Nick de Bois is the former MP for Enfield North. He was a member of the Government’s Serious Crime Task Force until his appointment as Chief of Staff to Dominic Raab at DExEU. He is the author of Confessions of a Recovering MP.
Until yesterday, it appeared that there was only one person who believed that reducing police numbers had no link to increasing knife crime. That Number 10 rowed back on the suggestion was no surprise after the Metropolitan Police Commissioner corrected the Prime Minister on LBC on Monday morning. Cressida Dick said there was “some link” between violent crime on the streets and police numbers.
In fact, whilst Downing Street would be able to legitimately point to falling crime in general alongside falling police numbers, the fact remains more people are carrying knives, more people are prosecuted for carrying knives, and, tragically, more people are dying from knives. To protest that police numbers have no “direct bearing” on increase in knife crime assaults and deaths is for the public, at best, stubbornly optimistic, and at worst irresponsible. I think personally it is a huge distraction to what should be talked about and what action should be taken.
First and crucially, the Government must address why, after introducing mandatory jail terms for conviction of carrying a knife on a second offence, only 63 per cent of such offenders are receiving immediate custodial offences. The law is clear – and I should know, having helped steer it through Parliament along with David Burrowes in 2014 with considerable cross-party support. In fact, there is a strong case that we should now increase the minimum term from the six months parliament approved to at least one year.
However, I have never argued that tougher sentencing for carrying knives is a solution to knife crime on its own. Across the country we have pockets of excellence where, sometimes on a large scale but more often on a small scale, both the state and the third sector have shown how we can reduce knife crime by a more holistic approach . Not only do their efforts save lives, they turn around the lives of those who may otherwise choose a life of gangs, of violence and of crime. In short, the Government has at its disposal not just the evidence but the means to halt this appalling scourge of knife crime across the UK.
In Strathclyde, for example, the Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) was set up to stop the tide of knife crime which saw Glasgow become for a time Europe’s murder capital. From its start in 2005, the new unit introduced a radical approach to tackling the problem. Its key message was that stabbings (and gang-related stabbings in particular) were not just a matter for the police but a wider public health issue.
In 2005 there were 137 homicides in Scotland – 40 cases alone in Glasgow, double the national rate. By 2016/17 that number had more than halved. That success is put down to working closely with partners in the NHS, education, social work and, crucially, with family intervention, recognising the toxic environment many youngsters are growing up in. Finally, the program stressed the importance of positive role models and its implementation projects have been evidence-based and informed by statistics.
What’s extraordinary, though, is that as far back as 2012 Iain Duncan Smith and Theresa May pointed to this programme as a way forward in their joint Government report in response to the the riots. That seven years later we have not nationally embraced this, and indeed other effective locally-developed interventions, is frankly reprehensible.
Strathclyde rightly attracts considerable attention, not least because of the scale of the intervention which shows local government at its (unusual) best. Meanwhile, the third sector across the UK is quietly getting on with delivering early intervention programs on often a smaller and far less well-funded scale. Their emphasis is on prevention, and we can learn so much from many of these organisations regardless of scale.
The Government is now making money available to support proven organisations where intervention initiatives work, and this is to be applauded. But money aside, there is much more we can harness from such organisations as the Ben Kinsella Trust, the Godwin Lawson Foundation and others which, often born from personal tragedies, have accumulated huge intellectual capital on what works and what does not. Government can and should harness this life-changing, indeed life-saving, experience and roll it out across the country, not just where there is already a problem, but where we can prevent future violence.
The political leadership parents are crying out for, and the opportunities so many youngsters will welcome to escape an existence few of us can really recognise or appreciate, must be supported by a clearly defined commitment from the Government. Warm words and promises of money will not be enough. We need a national action plan, backed up by an executive organisation that will both scope and implement proven solutions on the ground, and have authority to both advocate and drive the changes that have been shown to work.
Out of the recent tragic murders in Manchester and London let us at least hope they have sparked the impetus to drive a permanent change for the better.