David Cameron is wrong: falling crime rates are not because of the "magnificent" police

Crime falls by nine per cent: but the government can't claim this as their victory.

That crime rates are down is not really news. Over the past 20 years crime has gradually halved in England and Wales - dropping, at regular intervals (averaging today's nine per cent), under the Conservatives, under Labour and now under the Lib Dem/Conservative coalition. Now youth unemployment is soaring, the population (of young men - the demographic most likely to offend) has risen, the govenment has cut welfare, people overall are getting poorer, and the number of police officers has fallen for the fourth consecutive year - by over three per cent.

What's cutting crime then? Is it, as Cameron claimed today, simply that the remaining policemen "are working better, working smarter" amongst all these newly hungry, savage youths? Is it because "[a]s a Government we have asked them to do more with less resources [and] they have performed... magnificently"? Can it, as Nick Clegg said today, be claimed as "one of the greatest triumphs of recent years"?

There could be another explanation. Here's one: while we don't know for sure that in the last two decades policemen have got better (as a consequence of the present government respectfully telling them to), we do know that technology has got better, and we do know that the internet has taken off. Here's the effect that has on crime:

1) Cars, with central locking and immobilisers, are now pretty hard to get into. Stealing cars was an acknowledged "starter crime", known to lead to bigger things (drug dealing and the like). Now that this is more difficult, the inept/casual young criminal no longer makes the grade. Like most other careers right now, entry-level crime is only for the properly smart and committed (or the well connected).

2) There is a growth in "high tech" crime - like cloning credit cards - and these don't show up in crime reports.

3) Neither does online crime - flogging fake designer goods and the rest of it. Criminologists have pointed out that crime began to fall in the mid-1990s, just as the internet was taking off.

4) While house security has got better, home goods like flat screen TVs have got bigger and are more difficult to carry. DVDs and kitchen hardware are now cheaper and not worth stealing, making break-ins hardly worth it. Crime simply doesn't pay as much as it used to.

And there are other problems with the Tory take on the stats. Today Labour cited the "deeply worrying statistics" underneath the headline crime news: that 30,000 fewer crimes have been solved, and rape is up by two per cent. Now while the second figure could be explained by the "Yewtree" effect - that efforts to increase awareness  have lead to more rapes being reported - the first is more damning. Perhaps the police aren't getting better after all.

There are also the positive effects of a recession on crime. While potential criminals have got poorer, so have their potential victims - there is just less to steal. Terrified at belonging to a jilted generation, the young are also drinking less, taking fewer drugs and applying to university in their thousands.

But if the government really wants to claim responsibility for today's figures, there is a way to do it. Since 1993, double the number of criminals have been locked up - and incarceration is a measure proven to reduce crime. Along with Labour then, the current government has probably brought down crime. But imprisoning people is also proven to have deep and lasting negative psychological effects on them and their families. With rehabilitation programmes cut, this makes it much harder for re-integration into society afterwards. Increased sentencing for lighter crimes is also a way of dramatically reducing the life chances of the disadvantaged. If this is a triumph, it's not much of one.

Their outfits, on the other hand, are truly magnificent. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.