them will be better off.
In a speech in Hackney last September, Tony Blair declared: "It is crucial to address poverty, social exclusion, unemployment, lack of education, the sense of hopelessness that is so often the breeding ground for crime." The message from the battered body of the crime reduction programme is that he can still do that, but his Home Office ministers too often have looked for quick fixes when the real solutions are long term; demanded measurable results when the real progress is often invisible; forced great simplicities on a problem which is notoriously complex; imposed rigid centralism where local flexibility is needed; and, most of all, failed to stand up for their project, failed to educate the public in the truth about the weakness of conventional law enforcement, failed to explain the virtues of their crime reduction programme and the new partnerships, and reverted to the easy populist rhetoric which made George Dixon a star.
The Guardian, July 2003
David Blunkett has not been getting on too well with his chief constables. Last autumn, for example, the Home Secretary unveiled his brand new National Policing Plan, which is to guide the 43 constabularies of England and Wales in all their efforts to deal with crime and disorder.
For many months, in private, the most senior officers in the land told Mr Blunkett their opinion of this central manifesto of the government's attack on crime. One chief constable captured for us in a single vivid sentence the message which his colleagues conveyed: "Frankly, sir, with respect, this is crap."
This friction is rather more than an argument among friends. It is a profound clash of ideas about how to generate success from the structural failure of the criminal justice system, which we described yesterday - a system which succeeds in bringing to justice only 3% of the offences that are committed around it, which then frequently fails to enforce its sentences against those whom it does catch and which routinely fails to prevent them offending again.
Faced with the limits of conventional law enforcement, this Home Secretary has inherited his predecessor, Jack Straw's, attempt to work outside the system with some radical alternatives, which we will examine tomorrow. But Mr Blunkett also has applied the most intense pressure to the existing system in an effort to force it to deliver better results. And it is here - in what Mr Blunkett likes to call 'narrowing the justice gap' - that he has found himself at odds with many chief officers who complain bitterly that his law-enforcement agenda, now captured in the new National Policing Plan, is narrow, simplistic and essentially ineffective.
This conflict of ideas is, in turn, a conflict of power. Chief officers around the country worry out loud that they are faced with a Home Secretary who is dealing with their doubts about his policy by trespassing on their operations, crashing through constitutional law in a way which, for the first time in this country, involves government in the political control of the police.
According to the rules, the Home Secretary is allowed to establish the level of funding and the strategic priorities for police, but that is all; it is for the local police authorities to decide how the funds are spent; and it is for the chief constables alone to decide how officers are deployed. This awkward balance is rooted in historic fear - that none of these three could be trusted with the power which police have to take our liberty and to invade our privacy. Now the balance is tipped towards the centre. As one chief officer put it: "We have always been answerable to the law - and only to the law. Suddenly, we are answerable to a politician."
This fretwork of tension has provoked several unseen crises. One of the earliest and most important involved the chief constable of Avon and Somerset. Steve Pilkington is one of a new generation of highly-educated chief officers who are willing to tackle crime and disorder with a far more sophisticated approach than their predecessors. Believing that there is more to policing than simply arresting and convicting offenders, Pilkington has championed 'geographic policing', using beat managers to build links with communities so that finally and genuinely, his officers can claim to be policing by consent; and he has trained all his officers in problem-solving so that they can try to cut crime before it reaches the criminal justice system, by working with other agencies to unravel the problems that lie behind the offence.
Pilkington's philosophy was tested to the limit late one night last summer when two men opened fire on a couple of his detectives, who were unarmed. The men with the guns ran, the detectives ran after them, radioing for help. An armed response vehicle caught up with them. A minute or two later, one of the gunmen was dead on the pavement. A police bullet had hit him in the back.
This was nightmare time for Avon and Somerset police. All this had happened in St Paul's, an impoverished mixed-race community in the centre of Bristol which is beset with crime problems. The man with the bullet in his back was black. St Paul's notoriously rioted in the early 1980s. As a young inspector in London, Pilkington himself had seen Brixton burn at the same time (he'd been caught in a van which was petrol-bombed). Those past riots had been triggered by heavy-handed policing. Indeed, one of the Brixton riots was caused directly by a police shooting.
Using the tools of conventional law enforcement, a chief constable would have reacted to the threat by flooding the area with officers, including riot squads, trying to use force and the threat of arrest to hold down the lid. Pilkington's officers did something very different. They had spent years trying to persuade this community to trust them, so now they put their trust back in them and simply gave them the facts. They set up a team of local leaders and a telephone tree to link up with their contacts in St Paul's and, through their beat managers, to people on the street. Each day, as they found out more about the shooting, they fed out more information: the two men were not local but Jamaican; they were carrying a loaded gun; they had fired on unarmed officers; witnesses had heard the armed response unit shout a warning; the men had ignored it and fired back. They held public meetings. Some officers left their private mobile phone numbers so that people could call them to check out any rogue rumour. Pilkington himself went down to St Paul's to talk to people. And... there was no riot, no disorder. Nothing.
