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Islington Labour threatens Lib Dem record of action on crime

September 18, 2012 6:00 PM
By Cllr Terry Stacy, London Borough of Islington in Fighting Crime - locally by the Lib Dem LGA group

Terry Stacy

Cllr Terry Stacy

Despite its image in the media as a wealthy borough of literati and luvvies living in row upon row of Georgian terraces (and, yes, there are pockets of those properties), it is often overlooked that Islington has some of the highest levels of poverty in the country.

Latest figures show that Islington is the 14th most deprived borough in England. We have many of the typical characteristics you would associate with inner London. The levels and types of crime reflect this. So how did Liberal Democrats in Islington go about tackling the issue that is often residents' biggest concern?

A liberal approach to crime and anti-social behaviour

Without a doubt, one of the most successful initiatives Islington Liberal Democrats took was the introduction of Acceptable Behaviour Contracts (ABCs).

The aim was to stop bad behaviour rather than punish offenders, invariably young people. They were used mainly around quality of life issues for local people such as threatening behaviour and harassment, racist behaviour, graffiti, criminal damage and sub-criminal behaviour.

ABCs are contracts between the council, police, perpetrator and their parent/guardian. They are not legally binding but can be used as part of an incremental approach leading to legal action in the form of possession orders or ASBOs if the bad behaviour continues. They are also an opportunity to provide positive solutions to issues such as family problems or bullying.

The young person is interviewed and their behaviour and its consequences are discussed. The perpetrator is offered help with changing their behaviour if they say they want it. They may also be given details of youth activities, counselling or mentoring to help divert them into positive behaviour. If a contract is breached thempolice and housing officers look at the circumstances and decide on the best course of action.

Residents, police and council staff have all reported a noticeable difference in the attitude and behaviour of young people in Islington. A Home Office report found ABCs to be successful and former New Labour Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith announced that ABCs worked better than ASBOs. She ordered that they should be rolled out across the country.

ABCs have since been taken up by many other councils and are proving to be a more effective and liberal means of dealing with anti-social behaviour than some purely punitive approaches.

Acceptable Behaviour Contracts (ABCs) were also extended by Islington LibDems to become ABC+. With extra support packages on top of the ABCs we stop young people escalating to ASBOs.

ASBO+

Islington Liberal Democrats introduced the ASBO+ in 2005. This scheme means that every ASBO issued in Islington also comes with a support package to try to stop the behaviour that led to the ASBO. As a result, Islington's ASBO breach rate dropped to just 8% compared to nearly 50% nationally.

Commission on Young People

The tragic murders of two Islington teenagers in knife attacks spurred the council to set up a Commission to look into what the council could do to increase the safety of young people in the borough in 2007. Islington Liberal Democrats realised that if we were going to find solutions that worked, we needed to listen to people on the front line. The list of witnesses included senior police officers, youth workers, teachers, parents and, most importantly, young people themselves. The involvement of young people reminded us that the majority are good citizens and most often the victims of crime. But they are also the ones who can tell us what to do and we need to listen to them.

The Commission had councillors and independent members, including a Police Superintendent, a representative from the Probation Service, the Roman Catholic Dean of Islington, and the Director of an educational organisation helping Afro- Caribbean boys. The commission was chaired by a Liberal Democrat councillor and legal aid lawyer.

The Commission produced a number of recommendations. These included working with the police to target knife crime hotspots, funding electronic hand-held portable knife detection equipment for the Safer Neighbourhood police teams, measures to reduce truancy, initiatives by the police to engage more with young people in schools/youth clubs and the expansion of Arsenal FC's 'Positive Futures' football scheme into local estates, parks and open spaces. The council adopted all the recommendations and agreed the funding to implement them in the Liberal Democrat budget motion.

Gang prevention strategy

Building on the work of the Youth Commission, Islington Liberal Democrats also launched one of London's first Gang Prevention Strategies. The aim was to coordinate existing responses to gang culture in the borough and to introduce new action to stop young people drifting into gangs and youth crime.

Islington's Gang Prevention Strategy tackles those youths identified by the police and council as most in danger of becoming criminals or victims of crime. Individual action plans are put in place to help them stay on the right side of the law and are monitored regularly. We were determined to stop gang culture and youth crime gaining a hold on our communities as it had in other London boroughs. We wanted the council to be proactive not reactive in tackling these issues. Again, the council budget included specific funding for this initiative.

