London’s Conservatives are energetically criticising Sadiq Khan over his approach to violent crime and it was London Assembly Tories who obtained figures showing an increase in recorded offences of violent crime on the Tube network in the last few years. Supplied by British Transport Police (BTP), they showed that violent offences were 43% higher between November 2017 and September 2018 than in the slightly longer period between November 2015 and October 2016.
The statistics, which were reported by the BBC and City AM, also showed that crimes categorised as weapon offences saw the biggest percentage increase during that time (125%) followed by robbery (77%) and that recorded crimes of every kind, including sex offences, public order and criminal damage, have gone up by 25%. What do the figures mean and what action should be taken in response to them?
There are particular reasons to be wary of crime statistics, but the first point to be made is a more general one about percentages. A big percentage rise in anything at all does not necessarily mean a significant increase in the number of whatever that thing is. The total number of crimes categorised as violent recorded by BTP in the 2015-16 12 month period was 1,980 and in the 11 month 2017-18 period it was 2,838 – an increase of 858. That still feels big enough to be concerned about. So does the numerical rise from 10,450 crimes of every kind to 13,101.
Even so, the numbers are also worth evaluating in a couple of other relevant contexts. One is the likelihood of your becoming a victim of a violent crime when using the Underground. Do the police figures mean that possibility has gone up significantly? BBC London’s transport and environment correspondent Tom Edwards has calculated that one violent crime takes place on the Tube network for every 478,659 journeys. One chance in around half a million feels rather reassuring after “up by 43%”. So does the roughly one in 100,000 chance of being a victim of any sort of crime when using the Underground. BTP assistant chief constable Robin Smith described that rate as “incredibly low”, and the comment does not seem out of place.
Smith also provided another relevant piece of background. Referring to the big hike in weapons offences recorded, he stressed that these included the seizure of knives in what he called “our targeted, intelligence-led operations” of the past year. What happens when additional resources are devoted to tackling any specific sort of offence, be it online fraud or fare-dodging? Hopefully, more incidents are reported and more culprits apprehended. Result? The recorded crime figures for that type of offence go up, perhaps not because more such offences are being committed but because more of those committing them are being apprehended.
But, of course, there is another way of looking at that interpretation, which is that it demonstrates how much of the type of crime in question goes undetected. Transport for London illustrates this point in its latest business plan in relation to what it terms “unwanted sexual behaviour”. A campaign has been running to encourage more reporting of such behaviour by its victims. TfL forecasts that, because of this, it will see the “upward trend in recorded sexual offences continue”. TfL also anticipates the rate of overall crime increasing until 2023/24, when it will “begin to level out and fall” due to technological changes and enforcement efforts. The business plan also notes an increase in the amount of pushing, shoving and “altercations” related to overcrowding.
So there are different ways of reading at least some of the Underground crime numbers. The City Hall Conservatives accept that general point, but even so contend that the rise in the number of recorded violent offences on the Tube network give grounds for upbraiding the Labour Mayor, who does acknowledge that violent crime in London as a whole has been going up.
Conservative AM Susan Hall said he should reduce what she called the “millions he is spending on City Hall waste” and put “more officers on the street”. If that sounds odd, given that the Underground is, by definition, not “on the street” but beneath it, the City Hall Tories explain that they believe diverting money from other areas into hiring more officers would help to reduce crime in every part of the city, the Tube included.
At present, there are 860 British Transport Police officers (including 100 community support officers) patrolling TfL’s rail network as a whole, including the Docklands Light Railway, London Trams and London Overground as well as the Underground. These officers have been paid for with £76 million of TfL’s money during 2018-19.
More BTP officers could in theory be paid for by TfL, whose board the Mayor chairs, but that, of course, would mean less money for everything else TfL does, and they already have a budget gap to bridge. TfL currently devotes £172.3 million to the policing of the entire transport system, providing £94.3 million to the Metropolitan Police, which primarily looks after non-rail transport areas, and £1.99 million to the City of London Police. The overall figure is projected to fall to £163.9 million in 2019-20 before starting to rise again towards £189.4 million in 2022-23.
The Assembly Tories, including their mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey, are making an ongoing case about “waste” that could be cut enabling more Met officers, who sometimes support BTP colleagues, to be recruited, though what counts as “waste” and what does not is, of course, often a matter of political opinion. The argument will continue to be frequently aired from now until May 2020, as will the Mayor’s counter narrative about government spending cuts.
There is also a much broader question about what difference “visible policing” really makes to crime levels, though it is one few politicians are eager to address.