Speech

Home Secretary at the International Crime & Policing Conference

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Theresa May announces new £10m Police Knowledge Fund

The Rt Hon Theresa May MP

When I hear people talk about the fall in crime we are seeing in parts of the world, I am reminded of a story told by the former Home Secretary Michael Howard. In 1993, upon entering the Home Office, his civil servants presented him with a graph. That graph showed crime on an upwards trajectory rising year on year. “Home Secretary,” they said to him, “the first thing you must understand is that there is nothing you can do about this. Your job is to manage public expectations in the face of this inevitable and inexorable increase.”

I am glad to say that Michael Howard did not listen to that advice. Instead he put in place a range of tough measures, and by the time he left office crime had fallen by 10 per cent.

Thankfully today we know that assessment was deeply flawed. Crime has fallen by 63 per cent since it peaked in 1995, according to the independent Crime Survey for England and Wales. Violent crime has been cut by 66 per cent, and burglaries are down by 67 per cent.

And this drop in crime hasn’t just happened here. Across the western world, crime and disorder have been declining steadily, with robbery, theft, car crime, violence and murder down in many countries. In most Europe countries, homicide has fallen by 30% or more in the last 15 years. In the US violence has fallen by 71% and property crime by 63% between 1993 and 2013.

We are becoming more law-abiding, less violent and better at protecting ourselves and our property. As a result, we are also less fearful of crime. Where crime once ranked first among voters’ concerns, it now barely registers in the top ten.

Of course this picture is complex. In recent years in the UK there has been a sharp increase in the number of sexual offences recorded by the police, including appalling sexual offences against children, as more victims have approached the authorities. There are other offences that tend to be under-reported, such as domestic abuse, modern slavery and female genital mutilation, where ensuring victims have the confidence to come forward is an urgent priority. We also need to recognise that the UK faces new and evolving serious and organised crime threats, including new forms of cyber crime and fraud.

But today overall crime in this country is at its lowest point since the Crime Survey began in 1981. As Home Secretary, I want to see it fall even further.

That is why I have called this conference, and why I am so pleased to see you here. We have among us experts from New Zealand, Canada, the US, Europe and South America and from an impressive variety of academic and practitioner disciplines. I hope that over the next two days we will develop our knowledge so that we can work to cut crime even further.

Police reform

When I became Home Secretary in 2010 I – like Michael Howard – was also greeted with doom-laden warnings about crime. Then the grave economic crisis we inherited made spending cuts across the entire public sector necessary, including policing. But the Police Federation, the Association of Chief Police Officers, and the Labour Party were united: the frontline service would be ruined and crime would go shooting up. Labour called it “the perfect storm”, the Police Federation predicted “Christmas for criminals”. And like Lord Howard, I also did not pay much attention to that advice. Instead, I initiated a programme of radical police reform and set out to prove that it is possible to deliver more for less.

I abolished the hopelessly unaccountable institutions and abandoned the centralised approach that existed before. I closed down ineffective national organisations like the National Policing Improvement Agency and the Serious Organised Crime Agency. I stripped away reams and reams of unnecessary bureaucracy, putting an end to national targets and telling the police they had one mission: to cut crime.

And in doing so I established a framework of institutions and processes that now work properly to ensure accountability, operational integrity and transparency.

Most importantly, operational policing now lies not with the Home Office but with local chief constables.

Chief constables are in turn held to account by directly elected police and crime commissioners, who determine the budget and ensure that policing is tailored to the needs of the local area.

Professional standards, training, and an understanding of what works are determined and maintained by the new College of Policing.

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary – now independent of the government and the police – holds forces to those standards and shines a light on police performance. A beefed-up Independent Police Complaints Commission investigates if things go wrong, including all serious and sensitive cases.

And where the issue extends beyond local policing, the National Crime Agency has the power and the mandate to task and coordinate law enforcement assets in response to serious and organised crime.