In old-fashioned terms of arrest and conviction, this was a non-event, and yet it was a policing triumph. It was not simply that the facts were on the side of the police action, but that this community, which could so easily have rejected those facts, accepted them and accepted that the police were not strong-arm enemies - because Avon and Somerset had spent years building a relationship with the people they were policing. And the important point is that while Pilkington's philosophy was rescuing Bristol from riot, just about every chief constable in the country was watching the Home Secretary apparently attempting to sack him.
Within days of taking office, David Blunkett had made his mark by elbowing the chief constable of Sussex, Paul Whitehouse, out of his job, sending a clear signal to every chief officer in the country that, regardless of the legal nicety that it was up to the local police authority to hire and fire the chief constable, they were vulnerable to his will. Behind the scenes, he had taken two steps further to curb their power by creating a new regime of centralised control.
Clearly borrowing from his previous job as Education Secretary, Mr Blunkett transferred the role of the former Ofsted chief, Chris Woodhead, to a new role for HM Inspectors of Constabulary. Instead of reviewing the work of forces and giving advice to the Home Secretary, as they had done for years, the inspectors would now inspect individual Basic Command Units (the new jargon for police divisions). This was a slap in the face for chief constables who were by-passed by the process, but the punch on the nose came from Mr Blunkett's second new step - the creation in the Home Office of a Police Standards Unit which could be called in to any BCU which was deemed to be failing. This was the most direct threat to chief constables, usurping their authority over their own officers, cutting straight through their own policing plans and effectively requiring their resignation.
In July 2001, a team from HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, working to this new agenda, arrived in Bristol to review the work of the Central District BCU, which is responsible for the commercial heart of the city as well as the university, the pubs and clubs in the new '24-hour city' and a cluster of deeply deprived wards, including St Paul's. Before they even set foot in Bristol, the inspectors reached for the weapon which is now at the heart of the struggle between the Home Secretary and his chief constables: they asked for the numbers.
Chief constables, like the chief executives of every other branch of the public sector, are now surrounded by numerical performance indicators. In negotiations with the Home Office, they have expressed their deep and often bitter opposition to this. They have warned ministers that the numbers do not measure the reality of their work (the non-riot in Bristol is the exactly the sort of example they quote). Beyond that, they have complained that the numbers actively distort their operations, pushing them away from real local needs in order to hit national targets and giving them a perverse incentive to ignore serious criminals in favour of "hunting down the young and stupid, the impulsive, the mentally frail and the absolutely desperate", as one chief constable put it to us.
One of the most troubling examples has been the government's recent decision to require all police forces from April of this year (2003) to deliver an annual increase of at least 5%in the number of persistent offenders who are brought to justice. Apart from some strong reservations about the impact of this kind of conventional law-enforcement, the chief constables were prepared to go along with the idea: their intelligence networks identify the people who commit most of the crime on their patches and they want to focus on them. But the Home Office, attempting to satisfy the Treasury's demand for numerically measurable results, converted the initiative into a bureaucratic obstacle. They insisted that persistent offenders must be defined as those who had been convicted of at least six offences in the previous 12 months.
The chief constables angrily complained that that was a definition not of a persistent offender but of a stupid one; that it diverted their efforts from the clever offender who had evaded conviction and also from the imprisoned offender who was about to be released without any recent convictions simply because he had been locked up; that it invited them to go after the school girl who had been caught shoplifting six times but not the habitual burglar who had been caught only twice. Even worse, we have picked up reports from around the country of forces who early this year deliberately gave a holiday to their persistent offenders, choosing not to arrest them until April 1 when the counting of the new target officially started.
When HM inspectors descended on the central Bristol BCU, the National Police Plan was still in the pipeline, but most of its numbers were already pouring down from Whitehall, which had ignored almost all of the chief officers' warnings. These numbers dominate police strategy and permeate every corner of their decision making, but the numbers which matter most - the ones which Mr Blunkett was already waving in front of the press, the ones which Home Office ministers inserted into the new role of HM inspectors despite the opposition of chief constables - are the levels of burglary, car crime and robbery. Those were the numbers which the inspectors asked for before they even arrived in Bristol. This was bad news for Steve Pilkington and the central Bristol officers.
For several years, their own approach had been cutting the local crime numbers but in early 2001, they had suddenly leaped upwards - by 27.3% in only three months. In part, this was just numbers, nothing to do with reality: Avon and Somerset had adopted new rules for counting crime, throwing out years of dubious practice and simply recording every allegation from a member of the public as an offence which needed to be cleared up. Pilkington had opted to do this before most of the country and he had made it very clear to all his officers that he wanted this done ethically. In a deliberate break from the national police history of fiddling figures, he insisted that Avon and Somerset crime statistics must tell the truth. That alone had sent the numbers jumping upwards by some 10%.
