Jittery law and order minister forgets her job description

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 January, 2008, 12:00am


Fear, it is said, can be contagious. No more so, it seems, than with the fear of crime.

As Londoners grow increasingly worried about street crime - especially the current crop of fatal youth stabbings and shootings, which has led the home secretary to sanction the use of metal detectors in London schools - it becomes the job of politicians and police to both protect and reassure the public.

On Sunday, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, the minister responsible for law and order, forgot her job description.

She told the Sunday Times she is too scared to walk the streets of London at night, whether in a deprived area such as Hackney, or in wealthier parts such as Kensington and Chelsea.

The critics had a field day. If the home secretary doesn't feel safe, they asked, then who can?

Ms Smith's gaffe was odd, not least for its timing, and went against her usual rational nature. It opened herself and the Labour government's crime record to ridicule just as London earned the best crime figures for 10 years, according to some data.

Crime in London fell 6.1 per cent last year. Murder is down 28 per cent since 2003. Rape is down 25 per cent since 2002, grievous bodily harm 12 per cent, with huge falls for car theft, mugging, and burglary. Gun crime rose 4 per cent.

The home secretary could have pointed out how the big rise in officers has helped. She could have pointed out how London Mayor Ken Livingstone's policy of putting more officers on the streets (up 25,000 to 31,000 on his watch), and his wholesale recruitment of community officers have helped cut crime.

It is what voters and politicians of all persuasions have hankered after for years: more police on the street. If the statistics are to be believed, and criminologists have backed them, the policy has worked. The capital is safer than in the 1990s.

The big trouble is no one seems to think so.

Perception, just like possession, is 90 per cent of the law, and the public perception is that crime is out of control. An Ipsos/Mori poll showed that trust in police and politicians to protect the public has halved since 1997, just as crime has plunged by a third. No matter what the statistics say, few people believe them.

Why? Blame the media. Bad news sells newspapers and grabs attention. The good crime figures went unreported in the right-wing anti-Livingstone press.

Even the BBC report highlighted the negative: 'Gun crime in London rose by 4 per cent last year, but the overall number of crimes dropped for the fifth year in a row, the Met Police said.'

There are also vested interests in promoting a sense of fear, not least by opposition politicians, seeking to highlight the negative to raise disquiet and drum up votes. Growing knife crime is turning London into 'a broken society', say Conservatives. Knife crime was down 13 per cent in 2007, 22 per cent down on 2002.

Bizarrely, home secretaries and police often talk up crime, largely to attract a bigger slice of resources, money and manpower. Ms Smith is unlike most past home secretaries. She talks down crime and has policies to change the public perception of crime. One plan is to roll out localised crime data, giving us monthly figures on what is going on outside our doorsteps.

The policy has some merit. My local police force releases statistics on a local level in De Beauvoir ward in Hackney. It showed from September to October last year that burglary was down from 11 cases to eight; robbery, 12 to seven; thefts of vehicles, seven to five; and thefts from vehicles, 20 to 15. Not much argument there.

Odd, then, that Ms Smith seems scared to walk the streets that her government has done much to make more secure. Especially so as she has a Special Branch minder, 24 hours a day.