Theresa May has a very big failure to her name, but strangely few people seem to want to pick her up on it. The latest crime figures show a sharp increase in recorded offences in England and Wales, especially in knife crime, which rose 21 per cent to 37,443 incidents. This continues a trend which began four years ago, since when the number of recorded knife offences has risen by half.
It reverses an equally sharp fall in recorded knife crime between 2010, when Theresa May became Home Secretary, and 2014. What happened to bring about the end of what looks like a very successful period of tackling knife crime? Obviously, there are multiple factors involved in crime, but it is impossible to ignore a speech made by Theresa May on 30 April 2014, in which she ordered police to observe new rules on stop and search powers, inspired by a review which had revealed that people from a black or other ethnic minority background were seven times more likely to be stopped and searched.
'Nobody wins when stop and search is misapplied', she said. 'It can be an enormous waste of police time and, when innocent people are stopped and searched for no good reason, it is hugely damaging to the relationship between the police and the public'.
Henceforth, May announced, police would have to keep more records on stop and search – with the aim of reducing the number of stop and searches which did not result in an arrest. Police were instructed only to use such stop and search when they believed a crime ‘will’ take place rather than when they believed it ‘may’ take place.
The new rules certainly had a dramatic effect on the number of stop and searches. In 2013/14 there were 904,038, falling to 303,845 in 2016/17. Meanwhile, knife crime began to rise. In 2014/15, police recorded the first rise in knife crime since 2010.
I suspect that the link between falling stop and search and rising knife crime would be remarked upon rather more were it not for the sensitive issue of race. Whenever stop and search is used it seems to be deployed disproportionately against people of black ethnicity. This, by the way, is as true under the new rules on stop and search as it was under the old. In 2013/14, 13 out of every 1000 white people were stopped and searched, in contrast to 55 out of every 1000 black people. In 2016/17, the corresponding figures had fallen to four out of every 1000 white people and 29 out of every 1000 black people. In other words, May’s new rules on stop and search did nothing to close the disparity (it actually widened), only to reduce the overall number of stop and searches.
It is quite hard to escape the conclusion that the reason police were and still are stopping and searching more black people than white people is not because police are racist – even institutionally so – but because knife crime appears to be more prevalent in areas with a large black population. Black people are more likely to be victims of knife crime and also perpetrators. According to evidence presented at the London knife crime conference in 2016, 59 per cent of knife offenders in the capital are from a black and ethnic minority background – a group which makes up 44 per cent of the population of London. Perpetrators of knife crime are also far more likely to be male (95 per cent) and under 25 (60 per cent).
We seem to be caught in an endless cycle: we have a surge in knife crime which results in a police campaign involving increased use of stop and search. Then, after a few years, ministers start to worry that those stop and searches are being unfairly targeted on black people, with the result that stop and search is scaled back. Then knife crime rises again.
If we want to tackle knife crime maybe we just have to worry a bit less about the ethnicity of those being stopped and searched. Either that or we find a way of searching people en masse which doesn’t involve stopping them – say by the use of airport-style scanners in tube stations, shops and other public places.
The alternative is more people being killed and injured with knives. It is very tempting for a home secretary to virtue signal by bearing down on stop and search. But as Theresa May has shown there is a horrible price to pay on the streets.