BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 17.03.02

Interview: OLIVER LETWIN, Shadow Home Secretary.

Can the Conservatives adopt New York style law and order policies without a big increase in spending.



JOHN HUMPHRYS: Oliver Letwin, you like what you saw, or at least the effect of what you saw in New City, but so does David Blunkett, and in truth he is going to do, or is promising already, some say he's already doing it, he's promising to do all the things that you approve of. Not much between you is there? OLIVER LETWIN: Well I think it's extremely encouraging that David and I agree that there is a huge crisis of street crime and agree that, as I think anybody's bound to, notwithstanding the Professor on that programme, that New York and other American cities, Philadelphia, Boston and others, have cracked that problem to a remarkable degree, so there is a degree of consensus, yes. The difference between us I suppose resides in the fact that David announced today yet another initiative, ten crime hotspots. I'm talking about trying to change.... HUMPHRYS: ...robbery reduction... LETWIN: ...robbery reduction, and we have broadly an initiative a week. I think he once announced that a day without an issue, a day wasted. Well, that's fine, but actually doesn't get us where we need to get. What we need is a co-ordinated long-term programme changing the nature of British police, and many other things to our criminal justice system, the way we deal with young people, all those things need to change, and I don't think these things can be invented overnight, I don't think they can be implemented by the government tomorrow, or next week, I'm not calling for that. I think we need to work together to get these things put in place on a consistent basis. It's good that there's political consensus because we've got to do this over a long time stretch and no doubt there will be different governments during that period, but we won't achieve it unless we lead the police into it. We can't do that by hectoring them, we can't do that by sudden initiatives, we've got to make a real change. HUMPHRYS: On that basis you might as well pool your ideas and stand, to coin a phrase, shoulder to shoulder with Mr Blunkett, on the same platform, addressing the same police officers, saying, we're at one on this. Here is, here is national unity for you. LETWIN: I am more than willing to do that. I don't see the slightest sense in having a political dog-fight if there isn't one. If we're moving in the same direction, great, let's work together on it. What we need to see is a revolution, as I say, we need actually to get the police back on the streets. Your professor there was saying various things about why it wouldn't work. Well I'd like to know why, with neighbourhood policing going on in New York, on a serious basis, and with transparent statistics, and with the police being told exactly what one of your interviewees said they shouldn't be told, namely that they are crime-fighters, with all of those things, they've reduced crime by sixty per cent and now have half the level of violence we have in London. Now that's what we need to achieve, I'm happy to do it on a consensus basis. HUMPHRYS: Absolutely fine, so long as you double the number of police officers in London. LETWIN: Well unfortunately it's more complicated than that. And actually, here's another case where I think David Blunkett and I agree, and some of your interviewees didn't. There are some facts here, the Metropolitan Police budget is within about one-hundred-million pounds, it might be a hundred-and-fifty million, of the New York police budget, but the Metropolitan Police has about ten thousand fewer cops as your figures showed. Now who knows where the extra money is going. We need to look at that. We need to look at why it is that US police forces tend to have more people on the streets, for a given sum of money than we manage. These are things we need to look at jolly seriously. HUMPHRYS: But you're surely not suggesting that you can double the number of police officers on the streets of London without putting in more money. A very, very, very large amount of money, double the amount of money according to our Professor. LETWIN: ...yes but unfortunately your Professor's not got the facts straight. There are as I say, two police budgets here, New York, and London. They're about one-hundred-million pounds apart. One has not double, but rather ten-thousand more, about a third more the number of policemen, and what's happening at the moment is that in London money's being spent and this is true in many police forces in the UK, on things other than bodies, other than policemen. Now we need to look at whether we can redirect that, before we start looking at increased resources. HUMPHRYS: So you're suggesting, put it no stronger than that, that we might have another, an extra fifteen thousand police... LETWIN: ...ten, ten to be precise... HUMPHRYS: ...alright, ten thousand extra police officers, vast number, ten thousand extra police officers on the streets of London, without any more money? LETWIN: That is what it looks as though New York shows it can be done and we need to look at how it's done it. The Home Secretary and I agree about this and he said so in the Commons a couple of days ago. It's not so revolutionary, people have