The Government's Approach to Crime Prevention - Home Affairs Committee Contents

4  Deterring criminals

Situational crime prevention—Designing-out crime


122.  Situational crime prevention aims to reduce opportunities for crime. It focuses on specific forms of crime, changing the way the immediate environment or target of the crime is managed or designed so that the risk or the effort required to commit the offence is increased, the rewards are reduced, or the triggers removed from the environment. The advantages of this approach are that:

  • Interventions can bypass intractable social problems unresponsive to other approaches;
  • Removing temptation may have a 'multiplier' effect if it prevents crimes which are typically the entry to a criminal career, such as shop-lifting or vehicle crime; and
  • Typically situational crime prevention needs a short time to implement and have an impact, which amongst other benefits can prevent a runaway growth in crime.[224]

123.  Professor Gloria Laycock, Head of the Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science, argued that, while tackling the social problems that can increase the risk of criminality was clearly an important goal for any government, effective crime prevention strategies should include a strong focus on crime opportunities:

We [should] regard opportunities as a cause of crime—the more opportunities the more crime—and that is something we can do something about because it relates to the immediate situation …

I am assuming that this country is doing the best it can in helping young people in terms of reducing poverty, in terms of educating them, in terms of getting jobs. What else are we going to do? I think the thing we can do which would be really helpful is to make it much more difficult for them to steal cars, to do burglaries or shoplift. I pick those three offences because if you look at the criminal careers of offenders, they get into it through those easy routes.[225]

Evidence from Deputy Assistant Commissioner Rod Jarman, that "most crime happens opportunistically … most crime happens because people have not shut doors; have not locked windows",[226] supports the usefulness of such an approach.

124.  According to the Government, the UK is seen as the world leader in developing this approach to crime with the introduction of the Crime and Disorder Act in 1998 particularly important in encouraging situational crime prevention at the local level.[227] A good example is the approach to reducing vehicle crime as outlined by Professor Laycock:

The Home Office published the Car Theft Index, which was a massive lever over the car industry to put deadlocks and immobilisers on vehicles, and that ... resulted in something like a 65% reduction in theft of vehicles since 1995.[228]

The index allows those planning on buying a car to check which models are particularly vulnerable to theft, putting commercial pressure on manufactures. A study by the National Audit Office concurred that improvements in vehicle security are likely to be a main reason for the reduction in thefts of vehicles, and that the Home Office had worked consistently and effectively with the motor industry to bring about such changes.[229]

125.  In the Cutting Crime strategy, the Government pledged a "new national approach" to designing out crime which would involve working closely with the corporate sector to "design crime out of new products and services at an early stage", focusing on:

  • Supporting the provision and dissemination of good practice guidance on effective problem-solving techniques to local partnerships, individual organisations and analysts;
  • Creating an early warning system that draws on local crime analysis and consumer experience to identify problems quickly that are best tackled at national rather than local level;
  • Developing incentives for business design decision makers to 'think crime' routinely;
  • Working closely with consumer groups to increase the demand for crime-free products and services; and
  • Supporting the inclusion of crime prevention in the professional training of scientists and designers.[230]

The strategy outlined the Government's intention to focus initially on a number of key business areas: new housing developments, mobile electronic products, the retail sector, banking fraud and identity fraud.[231]


126.  To take this work forward, the Home Secretary set up a Design and Technology Alliance, an expert panel working to identify emerging crime problems and develop solutions to prevent them. During our inquiry a number of new developments were unveiled by the Home Office. The leader of the Alliance, Sebastian Conran, demonstrated one example to us, a pint glass designed to prevent glass-related violent incidents, of which there are 87,000 each year. It contains an encapsulating film, so that if broken the shards are contained and there is less likelihood of serious injury. The Alliance has also been working on a glass that works like a car windscreen, in that it will shatter into very small pieces.[232]

127.  Another area of work involves disincentivising the theft of mobile phones. Jack Wraith, representing the Telecommunications UK Against Fraud Forum, who are working with the Government on this issue, explained that early handsets contained security aspects which could very easily be manipulated; while today, manipulation is a lot more challenging technically because of changes to the handset design, based around an International Mobile Equipment Identity number which gives the unit a unique identity:

Once that IMEI is identified, then the handset … is disabled on the home network and it is that information which is passed … to the other four networks … They will then use that information to populate their own networks, so that within 48 hours that handset will not work.[233]

