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Crime becomes an election issue in the Tory stronghold of Surrey

When Terry Gibbs returned home with his family last year to find that his house near Esher on the outskirts of London had been robbed, he called the police – only to be told that “nobody could come”.

“[They said] “You just have to go in with caution,” he recalls.

Although the police came the next day to take fingerprints, Surrey Constabulary has the second worst record in England and Wales for solving burglaries.

Growing public concern about crime – and the perceived inability of the police to prevent or solve it – has led to law and order rising higher on the political agenda during the election campaign.

One in five people told pollster YouGov earlier this month that they were worried about crime, double the number who responded to a regular survey on key issues last January.

These concerns are shared in the Esher and Walton constituency, a Tory stronghold that was represented until this year by the retiring former deputy prime minister Dominic Raab.

Monica Harding, the Liberal Democrat candidate for the constituency, said she had been aware of concerns about the break-ins for “a good two or three years”.

Monica Harding, the Liberal Democrat candidate for Esher and Walton © Anna Gordon/FT

The Liberal Democrats, for whom Gibbs' wife was elected to the city council in May this year, have promised a “burglary response guarantee” that would require police to respond to any burglary.

The Labour Party has promised to tackle anti-social behaviour by recruiting new police officers and support staff, among other things, while the Conservatives have promised to recruit an additional 8,000 police officers in England and Wales, in addition to the 20,000 hired through a recruitment drive since 2019.

Despite the influx of new recruits, the number of police officers in England and Wales – including support staff such as analysts – is still 10,000 lower than in 2010, following a sharp decline between 2010 and 2017.

“A sharp reduction in the number of officers simply meant they could no longer prosecute as many crimes,” said Rick Muir, director of the Police Foundation think tank.

The result is that three-quarters of reported burglaries in England and Wales will remain unsolved in the year to September 2023. In Surrey the figure was 82 percent, the worst of all police forces except South Yorkshire.

Conviction rates are even lower: only 3.9 percent of burglaries reported to police in the year to March 2023 resulted in a charge or summons to court, figures from the Office for National Statistics show. In the year to March 2015, the first year for which comparable figures are available, the figure was 6.6 percent.

A residential street in Hinchley Wood, near Esher
A residential street in Hinchley Wood, near Esher © Anna Gordon/FT

According to police experts, declining police numbers and an increased workload from other cases – especially mental health cases and sexual harassment investigations – have exhausted resources that could previously have been used to solve open crimes such as burglary.

Dal Babu, a former senior officer in London's Metropolitan Police, said cuts over the past decade had reduced the number of police officers and made them less experienced.

About a quarter of officers currently have less than five years of experience and the police are struggling to retain newly recruited officers, he said.

“You have a very, very inexperienced police force led by very, very inexperienced leaders,” he added.

However, the already scarce resources are increasingly being used for new types of cases.

Ben Bradford, professor of global city policing at University College London, said officers would now have to deal with problems such as mental health crises that would have been tackled by other public services before austerity.

“The police are no longer the last resort, but the first,” he said, describing the mental health workload as a “huge problem” for the police.

Muir, of the Police Foundation, said police forces were also battling a sharp rise in reports of sex crimes as a result of the “Me Too” movement, which encouraged women who had previously been assaulted to report past incidents.

“The number of reported sex crimes has tripled,” Muir said. “These things are more complicated to investigate.”

However, all this is happening against a backdrop of burglary rates actually falling.

The Crime Survey for England and Wales found that the number of burglaries in the two countries was 12 percent lower in 2023 than in 2022. The frequency of burglaries in the survey – the most reliable indicator of the level of common crime – has fallen by 83 percent since its peak in 1993.

John Cope, the Conservative candidate for Esher and Walton, said the number of police officers in Surrey had reached a record high.

Karen Hazelden
Karen Hazelden said the police response to the break-in at her home was “actually quite ineffective” © Anna Gordon/FT

“A burglary is one of the worst and most intrusive things that can happen, which is why Surrey Police respond to every burglary,” he said.

However, Gibbs and other crime victims said they received little benefit from the increase in police forces.

The thieves who broke into the Gibbs' home were never caught, and the two heirlooms that were among the stolen items were never recovered. “It was pretty devastating for us,” Gibbs said.

Karen Hazelden, of Hinchley Wood, also in the Esher and Walton constituency, said police appeared “neither concerned nor interested” when thieves broke in and stole irreplaceable family jewellery on the day of her father's funeral in 2018. Although officers came the next day to take fingerprints, the response was “actually quite ineffective”, she added.

Surrey Police stressed that officers are always on site for residential burglaries, in accordance with a National Police Chiefs' Council policy issued in October 2022. Even in cases where there is initially insufficient evidence to find a perpetrator, the information is retained in case further evidence comes to light later, police added.

Former Met officer Babu expressed his hope that whichever election the party wins, it would learn from the experiences of disillusioned crime victims and that police forces would go “back to basics”.

He added: “It's about making sure we have a sufficiently trained workforce, with sufficient resources, and putting those resources into fighting crime.”

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