Lisa Townsend is the Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner for Surrey.
One of the consequences of being a PCC without a professional policing background is that you come into the role with certain assumptions, and one of mine was that vehicle theft would be investigated by our local police forces.
Last year 46,800 vehicles were stolen in England and Wales and the chance of getting your car back in working order are minimal. In 2020 the recovery rate for stolen vehicles was just 28 per cent, and vehicle theft is on the rise.
It is perhaps unsurprising that, like so many areas of our lives, Covid has had an impact. As with burglary and other forms of acquisitive crime, vehicle theft saw a decline as both car owners and thieves stayed at home.
Added to that was a significant reduction in organised criminal gangs (OCGs), many of whom are run by non-UK nationals, and who chose to return to their ‘home’ countries. So far, so positive.
But as normal life resumed, so did the OCG activity. Couple that with a shortage in vehicle part supplies and then add on the successes our forces are seeing in many dedicated hours of work tackling drug supply chains and county lines, and you have the perfect storm of a market experiencing a shortage of supply and those who are willing to break the law to full the gap.
‘Chop shops’, where vehicles stolen, often to order, can be dismantled and parts made ready to sell on within hours, operate across the country. High-value vehicles can disappear from driveways and their parts stripped and shipped abroad or sold online in the UK before the owner even realises the family car has gone.
Thieves know they are operating a highly lucrative trade that unlike, for example, drug supply, carries very little risk: making or importing the product is easy and supply is abundant. There are no rival gangs or turf wars associated with drug or illegal tobacco supply and none of the large policing agencies are after you because policing in the UK generally doesn’t take much of an interest.
And if you are one of the unlucky few to get caught, history shows little likelihood of investigation or charge. The worst-case scenario is a minor sentence on the rare chance the thief ends up in court.
Of course, resources are stretched. It is entirely right and reasonable for senior police leaders (and PCCs) to allocate according to threat, harm and risk.
But we find ourselves in a position where the theft of the family car is seen largely as a victimless crime. I believe this couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Post-pandemic, we have seen significant traffic return to our roads. But the car is more than a means to an end. It symbolises freedom (we all remember that glorious sense of freedom after passing a driving test); it can be a lifeline, especially to those on rural areas or with mobility issues and may well be the second largest purchase you ever make. That alone is a reason to treat it as the crime it is.
What really troubles me though is the willingness to see it as a crime in isolation. Whether it’s the local bad boy-racer or an OCG, these vehicles are increasingly being used in the commission of further, often very serious, crimes.
Change the number plate within minutes of stealing a vehicle and a gang has an excellent chance of evading anyone minded to search for the missing car, leaving them to carrying out far more serious crimes and carry the weapons and drugs that are sadly all too prevalent.
The transport of victims of modern slavery, of forced prostitution and of minors trapped in county lines gangs is not at all unheard of, even in ‘leafy’ Surrey.
So what’s the answer? We need police leaders to take it seriously, and for that we need the Government to send a message that it’s not a ‘victimless crime’ and that car theft is not simply the loss of a chunk of metal.
We all remember the tragic death of PC Andrew Harper, killed while on duty after getting caught up in the tow rope of a stolen car. The three teenagers responsible were found guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter after the jury failed to be convinced that they were aware PC Harper was being dragged to his death behind the car they were driving.
In the immediate aftermath, promises were made regarding the seriousness with which such crimes would be viewed, but in 2022 it is still the case that any officer chasing a stolen car is putting his or her own life at risk.
In my Police and Crime Plan for Surrey I have prioritised vehicle theft because residents tell me it’s what they want, but there is much work to be done to give our officers the resources they need. I call on the Government to give this crime the attention it deserves.