128.  We asked Professor Laycock if the Government had achieved the right balance between measures to prevent criminality and those to prevent crime opportunities. She responded:

I think not really. I think a lot of progress is being made. There is still a very persistent bias towards offender-based interventions, and we should have them—I am absolutely clear about that—but I am not sure that until really quite recently enough emphasis has been placed on controlling opportunities.[234]

129.  Most crime is opportunistic. Designing out opportunities for crime can bypass social problems which are unresponsive to other approaches and often need only a short time to implement and have an effect. The approach has been particularly successful in reducing vehicle crime. We welcome the renewed emphasis given to designing-out crime in the Cutting Crime strategy and the establishment of the Home Secretary's Design and Technology Alliance. However, we note concerns that the Government continues to place insufficient emphasis on this area of crime prevention.


130.  Our evidence highlighted the need to ensure that measures are accompanied by effective communications strategies. For example, SmartWater, a property-marking system aimed at deterring theft, whose deployment in Nottingham has contributed to a reduction in repeat victimisation of over 70% in three years,[235] argues that its success lies in its high visibility:

SmartWater strategy creates a genuine deterrent for criminals by sending them the message that if they commit a crime, they, or the stolen goods can be traced and identified … Highlighting the deployment of SmartWater to local criminals ensures the maximum deterrent effect. For example, we display signs both on properties and in prominent locations within the neighbourhood to publicise the presence of SmartWater, and we install scanners in local police stations [so that] criminals know that the police are looking for it.[236]

131.  This point was re-iterated by Jack Wraith in respect of the process of disabling mobile phone handsets:

We have found that the mere fact that that is in operation, the knowledge that that is in operation, has cut down on a lot of the types of handset sales that used to go on on a Friday night in the pub or a Thursday night in the pub, because people know that, yes, the phone might work if it has just been stolen outside, but come Monday morning it will not work.[237]

Mr Wraith also argued that it was important not to overlook consumer education, given that consumers have become far more safety-conscious recently.[238] The National Audit Office study cited above concluded that a number of publicity campaigns aimed at motorists were "very likely" to have contributed to the reduction in thefts of and from vehicles.[239]

132.  Concerns have been raised over the years that situational crime prevention measures can result in a displacement of crime to other locations or crime types, including from the better off to those less able to protect themselves.[240] However, Professor Laycock denied this is a genuine issue:

Displacement is presumed to occur far more than it does ... There is always a net gain according to the research. Indeed, there is some evidence that if temporal and geographic boundaries are kept fairly fuzzy when you are announcing a crime prevention measure, you get what academics call a diffusion of benefits; in other words, the positive effect spreads beyond the geographical area that you are acting in, and there is also a temporal spread. It lasts for longer, in other words.[241]

133.  In order to be successful, initiatives to design-out crime should be accompanied by a clear communications strategy to raise awareness amongst potential criminals of the increased level of risks and thereby increase the deterrent effect. Marketing strategies should also capitalise on increased consumer demand for safe products.


134.  Visa Europe described to us how the banking industry had spent over £1 billion to migrate to chip and PIN technology, resulting in reductions in losses on transactions on the UK high street of 55%, from £218.8m in 2004 to £98.5m in 2008. The European Commission estimates that chip and PIN will save banks and retailers over £412m annually.[242] However, on 11 February 2010 Cambridge University researchers revealed on Newsnight that a flaw in the technology can and probably already does allow criminals to make bank card payments without knowing the correct PIN number.

135.   This highlighted one of the difficulties in situational crime prevention, the constant pressure to stay one step ahead of criminal gangs. Particularly where it involves technological advance, this requires a high level of investment on the part of industry and criminal justice agencies. A Home Office Research Study in 1998 highlighted the need for "continuous" research and development "to keep ahead of obsolescence", combined with a "national 'surveillance system' enabling rapid response to the identification of emergent crime targets, and new tools and methods of offending".[243]

136.  Jack Wraith argued in respect of mobile phones that "we are keeping up with the game", citing the "very low" percentage of mobile phone robberies reported in last year's British Crime Survey, despite a fairly significant increase in the number of mobile phones in the market-place.[244] When asked about progress on implementing an early warning system for identifying new criminal trends, as promised in the Cutting Crime strategy, the Minister of State responsible for crime and policing admitted:

