Andrew Haldenby is a director of Haldenby Woodford, a public services consultancy.
According to reports, Home Office Ministers want to bring back national crime reduction targets for the police – most likely a 20 per cent reduction in crimes such as burglary, vehicle theft and serious violence. There is a wealth of evidence as to why this remarkably bad idea will make policing worse, not better. There are many things that Ministers can do to improve the police (and public services more generally). But central targets are not among them.
The new targets may be inspired by the “MOPAC 7”. Boris Johnson and Kit Malthouse introduced targets for 20 per cent reductions in seven crimes during the Prime Minister’s time as London Mayor. If so, that is a huge red flag. The MOPAC Seven led to one of the police inspectorate’s most damning reports in recent years.
In 2016, the inspectorate found that the Met’s work on three-quarters of their child protection cases (278 out of 374 examined) either “needed improvement” or “was inadequate”. The Met had neglected work on child protection because of “the attention given to measuring and monitoring the MOPAC 7 crime types”.
The inspectorate rightly judged that this was “unacceptable”: “Irrespective of the mayor’s stated priorities, it is the responsibility of every police force to protect all citizens – particularly children, as they are the most vulnerable and have the most to lose.”
Police officers will tell you that “if it gets measured, it gets done”. Forcing the police to address certain crimes means that others will receive less attention. The police inspectorate noted that the MOPAC 7 list also excluded “serious crimes such as terrorism, murder, sexual offences, kidnapping and firearms offences”.
Another consequence of targets is gaming – that is, manipulation by the police to give the appearance that crime is falling against a target, when the reality is different.
Police officers will give you endless examples when asked. One reminded me that in 2011, in the riots after the death in London of Mark Duggan, one Midlands town was particularly successful in its policing (due to good community relations).
On one night, a small disturbance in one street led to 40 cars being damaged, and 40 crimes were recorded.
In another town, much more serious violence spread across the whole urban area. The police force however recorded only three crimes of public disorder. Targets create incentives for gaming: both Ministers and police forces wish to produce statistics that give the evidence of falling crime.
In 2012, a police inspector gave evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee setting out the evidence on gaming during the previous high water mark of police targets, during Tony Blair’s first two terms.
He identified “cuffing” (i.e. the under-recording of recorded crimes) and “skewing” (moving resources to target crime areas – like the MOPAC 7). He quoted a police officer who said: “Every borough is playing the game; those that are not are seen as under-performing. Policing has completely lost its way. We only investigate crimes that matter in terms of performance data.”
It is difficult to describe how poisonous the atmosphere around police targets had become by the end of the Labour government. In 2009, the then Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Ian Blair, said that there was “almost no public faith” in falling crime numbers. Sara Thornton, then Thames Valley Chief Constable, said her force would deliver “what the public wants” and added “you do not improve policing by setting lots of targets from the centre”. The Coalition Government eventually abandoned them, to great relief in police forces and in Whitehall and Westminster.
Given all this, it seems almost incredible that Ministers want to bring targets back. It may be that Ministers are looking for extra performance in return for the 20,000 new officers being recruited. If this is the case, the question has to be asked: if Ministers don’t trust the police to use the extra officers, why did Ministers decide to recruit them in the first place?
The Blair Government showed that it is possible to create a doom loop – extra resources tied to new targets, followed by more resources and more targets, leading to all the problems outlined above. If Conservative Ministers set off down this path, it would be a gift to Keir Starmer’s Labour Party, which would capitalise on police disaffection and public scepticism in the same way that David Cameron did. There is great respect for the Home Secretary at present among officers. This direction would put that at risk.
It has to be recognised that targets have a powerful appeal to every Minister, not just in the Home Office. They appear to embody a seriousness of purpose in a simple, easy-to-communicate form.
But Home Office Ministers already have a strong policing agenda that they can develop. The 2019 manifesto promised much greater action on the prevention of crime– specifically around reducing youth offending, reducing addiction and improving rehabilitation. A sustained programme in these areas will change lives for the better. If they move with energy now, Ministers will have results before the next general election.
Others suggest that Ministers have lost trust in the police, on the grounds that they have taken on too much “woke” culture, as shown by their reticence in the destruction of statues last year.
A police officer responded to this by telling me of his experience in the Black Lives Matter disturbance in London in June. He said that he spent several hours, in warm weather and riot gear, being called a “fascist” by the protestors in front of him. Ironically, he was then injured when an actual fascist hit him in the back later on. “Woke” protesters see the police as safeguards of national institutions, not part of their campaign.
Speaking in Parliament last year, Malthouse rightly said there is no direct link between the number of police officers and the level of crimes (“Throughout our history, we have seen police numbers at a lower level and crime higher, and police numbers at a higher level and crime also high. There is no direct correlation”).
Instead, he pointed to the importance of “motivation” and “leadership” on the part of senior officers. He was right. Targets would cut across that leadership and reduce leaders’ motivation at a stroke. They would drive a wedge between Government and officers and open the door to the Opposition. They are not a good idea.