noticed these facts and I want to work with the Home Secretary and I'm going to set up my own study group to look at this over the next few months as well, no doubt the Home Office will do it, we, I suspect we'll agree about this, how is that being done? But beyond that, you know, having the extra policemen is not enough. HUMPHRYS: No but before we leave the question of police if I may, what David Blunkett is not doing, certainly not doing, is saying, yes we can have another ten thousand police officers on the streets of London... LETWIN: ...actually David Blunkett is hoping to have that kind of extra number as I understand it... HUMPHRYS: ...well he wants more people working on the streets of London but they would not be police officers and you don't much care. There is a wee difference here between you, isn't there. You don't much care for the suggestion that he has. LETWIN: Well actually I think he does want more police officers, on that I agree with him. He also wants his Community Support Officers. Now I've nothing against Community Support Officers, I don't want them to be turned into plastic policemen. I think policemen should be policemen. We should be clear that a policeman has special duties, special authorities, who is a policemen ought to be something we all know about. I don't want to have people to have a thirty minute detention power, I don't know how they do it, I don't know whether they'll be trained properly, I don't think any of the public will know properly. Let's by all means have Community Support Officers doing what Ken Baker was describing, walking around with the police, aiding the police, that's fine. But let's make the power of arrest and the other major powers, be those which attach to policemen in New York and other American cities, that's the way it's worked and I think rightly, but as I say, it won't work just with policemen. What we've got to do is to switch the focus, what I was really impressed by and this is something... HUMPHRYS: ...in New York? LETWIN: In New York, yes. What I was really impressed by is not just what you read about, obviously all the things that you were showing in that programme you can read about, and I and many others have, what really came home to me sitting there, is the extent of the change in the culture in the police force. I sat with that group you showed on the programme which included somebody who said our level in Assistant Commissioner runs two-thousand-three-hundred policemen, a mid-sized UK police force Chief Constable. And what were they doing? Were they talking up grand management issues, where they're talking about strategies? No. They were talking about the crimes on particular streets in a large part of an enormous city. And that Assistant Commissioner was doing it because he'd spent a large part of that week looking at statistics for the last week, not the last month, not the last year, the last week. And he was forcing a Precinct Commander, one of our Superintendents, or Chief Superintendents, to tell him exactly what he was going to do, what his people were going to do, to cure crimes that had occurred on those streets that had been mapped that week. And why did he want to do that? Because he knew he could be hauled up at six hours notice to go and talk on the monthly basis, this happens, to the Chief of the Department, the Deputy Commissioner in our terms, to explain what he was doing about crime on one-hundred-and-twenty-first Street. Now that change of focus, so that the police force of the UK, consider themselves, first, foremost and last, crime-fighters, people dealing with crime, from top to bottom, so our Chief Constables, our Commissioners, and the lowest policemen are together in the fight on crime on particular streets is what we need to achieve. HUMPHRYS: But they have other duties apart from fighting crime. They are not just crime officers. The point was made very clearly in Terry Dignan's film. They have to do all sorts of things, missing kids, goodness knows what. LETWIN: But these things go together. If you are on the streets, if you are the neighbourhood policeman, if you are patrolling twenty-four hours as they are in New York, if you are walking the streets four blocks at a time, you will know about the other things that are going on, you with deal with the other things. HUMPHRYS: What about traffic? LETWIN: The question is where your focus is. You see, traffic yes, traffic of course is important, but the fact is we are not any longer in the relaxed and pleasant position of having a country where crime is not a problem. We have a crime crisis. We have streets that have been taken over by criminals where honest citizens cannot any longer regard them as their own, and that's what we need to focus on, and we can only do that by getting back to those streets and having the whole of our police forces focused on solving crime where and when it occurs. HUMPHRYS: And you believe that can be done, that the solution lies in refocusing, taking another look at it, trying to adopt a different sort of culture, create a different sort of culture, and not even more police officers as David Blunkett has proposed? LETWIN: I don't know. I know we've got to have a re-focusing. I know we've got to look at the way we deploy resources. At the end of that we will also know whether we need more money. I don't know