It is work in progress. We need to sharpen up on how we develop that early warning system … Our focus has been on identifying hot-spots, trying to fund preventative measures in those hot-spots and that is where the resource has gone to date."[245]

However, Professor Laycock considered it would be difficult to make much progress with the data streams available:

I do not think current police systems are designed to identify emerging trends. They are designed to help the police respond to crime, quite reasonably, they are designed to provide statistics for the Home Office, again, quite reasonably, but they are very poorly designed if they are intending to find emerging crimes that might suddenly tip and cause a massive great crime wave.[246]

137.  Professor Laycock described the work she had been doing with Merseyside Police, supported by the Design and Technology Alliance, attempting to pinpoint the next products at risk of a crime wave. In Merseyside they have been specifically looking for evidence to support their prediction that flat-screen digital televisions will become a target because of increased demand when the analogue signal is switched off in 2010. Software has been designed that allows police force analysts to interrogate large recorded crime datasets over several years: not only the coded data detailing the offence category, but also the free text description of offences, which assists in picking out patterns. She said:

We hope, if we can get continued funding, to develop that into a tool that all the analysts can use throughout the UK and then we can sum it across various forces and respond appropriately.[247]

138.  On a related point, Professor Laycock spoke about the difficulty of getting evidence to persuade the Department of Transport to protect car registration plates. Automatic Number Plate Recognition technology relies on the integrity of the number plate, which is currently very insecure. Professor Laycock told us that the Department for Transport had undertaken to provide electronic vehicle identification systems by 2007, but this has not happened. She said that the Department for Transport is demanding evidence confirming the scale of the problem, but the police find it very difficult to calculate the extent to which these registration plates are involved in crime because their use would fall under different categories of offences (a problem that would be alleviated if analysts could interrogate the free text function as described above). Professor Laycock said:

If we had an epidemic of it, they might be persuaded to do something. It is difficult to prove there is an epidemic because it is so spread out, but my general point is I do not think we should be waiting until we are in the middle of a crime wave before we do something. We know enough about crime and enough about the opportunities that cause crime to be able to pre-empt these things, and that is the difficulty.[248]

139.  We asked the Department of Transport to clarify their position. The Secretary of State, Lord Adonis, responded that, although the Government agreed to consider a recommendation from the Jill Dando Institute in 2002 that it should plan to introduce Electronic Vehicle Identification (EVI) by 2007:

Contrary to Professor Laycock's claim, the Government never undertook to introduce EVI by this or any other date.

The Drivers and Vehicles Licensing Authority did conduct a trial of electronic number plates in 2006, which "demonstrated that microchip technology could be deployed successfully to identify vehicles in traffic"; and a study into the feasibility of using Electronic Vehicle Identification for motorcycles, which concluded that EVI was not justified solely for the identification of motorcycles and would need to be considered in the wider context of road traffic management. The Department cites Transport for London congestion charge figures showing that around 3 vehicles in every 1000 have forged or stolen plates, which they argue suggests a "fairly low level of non-compliance".[249] However, given that almost 300,000 motorised vehicles entered the central London charging zone in 2007,[250] the number of forged or stolen plates is not insignificant.

140.  It is very disappointing that conclusions about the need for "continuous" research and development and a "national 'surveillance system' enabling rapid response to the identification of emergent crime targets, and new tools and methods of offending" identified in a Home Office Research Study in 1998 have not yet been translated into action. The Government has acknowledged that progress in this area is too slow.

141.  The current limitations on the analysis of crime trends was illustrated during our inquiry by the issue of car registration plates. The ability to confirm expert suspicions about the extent of the involvement of forged or stolen car registration plates in crimes would give greater impetus to the Department for Transport to implement Electronic Vehicle Implementation, which would in turn increase the effectiveness of Automatic Number Plate Recognition technology which relies on the integrity of the plate. We commend the work being undertaken with Merseyside Police to identify emerging crime waves through use of more sophisticated software and hope that this can be implemented more widely, including to resolve the issue of insecure car number plates.

