Who said this? “I announce today that we will be introducing – first in 20 of the worst crime hotspots and then across the whole of Britain – targeted policing to cut burglary and crime.” Was it Rishi Sunak on Monday or Tony Blair in 1998? Actually it was the latter, but it might well have been our current Prime Minister, even if his pilot scheme is only in 10 crime “hotspots” rather than 20. Most people may well have responded to Mr Sunak’s crackdown in the way he would have hoped, with gratitude that someone is, at last, getting to grips with this menace. More cynical types, like me, think: haven’t we heard all this before?
True, the various policies down the years have had slight differences. Mr Blair’s involved anti-social behaviour orders, which were abolished by the Coalition government. Mr Sunak envisages yobs who vandalise public places being required to clean up within 48 hours of receiving a sanction. New Labour wanted to frogmarch miscreants to cash-points to draw out the money to pay their on-the-spot fines for loutish behaviour. This was widely denounced as unworkable and was, indeed, abandoned. It came to be seen as emblematic of New Labour “spin” – an impractical idea put out to garner headlines but never to see the light of day. At the time, the Tories in opposition called it “ridiculous” and yet some of Mr Sunak’s initiatives have a very Blairite feel about them.
This is not to say that they are unnecessary. Twenty-five years ago, Mr Blair was right to identify anti-social behaviour as a blight on the lives of people in the neighbourhoods most vulnerable to this sort of nefarious activity. Vandalism, graffiti, harassment, drug-taking and general mayhem are a daily reality for millions. Imposing order is the job of the authorities through the police, unless they want to leave it to vigilantes to sort out. Promising to do something about this state of affairs is, therefore, a governmental duty. Failing to tackle it, having said they would, however, is among the greatest failures of successive administrations. Pledging to tackle so-called low-level crime is the go-to initiative for any administration keen to change the political narrative in its favour. Sir Keir Starmer promised almost the same approach only last week. Yet our political leaders seem oblivious to the fact that this constant need to relaunch crime-busting measures suggests previous efforts have failed. Mr Blair promised zero tolerance; Mr Sunak envisaged ending anti-social behaviour “once and for all”. Sir Keir said “Labour will make Britain’s streets safe”. This time we really mean business. Does anyone believe it?
Moreover, new laws are not required. One of Mr Sunak’s plans is to ban the use of laughing gas principally because the canisters are left around in the streets. But that does not require a new law; it needs the existing laws on littering to be enforced. Over the past 30 years, we have had umpteen criminal justice Bills and countless statutory measures. Entire forests must have been chopped down to provide the consultation documents, White Papers, press releases and legislation to accompany these attempts to tackle the law breakers. Theresa May, as home secretary, promised a “blitz on crime”. Her Labour predecessor David Blunkett unveiled “radical reforms” aimed at making the criminal justice system and police more accountable and accessible to the public. Before him, Michael Howard came up with a 27-point strategy to allay public concerns about soaring offending rates. All the way back to Willie Whitelaw and his “short, sharp shock” for repeat offenders, ministers have tried and failed to get a grip on this.
Just a few years ago, Priti Patel proposed sentencing low-level offenders to a programme of cleaning up litter and graffiti. This is not dissimilar to Mr Sunak’s plan to dress them in hi-vis jackets so that everyone can see the punishment at work. But this is already available to the courts under the Community Payback scheme and some 100,000 offenders are duly dealt with each year. Nor is it new to make them wear hi-vis jackets while on the programmes, as that happens already. If Mr Sunak really wants to look tough, he should emulate the legendary Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio who made offenders parade in pink clothes. Pointing out that much of this has been done before is not to say the issue should not be addressed. Far from it: feeling secure on the streets and in the home is something we all want, and showing that the Government cares is critical to maintaining public confidence in the police and support for the ruling party. But this is not a function of the number of initiatives. The Labour government of 1997 to 2010 introduced more new laws and created more imprisonable offences than any in history. When voters were asked in 1997 by the pollsters Ipsos Mori what they considered to be the most important issue facing the country, 26 per cent said crime.
When the same question was asked at the end of Labour’s tenure, the proportion identifying crime as their main concern was 25 per cent. Often, the more governments talk about crime, the more people fret about it even when they personally are not its victims or when it is declining. Michael Gove said at the weekend that if small amounts of bad behaviour are not dealt with in a neighbourhood, it rapidly goes downhill. This, he said, was known as the “broken windows theory” as though it was some recent discovery and not an approach pioneered in 1990s New York. There it required a much-increased visible police presence on the streets and tougher punishments. Without more bobbies on the beat to catch offenders or deter them, no number of new laws will make the slightest difference. Crime isn’t the only area of political déjà vu. We are told that people who refuse to work even though they are capable of taking a job will lose benefits, but that’s been said before. The Government has committed to a new nuclear programme some 30 years after abandoning the last in a dash for gas. If there is one thing guaranteed to undermine faith in the political process, it is to promise and not deliver over and over again. It needs to stop.