In addition, central Bristol had been invaded by Yardie gangsters who had arrived at the end of 2000 and embarked on a campaign of casual violence which had seen opponents abducted, stabbed or shot (sometimes as a reprisal for some gang dispute back in Kingston) and who had also succeeded in boosting the market in crack cocaine, whose heavily-addicted buyers were now frantically burgling and robbing and breaking into cars to pay their Yardie suppliers. Pilkington's officers were fighting back, but they had a real struggle on their hands.
That year of the Yardies' arrival, 2000/01, saw a 72% increase in serious crime in central Bristol - a 52% increase in grievous bodily harm, a 100% increase in kidnaps, a 128% increase in abductions, a 75% increase in rape. The government's most favoured targets were doing just as badly - robbery, burglary, theft of cars and from cars were all substantially higher. The impact had spread across the whole of Avon and Somerset.
The chief constables had warned the Home Office that random local events - often much smaller than a Yardie invasion - could have a dramatic effect on crime figures. One problem family could move into an estate and send BCU burglary statistics through the roof. One football riot could distort the whole BCU picture on crimes of violence. Random events could cut the numbers too: robbery statistics in the BCU in Somerset East, for example, plummetted when the Glastonbury festival was cancelled by the foot and mouth epidemic.
The Association of Chief Police Officers had been particularly scathing about the Home Office plan to group BCUs together in 'families' which were supposed to be similar in terms of miles of motorway or rates of unemployment, but which were often quite different in terms of crime. ACPO even commissioned research from the Police Foundation think tank, who ran a binary logistic regression and found that fewer than 5% of the 318 BCUs in England and Wales had low clear-up rates for burglary or robbery which could not be explained by local factors.
All these underlying difficutlies now came to the surface in Bristol. Months before HM inspectors arrived, Steve Pilkington and his senior officers agreed that the only way to tackle the sudden crime boom in central Bristol was to tackle its underlying cause - the Yardies. If they could do that, they could kill off the motive that was driving something like 70% of property crime in the city. That meant more than just arresting and processing Yardies. They would work with the immigration department to stop the Yardies wandering through the airports where they were sometimes spotted and stopped only to be released a few hours later because there were no holding cells. They would negotiate with customs too to work with them as the Yardies' mules arrived in the country: there had been examples of police in various parts of the country tipping off customs with specific details of mules flying in only to find that customs took no action because their own performance targets diverted them into the interception of much larger drug consignments. They would also carry on working with the community, so that they accepted their work without seeing it as a threat.
But this was Avon and Somerset's approach - not the Home Office's. With this strategy, there would be no spare officers to run any kind of campaign for Mr Blunkett's car crime target. If the strategy worked, it would work slowly, waiting for immigration and customs to play their parts, potentially failing to yield the burglary figures as quickly as the Home Secretary wanted. Fundamentally, the operation against the Yardies was part of a wider effort to work outside the frame of conventional law enforcement by taking a 'problem-solving approach', recognising that most of their persistent offenders were drug addicts and/or illiterate and/or homeless and/or mentally ill and/or jobless and that there was simply no benefit to the community in arresting them yet again and sending them off on a tragic roundabout of ineffective consequences.
As a related example of problem-solving, the local commander at the Central Bristol BCU, Chief Superintendent Mike Roe, wanted to extend the network of beat managers into local schools, not to arrest children but to spot those who were getting into trouble and to work with them and their families before they slipped all the way into crime. But Roe could not do this on the scale he wanted while his officers were being diverted by Mr Blunkett's targets. And, even if he found the officers, the impact would not show up in the crime numbers for years. Mr Blunkett wanted his results before the next election.
When HM inspectors produced their draft report, in September 2001, they scarcely noticed the force's problem solving. The inspectors' report, which we have seen, made no allowance for the new counting rules or the Yardies. And they made a fetish of the numbers. They said Central Bristol had the worst numbers per thousand of population in its family of 17 BCUs - even though they had failed to count more than 100,000 commuters, nightlifers and students who came into the area, all of them potential crime victims and offenders, but none of them on the electoral roll. The inspectors went on to say that Central Bristol was underperforming compared to the other 17 BCUs in its family, even though none of the others contained a city centre (15 of them were suburbs, 2 of them provincial towns) with all that that involved for late-night drinking and crime; and none of them had been invaded by several hundred armed Jamaican gangsters with a ready supply of crack cocaine.
As part of their attempt to police in the way that their community wanted, the BCU had set up special units to deal with domestic violence, sex offences and racist crime. Officers were enormously proud of their success, but in the world of New Labour numbers, their success looked like failure, because the victims of these crimes were now trusting the police to deal with them so they were coming forward and reporting more offences. Women who are battered by their partners, for example, typically suffer 35 assaults before they approach the police. Now, Bristol women were coming forward much quicker. It was the same with race crime and sex offences. But HM inspectors complained that their numbers for crimes of sex and violence were increasing and stood well above the other 17 BCUs.
