Britain’s home secretary, Amber Rudd has received a media mauling over rising violent crime levels. Her launch of a new Serious Violence Strategy on April 9 was overshadowed by a row focusing on two linked issues. Were cuts in police numbers since 2010 under coalition and Conservative governments to blame for rising violent crime? And was Rudd ignoring her own officials who advised, according to a leaked document, that the reduction in police numbers was a “likely” contributory factor in the increase in violent crime?
When, in a subsequent BBC interview, Rudd said Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) were responsible for reducing the number of police community support officers, and suggested this was a contributory factor to rising violent crime, she was further attacked for seeking to shift blame to PCCs, which were very much a Conservative innovation.
I was the first PCC for Essex, standing on a Conservative ticket, and I gained a direct insight into the complexity of the many issues involved. None of them are simple.
My experience, though without question I was politically naïve, suggests that a bit more acknowledgement by government of the consequences and challenges of austerity might allow for more debate on the key issues. If more resources are available, which agencies including the police should receive them? And how can more effective working be encouraged between the police and the many other agencies that have a role to play including social care, health, education and housing departments?
Funding strains easing
Speaking at the launch of the new strategy, Rudd rehearsed the government’s frequent argument that while the last Labour government funded strong growth in police numbers, crime rose steadily. The coalition government from 2010, with Theresa May as Home Secretary, not only cut resources to policing, but also sought fundamental reform of policing with a shift to local democratic accountability. And for several years across many types of crime, crime rates fell.
By 2015, however, many of us were speaking about signs that crime was both changing and increasing. I also said openly that, locally, the funding of Essex Police had reached a “perilous” level and pushed hard to be allowed to raise more money from council tax. For most forces, about one third of funding comes from these local taxes.
I felt I had been elected to take responsibility for local decisions, and to have my local tax-raising powers tied felt wrong, especially when in Essex we pay far less for policing from council tax than in almost all other counties.
Unsurprisingly, I attracted sharp criticism from some national and local politicians, but in the 2015 November budget the reductions to police budgets stopped and then a gradual easing of the constraints on council tax rises started. In 2018-19 almost all PCCs have increased the policing precept, or levy, within council tax by the maximum £12 a year allowed by athe government. This will make a significant difference to police funding, enabling some forces to recruit more than 200 extra officers.
But there is no easy answer to the question of how the police and others should spend their available money wisely to tackle serious violent crime. While serious violence of course has to be firmly and thoughtfully policed, I firmly believe it is not possible to “police and prosecute” our way out of this and other crime challenges.
There have been some profound changes in society over the past ten years caused for example by extreme pressure on social care budgets resulting from the rapid growth in the number of the elderly who need care and, quite differently, the exponential growth in the use of social media by young people.
The consequences of these many changes have to be addressed, and every department, agency, council or third sector organisation tackling them is facing the same dilemmas. Broken families, underachievement in groups of children at school, homelessness, addictions, domestic violence, the misuse of computers including the rise in online child abuse, the growth of gang cultures and the number of people carrying knives are complex problems, with inevitably complex, interlinked solutions.
Not preparing for tomorrow’s challenges
PCCs have to step forward to take responsibility for their local decisions. Every force will have different short and longer term needs and police leaders also have to balance today’s priorities against preparing for tomorrow’s. My judgement is that a failure to do this when resources were available in the years from 2000 to 2010 is a root cause of today’s policing problems – and incidentally why reform of policing was necessary. Much police technology, its estate, intelligence, training and professionalism, and its grasp of modern management had become inadequate. All that is changing, albeit in some cases too slowly.
The government has to be wary of too many centrally imposed priorities, especially if significant extra resources are not made available. These priorities range from domestic violence, child sexual exploitation, modern slavery, serious violence or less talked about but bitingly important, fraud. And over all of these, the threat of terrorism remains ever present.
On first read, the new “serious violence strategy” appears well researched and referenced and covers many of the relevant factors: early intervention, local community engagement and the need for effective partnerships. All these need local rather than national initiatives and government has to try to understand the complexities of local delivery. Particularly as too much national debate and media coverage of policing and crime, including serious violence, is London-centric.
So let’s be frank. More resources for the police and other agencies would help them get to grips with the underlying problems. But let’s also debate the essential need for better partnerships between organisations deploying modern technologies and the rich data sources now available. They must also be able to exploit and generate research evidence on what works. That’s what will start to make a difference to tackling knife crime among gangs, domestic violence, child sexual exploitation or modern slavery.