The latest figures show that the number of violent crimes recorded by the police in England and Wales increased by an astounding 19% in the single year to September 2018. The number of homicides rose by 14%. And although gun crime remained at a stable level, knife crime went up by 8%, continuing a trend that has now been going on remorselessly for five years. Most of the victims are young and, although the epidemic affects all areas, London suffers over twice the rate of the next highest area. Why is there this surge in often wholly mindless violence? And what can be done about it?
The number of recorded homicides has risen by around two a week in the last year. It was 649 in the year to September 2017 and, a year later, 739. That is the highest rate since 2007. The number of recorded incidents of violence involving injury has gone up from just over 300,000 in 2013 to over 500,000 last year. And the number of recorded knife crimes has risen from just over 30,000 in 2011 to 40,000 last year. In London there were more than twice as many knife crimes per 10,000 people in the population as in the next highest area, Yorkshire and the Humber.
Crime statistics are notoriously dodgy to interpret and one explanation for the increased numbers may be changes to the way the police record crimes. But the overall picture of an epidemic of increased violent crime is endorsed by other statistics. The NHS records an increase of 8% over the year in dealing with injuries sustained by offences involving knives or sharp instruments and a 15% increase in the number of hospital admissions as a result of these injuries.
Perhaps the most chilling statistic, published by the Office for National Statistics and based on a quite separate crime survey, revealed that violent offences had increased by 80% between 2015 and 2018 while the number of charges brought in relation to them had fallen by around 10%. In other words, more people are resorting to violence and even more are getting away with it.
John Apter, the chairman of the Police Federation, made up of rank and file police officers, said in relation to the figures published on Thursday: ‘Society just isn’t as safe as it once was, and although the police service is doing everything within its power, we are swimming against the tide and it is the public who are being let down.’
Why is this happening? To many, at least part of the reason is obvious: the fall in police numbers of 21,000 since 2010. That has long been the claim of the police themselves and of the official Labour opposition. The government has steadfastly refused to acknowledge that the cuts were a mistake and argued that they were justified at the time by the need to reduce the country’s financial deficit. They also claimed that the overall crime situation could tolerate such cuts. Now, though, there is an implicit acknowledgement by ministers that the subsequent rise in crime may be related to the fall in police numbers and there may be a need to increase spending on the police and to rebuild the numbers of officers.
The Labour Party blames the slashing of police budgets – but not only that. Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, says the government ‘have also exacerbated all the causes of crime, including inequality, poverty, poor mental health care as well as the crisis in our schools, especially school exclusions.’
There’s another powerful factor too. What everybody seems to agree on is that the rise in violent crime is related to drugs, especially with regard to what is happening in the illegal drugs market run by gangs. A Home Office study published last April focused on the effects of the increased availability and use of crack cocaine. As Danny Shaw, the BBC’s home affairs correspondent summarised the problem: ‘The price of it has gone down, the purity has gone up, and that is increasing the tension between drug gangs, which spills across to the streets’.
In doing so it is ensnaring younger and younger people. Until about a year ago, the phrase ‘county lines’ would probably have meant to most people the boundaries between our ancient counties, often formed naturally by rivers. That’s not the main meaning any more. Now it refers to the practice of drug gangs using children of younger and younger ages in ferrying drugs between one gangland area and another, across ‘county lines’. The younger they are, so their corrupt manipulators believe, the less likely they are to attract attention.
Many of the gangs operate in schools. On Thursday’s The World at One, my BBC colleague, Sarah Montague, interviewed a seventeen-year-old student from Walthamstow, who had himself been the victim of an unprovoked knife attack by a group of masked young men he did not know. As well as recounting the horror of the attack he said gangs recruited their victims in schools - especially among those who are unlikely to do well academically. He said that schools put too much pressure on pupils, especially warning them that if they don’t do well in GCSEs they are bound to ‘fail’ in life. He also said this threat was exploited by the gangs, who offered a different route to success and ‘a life of luxury’. All they had to do was join the gang.
He had another fear too. He pointed out that even if the thugs guilty of attacks on youngsters like him were actually caught and prosecuted they were unlikely to be locked up for more than six months. In other words, they would be back out on the streets in very short order and they would want revenge against their victims who might have helped convict them. That made it simply too dangerous to cooperate with the police because of a ‘fear for my family’. Maybe that helps explain why violent crime is rising and convictions are falling.
And there is another drug-related explanation for the increase in violent crime that is only indirectly connected with the gangs: it’s the effect simply of using cannabis. This argument has been promulgated by, among others, an American writer and husband of a psychiatrist, Alex Berenson in his book, Tell Your Children: The Truth about Marijuana, Mental Illness and Violence, and quoted by the Times columnist, Alice Thomson in an article this week. His argument is that the four American states that first legalised marijuana for recreational use have seen an increase in murders and aggravated assaults since 2014. He claims the police have demonstrated a clear link to cannabis use, and Berenson argues that this is unsurprising since the chemical in marijuana, THC, responsible for psychoactive effects, has risen from about 2% of the content of the cannabis used in the 1970s and 1980s to between 20 and 25% in today’s marketed cannabis.
In short, it’s argued, cannabis use is turning people psychotic and this may in part explain the burst of completely unprovoked violence as experienced by the Walthamstow student and many others.
So what’s to be done? The government points out that most of the population remains largely immune to violent attack: the chances of the average member of the public experiencing violent crime is just 1.8%. Maybe. But try telling that to a mother at the bedside of her son fighting for his life in hospital after being savagely attacked for no reason other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Nick Hurd, the policing minister, acknowledges that the violence perpetrated by and directed at the young is deeply worrying and needs tackling. The government’s strategy, he says, is both to increase spending on the police and increase their numbers and also to ‘prevent young people turning to crime’.
How, exactly, can that be done? Taking a leaf out of the experience of Scotland, his boss, the home secretary, Sajid Javid, says knife crime needs to be treated ‘like a disease’. This approach involves dealing with knife crime as essentially a public health issue. Early interventions to prevent kids getting caught up in gangs is regarded as a far better way to reduce the incidence of crime than simply treating violence in purely criminal terms. It was adopted by Glasgow years ago and is credited with having reduced the number of murders in the city by a half. It’s also favoured by the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, but he warned that is, of its essence, a long-term strategy that would not produce quick results.
Many are sceptical. When gangs are seducing the impressionable young with promises of ‘a life of luxury’, what chance is there that, say, an improvement in Britain’s doleful record in providing apprenticeships, will put them back on the straight and narrow? It’s not as if our economy is one of chronically high unemployment with no opportunities for the young. On the contrary, unemployment is at a record low and in most places, it’s argued, there’s no difficulty in getting a job. It’s just that the job may be neither as lucrative nor as glamorous as the opportunity dangled by the gangs.
And a more radical objection is made. The only sure way to stop kids getting involved with gangs and then into violence, it’s claimed, is to do away with the gangs in the first place. That means legalising drugs. But that immediately returns us to Alex Berenson’s objections.
So what should be our response? How worried should we be? Is increasing spending on the police likely to be sufficient to reverse the trend? Are we betraying the younger generation by putting too much pressure on them in schools, telling them they will succeed in life only if they do well academically, and so rendering them ripe for recruitment by the gangs? Do we need a wholly new approach to drug control, and if so, what? Should we legalise drugs to put the gangs out of business or might this make the whole problem worse?
Or do you have any other suggestions the experts haven’t thought about?