Faced with the impact of the Yardies, central Bristol officers were working long hours, but instead of reflecting on the difficulty of dealing with a huge increase in crime without an increase in resources, the inspectors simply asserted that manpower should be better managed. The inspectors produced eleven coloured graphs and two statistical tables, they worried about the absence of 'robust audit trails linking targets and objectives through to operations and their outputs' and they went on to make seven recommendations, dealing with internal structures, the cycle of meetings and the monitoring of performance.
For police officers on the ground and for residents of central Bristol, it was a report which had no link to the real world. What good were meetings and monitoring in the face of a Yardie crime wave? (And, indeed, how could the Home Office attack the police when it was their immigration service which was failing to stop the Yardies and the mules pouring through the airports at will, carrying an estimated 4.5 tonnes of cocaine a year?) How could they possibly enjoy the consent of the people they were policing if they started dancing to a political tune? Avon and Somerset officers wanted the report re-written, but HM inspectors stuck to their new agenda and insisted on publishing it without any significant change.
Now, chief constables around the country were watching closely. Their concern was not just that Pilkington was in danger but that all of them were in danger from a Home Secretary who was apparently willing to upset the delicate balance of power over their work. They had seen the danger dawning before Blunkett took over the Home Office. Some of them had been deeply opposed to Jack Straw's idea of a new national police radio system, Airwave - the biggest capital investment ever made by the police in this country. They said it was unnecessary and grossly overpriced but when they took their complaints to the supposedly independent Police Information and Technology Organisation, who had to make the decision, they found that Straw's officials had gatecrashed and were insisting that the scheme must be adopted - because it was the biggest PFI scheme in the government's gift and, regardless of benefit, regardless of cost, it must go ahead. And it did, in 2000. (The deal has subsequently been mauled by the Public Accounts Committee as 'disastrous', by the National Audit Office for its 'lack of competition', and by some experts in pulsed frequencies as a health risk comparable to asbestos.)
In the same way, as David Blunkett was closing in on Steve Pilkington, his officials were intervening in the supposedly independent Police Negotiating Board, some of whose members report that, while they were attempting to strike a new deal for police pay in the normal way, the Home Secretary was dictating terms and using leaks to the press to undermine the board's position. "It was outrageous," according to one board member. "There was one Sunday morning when we were pursuing our position with the staff organisations - and there in the Sunday papers was the Home Secretary putting completely different points. We are supposed to be independent." One result was that the Home Secretary forced a national cut in police overtime, even though that was the fuel which police were using to hit his targets.
But what worried them most was that the Home Secretary was top-slicing their money: instead of handing cash down to the 43 forces, he was holding more and more of it in the centre, inviting bids on which he and his ministers would make decisions. This stole power from the police authorities as well as the chief constables. And some of these central decisions were unwelcome. For example, David Blunkett wanted forces to hire Community Safety Officers as a cost-effective way of putting uniformed patrols on the streets. This was popular with some of the big city forces who could provide rapid back-up to the CSOs, but it was despised by most chief constables who believed uniformed patrols were a politically popular waste of time and who feared that untrained CSOs could easily cause friction. And yet they needed the money, so they bid for the Home Office's pot of CSO cash. Kent, for example, bid for 18 CSOs even though their chief constable, Sir David Phillips, as president of ACPO, had said publicly that he thought they had 'very little merit'.
It was not just that specific decisions about deployment were being stolen by the Home Office. The top-sliced funds tipped the whole balance of power. Crucially, David Blunkett had made a great public splash about increasing the number of police officers, but all of the money for these new recruits was held centrally and since every chief constable was desperate for more officers, all of them were vulnerable to Home Office pressure. (Not one chief constable would talk to us on the record about the Home Office for fear that their force would suffer. Even retired chief constables were worried. Almost all of them used the same word to describe the Home Office's attitude to them - 'spiteful'.) It was in this context of centralised power that the numerical targets became such a powerful tool.
There was now a real risk that Avon and Somerset were about to have one of their BCUs taken over by the new Police Standards Unit, that Steve Pilkington would be forced out of his job, that the whole community-based, problem-solving approach to the policing of Avon and Somerset would be crushed. Avon and Somerset decided to play the Home Office at their own game: they would accept all the recommendations of HM inspectors; they would rearrange their meetings and their monitoring and their audit trails; and they would let events prove the point for them. They warned Home Office ministers directly that unless they admitted that there was a national crime problem with Yardies and crack cocaine, not only would HM inspectors fail to help central Bristol but the government nationally would fail to reach its own crime targets.
