Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/11/10/the_cheapening_vs_technology/

MPs: Fight grog-fuelled crimewave with PDAs

BlackBerry bluebottle node-plods to hit the streets

By Lewis Page

Posted in Law, 10th November 2008 15:20 GMT

Analysis The Home Affairs parliamentary committee has today published its report into UK law enforcement, Policing in the 21st Century. In it, the MPs of the committee make a wide-ranging examination of future British policing. We've chosen to focus mainly on booze and technology.

Before getting onto the rise of the networked copper, however, the MPs attempt to wrestle with a knotty problem - the fact that while the number of crimes committed appears to be falling in many categories, there are now many more categories. More activities are now considered to be crimes, following a blizzard of new criminal laws written over the last decade.

3,605 new criminal offences have been created since 1997 ... The Deputy Chief Constable of Staffordshire Police, Douglas Paxton, agreed that more and more calls for service are now recorded as formal crimes. He told us that, since 1998, 29 new Home Office crime classifications have been introduced resulting in the recording of 750,000 new offences in 2005/06 alone.

The MPs thought this was a bad thing (though it is of course MPs in Parliament who vote laws into being). They said:

The Government should exercise caution in future when classifying undesirable behaviour as criminal offences.

That does seem sensible, what with the jails being full to bursting and so forth.

However, the politicians nonetheless thought there should be a massive government crackdown on drinking, especially by young people. More specifically, they felt that there should be stiffer penalties for people selling booze at any but the highest prices.

We recommend the Government establish as soon as possible a legal basis for banning the use of loss-leading by supermarkets and setting a minimum price for the sale of alcohol ... The standards need to be reissued on a compulsory basis with a more effective inspection regime and penalties for breaches.

It seems that things are simply out of hand:

The easy availability of cheap alcohol fuels alcohol-related crime and disorder and under-age drinking. In 2007, alcohol was 69 per cent more affordable in the United Kingdom than it was in 1980.

We've been hearing this "alcohol is more affordable now than it has ever been" thing for a while now. It certainly doesn't ring true based on our own experience of buying booze - which is fairly extensive. So where's the number from?

Actually from the NHS, as it turns out, and the figures behind the assertion can be seen here in pdf. It's interesting stuff.

In fact, as anyone who regularly buys alcohol could tell you, booze is hugely more expensive than it was in 1980. It's price has almost quadrupled, increasing by 367 per cent.

But surely that's true of all prices? Perhaps everything else - food, fuel, other stuff - has increased by an even huger margin, leaving booze comparatively cheap. Maybe that's why the neo-prohibitionist tendency argue that liquor is too affordable?

Well no, actually. Retail prices in general have gone up, but not the way booze has - overall, prices are up by 309 per cent. Alcohol has increased in price substantially more than most things have.

So how in the world is it more affordable than it used to be?

Well - so goes the thinking - it's because we have more money. While on average the price of stuff has tripled since 1980 in pounds and pence, on average we have about six times as many pounds and pence in our household disposable income as we did then - our real household disposable income has effectively doubled. Thus we can afford more stuff than we could back then - more booze, if we choose, though mainly we don't. Percentages of household budget spent on booze are down by a third, indicating that in real terms household expenditure on booze is stable or increasing only slightly.

Still, by rather convoluted logic, alcohol is 69 per cent more affordable - to householders - than it was in 1980. But that's because all retail products are more affordable - most of them much more so than alcohol. Using this sort of ridiculous economic voodoo, any ordinary retail product has become a hundred per cent more affordable than it was in 1980, as opposed to liquor which is up by only 69 per cent.

Hell - let's play this game ourselves. Booze has failed to increase in "affordability" at the same rate as other retail products. It has actually lagged in relative affordability compared to other products.

Yes, you read it here first, people. Booze is not only hugely, inflation-bustingly more expensive than it was: it has actually fallen behind 30 per cent in affordability compared to other retail products since 1980.

The whole "booze is too cheap" thing is an offshoot of the philosophy which states that everything is too cheap - that people being richer than they used to be is actively bad, and may indeed destroy the planet. Perhaps the medical profession should go back to looking after sick people, and leave the economics and climate theory to people whose business it is.

Anyway. Funnily enough, the behaviour around the supposed alcohol-fuelled crime wave complained of by the cops doesn't bear out the idea that people - especially non-householding youngsters - are finding booze more affordable than of old.

A recent study found ... individuals increasingly consuming alcohol at home before they go out — ‘pre-loading’ — in order to cut costs.

We encountered some scepticism about the impact of price on drinking habits ... the UK has the second highest duty rates on alcohol in Europe but worse drink-related problems than most other European countries.

