Theresa May Is Right: Knife Crime Isn't the Police's Fault; It's Her Government's
In austerity Britain, say experts, the dramatic rise of violent crime is no surprise.
Six of the stabbing victims
Last Thursday, Ayub Hassan became the 24th person to be fatally stabbed in London this year. The 17-year-old was attacked in broad daylight in West Kensington and died a short time later. Hours earlier, a 37-year-old succumbed to the injuries he had sustained in a knife attack in Soho on Sunday. Another man, David Martinez, 26, collapsed in the arms of strangers in Leyton after being stabbed six times, including at least once in the neck, and died just after 5PM on Wednesday.
These murders were among five fatal stabbings in the UK in less than a week. The lives of Jodie Chesney and Yousef Ghaleb Makki, both 17, were cut short in separate incidents in Romford and Greater Manchester respectively in a less than 24-hour period over the previous weekend. Overall this year, at least 41 people have died in the UK due to knife violence. Eleven were teenagers. The youngest, 14-year-old Jaden Moodie, was a child.
Just over two months of the year have passed and we are once again confronting a bloody national crisis. It would seem few lessons have been learned after four consecutive annual rises in knife-related homicides; a 93 percent increase over five years in the number of children aged 16 and under being attacked with sharp weapons; and last year's staggering number of fatal stabbings, with 285 people dying in England and Wales – the highest number since records began in 1946.
Last week, Theresa May rejected the idea of a link between knife crime and the number of UK police officers – hardly surprising, given the fact her government's policy of austerity has led to the loss of more than 20,000 since 2010. The prime minister's claim quickly drew criticism, not least from her own home secretary, Sajid Javid, and police chiefs – but to focus on this quarrelling is to overlook how devastating the cuts to vital public services have really been.
For young people – especially the most vulnerable and marginalised – the fallout from a £400 million reduction in youth work budgets since 2010 is hitting hard. Over 600 youth centres, and 130,000 places for young people, have disappeared. The holes in the safety net grow ever wider; woefully under-resourced local authorities find themselves powerless in performing basic early intervention work with families when they need it most. Social services have hit a tipping point: a record 73,000 children are in care in England. Ninety young people enter the care system every day, with poverty and poor housing cited among the reasons for such interventions.
School exclusions are also rising, and a lack of support has again been blamed. More than 40 permanent exclusions were handed out each day in the 2016/17 school year, taking the total to 7,720, up from 6,685 in 2015/16. The relationship between exclusions and criminality was reiterated last Thursday. A letter sent to the prime minister by London Mayor Sadiq Khan and eight England and Wales police and crime commissioners highlighted that in London and the West Midlands, two of the areas most affected by knife crime, permanent exclusions have increased by 62 percent and 40 percent respectively since 2013/14.
Meanwhile, there is a mental health crisis among young people, yet at least 150 are being turned away each day by NHS psychological support services which simply do not have the capacity or resources to cope with the demand.
A rise in knife crime in this context is basic logic, suggests James Treadwell, professor in criminology at Staffordshire University: "If you look at the perpetrators and victims of knife crime, they are not different groups. It tends to be disproportionately young men; they've often had huge amounts of adverse experiences in childhood; poor educational attainment; exclusions from mainstream school; living in areas with high social deprivation. Therefore, if the social fabric is such that there are more of those people around, there's going to be more of that violence."
The fact that those doing the stabbing and those being stabbed are often of the same demographic makes the situation all the more complex. In last week's Prime Minister's Questions, May twice said "the responsibility lies with the perpetrator". Although no one can argue with that, the statement circumvents the discussion about how we got to the point where young people are killing each other.
The dominant narrative of the issue being the failing of the individual and never the social system is problematic, says Treadwell: "People make choices in circumstances that they have very little control over. Young people are not choosing whether or not they can't get jobs; they're not choosing to be left in difficult, disadvantaged areas; they didn't make choices in the 1970s and 1980s that gave us the post-industrial service economy with zero-hour contacts. We should not let people who carry and use knives off the hook, but it is very easy to put all of the blame on the individual when the reality is that it's a complex mix of individual and social factors."
The home secretary wants knife crime to be treated "like a disease", and last Wednesday backed police chiefs' demands for a grant of at least £10 million to deploy a "surge" of extra officers to tackle the "national emergency".
While adequate law enforcement will need to be an element in a sustainable approach to keeping young people alive, is greater police presence alone enough? It's unlikely, believes Gavin Hales, a former deputy director of the Police Foundation think-tank, who's now an independent researcher on policing and violent crime. "Nobody is proposing to come up with a policy that will solve youth unemployment or socioeconomic inequality and so on," he says. "Policymakers get fixated on new powers and new laws that don't address the underlying problems."
Both Hales and Treadwell are clear that there's no one simple solution to eliminating violent crime. This is not a one-dimensional problem; it's a complex social challenge and requires an approach that reflects that.
"It needs a long-term project, but you can't just turn the taps on," says Hales. "We need to combine carrots with sticks: tough messages about the implications of what will happen if people continue to do what they're doing, but also give alternatives. We need to provide people in the hardest pressed communities something that offers self-esteem, a source of income and a different direction in life. If you can offer that, then there's much more scope for progress."