The following summer, July 2002, HM inspectors published a draft follow-up report on the Central Bristol BCU, in which they patted themselves on the back, crediting their first report as 'a catalyst for change', and noted that the BCU had done all that had been asked. This time, they acknowledged that the BCU's similarities to the others in its family were 'somewhat limited' but neverthless produced eight different graphs to make comparisons. This time, they acknowledged that new counting rules had had a 'serious impact' on their figures but nevertheless used the figures to conclude that this was 'what can only be described as a comparatively poor crime performance'. This time, they noted 'the influx of drugs into the Bristol area, mainly through couriers from Jamaica' and recorded the BCU's strong view that they could not do much unless the government did something to stop the Yardies entering the country. But nevertheless they went ahead and delivered the judgement which most worried chief constables around the country: the inspectors suggested that the Police Standards Unit should be called in to the BCU.
At this point, David Blunkett was finally confronted by one of the many significant differences between education and criminal justice: the police are organised. The teacher unions were divided and swept aside by Blunkett. The police groups are much tougher. The Association of Chief Police Officers, in particular, runs a 100% closed shop, it has powerful political allies in Fleet Street and Westminster, and more than any other group of organised labour in this country, it has succeeded in infiltrating its employers by inserting its various sub-committees as national policy-making bodies. ACPO covers 43 forces, each of which has its own structure and philosophy, some of which have no time at all for problem-solving and geographic policing, but all of whom were threatened by what was happening to Steve Pilkington.
Within days of the inspectors' follow-up report, the Police Standards Unit were in touch with the local police authority in Avon and Somerset to inform them that they would be making 'a formal intervention'. Members of the police authority found themselves being phoned by MPs who were hostile to Pilkington (several chief constables around the country report being 'bullied into line' by local Labour MPs, apparently acting at the behest of the Home Office). Some members of the police authority were upset that they were being over-ridden: if the chief constable really was at fault, then it was for them to act, not the Home Office.
Their chairman, John Christensen, insisted on meeting the head of the standards unit, former police superintendent and businessman Kevin Bond. Christensen, knowing that this meeting could set a national precedent, took with him the head of the national Association of Police Authorities, Melanie Leech. Bond listened to them and undertook to write to Christensen to spell out what was happening.
In the meantime, the then president of ACPO, Sir David Phillips, travelled from Kent to Bristol to find out what was happening. According to ACPO sources, he left the city appalled at the naivety of HM inspectors and determined to stop the standards unit moving in. The ACPO machine started to mobilise. According to one source, they confronted senior Home Office officials with a passionate complaint about the Home Office's theft of power from chief constables and police authorities and with the specific prospect that if Pilkington was ousted, he would be entitled to sue them, thus making a public spectacle of the power struggle.
Behind the scenes, Sir David Phillips is believed to have visited HM inspectors at the Home Office, where he warned that they were on the brink of a move which could be deeply counter productive. Some in HMI were not keen to encourage the standards unit, which was trespassing on its patch. Sir David is believed to have pointed out that the standards unit could not intervene unless HM inspectors formally recommended it. Although they had written their report, the inspectors had not yet made the formal move. And they never did. At the standards unit, Kevin Bond never wrote his promised letter to the Avon and Somerset police authority. HMI's follow-up report was stamped 'confidential' and, unlike the orginal report - and in breach of HMI's stated policy - it was never published. Steve Pilkington, who had been hanging over the edge of a precipice, was hauled back to safety.
As a compromise, the standards unit agreed to 'collaborate' with the central Bristol BCU, offering advice and even helping them to access new money, but not formally intervening in their strategy. Since then, the Home Office's own researchers have confimed what central Bristol was trying to tell them, that there is a national surge in the black market for crack cocaine, which is jeopardising the whole of the government's crime strategy. The Home Office, in December last year, belatedly produced a national crack plan.
In central Bristol now, the crime figures are falling again. Sticking to their problem-solving approach, Avon and Somerset sent officers over to Jamaica and brought Jamaican police to Bristol to spot known offenders. They intercepted £10 million of Yardie cash leaving the country; closed down the bogus college which was giving cover to Yardie mules entering the country as students; forged links with immigration and customs; and saw the Home Office belatedly bring in visas which may make travel more difficult for the Yardies. They also worked so closely with the community that they were able to put armed officers onto the streets without losing their support. The result of their work is reflected now in a newsletter version of their annual report showing sharp falls in the number of crime victims in the BCU, under the headline "Partnerships - the key to cracking crime."
Nobody at Avon and Somerset wants to dig up the past. The head of central Bristol BCU, Chief Supt Mike Roe, stresses the good side of what happened: "It is true that we were disappointed with the HMI report, that they did not see our crime in its context and did not make the link to the Jamaican organised crime groups. But at the end of it all, you could argue that HMI did help us to do our job better and the standards unit also had a positive role to play. They did support us, they also got us extra funds. "
In the meantime, the performance regime has been tightened still further. It has been recast into a new Policing Performance Assessment Framework which sets yet more targets under five new domaine headings (it was six, but they cancelled 'Helping The Public'), all still grouped into 'families' of forces so that their average performance can be compared. The government has just created a new national network of criminal justice boards, pulling together the chief officers of every criminal justice agency in every region in order to ensure that all of them meet their numerical targets.
