Byline: DAVID TAYLOR
HOURS after the Evening Standard hit the streets last week with a banner headline reading: "Street crime hits new high", senior police officers across London's inner city boroughs were told in no uncertain terms they must act to quell the capital's rising mugging problem.
The revelation that street robbery had jumped more than 20 per cent in the capital and had more than doubled in some boroughs in the first half of this year, set alarm bells ringing at the top of Scotland Yard, where Sir John Stevens is under political pressure from Home Secretary David Blunkett to reduce mugging.
The private offices of both Mr Blunkett and the Commissioner say there was no direct contact between the two in the hours after the news broke, but within senior circles at the Met it was being suggested that Sir John had been "beaten up" over the figures. If the Home Secretary is anxious about street crime, it would be understandable. For while street robbery may be, first and foremost, of concern to the 175 people who are mugged every day in London, it is also a highly sensitive political issue.
In two years, rising street crime in England's major metropolitan areas has been a blot on the Government's crime record.
Overall crime is down as offences like burglary and car crime have continued to drop sharply, but street robbery has been to blame for driving up violent crime statistics, leaving the Prime Minister vulnerable on his famous promise to be "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime".
The Home Office was so concerned by crime figures last year, it set up a special [pound]20 million anti-robbery fund to be split among the five metropolitan forces.
Scotland Yard got an extra [pound]9.1 million and set a target of cutting street robbery by 15 per cent by April 2005. But since then, the street robbery statistics have risen remorselessly - up 40 per cent in the last financial year and climbing a further 27 per cent from April to July.
Lambeth has the most lawless streets in London, with more than 4,600 recorded robberies last year. But even Richmond and Kingston have seen startling 40 per cent rises in street robbery and since January police have failed to achieve a reduction in street crime in any London borough.
It is early days and there are promising signs of progress, Home Office sources say. But Mr Blunkett knows that his reputation as a crimefighting Home Secretary depends on what happens with street robbery and his officials have taken a close interest in how the Met spends its extra money.
Sir John has admitted street crime remains "a major challenge" and the best he can point to is that the force is managing to slow down the rate of increase. He will certainly have told the Home Secretary the Met is working hard at understanding the factors behind street crime, especially the crimes committed by young people, such as mobile phone theft.
And in his regular contacts with Mr Blunkett, he will have left him in no doubt the battle against youth crime cannot be fought by the police in isolation.
He believes schools, councils and other agencies must help turn young people away from offending at a time when 70 per cent of crime is committed by under-17s and police and youth workers estimate that a hardcore of 12 offenders in every borough are responsible for 25 per cent of all crime.
Street robbery-is by no means a new problem-but the nature of it has been transformed by the rise of the mobile phone which has made millions of people a potentially easy target for opportunist robbers and turned school bullying into something more serious.
As the litany of robbery offences topped 50,000 for the first time last year, phone muggings accounted for 39 per cent of all robberies dealt with by Scotland Yard, and more than half of muggings in central London. Women are less likely to be attacked than men, but 15 per cent of robbery victims are aged 70 or over. …