In short, there is now a coherent system of police accountability and it is working. The police are able to get on with the job of fighting crime. We have freed up to 4.5 million hours of police time – the equivalent of 2,100 full-time police officers. Not only has the frontline service been protected, but the proportion of frontline officers has gone up – from 89% to 91% today.

Through direct entry and Police Now, the closed shop of policing is now open to the best and brightest recruits. We have reformed police pay and conditions where many others failed. And we are getting on with the gritty and unglamorous work of sorting out police procurement and police IT.

And we have achieved all this while bearing down on budgets – central government funding for the police has fallen by 20% in real terms, saving £1.2 billion of taxpayers’ money.

The need for reform to continue

Yet for all the achievements of this Parliament, I am struck by a sense of déjà vu. Because in recent weeks, I have heard the same arguments about the dangers of police reform, from the same vested interests – and in some cases the same individuals – as I heard back in 2010. Five years after being proved wrong, the same warnings are being recycled. The debate about crime may have changed, but the electoral cycle – and, with it, the post-election spending review – has not.

So let me be clear: the need for reform doesn’t stop here. Crime may be down but as long as it exists it is still too high. Finances may be tight but there remain savings to be made. Public confidence in the police is rising, but it is still not high enough.

If we are to preserve the sustained falls in crime that we have seen in the last two decades, if we are to ensure effective and efficient police forces, and if we are to meet the difficult financial constraints that will be necessary – whoever forms the next government – then reform must continue.

This should not be so controversial.

We know that further efficiencies will have to be found, but we also know where to look for them. In procurement, this Government’s reforms to drive the collaborative buying of goods and services is on course to deliver £200 million worth of savings by May. By expanding these shared frameworks and procuring new goods and services in a similar way, much greater savings can be made.

A number of trailblazing police and crime commissioners have shown that they can deliver better value for money by working with other emergency services – through single control rooms, joint response teams and shared facilities. But not all areas have explored these partnerships and even in the most advanced forces there is still some way to go before organisations are properly integrated.

And while we have made a start on reforming the inefficient and expensive use of police IT, there are still huge opportunities to drive savings and deliver operational benefits. The new Emergency Services Network which will replace the current Airwave communications system used by the police, will provide a system which is better and smarter while also saving the emergency services around £1bn over the next 15 years.

In all these areas, there are significant opportunities for savings and benefits. But these are not the only changes we must pursue.

Since becoming Home Secretary, I have been determined to put right those tough, complex issues that have been so sorely neglected in the past.

The police response to people with mental health needs is improving, for example, but we must continue our work to ensure that the most vulnerable people in our society – at the moments when they are most in need – are not greeted by police officers, cells and handcuffs, but by medical experts, a bed and proper healthcare. We have reformed the use of stop and search and its use has fallen by a quarter since 2010, but we must continue efforts to make sure stops are intelligence-led and proportionate. And we have set out proposals to further reform pre-charge bail, the police complaints system and police disciplinary procedures to bring greater accountability, transparency and independence to all three.

At the same time, modern technology offers untold opportunities to save time and money and improve outcomes. Body worn video is already having an impact in forces – for example in domestic abuse cases – but we must explore its use more widely, for example around gathering evidence and interviewing suspects.

There is more to do with police.uk – which receives over 500,000 visits a month – and the non-emergency 101 police number – which receives over 2.5 million calls each month – to help transform the way the public interact with the police and provide the public with easier ways to contact local police about crime and disorder.

So today I am pleased to announce a further step to make reporting crime even easier.

Working with Surrey and Sussex police forces, the Home Office will develop a prototype for people to report non emergency crime online. The growth in the internet has transformed other services – from shopping to banking, and it is right to give victims and witnesses greater choice over how they report issues to the police.

It also has the potential to substantially reduce costs to the police. Early estimates suggest online reporting could save forces an estimated 180,000 officer hours a year, and around £3.7 million.

Our understanding of crime

So it is imperative reform continues so that we can deliver effective and efficient policing. But we must also examine ways to meet that most difficult of challenges, reducing public service demand.

