14 March 2019

Graham Atkins argues that the latest emergency funding for knife crime continues the Government’s crisis-cash-repeat approach to public services

In a Spring Statement otherwise light on announcements, Philip Hammond pulled a small rabbit from his hat for the police. In light of rising knife crime, the Chancellor announced that the police would receive an extra £100 million in 2019/20.

More money helps, but police forces will struggle to use it to address the underlying causes of knife crime. Instead, this illustrates a bigger problem with the way this Government has managed public services. Our analysis from Performance Tracker – produced in partnership with the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy – has shown that this government has responded to a cycle of foreseeable crises with injections of emergency cash – which has become a feature of budgets since the 2015 Spending Review.

The £100m announcement continues the crisis-cash-repeat cycle

The Chancellor’s announcement was the culmination of a painfully predictable pattern. Following a series of high-profile stabbings covered in the media, the Government was forced to acknowledge public concern about levels of knife crime, ultimately responding with an injection of emergency cash as a sticking plaster.

But the crisis was foreseeable. Recent media coverage has concentrated political attention but knife crime – whether measured from hospital admissions, police recorded offences or surveys of crime victims – has been steadily rising since at least 2014.

Changes in police recorded knife crime and hospital admissions

Extra resources will help but emergency injections are an ineffective way to spend money. Police and crime commissioners will struggle to plan how to spend money which must be spent by the end of March next year. They will struggle to set up longer-term programmes, when they cannot be sure how much money will be available beyond that point.

If the money is used to fund more police patrols, this will have to be carefully targeted as there is limited evidence that more ‘bobbies on the beat’ will reduce crime or reassure citizens.

The Government needs a coherent strategy for all public services

The Treasury have said that some of the £100m will fund “Violence Reduction Units”, designed to bring health, education, and social services together to prevent knife crime, based on an approach adopted in Glasgow after 2005.

Given the evidence of the Glasgow Unit’s success in reducing homicides, this is sensible. But it is unclear how this fits with the Home Office’s existing serious violence reduction strategy, or the money ringfenced for similar projects such as the Early Youth Intervention Fund, or the Anti-Knife Crime Community Fund.

Councils cut spending on services for young people by 57% between 2010/11 and 2017/18, including services like youth clubs, that help prevent young people from getting involved in crime. Any new efforts to bring together health, education and social services may be undermined if the Government continues to cut grants to councils, which have cut spending on discretionary services over the past nine years.

This sticking plaster approach to funding goes beyond the police. From schools to social care, emergency cash injections have become a feature of the Government’s approach to budgeting.

In total, we estimate that the Government spent over £10bn on emergency cash injections for public services between the 2015 Spending Review and Autumn 2017.

This incoherent, siloed approach is damaging and will not help service leaders on the ground. The Government must use the upcoming Spending Review – which will set departmental budgets over the next three years – to focus on the outcomes it wants to achieve, allocate money where it will have the greatest impact, and set realistic budgets. Failure to do so risks public services falling even further into the crisis-cash-repeat cycle.