Nonetheless, the plods say they're overwhelmed by boozy, violent hordes all night long. Indeed, the MPs quote the costs to the nation of alcohol-related crime as £7.3bn annually, though only £1.73bn of this was actually a matter of the police responding to crimes - the rest was estimates of lost productivity and so on.

Just to put that in perspective, the government makes more than £15bn each year in alcohol duty*.

The cops reckon they should be given (a lot) more money, but at least the MPs were sceptical on that one, suggesting that it might be better if they spent a bit more time out and about and a bit less doing paperwork back at the station.

In 2007/08, 13.8 per cent of officers’ time was spent on patrol and 64 per cent of their time on ‘front-line duties’.

We are … worried by the Minister's definition of ‘front-line policing’ as including work in the police station on case files and report preparation. These tasks may be essential but ... Their inclusion skews the statistics and gives an exaggerated impression of the Government's success in returning police officers to street duties. We recommend that the definition of ‘front-line policing’ should be changed to exclude time spent dealing with paperwork indoors ... the Home Office should keep the public informed of the amount of time officers spend on visible patrol.

The MPs also noted that actually the British police get a lot of the available money compared to other countries - more than in America, for instance.

Police funding in the UK is the highest amongst the OECD countries. For example, in 2004 the UK spent 2.5 per cent of GDP on public order and safety, ahead of the US at 2.2 per cent, Spain at 1.8 per cent, Germany at 1.6 per cent and France at 1.4 per cent.

There was also some stuff on the vexed question of crime statistics. No matter how the official stats go, people tend to remain convinced that crime is surging. This isn't helped by the fact that police forces often refuse to discuss any given crime publicly, preferring to speak only of statistics and generalities. Hence the recent argument in favour of "crime maps", which the MPs broadly approved of.

Low levels of public confidence in the police and distrust of crime statistics are in part driven by a lack of clear information about local crime and police activity. The public should be provided with better information about crime levels in their neighbourhood. Neighbourhood crime mapping appears to be a useful means to achieve this ... Local police successes should also be publicised in more detail, to reassure the public in a way in which outline crime reduction statistics do not ... As a matter of course, police forces should make available to the media the general details of criminal activities that have been reported to the police.

Some of this is already in place, in trial areas.

There was also support for the use of tracking tags on suspects released on police bail:

We welcome the use of tagging orders to enable the police to monitor more effectively defendants released on bail. However, we still have some reservations about the extent to which breaches may occur; the Home Office should keep this under review. In our opinion, breaches should be dealt with by withdrawal of bail.

There was another tech angle, too, with the MPs pushing heavily for the use of networked gadgets by street coppers, in order to keep them out on the cold streets rather than form-filling and keyboard-bashing in the warm station. Many English forces have now issued BlackBerries, which use the ordinary mobile net to access resources securely in much the same way that corporate clients do.

Expert witnesses told the committee that the BlackBerry and other portable-tech solutions had gone down well, but there had apparently been problems with different solutions used north of the border. Some Scottish forces have to use the Airwave/TETRA network as ordinary mobile coverage can be unreliable or nonexistent, but this requires different platforms and bandwidth can be very limited.

For whatever reason, it appears that Scottish cops don't like handhelds. A survey by the Scottish Police Federation (what would be the union for rank and file coppers, if they had a union) said that 70 per cent of them reckoned that digital gadgets made them less efficient - and even endangered them, as they weren't keeping an eye on potentially troublesome suspects while keying in data.

The big debate, which the MPs couldn't quite settle, was whether it would be better for all UK coppers to have a monolithic common mobile-networking solution - in other words a huge government IT project, with attendant risks of catastrophe and one-size-fits-all nightmares - or let the current piecemeal, force-by-force efforts proceed. In the end, the MPs reckoned a common national system would be best.

Personal digital assistants can significantly increase the amount of time that police officers spend on visible patrol and dealing with incidents outside the station, and reduce the time they spend on paperwork ... We recommend that sufficient funding is made available as soon as possible to enable all frontline officers to have access to a PDA ... In our view, it is possible to achieve a balance with meeting the needs of individual forces by developing a common platform that can then be tailored to suit the local situation.

There was loads more for those interested, regarding the wider use of non-sworn civilian staff with no powers of arrest, collaboration between the UK's patchwork of often quite small regional police forces etc etc. The report can be read in full here. ®

*Yes, we're aware that the prohibitionists can easily produce figures suggesting that booze badness costs the country £20bn pa. We've seen one such set of estimates. It included more than a billion pounds on burglar alarms (people buy 'em because they're afraid of drunk burglars, apparently) and nearly £5bn for "emotional support".