In normal times, dealing with a spate of violence across the country would be considered a top priority by government, but it has been neglected, partly in the chaos of managing Brexit, and partly as an indirect consequence of the Home Office having deliberately absented itself from crime policy.
Since 2014, it has been clear that patterns of crime have been shifting. While the big downward trends in traditional ‘volume crime’, which began in 1995, have broadly continued (though there are signs that the historic falls in burglary and car theft are beginning to reverse), there has been a sharp increase in low-volume, ‘high-harm’ offences, such as knife crime, robbery and gun crime. The statistics also suggest that this violence is now spreading outwards from the major cities into Britain’s towns and surrounding rural areas.
That this appears to have taken our political classes by surprise is a huge indictment of the current state of our politics. To be fair to the current Home Secretary, he does at least appear to recognise the gravity of the situation, calling an emergency summit of Police Chiefs to discuss the situation. But his attempts to demonstrate some kind of grip ring hollow whilst the Prime Minister continues to roll out the line that there is no direct relationship between police numbers and crime, whilst simultaneously presenting no national strategy to deal with the problem. This is a good example of how it is possible to be technically correct in a narrow sense, but substantively wrong. The leaked Home Office research paper (which overshadowed the launch of the government’s ‘serious violence strategy’) puts it best, staring that cuts were ‘unlikely to be the factor which triggered the shift in serious violence, but may be an underlying driver that has allowed the rise to continue’. In other words, it may not be the main or only cause of the current upsurge in knife crime, but it is stopping us dealing with it.
A similar argument can be made about stop and search. Again the Prime Minister disputes that there is a causal relationship between the reduction in stop and search and the rise in violence. But the point is not whether the fall in stop and search has caused the increase in violence (highly unlikely), but whether it is undermining the police’s ability to get a grip on the problem (more plausible). By definition, less stop and search reduces the certainty of punishment, which is bound to have an impact on deterrence.
Yet the bigger problem is not the confusion over police numbers or stop and search - but the broader absence of any kind of national strategy to deal with violence - its causes as well as its symptoms. The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick, was correct to say that the police cannot “arrest their way out of this crisis”.There is a need for a joined up approach across government, with schools, councils and health services all playing their part. But more than 20 years since the creation of crime and disorder partnerships, which established the structures for a joint approach to tackling crime, ‘community safety’ is largely absent from the government’s vocabulary and other public services have retrenched. Much of the architecture that used to exist to get in early and prevent crime, from Sure Start to youth diversion and parenting programmes, has been stripped away. As a country, we are neither tough on crime, nor tough on the causes of crime.
The creation of Police and Crime Commissioners by David Cameron’s government in 2012 has proved a largely positive development, bringing much needed visibility and accountability to the local scrutiny of policing. And there are some excellent examples of PCCs taking innovative action to reduce violence, such as Vera Baird’s pioneering work in Northumbria on domestic violence. But a model of devolved policing should not preclude national leadership to deal with national-level problems.
Solving the current crisis will require all of government - not just the Home Office - to come together in developing a strategy to deal with the roots of the problem, as well as its symptoms. There should be four components.
First, a (properly resourced) programme of early intervention to support vulnerable families and children at risk of offending.
Second, measures to ensure that school exclusion and persistent truancy is used as a trigger for intensive support, given what we know about the likelihood of these kids ending up in the criminal justice system later on.
Third, as well as additional resources, powers for the police to limit the activities of dangerous gang members and disrupt drug markets, including much wider use of civil injunctions.
Fourth, a strategy for de-escalating violence: for example, when the police arrest a known gang member, social services should follow up to offer siblings and wider family members wraparound support, such as counselling.
The rise in serious violence is a complex and deep-rooted problem, but it is not inevitable. Government needs to step up and start getting tough. They must demonstrate the political leadership, commit the necessary resources and apply some imagination to solve this crisis before more lives are lost and more families are left grieving.
Harvey Redgrave is a senior fellow at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change and Managing Director of Crest Advisory