the answer to that yet. HUMPHRYS: What about prisons, when it goes wrong and people end up getting arrested, if they do get arrested and sadly most people don't get arrested when they commit crimes. What about prisons. The Americans lock up five times more people than we do. Have they got it right? LETWIN: Well, they don't lock up five times more as the result of the present actions in New York, because now crime of any serious kind in New York is much lower than here. HUMPHRYS: They lock up for longer by the way as well. Whether it's New York or anywhere else they do lock them up for longer. LETWIN: They do in many cases lock them up for longer, although we also have people locked up for very long periods. The problem we face is that the crime level is so high. Now, if we can get the crime level gradually down and if over ten years we can get it significantly down, sixty, seventy per cent down, then we will have fewer criminals. HUMPHRYS: You've got a gap haven't you. You've got to...crime is still going up .....you're still locking up. Where are they going to go, our jails are full, more than full. LETWIN: True. It may well be that there are some kinds of criminal that don't need to go to jail that are currently going to jail. HUMPHRYS: Such as? LETWIN: I don't know. We're going to have to look very carefully at the whole criminal justice system and I'm waiting now for the Home Secretary to come forward with his Criminal Justice Bill. I don't know why he's delayed it, but we've had two serious reports from Halliday and Auld looking at this question. I'm perfectly prepared to be flexible and sensible about how we go about this business. I understand entirely that there are resource constraints, I understand that our prisons are relatively full at the moment, but the fact is that our major problem at the moment is not actually the prisons, it's not actually that we have certain sentences. It's that we're not catching crooks. HUMPHRYS But if you do catch them then you fill the prisons, they have to go somewhere. This is the whole problem isn't it. They have to go somewhere, they have to go to prison. Where do you.....and they can't because the prisons are full. LETWIN: We have to do these things together. At the moment what's happening is that huge numbers of people are not being caught, and those that are being arrested in many cases are not being convicted, because the evidence isn't there and the evidence isn't there in many cases because they are being arrested long after the event, rather than being caught red-handed and that comes back to our policing system and its connections with criminal justice. We need speed, we need effectiveness and then certainly we need to look at sentencing and at prisons. I accept that. HUMPHRYS: And if you catch them and put them in prisons you are putting them in, what - universities of crime, that's the old clich´┐Ż isn't it? LETWIN.: Yes, one of the things we need to do and I'm going to be - I hope you'll invite me back on the programme - I'm going to be making a major speech about this a few months from now and we're working on it intensively at the moment, that the terrible problem is that most of the street crime I'm really focussing on here is not committed by professional criminals that are in huge professional jails so to speak, it's committed by young people many of whom are very young indeed, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. They are currently going to institutions that are phenomenally expensive, in some cases a-hundred-and-twenty-five thousand pounds a year. I can't imagine how they get to be so expensive,and their recidivism rate, their rate of re-offending is eighty-five per cent in some cases. Now, that is an intolerable position. We've got to look entirely afresh at how we're dealing with those young people and try to have an effective system, which means that we arrest them in the first place if they are engaging in these actions, hoping as I have pointed out, as your film pointed out, to prevent them in the first place from committing a crime, but arrest them if they do commit it, convict them quickly through a quick criminal justice system, and then effectively rehabilitate them, rather then putting them through a system which is phenomenally expensive and turns them into criminals. HUMPHRYS: That also costs a great deal of money. What was the phrase that Crime Concern used on that film - a big chunk of dosh. LETWIN: Well, yes, but actually we are presently wasting phenomenal sums having people incarcerated in institutions that train them to be better criminals, not of course intentionally, but that's the effect. HUMPHRYS; You're not ducking responsibility in a sense here are you. A very quick thought, you're offering all sorts of things, and you're offering no extra money at all. Are you ducking it? LETWIN: Well, I'm not offering anything because I'm not the government. I'm trying to formulate a rational policy. And what I'm saying is that when you're formulating public policy, first we have state your aims which is to catch these criminals, secondly you have to work out whether resources are needed and then if they are you have to find them, but we shouldn't leap to assumptions. HUMPHRYS: Oliver Letwin, thanks very much indeed. LETWIN: Thank you.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.