Leading Article: Watch out for the neighbours

Click to follow
MICHAEL HOWARD's plan to encourage the expansion of Neighbourhood Watch patrols fits the pattern of his other recent pronouncements on crime prevention. It signals concern, sounds entirely sensible to the average person, provokes doubts among experts and worries some sections of the police. Will it, in fact, reduce crime or is it merely another example of the Home Secretary flailing around for ways of placating public opinion?

The critics deserve answers before the scheme gets under way. They point out, for instance, that Neighbourhood Watch schemes have indeed reduced crime in some areas but largely by displacing it to other areas. Catford in south London, for instance, managed to drive most of its burglars into Orpington, further south in Kent, in the early Eighties.

Another worry is that, far from reducing the burden on local police forces, zealous citizens can increase it by multiplying the number of calls the police have to deal with. The Police Federation also finds itself in rare alliance with civil liberties groups by pointing out that citizens on patrol could turn into vigilantes taking the law into their own hands, thereby endangering their own safety and the rights of those they encounter.

Nevertheless, the Home Office has been persuaded to overcome its doubts, as have many police officers who acknowledge they cannot fight crime without more help from the public. Insurance companies are also showing an interest. Critics should therefore keep open minds. There are obvious risks in Mr Howard's ideas but there are potential benefits, too.

His intention is that Neighbourhood Watch patrols would not attempt to replace the police by tackling criminals, but would rather extend the eyes and ears of the police by watching for suspicious activity, and then report it by mobile telephone. In an ideal world, the police would be on the spot quickly. In the real world their response will probably be as patchy and unpredictable as it is now, unless they are spurred to greater effort by having formed working relationships with the neighbourhood patrols.

More generally, the proposal has the virtue of fostering community feeling. The fragmentation of modern society as a whole, and in particular the breakdown of local communities, make the life of the criminal much easier. If fear of crime helps to recreate a semblance of village life in local communities, the benefits will spread beyond crime prevention.

Already there are reports of watch schemes developing into social clubs, with dances and outings. Mr Howard hopes that patrols might extend their duties to escorting nervous elderly people on nocturnal outings. Obviously this is more likely to happen in villages or prosperous suburbs than in inner- city ghettos, but that is no reason to discourage the trend where it can develop. Mr Howard's scheme may make no more than a tiny dent in the crime figures, but it could improve the quality of life in those

areas that respond.