On the face of it, today’s crime statistics make for reassuring reading for the government, with most crime types having fallen in the year to March 2021. However, there is little room for complacency. Those falls in crime are largely a reflection of the fact that between April 2020 and March 2021, the country was plunged into repeated lockdowns, which artificially curtailed opportunities for criminality. It is likely that once the figures for June are published, they will show a substantial “bounce-back” in crime, particularly violent crimes. Indeed, the steep increases in serious violence since March will fuel fears that what we are witnessing is not just a return to pre-Covid crime trends, but an acceleration. In May and June alone, London experienced the highest volume of violence-against-the-person offences in the past ten years. Indeed, if anything, gang-related rivalries have been exacerbated by the pandemic and look set to ignite further violence as restrictions are progressively eased over the summer. Senior officers at the Met are already warning that 2021 may be the worst year for knife-related murders since the previous peak in 2008.
Perhaps even more uncomfortable for ministers, though, are the figures for the number of criminals being caught. In the year to March 2021 only 7.3 per cent of crimes led to a suspect being charged (down from 16 per cent in 2015). And an even smaller proportion are being brought to justice.
The average number of days for all criminal cases at the magistrates’ courts from an offence being committed to justice being served has risen from 147 days to 217 days since 2010, while the number of offenders being formally dealt with by the criminal justice system is at record lows. These outcomes cannot be solely attributable to the growth in more complex crimes, i.e. those crimes taking longer to investigate. For example, the charge/summons rate for theft offences has more than halved over the past five years.
It is these statistics – more than any others – which ought to have ministers waking up in cold sweats. Since coming to power in 2019, Boris Johnson has successfully removed crime as an area of political weakness for the Conservatives. He can point to the 20,000 uplift in police-officer numbers (reversing Theresa May’s earlier cuts to policing budgets) and, more recently, the introduction of a new Policing and Crime Bill, which introduced tougher sentences for violent offenders.
Yet the prime minister will know that there is a shelf-life as to how long these reforms can protect the government from criticism. To put the point bluntly: voters will ask what the point of additional police officers and tougher sentences is if nobody is being caught to begin with.
Answering the question of what has driven such a precipitous fall in detections ought to be the biggest priority of the Home Office right now. Are police officers more reluctant to make arrests than used to be the case, either because government legislation has made it harder for them to justify it or because response teams are less experienced or less confident in the criteria required? Has the closure of police-custody suites created a perverse incentive for officers to avoid the hassle of driving a detainee to a station that might be miles away from their local beat? Could the problem be to do with the increasing amount of digital evidence police officers are now required to compile in building a case, which means they simply can’t keep pace with investigations? Or perhaps the problem lies less with the police and more with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), who, faced with their own shortfalls in resources, may have decided to manage demand by subtly increasing the threshold for charges?
We at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change plan to examine these questions as part of a project we are leading and will be publishing a report on the subject later in the year. In the meantime, the government may just be hoping that the news agenda stays away from crime, because the statistics suggest they’re dangerously close to losing control.