Crime is rising up the public's list of concerns, making it a dangerous moment for the Tories

Local authorities have seen their central government grants cut by 49 per cent since 2010. London councils – including Haringey, where 17-year-old Tanesha Melbourne-Blake was shot dead on Monday – have cut their youth services by an average of £1m

Andrew Grice
Wednesday 04 April 2018 12:18 BST
Tributes for Melbourne-Blake, who was killed in Tottenham
Tributes for Melbourne-Blake, who was killed in Tottenham (PA)

In some cabinet discussions, the elephant in the room is Theresa May’s record as home secretary from 2010-16. Although crime fell, her legacy does not look as good today as it did when she became prime minister.

One of her proudest achievements is ordering the police to reduce the number of people being stopped and searched, because black people were seven times more likely to be searched than white people. “We shook up the system, and the number of black people being stopped and searched has fallen by over two thirds,” May said last October.

Her intentions were laudable, but the law of unintended consequences applied. The move is now widely seen as a mistake. The Metropolitan Police is increasing its use of stop and search in response to an alarming rise in the number of murders in London. After this week’s shootings of a 17-year-old girl and a 16 year-old boy, 48 people have been killed since the start of the year. London’s murder rate is at its highest for more than 10 years. Most worryingly, the number of under-25s killed last year was more than 80 per cent higher than in the previous year.

Crime, a sleeper issue for many years, is rising up the public’s list of concerns, and therefore up the political agenda. Next week the government will unveil a new strategy on violent crime, and Labour will campaign on crime ahead of next month’s local elections.

When ministers discussed the new strategy, Boris Johnson broke the cabinet’s convention not to talk about May’s record at the home office by calling for greater use of stop and search. He argued that it helped to cut violent crime when he was mayor of London and had responsibility for the Met Police.

Today the Conservatives like to turn their fire on Johnson’s Labour successor Sadiq Khan, but this is unfair. The Tories should look in the mirror – and at their own austerity measures. The Met has suffered government cuts of more than £700m since 2010, and must find a further £325m of savings by 2021. Nationally, police numbers have been cut by 21,000 since 2010, which has inevitably reduced community policing.

It’s not just about police budgets. Local authorities have seen their central government grants cut by 49 per cent since 2010. London councils – including Haringey, where 17-year-old Tanesha Melbourne-Blake was shot dead on Monday – have cut their youth services by an average of £1m. More than 30 youth centres have been closed. If councillors have to choose between spending money on social care and funding a boxing club to keep youngsters off the streets, they have no choice. This has probably contributed to a rise in gang culture with postcode rivalries. Instant revenge attacks have been fuelled by the pernicious impact of social media. Carrying a knife has become the norm in some areas, even if for self-protection. A lack of mental health provision, despite government pledges of parity with physical health, and pupils being excluded by schools worried most about their exam results, are also seen as contributory factors.

Amber Rudd, the home secretary, will address some of these issues in the new violent crime strategy next week. She is quietly steering the government away from May’s approach and trying to address root causes. Like Khan in London, Rudd is channelling money to community groups – in effect, to reduce the impact of the cuts. Rudd wants to learn lessons from Scotland, where a knife crime epidemic has been tackled by being regarded as a public health as well as law and order issue in a multi-agency approach. The home secretary will also ask internet companies to stamp out websites and message boards which incite violence.

The Tories were discomforted when Jeremy Corbyn devoted his six questions to crime at a session of Prime Minister’s Questions in February. He had plenty of ammunition, including quotes from chief constables, with which to argue that the cuts had left people less safe. The Tories regard themselves as the party of law and order but should remember that such reputations can be lost. Nor should they underestimate Corbyn’s anti-austerity pitch: when last year’s general election campaign was marked by terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, Labour neatly turned the political spotlight on to police cuts.

May’s mantra for public services as a whole is driven by the drop in police numbers on her watch being accompanied by a fall in crime. She concluded that what matters most is reform, not money. The sharp rise in violent crime nationally should teach her that you need both, and makes this a dangerous moment for the prime minister.

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