Platitude problem

Toby Harris on the government’s failure to provide a more ambitious strategy for tackling serious violence

Two weekends ago, the number of murders in London for the year to date exceeded the total for the whole of 2017. Across the country meanwhile, the latest ONS figures suggest a 12% increase in the number of offences involving a knife of sharp instrument.

The causes of violent crime are complex and there is no single, simple solution to the recent increase. Those who pretend there is do a dis-service to the people who have suffered or died and their loved ones.

In London, the response by the Mayor has been decisive. Sadiq Khan has created the Violent Crime Taskforce of 250 police officers based in the highest-risk localities; deployed flexibly and rapidly in accordance with the intelligence picture; set up a Violence Reduction Unit to spread good practice; and established the Young Londoners Fund to support local projects.

But the decline in police numbers has had a major effect. The number of police officers in England and Wales has fallen by 20,000 since March 2010 and is now at its lowest recorded level since the early 1980s.

As a result, the imperative need to respond to incidents means there are not the resources available for pro-active and preventative policing. Neighbourhood policing is a shadow of its former self. Police no longer have the same community insights, intelligence is diminished and pro-active interventions are reduced – with low-level drug-dealing often not being targeted. The number of drug seizures was down to 135,000 in 2017/18 – the lowest for 14 years. Gangs now feel they can operate on our streets with impunity and their territorial disputes have led to much of the violence we are now witnessing.

It is not just the police that have suffered cuts. In 2010, £1.2bn was spent across the country on youth work and youth services. Last year, that had fallen to £358 million – a 68% reduction. Other public services, including probation, that help reduce the risk of crime or support young people have suffered similarly. As has the funding available to charities and the voluntary sector. Our social fabric is being stretched so thin that it has become almost transparent.

The government’s Serious Violence Strategy is long on analysis and short on remedies. It recognises that changes in the drugs market have fuelled recent increases in violence but offers little by way of solution. The focus is supposed to be on early intervention – a worthy aspiration. And there is indeed, a blizzard of worthy but small-scale initiatives.

So there is to be a new Early Intervention Youth Fund amounting to £11 million (to be contrasted with the £45 million in the Mayor’s Young Londoners Fund). The government money is to be spent “over two years” – a problem in itself.  Ask anyone involved in the field and they will tell you that two years is simply too short a period for a project to deliver a sustained impact. 

Ministers should have been more ambitious, tackling such matters as school exclusions, failing pupil referral units and the inadequacy of adolescent mental health services. And where is the strategy to deal with the online drivers of violence? The under-age sales of zombie knives via the internet, drill music glorifying violence and the territorial provocations that appear daily on social media.

That is the scale of the aspiration that the government should be pursuing if its strategy is to amount to much more than platitudes.

Lord Toby Harris of Haringey is a Labour Peer and former Chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority. He tweets @LordTobySays 

Published 29th November 2018

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