Ruth Davidson: Time for honesty about level of crime

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Yesterday Gerald Gavan was jailed for 11 years after he admitted trying to kill six children in an appalling hit-and-run.

The youngsters, aged between 12 and 14, had been standing on a pavement in Castlemilk, Glasgow, when they became innocent victims of mindless cruelty. Nobody was killed, partly thanks to one of the youngsters who was seen on CCTV bravely pushing other children out of the way

Carpet salesman Gavan had been involved in a feud, thought to be linked to the death of a man the previous summer. He had been targeting a young man he’d spotted crossing the road, but had hit the children instead. He admitted seven counts of attempted murder.

The case was a reminder of the appalling criminal acts that are taking place on Scotland’s streets today. And while the Government is keen to point out that recorded crime is low by historical standards, there is evidence that the figures underestimate the picture on the ground.

The Director of Scotland’s world-leading Violence Reduction Unit, Niven Rennie, has warned all politicians that they should be taken with a bucketful of salt. According to Rennie, A&E departments deal with far higher numbers of serious assaults than those reported to the police. He says that ‘violence in Scotland is still running at a level where we as a progressive society should be concerned.’

And then, yesterday, we also learned that crime is now on the rise. Violent crime has increased for the third year running. Common assaults have increased to over 58,000.

At the same time, for crimes of violence, the clear-up rate dropped to 76.1 per cent, and just 60 per cent for sex crimes. The figures also revealed just 23.9 per cent of housebreaking cases get solved. In short, criminals have more chance of getting away with than not.

The SNP’s answer is to point to longer-term decreases. But to ignore recent spikes would be complacent. Nor is pointing to long term trends of any solace for those in Scotland’s most deprived communities – where the risk of being a victim of violent crime has barely changed in a decade.

The police are having to tackle this with one arm tied behind their back. This week we’ve also learnt about the IT problems our police officers are facing, with front line officers turning up to potentially life-threatening crime scenes with almost no information about what they are about to face. Our police service is still using different IT systems in different parts of the country, meaning officers have to enter the same information multiple times, wasting valuable time that could be spent investigating crime.

And fewer than 20 per cent of Police Scotland’s constables have mobile devices which allow them to instantly capture data while they’re on patrol in communities. Most are still using old-school paper notebooks and victims are having to make repeated statements as a result – forcing them to relive the trauma over and over again.

The Digital, Data and ICT Strategy puts it best – “Currently, when our officers come to work, they take off their wearable technology, lock away their smartphones and then we give them a notebook and pen to go out onto the streets.”

When systems are not joined up, it’s inevitable that vulnerable people will slip through the net.

This is unacceptable, and a direct result of the SNP’s failure to deliver a single national IT system when they merged Scotland’s regional police forces in 2013 - a project that could have delivered £200 million in savings.

Yet the truth is that we have debated the question of the centralisation of police services in Scotland enough. It has now happened – and it’s here to stay. Police officers don’t want yet more structural reform. Instead we should look at practical solutions that can address the problems faced on the ground.

Funding is of course part of the answer. And thanks to persistent lobbying of the UK Chancellor last year in the run up to the budget, we delivered a VAT refund worth around £25 million a year for the force. The SNP’s mess has been cleared up and that money is already making a difference this financial year.

But we have to look beyond money to see what else can be done – particularly to detect and solve more of the crime happening on our streets. It’s time to look at some fresh ideas.

For example, the British Transport Police introduced a text message number 5 years ago. The idea was simple: passengers on trains could text 61016 to report crime while it was happening. The format is more discreet than a phone call and quicker too.

Over 13,000 incidents were reported to the force using the service in 2016-17, of which 1,300 were in Scotland. This is up a third from the year before. BTP estimate that over 4,300 crimes have been recorded as a result of text message since the number was introduced. They also credit it with improving their accessibility to the public.

Police Scotland doesn’t have an equivalent service. Perhaps this should be looked at as part of their IT strategy. The latest Scottish Crime and Justice Survey estimated that nearly two thirds of crimes were not reported to the police. A text message service could help turn that around and deliver vital intelligence to constables on the ground. It has the potential to keep more vulnerable Scots safe from harm and bring more wrongdoers to justice.

We are in something of a new era of policing in Scotland. Ian Livingstone was appointed as new Chief Constable in August while Susan Deacon started as Chair of the Scottish Police Authority at the end of last year. With new personnel comes the chance to move on from the mistakes of the past and work together to make our streets safer.

That can only happen if the SNP are honest with the Scottish people about the level of crime and the rate at which it is solved. They also have to accept what officers are telling them about failures of digital technology.

Our police force needs to have access to the tools it needs to do its job in the 21st Century. They protect us and it’s the least we can do.