Given the catastrophic loss of criminal records by Priti Patel’s Home Office last week, it was hardly a surprise to see her popping up in the Mail on Sunday, falling back on the reliable red rag of knife crime and stop and search. Clearly, Downing Street must have been concerned that the loss of criminal records – including DNA and fingerprint data crucial to ongoing investigations – might be enough to shake even Middle England’s confidence in the competence of the Home Secretary.
Indeed, just in case knife crime wasn’t enough to bring the Daily Mail readership fully back onside, Robert Jenrick, the Housing Minister, was also on hand, resurrecting the irrelevant issue of statues from last summer. Given Boris Johnson’s government’s woefully inept response to the pandemic – with the death toll now spiralling towards six figures – and the ongoing economic car-crash of Brexit, diverting civil servants onto the issue of protecting inanimate objects that neither contribute to the economy nor run the risk of contracting Covid might have seemed like an unnecessary luxury. But that would be to assume that the government’s first priority is the physical and economic well-being of the country, not stoking partisan rows that help keep its approval rating above water.
Ignoring the distressingly pointless debate about statues, the failures of the Home Office in regards to both data retention and knife crime reflect the relentless short-termism of this government’s policies. Rarely is there ever any concern with the bigger picture, or the probable long-term consequences, but only a myopic focus on opinion polls and what a policy will do to the nation’s bottom-line today.
The loss of data was not a surprise. The Times reported this week that the Home Office was warned 18 months ago about the ‘creaking’ police databases, and how their failure would place the public at ‘significant risk’. Given that the criminal records system is crucial to investigating, solving and prosecuting crimes – responsibilities that ultimately end up on Patel’s desk – the obvious course of action would have been to put in place a fail-safe mechanism. Inexplicably, this course was not taken. Instead, Patel chose to operate on a ‘fix on fail’ system, repairing systems and hardware only at the point of failure.
Such incompetence is particularly confusing given the probable consequences of each path. If the government had chosen to properly repair the police national computer, there would have been the inevitable headlines about government expenditure and waste. But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that these brief media flurries rarely have any real, sustained impact on how people view the government. The scandals last year over spending on management consultants, track and trace and PPE all briefly blew up before immediately settling down, barely nudging the government’s approval ratings. Indeed, any investment could have easily been justified as necessary until the National Law Enforcement Data Programme- naturally now delayed until 2023- came into effect.
In contrast, scandals over failures that go to the heart of the Home Office’s function – like keeping a functioning record of criminal records – draw more headlines and resonate more deeply with the public. Voluntarily leaving the EU’s police intelligence infrastructure has already damaged police investigations by slowing the flow of data across borders and ending the automatic extradition of suspects from EU nations. The Home Secretary also failing to implement measures that would keep domestic data secure is hardly likely to help the police perform their duty- or to persuade the public that she can fulfil hers.
Neither is Patel’s latest legislative proposal, increasing the police’s stop and search powers to address knife crime, likely to do anything to help keep the nation safe. Instead, it will simply give succour to the ‘hang ’em and flog ’em’ brigadem- her core constituency. By allowing the police to search anyone who has previously been convicted of knife offences, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will hand the police even greater power to interfere with citizens’ lives, stripping away the already feeble safeguard of needing ‘reasonable suspicion’.
Such a policy ignores the idea that people can be rehabilitated, falling back on Javert’s assertion in Les Miserables that ‘once a thief, forever a thief’. It will dramatically affect ethnic minorities, particularly the black community, a group that is already disproportionately targeted by the police. Government figures show that in 2019 black people were almost nine times more likely to be searched than white people. Such inequality in searches has undoubtedly led to inequality in conviction rates, borne out by the fact that in 2017 almost two thirds of knife crime convictions of the under 25s in London were of non-white offenders, and giving the police the power to wantonly search those with past convictions will only embed this discrimination further.
Instead of relentlessly persecuting past offenders, and focussing on stopping knife crime at the point at which someone already has a knife, the government needs to focus on why so many children and adults are turning to knives, particularly in ethnic minority communities. Knife crime is wrapped around a host of other issues, most prominently gangs, but also poverty, education and community support. Admittedly, solving these issues is more challenging than simply instructing software engineers to stabilise a database, but if the government truly want to reduce knife crime, they need to be considered and addressed.
The current government cannot be entirely ignorant of this fact. In 2019, Theresa May, the then Prime Minister, acknowledged that serious violence was a ‘deep-seated’ issue, and that it needed a ‘coordinated response’ from across government, while Sajid Javid, Priti Patel’s predecessor as Home Secretary, had launched a Serious Violence Strategy in 2018. In that, Javid outlined a broad-minded approach, seeking to develop partnerships from ‘across a number of sectors such as education, social services…(and) youth services’.
This ambitious approach to knife crime and violence has seemingly been abandoned, just as it was likely to be most crucial. The pandemic has been devastating for ethnic minority communities, and without an effective response we will see more young people turning towards gangs, and from there, knives and crime. The office of the Home Secretary is one of the most challenging jobs in government – there is a reason that few ministers have risen to the premiership directly from the Home Office – and it is a tragedy that Priti Patel holds it at a time of national emergency.
To expect more of Patel would be to naively trust that a leopard can change its spots. For those who want to see a meaningful, engaged response to the issue, we must hope that Patel’s latest debacle finally dents her popularity among the Conservative party faithful, giving Johnson the courage to sack her. So far, her political career has survived the scandal over undisclosed meetings with the Israeli government, the bullying and abuse of civil servants, and her failure to stop illegal migrants from crossing the channel. Perhaps the Conservative base will now realise that while Patel is very good at saying what they want to hear, she’s not very good at doing it.