Sadiq Khan’s five years as London Mayor have coincided with persisting concerns and heavy media coverage about crime in the capital, in particular violent street crime involving young people and knives. During his extended first term, Mayor Khan’s political opponents have accused him of failing to respond to this as well as he could and should have.
His nearest challenger in the election campaign, the Conservative Shaun Bailey, has attacked Khan on the issue frequently, claiming, among other things, that “crime in London is at a historic high” and “out of control” – contentions examined below – and accusing the Labour incumbent of showing “zero leadership” in tackling the issue.
What power and influence does any London Mayor have to reduce the amount of any sort of crime in the capital? Addressing that question in the context of the mayoralty’s history, Rick Muir, Director of the Police Foundation think tank, recently wrote. “This is not an easy question to answer, given that most of the causes of crime and insecurity lie way beyond the control of City Hall.” Muir continued: “Indeed, even in the area where the Mayor does have powerful levers, in the oversight of the police, the constitutional position is somewhat complex and not entirely clear cut”.
This extends to the appointment of the capital’s “top cop”, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. The first really big change Khan was party to as Mayor was the elevation of Cressida Dick to the job in February 2017, following the retirement of her predecessor Bernard Hogan-Howe. But that decision wasn’t Khan’s alone. Officially, the Met chief is appointed by the Home Secretary who must “have regard to” the Mayor’s wishes. That said, as Boris Johnson showed when bringing about the resignation of Ian Blair, losing a Mayor’s confidence makes it effectively impossible for a Met Commissioner to stay in the job.
Muir also stresses the key point that the Commissioner is independent of the Mayor when making making operational decisions. In simple terms, Khan doesn’t tell her – or any other police officer – how to do her day job, though, as we have seen recently, he can later make known his displeasure with Met decisions or actions taken.
Khan’s formal role is that of London’s elected police and crime commissioner, which comes with the job of Mayor. London Mayors are required by law to produce a Police and Crime Plan for a four-year period, setting out their priorities for the Met (but not the separate City of London Police) in line with their manifesto pledges and how they will involve others in improving community safety.
In practice, this part of the Mayor’s job is largely taken care of by the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC), which under Mayor Khan has been headed by Deputy Mayor Sophie Linden. Under Boris Johnson, that job was done by Kit Malthouse, who is now a Home Office minister.
Sadiq Khan’s record on policing and crime needs to be assessed with any London Mayor’s limited capacity to make a difference firmly in mind and the same goes for the promises of those who are challenging him.
What has happened with crime in London since 2016? Crime statistics can be confusing and, at first glance, misleading. For one thing, there are two different kinds. The Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) is regarded as a more reliable guide to long-term crime trends in those two countries because it includes people’s experiences of offences they didn’t report to the police. However, regional breakdowns of the survey’s findings are not published, so they don’t tell us specifically about London.
The other kind are those collected by individual police services. In the capital (excluding the City police), these comprise offences the Met know about, formally record and notify the Home Office about. By definition, these can’t include crimes people choose not to report to the Met. They can also give the impression of sudden “waves” of particular types of offence when the higher number might reflect the police making a particular and successful effort to detect more offences of that kind.
However, police stats are a guide to broad crime trends over long periods and allow comparisons between London and national trends. The figures for the last few years, available from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), show that the overall numbers of crimes recorded by the Met, (excluding fraud, which the City’s police compile) rose every year from 751,041 during the year to September 2015 (the last full year of Boris Johnson’s time as Mayor) to 903,466 for the year ending September 2019 before falling to 821,236 for the year to September 2020.
Such statistics, along with a media and political focus on chilling new street crime phenomena, such as acid attacks and robberies using mopeds, and concerns about criminal gangs are presumably thought to justify the BBC website having a dedicated “London Violence” tag and the Sun newspaper running a string of articles with the branding “Lawless London”.
It’s worth noting, though, that this general upward trend began from around 2014, when Johnson was Mayor, and followed a steady downward trend since 2000, the year Ken Livingstone became London’s first Mayor. When Livingstone was elected, overall recorded offences were significantly higher than they are at present – over one million a year.
That figure represents a challenge to Shaun Bailey’s assertion that crime in London is at a “historic high”. And if we go back further into government crime data history, we find, for example, that between 1990 and 1999, the annual number of homicides in the Met area varied between 144 and 184, which is significantly more than in the last few years and during a period when London’s population was more than two million smaller than it is now.
