Tony Blair might be long gone, but New Labour’s ruthless dishonesty is still with us, as their recent handling of the Home Affairs agenda demonstrates only too clearly. We should not be surprised. Even as Chancellor, Gordon Brown had a track record of fiddling figures and concealing the truth.
Two speeches in two weeks, one from the Prime Minister, one from the Home Secretary, show just how they are going to fight the election on crime, and I suspect many other areas. It is an area where they have a track record of manipulating the data to fit the picture they want it to paint. This is something we have seen yet again with their claims on violent crime figures.
Both Brown and Alan Johnson quoted the British Crime Survey figures which, they claim, show that violent crime has dropped by one and a half million since 2002. They argue that you cannot make comparisons before 2002 because the Government changed the counting rules that year. That change was of course deliberate, and done in such a way that they made it almost impossible to compare the previous numbers with today.
David Green of the independent think-tank Civitas, described this change of figures as “scheming and manipulative”. He went on to say that the Government "knew perfectly well in 2002-03 that it would be helpful to say ‘sorry we cannot go back beyond this date’ because they did not want a consistent historical series.”
Fortunately we have seen this week that it is possible to make comparisons before 2002, and the picture they do paint is not a pretty one. A research paper from the impartial House of Commons Library shows that far from dropping, recorded violent crime has increased by almost a quarter since 1998, to over 900,000 in 2008/09. A massive increase, and a massive indictment for Brown and Johnson, as they try to conjure up the impression of an improvement.
This failure in tackling violent crime is sadly not unique in this Government's record. Only this week we had an admission that police were failing to visit one in four victims of anti-social behaviour. It is this level of neglect that led to the suicide of Fiona Pilkington and her disabled daughter after suffering ten years of abuse without police intervention.
It goes further. Gordon Brown and Alan Johnson have desperately tried to misrepresent the Conservatives views on CCTV and DNA. Their message is, if you don’t wholeheartedly and unthinkingly support our policies of expanded CCTV surveillance, and a massive database with the DNA of innocent people on it, then you are making the people of Britain less safe. This argument is nonsense, and only serves to re-emphasise the widely accepted notion that Brown simply doesn’t understand the issues of crime and justice.
Firstly, let’s address the issues surrounding CCTV. Nobody says that CCTV is a bad idea. But it is not the ‘one size fits all’ solution to crime fighting that it is often portrayed as being. Brown claims that “the evidence is clear: CCTV reduces the fear of crime and anti-social behaviour.” Yet the Home Office’s own review of CCTV schemes in 2005 concluded that CCTV ‘played no part in reducing fear of crime’.
Indeed a Metropolitan Police report highlighted that there was "a possible dent in public confidence, as people are told they are caught on CCTV around 300 times per day, yet when they are a victim of crime, no footage is found".
What is more, the same Home Office report found that CCTV ‘had little overall effect on crime levels’, cutting crime in less than one in fourteen deployments. Again this conclusion was backed up by the Metropolitan Police, who found that only one crime was solved by the 1,000 CCTV cameras in London in 2008.
The effectiveness of our current policies on CCTV was summed up perfectly by the head of CCTV at the Met in 2008 when he said:
“CCTV was originally seen as a preventative measure. Billions of pounds has been spent on kit, but no thought has gone into how the police are going to use the images and how they will be used in court. It's been an utter fiasco: only 3% of crimes were solved by CCTV. There's no fear of CCTV. Why don't people fear it? [They think] the cameras are not working.”
Of course there is a role for CCTV in fighting crime, but its use needs to be controlled and its misuse regulated against. It must be targeted to maximise the impact on criminals, and minimise the impact on ordinary people. Only then will it become the effective crime fighting tool that the public and police want it to be, and the Government claims it already is.
Similarly, the arguments of Brown and Johnson for keeping the profiles of innocent people on the DNA database simply do not stand up. Brown stated how crucial DNA technology was in bringing criminals to justice, claiming that last year alone there were 832 positive matches to the DNA database in cases of rape, murder and manslaughter.
Yet, the latest report from the independent and authoritative Home Affairs Select Committee, published just a few days later, states categorically that “it is currently impossible to say with certainty how many crimes are detected, let alone how many result in convictions, due at least in part to the matching of crime scene DNA to a personal profile already on the database.”
Brown cites a number of examples in support of his case, all of them bogus. For example he raises the case of Jeremiah Sheridan as a case study of why innocent people who are arrested should have their DNA profile retained. Sheridan was arrested in 2005 for a public order offence, but not charged. It was only much later that a cold case unit matched his DNA to the rape of a wheelchair-bound woman in May 1991
The reason this happens is that the Government has not created a database of the DNA evidence in unsolved crimes. If such a database existed, when anybody’s DNA was taken at the point of arrest, there would be an instant match on this system. This is an outrageous omission which can only be explained by idleness on the part of the Home Office and thoughtlessness on the part of the Government. A cold case database of this kind would have brought Sheridan to justice three years earlier than he eventually was.
Likewise, the Government have been just as lazy when it comes to ensuring we have all convicted criminals on the database. There are around 2.3 million people with a conviction, caution, reprimand, or warning, who are not on the DNA database. These missing people, who have already committed a crime, are far more likely to engage in criminal activity in the future, than the million innocents that the govt insists on keeping on the database. This reflects a ludicrous sense of Government priority
Re-offending is another area where Labour make claims but have achieved little. Despite Brown's claims that re-offending is down by a fifth, the number of offenders who re-offended only fell by less than ten percent, and the number of serious offences committed by re-offenders went up, and in 2007, the last year for which figures are available, total re-offending also increased. None of these are figures Brown is keen to bring to your attention.
Similarly the efforts the Government have made in this area have been abject failures. Their flagship programme, the Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Programme (ISSP) which had £45 million invested in it, was found to be less effective than routine probation, with over 90% of participants being reconvicted.
New Labour has never hesitated in coming forward with the sweeping soundbite or studiously rigged figures, but when it comes to finding effective policies, they come up short. The truth is that the massive effort that they have put into their populist postures on law and order has failed to deliver a safe, secure, and sometimes even tolerable society for millions of British citizens.
We have seen it again in the last week with a sweeping commitment that “neighbourhood police teams should spend 80 per cent of their time on the beat.” The truth is that currently they spend just 14% of time on the beat. No minister can explain where the remaining time is spent, largely because it is used pursuing actions which are designed simply to meet the massive edifice of bureaucracy red tape and targets that plague the modern police force. It is hardly surprising in the face of the task of solving this problem that the Prime Minister and his Home Secretary resort to distortion and misrepresentation on a grand scale.
Nobody who has had to suffer the plague of drug-related crime, violence, and anti-social behaviour that has afflicted our cities during these last 10 years is in any doubt about the magnitude of the Government's failure. Statistical smoke and mirrors, obfuscation, and intimidatory bluster will persuade no one. What the people of Britain want is for someone to take a grip on our failing criminal justice system and that someone is neither Gordon Brown or Alan Johnson.