Public confidence in the criminal justice system

142.  A Home Office review in 1998 found that situational crime prevention also relies on a criminal justice system efficient enough to make the risks credible.[251] In other words, in many cases the deterrent only works if a potential offender believes there is a strong chance he will be caught and punished for the crime. This obviously is dependent mainly on the criminal justice system itself, but also on effective publicity about police and sentencing activity. We did not in this inquiry examine the efforts of those responsible for bringing offenders to justice but we did note the Shadow Home Secretary's view that:

One pretty important part of crime prevention is the fact that there are people around who are going to nick you if you are caught … [this is one of the two main reasons] why the Government's crime prevention policy has not worked … too many policemen in police stations filling out forms.[252]

143.  We did take evidence on the second point. Louise Casey was commissioned by the Cabinet Office to carry out a review to explore "how we can work together to reduce crime further, reduce the fear of crime and give the public a sense of hope and trust that those working to fight crime are on their side." Her findings were published in 2008.[253] She told us that:

The most fundamental thing is that the review found that the public are almost cut off from the criminal justice system; they do not hear about the consequences for criminals.[254]

For example, less than a quarter of those surveyed by Ipsos MORI last year said they felt informed about sentences locally.[255] 38% of those interviewed for the 2008/09 British Crime Survey were confident that the criminal justice system was effective in bringing offenders to justice, actually a decrease from the figures we cited for 2006/07 in our introduction.[256]

144.  The former offenders with whom we spoke agreed that better awareness about the realities of sentencing and prison experiences would discourage some individuals from offending.[257] Louise Casey told us about the work being carried out following her review, to raise public awareness:

They want to know there are consequences for criminals. Since I published the review, that is very much what I have been trying to drive forward within government. I think that is the way forward ... Getting a policing pledge agreed and implemented across the country is happening, but I would not say it is a smooth process.[258]

145.  Situational crime prevention will only be fully effective if potential offenders are convinced there is a real risk they will be caught and brought to justice. Efforts to improve public confidence in the criminal justice system is a crucial part of this. In our view, this is the area in which the Government has made least progress. Building on the introduction of the policing pledge, there must be a consistent push by local agencies across the country to increase the awareness of policing and sentencing activity.

224   Paul Ekblom, "Situational crime prevention: effectiveness of local initiatives", Reducing offending: an assessment of research evidence on ways of dealing with offending behaviour, Home Office Research Study 187, 1998, pp 26-7 Back

225   Qq 364, 391 Back

226   Q 241 Back

227   Home Office, Cutting Crime-a new partnership 2008-11, July 2007, p 33 Back

228   Q 371 Back

229   National Audit Office, Reducing vehicle crime, January 2005, p 2 Back

230   Home Office, Cutting Crime-a new partnership 2008-11, July 2007, p 4 Back

231   Ibid., p 35 Back

232   Qq 234, 236  Back

233   Qq 217, 222  Back

234   Q 368 Back

235   Ev 98 Back

236   Ev 99 Back

237   Q 222  Back

238   Q 218 Back

239   National Audit Office, Reducing vehicle crime, January 2005, p 2 Back

240   Paul Ekblom, "Situational crime prevention: effectiveness of local initiatives", Reducing offending: an assessment of research evidence on ways of dealing with offending behaviour, Home Office Research Study 187, 1998, p 29 Back

241   Q 372 Back

242   Ev 89 Back

243   Ken Pease, "Changing the context of crime prevention", Reducing offending: an assessment of research evidence on ways of dealing with offending behaviour, Home Office Research Study 187, 1998, p 41 Back

244   Q 221 Back

245   Q 330 Back

246   Q 377 Back

247   Q 377 Back

248   Qq 384-5 Back

249   Ev 131-2 Back

250   Transport for London, Central London Congestion Charging, Sixth Annual Impacts Monitoring Report, July 2008, Figure 3.1 Back

251   Paul Ekblom, "Situational crime prevention: effectiveness of local initiatives", Reducing offending: an assessment of research evidence on ways of dealing with offending behaviour, Home Office Research Study 187, 1998, p 35 Back

252   Q 360 Back

253   Cabinet Office, Engaging Communities in Fighting Crime: A review by Louise Casey, June 2008 Back

254   Q 25 Back

255   Home Office public opinion survey conducted by Ipsos MORI (2009), cited in Ev 117 [Home Office] Back

256   Alison Walker, John Flatley, Chris Kershaw and Debbie Moon (eds), Crime in England and Wales 2008/09, Home Office, July 2009, p 105 Back

257   Annex A Back

258   Qq 21, 27 Back

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