Violent Crime - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:15 pm on 29th November 2018.

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Photo of Lord Harris of Haringey Lord Harris of Haringey Labour 2:15 pm, 29th November 2018

My Lords, I am pleased to have the opportunity to introduce this debate today, and in doing so remind the House of my various interests in the register.

Nineteen days ago a man in his 30s was found with stab injuries at the end of my road. He was one of the luckier ones; his injuries were not life-threatening. However, on that same weekend the number of murders in London this year exceeded the total for the whole of 2017—and across the country the latest ONS figures suggest a 12% increase in the number of offences involving a knife or sharp instrument. But these statistics tell us nothing about the human tragedies involved in individual cases: the parents who are devastated and those who are left bereft.

What should be clear is that the causes of violent crime are complex and that there is no single, simple solution. Indeed, those who pretend that there is do a disservice to those who have died and suffered, and a disservice to their loved ones.

Let us also be clear that this is not just about London; it is an issue in all urban areas. However, the response of the Mayor of London has been decisive: creating the violent crime task force with 250 police officers based in the highest-risk localities and deployed flexibly and rapidly in accordance with the intelligence picture. This may already have had an impact on the figures, although it is too early to say conclusively. In addition, the mayor is setting up a violence reduction unit to spread good practice and identify systemic London-wide issues that need to be addressed.

At the same time, the mayor’s Young Londoners Fund—totalling £45 million—will help children and young people to fulfil their potential, particularly those at risk of getting caught up in crime, with 105 local community organisations starting projects in January, supporting 50,000 young people aged 10 to 21, with another round of projects starting in May. The importance of this is the recognition that you cannot simply police yourself out of the problems around violent crime—which is why in London there are local action plans agreed by local partners in each borough.

But the decline in police numbers has had a major effect. There will soon be fewer than 30,000 officers policing our capital city and, with £300 million still to be found from the Metropolitan Police budget in the next year, we will be back to the levels of 20 years ago, while London’s population has risen from 7 million to 9 million.

What is the consequence of that? The imperative to respond to incidents means that there are not the resources available for proactive and preventive policing. Neighbourhood policing is a shadow of its former self, which means that the police no longer have the community insights they had, that intelligence is diminished and that proactive interventions are reduced.

I have talked to council leaders who tell me that low-level drug dealing is often not targeted. If police officers are confronted by it, they intervene, but operations to disrupt such problems are no longer possible. The consequence is that dealing is normalised. Gangs feel that they can operate unhindered. They expand their operations and there are territorial disputes—and then stabbings and murders.

What is the Home Office response? I can tell you now what the Minister will say because she has said it repeatedly in your Lordships’ House. She will say that locally elected police and crime commissioners must set local priorities—she is nodding. That is true, but it is near meaningless if your resources are pitifully inadequate for the task faced. She will say that there is no correlation between police numbers and crime levels. That was true only when a measure of crime was used that showed that total crime was falling because it did not pick up the massive shift towards online crimes. She will say that PCCs can increase the police precept if they wish. Yes, they can, but only within the strict limits set by the Government, who have failed to fund £420 million of police pension commitments. We just heard the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, tell us that schools’ pension commitments are being fully funded, but the police pension commitments are not. No doubt the Minister will tell us why that is and why it is such a beneficial policy, unlike in every other major public service. It is not surprising that PCCs feel they are being left in a worse position than ever before.

These cuts are real. The number of police officers in England and Wales has fallen by 20,000 since March 2010 and is now at its lowest recorded level since the early 1980s, yet we know from the 2011 riots, which occurred before most of that reduction took place, how tenuous the thin blue line actually is. This week, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary highlighted the pressures on the police as a result of what is called the “broken mental health system”. These cuts and pressures are not surprisingly leading to a purely reactive service. This is starkly demonstrated in the latest figures for the number of drug seizures, which were down to 135,000 in 2017-18, the lowest number for 14 years, so gangs feel they can operate on our streets with impunity.

It is not just the police that have suffered cuts. In 2010, £1.2 billion was spent across the country on youth work and youth services. Last year that had fallen to £358 million: a 68% cut. Other public services, such as probation, that help to reduce the risk of crime or support young people have suffered similarly, as has the funding available to charities and the voluntary sector. Our social fabric is being stretched so thin that it has become almost transparent.

The Government’s Serious Violence Strategy—and I am sure we will hear much about it from the Minister—is simply not enough to plug those gaps. It is long on analysis and short on remedies. It recognises that changes in the drugs market have fuelled recent increases in violence but offers little as a solution. The focus of the strategy is supposed to be early intervention, which is a worthy aspiration, and indeed there is a blizzard of worthy but small-scale initiatives in the strategy. There is to be a new early intervention youth fund amounting to £11 million—contrast that with the mayor’s Young Londoners Fund, which is worth £45 million and is four times the size. The early intervention money is to be spent over two years—and that is itself a problem. Ask anyone involved in the field and they will tell you that is simply too short a period for a project to deliver a sustained impact.

