Who’s afraid of stop and search?

It was outgoing prime minister Theresa May who, as home secretary in 2014, made the decision to reduce the use of stop-and-search. ‘It is unfair, especially to young, black men’, she said. ‘It is bad for public confidence in the police.’ A new code of practice with the threat of disciplinary proceedings was introduced, ‘unconscious-bias awareness’ training insisted upon, and there was a limiting of so-called ‘no suspicion’ powers. ‘If the numbers do not come down’, she warned the nation’s police forces, ‘the government will return with primary legislation’.

The numbers did come down. There were 1.5million searches across England and Wales in 2008/09. By 2016/17 this had fallen to 304,000, the lowest since records began. But knife crime, which was dipping in the first half of the decade, went up. It began to rise sharply from 2015 on. There were 285 homicides with a knife or sharp instrument in 2017/18 – the highest since records began. Public concern about crime has also risen, competing only with concern about the health service and the economy for second place after Brexit in the national consciousness.

In recent days, there has been a protest in Islington in Londonfollowing a stabbing. Teachers at a Birmingham school are on strike following knife threats from pupils and lack of support from bosses in confronting poor behaviour. Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show increasing numbers of people leaving London, reported a little excitedly as an ‘exodus’. According to Christopher Snowdon, head of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs (and spiked contributor), people are leaving partly ‘to get away from the stabbings’.

So what has been the response of the authorities to this apparent upswing in violent crime? They have adopted what is called a public-health approach. The London mayor’s Violence Reduction Unit, launched last year, brings together ‘specialists in health, police and local government’ with the aim of ‘supporting the vulnerable at an early stage and giving young Londoners better life opportunities’. The government, too, in its Serious Violence Strategy, describes early intervention and prevention as being ‘at the heart of [the] approach to tackling serious violence’.

Advocated by the World Health Organisation and popularised by its claimed success in Glasgow, public-health advocates boast about how they are tackling the ‘root causes’ of knife crime. But the wholesale adoption of this off-the-shelf policy is indicative only of the cluelessness in government and in City Hall. London mayor Sadiq Khan has been criticised for his handling of knife crime by everyone from President Trump to Liam Gallagher, who bluntly suggests the only thing London is ‘open’ for is knife crime. Khan vaguely cites ‘poverty, social alienation, mental ill-health and a lack of opportunity’ as having something to do with the outbreak of serious violence in his city. What he doesn’t explain is why any of these things should provoke one young person to stick a lethal object into another.

The proposed public-health duty on teachers, nurses, social workers and others, to have ‘due regard to the prevention and tackling of serious violence’, is objectionable. Quite apart from the serious consequences for the liberties of those on the receiving end, imposing such a duty on public servants with respect to knife crime or anything else can only distract them from fulfilling their actual roles, thereby undermining their relationships with the communities they are supposed to serve. And yet the illiberalism implicit in the public-health approach of policing people’s behaviour is in stark contrast to the marked reluctance of the authorities (for want of a better word) to police the streets.

At a youth-violence summit in Downing Street, the prime minister explained that ‘we cannot simply arrest ourselves out of this problem’. Indeed, the causes of knife crime are likely deep-rooted in our society, our culture and in affected communities – with commentators blaming everything from austerity and materialism to family dysfunction and community breakdown. But it is police officers, not youth workers, GPs or civil servants, who are ultimately responsible for tackling the growing incidence of knife crime.

Stop-and-search, used correctly – not politically correctly – is surely more effective than any of the initiatives currently being touted as part of the government’s or the mayor’s public-health strategies. The ramping up of these powers in the worst-affected areas has resulted in searches in the capital going up from 1,836 in 2017/18 to 9,599 in 2018/19. Figures released last month show the numbers killed have fallen by a quarter, and stabbings of under-25s resulting in injury by 15 per cent. Commissioner Cressida Dick puts this down at least partly to a 30 per cent increase in stop-and-search, although other violent crimes, including acid attacks and moped-enabled crimes, have also fallen.

So for all the cod-sociology of commentators, and medical modelling of policymakers, the recent spike in knife crime may, as a consequence of a more old-fashioned approach to policing, have already peaked. Time will tell.

