We have been here before. In 2002 Tony Blair was so alarmed by the rise in street crime that he convened an emergency Cobra meeting and agreed a target with police chiefs of getting the numbers back to the previous year’s levels within six months.
It was a piece of theatre by the prime minister, and the kind of target designed to give public service reform a bad name, but street crime in London did drop after that. Whether this was because the rise was an anomaly, or because the police started to take the issue seriously, we may never know. But we really ought to try to find out.
The figures for youth knife crime that we report today are shocking. Police forces reported an increase since 2014 from 3,900 knife crimes a year against under-25s to 6,500 annually. It is even more worrying that the proportion of cases leading to “no further action” by the police has doubled from a third to two-thirds.
This is a problem that ought to have forced itself on the attention of political leaders before now. Sadiq Khan has been mayor of London for two years and seems to have realised that this is serious only recently. Sajid Javid has been home secretary for two months and occasionally says the right things, but that is all. And Theresa May seems to have most of her time taken up by Brexit.
This is one of many problems from which Brexit appears to be distracting the government. And with 100,000 people marching in the capital to express their desire for a second referendum, it is not hard to see why ministers’ attention is focussed in that direction. Nevertheless, it is an important point to make because, for all the gimmickry and short-term targets, the Blair government did at least show that relentless focus from the top could produce results. That worked well in areas such as homelessness and suicide prevention, and a similar focus could surely produce a sustained reduction in knife crime.
We should of course be clear that knife crime is a small part of the picture. There has been a big reduction in overall crime in Britain since 1995, and levels even of violent crime have been stable for the past four years. But within that, as Alexa Bradley of the Office for National Statistics has commented, “we have seen an increase in the relatively rare but ‘high harm’ violent offences such as homicide, knife crime and gun crime, a trend that has been emerging over the previous two years”.
The reasons for this are as obscure as the causes of “street crime” were in 2002. Then, much of it was blamed on the theft of mobile phones – a new phenomenon at the time. Now, social media and low levels of trust between police and young people seem to be the common explanations for worsening gang warfare and falling rates of successful police investigation.
There must be more to the present crisis than this, but it requires sustained political will to analyse the causes of the problem and to take effective action. If Theresa May is too distracted by Brexit, she must delegate authority to someone who can tackle the problem.