Tony Blair: To Deal With Crime, We’ve Got to Get Serious About Prevention

Posted on: 25th July 2019
Tony Blair
Former Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Executive Chairman of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change

Crime is back as a political issue. 

The reason is simple: the public is always very attuned to when the government has a grip, and when it hasn’t. And it has been clear for some time that we are losing the battle against serious violent crime and anti-social behaviour.

The statistics paint a worrying picture.

  • Knife crime, robbery and homicide - offences that we know tend to be well recorded by the police - have all been rising since 2014. 
  • Perceptions of anti-social behaviour are at a decade high.
  • And the big long-term falls we have seen in acquisitive crimes like burglary and car theft, appear to be going into reverse

These things don’t happen overnight. The current violence people see on the streets is the result of the interplay of several factors, as a new report by my Institute makes clear.

Firstly, it doesn’t help if you weaken the police’s ability to get a grip of the problem, as this government has done. When I look at the job facing the police service today, it is clear that the landscape has been transformed, partly by new technology, but also because expectations have changed, with officers expected to respond to all types of growing demands than was the case a decade ago, from mental health, to missing children.

Once you add in the growth in very serious crimes, it is patently obvious that stripping away policing is about the last thing you should do. 

One of the most arresting trends of the last ten years has been the fall in the number of crimes being detected and the number of offenders being prosecuted by the courts, with charge rates at record lows. It doesn’t need a genius to work out that if you reduce the likelihood of people being caught, offenders will learn about it and adjust their behaviour accordingly.

Secondly, there are signs that what we are seeing reflects shifts in drugs markets. The phenomenon of ‘county lines’ - whereby increasingly vulnerable young people are used as ‘mules’ by gang leaders to open up lucrative new drugs markets in towns surrounding the major cities - is a manifestation of a brutal economic model. With the market for heroin and crack cocaine having become saturated in London and other major cities, gangs are looking for ways to push their product outwards to new markets - safe in the knowledge that young people are unlikely to be arrested.

Thirdly, this government has stripped away much of the architecture for preventing crime and intervening early before people start to offend.

My government is often associated as having been tough on crime. I’m not ashamed of that. We listened to what communities were saying about crime, and to the police officers about what they needed to get the job done. And we acted.

My government is often associated as having been tough on crime. I’m not ashamed of that. Over the course of my time as Prime Minister, we legislated and introduced a range of new powers to strengthen the police’s ability to grip different types of crime, from ASBOs to confiscation orders. We listened to what communities were saying about crime, and to the police officers about what they needed to get the job done. And we acted.

What is often less commented on, though, is that my government was also tough on the causes of crime. Whether it was through universal services like Sure Start, or more targeted interventions, such as parenting orders, safer schools partnerships or Family Intervention Projects: our investment helped to ensure that the most vulnerable young people were given access to opportunity and an alternative path away from crime.

Much of this has been eroded. 

Saying so does not make one an apologist for criminals. But any sensible society acting in its own interests, as well as those of its citizens will understand and recognise that poor education and housing, inadequate family backgrounds, poor employment prospects and drug abuse will affect the likelihood of young people turning to crime. If people are placed outside mainstream culture, offered no hope, shown no respect by others and unable to develop respect for themselves, they will be more likely to pick up a knife. 

I absolutely accept that there is a need for immediate action to equip the police with the resources, powers and direction they need to tackle prolific offenders, who are acting with increasing impunity. 

But longer term, we must also think through how we revive programmes that reach the most vulnerable children early, and work with the communities most affected. We should be supporting programmes like ‘troubled families’, which built on interventions put in place by my government, and building on them.

Like the growing crisis in our social care system, or in our prisons, crime is just one more example of a policy area that has been neglected while the government has been focused on Brexit.

This is dangerous. Security is the first responsibility of any decent government. It is in all our interests that this is properly gripped. We need a top to bottom analysis and review of how we’re dealing with crime, including the laws, early intervention, policing and criminal justice.