Sajid Javid, the home secretary, has claimed he was almost tempted into a life of crime while growing up on “Britain’s most dangerous street”, drawing on his humble background as part of a veiled bid to become Conservative party leader.
He said he was asked to join shoplifting and drug dealing gangs during his childhood in a speech in east London on Monday on the scourge of knife crime, which he said should be treated as a “national emergency”.
“I grew up on what one tabloid dubbed Britain’s most dangerous street,” he told an audience of charity leaders and youth workers. “It’s not so difficult to see how, instead of being in cabinet, I could have turned out to have a life of crime myself.
“Pupils at my school were shoplifting and asked me if I wanted to help. There were drug addicts who stood near my school gates and told me if I joined in I could make some easy money,” he added. “But I was lucky, I had loving and supportive parents who, despite my own circumstances, gave me the security that I needed.”
The son of Pakistani immigrants said his path in life “could have been very different” if he had not benefited from loving parents and “brilliant” teachers when growing up in Bristol.
The home secretary, who has four children, also said he “stayed up late at night waiting to hear the key turning in the door” so he knew they were home safely. “Like any other dad, when I watch the news and see the faces of all those young victims of knife crime I despair at the waste of those lives,” he said.
Mr Javid admitted that the rise in knifings was a sign that “something has gone terribly wrong”. The most recent statistics show there were 285 fatal stabbings in England and Wales in 2017/18, the highest number since records began 70 years ago. The government has already promised £100m in emergency police funding and stronger stop-and-search powers for officers, but polling data shows that voter anxiety about crime has reached a peak not seen since the 2011 riots.
The home secretary hopes to address these concerns as he makes a pitch to succeed Theresa May, who is under increasing pressure to step down following difficulties in securing support for her Brexit deal. Mr Javid, a Eurosceptic who was persuaded by Downing Street to campaign for Remain during the referendum, has started to slip behind frontrunners such as Boris Johnson, a Brexiter, and the more pragmatic Jeremy Hunt.
Mr Javid’s approach on knife crime abandons the “tough justice” approach favoured during Mrs May’s time at the Home Office. Instead, Mr Javid on Monday reiterated his determination to see youth violence as a “public health” problem to be solved by bringing together officials from education, health, social services, housing, youth and social work to help those at risk.
He also announced a new “data lab” initiative to improve understanding of the pathways to illegal activity, and deploy technology to stop crime happening. This was inspired by recent Home Office analysis which found that the top 5 per cent of crime hotspots accounted for 17 per cent of total “acquisitive” offences, such as burglaries and car thefts.
The department will now look at how to bring together information from the police and other agencies, to make “targeted and effective interventions”, the home secretary said.