Skip to main content

Robbery and Theft: Carshalton and Wallington

Volume 745: debated on Tuesday 20 February 2024

I will call Elliot Colburn to move the motion and then the Minister to respond. As is the convention for 30-minute debates, there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of robbery and theft in Carshalton and Wallington constituency.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham. This issue pressures local people and weighs heavily on my constituents’ minds. I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss it.

I begin by examining some statistics. According to the latest Home Office data for the year ending September 2023, the Metropolitan police recorded 32,000 robberies and 430,000 thefts. When adjusted for population, London exhibited one of the highest rates of reported robbery and theft offences, with 3.6 robberies and 48.6 thefts per 1,000 people, which far surpasses the national average. Moreover, those figures represent alarming increases on the previous year, as reported by the Met.

In the past few months alone, there have been 11 incidents of people contacting me directly about their cars being broken into. That is a lot, considering that the police would obviously be the ones to take that up; for that many people to bring it forward to me clearly demonstrates that there is an issue. The most recent figures published by the Metropolitan police, in December 2023, showed that there were 50 incidents of vehicle crime, 16 cases of theft, 27 shoplifting offences, 17 burglaries and 10 robberies across Carshalton and Wallington.

My constituents are often left asking whether anything is being done about those crimes, and whether they are being taken seriously by the police. Like many colleagues, I am sure, I see on social media all the time CCTV and Ring doorbell footage of attempted incidents that the police have not seen or will not take as part of their investigations. One constituent shared details with me of two cars being stolen in the space of two weeks.

As I represent quite a diverse constituency, there is also the matter of the targeting of my Indian and Tamil constituents for Asian gold theft. Those communities are worried that they are being subjected to increased targeting due to recent surges of targeted burglaries, which have left them shaken and afraid of further strikes against their communities.

One of the things I come across most often is the issue of shoplifting. Whether on our local high streets or some of the small shopping parades around Carshalton and Wallington, it is increasingly common to see a large group of younger people go in and out of shops to steal confectionery, drinks, goods—whatever it might be. Many of the shop owners, for whatever reason, tell me they do not feel that it is worth reporting. Reports are therefore often not made to the police, so we are likely seeing slightly skewed statistics. That is a point I would like the Minister to address: the danger of reporting fatigue.

I know the police and all Government officials would want to reiterate the importance of ensuring that an official report is put in whenever someone sees a crime happening, is a victim of a crime or has anything to tell. So many times we hear of things getting shared on social media, via email or in conversation when an official report was not put in. That does not give us a full picture of what is going on. I would like to hear from the Minister what efforts the Home Office is taking, in conjunction with the Metropolitan police, to ensure that people do not get that reporting fatigue and that they file an official report, not just share it on social media.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about reporting fatigue, but many criminals perpetrating the burglaries and robberies that I have heard about on Wallington high street in his constituency are acting with impunity because they know that there are not the police officers to get there. As he will be aware, due to cuts in policing over a number of years under the Conservative Government, and with abstraction rates in Sutton in particular being at an all-time high at 25% in the last quarter of last year, there are just not the police officers there. What is he doing to put pressure on his own Front Benchers to ensure that we boost the numbers of police officers on our streets—not just in Carshalton and Wallington, but in my constituency of Twickenham? It is a problem across London.

It might be helpful for me to remind the hon. Lady that the Liberal Democrats were in coalition with the Conservative Government for five years, which oversaw the reduction in police officer numbers. We now have 3,666 more police officers on London streets—the highest number ever recorded. That could have been 1,000 more if the Mayor of London had actually done his job and gotten to grips with the reporting.

I find it a bit odd that the Lib Dems are complaining about the lack of police officers when they were in the coalition that oversaw the reduction in police officer numbers. In City Hall, at the London Assembly, the Lib Dems have consistently voted against increasing police numbers, so I do find that a bit odd. I realise it is politically advantageous for them, but this is quite typical of the Lib Dems—say one thing and do the other. I certainly will not take any lectures from the Lib Dems on police officer numbers, considering that they consistently vote against them.

I commend the Home Office for some of the actions it has taken, particularly its work with police officers and forces to ensure that every single burglary and theft is attended by police. That has had some great successes in London in particular, which has seen hundreds, if not thousands, of new arrests being made. I very much welcome that. I welcome the development of the retail crime action plan, which seeks to address the rising tide of theft and sets out guidelines and reporting mechanisms for retailers.

I thank the Government for the safer streets fund, initiated in January 2020, that provides grants to local bodies for projects aimed at reducing neighbourhood crime. While not specifically targeting robbery or theft, those initiatives are vital for enhancing community safety. Moreover, Operation Calibre was a national week of action co-ordinated by the National Police Chiefs’ Council, which aimed to tackle personal robbery, with 30 police forces taking part last November.

It is important to stress that when it comes to policing in London, the police and crime commissioner for London is the Mayor of London. The Mayor has made a number of promises over his eight years, and he has overseen incredibly poor performance when it comes to dealing with crime in the capital. He is more concerned with jetting off round the world to promote his book or slapping ultra low emission zones on the backs of hard-working Londoners. He has not got to grips with one of the most important parts of his brief: being in charge of the Metropolitan police from a commissioner level. It is not fair on Londoners to have to deal with a Mayor who simply does not care about crime—indeed, he cares more about his own image than about crime.

