PC Public will bring down crime

Law and order is fundamental to a civilised society.  Yet a recent report by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary exposed a worrying failure to tackle antisocial behaviour that blights communities.

In an era when crime has been falling across the world, Britain's streets remain lawless.  Depending on the measure used, there are between 5 million and 11 million crimes a year.  It is time to restore the mission set by the founder of modern policing, Sir Robert Peel, "to prevent crime and disorder."

The problem hasn't been a lack of money.  A decade ago, we were spending £11 billion a year on the police, courts and prison combined.  Today, it is close to £20 billion.  Nor has there been a lack of laws.  The last 13 years have seen a hailstorm of legislation, with more than 3,500 new criminal offences.

The country cannot sustain a situation where, without action, we will in five years' time be spending three times more on debt interest than on the criminal justice system.  We must make savings, but the test of effective criminal justice is not how much money we're spending.  Ensuring access to justice is not the same as the size of the legal aid budget (more than £2 billion a year, greater than almost any other country).  A successful penal system cannot sensibly be measured by the number of offenders in prison, certainly not when most of them re-offend shortly after release.

And the test of an effective police force is not how much it costs or the number of officers it employs.  We have a record number of officers, more than 144,000 in England and Wales.  Yet the Inspectorate says only 11 per cent are visibly available at any one time.  People rightly want to see a uniformed presence.  But that is as much about reducing bureaucracy to free up officer time as it is about overall headcount.  We need the police to be crime fighters, not form writers.

The Government's spending review, to be published this month, will determine how much money is available for policing.  Savings can and must be made - more than £1 billion a year without touching the front line, according to the Inspectorate, through collaboration and office efficiencies. 

It is absurd to suggest that reducing the cost of policing must mean higher crime.  Last week I was in New York, where police chiefs told me they had faced manpower reductions of more than 10 per cent in a decade, yet crime had fallen by more than a third. 

The decade of cash and centralism is over.  The new era demands wise spending and reform.  So later this year we will introduce legislation for an overhaul of policing, and set out proposals for reform of the penal system.

We will replace weak and invisible police authorities with directly elected police and crime commissioners to hold the 43 forces in England and Wales to account.  London has moved in this direction with its mayor.  The operational independence of the police will be protected, but replacing the bureaucratic accountability of Whitehall with local democratic accountability will ensure policing for the people.

With the first elections in 2012, the new commissioners will have a powerful local mandate to set strategic priorities, driving the fight against crime and antisocial behaviour.  They will have a broad remit to ensure community safety, with budgets to prevent crime, tackle drugs and work with local authorities and agencies.  And in future their role could be extended so they assume responsibility for elements of the local criminal justice system, ensuring that the police and those who manage offenders operate together, not in isolation.

A rehabilitation revolution will open up competition in penal services and pay providers from the private and not-for-profit sectors by results for reducing re-offending, funded by the savings this will generate within the criminal justice system.  We have begun a pilot scheme in Peterborough prison.

For too long we have done next to nothing to supervise or support offenders on short-term prison sentences who, on release, rapidly return to a life of crime.  Now we have the opportunity to make effective rehabilitation a reality - and so cut crime.

We will publish street-level crime maps, and demand transparency across the criminal justice system, enabling the public to hold every agency to account.  We will promote responsibility by toughening licensing laws and giving local agencies the right tools to deal with antisocial behaviour.  Where Labour sought to accrue power to the state, we will return it to communities.

We cannot rely on more spending to make us safe, or more laws to make us more law-abiding.  Half of all crime is being committed by people who have previously been convicted.  We have to break the cycle of crime - and that means breaking out of the old politics.

Nick Herbert is Minister of State for Policing and Criminal Justice

Christopher N Howarth