Is it time we treated knife crime as a public health issue?

26 Jan 2018
There may be no universal remedy to violent crime, but Scotland and the Netherlands have put policies in place that are working.

The latest police crime data are truly shocking. Violent crime is rising and in the latest twelve months knife crime, gun crime and sexual assaults have all risen by 20 per cent or more. The time for government complacency, and even denial on this is surely over.

It has become almost traditional now on the release of these crime data for Tory ministers to claim that the separate crime survey for England and Wales shows a long, continuous decline in crime over many years – and that rising police recorded crime is simply that, better recording. In effect, the government’s argument amounts to a parody of amiable policing: “nothing to see here, move along please.”

In reality, the official statisticians have had a quite different take on the data for some time. In one data release they argued that: “while improvements made by police forces in recording crime are still a factor in the increase, we judge that there have been genuine increases in crime – particularly in some of the low incidence but more harmful categories.”

These more harmful categories are often the crimes that the public cares about most: violent crime including knife and gun crime and sexual assault. Almost two years ago, Theresa May told a conference on the issue that “knife crime has a devastating impact on victims,  families and communities, and I am determined to do all I can to prevent it”. Total crimes where a knife was used have risen from just under 30,000 to almost 37,000 since she made that claim.

It is time for the government to end its denial on the issue and to act. But their current actions are only exacerbating the situation. Police officer numbers fell again in the latest 12 months, by around  900. More than 21,000 officers have been cut by the Tories since 2010. We now have the lowest level of officer numbers since comparable records began in 1996. Police commissioners and acting chief constables are clear; they are over-stretched and under-funded.

The underlying causes of crime are varied and complex. But they include the lack of social outlets and decent work opportunities for young people as well as the decline in community policing. All of these have suffered under Tory cuts and its austerity programme, from local authority youth funding to the growth in zero hours jobs as well as police cuts.

I also think we need to learn from what works. The evidence in Scotland of falling knife crime after treating it as a public health issue deserves more attention. In 2005, the  United Nations named Scotland the most violent country in the developed world. Since then, the police response has been accompanied by co-ordinated efforts by other public services to change the culture of violence. It is reported that, of the 35 deaths of young people from knife crime in 2017, none were in Scotland. Progress on this has also been made in the Netherlands. Maybe there is no universal remedy, but these experiences are surely worth studying.

Labour in government will prioritise tackling all forms of violent crime, including knife crime, gun crime and sexual assault. We have already committed to restoring 10,000 police officers. This will be paid for by reversing the Tory cut to Capital Gains Tax. This the politics of ‘for the many, not the few’ applied to policing.

Increased police numbers are vital to tackling crime. But it cannot be the sole response. Tony Blair was fond of talking about being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. It’s a great soundbite. But it needs to be put into practice with better and more policing, more and better jobs for young people, and learning from what works in tackling knife and other serious crime.

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