I commend the Met for the steps it is taking—almost unilaterally, without any input from the Mayor—to deal with burglaries. I have mentioned that the commitment there is now that every single burglary will be attended by an officer, which is very welcome. To reiterate a point I made earlier, I also welcome the 3,600-plus new officers now working in the Metropolitan police. However, I want to draw the House’s attention to the fact that there could have been as many as 1,000 new officers on top of that if the Mayor had actually got to grips with the recruitment funding and done his job to recruit more police officers.

It was reported on 14 February that the Mayor has written to car manufacturers to say that he has become increasingly concerned about vehicle theft due to

“the security vulnerabilities in modern vehicles”.

He also said that he was seeking car manufacturers’ assurances about what they had done to address this issue. It is, of course, a very important issue, but the Mayor is several years late to it. Over the last few years, we have seen a massive rise in thefts of and from vehicles, particularly the theft of catalytic converters in outer London, so I find it very bizarre that the Mayor has only just woken up to this issue now. Also, I am not really sure what he is suggesting Londoners or car manufacturers should do, given that he is the one in charge of local policing.

We have had campaigns locally in our area to try to stop these crimes. I have had the pleasure of meeting many students and their parents, who are worried about young people being particularly targeted by criminals. I welcome the efforts of the police in just the last few weeks. Those have included the high-visibility and the plain clothes robbery patrols in Wallington High Street and Roundshaw, which the local safer neighbourhood teams are carrying out as proactive measures to target the increase in robberies in Wallington. This operation is a mix of visible policing, to deter criminals and act as a reassurance mechanism, and plain clothes officers acting as spotters.

We are waiting to hear the results of that operation, which has been conducted in the last few weeks, but the initial feedback from our local borough commander is that the results have been very positive indeed. The officers do a fantastic job locally in engaging with schoolchildren and members of the public, providing them with reassurance and advice about staying safe and reporting crimes. Officers are also undertaking a piece of work locally with premises on our local high streets, to tell businesses what they should be doing to make sure that they are kept safe and how the police can work with them to bring down shoplifting.

Nevertheless, the issue remains a pressing concern, which is why I am glad to have had the chance to have this debate here in Westminster Hall today. By implementing robust legislative measures, enhancing collaboration between law enforcement and local communities, and addressing specific vulnerabilities where we identify them, we can absolutely ensure the security and stability of people locally when it comes to burglary and theft.

I would like the Minister to reassure me and give me more information about various issues. Can he reconfirm that every single report of a theft or burglary should be attended by police and that people should be encouraged to make a report if they are a victim of crime? What work is the Home Office doing in conjunction with the Metropolitan police, so that where the Mayor is not taking his responsibilities seriously, Londoners are not at the behest of criminals and instead police are given all the tools they need to bring those criminals to justice and to ensure that further such crimes can be prevented in the future?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the second time in an afternoon, Mrs Latham.

Let me start by congratulating my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) on securing this debate on such an important topic. These issues affect both our constituencies, and indeed many others. I join him in referencing and thanking our local south London basic command unit specifically for its work on robberies around the border between his constituency and mine—the problem extended to Purley and south Croydon, as well as the areas in his constituency that he mentioned.

Let set the national scene for where crime trends are heading. The only reliable source of long-term crime trend data, according to the Office for National Statistics, is not police-recorded crime, because that goes up and down depending on the public’s propensity to report crime, and on how good a job the police do at recording crime—they have got better at that in recent years and have therefore recorded more crime. Rather, it is the crime survey for England and Wales.

The crime survey for England and Wales, which according to the ONS is the most reliable source of crime data, shows that since March 2010—just to pick an arbitrary date—overall crime, like for like, is down by 55%, while violence is down by 51%, criminal damage is down by 72%, theft offences are down by 46%, theft from the person is down by 40%, and vehicle-related theft is down by 39%. Crime is declining in the long term, which is very welcome indeed. Crime is still happening, and we want to go further to push down those crime figures even more. That is why we have delivered record police numbers. I was a bit mystified by the intervention that called upon my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington to lobby the Front Bench to deliver more police. We have done that. We have delivered record numbers of police—about 3,500 more than we had in 2010.

London also has record police officer numbers, but as my hon. Friend quite rightly said, London could have had an extra thousand officers, all of which would have been funded by the Government—in fact, slightly over a thousand; 1,066, to be precise—had the Mayor of London bothered to recruit them. It is a shocking indictment of Sadiq Khan’s ineptitude that he failed to recruit those thousand extra officers that would have been funded by the Government. I strongly endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington said about Sadiq Khan. As Minister for Police, I see the performance of all 43 police forces across England and Wales, and there is no question but that under Mayor Sadiq Khan’s tenure as London’s police and crime commissioner, the Met’s performance is the worst of all those 43 forces. Not only is it the only police force in the country to have missed its recruitment target; it has the worst clear-up rate of any police force in the country. Sadiq Khan should hang his head in shame, and the electors in London will no doubt have this in mind when they elect a Mayor in a few months’ time.

