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Monday, November 17, 2003
Three steps to a safer countryside

As the Telegraph details the extent of rising crime in Britain's largely lawless countryside, where the police seem interested only in the activities of poor old Tony Martin and his fellow desperate householders, the paper offers three simple steps for tipping the balance back in favour of the decent citizen. Of course, these steps would also help enormously to improve quality of life in urban areas of the country.

First, citizens must be allowed to defend their property. Tony Martin became a national cause celebre, despite his unappealing character, because homeowners across the countryside sympathised with his predicament. Mr Martin had been repeatedly burgled, and let down by his local constabulary.

Yet when he reacted to the police's failure by protecting himself, it was he who was imprisoned - to the delight of housebreakers everywhere. If the law were changed so that such cases did not come to court, the cost-benefit analysis would alter dramatically from the criminal's point of view. Evidence from abroad suggests that even a very small possibility of being legitimately shot at while on a job acts as a huge deterrent.

Second, prison should be used to incapacitate career criminals. We report today on one family which has plundered its way through much of the Cotswolds. This is not untypical. The vast majority of rural crime is committed by a small number of people; if those people are behind bars, crime rates will fall. Unfortunately, the Government's present policy, backed by most judges, is to reduce prison populations by lenient sentencing, or by releasing convicts early with tags.

Third, and most important, we need more police. David Blunkett has proposed that local communities be allowed to pay for their own dedicated patrol officers. It is a bold policy - indeed, when the Tories apply the same principle to other public services, Labour accuses them of wanting a two-tier system.

Yet it would give people a sense of ownership over their police - especially if it were combined with an element of direct democracy, so that local voters could decide whether, for example, the defence of property should take priority over traffic offences. Suddenly, accountable policing looks like an idea whose time is coming.
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