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Tue 19 November 2019
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Iain Overton’s analysis of why the Prime Minister’s claim that his Government must tackle violent crime urgently by shutting down Parliament doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.


Boris Johnson has claimed that he is proroguing Parliament in order to implement a “very exciting agenda” – an agenda that is focused on bringing “violent crime down”. Of course, it has “certainly” nothing to do with Brexit, at least according to Cabinet Minister Michael Gove, a man who once said: “It would be a terrible thing if having said we should have more power in our country and trust our institutions more, we shut the doors of Parliament.”

If, for one moment, you believe the two leading politicians behind the Vote Leave campaign and accept that the proroguing of Parliament is, in part, about tackling violent crime, then the question has to be: are such bold concerns justified? Are Britain’s streets so violent that Parliament has to be closed down to address this matter – even above the matter of leaving the EU?

In short, the answer is: no. For, whilst violent crime is always a major concern to those impacted by it, it is not a pressing issue on the increase.

There were an estimated 1.3 million incidents of violence experienced by adults in England and Wales last year, ending March 2019. This is a continuation of a relatively stable trend seen over the past five years, and – more importantly – follows long-term decreases since a peak in 1995. In short, there has been a long-term downward trend and then a levelling out of violent incidents in England and Wales. Yes, knife crime is up, but homicides are down.

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Furthermore, findings from NHS hospitals in England showed that assault admissions for the year ending March 2018 were 33% lower than the year ending March 2008 (42,181 admissions). The police also recorded 701 homicides in the year ending March 2019, which was a 4% fall (from 728) compared with the previous year. The rate of homicide in the population remains very low, at 12 homicides per 1 million people.

The number of homicides where a knife or sharp instrument was involved decreased by 9% in the last year (to 260 offences). There was also a 23% decrease in attempted murder offences in the latest year (to 1,033 offences). And, although the Office for National Statistics reported the highest number of offences involving knives or sharp instruments since recording began, it was – in part – down to previous under-counting in Greater Manchester Police. In other words, whilst there have been rises in some forms of violence in England and Wales, this is not so dire to warrant proroguing Parliament and creating a constitutional crisis. This suspension is all about Brexit.

Indeed, if there is a concern about crime in this country, it seems that the real concern is sentencing rates. In 2004/5, a total of 690 people were convicted for homicide in the UK. By 2015/6, just 368 people were convicted of homicide: a drop of 47%. 

These stats are not easy ones to unpick. They don’t identify those homicides where the perpetrator then kills themselves. They don’t reflect the fact that there are still 678 homicides between April 2007 and March 2018 where the courts’ decision is pending (though comparing homicide convictions between 2004/5 with 2015/16 is better than comparing 2004/5 with 2017/8, when the court system has yet to ‘catch up’).

Whichever way you look at homicide conviction rates, there has been a fall. So, the question inevitably comes: is this because of a decline in homicides? In 2004/5, there were 779 homicides in England and Wales. In 2015/16, there were 570.  A drop of 27%.  So – yes – there are fewer homicides (again contradicting Johnson’s “violent crime” rhetoric), but that decline is less than the decline in convictions.

What else might be driving this decrease in convictions of people who commit homicides? Poor funding, perhaps?

In England and Wales, there certainly have been reductions in spending across both the police and law courts. The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies has calculated cuts of about 10% to each between 2012/13 and 2016/17. And these cuts have had consequences. Police forces in England and Wales employed a sixth fewer officers in 2017/2018 than in 2008/2009. Specially, the number of detectives serving in major crime and murder squads fell by at least 610, or 28%, between 2010/11 and 2017/18. And this has had consequences. In 2010/11, 83% of homicides were solved. That figure had fallen to 67% by 2017/18.

If violent crime is the real issue here, then surely the Government’s priority should be about ensuring the certainty of punishment, rather than creating the spectacle of harsher punishment to discourage crime? Admitting this, though, would be unacceptable, so Boris Johnson wades in with the statement that “criminals must get the sentences they deserve”.

Johnson is advocating poorly thought-out policies designed to appeal to a narrow electorate – using the totem of the criminal to push a populist agenda. Locking people up for longer is a sharp descent from his own claimed vision about a “global Britain” infused with liberal conservatism. But, to a man whose love of power supersedes his love of facts, he couldn’t care less.

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