What traffic wardens can teach us

Observations on crime

Imagine a law and order policy that cuts the number of crimes, ensures most offenders comply with the penalties handed down and creates a climate in which people choose not to behave illegally, because of the high chance they will be caught.

Add that this policy is both self-financing and safe from the delays that undermine criminal justice in England and Wales, and you may be in Tony Blair's dream-world.

Yet this is no fantasy. It is a policy that is already working effectively in cities up and down Britain.

Parking enforcement may not compete with lager louts and street disorder for headlines, but it works, and draws few complaints from those who accuse the government of destroying centuries-old liberties. You need only look at how one London borough operates to see why it is successful.

Camden has about 250 parking attendants, nearly a third of the number of police officers in the borough. Almost as soon as they leave their office, each will be furiously scribbling tickets representing fines of £100

(£50 if you pay within 14 days).

Behind them is a back-up squad of wheel-clamping vans and removal trucks to ensure that penalties are enforced.

Liberal it is not (last year Camden parking attendants handed out 500,000 tickets, 30,000 cars were clamped and more than 9,000 removed). But there is little doubt that this summary justice has helped change behaviour. Motorists know that if they break the rules there is a high chance of being caught, and that any penalty will be enforced - although, in case of dispute, there is quite rightly recourse to an appeals body and ultimately the courts.

Compare this to how we deal with most criminal behaviour - particularly low-level disorder and antisocial behaviour. Few offences result in an arrest, even fewer in a prosecution. Those that are taken through the courts are subject to long delays, and when the courts finally impose a penalty it is often ineffective. No wonder victims and the public are often dissatisfied and alienated.

Of course parking and criminal behaviour are not always comparable - parked cars are easy to nab and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency makes identifying owners easy. Yet if we tackled low-level crime with the same determination that councils show over parking, there would be less crime and fewer criminals getting away with it.

An essential step is to give police and prosecutors more powers to deal with low-level offenders outside the court process. Penalty notices for disorder (PNDs) - much maligned when they were launched - are a start, but they should be strengthened. Why, for example, does an offender issued with a PND have three weeks to pay his or her £50 or £80 (soon to be £100) fine, and late payment add only 50 per cent? Deadlines should be shorter and the increase steeper. The range of the PND system should also be expanded to other offences such as possession of cannabis.

But we should go further. The government is reported to be considering giving police and prosecutors the power to deal with people who plan to plead guilty to minor, non-violent offences. This is overdue and would remove thousands of minor offenders clogging up the courts.

Yet to be effective the police and prosecutors need to be able to issue not just fines, but also compulsory work orders, to make good the damage to victims and the community - and to order treatment for drug and alcohol problems.

It is vital to enforce penalties. At the moment only 38 per cent of PNDs are paid in full in 21 days, and barely half get paid without court action. So why not give the police (or suitable contractors) the power to wheel-clamp offenders until they pay up?

There will be howls of protest from legal and civil liberties groups, but ministers should be brave. Who knows, if they start to deal better with low-level crime and disorder, the Prime Minister might receive what he so craves: respect.