Serious Violence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:23 pm on 18th February 2019.

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Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Labour, Tottenham 9:23 pm, 18th February 2019

I am grateful to the Home Secretary for that.

This is a very serious issue. Over the almost 20 years that I have been in public life, very sadly, I have had to comfort far too many parents who have lost their children to violence. In fact, when I reflect on my career one day, and this is an apposite day on which to say this, as a member of the serious violence taskforce moves off in a different direction—I am of course thinking of Chuka Umunna—it is right to say that two cases stand out in my mind. The first is the young woman, Pauline Peart, who, at the beginning of my political career back in 2003, was shot in a car in my constituency and lost her life. The other was on bank holiday last year, when a young woman, Tanesha Melbourne-Blake, was also shot and killed.

It is right to say that that event sparked the current national concern about violent crime in our country. At that point, there was a lot of comment about the murder rate in London overtaking that of New York. I do not think we are quite in that place, but it nevertheless caused tremendous alarm. I think it was because it was a young woman who found herself in those circumstances, just having walked out of her home with a friend to go a newsagent’s, and lost her life, that it caused such concern on that public holiday.

I guess the important thing in such a debate—this subject is probably the one I have spoken about more than other subject in this Chamber and in this House—is to ask: is the situation getting worse, is it stable or is it getting better? My judgment is that we have not got over the problem, and the situation feels significantly worse over the last period than it has done in the past. I have seen other spikes. I recall the spike back in 2008, and I remember that Ken Livingstone was the Mayor of London, but lost his post in part because crime became a very central issue in the campaign. There have been spikes over this period, but we are clearly in the grip of something at the moment.

I want to reflect briefly on some of the contexts of this spike and the national concern. The first is that, once upon a time—when I started, we talked about yardie gangs and Operation Trident had just been set up—I really thought this problem, which we had imported almost from downtown America, would go. It does not feel like that today; sadly, it feels almost a permanent feature of our urban life, and of course it has spread to areas that are very different from my own constituency. That is the first context that is very disturbing.

Why is that? We tend to focus on the violence and on the knives and the guns, but the real issue that drives much of this is not the knives or the guns. It is drugs, money and demand, as well as the increasing quality of cocaine across our country and the drop in price of that product. It is prolific, and I was first struck by how prolific it is when sitting in Highbury magistrates court behind a young man—I think he was 17—who had been arrested for trafficking that drug on county lines, and I was staggered that he had been arrested in Aberdeen. What was my young constituent doing in Aberdeen, when I have never been to Aberdeen? I wish that I had been to Aberdeen, but I have not been there. I thought, “Why was he there?” He was there because it turns out there is quite a rich market for cocaine in Aberdeen. There is a middle-class life, with some money and some spend, and like a lot of places here in London and a lot of parts of our country, cocaine is particularly rife.

I welcome the review by Dame Carol Black that has been announced. This does open broader questions about drugs in our country, about the war on drugs and its failure, about our position and the repositioning of public policy on drugs, and—I have to raise this with the Home Secretary—the successive cuts in our Border Force. If we want enforcement on drugs and not to relax our position—although I think that is highly unlikely for cocaine—we have to police our borders.

When I met people at the National Crime Agency recently, they explained that they cannot possibly prevent the vast majority of drugs from coming into this country, although they do their best. Our Border Force is seriously stretched to police the market that is coming across the Atlantic, up through Spain, or across from Holland.

Drugs are the first major issue, and then it collides. My right hon. Friend Ms Abbott, the Opposition spokesman, has raised this, and I hate it being such a partisan issue, but there are real issues at a local authority level. Local authorities set the strategies for youth. They set the strategies for youth violence. They do it alongside the police—we turn to the police so often—but much of this falls to local authorities. My sense—I got around a lot when I was doing the review for the Government on the disproportionality of the criminal justice system for black and ethnic minorities—is that it is patchy across the country. It is not just patchy in terms of strategy and approach, but in terms of resource to address some of the problems, so investment in new services is important. It certainly means that issues such as how the pupil referral units are working and how alternative provision is working are central to this discussion.

The subject has come up in the serious violence taskforce and I remain concerned about the amount of young people who are effectively excluded from school, who are not getting an effective education and who are falling into the hands of adults who are exploiting them. That takes us to another issue: how do we address not the young people but the grown men who are exploiting them and trafficking them across the country? Is the law robust enough to send the message to these modern-day pimps—because that is how we should describe them—who are exploiting these young people in this way? The frustration is that we can go back quite a number of years, back to Dickens, and there will always be adults there to exploit young people. We have to bear down very hard on them.

The other colliding force affecting all young people across our country is of course social media and technology and, in this context, some of the rabbit holes down which young people can go in relation to particular types of music and particular types of violence. My concern is that much of that remains heavily unregulated and voluntarily policed by the industry. We have to do more to protect young people. It affects all young people. We see it in terms of suicide, anorexia, bulimia and those sorts of mental health issues among young people. In this area, it has a bearing on some of the increase in violent crime as well. I look forward to continuing to work with the Home Secretary, but there are issues with funding. It does not all fall to the police. The local context is important, and I am very concerned about the rise in drugs in this country, the rising market and the need to fully grip what we, as a nation, are to do about it.