My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, on securing this debate. I can think of few subjects that are more deserving of public debate than the violence on our streets and the tragic loss of young lives that this violence has caused in London and elsewhere.
Day after day, we hear harrowing stories of young men being knifed to death in public places yet our national media remains obsessed with other things: alternative approaches to Brexit, the political implications of the latest round of ministerial resignations or the fate of individual football clubs and their managers. Surely that cannot be right. What kind of society have we become when stories about the loss of young human lives are relegated to the inside pages, when we appear to accept these deaths as simply among the more unpleasant features of urban living? I believe that the attitude of acceptance of violence in our streets as regrettable but more or less unavoidable is not only morally reprehensible but is one of the main reasons why such violence persists and why we find it so difficult to reduce if not eliminate it.
I shall explain briefly what I mean. I am afraid that most people, including our political leaders and opinion formers, tend to accept violence on the streets as inevitable because in their heart of hearts they do not believe that it is possible to prevent it, at least not in the short term and certainly not by relying on the police to do so. That reflects what I sense to be a widespread belief that our local police forces simply are not capable of preventing crime and therefore cannot be relied upon to make any significant difference to the level of street violence or community safety more generally.
That belief is not often articulated so starkly but most people, if pressed, think of police officers as “PC Plods” who are there primarily to pick up the pieces: to find missing persons, clear the drug addicts off our streets, try to cope with those who are mentally ill or simply walk the beat and make themselves useful if asked to do so. When it comes to dealing with crime, whether serious crime or so-called volume crime, most people tend to think of the police as concerned primarily with what happens after the event, whether that means writing reports or trying, usually unsuccessfully, to identify the perpetrator. For most people, expecting the police to prevent crime before it happens is totally unrealistic.
That is why, when it comes to tackling violence, the popular view is that the only truly effective approach is through programmes aimed at strengthening families, improving schools, building new and better houses, tackling racism or providing better health services, youth provision and job opportunities for young people, but we all understand that such changes take years to implement and even longer to make a difference to people’s lives, even if Governments could be persuaded to fund them. That is why, even though we talk about the need for urgent action to reduce violence on our streets, most of us do not really believe that there is a quick fix and have come to accept that we are probably stuck with it for a long time yet—10 years or maybe more.
I believe that is a counsel of despair that is both immoral and needlessly pessimistic. I believe the violence that is killing and maiming our young people can be significantly reduced much more quickly and effectively. I believe it can be done now without having to wait for the development of the kinds of longer-term programmes that I mentioned earlier and about which the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, spoke, although I do not for a minute want to minimise the importance of such programmes or the need to expedite their implementation. I believe the violence in our cities can be reduced in months rather than years because I saw it done in New York, Philadelphia and other American cities where I worked in policing from 1996 to 2008.
Before any noble Lords jump to the conclusion that I believe American police officers are more effective than ours, I make it clear that I have worked closely with policing professionals on both sides of the Atlantic and assure your Lordships that our police officers are every bit as good at their jobs as their American colleagues, and in many respects they are better. They are certainly better trained, have higher professional standards and have very much better central support and co-ordination arrangements.
However, American police officers have one great advantage: they work in a society where their political masters believe that they, the local police, can make a real difference to reducing crime and keeping communities safe. In each of the cities in which I worked—New York, Philadelphia, Miami and even tiny Hartford, Connecticut—the police reported to mayors who regarded community safety as their highest priority and were prepared to commit themselves publicly to achieving safer communities by reducing crime and to being held accountable for doing so by their electorates. These mayors in turn set prioritised strategic crime reduction objectives for their police chiefs and held those chiefs accountable for achieving those objectives. The chiefs in turn set clear operational objectives for their senior officers and held these officers accountable for achieving their objectives.
In that way, the whole of the police organisation knew exactly what was expected of it. Everyone knew what they were expected to do and, at least as important, not expected to do. They knew, for example, that if the local newspaper published a leader attacking them for not investigating minor crimes, as the Times did this morning, the mayor would make it clear that this had been his decision and had been taken in order to free scarce police resources—resources were very scarce in each of the cities where I worked—to enable the force to prevent more serious crimes such as violence on the streets. This setting of clear priorities for the police enabled the force to focus on the problems that the community regarded as most important, and this led the community to feel that the police department understood their needs and was committed to meeting them.
I believe that is the approach that we should be taking to tackling violence on our streets. The first step is to believe that the police can make a difference and to act on that belief. That means setting chief constables the clear strategic objective of reducing violence on our streets and expecting them to give priority to that objective. It also means giving chief constables the resources that they need to do achieve that central objective and holding them personally accountable for achieving it.
I am confident that our police leaders, like their American counterparts, would welcome the challenge. Indeed, I believe they would see it as a vote of confidence in their professional capabilities and would deliver the safer communities that we want. The question is whether our political leaders at national and local levels—the Home Secretary, the Mayor of London and local PCCs—are prepared to accept this challenge and take personal responsibility for keeping us safe, or will they continue to blame others, such as the police, the Treasury, the Home Office, the education and health systems and immigrants, for the present violence on our streets?