We all want to go about our daily lives free from the fear of crime. It is our right as citizens in a modern civilised society–and it’s my responsibility to provide the right protections for individuals and communities in Britain to ensure their safety, their security and their peace of mind.
Since 1997, our communities have become much safer. Overall crime in the UK has fallen by a third, and risk of being a victim of crime is now lower than at any time in the past 25 years. Police numbers are at historic highs, joined by 16,000 police community support officers to offer a reassuring and visible policing presence. Neighbourhood policing teams are now operating in every area of England and Wales–delivering a readily accessible and responsive service that is geared to the needs and priorities of local people.
The police have been joined by new partners in the common cause of making our streets and communities safer, better places to live–including youth offending teams, neighbourhood wardens and anti social behaviour coordinators.
We have made progress against crime and its causes by actively and tirelessly bringing together parents, schools, hospitals, local authorities, residents and the police to work together. And we know that when the economy is stable and people are more likely to be in a job, crime comes down. When the numbers getting drug treatment have doubled, crime comes down. And crime comes down through a tough approach to antisocial behaviour that says we are not going to put up with graffiti, abandoned cars and yobbish behaviour.
The progress we have made should not obscure the serious challenges that remain. And that’s why a sharpened focus on violent crime is so important, where even a small number of serious offences can have a disproportionate effect on perceptions of crime. People hear news of a horrific attack, a stabbing or shooting, and it’s perfectly understandable that their first instinct is to feel anxiety and concern. It can be of scant comfort that such violent incidents are thankfully rare.
Violent offences inflict great harm on the victims, but they also cause much wider damage to a community’s confidence and self-respect. And tragic events–particularly those involving knives and guns–should always make us question whether we are doing all we can to tackle serious violent crime.
But to suggest that such incidents have made Britain a broken society is little more than a counsel of despair. That’s an argument that abandons communities at a time when they need support and action–and I don’t accept for one moment that there’s nothing we can do to defend our communities, protect young people, and come down hard on those who use violence or the threat of violence to get their way.
Last September, I set up the Tackling Gangs Action Programme to answer a very specific need in our country–the growing number of street gangs in Birmingham, Liverpool, London and Manchester. I wanted to focus attention on the problem, identify what we needed to do, and target expertise and resources to make sure that we took action to make a difference. And I did it with the strong conviction that we could bear down successfully on gun crime and gang violence–that we could take some of the heat out of the gang hotspots.
We know that gun and gang crime is a localised problem. We know where, and to whom, it causes most harm. And on the evidence of our work over the past nine months, we know that we can beat it.
We have seen a big increase in police action to target gangs–leading to more than 200 arrests and the seizure of dozens of real firearms and literally thousands of realistic imitation firearms. And we have seen gun-related injuries fall by just over half in these four cities, to their lowest level for two years.
For all these efforts, for all the lessons that have been learned and are now being applied to tackle gang violence, we are now opening a further front in the fight against violent crime. Last month I announced [pounds sterling]2m of funding for concerted action to enable the police and other frontline agencies to intensify their activities in the ten hotspot areas where knife crime is causing the greatest harm.
We will take tough action on people who carry a knife, working with the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to adopt the Met’s uncompromising approach to charging any adult caught with a knife. We will provide the police with more knife arches and search wands and encourage the use of targeted stop and search, particularly on public transport. And we will encourage the police and their partners to visit the homes of young people who have got into the knife -carrying habit, so that their parents know what is going on and what could happen to them.
At the same time we have launched a hard-hitting marketing campaign to challenge the peer pressure that can drive youngsters to knife crime. I don’t want young people carrying knives in the first place–and parents have an important role to play in talking to their kids about the dangers, to themselves and others, of carrying a knife.
Serious violent crime casts a long shadow. And that can sometimes make it difficult to paint the picture of successful crime prevention–the robbery victim who never was because of the presence of a neighbourhood policing team; the home never burgled because a course of drug treatment was completed; the streets made safer once cleaned of graffiti.
These and other measures are at the heart of our strategy to ensure that every community benefits from robust action across the broad range of their concerns.
Neighbourhood police teams will play a key role in ensuring action is taken to relieve communities of the menace of antisocial behaviour. Everyone across the country now has a named policing contact in their community, with whom they can share their concerns and influence local priorities. And preventive action like parenting orders and acceptable behaviour contracts are proving powerful deterrents that help to nip the problem in the bud.
We know that half of all violent crime is alcohol-related and a significant proportion of acquisitive crime is related to drugs. So we are now expanding schemes to ensure the enforcement of the law on under-age sales and use of licensing powers. Licensing authorities have significantly increased fines and powers to revoke the licences of irresponsible premises. It is also why stronger powers have been brought in to seize the assets of drug dealers, so we can capture the spoils of their illicit and harmful activities. These enforcement drives will be complemented by education and treatment initiatives, including campaigns to address the culture of binge drinking among young people and a doubling of drug treatment work in the past year.
National priorities will still guide our overall direction, but it is a focus on local communities and dealing with their priorities and issues that is the thread connecting our renewed approach. Empowering local agencies and delivering crime information and greater accountability for policing into the hands of local people is key to boosting public confidence and changing the public’s perceptions of crime. From July, every citizen will have access to local crime information, and the new policing pledge we are introducing will mean that if you report a crime you can expect a visit from the police at a convenient time, that you can expect timely reports on progress and that if you are the victim of crime you can expect to be offered treatment and support.
While I am determined to sustain the reductions in crime we have seen over the past decade, there are clearly areas where more work is required. Some areas are better than others at understanding and tackling their local problems.
- In Southampton, for example, depersonalised data sharing between hospital A&Es and local agencies means that interventions can be targeted at known violence hotspots. Vital information on crimes that might not get reported, such as domestic violence, can also be gathered thanks to the scheme. In Liverpool a coordinated approach to tackling alcohol-related violence has seen an increase of 30 per cent in the number of people who feel safe in the city in the evenings and a city-wide reduction in violent crime of more than a third.
- Success stories like these need to be learnt from and replicated across the country. For its part, central government has listened to the police and local agencies asking for more control and flexibility to respond to local priorities–and so we have adopted a less topdown approach, with fewer targets on local agencies and simplified funding streams.
By continuing to work with communities–answering their needs, responding to their concerns, and engaging them in the fight against crime and antisocial behaviour, I believe that the record of the past decade shows that we can continue to make serious inroads into crime and people’s fear of crime. By ensuring that the police and their partners have the tools and the space to do their job, I am confident that we can meet and answer the challenges we face.
The Rt Hon Jacqui Smith MP is the Home Secretary