Don’t let Boris Johnson betray police with empty rhetoric – Andrew Vine

SOONER or later, every Government announces that it is going to get tough on crime as an indication that it really means business.

Boris Johnson is due to deliver a policy speech on policing today.

Today’s announcement by Boris Johnson of a new crackdown on the lawless fits the pattern exactly, but it is also a pointer that he’s keen to emphasise the pandemic is no longer all-consuming for the Government and it is time to get on with running the country.

It is also intended to boost his credentials as a Prime Minister in tune with the people, who worry about crime and resent being preyed upon by those who burgle their homes or steal their cars.

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But exactly how much new there will be in what he has to say – and whether there is any substance behind the soundbites – remains to be seen.

Boris Johnson and Priti Patel during a visit to North Yorkshire police's HQ last summer. Photo: Charlotte Graham.

At the weekend, Mr Johnson promised to put more police on the streets, crack down on the so-called county lines gangs dealing drugs and assign a named officer to every crime victim. Chances are, he will also reiterate the pledge to recruit an additional 20,000 officers.

There is nothing to quibble about in any of that – and precious little that is new. Every Premier I can remember has promised to put more officers on the streets, and the pledge to put victims at the heart of the criminal justice system goes back at least as far as Tony Blair in the 1990s.

The problem with Mr Johnson portraying himself as the man to bring crime under control is that his record, and that of the party he leads, does not inspire confidence.

Yes, it would be great to see an additional 20,000 officers. But let’s not forget that would only take police staffing levels back to those of a decade ago.

Boris Johnson is due to deliver a policy speech on policing today.

Since then, budget cuts and recruitment freezes in the name of austerity have seen police numbers shrink, despite increasingly urgent warnings from chief constables that 
they do not have sufficient numbers of officers to do the job the public expects of them.

As a consequence, detection rates have declined. In some areas of the country, as few as one in 10 offences results in arrest and prosecution, which amounts to an open invitation to the career criminal because the chances of being caught are so slim.

Any of us who have been victims of what are routinely classified as low-level crimes, such as break-ins or thefts from our cars, are familiar with a response from police that is sympathetic but frank that the likelihood of catching the culprits is virtually non-existent.

But offences like these don’t feel low-level to victims. As one former Yorkshire chief constable told me: “We must never forget that what is an incident to us can be a major event in the life of the person it happens to.”

Poor detection rates are not the fault of the police, but of political masters who over the past decade have failed to fund the service adequately, especially against a backdrop of an explosion in cyber crime such as fraud that has put already-stretched resources under greater pressure.

And Mr Johnson claiming to be the champion of law and order sits uneasily with a serious breakdown in relations between the Government and police.

Last week, the Police Federation said it had lost confidence in Home Secretary Priti Patel after she announced a pay freeze for officers.

That will resonate with a public which hold the police in a degree of respect and affection that is not far behind that reserved for NHS staff.

There is something seriously amiss 
in the way the Government is being run if it is at loggerheads with those charged with combating crime, particularly 
when the Conservatives pride 
themselves on being the party of law and order.

The shrill tone Ms Patel often adopts towards the police does not help. There is a sense that she is talking tough to bolster her standing with Conservative grassroots activists as much as getting to grips with the realities of bringing crime down.

Simply demanding more from police forces which are already at the limits of their capacity won’t do, any more than insisting hospital doctors and nurses treat more patients without increasing staff numbers.

Hovering over today’s announcement by the Prime Minister is the same suspicion that surrounded his pledge to level-up the economy – that there is a lack of substance behind the words and an absence of detailed proposals.

Will there be new money for police forces which are chronically short of it? If so, where will it come from? And without it, how are officers supposed to solve more crimes or give greater support to witnesses?

These are questions Mr Johnson must answer if his pledge to get tough on crime is to be taken seriously. Words are not enough.

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