Crime is down and it continues to fall. Since I became Home Secretary, crime has dropped by more than a fifth, according to the Crime Survey for England and Wales. These are not abstract statistics: in England and Wales that amounts to nearly a million fewer criminal damage incidents and 400, 000 fewer violent crimes a year.

There has been considerable debate about why this is happening and these are issues you will discuss at length at this conference. I know there are many here who are experts in these fields, and we welcome your contribution.

Some people used to argue that there had to be one significant factor that explained crime trends – whether it was the economy, inequality, or improvements in car and home security. But the longer the fall in crime has gone on – particularly though the financial crisis in 2008/09 – and the more countries that have experienced it, the harder it is to make that argument. Nor has crime simply moved online, as I know has been suggested. While we are undoubtedly seeing new forms of offending like online fraud and cyber crime, last week’s official statistics clearly indicated that the volumes are outweighed by the very substantial falls in more ‘traditional’ crimes like burglary or vehicle-related theft.

If we are to encourage crime to fall further and faster, then it is important we understand more about the factors that are making overall crime fall, why it is falling quicker in some places rather than others, and why some crime types buck the downward trend. If we can do that, then we can devise better and more targeted crime prevention policies.
Last September, I gave a speech to the thinktank Reform. In it I described the role that I see for the Home Office, now that Whitehall no longer believes it runs policing. That role is threefold: to support the National Crime Agency in the fight against organised crime; to ensure truly national systems such as the Police National Computer work effectively; and to develop first rate knowledge on crime trends and the drivers of crime which can be used to inform our response.

In this country, we believe there are six main drivers of crime: alcohol, drugs, character, opportunity, the effectiveness of the criminal justice system and profit. I want to say a little on each.

First, we know that there is good evidence linking alcohol and violent crime and disorder, and the recent fall in violent crime may be due in part to reduced alcohol consumption, particularly among young adults. Nonetheless, the cost of alcohol-fuelled violence on individuals, society and the police is unacceptably high. So we have overhauled the Licensing Act 2003 and banned the worst cases of cheap alcohol sales, alongside supporting targeted local action which can yield positive results.

The second driver is drugs – and perhaps the biggest single factor in the rise and fall of acquisitive crime in this country between the early 1980s and today. As Home Office research has indicated, the explosion in the number of heroin and crack users between 1982 and 1995 accounted for around half of the rise in burglaries, robberies and theft of vehicles over that period. Today, heroin and crack usage is falling, but our understanding must inform work on prevention, treatment, and our operational response.

The third driver is character. I do not believe there is anything inevitable about criminality, and most people – whatever the circumstances they grow up in – do not go on to commit crime. But there is growing evidence that an individual’s propensity to commit crime – or character – is influenced both positively and negatively by a range of social and environmental influences as they grow up. This has implications for our work on everything from tackling gang crime, to reducing the number of children who are brought up in violent and abusive households.

The next driver of crime is ‘opportunity’, where there is a strong link to what I have just been saying about character. Designing out ‘opportunity’ has played a significant role in making it harder for criminals to commit crime over the last 20 years. Cars have been harder to break into or drive away, homes have been more secure, and ‘ungoverned spaces’ have been minimised through town planning and architecture. Today, I am pleased that the Home Office is publishing a paper which explores the evidence on ‘opportunity’ as a driver of crime. In future, we will need to apply the lessons from the last twenty years to spot and design out new opportunities to commit crime, particularly those related to new technology.

Then there is the role of the police and the criminal justice system. It may be stating the obvious to say that the more likely a criminal thinks they are to be caught and punished, the less likely they are to commit a crime. But this has some important implications, both in terms of police practice – such as targeting crime hotspots – and the message an inadequate response sends to criminals – for example if crimes are not recorded, or victims not believed.

In the UK we have had deeply shocking revelations about child sexual abuse, in which public organisations, the police and other agencies have failed to protect vulnerable children, and bring perpetrators to justice. Each and every single case is a dereliction of duty. Young lives are ruined, and the damage and trauma caused by these crimes is immeasurable. We owe it to all victims of child sexual abuse to ensure that they are listened to and believed, and that we do everything in our power to pursue offenders and prevent other children from becoming victims.

