Friday, 14 August 2009

Hackney crime figures: The only way is up

In this week’s Hackney Gazette there is an interview with the new borough commander, Steve Bending. He said that the crime levels in Hackney were low and it would be difficult to push them down further.

“There are some boroughs in London which have almost the same number of burglaries in a day which boroughs like Hackney have in a week" and he added that “There comes a point where – unless you have a borough with a field and two sheep in it – there’s a point where crime will stop decreasing.”

Recession and the rise of crime

The Gazette asked if crime reduction will become harder as the recession kicks in, Bending's answer was: “Logic says at some point if you have lots of people who have not got jobs, then there’s a risk that those people will go into crime to fund their life style… but whether we are at that point now is a moot point.”

What is the “informal economy” - how much of it is criminal in Hackney?

Most analysis of the informal economy – all the stuff that goes on behind the tax man’s back – is done with a view to clawing tax back. Most of the initiatives related to the informal economy are related to how much money the Treasury will save or retrieve.

This 2007 Hackney Council economic paper suggested that there was nothing much to worry about from the informal economy – at least not in terms of crime:

Informal / illegal economy: Anecdotal evidence suggests that a small number of Hackney residents are involved within the informal sector and in some cases with illegal activities. For many people, the financial returns of informal activities exceed those that they could potentially achieve in the formal employment market. As such, it is thought that a number of people are choosing this route as an alternative to employment. The informal economy is thought to include a wide range of activities, from childcare provision to criminal drugs and burglary activity sometimes associated with gangs in Hackney.

Much more recently (April 2009), the council admitted that it didn’t know a great deal about the informal economy because it was not an easy area to investigate. In its Report of the Community Safety and Social Inclusion Scrutiny Commission Tackling Worklessness Review 08/09 (367KB), the council said:

One aspect proved particularly elusive and that was the issue of how individuals and businesses in the informal economy can be supported to move into the formal economy. Any analysis of the broad subject of worklessness in Hackney will need to address the prevalence of the informal economy and indeed the likelihood of its expansion during the economic downturn. Engaging with those in the informal economy is no mean feat and we would recommend that perhaps innovative approaches to evidence gathering might be employed… it would certainly aid policy development if local data and research on the topic could be captured.”

The report cited Lord Garbinder’s report from 2000 which excluded the overtly criminal element of the informal economy. It was more interested in the ‘minor’ crimes such as benefit fraud – a problem often described as a victimless crime. The report’s chief aim was to work out how to easily claw back tax from the informal economy.

“Sometimes there are other illegal aspects to the business, such as work by illegal immigrants. And most large-scale crime, such as drugs trafficking and money laundering, is also part of the hidden economy. Apart from illegal immigration, which is touched on in Chapter 4, these issues are not covered in this report.”

The fact that the council, in 2009, is talking about “how individuals and businesses in the informal economy can be supported to move into the formal economy” is a clear sign that it is not looking at issues like prostitution and drug dealing – which are potentially devastating to local communities - but not interesting to the tax man.

It seems that these are not explored because the treasury would probably not be able to claw-back tax from these businesses – even if the criminals were caught. Benefit fraudsters are more profitable to pursue.

The question is whether there is a coherent picture, anywhere, of how many people in Hackney make their livings from crime, how many supplement their incomes with crime, and whether this number is increasing.

Unfortunately looking at the existing data will not tell you this. Even if reported crime is down, to what extent does this mean that drug dealing or prostitution are decreasing?

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