We are pursuing a number of initiatives to bear down on robbery and theft. The first is an agreement that we reached with the police, including the Met, to always follow all lines of inquiry for all crimes where they exist. I can answer the question my hon. Friend asked me: that applies to all crimes, including theft from shops and criminal damage—everything. There is no such thing as a minor crime in our view. Previously, some police forces had wrongly been screening out certain crimes and not investigating them, even where there was evidence, because they were perceived as minor. We have now agreed with policing nationally, and put it in writing, that that is not appropriate, and the police will always follow reasonable lines of inquiry where they exist. That includes any crime, including shop theft, for which there is video evidence showing a suspect’s face.

That also involves always running such evidence through the retrospective facial recognition database. The algorithm is driven by artificial intelligence and is now very good. Often a match can be obtained even where the suspect’s face is caught on CCTV, a Ring doorbell or a mobile phone and their face is partially obscured or the image is fuzzy or blurred. Police forces should always run those images captured at a crime scene through the police national database to see if they can get a match—and they very often do. That applies particularly to shoplifting, but to many other crimes as well. We have an action plan for shoplifting—we really ought to call it shop theft; it is theft. As I have said, the police have committed to always investigating all lines of inquiry where they exist, including for shop theft. They will attend in person where a suspect has been detained by the store security staff. They will attend in person if there has been an assault on a shop worker and they will attend in person if that is necessary to secure evidence. If there is CCTV evidence that can be emailed, that is quicker for everybody, but they will attend always in the circumstances I have set out.

The police have also agreed to identify and target prolific offenders in particular. We have done work on this: taking out a relatively small number of offenders leads to a dramatic reduction in shop theft. For example, in Sussex, the excellent police and crime commissioner Katy Bourne and her police force identified and arrested 20 or 30—I think it was—prolific shoplifters. That dramatically reduced shop theft in the towns where those arrests were made. Targeting prolific shoplifters is important. There is also a project to identify criminal gangs who are stealing from shops on an organised basis, through intelligence. That is part of the retail crime action plan as well. I hope those measures show what the police are doing to combat shop theft in particular, and all crime more widely.

The approach that I described earlier—following all reasonable lines of inquiry—was first pursed on a large scale in Greater Manchester; the relatively new chief constable, Stephen Watson, introduced that about two years. It led to a 44% increase in arrests. Some magistrates courts that had previously been closed down had to be reopened to deal with the extra volume of criminals who were being apprehended.

I would like to say a word about live facial recognition, which is an opportunity to catch wanted criminals. That is where there is a watchlist of criminals who are wanted because they are suspected of committing a criminal offence. Maybe the police have a picture from the crime scene, but they have not been able to find the individual because they have left their home address or something. Maybe they know their name, but cannot find them, and they have the photograph. They can be people who should have turned up to court, but failed to show up to the magistrates court or the Crown court on the day of their trial or hearing.

This watchlist could be thousands of people who are wanted by the police, for the reasons I just set out. The camera is set up in a place with high traffic and lots of passers-by—it has been trialled recently in Croydon town centre—and as the public walk past, they are scanned and we see if there is a match. If there is not a match, which obviously happens in the vast majority of cases, the person’s image is immediately and automatically deleted, which addresses privacy concerns. But if there is a match, the system alerts the officer operating it and they can stop the person and establish their identity.

That system has been trialled about eight times on Thursday and Friday afternoons in Croydon town centre in the last two months and has led to more than 50 arrests, including, last Friday or the Friday before last, somebody wanted for multiple rapes who had been at large—wanted—for the last seven years. It also included people who were wanted for theft and robbery offences, drug supply or violent offences including grievous bodily harm, and many people who had failed to attend court. There were more than 50 arrests—50 people who would not have been arrested were it not for that simple deployment of live facial recognition in Croydon town centre. When I explain that to my constituents—that it led to these arrests and that if someone is not on the list, their image is deleted—people understand that it is a reasonable thing to do.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington might want to talk to the BCU commander for south London, Chief Superintendent Andy Brittain, or his borough superintendent, and ask for the experimental deployment that we had in Croydon to be replicated in Carshalton or Wallington town centres, to see if as many wanted criminals are in circulation in Carshalton and Wallington town centres as were in Croydon town centre. The system has certainly been effective at arresting people who would otherwise have gone free.

I suggest to any Member that if they are interested in catching criminals in their constituency, they should talk to their chief constable and their PCC about this kit. Currently, the Metropolitan police and South Wales have it, but they are willing to share it with other forces. For example, Essex has borrowed it from either the Met or South Wales police—they are willing to share the equipment with other police forces around the country.

I see that colleagues are gathering for the subsequent debate; let me just conclude by thanking my constituency neighbour for calling this debate and for the work he is doing in this area standing up for his constituents. I look forward to continuing to work with him in this extremely important area. My voice is probably about to stop working, so now would be a good time to sit down.

Question put and agreed to.