Finally, the last driver is profit. Wherever money can be made, we know that serious and organised criminals will find ways to exploit systems and people. Until recently, there had been a sharp increase in the number of ‘thefts from the person’, with large numbers of phones being stolen by organised criminal groups targeting concerts and festivals. The phones were then often sent overseas where they could be reactivated and sold. So alongside an operational response, the industry introduced new security systems which mean stolen phones can no longer be reactivated overseas, thereby killing the criminals’ export market. As last week’s crime figures showed, the effect has been a 24% reduction in recorded theft from the person in the year to the end of September last year. So targeting profits is a powerful way of disrupting this kind of crime.

So why does thinking about drivers of crime matter?

Thinking about the drivers of crime in this way is important because if we can understand more about them, and the interplay of different factors behind a particular crime problem, we can devise an effective response.

A good example is metal theft. When I became Home Secretary metal theft was rising sharply causing damage to churches, communities and our railways. Superficially, the high number of thefts appeared to be driven by a sustained rise in the global price of copper and lead. And let’s be honest, there is little the government, let alone the police, can do to influence that.

But when we dug deeper, there was more than ‘profit’ driving that particular crime rise. We had a large metal infrastructure, including train tracks and power cables, that was difficult to secure. We had a ‘no questions asked’ culture among unscrupulous scrap metal dealers, and a set of criminal sanctions which were rarely used and offered little more than a slap on the wrist. So opportunity and the effectiveness of the criminal justice system were important drivers too.

So with that understanding, we put in place a range of targeted measures from legislation banning cash payments for scrap metal to increased penalties. As Home Office research published today shows, the result has been a dramatic drop in metal theft, which has fallen by around a third between 12/13 and 13/14.

Improving our understanding further

Our knowledge and understanding of crime is improving, but I want policing and crime reduction to have the same relentless focus on evidence as in our medical and legal professions – where knowledge and research are the foundation of professional practice. We must also develop greater understanding of the future crime challenges we face, and the threat from serious and organised crime.

The College of Policing is leading work to understand best practice in policing methods and develop an evidence base of what works in cutting crime. The College’s role is vital if we are to turn knowledge into action, and ensure that frontline officers can put what we know into practice to help cut crime.

We are supporting new thinking and challenging forces to think hard about more effective ways of policing through the Police Innovation Fund.

And at the Home Office I have established a Crime and Policing Knowledge Hub. Its role is to analyse and develop knowledge on crime trends and the drivers of crime.

But governments and law enforcement don’t have all the answers. We need to harness expertise from a range of different fields. That is why I have convened this conference so that we can bring together the brightest minds on crime and policing and explore changing crime threats and improve our response. I hope that this year’s conference will be the first of many.

But we must go further.

That is why today I am pleased to announce a further initiative, the Police Knowledge Fund, as a signal of my ongoing commitment to improving our understanding of crime and how best to respond to it.

This £10 million fund, funded jointly by £5 million of funding from the Home Office and £5 million from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, secured through the College of Policing, will support research collaborations between police forces and academic institutions to translate research into practice.

Its mission will be to support the establishment of a recognised body of knowledge, evidence and expertise on crime reduction and policing practice, so that in future policing is based on a thorough understanding of crime and best practice.

Conclusion

Police reform is working and crime is falling. When this Government came to office in 2010 there were those who greeted us with dire warnings about reform.

Our critics said crime would go shooting up. It has not. They said the frontline service would be damaged. It has been protected. And they said the safety of communities would be threatened. And that has not happened.

As we enter the next Parliament there are those who think crime cannot continue to fall. Our challenge is to better understand crime, and what drives it, so that we never return to the days of crime graphs which show a seemingly inexorable rise upwards. Today crime is down, and I want to see it continue to fall.

Published 28 January 2015