Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for allowing this debate following a summer in which once again we have seen the devastating impact of knife crime.
A month ago tomorrow, 15-year-old Jermaine Groupall was stabbed to death in Croydon. Jermaine was the 15th teenager to die in a knife attack in London this year—15 young lives wasted. These devastating stories are in the news every time we switch on the TV or open a newspaper, but behind every headline is a family ruined; a local community in shock; more parents afraid to let their children out of their sight; and, tragically, a generation of young people who are becoming increasingly anxious and, in many cases, desensitised to the existence of dangerous weapons in their communities.
I asked for this debate because I believe, as I am sure everyone in this House believes, that every single life matters and that the epidemic of youth violence in this country will continue to escalate unless we do more to intervene.
I spent much of the summer talking to people in Croydon about knife crime, trying to understand why it has almost doubled in the past year. I spoke to young people involved in criminal gangs, youth workers who work with young people, local organisations that go into schools, mentor children, help provide advice and support or just give some love, and to the police, the local council, football clubs in local communities, large charities and tiny, two-person organisations in Croydon. I want to thank them all for their time and for what they do. They are all incredibly inspiring and strong.
I heard stories which broke my heart, including about policemen battling to save a life by putting their fingers in a wound to stop the streaming blood. The boy survived only to be picked up the very next week while out looking for revenge. I heard about young people who have been in care all their lives and find their only sense of love and belonging when they are in a gang; girls whose boyfriends ask them to carry their knives, and they do it because they believe that is what is expected of them; and horrific images of stabbings, of strippings, shown far and wide on social media. I was told of older men grooming young boys to carry drugs or commit other crimes with the promises of great riches that never materialised.
But this summer I also met towering figures who are giving their all to fight this problem, and some amazing young people who, against the odds, have turned their lives around. I was inspired and I learned a huge amount.
This is what I know: first, knife crime and knife carrying are increasing, and although they are greatest in London, they are increasing across the country. They are up by one fifth across England and Wales, according to recent statistics provided by the Office for National Statistics.
I sought the hon. Lady’s permission to intervene. I thank her for giving way and congratulate her on speaking on a massive issue. Northern Ireland has a relatively small amount of knife crime, with only 789 crimes involving knives and sharp objects in 2015-16. The fact remains, however, that there is a real need to educate our young people on the dangers of even bringing a knife out of the house. Does the hon. Lady agree that the Department of Justice and the Ministry of Justice must do more work with the Department for Education to target attention on the 12 to 17-year-old age bracket, because that is where the problem is?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I will refer later in my remarks to education, which is key.
Knife crime is increasing. Comparative data from NHS hospitals show us that there was a 13% increase in admissions for assault by sharp object between 2015 and 2016. The Minister will be aware of the growing concern about county lines operated by urban criminal networks.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate on the scourge of knife crime, which is one of the most important issues facing the country. She mentioned county lines. Does she agree that we need to get police forces outside London to work far more closely with the Metropolitan police to try to break some of those county lines, and particularly to tackle the practice of cuckooing, which preys on the most vulnerable in our society?
Yes, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to do more. County lines is a new and developing issue that I have learned about in Croydon. Gangs go out as far as Cardiff and down to the south coast from London and other UK cities. They are spreading out, and we need to do more. Police resourcing is absolutely key, but we need to work together even more. Children from Aberdeen to Cardiff and Margate are carrying knives; it is a UK-wide problem.
The second thing I know is that the age of the young people involved is getting lower and lower. Every single agency I spoke to over the summer said that it was used to seeing young people between the ages of 16 and 24, but that the age of the children it saw was dropping to 12, 13 and 14.
I echo the words of congratulation to my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. To what extent does she believe that the severe cuts to council services—they have led to cuts in services such as crime prevention, early intervention and family support—and the severe reductions in neighbourhood policing have contributed to Croydon having the second highest level of knife crime in London?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Over the summer, I walked around with the police looking for knives, and I talked to senior police officers and many others about the impact on their work of the cuts to their budgets and to other services. I heard about policeman buying food for children whom they had picked up before taking them home, because those children did not have enough food to eat. There are a huge range of issues that we need to tackle, but police cuts and local government cuts are an important part of the picture.
The third thing that I discovered over the summer is that the problem stretches beyond the children who are involved in crime and who carry knives themselves. Teenagers are growing up attending the funerals of school friends, with parents who are under-supported or overworked, and often both. Those children have growing anxiety and fewer ways to express it. A counselling service in my borough described deep-seated traumas among a growing number of young people, with half of the people who made up its case load having experienced suicidal thoughts. Many of our children now see the carrying of knives and the exploitation of men and women as normal. They see a world that, in many ways, we do not see.
