Of course, other issues – from a collapse in youth services to rising inequality – are also factors. But a visible police presence is arguably essential all of the time and most certainly when there’s a violence pandemic as there’s now in England.
Calls to look at Scotland are well made as huge progress has been made here with a public health approach to violence. London and England are far bigger in scale with additional factors including race and greater immigration that make it much more complex. But there are still lessons to learn.
Great work was done here on education and changing attitudes through organisations like the Violence Reduction Unit, No Knives Better Lives and Medics Against Violence. They continue to do a great job as it’s an ongoing struggle and Scotland can’t rest on its laurels as, at least anecdotally, there’s a resurfacing of the problem. But it wasn’t all education. There was a huge role for the police, which is why the cull of officer numbers by Theresa May as Home Secretary is coming back to haunt her.
So, before history is rewritten, let’s remember how Scotland addressed its knife-crime pandemic at the end of the last decade. I was Justice Secretary at the time and I remember it well as the pressure was intense. Carrying a weapon was becoming routine in some parts and almost a fashion accessory when going out for some. Every week seemed to bring another senseless killing and the demands for action understandably increased.
The public health model started by my predecessor was sustained and knee-jerk reactions such as mandatory sentences for knife-carrying were rejected. The latter sounds tough but all the evidence shows it’s counterproductive. Prison sentences did increase but only for those the courts identified as needing or deserving to go away for a long time.
All the research showed that most were carrying because they were afraid, rather than being evilly disposed. Whilst worried about being caught by the authorities, these young people were more afraid of being stabbed by another youth. Simply ratcheting up sentences wouldn’t work.
So, education to show that a knife’s not a defensive weapon and that there was no safe way to stab anyone was carried out. Sentencing powers were increased and the courts used them but differentiated between the bad and misguided.
A visible police presence was rolled out and stop-and-search increased. With all the furore that came later about over stop-and-search, it’s easy to forget that political parties united at that time to praise the police for it. They didn’t just frisk individuals on the street – buses heading into cities at the weekend were stopped and occupants searched. Metal detectors were set up at train and underground stations and it was made quite clear that the chances of being caught were increasing exponentially.
All that was necessary, not just to capture the minority who were carrying a knife out of badness, but to reassure the majority who were carrying out of fear. That took considerable police resources. But it was essential to reassure the misguided majority that they needn’t pack a knife as well and that those who did and the people they feared would be caught. Police numbers are part of the solution. Police numbers have been largely protected in Scotland, unlike south of the border. Moreover, there as here, officers are dealing with ever greater workloads. Pressures from historic abuse to terrorism have made sure that PC Plod’s lot isn’t a happy one.
May’s cuts to police budgets were as brutal as her treatment of migrants. But she didn’t care and rubbed officers’ noses in the proverbial. Now, as England feels the consequences, she’s not just prevaricating, she’s lying.