Property crime matters, and it’s time to put it on the map

Mar 24, 2014

Property crime is one of the great neglected blights of our time – and we need to push it up the public policy agenda as a matter of urgency.

A few weeks ago, on a street close to my home, a car was broken into overnight. I didn’t witness it, but saw the debris as I walked past it the next morning taking my sons to primary school.  As we tiptoed over the broken glass from the smashed driver’s side window, the boys become agitated about the idea of a robber sneaking down our street, stealing satnavs and car radios.  As my children asked me how the police would catch the robber, I had to concede that they probably wouldn’t.

It’s everywhere. Similarly, the story last week of moped-riding gang of robbers brazenly trying to rob a jewellery shop in Mayfair had a depressingly familiar ring. Earlier this year in Camden, as part of the Police Parliamentary Exchange programme, I took part in a car chase pursuing criminals on mopeds who had been stealing smart phones and handbags from unsuspecting pedestrians. The criminals’ chances of being caught and convicted are low – and they know it.

Reflecting on these incidents I came to three conclusions. The first was the sense that property crime – including the kind of thieving, shoplifting and criminal damage that we saw in the 2011 riots – is doing great harm to our communities. Second, the realisation that unchecked property crime, so destructive and yet so often overlooked, makes an already tough life even tougher for small business owners and low paid workers. The third follows on: we need to take a stand to protect the most disadvantaged in our country from the damaging social and economic costs of crime.

I was shocked to discover that in London last year half of all reported property crimes – including robbery, burglary, theft, shoplifting and bicycle theft – resulted in ‘no further action’ by the Metropolitan Police. Something needs to be done.

One of my keenest memories in the aftermath of the riots on Tottenham High Road in 2011 was talking with local business owners who had – between looters, broken windows and fires – lost everything. So much of the looting was blatant selfishness, and so few looters were brought to justice. And the kind of property crime we saw in the riots is not uncommon. In fact, despite their scale, the riots barely made a dent on the crime figures for that week.

Of course, it was the concentration of criminality – in specific areas, on particular streets, inside certain shops – that was notable about those four days. But today, or on any given day, there will be an estimated 11,500 incidents of shoplifting alone. So while we all watched in horror as more than 2,000 offenders looted in London, Salford and Birmingham, there were thousands of other shoplifters, thieves and vandals stealing and damaging property in towns and cities around the country.

Property crime hits businesses hard. The small and independent retailers in places like Tottenham are truly the heartbeat of our communities.  They are run by local entrepreneurs, who work hard at trying to thrive in a world of big chains and small margins. For them, property crime can be crippling – with the average cost of an incident of criminal damage now at a record high of £2,000, and the average cost of a theft rising to £177 last year. Repeat victims suffer most, with 7% of all retailers suffering from criminal damage more than six times every year. And the costs of property crime are shunted directly onto the consumers. It is not victimless.

Such crime afflicts people of all socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds, but particularly the poorly paid and the most disadvantaged. While it disproportionally affects deprived areas – it is three times as prevalent in our inner cities, and occurs twice as much in the poorest parts – almost all of us have been or know someone who has been the victim of theft.  Indeed, a quarter of burglary victims get targeted again. Most of us can afford to insure against losses and take steps to protect our most valued possessions. But that does little to dispel the fear and sense of violation that can linger in a home that has been burgled.

It is time to confront the reality of property crime and to ask big questions about the way we address it in the UK. The effects of this type of crime run deep. It is impossible to ignore its vast costs, and how disproportionately it affects the most disadvantaged in society. It seems as though property crimes have been downgraded in importance by law enforcement and the courts, but we need to examine whether this is borne out by the evidence. And it is imperative that those on the receiving end of theft, burglary and vandalism have their voices heard loud and clear. Victims, small businesses and consumers deserve much more of a say in the debate.

Together with Policy Exchange, I will be working with leading crime scientists, economists and law enforcement figures to devise solutions. There may, for example, be a bigger role for the National Crime Agency in tackling organised gangs, or potential for technology like GPS monitoring of criminals to better deal with recidivism. Perhaps part of the solution is to develop a new victims’ organisation to provide support to victims of property crime and to lobby for a re-ordering of our policing and criminal justice priorities in their interests.

Just as the application of the “Broken Windows” theory fundamentally transformed the treatment by the authorities in New York City of so-called ‘minor crimes’ like aggressive begging and graffiti, together we will seek to spark a revolution in the UK in the way that property crime is perceived, prioritised and pursued by the police, the courts and by politicians.

We will do so not just because of the sheer scale of property crime in Britain today, nor simply in reaction to the huge costs borne by British businesses large and small, but because it is an issue that touches everyone in the country. Stealing, theft, shoplifting, vandalism and arson are not “victimless crimes” – the victims are all around us. We can no longer ignore their plight.

David Lammy is Member of Parliament for Tottenham and a Visiting Fellow at Policy Exchange.

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