It is a pleasure to follow Ben Lake. I agree with him wholeheartedly that it is sad that we are debating these issues and that the Government have had to introduce the Bill. It should not be necessary—people should not throw acid in people’s faces, which has a life-changing impact, and they should not use knives on our streets.
However, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, we are where we are. This is a hugely important Bill because the scourge of knife and acid crime touches not only a number of constituencies within London and our inner cities, but all our constituencies up and down the country. I am sorry to say that its intensity is growing outside the major cities, and it is finding its way into towns such as mine and rural communities. It devastates communities, including mine, where we have had horrific knife attacks. I agree that one victim of an acid or knife attack is one too many. The tragedy is that, in many cases, young people’s lives are taken at an early age when they have so much promise ahead of them, which devastates not only the families but the wider community.
We know that the victims and perpetrators of such offences are often from outside the towns in which those offences are committed. I have referenced one incident in the House previously. There were six knife attacks in Colchester in one evening, and in all six cases, the victims and perpetrators were from outside Colchester—they came from London. This is not just a city issue anymore. County lines are bought and sold like franchises. The perpetrators use children—they know that they are less likely to be stopped and searched on the train or other public transport—to carry drugs, bringing with them fear, intimidation and violence to towns up and down the country. As I said, in the case I mentioned, the victims and perpetrators were all from London. There is an increase in county lines activity and the barbaric activity known as cuckooing. Much of this is, sadly, drug-related.
I welcome the Government’s serious crime strategy and the £40 million that comes with it. I was pleased to speak in the debate just a few weeks ago about that very subject. I have my own views about what we need to do to tackle serious crime, and especially on prevention and diversion. The Government’s strategy includes a number of measures that I wholeheartedly support but, as the Minister knows, because we have had this conversation, the question is how we treat children who have been involved in county lines operations. In many cases we are talking about 12 to 15-year-olds who are groomed by drug gangs in a similar way to how sexual predators groom young people. It can start with the purchase of trainers or a financial gift of some description, or it can start with violence and intimidation of either the young person or a family member. Do we treat those children like criminals, bearing in mind their life chances from that moment on, or do we treat them like the victims who they are, and put them back on the right track to a fulfilling life in which they contribute fully to society?