On 3 March 2015, The Rt. Hon. David Lammy MP launched a paper through the Policy Exchange entitled “Taking Its Toll: The regressive impact of property crime in Britain.” 

Whilst, the MP’s attempt to engage with the issue of acquisitive crime is laudable, some of the conclusions contained within the report appear to be at best misinformed and at worst, political hyperbole. 

It is to be welcomed that the Rt. Hon. David Lammy MP focused much of his report on the effect of crime – particularly on victims. 

However, the paper does not appear to engage with the causes of crime.  The consequence of this can be found in the proposals, some of which appear reactionary and authoritarian.

The Problem

The boldest claim by David Lammy is that “property crime in 2015 enjoys a de facto decriminalisation.”  

Whilst, this may be a polished political slogan – it bears little resemblance to reality.  The reality can be found day in day out in Magistrates and Crown Courts up and down the country.  The lists of criminal courts are congested with acquisitive offences on a daily basis. 

Mr Lammy goes on to state that “members of the public consistently report a lack of confidence in the ability or willingness of police to investigate and prosecute incidents of property crime.”  However, this does not suggest that property crime is being decriminalised – rather it appears to be a comment on the resourcing of policing.  The simple explanation is that Police Forces who are facing budget restraints may struggle to meet the demand in some areas.  This should not be conflated with a problem in the law, instead, it is a question of how the law is enforced and the resources behind enforcement.

The Proposals

In his report, Mr Lammy introduces some 20 proposals for crime prevention.  These include seemingly authoritarian proposals including: “tighten regulations on private rented sector properties; design out crime in new residential and commercial developments; police should work with the private sector to tackle property crime and implement fortnightly New York-style statistical accountability meetings.”

Some of the proposals such as “address recidivism by implementing a penalties escalator for repeated theft” are without a clear purpose.  The Sentencing Guidelines Council already provides guidance on Theft offences and specifically recommends increased offences for repeat offenders.  This is something that the criminal courts do on a daily basis.

Other proposals are simply misguided.  In particular, Mr Lammy makes the recommendation to “Define the seriousness of shoplifting by victim rather than monetary value.”  In doing so, he suggests that the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014  should be amended to redefine the seriousness of shoplifting by the impact on the victim rather than a nominal monetary figure.  However, Section 176 of Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 currently has no direct effect on sentence – rather – it stipulates which court venue such a case can be heard in. Moreover, when deciding sentences, criminal courts already take into account a range of factors – the value of the goods is only one of these factors.

Analysis

The headline feature of the paper suggests that a greater emphasis should be placed on the impact of victims when a Defendant is sentenced.  In practice, this already happens.  The Sentencing Guidelines Council (and the Courts) already recognises that there is a distinction between “theft from the person” and “theft from a shop.”   Within each category, there are a number of factors to take into account, including the value and the vulnerability of the victim.  Within the “theft from a shop” guidelines there is already specific reference to “victim particularly vulnerable (e.g. small independent shop)” as an aggravating feature.

Some of the other recommendations suggest a more target driven and authoritarian approach should be taken to policing.   Whilst this is an issue for politicians and the police rather than the law – it seems that it will be difficult to introduce these measures with budget constraints.

There are two notable omissions from Lammy’s report.  Firstly, there is no overt recommendation to increase the Police budget.  Yet, the paper recommends seemingly resource heavy (and therefore expensive) suggestions such as “return to proper neighbourhood policing, focusing on what matters to the community.”  It is not clear how the increase in police presence can be reconciled without an increase in the policing budget.

Secondly, the report is silent on the causes of crime and the social factors which lie behind this issue.  Perhaps a more constructive and proactive approach would have been a more forensic exercise in understanding why recidivism happens and how to prevent it?