In addition to this, there are grounds for viewing the falls in recorded crime across the country – not only in London – that largely coincided with Johnson’s eight years at City Hall with caution. Work for the Police Foundation by police and crime researcher Gavin Hales, shows that the emphasis during that time on performance targets, which Johnson adopted, “created perverse incentives for police forces to not record crime where possible”.
Recorded crimes in all of England’s other police service areas added together rose over the same four year period in which they rose in London – from 2.77 million in the year to September 2015 to 3.76 million in the year to September 2019. And they kept going up to reach 3.84 million during the following 12 months to September 2020, while London’s dropped a little. Mayor Khan has said that London’s police-recorded crime increases should be seen are part of a national adverse trend, and the English national figures seem to back this up.
Another way of looking at the figures is to calculate them per head of population – perhaps particularly useful as London’s population has been rising rapidly for most of Khan’s mayoral term. In October 2020, Full Fact examined a Sun columnist’s claim that crime had risen five times faster in London than in the rest of the country since Khan became Mayor in May 2016. This claim was found to be incorrect and Full Fact also showed that the crime rate had actually risen less in London than in England overall during that period.
What has been happening specifically with violent crime? The overall Met figure for the year to September 2015 was 177,225 offences filed in that category. For the year to September 2020, the most recent available, it was 221,089. The numbers of those offences that saw people injured were respectively 72,702 and, in this case, a slightly lower 71,670, though the “with injury” number had previously risen every year to a 2019 peak of 77,797. The numbers of homicides – murder and manslaughter combined – for those two periods were 112 and 127 (the highest came in between – 144, for the year to September 2018).
In general, then, the figures for violence against the person with injury in London rose year by year from 2015 until the last full year of figures, with that fall possibly attributable to the pandemic (pubs being shut a lot, fewer people on the streets and so on). And, as with all police-recorded crime, it has mostly been on the up for the rest of England too over that period, rising above 425,573 in the year to September 2018 before falling back to a little over 400,000 in the past two years. Again, where violence with injury is concerned, London does seem to have been part of a general upward trend across England, with a bit of an improvement recently.
The London pattern over the past six years has been pretty much in line with that for the rest of England with other forms of crime as well, police figures show: sexual offences rose to simultaneous peaks in 2018 (20,397 in the Met area, 127,188 for the rest of England) before coming down a little; robbery by both measures is higher than in 2015 while theft and burglary are lower.
What about the types of offending widely referred to as “knife crime” that have caused so much suffering and anxiety in the capital? In fact, “knife crime” is not a specific offence and the term when used by the Met encompasses, in MOPAC’s words, “All offences of murder, attempted murder, threats to kill, manslaughter, infanticide, wounding or carrying out an act endangering life, GBH without intent, ABH and other injury, sexual assault, rape, robbery where a knife or sharp instrument (defined as any instrument that can pierce the skin) has been used”.
Injury does not have to be caused for an offence to be termed a “knife crime” and logged as such by the Met. Since 2008, “knife crime” data include offences where a knife was “threatened but not seen” by the victim. All these “knife crime” offences also fall within a broader “weapon-enabled” category, which includes firearms.
MOPAC publishes a weapon-enabled crime dashboard, where these types of offences in the Met’s jurisdiction are tracked over time. Last July, Crime Survey figures showed an overall fall in “knife crime” while police figures showed an increase of six per cent nationally, which included a seven per cent increase in London.
Weapon-enabled offences in the capital have fallen substantially during the pandemic, as the MOPAC dashboard shows. What about shortly before it? After questioning Shaun Bailey’s assertion that “crime is out of control”, Gavin Hales mapped the Met’s knife-crime-with-injury statistics from 2012 until the present day. He notes “strong signs of a downward trend since summer 2017”.
What has Sadiq Khan done and what are his opponents promising? Khan’s political critics have accused him of shifting the blame for rising crime on to the national government, by highlighting the series of budget cuts the Met has had to absorb since the advent of “austerity” in 2010. This argument obscures rather more than it illuminates. It ignores complex questions about what causes crime levels to rise and fall in the first place and presupposes a straightforward relationship between the level of police resources and the amount of offending.
In the first place, why do the Met figures show increases in most crime categories in London (and across England as a whole) since 2014, following 14 years of decline? Why have incidents of very serious violence become more common and, in some cases, exceptionally vicious? Rick Muir writes: “The recent increase in serious violence is almost certainly linked to changes in drug markets and the operating models of organised crime groups and networks involved in trafficking drugs”. Cressida Dick seems to agree. Two years ago, she told MPs the drug trade is “at the root of it all” where extreme violence involving knives and young men is concerned.
