Article first appeared on Conservative Home in March 2019.
This week Sajid Javid summoned Chief Constables from the forces that police our largest metropolitan areas most affected by knife crime to the second Chief Constables’ roundtable.
Every death is a tragedy, and the violence on the streets is seeing too many young lives end, devastating both families and neighbourhoods alike. The Home Secretary is right to call this a disease; its symptoms are many and varied. But its cure lies in a multi-pronged approach that backs our police, boosts our criminal justice system and empowers Police and Crime Commissioners to prevent and rehabilitate.
The debate on the police settlement cannot be ignored. Over the last ten years, crime has changed, demands are differing and resources have reduced, creating a perfect storm of challenges that have seen our brave officers and staff overstretched. Putting more boots on the ground is therefore something that has to be at the very top of the agenda for fixing this epidemic.
Yes, it takes time for the officers to be recruited and to get them out on the street. Since I was elected in 2016 I have made police numbers a priority. At every opportunity, I have raised the funding necessary to boost the number of officers again. By next year, there will be 450 more police officers in Kent, visible in our towns and villages and increasing their ability to catch criminals and investigate crime. But I’m not alone in this – every PCC who is in a position to do so is raising funds to increase officer and staff numbers again. I wouldn’t increase council tax if I didn’t think I needed to in order to do the right thing – I don’t think my colleagues would, either. Javid is right to push on this issue at Cabinet.
New powers to prevent knife crime are welcome. We also need to empower and support officers again to use the powers that they already have to get weapons off of our streets, and with more colleagues to do it. You can’t oppose stop and search to get elected and support it again when there is a problem to solve – this inconsistency sends the wrong message. It is also possible to make powers like stop and search accountable whilst giving officers the confidence they need to use it, free from the fear of complaints, thanks to body-worn video cameras.
Solving this problem is not just the responsibility of the police and PCCs; we need to address failures elsewhere. Seeing repeat perpetrators of violent crime on the steps of the courts grinning and taking selfies as they’ve walked away with a suspended sentence is a bitter pill to swallow for victims, witnesses and taxpayers. In recent years, efforts have been made to increase the sentences available for violent crimes, including knife crimes and attacks on emergency services workers, but they are meaningless unless they are being exercised.
And if people do go to prison, it has to be a place of meaningful punishment and rehabilitation. Many, but not all, of the perpetrators of knife crime are young when they are caught, which means that at some point, even within their youth, they will be released at the end of their sentence. If violent criminals are off the streets and in prison, we have an opportunity to prevent them from committing more offences and, with the right resources and programmes, the chance to change their lives. Prison hasn’t worked for a very long time, because of what it has become, not because it can’t work.
When they are released, we need to put them into contact with probation and rehabilitation services that work. There is still far too much re-offending post-prison. But there is little if any accountability for the performance of these services. PCCs and others are filling this gap through the provision of mentors.
PCCs are a voice for victims, the vulnerable and the voiceless. We champion the needs of residents, businesses and charities in the areas we represent. We are the golden thread that runs through policing, community safety and criminal justice through our work holding Chief Constables and other agencies to account, providing services for victims and working in partnership with others. We’ve published a summary of our work on violence here.
Therefore we are in a position to tackle some of these difficult challenges – a ready-made vehicle that is both accountable and transparent. We do not need any more unelected Tsars working nationally and detached from local neighbourhoods; we are working with and supporting them every day.
Rather than offer the short-term grants, the Home Office could bundle up the money already on offer, worth at least £30 million a year, and give it to Police and Crime Commissioners to deliver, alongside our own work and the leverage we can gain from other sources. We could also help improve the performance of criminal justice agencies if we were given the responsibility for holding them to account, and the funding for rehabilitation.
Javid has made great strides forward as Home Secretary to get to grips with a challenging Department and serious issues that need addressing. He is getting some traction and backing policing, but we can’t ignore the important sticking points of prevention and police numbers that need action now, as well as the reforms needed from the Ministry of Justice.