Theresa May has ordered an urgent set of ministerial meetings to address action against knife crime, amid controversy over her claim that there was no direct link with cuts in police numbers.
Britain’s most senior police officer, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick, clashed with the Prime Minister on the issue, insisting there is “obviously” a connection between reductions in officer numbers and street violence.
The number of police officers in England and Wales has dropped by more than 20,000 since 2010, and levels of violent crime have risen in recent years.
Speaking in the wake of a slew of fatal knife attacks on teenagers in the capital and elsewhere, Ms Dick said: “If you went back in history, you would see examples of when police officer numbers have gone down and crime has not necessarily risen at the same rate and in the same way.
“But I think that what we all agree on is that, in the last few years, police officer numbers have gone down a lot, there’s been a lot of other cuts in public services, there has been more demand for policing and therefore there must be something, and I have consistently said that.
“I agree that there is some link between violent crime on the streets obviously and police numbers, of course there is and everybody would see that.”
On Monday, Mrs May sparked fury when she said there “was no direct correlation between certain crimes and police numbers”.
John Apter, chairman of the Police Federation, said the Prime Minister was “delusional”, while former Met Commissioner Lord Hogan-Howe called for 20,000 officers to be recruited and demanded that ministers “get a grip on the crisis”.
Chuka Umunna, of The Independent Group, also hit back, saying on Twitter: “It is absurd for the Prime Minister to suggest that having more police will not help reduce the violence on the streets.
“She insults people’s intelligence with this nonsense.”
At a Cabinet meeting on the issue of knife crime on Tuesday, Mrs May said that the killings of Jodie Chesney and Yousef Makki last week were “absolutely appalling” and told ministers her thoughts and sympathies were with the teenagers’ families.
Mrs May’s official spokesman said that the PM told Cabinet that while the Government was already taking action, their deaths were “a stark reminder that there is more to do to tackle violence on our streets”.
She tasked the Home Office with co-ordinating an urgent series of Cabinet-level ministerial meetings and engagements to accelerate the work Government is doing in support of local councils and police.
Mrs May said the problem would require “a whole-of-Government effort, in conjunction with the police, the wider public sector and local communities”.
Meetings will take place “as soon as possible” and were being treated as “a priority” by the PM, said her spokesman.
Police figures show violent crime rose by nearly a fifth in the year to September 2018, intensifying the debate over whether the increase is linked to falling officer numbers.
Last year, the launch of the Government’s serious violence strategy was overshadowed when it emerged the 114-page report made no reference at all to workforce size.
Hours before it was published, The Guardian reported that internal Home Office research suggested that falls in police numbers had “likely contributed” to a rise in serious violent crime.
On Tuesday, London Mayor Sadiq Khan accused the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary of crying “crocodile tears” over rates of knife crime.
He told Sky News: “We need much more resources from the Government to invest in preventative services and policing.
“We have fewer police in London now in 2019 than at any time since 2003 – our population has grown by a million-and-a-half since 2003.
“Also, when it comes to youth services, over the last eight years dozens and dozens of youth centres have closed down, hundreds of youth workers have lost their jobs, thousands of young people who used to have youth centres to go to (now) haven’t.”
Ms Dick also hit out again at middle-class recreational drug users, agreeing that they have “blood on their hands”.
She was asked by LBC host Nick Ferrari: “Is it fair to say, commissioner, that some of these middle-class dinner parties that send out for cocaine on the weekend or whatever it might be, they’ve actually got blood on their hands of some of the people who are dying on the streets?”
Ms Dick replied: “I think anybody who is not seriously mentally ill, seriously addicted, who is seeking ‘recreational’ drugs, particularly class A drugs, yes, I think that is a good way to put it, I do.”
Commissioner on @LBC "We are taking more weapons off the streets, we are arresting more people, we are working very hard, not just the Violent Crime Taskforce, it’s all parts of the Met. Every single death, every single stabbing is absolutely awful but we are having an impact." pic.twitter.com/qlEqD8GYzo
— Metropolitan Police (@metpoliceuk) March 5, 2019
The drugs trade is one of the key drivers behind street violence, particularly county lines networks that target children and teenagers to work as couriers.
Several MPs, including a former Home Office minister, have called for the Government to convene a meeting of the Cobra emergency committee to respond to the “national crisis”.
Home Secretary Sajid Javid is to meet police chiefs on Wednesday to discuss the bloodshed.
Downing Street said that among those attending would be senior officers from seven of the forces most affected by violent crime – the Metropolitan Police, Merseyside, Greater Manchester, West Midlands, South Wales, South Yorkshire and West Yorkshire.