The rise in violent crime is nothing short of a national emergency. The impact it has on families and communities across the country is devastating. But the rise in violence is nothing new, and the warning signs have been with us for a number of years. Knife crime alone has risen by 46 per cent in London since 2013/14, and by almost 60 per cent in England and Wales as a whole.
While such a dramatic rise calls for decisive action, too many of those with the capacity to act have been at turns invisible, in denial and unable to agree on a co-ordinated approach. Former Mayor of London Boris Johnson dismissed rising knife crime as “peaks and troughs”, while in 2015, then-Home Secretary Theresa May accused police officers of “crying wolf” over the impact of cuts.
Of course, the police were quite right to sound the alarm. Across the board, austerity has contributed to a breakdown in the support structures and services that keep young people engaged, in education and away from violence and crime. Deputy Metropolitan Police commissioner Steve House has spoken of the cuts to “mental health, youth outreach workers, social services, diversion schemes…a drawing back of all these services [that has] impacted on the situation we are seeing today”.
Set against all this, the Met itself has been subject to huge cuts in funding too, hampering its capacity to deal with the consequences of austerity elsewhere. With the service forced to make £850 million of savings so far and the government cutting well over a third of their core grant in real terms since 2010/11, the thin blue line on which we all rely for our safety is looking thinner than ever before.
The announcement this week that the Met are due to receive a one-off £17 million grant from the Home Office to help tackle knife crime is, of course, welcome, but this is a drop in the ocean in comparison with the austerity cuts our police have faced – and continue to face – with the savings imposed on course to top £1 billion by 2022.
With offending rates going up, it’s critical that we do all we can to support rehabilitation and minimise the prospect of first-time offenders returning to crime. Probation and youth offending teams have a vital role to play in helping young people who have committed an offence from getting sucked into a life of criminality. But once again, the government has been found wanting, not least as a consequence of their disastrous privatisation of the probation service for medium and low risk offenders.
As ever, early intervention remains one of the most effective methods of preventing young people from engaging in criminality. We already know that there is a striking correlation between school exclusions and crime, with nine of out ten young people in custody in England and Wales having been excluded from school at some point. Despite this, we have seen a 40 per cent rise in school exclusions in London between 2013/14 and 2016/17, and with so many young people now educated in free schools or academies, there can often be little democratic oversight of the use of this sanction and its sometimes counterproductive repercussions.
In the face of inaction and austerity from central government, City Hall has been doing good work to mitigate its worst effects. Sadiq Khan’s mayoralty has seen a shift in both tone and substance on police funding and prevention. The Greater London Authority is protecting frontline police numbers, with an additional investment of £234 million in the Met in the coming year. We’ve also seen the launch of the first ever dedicated anti-knife crime strategy and the launch of the new Violent Crime Taskforce, with 272 officers working to take weapons off the streets and focus on the capital’s most dangerous criminals.
On prevention, the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC) is now in the process of setting up the new Violence Reduction Unit, which will take a public health approach to tackling violent crime, while a £45 million Young Londoners Fund aims to divert the most vulnerable young people in our city away from a life of crime, plugging the gaps left by nine years of austerity. MOPAC is also working with the Ministry of Justice to design a probation service that truly works for London. We want powers to shape it over the long term devolved to City Hall too.
Knife crime is a complex issue that will require politicians, the public sector and the whole community to come together to tackle the multiple root causes of violence. The Mayor is doing all he can, but he cannot stand alone. A public health approach to knife crime is the way we can address the full range of explanations for the rise in violence: poverty, the loss of police officers, county lines, the closure of youth clubs, school exclusions and probation services.
I know what it is like for people to make judgements and stereotypes about you, based on where you live and come from. I work with and mentor young people who are striving for a positive future, despite the many obstacles they face. We need to look at how we can use the full range of tools available to us to create meaningful opportunities for them.
I will continue to call on the Mayor to argue for the resources needed from government in order to properly tackle the rise in knife crime across the capital, and I will continue to work with local community groups who have the shared experiences and real understanding of how to best engage with the minority of young people caught up in violent crime.
The government remains in denial about this problem and is refusing to acknowledge that its policies have contributed to this public health crisis. It is now time for it to accept that austerity is a major factor and give our public services the resources they need if we are to save Londoners’ lives.