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Strained economy will push people to the brink, warns assistant crime commissioner

With inflation at its highest rate since the 1980’s and the cost of living soaring, many people are struggling.

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Tom McNeil

But another worrying trend on the horizon is an increase in crime, from car theft, to organised crime, and domestic violence.

West Midlands assistant police and crime commissioner Tom McNeil warns that under a strained economy more people will be pushed to the brink. He is adamant that crime is linked to a host of social issues which need to be resolved to address crime in the region.

He said: “We really want to keep reminding the government that the cost of living crisis will result in a crime spike. We are not excusing crime and never think crime is ok, we are just trying to be realistic.

“Surges in energy bills, high rent, the high cost of food and travel will push people into exploitation. For young people this often means organised crime, car theft, and sex work – the patterns in history are very strong on this and poverty leads to desperation.

“I anticipate a rise in economic crimes [crimes committed for money] like car theft, which we have already seen go up. We are doing lots on it, for example calling on car manufacturers to do more to make their cars harder to steal, and the police have specific operations on it.

“However, we are not prioritising this over other serious crimes like domestic abuse. The causes of crime are very well understood: poverty, poor mental health, addictions, and housing issues.”

Housing is a pertinent issue with the recent passing of the Renters Reform Bill set to improve conditions for private renters across the country. Included is the abolition of Section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions which allow landlords to evict tenants without reason and with two months notice.

Other key reforms include the overhauling of tenancy agreements to allow for longer tenancies, the ending of rent review clauses – which allow landlords to hike rents without justification – and improving basic standards for health and safety in privately rented homes. But outside of the private rental sector, there are other issues.

Exempt accommodation has been criticised, especially in Birmingham where it is so prolific, tenants are brought in from other parts of the country.

Last year there were 22,000 exempt accommodation claimants in the city, an increase from 3,679 in 2014.

This type of shared housing is usually an HMO (house of multiple occupation) used by people with few other housing options, such as migrants, rough sleepers, prison leavers, and those with substance abuse issues.

The ‘exempt’ label refers to the fact providers do not have to adhere to Local Housing Allowance (LHA) caps which means they can charge high rates. In exchange, they are required to provide a small element of care for their tenants.

However, this system has been abused by landlords and providers which are sparsely regulated and often claiming public money. In recent years the limited regulation of such HMOs has been linked to increases in antisocial behaviour and crime.

Tom McNeil said: “We recognise it as a massive problem. There needs to be a regulatory change around who is allowed to run these accommodations.

“It’s too concentrated and the level of support is too low. Meanwhile, drug and mental health services have been cut drastically, and this has a direct impact on crime.

“The police are aware of and have taken action against organised crime groups who run exempt accommodation in the West Midlands. We want to see regulatory changes which mean organised crime can’t get anywhere near it.

“And they don’t have to meet the criminal threshold. You might think why would someone whose business is in derivatives be good at running supported accommodation? I mean, I have got a baby girl who goes to nursery, it would be like sending her to a nursery where the people running it have no expertise and no credibility in childcare.

“There is a housing crisis, with lots of people sofa surfing, lots of people paying excessive rents; it is a crisis. Then there are lots of people comparatively doing well, but trapped in a cycle of increasing rents and never able to afford to buy a home, and this links with other issues like domestic abuse.

“A key common feature of domestic abuse is being economically trapped and not having anywhere else to go. So, there are other ways crime relates to housing, like if you are unable to escape and it is the only way you can survive.

“There is loads in the policing plan about holistic solutions. To steer people away from crime it’s well evidenced you need to tackle multiple problems and we see housing as one of those vulnerabilities.”

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