And this year, at the behest of the Treasury, Activity Based Costing is to be introduced across the country, requiring that each year, for a three-week period, every police officer should pause every 15 minutes in order to fill in a card to summarise the work they have been doing so that Whitehall can monitor efficiency. In diplomatic words, HM Inspector of Constabulary, Sir Keith Povey, noted in a recent report: "This can be regarded as absurd".
And this whole regime is enforced with the same engulfing bureaucracy which we described earlier in this series with the Drug Action Teams. Police officers meet as a senior management team and work their way through service level agreements and tendering protocols, producing business plans with audit trails and budget codes and business score cards to monitor the result. They bid for funds under dozens of different headings, wait months for approval and then scramble to spend the cash before the financial year ends.
There are very few police officers now who do not expect to be held to account for their work. And they understand the importance of numbers - as a clue to crime patterns, as an intelligence tool to steer their work, not as a concrete overcoat. Earlier this year, the chief constable of Thames Valley, Peter Neyroud, had the courage to announce publicly that he was setting aside Mr Blunkett's targets for burglary and robbery. He said they "fly in the face of reality" and threatened his ability to protect his community from other crimes. Other chief officers in mute rebellion have quietly adopted their own targets.
Down on the ground there are people who know a lot about crime but who are running a criminal justice system which does not deliver results. In the centre there is a government which is desperate for results and therefore takes over from the people on the ground even though - and here's the point - they know just about nothing at all about crime and even less about the different needs of different communities. Pounding a system to deliver results which are beyond its reach, the horrible outcome is that the Home Office are actively making the fight against crime more difficult. The symbol of David Blunkett's police service is a blue light wrapped in red tape. "Frankly, sir, with respect, this is crap."
Additional research by Tamsen Courtenay
The Guardian, July 2003
In April last year (2002) Tony Blair launched a crusade against street crime. He personally chaired eight meetings of ministers and chief constables, which chose to spend £261 million on a concerted drive to arrest, try and convict street thieves in the ten forces where the problem was worst. Blair assigned a minister to each of the ten forces and made it their personal responsibility to deliver results and then declared publicly that they would crack the problem by September - only six months after the initiaitive started.
This was the most acute example of the government intervening directly in the work of the supposedly independent chief constables. It threw their own carefully-drawn local plans into confusion. Ordinary divisions were forced to donate officers; traffic policing in some areas was cut back to the bone as more manpower was diverted. The intervention reached a pitch where, for example, according to Police Review magazine, civil servants in London were calling police in Merseyside to tell them to double the number of officers working on the initiative, a degree of central control which would once have been dismissed as unlawful.
But did it work? When September came, the Home Office announced that the project had cut street crime by 16%. The truth was not quite as simple as that: there was success but there was also failure. The whole initiative is a snapshot, first of the inherent weakness of the criminal justice system as a mechanism for cutting crime; second, of the inherent difficulties in allowing politicians to drive supposedly independent local police forces from the centre.
The Home Office scored its 16% success by fudging the figures in two ways. First, they moved the baseline. When the initiative was launched, the ten chief constables were told that their performance over the six months from April 2002 would be measured against their figures for the same period in 2001. But when they announced the results, the Home Office abandoned that plan and took advantage of the fact that street robbery had risen right up to the beginning of the initiative: they used the figures for the single final month before the initiative to give themselves a higher baseline from which to measure their result. If they had stuck to the original plan, they would have recorded an improvement of only 10%.
Second, the improvement was scored only by smearing together the figures for all ten forces. If you look at each force separately, you find that only five of the ten saw their robbery figures improve compared to the same six months of the previous year. Of the remaining five, Manchester managed to cut the total number of street robberies by a statistically insignificant 0.14%. But West Yorks' street robbery rose by 7%; Notts soared by 19%; and Merseyside and South Yorkshire each shot up by 22%. No minister high-lighted this disappointing outcome.
Furthermore, the original brief for the Street Crime Initiative explictly included "the illegal possession or use of firearms that threatens the safety of our streets". The Home Office simply ignored this whole area in its claim of success. Four months later, two Birmingham teenagers were shot dead at a party, and new crime statistics showed that gun crime had increased by 35% in the last year. Publication of HM Inspector of Constabulary's report into the initiative, due in April of this year, has been delayed.
The bottom line is that the six-month blitz succeeded in cutting the number of recorded street offences by 5,068 compared to the same period a year earlier. With a total bill of £261 million (which was spent through agencies across the whole criminal justice system) each offence which was prevented came with a bill to the taxpayer of £51,500.
