In a report released today, the Commons Home Affairs Committee calls for a ban on alcohol “loss-leaders” in shops and an end to pub and club drink promotions. The Committee says the alcohol trade’s voluntary standards need to be made compulsory with a more effective inspection regime and penalties for breaches. The Committee is concerned that, as one force put it, “the whole focus of officer shift patterns is to deploy sufficient resources at weekends to cope with alcohol-fuelled disorder, and football violence”, and fully 45 per cent of victims of violence describe their assailant as under the influence of alcohol. In 2007, alcohol was 69 per cent more affordable in the United Kingdom than it was in 1980.
The Committee is also concerned that Home Office imposed targets are distorting police priorities, leading them to focus on trivial offences to hit “offences brought to justice” targets by issuing a warning or penalty. Echoing a witness to their inquiry into “Policing in the 21st Century”, the Committee concludes that Britain’s police forces may be “hitting their targets but missing the point”. 7.1 per cent of the 1.447 million ‘offences brought to justice’ in the year to March 2008 were cannabis warnings, and the Committee heard that until the latest changes to the 2008/9 statutory performance indicators, a warning handed out on the street in 20 minutes has counted towards the force’s targets exactly the same as successfully concluding an 18 month murder investigation.
By the same token, a complex crime such as fraud, which costs the UK £13.9 billion annually and of which identity fraud is a particular concern for the public, is not included in performance targets and the Committee is concerned that it is not a priority.
Apart from alcohol fuelled offences, a number of functions are putting particular pressure on police resources. Foreign nationals take longer and cost more for police forces to process than British citizens, and rapid immigration has led to funding shortfalls in some force areas, which the Committee says Government should address. Some forces were increasingly occupied with gun and knife crime – an area where perception far exceeds reality but true figures are very difficult to come by. The Committee has now embarked on a dedicated inquiry into knife crime, to report in the new year.
It is also estimated that officers are diverting a third of their time into paperwork, and the Committee recommends that every officer should be issued with time saving technologies such as PDAs that would allow them to file reports “from the beat”. The Committee was also concerned at evidence it took on the large number of murder suspects released on bail by the courts, and supports amendments to the bail laws that would make a presumption against bail in murder cases, and take into account the capacity of local police forces to monitor offenders.
The Committee is concerned that public expectations of the police are not being met, and says the police should be more visible and more responsive to the public, and should give greater consideration to the needs of the victim in investigating crimes. Public dissatisfaction with the police is high: only 48 per cent of public believe the police will be there when needed and only 53 per cent of people thought that the police in their area did an excellent or good job in 2007/08. Public confidence in data about crime and policing is low, and despite British Crime Survey statistics showing a steady fall in actual crime levels, which are down 45 per cent since 1995, 65 per cent of people interviewed for the 2007/08 survey thought crime in the country had increased in the last two years.
Chairman of the Committee Keith Vaz said:
“Policing is about how we feel about the neighbourhoods we live in, yet for many of us our only direct encounter with the police will be at the worst, most harrowing times of our lives. That is why it is so crucial that police are able to respond to local priorities, respond to the needs of victims and make the best use of their resources. We cannot have on one hand a world of alcohol promotions for profit that fuels surges of crime and disorder, and on the other the police diverting all their resources to cope with it. Police need to be given the means to focus their resources on the real life priorities of the communities they serve – from cutting the reams of red tape officers deal to ensuring that they have access to simple time saving solutions like hand-held PDAs.”