The fourth fact that I learned is that the issue is complex. We cannot just say, “This is about kids in gangs who want to make money.” In fact, most knife crime is not gang-related. The causes range from policing, to jobs and training, to education, mental health and youth service provision; from silos in the care system to social media, parenting and street design. Every crime is different, every cause is different and every response must be adapted.
My fifth finding is that we know what works. A lot of people are already showing us the way, working hard and finding the answers. Although the picture is complex and the scale of the problem pretty big, there is a lot of evidence about what works and what needs to be done. I would not be standing here today if I did not think we could develop cross-party consensus about what needs to happen and how to tackle knife crime. The case that I want to make today is that we are simply not doing enough to tackle this blight on the lives of individuals and communities. I say that while welcoming the Home Secretary’s recent promise to crack down in law on the online sale of knives. I also welcome the continued commitment to Operation Sceptre by police forces up and down the country.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing a debate on such a critical issue and on her truly excellent speech. Although the causes of and the solutions to knife crime are complicated, does she agree that the absolutely first base needed to solve it is properly resourced neighbourhood policing? Such policing builds trust, and is the bedrock of the trust between the police and local communities. It is absolutely critical in fostering a culture in which our young people believe that the police are there to keep them safe, and that they therefore do not need to carry weapons of their own.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When I was walking around with the local police looking for knives on a local council estate, I talked to them about the impact of the cuts on their job, and they said the impact was very severe and that they could not do the things they wanted to do. For example, one of the things they do not have the resources to do is to go into schools to normalise the relationship between children and the police so that a bit more trust can be built up between them. Such interventions are absolutely crucial, but at the moment they are not happening in the way they should.
I welcome the Mayor of London’s recent knife crime strategy, as well as the work of many colleagues, such as that of my hon. Friend Vicky Foxcroft, in setting up the Youth Violence Commission. The Home Office’s flagship scheme on ending gang violence and exploitation is well intentioned, but with just under £100,000 of funding for this year, it does not have enough money, and it also focuses predominately on gangs. It does not reflect the complex reality that has developed during the past few years, and it requires cash-starved local authorities to fund half the cost of the programme if they want it to be implemented in their areas.
“we absolutely cannot deal with this problem through enforcement alone.”
Specifically, I am calling on the Government to develop a coherent, 10-year knife crime strategy that co-ordinates work across departmental and party lines, puts preventive and acute resources on an equal footing, and recognises the interdependent nature of the public services in play. The hugely successful teenage pregnancy strategy implemented by the previous Labour Government resulted in record lows of teenage pregnancy, with a 51% drop over 16 years. Two things characterised that programme: the first was the length of time devoted to it—10 years; and the second was the recognition that no single Department could solve the problem alone.
I will not set out tonight, nor could I, what a 10-year strategy should look like, but I know plenty of people who could help us to write one. I want to highlight four things that must be part of the mix. The first is resources. At many stages of a young person’s life, the help they need is to be shown that they have choices, that getting involved in violence is not the way, that they can have a future and that people care, but such interventions simply do not exist. Such interventions might be in schools, to teach people about positive relationships and emotional responses, or through child and adolescent mental health services. They might take the form of a conversation with a policeman or a youth worker, or someone who can help them to think about their CV and their job options. Funding cuts across our public services—policing, youth work, education and health—have left a huge vacuum that social media and criminal gangs are filling, so we cannot duck the issue of resources or the lack of them. It comes up at every turn when we talk to anyone with first-hand experience of the problem.
My second point is that when I ask young people what has changed over the past couple of years, the conversation repeatedly returns to social media and the online world. Social media is undeniably fuelling an escalation in the cycle of violence among young people. There is a growing trend of documented attacks and threats between rival groups, of violating others and of widespread bullying through tools such as Snapchat and Instagram. We should look not just at hosting sites such as YouTube, but at channels that share and spread this content, often distributing it to thousands of people without consideration of the messages behind it or the age of those viewing it. All this provides the catalyst for an ever more extreme and condensed revenge cycle of violence. The smallest violation can now be broadcast to hundreds if not thousands of people, and it can escalate to face-to-face confrontation in a matter of hours. I urge the Minister to raise this issue with the Home Secretary. The Government have taken a strong approach to extremist content online, but this type of content is in many ways equally alluring and damaging.
My third point is that there are widespread concerns that schools are being overwhelmed by the scale of the issues they face and, as with the police, the spill-over issues of other services not being able to cope. Funding is absolutely key in that respect, but there are also increasing pressures to do academic attainment. We have to ask whether some schools are bypassing their broader social responsibilities in the drive to make good on their bold claims about pass rates. There is particular concern about some academy chains. Every single agency that I have spoken to over the summer reports increasing levels of managed moves or expulsions, often for children with undiagnosed behaviour or mental health disorders, when the school simply cannot cope or does not want the child there.