Crime rates in general as recorded by police can be affected by various underlying factors: theft and burglary offences might fall due to better home and vehicle security measures; sexual offending numbers can increase due to police getting better at reassuring victims about reporting what’s happened to them. Muir thinks it fair to hypothesise that some post-2014 crime figure rises reflect more reporting of crime by the public and changing recording standards rather than actual increases in crime.
That isn’t to say there aren’t major and some serious new concerns about criminality in London or that Mayors can have no effect on crime or the efficacy of the Met.
Regarding the police budget, Sadiq Khan has overseen the continuation of sales of Met property that began under Boris Johnson, including police stations, in order to save money. He has boosted Met budgets by increasing his share of Londoners’ Council Tax in 2019 and 2020. Warranted Met police officer strength – “police numbers” – had risen by June last year to 32,000, meeting the Met’s target. This number is expected to have fallen in recent months but to rise again to 37,000 by 2023 with extra funding from the government
Khan’s Police and Crime Plan, published in March 2017, dispensed with the range of numerical targets for reducing particular categories of crime imposed by Boris Johnson, dismissing them as “arbitrary”. It concentrated on improving police effectiveness by improving its workplace culture and Londoners’ satisfaction with the service, including by appointing a Victims’ Commissioner. The Plan said MOPAC would be looking for “positive progress” on protecting young people against crime and from getting involved in it and reducing violence against women and girls and all hate crime. It also pledged to closely monitor the criminal justice service as a whole.
In September 2018, Khan set up a Violence Reduction Unit under the leadership of former Lambeth Council leader Lib Peck, modelled on the “public health approach” used successfully in Strathclyde, with the purpose of diverting young Londoners away from crime.
During Khan’s term, priority themes of the Police & Crime Plan have become prominently dramatised by major events: the Black Lives Matters protests in the capital and criticisms of the ways they were policed; the intensified use of stop-and-search during the pandemic; the murder of Sarah Everard and the policing of the vigil in her memory.
Khan has responded with an “action plan” to overhaul community scrutiny of police tactics (including stop-and-search) and increase the ethnic diversity of the Met, and a public expression of dissatisfaction with the explanation he received from Cressida Dick about how the Everard vigil was handled. However, he later said she retains his confidence. A subsequent report on the Met’s handling of the vigil has largely exonerated it.
Less in the public eye but every bit as important, Met Deputy Commissioner Stephen House has described failings in the justice system’s treatment of alleged rape victims as a matter for “shame” and “dismay, with the number of cases referred to the Crown Prosecution Service falling steeply and the pandemic worsening already chronic delays in gathering and processing evidence. And serious shortcomings in the operation of the Met’s Gang Matrix database have also been found, partly due to the efforts of Green Party AM and mayoral candidate Sian Berry. Over 1,000 young black men have now been removed from it.
At the time of writing, Berry has made no big announcement specifically about policing and crime, but she has underlined her concern about reductions in local authority youth service provision, which can play an important part in stopping young people becoming involved in crime. She has welcoming Khan’s pledging a further £2.1 million to help young Londoners, but warned that it does not “go anywhere near” making up for the longer-term funding fall-off.
Shaun Bailey has said he would find a way to increase Met officer strength by 8,000 – 2,000 more than the 6,000 MOPAC already anticipates will be recruited thanks to the extra government money. He’s also promised more scanning devices to detect bladed weapons and to re-open police stations and 38 “front counters’ altogether. This would entail reversing closures made under Johnson, which the London Assembly’s police and crime committee heard in 2013 was not a matter for great concern, as very few people now report crime to the police in person. Bailey has also said he would fund 4,000 new youth worker jobs.
How big is this issue with Londoners? The most recent Redfield and Wilton poll found that 49 per cent of Londoners feel the city is becoming more unsafe and 26 per cent think the opposite. At the same time, 48 per cent of the poll’s respondents said they think their local area is safe compared with 44 per cent who think the opposite.
Along with these, arguably contradictory, findings, 47 per cent of those polled said policing and crime is a key issue likely to determine how they vote – not the very biggest, but right up there with the economy, transport and housing, three other important areas of mayoral responsibility.
The poll also found that 43 per cent of Londoners believe the Prime Minister and Westminster have the greatest power and responsibility for London policing, compared with 41 per cent who think the Mayor and the Assembly do.
Photo from Mayor’s Police and Crime plan. This article will be updated with new material including when mayoral candidates say more about their policies for policing and crime. Last update 31 March 2021.
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