Restorative justice

In conjunction with the Police, Islington Liberal Democrats also launched a new Restorative Justice programme in the borough to tackle crime and antisocial behaviour. This is a longstanding Liberal Democrat policy for dealing with crime.

Police dispense 'instant restorative justice' on the streets when vandals are caught in the act and are made to fix things up or clean graffiti. 'Restorative conferencing' brings offenders and victims face to face with a trained facilitator.

Did it work?

Yes! Since 2004 the total crime rate in Islington fell by over a third until Liberal Democrats lost control of the council in May 2010.

But these schemes alone were not a magic pill to solve the borough's crime and antisocial behaviour issues. Like many other councils, we also invested in professional witnesses, new CCTV schemes, youth services and improved security/designing out crime in our housing stock. We also funded up to 40 police officers over the course of the administration and invested a lot of time and energy setting up a joint Community Safety Department between the borough police and council. We also used ASBOs, dispersal zones and no-alcohol zones in parks/open spaces where appropriate.

Tough on crime?

Like many colleagues across the country, we lost control of the council to Labour in May 2010. Islington Labour promised in their manifesto to be 'tough on crime' aping Tony Blair's famous soundbite. So how does their record stand up so far?

One of the first decisions Labour made when they took control was to axe the Liberal Democrat funding for 16 PCSOs across the borough. They also abolished the two targeted policing teams we set up with the loss of a further 16 police officers. This year, Labour councillors presided over two major leaks of sensitive personal data on residents, potentially putting lives at risk. It has already cost the council £50,000 to put it right and the Information Commissioner may well fine the council for data protection breaches.

Labour councillors cannot bring themselves to vote for any Islington Liberal Democrat ideas on crime and community safety. They recently voted against an awareness campaign on mobile phone street robberies. They also refuse to consider Liberal Democrat proposals for more licensing 'saturation zones' in key alcohol hotspots around the borough. In the budget this year they also voted down our proposals for nine extra council-funded police officers. Ironically, the Labour council now employs more spin doctors than community safety staff after its budget cuts.

Given all of this, Islington Labour councillors then seemed surprised when serious crime levels began to rise dramatically. In the last twelve months:

  • Theft (street mugging) has spiralled by a massive 49%
  • Serious youth violence (gangs) has leapt up by 29%
  • Robberies have increased by 26%
  • Residential burglary is up 17%

In a sign of panic, Labour councillors realised they had to do something to address residents' number one concern. So they spent £215,000 setting up yet another new telephone line for residents to report crime! They did also re-instate one of the police teams but this is a back-office function with not a single extra officer out on the borough's streets.

Meanwhile of course they blame the Coalition government for everything and say they cannot do any more to tackle crime because they have no money. Yet for the last two years Islington Labour councillors have managed the incredible feat of not spending £8million net of the council budget! Tough on crime has proven to be as much as a soundbite in Labour Islington as it was for Tony Blair in government.

But the fundamentals of the Liberal Democrat community safety programme have not been tinkered with by Labour because they know that what we introduced works. Even ministers in the last Labour government praised Islington's approach and adopted some of the measures nationally.

Conclusion

Liberal Democrats believe in helping people turn their lives around and breaking the cycle of crime before it is too late. Islington Liberal Democrats did not want to 14 Fighting crime - locally demonise young people. We wanted to intervene in unacceptable behaviour that impacted on others while understanding that many people need help or support to overcome particular challenges.

It was this approach, we believe, that helped make crime and ASB fall in Islington. In each case we would work with residents, victims, perpetrators and the police to decide the most appropriate response - not just slap an ASBO on young people for the sake of it just to look 'tough'.

These are obviously much harder times now politically for Liberal Democrats and financially for all local authorities. Not all these ideas will be relevant now or affordable or appropriate in a non-urban area. But they give a flavour of how a Liberal Democrat approach to crime and anti-social behaviour puts residents at the heart of everything we do, seeks to protect those at risk in the community and tries to break the cycle of crime. We hope the ideas can be used around the country in your work and campaigning too.

If you want any more information about any of the crime and anti-social behaviour policies used by Islington Liberal Democrats, please contact Group Leader, at: terry.stacy@islington.gov.uk