Moving children to other schools or pupil referral units is a worrying trend. One organisation described to me the straight line between PRUs and gangs. We should look hard at whether there is sufficient accountability, particularly in academies, before condemning a child to a PRU.
Voluntary groups are an important bridge to young people, but they report increased difficulties in accessing schools. Again, academies seem particular culprits, preferring internal processes and systems to the learned experience and cultural competence that many voluntary sector organisations offer.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this important debate to the Chamber. Sadly, a young boy in my constituency lost his life while at school because another pupil had taken a knife with him. Every parent should be able to send their child to school in the knowledge that they will be safe there. Does the hon. Lady agree that there is some merit in looking at teachers’ powers and whether they should have the right to search pupils if they are suspicious or concerned that there could be a weapon in the classroom?
It is something that we need to look at. Teachers are overstretched in many ways: many support staff posts have been cut and teachers have to deal with children with special educational needs without the necessary resources. It is therefore hard to give them extra responsibilities for intervening if they believe a knife has been brought into school. However, we have to take action. The 10-year knife crime strategy, which would comprise a suite of actions and many different interventions, is the solution rather than one thing or another. There is talk of screens to walk through to go into school, but to me and many others that is an alarming prospect that we need to try to avoid if we can. However, if people are taking knives into school, we have clearly reached the point when intervention is required.
My final point is that we might look at the growing body of evidence that suggests we should view knife crime and youth violence as a public health issue. There is much good work on that in this country and abroad. The Minister will know that in America, across major cities such as Chicago, Boston and New York, youth violence is approached as a major public health issue, and tackled as an infectious epidemic. That includes interrupting activity at source, with people from the local community trained to intervene and work with young people; outreach workers working intensively with young people for six months or a year; and a programme of community and education activity to shift the norms around behaviour and expectation.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on winning the ballot to hold the debate this evening, and I thank her for raising the issue, which affects the whole United Kingdom. It is especially pertinent to Clackmannanshire in my constituency, where there has been a significant increase in knife-related incidents in the past year alone, including one incident involving samurai swords in Alloa town centre. I welcome many of the measures that the hon. Lady has suggested and I hope to work with my hon. Friends to help to progress them. However, does she agree that measures on knife sales and imports of weapons to the UK should also be included in a future strategy?
The hon. Gentleman is right. I welcome the steps that the Home Secretary has already taken and I think we could do more. It is abhorrent that young people—children—find it easy to buy knives online or in shops. We should do everything we can to prevent that.
The direct intervention in America and in pockets here works and has high levels of success. I have visited projects and met people running projects here who are ex-gang members mentoring children, youth workers working with children in hospital directly after they have been stabbed, or former offenders working with kids in PRUs on training for job interviews and looking for other options in life. Those sorts of direct intervention work, and those pockets should become our response across the board. They need to be funded and co-ordinated.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. I agree that the Government should do all that they can, but policing is a devolved issue, and the first line of defence is the Mayor of London. As a member of the London Assembly, I scrutinised much of the work that he did in the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime, and I know that he has some leeway in addressing issues relating to funds for neighbourhood policing. Does the hon. Lady feel that his knife crime strategy addresses the problem, and if so, how?
I support the Mayor’s knife crime strategy. I do not think he is in a position to bridge the funding gap in the way that is required both for policing and for interventions in youth services and other services throughout the capital, but I know that he too is lobbying the Government for the funds that we need to tackle the problem. I know that he is doing absolutely everything he can, as are Cressida Dick and the Metropolitan police in London. I have met representatives of the Met, and have discussed the issue with them.
Let me end by returning to my original plea to the Minister for a cross-Government knife crime strategy. Governments have the job of deciding where and how resources should be allocated, and that is not an easy job, but this issue has been sidelined by the present Government for too long, and the consequences are very real. I hope that the Minister will commit herself to considering the proposals that I have outlined, meeting me to discuss them further, and hearing about the work of the APPG that I have set up and will be launching next week.
There are people here tonight who are working on the front line with children in Croydon to give them routes away from violence and crime. If we can match their commitment and bravery, we shall be doing a good thing.
I welcome the debate, and pay tribute to the work done by Sarah Jones over the summer recess. She has obviously not had a holiday at all, but has spent a huge amount of time living up to the clear commitment that she made during the general election campaign, when she said that she would do everything she could to stamp out knife crime in Croydon. I am delighted that she has shared all her learning in the House this evening. I am also grateful to the wide variety of colleagues on both sides of the House who have stayed behind, and have made such important contributions.
I entirely share the hon. Lady’s passionate determination that we should do all that we can to stamp out the appalling knife crimes that we have been seeing. She talked about the horrendous instances in her constituency; however, this is happening far too frequently, not just here in London but in other parts of the country. I welcome the creation of an all-party parliamentary group, which will enable me to work with the hon. Lady and other Members, sharing local experiences and the work that we are doing nationally so that together we can try to make the differences and changes that we all want so much to see.
