What Sajid Javid’s knife crime speech really tells us

The Home Secretary is calling for a public health approach – but that’s not the news here.

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When speeches by cabinet ministers are trailed as “major”, and the policies they announce as “new”, it’s always worth looking a little closer.

Much as the Work & Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd’s Universal Credit “reset” – outlined in January in a “landmark speech”, of course – was a PR exercise with very little actual policy change, today’s announcements by the Home Secretary Sajid Javid also stop short of a radical new approach.

Trailed in the press as delivering his first major speech on crime, Javid was reported by Sky News to be “unveiling a radical blueprint” for keeping communities safe. Most coverage has suggested this move is also to kick off his leadership bid, as Tory hopefuls jostle for attention.

But let’s look at what we actually learned from his speech:

A shift to a public health approach

Javid’s description of serious violence as a “virulent disease” was the line briefed ahead of the speech that made headlines.

This signals a view of violent crime as something that should be treated as a public health crisis: to tackle the crime, “the mindset of government needs to shift” in this way, Javid says. In his speech, he said he wants to bring “education, health, social services, housing, youth and social workers” together to help support vulnerable young people who could be at risk. He referred to legislation that will mandate all parts of government to work together.

A public health approach to knife crime in Glasgow during the mid-Noughties drastically reduced violence – halving murders in the city once known as Europe’s “murder capital”. It did this via a taskforce called the Violence Reduction Unit, with the police working alongside health, education and social workers to tackle the problem as a health issue rather than simply a law and order issue. A similar approach has worked in Chicago.

While this would mark a shift in tackling knife crime in England, it’s not new. The government unveiled its ambition to treat violent crime as a disease a couple of weeks ago, during the Serious Violence Summit at Downing Street. Theresa May commented at the time: “We cannot simply arrest ourselves out of this problem.” The summit was largely ignored during a big week of Brexit votes.

So Javid reiterated a conclusion that the government has already come to in dealing with violent crime.

Acceptance that inequality plays a part

Javid admitted in his speech that economic inequality has a role to play in violent crime. “There are still too many places where that longed for prosperity has not reached, streets like the ones surrounding us,” he said, speaking at a venue in east London. “Up and down the country that are instead dangerous and sometimes deadly.”

He also accepted that “before a young person ever picks up a knife, they have been the victim of a string of lost opportunities and missed chances”.

This is a bit more than other government ministers have been willing to concede when it comes to the record fatal stabbing figures over the past year, but it’s not radical. Javid neither analysed how austerity has fed that lack of opportunity, nor offered any solutions beyond signalling a public health approach and the usual police resource/stop-and-search arguments that are usually trotted out.

His personal experience

Rather than policy, the freshest announcements in Javid’s speech were about his own personal experience. As a father of teenagers, he said he fears for his children’s safety. And as a politician from a working-class background, he said he could have been sucked into crime himself as a young man.

This is catnip to those listening out for ministers’ leadership ambitions, but doesn’t cover up for the fact that there were no new policies with spending commitments revealed in this speech. What it really showed was how the government is playing catch-up on this issue – as the only thing it can offer to change is its mindset.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.