Sunday, 24 January 2010

Campaigning for a better response to local crime concerns

I met the government's "crime czar" Louise Casey earlier this week through my work as a Member of the LGA Safer Communities Board. This is a national committee of councillors who lead on crime and community safety issues in their area.

I was elected by other Lib Dem councillors on to this body on the back of the reputation I have built up in Reading campaigning for a better Police and Council response to crime issues.This has been one of my major campaign issues since I was elected in 2006 - driven mainly by what local residents have told me and their frustration with the system.

I have won many community safety improvements to make life better for residents in my ward, Redlands over the years. You can find out more about my local crime campaigns over the past four years over on my ward Blog.

I think it's fair to say Louise Casey is not particularly popular with a lot of people for her outspoken remarks about ASBOs and such like.

Although I don't necessarily agree with all Louise's views about how crime and anti-social behaviour should be tackled, the work she has done as part of her Crime and Communities Review has been very worthwhile at gaining a better understanding of how people feel about crime problems. And when I met her I found her plain-speaking a refreshing change from a lot of the officer-speak I am confronted as a local councillor.

Chatting to Louise on Thursday it was obvious that she has actually gone out and spoken to people and communities affected by crime on the ground - she has not formed her opinions by only talking to civil servants and MPs in Westminster.

Louise's approach to the problem of crime is largely based on the simple evidence that 80% of crime in Britain goes unreported. She has tried to get to the bottom of why this is. She is convinced - and the evidence she commissioned from MORI supports this - that people don't report crime because they have no confidence anything will be done about it. Her findings are backed up by what we have found talking to people on the doorstep here in Reading.

Official surveys and independent assessments published last year demonstrated that public confidence in Reading in relation to crime is very low compared to other areas and the Labour-run administration has been heavily-criticised by the Home Office for failing to sort this out.

Louise is currently doing her best to persuade government, the Police, and councils to do much better at listening to local people when it comes to crime - for which all power to her elbow as far as I'm concerned!

When she conducted her Review for government Louise said her team of researchers found it very difficult to find out from many council switchboards exactly how anti-social behaviour should be reported. I spend my life giving people phone numbers for the Police and Council because lots of people don't know how to report issues.

In Reading there are two telephone numbers: one to report asb to the Police, one to report it to the Council. This is crazy and hardly makes it easy for people to know who is responsible and who to call for help*

At the start of last year I took a group of residents to visit the Thames Valley Police call centre in Kidlington - they were frustrated with the lack of response to crime reports and I thought it was right that they should have their say.

When the Home Affairs Select Committee visited Reading in 2008 I raised the issue of crime reporting problems directly with MPs and senior Police officers. I have raised the issue of public confidence nationally too, speaking out on the issue at Lib Dem Conference in 2008:

Louise Casey's basic message to government and councils on the back of her Review is simple: the message the public want to hear is "we're taking action on the issues that matter to you".
Ironically, this is the basic message of many of our local Focus leaflets in Reading! Councils like Labour-run Reading have a long way to go. Research Louise Casey conducted as part of her review included shocking stats like: 6 in 10 people do not know how to report graffiti.
The research she has carried out with officials at the Home Office backs up what my Lib Dem colleagues and I have been saying in Reading for years: people are not reporting crime because they do not have confidence that the authorities will take action.

I discussed Neighbourhood Policing in Reading with Louise and the fact that many residents weren't aware of its existence because the Police had no budget to communicate with residents. From her reaction I could tell she wasn't very impressed!

I also explained that residents regularly tell me that they get fed up going to Neighbourhood Action Group meetings with information about anti-social behaviour in their area and they get criticised by the Police for giving them the wrong kind of community intelligence- not exactly encouraging!

The Lib Dems in Reading sucessfully campaigned to get Reading Borough Council to work with the Police to improve basic communication and help build up public confidence.

Louise talked a bit about the Policing Pledge which was launched by former Labour Home Secretary Jacqui Smith last year. This sets out what people can expect from their local Police force. Research conducted by the Home Office found that many people don't know what they can expect -which really isn't very good!

My feeling is there is a very low recognition of this pledge in our area: a quick straw poll I conducted on Twitter of people following the #rdg hashtag revealed that most people have never heard of it. It's Lib Dem policy to invest in more Police on the beat (we'd find the money by scrapping Labour's costly ID cards scheme)

Do you live in West Reading What is your experience of Policing like? Have you ever reported anti-social behaviour to Reading Borough Council? How was it handled? I'd love to hear from you.

* Phone numbers if you want to report anti-social behaviour 0845 8 505 505 (Police) and 0845 605 2222 (Reading Borough Council).

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