It is a pleasure to follow Douglas Ross, a fellow member of the Home Affairs Committee. I apologise to the House that he and I will probably have to leave shortly, as we have an evidence session with young people this afternoon. He rightly says that we should do more to make sure young people’s voices are heard, not just in our Committee but in all Committee inquiries and in all the work we do across the House.
This is a deeply serious issue. Lives are being lost and families devastated. Too often, parents end up fearful and children at risk. In West Yorkshire, knife crime has doubled since 2010. It has gone up by 20% in the past year alone. Across the country, we see a similar picture. It is not just in our biggest cities but in our towns, often spread by county lines. The most disturbing figures are those showing that since 2012 the number of children and young people under 16 admitted to hospital for knife wounds has doubled. One of the NHS consultants we heard from said that the peak time was between 4 and 6 in the afternoon—after school, when children have just finished a French, history or maths lesson and should just be going home, but find themselves caught up in violence instead, and do not make it home.
The Home Affairs Committee launched its inquiry into serious violence before Christmas. We will draw our conclusions together shortly. I will not pre-empt the conclusions, but I will reflect on some of the evidence we have heard. I start with evidence from young people and youth workers, who told us how many young people do not feel safe on the streets after school and think the only way to feel safe is to carry a knife. They do not see the police as people they can turn to. They do not have police officers that they know in schools. They do not have outreach workers, youth services or safe spaces to go to. The greater risks are for those young people who have been excluded or who might be vulnerable in different ways; those who get caught up in drug networks, county lines or gangs.
We were struck by the evidence from the police, who evidently are working immensely hard to tackle the problem but are undoubtedly overstretched. They can operate targeted, intelligence-led policing, but they find it much harder to provide and resource the neighbourhood police officers or school-based officers who might help to prevent some of the violence in the first place. Having seen their work over the years, I find it particularly troubling that we have lost so many school-based police officers, because they can often build up trust and relationships, gather intelligence, and simply work on prevention and practical messages for young people about how they can stay safe and build their confidence in their lives and not fall into patterns of violence or become vulnerable. I was struck, too, that although the Met has had big reductions in its number of school-based officers, it is now trying to increase the number of officers based in schools because it sees their value. In the west midlands, they told us that they did not have any police officers based in schools and had no prospect of being able to provide them.
There is undoubtedly an issue about whether the resources going into tackling serious violence match the scale and urgency of the problem, and whether the scale and pace of the early interventions the Government have talked about match in any way the scale of the violence and the number of lives being lost. We have seen many worthwhile targeted projects, but they have simply too narrow a reach; they do not reach enough young people or communities, so they cannot tackle enough of the problem. Equally, although the police do some excellent work in tackling some county lines networks and drug networks, that is not able to match the scale of the problem.
I want to talk in particular about co-ordination and leadership concerns. Whatever the level of resources, there are key challenges around co-ordination, drive, urgency and leadership. We heard considerable evidence from a range of witnesses who believed that the Home Office should do more. When the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Victoria Atkins, gave evidence, I asked questions about how many young people the Government were trying to reach. The Government have rightly talked about a public health strategy, and the definition of such a strategy is that there is a defined population and an intelligence and data-based approach. I therefore welcome the points the Home Secretary made about increasing the level of evidence and data we have, but I was concerned that, in that evidence session, neither the Minister nor the officials gave us a clear sense of how many young people the Home Office is trying to reach with its strategy and what scale of intervention we should expect to see over the next three months, the next six months and the next 12 months. This problem is acute—lives are at risk—so we need clear objectives, a clear sense of progress, a clear sense of direction, and action to make sure things are happening and being delivered.
We were concerned to discover that there was no clear sense of who would be responsible in each area. Who in the west midlands, in West Yorkshire, in Bedfordshire will be driving the action to tackle serious and violent crime in their area? Will it be the police and crime commissioner? The chief constable? The Mayor? The leader of the local council? The chair of the safeguarding board? There is a clear need for co-ordination in every area if we are to bring all these different organisations together.
I welcome the Government’s talk about a duty on public sector institutions to have regard to the risk of serious violence and the impact of knife crime, but simply having a duty when there is no framework to co-operate and co-ordinate is not enough; there mustbe practical mechanisms to make sure things change. There has to be someone the Minister can ring up to say, “We’ve seen your figures are going in the wrong direction. There is a growing problem in your part of the country. What are you doing to sort it out?” The Minister needs to be able to ring someone up, ask what is happening, get the feedback and make sure action is being taken to protect young people.
I know the Minister was going to a meeting after the evidence session, so she may well have made further progress. I hope so. If the violence reduction units—in those areas where they are to be introduced—are not to be in place for another six months, I would like to know who will be leading the work in the next six months to make sure young people are protected and that action is being taken in a co-ordinated way between the police and other organisations to tackle some of these awful crimes?
Let me quote some of the witness evidence to the inquiry. Sara Thornton said:
“I think that where we have so many young people dying in our streets, we need a much more concerted response from Government.”
Sir Denis O’Connor, who is a former chief inspector of constabulary and was involved in previous programmes to tackle knife crime and street crime, thought that the strategy was
“much more concerned with its narrative and less with action”.
The Met Commissioner told us that
“we are not yet seeing real cross-Government action being delivered in a meaningful way on the ground and in our communities.”
Dame Louise Casey, who was also involved in previous Government programmes, described the Government’s strategy as “woefully inadequate”.
The Government have some very good intentions on this—they have set out a strong sense of concern and commitment to tackling knife crime—but the challenge for the Home Office is to make sure it has enough urgency, that its sense of determination matches the scale of the problem and that the partnership between all Departments is tight enough and strong enough and has enough follow-up to deliver action on, for example, the number of young people being excluded from school—some of whom are very vulnerable—and to take action in hospitals. The Redthread programme is extremely good, but are enough hospitals involved in such early intervention programmes? We need partnership working in communities and investment in wider universal youth services, as well as some of the targeted work.
In the end, we will save lives only if organisations work together, but for them, working together, to have an impact there also needs to be strong leadership from the Government and the Home Office. I hope we will see that leadership over the next few months. The Select Committee looks forward to scrutinising this work further as part of its work.