The signs are promising. But if the violence is an expression of the same nihilism that was a feature of the English riots of 2011, then it is unlikely to go away anytime soon. One resident asked to comment following a recent stabbing in Stratford, east London, told the Guardian: ‘I see the police and they’re doing all they can, but they can’t control the young people.’

Has there been a breakdown of authority in society? Certainly the state, not least in its therapeutic interventions in so-called troubled families, and in its public-health response to violent crime, risks undermining parents’ authority. And parents have come in for criticism – not least from the mayor insisting that they stop their children leaving the house with a knife. This accusation – not in itself unreasonable – was angrily rejected as another example of the mayor offloading officialdom’s responsibilities on to affected communities.

The mayor’s knife-crime strategy is all about building resilience, providing ‘positive alternatives’, addressing mental-health issues, exploitation, and the adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that those affected by knife crime are said to experience. It is striking that among the traumatised and exploited, little, if any, distinction is made between offenders and victims. Do policymakers’ assumptions about the supposed vulnerability even of those carrying out murderous knife attacks on their peers effectively absolve young people of responsibility for their actions? By adopting the neutral, judgement-free, even scientific-sounding language of the new public-health outlook, policymakers implicitly reject the making of moral judgements.

Whatever the complex of factors behind the recent rise in knife crime, is it any wonder that some young people are so apparently adrift?

First published in spiked

In defence of Christopher Chope

The now notorious Christopher Chope, Conservative MP for Christchurch, blocked a private members’ bill (PMB) last Friday that would have created new powers to tackle female genital mutilation (FGM). By shouting ‘object’ he stopped it from progressing to a second reading in the House of Commons. And for this, he was described as ‘appalling’ by the bill’s co-author, Zac Goldsmith MP.

Chope, in his own defence, has said that he blocks PMBs as a matter of principle, because he does not think they should be allowed to proceed without debate. This is what routinely happens at the end of business on Friday, where such bills are waved through unless an MP objects.

But this did little to quell the outrage, with calls for him to have the whip withdrawn ringing out from both sides of the chamber. Many MPs are still fuming at his blocking of another PMB last year that would have criminalised so-called ‘upskirting’ (it has since been passed into law anyway).

Dawn Butler, shadow equalities minister, described Chope as a ‘dinosaur’. Nimco Ali, founder of anti-FGM charity Daughters of Eve, accused him of ‘making it hard for people like us to protect some of the most vulnerable children in our society’. Sajid Javid, the home secretary, said he is ‘very disappointed’ and ‘determined to stamp out’ FGM.

But what is it that MPs are really objecting to here? What is wrong with parliamentary scrutiny? The outrage at Chope from the likes of Anna Soubry and David Lammy rings particularly hollow, given their fondness for parliamentary scrutiny when it suits their cause of scuppering Brexit.

Karren Brady, writing in the Sun, asked ‘what is there to debate about whether the horrendous torture of young women should be allowed or not?’. But Chope did not say the crime of FGM itself should be debated. FGM was made a specific criminal offence more than 30 years ago. What he was objecting to was the rushing through of specific new powers, which should warrant more scrutiny.

‘The very worst legislation is that which sails through parliament unopposed because all right-thinking people support it’, argues Tim Worstall, in one of the few pieces to defend Chope. Indeed if Chope hadn’t stood in the bill’s way, and it had become law, the notoriously secretive family courts would have been granted the power to issue interim protection orders. This would have allowed local authorities to assume shared parental responsibility and potentially take children into care in suspected FGM cases.

In a letter to the GuardianDr Brenda Kelly, a doctor who runs a specialist FGM clinical service, defended Chope, arguing that there are already sufficient powers in law to protect children at risk of FGM. ‘We do not need new laws that are disproportionate and potentially stigmatising when existing ones work well’, she wrote.

We also need to debate some of the claims of the anti-FGM movement. The UN estimates that as many as 200million girls and women are living with the consequences of FGM worldwide. But in the 30 years since FGM was criminalised in the UK, there has only been one conviction, which was earlier this month. (And as Bríd Hehir writes on spiked, there are questions to be raised about that conviction.)

The incredible pressure that has been placed on the authorities to find and prosecute FGM cases in Britain has, arguably, created an unjust and suspicious climate for certain communities. Despite the efforts of campaigners to find more victims in the UK, only three other cases have been brought to trial – and they all ended in acquittal.