That figure is a little blurred. It may understate the real cost, since it is clear that some forces cut their street crime figures by changing the way they record offences; and there is some evidence that, where the street crime was being committed by drug users funding their habit rather than by schoolchildren stealing mobile phones, the crime was displaced, with burglary and car crime rising.
On the other hand, some of those costs may have a longer-term benefit, because the street crime initiative was extended beyond its original six months; and there was a hidden profit in some areas where the sheer heat of the initiative finally forced local authorities to forge real working partnerships with their police.
Several of the chief constables who were most irritated by the initiative now acknowledge that it had its virtues, not least that it gave them extra money. And yet they remain deeply worried by the government's narrow focus on trying to cut crime by driving up detections; and by the role of politicians in disrupting local plans which draw on local knowledge and police expertise. One told us: "The Street Crimes Initiative has arrested hundreds of people and charged most of them, but we have probably arrested them 15 times before. We can arrest them 20, 25 times. It won't make a difference. As long as they are on the streets, they commit crime. While they are behind bars, they stop. And then they come out and start again.
"The Home Office were wedded to the idea of arrest before they even started talking to us about it. They are advised by people who do not understand the system. I have never seen any evidence to justify the policy of arresting persistent offenders - it does not work in the long term. It is irrelevant."
Additional research by Tamsen Courtenay
The Guardian, June 2003
They hanged Huffum White in August 1813. When he was offered a last wish, Huffum told the priest he'd quite like somebody else please to take his place on the scaffold, but criminal justice had its way with him and celebrated a great achievement: they had just hanged the last highwayman in England. In truth, it was no achievement at all.
The passing of Huffum's trade had very little to do with hangmen or magistrates or parish constables. Indeed, it is an object lesson in the limits of conventional criminal justice. Huffum's colleagues were born from a co-incidence of history: the growth of a national network of horse-drawn coaches carrying the wealthy and their cash; and a vigorous crop of Royalist ex-soldiers who had lost their homes and their prospects of a lawful life in the civil war.
For 150 years, generations of highwaymen robbed their way around the country while the forces of law and order struggled to deal with them - hiring informers, offering rewards, giving full pay to constables (who had previously caught only those robbers who carried a reward), hanging them in public and then, adding horror to death, ordering that highwaymen be left to dangle in chains, rotting on the gibbet. Really, none of it worked. The highwaymen carried on robbing.
Huffum's trade died, as it was born, from forces well beyond the reach of the criminal justice system. The growth of banking and the introduction of cheques cut the amount of cash in transit. William Pitt's Act For Restricting Cash Payments (designed to gather gold for his war against France) cut it still more. The enclosure acts swallowed Hounslow Heath and Finchley Common and the other common land which had provided the highwaymen with cover. And then the railways diverted travellers from the highways. So, Huffum hanged alone.
All crime grows and dies beyond the reach of the state. It is arguably the most essential human perversity. What is obvious is that no law-and-order initiative is going to touch the social chemistry which produces highway robbery or piracy or drug dealing or any other major crime pattern. It's like asking doctors to prevent car crashes - they can't change the construction of motorways, or the design of cars, or the habits of drivers. What is less obvious is that when the law-and-order machine goes to work on those things which it can touch - when it sets out to catch and punish offenders - it also tends to fail, in a way that generally speaking doctors will not. This is because (to pursue the medical parallel) modern criminal justice still relies on the equivalent of leeches and bleeding. The system may or may not be badly run; it might or might not do a little better if it had more resources but at root, it tends to fail because it uses failed tools.
Conventional criminal justice rests on the foundation of three Big Ideas which prove to be particularly weak when they are used against the offenders who matter most, the persistent offenders or 'lifestyle criminals' who amount to only 20% of the offending population but who account for 80% of recorded crime.
First, ever since 13th century China, the state has been sending its uniformed watchmen out to patrol the streets, to detect villainy and to preserve the peace. In Kansas City, in1972/3, police decided to test the value of this. They divided their beats into three areas in which patrols variously were trebled in frequency; removed completely, with officers entering the area only if they were called; or simply left at the previous level. They then spent 12 months watching 648 different indicators of crime, fear of crime and attitutudes to police. The conclusion: the patrols made no difference. Police could flood an area, disappear or carry on as before - their visible presence on the street changed nothing. Six hundred years of patrols. For what?
This is not news to most chief police officers in this country. The recently-retired president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, Sir David Phillips, publicly derided the idea that bobbies on the beat are an effective device to prevent crime or catch criminals. He said last year that the whole idea came from an 'Enid Blyton world', whereas, in the real world, he said, most forces could put only one officer on patrol for every 14,000 people.
But, of course, there is more to policing than patrolling. The second fundamental, though more recent, activity of police is to use detectives. We obtained an ACPO internal paper, which analysed the crime rates in three-quarters of the police divisions in England and Wales and came up with a devastating conclusion. They discovered that detecting villains does not cut crime: "It is suggested that increasing detections will reduce crime. This intuitive appeal is not supported by the evidence." The paper went on to consider the impact of detections on the Home Office's two other major priorities - reducing anti-social behaviour and the public's fear of crime - and it noted that not even the Home Office had been able to find any link.
