The verdict of Britain’s home affairs select committee last week on policing was damning. Police forces across the UK are stretched way beyond capacity, illustrated starkly by a surge in violent crime and parallel drop in the number of arrests. Overall recorded crime rose in the year to June by almost 10 per cent, to its highest level in 13 years. Violent crimes surged by 19 per cent, according to recent figures from the Office for National Statistics. As Philip Hammond, chancellor of the exchequer, delivers his Budget on Monday, he should heed the calls for more funding to tackle the crisis.
Within this bleak landscape figures for knife crimes continue to stand out, rising for the fourth year in a row by 12 per cent to nearly 40,000 offences. London and metropolitan areas have been hardest hit. But this is a nationwide epidemic: 31 of 43 police forces in England and Wales recorded a rise in knife crime.
For the average citizen it may be a more dangerous time to be on the streets. But in another worrying sign of the times, Home Office data show that it is a less risky time to be a criminal. Less than 9 per cent of recorded offences resulted in culprits being charged or summoned to court, down from 15 per cent in 2015. In almost half of cases, investigations were completed before a suspect had been identified.
If the odds of “getting away with it” have increased, so have the odds of getting hurt. One senior police officer notes that a person carrying a knife is three times more likely to become a victim of knife crime. The National Health Service knows this first hand. It has recorded a 34 per cent increase in the number of admissions of patients with life-threatening injuries resulting from stabbings. A nearly 25 per cent rise in the number of cases involving under-18s is particularly worrying.
The Home Office attributes some of the recorded increase in violent crime to improved reporting systems. However, it lays the major part of the blame on increased demand for drugs, in particular crack cocaine, and the growth of so-called “county lines”— gangs grooming children to sell drugs in towns around the UK. By using children as couriers, dealers avoid the risk of being caught in possession of drugs themselves. Youngsters are less likely than adults to be stopped by police.
Children are therefore bearing the brunt of this nationwide surge in violence, and paying the price for the sharp decline in “bobbies on the beat”. Since 2010, police officer numbers have been cut by more than 20,000. The decision to protect and bolster higher priority activities such as counter-terrorism has also obliged police forces to take officers off the streets and led to a decrease of 15 per cent in local policing since 2015. With fewer people either in uniform, in youth centres or running prevention programmes, young people have become increasingly tempted to pick up knives. For the vulnerable child who is often both a victim of organised crime and an offender, it is a bad time to be in the wrong place.
Ahead of the Budget, Sajid Javid, the home secretary, has been fighting for additional resources for policing. Ensuring that a planned national police co-ordinating centre for “county lines” has enough funds should be part of this. Mr Javid is right to advocate a broader strategy for tackling violent crime, exemplified by his decision to launch a £200m youth endowment fund to support young people most at risk of being led astray. The statistics are alarming. Steep cuts have put excessive strain on the police. They are losing control of Britain’s streets. The government’s promised move to end austerity should start here.