With the government locked in last minute negotiations over the terms of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, it is unlikely that the publication of the latest crime statistics will lead the news. That in itself is remarkable. For in virtually any year aside from the last three years, last week's figures would be the subject of national soul-searching.
Let’s start with the good news: despite having recently flatlined, the total volume of crime, as measured by the Crime Survey for England and Wales, is more or less half what it was in 1995. However, these long-term aggregate falls mask a number of deeply worrying trends. In particular, there has been a huge rise in ‘high-harm’ offences recorded by the police over the last five years, such as knife-related crime, murder and robbery (for which police figures are thought to be a more reliable indicator of underlying trends than the crime survey).
A closer look at the statistics also suggests there is a growing interrelationship between crime and drugs - driven by an increase in both the ‘demand’ and ‘supply’ of class A drugs, such as crack cocaine and heroin.
On the demand side, the need for money to satisfy addiction appears to be motivating so-called ‘acquisitive crime’, such as theft, which has increased by 10 per cent over the last year. Similarly, growing demand for (and consumption of) class A drugs is fuelling a rise in visible drug-dealing on the streets - leading to record increases in the proportion of people experiencing or witnessing anti-social behaviour - now standing at over a third of the population (38.7 per cent).
On the ‘supply’ side, shifts in drugs markets are thought to be fuelling violent competition between gangs, most visibly manifested through the phenomenon of ‘county lines’ (involving the exportation of drugs and associated violence out of urban areas and into surrounding counties). It is notable that knife-related crime continues to grow fastest in areas outside of London and other major urban conurbations, such as Warwickshire and Bedfordshire.
Faced with these kinds of trends, what is required is a government prepared to utilise all the resources and levers at its disposal to get the problem under control. Instead what we’ve seen is drift and confusion.
The Home Office has spent much of the last nine years looking like a department unsure of its role. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick summed it up best when she said the service’s relationship with the Home Office “sometimes feels as if there is not much central push; it is, ‘Get on with it and good luck’.”
Efforts to intervene early and prevent crime are virtually non-existent.
Meanwhile, the criminal justice system is struggling to carry out the basics. Despite recorded crime rising steadily since 2014, the rate at which offenders are arrested, charged and prosecuted has fallen to record lows, with only 7.8 per cent of offences leading to charge in the year ending March 2019. This is the statistic that ought to terrify government ministers the most, since it raises very fundamental and profound questions of public legitimacy. Why should citizens report crimes if they aren’t going to be dealt with?
To be fair, the new Prime Minister seems to get all this. It is no coincidence that he is pledging to put crime at the heart of his government’s domestic agenda, with a headline commitment to restore the exact same number of police officers lost since 2010. Yet restoring order in our communities is going to take more than an injection of police officers. It will require sustained and relentless focus (and investment) from the top of government - and a cross-government strategy to be implemented over a period of years. It remains to be seen whether this government, consumed by Brexit and the UK’s future relationship with Europe, will have the staying power to do so.