Nick de Bois is the former MP for Enfield North and an Advisory Board Member for the youth charity Kids Count.
In a thoughtful piece for the Evening Standard recently, Kit Malthouse, the former London Deputy Mayor for Policing and now MP for North West Hampshire, set out the impact that political leadership can make on the shocking number of incidents of knife crime and knife crime fatalities. He rightly contrasted this with the woeful lack of leadership from the current Mayor, Sadiq Khan, under whom we have seen a return to peak level of fatalities in the capital – not seen since 2008.
Then, the number of teenagers killed reached a staggering 29. In one month six people were stabbed to death – in one week. When Malthouse left office in 2012 the total had fallen to eight, and as he rightly concedes that was eight too many, but based on the 2008 trend it could have been 50.
It is nevertheless plainly wrong to blame any Mayor for the actions of murderers, but when Kit Malthouse and Boris Johnson assumed personal responsibility for tackling this appalling state of affairs, they demonstrated that politicians can change things for the better, and in this case, save lives.
Now, five years later, the number is back up to 26. The four killings on New Year’s Eve have once again put unease and some fear back into communities, and with it has come a justifiable sense of outrage from the media to which the current political response is utterly inadequate – and in the case of the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, both complacent and to me, shameful.
So far from Mayor Khan we have seen excuses. He blames cuts to police, he blames closure of youth centres, continuing a theme he has maintained since being elected in 2016 namely, “it’s not me guv, it’s the governments fault”. This is lazy at best and downright deceitful at worse. More so because we are dealing with the loss of lives, young lives in particular.
Only last week on LBC when interviewed by James O’Brien he took the government to task for cuts to funding that meant some youth centres had closed – resulting in the rise of knife crime. He regularly blames the government for cuts to police funding as another reason for the rise. In both cases he overlooks facts in an attempt to pass blame rather than recognise the complexity of the causes of knife crime and offer tangible solutions. He cannot explain for example why in 2008 when knife crime last peaked at 29 deaths in London, there were no cuts to funding and the closed youth centres he now points to as a reason for the rise in knife crime were then presumably open.
He points to cuts to policing funding in 2017 as another cause for the rise in knife crime but fails to point out that in the Metropolitan Police force in 2008 there were 31,460 full time equivalents police officers and in 2017 there were 31,517.
There was in fact fewer police officers in some of the intervening years when we were facing far fewer deaths from knife crime (with the exception of the Olympic year when police numbers reached over 32,000). Hardly seismic evidence that the cuts are a major factor in the spiralling deaths. What’s more, it is worth noting that the Met Police have the highest ratio of police officers per 100,000 head of population in the country at 382. The real difference between now and 2008 is the political leadership of Boris Johnson and Sadiq Khan.
Khan’s obsession with offering flawed excuses leaves a huge political vacuum in leadership to help bring the rise in knife crime under control and reduce both attacks and deaths. This is a vacuum that needs to be filled by national government. The solutions are complex and should be centred around early intervention programmes, family intervention, such as we have seen successfully in Strathclyde where gangs have been broken up – and of course a review of stop and search policies with the input from BAME community leaders. Likewise, the criminal justice system still fails some victims, victims’ families, and those offenders who can be rehabilitated. Much more can be done.
With a national leadership program showing the political will to tackle this problem we can bring together the best practice that is sporadically seen across the UK, and champion the solutions that are evidenced-based and work. We should not be afraid of new thinking, embracing former offenders and gang members who can reach vulnerable youngsters enticed into gangs and knife culture. Too often I hear from third sector organisations how bureaucracy stops offenders working with young people. And finally, money.
For every pound invested in early intervention programmes the payback to community, economy, savings from the justice system and the personal impact of changing lives is a powerful argument for more investment. Presently such funding is at the mercy of local priorities. And as we have seen, mayors that lack the political leadership and will to take on these problems are unlikely to invest what is needed.
A national programme can drive the priorities as well as ensuring the right organisations get the right support. That is not by any means always the case now as overly bureaucratic procurement programs of local government shut out many smaller, but credible and effective third sector organisations who are trying to stop this horrible cycle of gangs, knife crime and wasted lives.
Knife crime is not just a police problem, or simply a schools problem, a sentencing problem, a family problem or a gang problem. It is all of these and more. A government chief tasked with leading the fight-back against the rising culture of knife crime could bring the resources and the advocacy to change things for the better.