Girls suspected of being victims of FGM are already subject to intrusive examination, and entire communities understandably feel victimised by association. It would have been wrong to just nod this bill through.

First published on spiked

Don’t blame Brexit for society’s ills

The countdown to 29 March, the date on which, unless politicians decide otherwise, Britain will leave the EU without a deal, has heightened the already hysterical claims of Brexit-induced calamity. Aeroplanes grounded, STDs rampant, food and medicines stockpiled, the economy on life-support – stories of disaster wrought by a No Deal Brexit have made headlines day after day.

What’s more, the scare stories are not limited to questions of goods, travel and security. The NSPCC recently warned that Britain could become a safe haven for child-sex offenders seeking to evade justice in event of No Deal Brexit. Meanwhile, others have suggested No Deal would hit various areas of social policy.

Those of us who support a No Deal Brexit, a clean break from the institutions of the EU, should not be complacent. Housing secretary James Brokenshire, in a leaked letter to the Treasury, warns that the £35million paid to his department is not nearly enough to plan for and respond to the effects of No Deal.

One wonders, too, if the handful of civil servants and NHS officials looking after the Department for Health and Social Care will really be able to coordinate contingency planning across the country. Given the NHS seems to be in a state of permanent crisis, it would be wrong not to be concerned about its capacity to cope with rupture.

But those commentators wringing their hands over the alleged impact of a No Deal Brexit on various areas of policy are not simply calling for preparation to be stepped up. Rather, the undertone of much of the discussion is that Brexit itself is little more than a distraction from ‘the real issues’, and therefore should be abandoned for the good of ordinary people.

The Guardian’s Richard Vize argues that ‘vital areas of public policy that directly affect our lives are being sacrificed to the obsession with Brexit’. Similarly, Hugo Dixon, deputy chair of the People’s Vote campaign, says ditching Brexit will free MPs to ‘focus on healing our country’, to show voters that the Remainer classes feel their pain, even if they won’t act on their instructions.

Meanwhile, Chuka Umunna, leading Remainer Labour MP, has linked the death of a man sleeping rough near parliament with ‘Brexit-induced chaos’.

This is not only cynical politicking — it also gets things entirely the wrong way round. Brexit didn’t create the gulf between the political class and the people – it gave expression to it. Nor did it create the various social issues that politicians and commentators are saying are being sacrificed to the Brexit debate.

If Umunna was really serious about solving the homelessness problem, he would be arguing for a programme of mass housebuilding. The issue of the lack of housing supply has been pressing for decades. And, over the years, Labour has been no more able to solve the problem than the Tories have.

In any case, it is entirely understandable that Brexit dominates political discussion. It is, after all, the biggest question we have asked ourselves as a nation in living memory. The referendum result uncovered and clarified social, cultural and political divisions.

What’s more, Brexit is as much the potential solution to these problems as a distraction from them. The problems with public services were there long before Brexit, and have got worse with official neglect. More say for ordinary people over how they are governed could be the first step towards better policy and better services.

Taking back control could be a boon to struggling Brits.

First published on spiked

Homelessness: sympathy is not enough

It is traditional at this time of year to spare a thought for those left out in the cold. And this Christmas many are concerned about the increasing numbers of street homeless, despite the government’s bold ambitions to halve the numbers by 2022 and ‘eliminate’ the problem by 2027.

Homeless charities usually struggle for volunteers, but they have been inundated with offers of help over the festive period. So much so that they are having to turn volunteers away. Such offers are no doubt kind. But non-committal volunteering can be as much a hindrance as a help to a sector dealing with increasing need.

Indeed, with a problem as difficult and complex as homelessness, well-meaning virtue-signalling is not enough.

This year thousands took part in ‘sleep outs’ in Scotland, organised by the charity Social Bite. People camped out in their sleeping bags and were rewarded with performances from KT Tunstall and others. But there’s something distasteful about such stunts. Bruce Forbes, director of the Angus Housing Association, told the BBC he thought the event was ‘quite patronising to homeless people’.