The Minister has said that she would be happy to do everything to stamp out the growth of knife crime. Does that include reversing the cuts in police officer numbers that we are seeing in constabularies around the country? In Suffolk, for instance, in one of the least policed areas in the country, the number of officers has been cut by 300 over the past 10 years.
Of course resources are important, but let us be clear: the Government are not cutting the money that goes to police forces. Since 2015, their money will have been going up in cash terms, especially if they use their precepting powers. It is not fair to say that we are cutting that money. Police officers—police leaders, with the police and crime commissioners—make the operational decisions. It is the Mayor of London, working with the Metropolitan police, who decides how London is to be policed and how communities are to be kept safe. Of course the Home Office has a role to play in supporting them, and, since 2016, our modern crime prevention strategy has focused on the reduction of violent crime, including knife crime. That strategy is very clear. When we meet the all-party group—in the few minutes I have got this evening, I cannot do justice to the breadth of work the Government are doing to bear down on this issue—I will, with officials, explain to the hon. Lady and other members of the APPG across the House who want to come along our strategy and the actions that we are taking now. As the hon. Lady says, the Home Secretary announced a whole series of measures that we are about to consult on, and of course her contribution to that will be very welcome.
The Government have directly reduced funding for youth offending services and indirectly reduced funding for early intervention and family support through the cuts delivered to local government. This has become so severe that those working in youth offending services can no longer devote the time necessary to prevent young offenders from reoffending, so we are still seeing reoffending at extremely high levels. That is putting those young offenders at risk and risking future victims. Will the Government look again at these very short-sighted cuts which are not only causing such damage to young people’s futures, but will cost more in the long run because of the consequences of the crimes they commit?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that prevention is vitally important—working with young people to explain the risks they are taking if they carry a knife and, once they get into the criminal justice system, making sure they get all the support they need to be diverted away from such harmful behaviour. A key part of the announcement we made in July was that we will be doing more work at a community level. We are setting up the new £500,000 community fund to support those very successful grassroots organisations we have heard about this evening, which are key partners for us in the Home Office, such as St Giles and Redthread. I am sure the hon. Member for Croydon Central has had meetings with those excellent organisations in London. We work with and partner such organisations and part-fund them, along with the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime and the Mayor of London, to make sure the services are there, and that we are identifying the most vulnerable young people and giving them the support they need to make different choices in their lives.
Building on that evidence base and what we have learned in London, services are being expanded across the United Kingdom. We have heard about the excellent work done in A&E departments—the “teachable moments” that happen in our major trauma centres here in London. The Government are part-funding the expansion of that into cities around the UK this year. So we are working at pace with determination using the evidence base of what works—a lot of that has been learned in London—to make sure other parts of the country and communities that are experiencing such problems are getting the support they need.
That brings me back to the hon. Lady’s primary ask that we work together across the House to look at both a national and a local response. Since we launched our strategy, we have been building the capacity in the system to understand this very complex issue: it is sometimes driven by gangs, and sometimes by organised and serious crime; and whereas carrying knives and participating in knife crime disproportionately involves young people, people of other ages are involved as well. We have funded a whole series of local and area-based reviews. One was done in Croydon; the hon. Lady might not have had a chance to speak to the chief executive of her local authority or her borough commander about that work, but it was very useful. We have had very good feedback from boroughs and places all over the country, enabling all the agencies in the community—social services, youth offending services, schools and teachers, voluntary groups, communities and counsellors—to share data and build a picture of what is happening in their communities, so that they can properly target their resources to join up those services to support young people in the communities to make different choices.
That work extends beyond the immediate localities to deal with the county lines issues. This sort of crime is being exported out of London, Manchester and Liverpool to other parts of the country, so we are funding not only local area reviews but national strategic reviews. With that better intelligence and data, we are making a real difference by joining up the different parts of the public services with businesses and voluntary sector organisations, which are so capable of working with young people, to restrict access to knives. That work is being scaled up at pace to meet the challenge that we undoubtedly face today.
The Minister talks about knife crime being exported out of London and other cities; it plagues the whole of the United Kingdom. Education, justice and health are devolved matters in Scotland, but will she commit to engaging with the Scottish Government to look at how we could adopt a consistent approach to dealing with this issue across the United Kingdom?
I can absolutely assure my hon. Friend that I am already doing that in relation to all the new measures on preventing young people from getting access to knives and on banning zombie knives. We have asked the Scottish Government to do those things. I have not had time to do justice to the huge amount of information that we have been given this evening, but I want to carry on this discussion. I very much welcome the way in which the hon. Lady has presented the debate. This is a nationwide issue that requires all of us in this place to reach across and work with each other to bring an end to these appalling crimes—
House adjourned without Question put (