Although the press coverage of Gordon Brown’s speech this afternoon will probably focus on the headline issues – teenage pregnancies, ID cards and electoral reform, as well as the proposal to allow voters the chance to recall of Members of Parliament, I though the following passage stood out:
Neighbourhood policing is now a reality in every council ward in our country.The ‘recent cases’ that Brown was referring to include, of course, the tragic deaths of Fiona Pilkington and her disabled daughter Francecca, whose inquest this week revealed a catalogue of abusive anti-social behaviour over eleven years that was repeatedly ignored by the police and the local council. This passage of his speech also reflects public concerns that, in spite of crime statistics generally declining (down 1.6% in London, although rising since last year in places like Waltham Forest and Croydon), people still do not feel any safer.
Recent cases have shown it is time for a better service for the citizen. So if it's an emergency you must get action in minutes, where it's a neighbourhood priority within the hour, and where it's a general but not urgent enquiry no one will have to wait more than 48 hours for a reply or a visit. That's what I mean by public services personal to people's needs.
And I can tell the British people that between now and Christmas, neighbourhood policing will focus in a more direct and intensive way on anti-social behaviour. Action squads will crackdown in problem estates, protect the public spaces you want safe and hold monthly beat meetings to consult you directly on your priorities for action.
This is where Brown’s promises seem so disingenuous: as if this is an issue that the Prime Minister has suddenly discovered is important to citizens. But the mantra “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” has been a central tenet of the New Labour project and has seen more criminal justice legislation since 1997 than in the preceding 50 years. Much of it has related to so-called ‘minor’ crime and includes the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 (that introduced ASBOs), the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 (restorative justice), Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 (on-the-spot fixed penalties) and the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 (widened ASBO powers and introduced dispersal orders).
Anyone who has experienced repeated anti-social behaviour targeted against them, as I have, will understand how little difference this raft of new laws really makes. The real problem is with the police, local councils and the bureaucratic ‘crime and disorder partnerships’ that every local authority area has. It is all very well Brown saying that emergencies should be responded to immediately and priorities within an hour, but it simply doesn’t happen.
For nearly four years I’ve had to put up with groups of youths gathering in the entrance to the block of flats where I live. They have forced open the electricity cupboard at the front of the building so they can use it to store weapons, abused residents, smashed windows and over the course of last summer, systematically removed the whole of the fencing around the front garden. I have lost count of the number of times that I have called the police but it made little difference, for the people making the decisions about what was an ‘emergency’ or a 'priority’ were controllers in a 999 call centre. The council’s anti-social behaviour hotline was just as useless: all they ever did was ‘record’ the incidents. The comments made by Fiona Pilkington in her letters and diary therefore seem extremely familiar:
''We called the police but by the time they arrived they had scarpered, only to come back later. I really am getting to the stage where I am at a loss as to what to do about things.''I've been there on every count. That’s why it is all very well Brown proudly proclaiming that “neighbourhood policing is now a reality in every council ward in our country”, but my experience of police ‘Safer Neighbourhood Teams’ (SNTs), as they are known in London's 624 electoral wards, has been mixed. They are undoubtedly more sympathetic, are better communicators than other officers and often appear very busy but there seems little connection between them and the rest of the Met.
''I drew the curtains and sat in the dark until 2.30am, stressed out.”
''Learn from experience that no-one is available on Fridays to Mondays as it's busy elsewhere and this is low priority.''
Where I live, one police sergeant, a constable and a few community support officers, whose shifts do not include late-nights when the worst anti-social behaviour takes place, weren’t the same officers responding to emergency calls. The officers who were, if they turned up at all, had no idea about or apparent interest in what might be a ‘neighbourhood priority’ or a pattern of incidents, And just as Fiona Pilkington experienced, nothing changed. Instead, the local SNT’s main concern was improved home security, encouraging people to effectively barricade themselves in their homes, rather than actually catching people responsible for crimes like criminal damage and intimidation. With a private landlord or property management company rather than the local authority, it is incredibly difficult to get any money spent on security anyway, whilst eventually I was told bluntly to stop ringing the SNT on the regular occasions when other police officers failed to respond to an emergency.
All I ever heard was that it was impossible to act without evidence. So if not Newham's police, then who else might collect evidence of anti-social behaviour? In theory, the local council does, but this is why it is all very well Brown promising a ‘crackdown’, which seems like little more than party conference rhetoric. It's pure fantasy.
In Newham, council employees I know say the borough’s Anti-Social Behaviour Division is in disarray. Its contact with ward-level SNTs is at best patchy and in many cases non-existent, it has been unable to recruit anyone foolish enough to become a permanent Head of Service and it has abolished its Hate Crime Unit (the sort of specialist help that someone like Fiona Pilkington, with a daughter who was the victim of a disability hate crime, desperately needed). And just like the police, the council is so obsessed with government targets that although it is awash with money for combating antisocial behaviour, I’ve been told that the dozens of ‘enforcement officers’ it is enlisting will focus on tackling easy targets like illegal street traders, rather than complicated issues like recurring problems affecting local residents.
In January, at another meeting with the police, an Inspector expressed his horror about how long residents of my block had enduring repeated incidents and how little progress had been made. He offered to arrange a CCTV camera so I could collect evidence on his officers' behalf. That was nine months ago – I have never heard from the police again.
Fortunately, although problems still persist, over the summer the hardcore of scumbags that hung around outside my home have drifted away to a nearby street, where police recently discovered a stash of weapons. I’m sure the Met would claim this as a success, although the residents where the antisocial behaviour has moved to would probably disagree. But the truth is rather more prosaic – so many friends, from different parts of the country, knew what had been happening that quite unbeknownst to me, somebody arranged for several seriously heavy-duty individuals to pop round one Saturday night whilst I was out of London and have a quiet word with those responsible. This is all I have been told: frankly, I don't want to know the details.
Most people don’t have mates with such colourful acquaintances. Fiona Pilkington and her daughter certainly didn’t. They need more than hollow promises from Gordon Brown - they need a police service and local councils that are genuinely accountable to the public and that care more about impact than they do about targets and statistics.
Policing, in other words, that is radically different from what we have now.