To its credit, Social Bite raised £4million from its ‘sleep out’ last year, which was spent on a ‘village’ for 20 homeless people in Edinburgh, and contributed to a housing initiative that turned 800 homeless people into tenants. But, even then, is this really enough? How many fields full of people playacting at being homeless will it take to get the genuinely homeless off the streets and into permanent accommodation?

According to Shelter, there are 320,000 homeless people in Britain at the moment. This is somewhat misleading. Shelter conflates families living in B&Bs and hostels (the bulk) with the relatively few, if rapidly growing, number of people sleeping rough. But, inflated statistics aside, there is clearly a problem here that needs to be tackled.

Complex factors can lead to people sleeping rough or losing a tenancy. Mental illness, family and relationship breakdown, alcoholism and drug problems all play their part. Changes to the welfare system have contributed to recent rises, too. Stories of people losing their jobs and then their homes because they had to wait up to eight weeks to receive Universal Credit – the UK government’s new benefits system – and then couldn’t pay their rent are as familiar as they are depressing. But these explanations never really get to the root of the problem.

Too often we focus on politically convenient targets – whether it is the Tories and their supposedly nasty new benefit, or so-called austerity driving people into food banks and out on to the streets. But, in truth, it is a chronic shortage of housing, longstanding economic stagnation, rising costs and falling living standards that have created the conditions conducive to people losing their homes in increasing numbers.

No amount of awareness-raising, volunteering or Christmas spirit is going to solve these problems. Instead of hugging the homeless, we should be grappling with why so many people are forced out of their homes in the first place.

First published on spiked



More inspections won’t solve the care crisis

The Conservative Party might want to forget the ‘dementia tax’ debacle that haunted its General Election campaign, and marked the beginning of the end of its parliamentary majority. But the social-care crisis is not going away. An ageing population, rising costs (as providers are forced to pay care workers the National Living Wage), and cuts to local authority funding (estimated at £824million in England in 2017/18), are putting 12 per cent of the UK’s care homes at serious risk of going bankrupt, according to the latest research.

The pressure is expected to increase, with an anticipated growing demand for places (with one study in the Lancet identifying the need for 70,000 more by 2025) and a longstanding shortfall in staff – predicted to worsen with the much-cited Brexit effect supposedly putting off foreign workers coming to an allegedly hostile UK.

Care homes have been closing at a rate of around 500 a year, and for those that remain – it is not unreasonably argued – care standards can only suffer.
HMRC is currently chasing care providers for millions of pounds worth of back-payments for workers who were paid below the minimum wage for ‘sleep-in’ shifts. This will make further closures even more likely, argue those in the sector.

But do these factors fully explain the crisis in our care homes? It is certainly the case that local authorities are running out of options to deal with the crisis – other than raise council tax and make better use of the Better Care Fund (aimed at integrating local health and social care) – as central funding dries up. The Department of Health has responded by saying it will toughen up the inspection regime. But is the problem really that the Care Quality Commission (CQC) is too lax in its monitoring of care homes and the quality of the care that takes place in them?

I don’t think so. While there is a place for ‘light touch’ visits to weed out the worst offenders, it is the public-sector audit culture itself that is making a solution to the social-care crisis so hard to find. Notwithstanding ever-increasing demands and historic under-resourcing, the focus on meeting targets and pleasing inspectors crowds out a culture in which a commitment to care, and the autonomy of cared-for older adults, might otherwise be allowed to flourish.

‘What’s it like to live in a care home?’, published this month by consumer rights body Healthwatch, gives a sense of how bad things have got. In over a third of the nearly 200 care homes its volunteers visited across England, conditions were poor – from peeling wallpaper and rotting pot plants to being so generally dirty that a ‘deep clean’ was insisted upon. Some residents reported having no internet access or not having the opportunity to get some exercise for weeks on end; and others complained that they ‘didn’t get enough time to connect with those caring for them’.

For all policymakers’ high-flown rhetoric about ensuring older people are given more independence, choice and control over their lives, too often care homes were found to be failing even to uphold residents’ dignity or just ‘get the basics right’. As national director, Imelda Redmond, put it: ‘Care homes are not institutions, they are people’s homes.’ The sooner the managerial ethos is abandoned, and those who live and work in these homes are able to take control of decisions about care, the better.

First published in sp!ked