Recent knife and gun crime deaths in London – and elsewhere in England – have shocked us all. My heart goes out to all those affected. Too many lives are being wasted. Too many families destroyed. Too many communities devastated. It could and should be so different.
The facts are clear. Police records show violent crime is rising across the country and has been since 2014. And this isn’t a new trend. It started under the previous Home Secretary, now our Prime Minister.
That’s why Theresa May held a knife crime summit in March 2016 which resulted in nothing but a toothless ‘voluntary agreement’ with retailers.
Some in government are quick to blame others. But this is a shameless and knee-jerk response, that not only displays ignorance of the complexity of the problem but also hand wringing by those truly to blame.
Rising crime is a symptom of much deeper failings in our criminal justice system and also demonstrates how the Tories have totally forgotten the importance of rooting out the causes of crime. Let’s look at this in more detail.
The laws of the land decide what is a criminal act and what isn’t. This a decision for parliament. Parliament decides which types of knives can be sold and to whom.
Sentencing – what your punishment is and how long it lasts – is sometimes decided by parliament, sometimes by the Sentencing Council, under powers given it by parliament.
Prosecution services – which decide whether to bring charges and pursue cases through court – are independent of government but have not been spared the ravages of austerity. Most legal commentators are aghast at how threadbare the CPS has become.
Prisons – where the worst criminals are sent to be punished and reformed – are in meltdown. Instead of sending offenders to prison with the worthy aim of seeing them come out the other end, released back into society free of a life of crime, prisoners are exposed to shocking violence, drugs and criminality. Many emerge from prison as even more hardened criminals.
Probation – recklessly privatised and split up despite warnings from experts, independent inspectorates and opposition politicians – is in chaos. Many offenders simply aren’t getting the rehabilitation they need to stop committing crimes. London’s privatised probation service has been routinely criticised for its poor performance.
These are just the criminal justice factors. There’s also the health service – and the crisis in mental health provision in particular. The education system and the fierce pressure on school budgets. And there is politically motivated austerity with the catastrophic impact it’s had on local government services, particularly for young people.
What connects all these things? Failing prisons, crisis in probation, the NHS in turmoil, cuts to education, austerity. The answer of course is this Tory Government. All roads lead back to ministers. They decide the funding, they decide the priorities.
It’s all too easy for the government to blame others. Some hide behind devolution and say the Mayor of London is responsible for policing so he’s to blame. Shaun Bailey, a Tory member of the London Assembly, has even suggested the Mayor of London hasn’t tweeted enough on the issue, like that is some serious measure of how successfully serious violence is being tackled.
While Tory tweeters desperately try to distract from the impact their government’s cuts are having on policing and the services that address the root causes of crime, the Labour Mayor of London has been taking real action with increased intelligence-led weapon related stop and search, a new £45million Young Londoners Fund on top of £7million already made available for anti-knife and gang-crime projects as part of the city’s knife crime strategy.
To simply blame the Mayor is disingenuous on many levels.
First, violent crime was on the rise before the current mayor took office.
Second, violent crime is on the rise across the country, not just London.
And third, the main responsibility for ensuring the Met has the funding to do its job properly lies with the government, with 75% of funding in the gift of ministers.
Yes, the Mayor takes his responsibility very seriously. But too much of that is focused on insulating the Met from the £1billion of government funding cuts, using as much of his limited tax-raising powers as possible to plug the gap. And the Mayor is doing what the Government should be doing and funding activities for young Londoners to keep them on a positive trajectory away from a life of crime.
The real political scandal in all this is the total absence of the government. There is no joined-up approach to tackling rising crime. No appreciation across Whitehall that education, health, housing, work and pensions, treasury and others all have a role to play in solving this.
And what of our Home Secretary? Amber Rudd’s silence is deafening. She is politically too scared to be associated with this toxic mess of her boss’s making. And what of the Prime Minister? Nothing. She is unable to criticise her own terrible record as Home Secretary and PM, as we have seen the loss of over 21,000 police officers across the country – with more than 17,000 from the front-line.
But it’s simply not good enough. We need leadership from the centre. We need an acknowledgement that mistakes have been made. We need the resources and political will from every arm of the government to turn this around. An end to police funding cuts. Investment in our young people. Without all this, more lives will continue to be wasted.
Louise Haigh is the Labour MP for Sheffield Heeley and shadow policing and crime minister