Indeed, the paper concludes that the reality of detective work is exactly the opposite of popular (and official) belief: detections do not drive crime rates up or down; it is the crime rate which drives the detections. Simply put, this means that if there are lots of fish in the barrel, you will shoot a lot of fish. Or, as the ACPO research concluded: "We find a strong positive relationship between total offences and total detections as it stands to reason that the more offences you have, the more there are available to detect. As total offences increase, so do total detections."
That is why, for example, police have increased their detection of robbery by 500% in the last 15 years, while the amount of recorded robbery has soared by 1000%; and, conversely, why the police detection of burglary has slumped from 31% to only 12% at the same time as the amount of recorded burglary has fallen from 1.2 million to 878,000.
We obtained another internal ACPO paper, in which the chief constables stood back and looked at the system as a whole in its dealings with lifestyle criminals. According to the paper: "All too often they can become untouchable and are amenable to justice only when they are unlucky....They are not amenable in general to traditional police enquiries, and other agencies ‘back off'.....Routine policing will not affect such criminal activity in any significant way." Just absorb that last sentence, written by the most senior police officers in this country about the offenders who commit 80% of our recorded crime.
Third, look more closely at the core concept of the system, the idea of punishment and, in particular, of imprisonment, and consider the extraordinary experience of Prof Jerome Miller, now of West Virginia, formerly of the state of Massachusetts, where, during the early 1970s, he was Commissioner for Youth, responsible, among other things, for some 2,000 young offenders who were then locked up in the state's juvenile prisons. Prof Miller did something which is probably unique in the developed world: he opened the prison doors.
He told us he did this because conditions were so bad that it was the only move which he could make to protect the juvenile inmates. State law gave him the power. The state governor gave him support. And so he released them, all but a dozen whom he considered to be demonstrably dangerous. And to make sure that nobody tried to put them back, he sent bulldozers to flatten most of the buildings in which they had been held. There was quite an outcry, there were scare stories in the press, and the police and the courts reacted by redoubling their efforts to arrest more young offenders and sentence them to custody. Miller simply turned them loose and diverted the cash from his prison budget to providing jobs, housing and supervision for the adolescents he had released. And, of course, there was no crime boom in Boston.
The National Council for Crime and Delinquency followed the crime careers of Miller's juveniles over the following ten years and compared them with juveniles who had served their full time behind bars. Essentially, they found there was no difference: the worst of them, from both groups, carried on offending; but there was a clear tendency for those in Miller's group to commit less serious offences while those who had been in prison tended to commit increasingly damaging crimes.
Between 1950 and 1990, England and Wales doubled the number of people who were locked up in jail - and yet the rate of recorded crime roared upwards, increasing ninefold. (These figures discount the underlying growth in national population). In the United States, the courts are incarcerating offenders at six times our rate; a third of young black men in the US now are either in prison, on parole or on probation; California alone has the third largest prison population in the world. And yet, the USA remains the most violent society in the developed world with a murder rate seven times higher than the UK. (For a complete analysis, see Crime and Punishment in America by Elliott Currie.)
Prison succeeds in the limited sense that an offender behind bars is not free to commit his crime. As a means of changing the behaviour of offenders, incarceration is peculiarly ineffective. The Home Office's own research department concluded in the early 1990s that to cut recorded crime by just 1%, they would have to increase the prison population by 25%.
The heart of the whole problem is that the system makes a set of assumptions about the behaviour of regular offenders - that they are making rational calculations about their behaviour, that they are worried about getting caught and that they are fearful of being punished. Those assumptions may apply to the law-abiding majority, but they are overwhelmingly false in relation to the generation of adolescents, usually male, who are based in the wreckage of the old public housing estates, whose values have been distorted by a childhood in collapsing communities and broken families, and whose ambitions have been swallowed by the one style of life which offers them status, excitement, a decent income and the prospect of promotion - crime and particularly the blackmarket in drugs. These are the lifestyle criminals who commit 80% of recorded crime: patrols don't inhibit them, detectives don't catch them, prisons don't deter them.
There is no shortage of politicians and thinktanks who are happy to cherry-pick their way through the facts to defend conventional law and order. But where is the evidence that this huge system with all of its resources and all of its power is an effective method of cutting crime? The ACPO paper on detections notes that there is only one piece of serious academic research which this government likes to quote in defence of the system (Criminal Deterrence and Sentence Severity by Von Hirsch et al). This does find a correlation between a higher certainty of arrest and lower crime rates but, as the ACPO paper notes, the reseachers explicitly warn that "this does not suffice to confirm a deterrent effect." Which is why they could hang Huffum, but they couldn't halt the highwaymen.