I want to say a bit about police tactics and style. To listen to some Ministers, you would think the answer is simply much more stop and search. This analysis conveniently forgets that it was the present Prime Minister, when she was Home Secretary, who restricted police powers in this area and pressurised the police to make much less use of the powers they still had, so much so that the number of police stops fell to 280,000 last year compared with 1.5 million 10 years earlier. Incidentally, the figures continue to show an apparently disproportionate number of black men being stopped and, if anything, the disproportionality has increased.

Of course, stop and search should be intelligence-led. However, the changes in the law around Section 60 stops—Section 60 allows all police stops in precisely defined areas for a specific period—have made it harder for the police to respond proactively and flexibly to intelligence received. The law now requires that senior police must for good reason believe that serious violence will take place and that the power is necessary to prevent such violence. Previously the test was that serious violence not “will” but “may” take place. That change was unhelpful. Reversing it would be far more sensible than the wider loosening of the law advocated by the Centre for Social Justice and apparently contemplated by the present Home Secretary.

Section 60 powers must be used only with community consent. When you ask young people and communities what measures are necessary in a particular locality, they will often want to see more stops to take weapons off the streets and, more importantly, deter individuals carrying knives and other weapons. It requires serious community engagement, and that individual stops are conducted with respect and civility. It is always better if the officers using the powers are familiar with the areas concerned, which is why the approach taken by the Met’s violent crime task force, with teams of officers dedicated to the most high-risk areas, makes sense. The impact of having police equipped with body-worn video means that individual interactions are recorded and are more likely to be conducted in an appropriate fashion on both sides.

Other interventions would be more controversial. I have heard that the Metropolitan Police is undertaking a limited consultation about deploying armed police on foot patrols with their guns in areas where there have been violent incidents. I am not convinced that that would be helpful. It would be seen as provocative. It will inspire fear rather than reassurance. It will hinder community confidence and do little in itself to reduce the number of violent incidents. It would be more positive to maintain or even enhance schools liaison and engagement work. Facilitating data exchange makes sense. The PCC in Stafford wants hospitals to be more willing to share information about those presenting with knife wounds and other injuries. Similarly, sharing data on habitual knife carriers with the probation service and schools makes sense, but too often data confidentiality is cited as the reason why this cannot be done, even when to do so might help save lives.

I want to return to what the Government have said in their Serious Violence Strategy about early intervention and the underlying reasons for the increase in young people turning to violence, carrying knives and getting involved in gangs. We need to focus on the increasing sense of hopelessness and alienation felt by many young people, the absence of life chances, and adverse childhood experiences. A striking proportion of those involved in gang violence have been excluded from school. Too often, schools wash their hands of young people who are seen as too difficult and who are not going to help league table performance, but pupil referral units—even where they have places available, and many do not—do not turn those young people round, and there is evidence of gangs recruiting directly from such units. If at 16 you have been excluded from the education system, have poor literacy and numeracy, no exam results and little prospect of achieving the material rewards that you see others around you enjoying, it is perhaps not surprising that the apparent easy pickings of gang membership seem enticing. If, in addition, you have come from a seriously dysfunctional family with a parent or parents bowed down by substance abuse or where violence is the norm, gang membership may seem like a haven and an escape.

The Government’s Serious Violence Strategy should be ambitious in tackling such matters. Why are so many pupils excluded from school and what is being done about it? How do you stop pupil referral units failing those referred? What is being done about the inadequacy of child and adolescent mental health services in many areas to support disturbed young people, as highlighted in your Lordships’ House on Tuesday by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester? What about the online drivers of violence, such as underage sales via the internet of zombie knives, drill music glorifying violence—it was put to me that they are not musicians pretending to be gangsters, but gangsters pretending to be musicians—or the provocations that appear daily on social media with gangs exulting in their violence and on their incursions into rival territory?

It is of course a matter of enormous regret that the coalition Government dismantled the Sure Start programme that was aimed at giving all children the best foundations for their futures. In 2015, when I was leading the review for the Ministry of Justice into the self-inflicted deaths of young people in prison, we came across research carried out in Washington state in the USA over the last 30 years that demonstrated that providing intensive support to the mother/baby relationship in the first year of life was an investment by the state that paid off many times over in terms of reduced family breakdown, reduced social work and health interventions, and less engagement with the criminal justice system. Addressing those issues would be an ambitious strategy, but that is the scale of the aspiration that the Government should follow if their Serious Violence Strategy is to be more than platitudes and a list of worthy but short-term initiatives.

Tackling violent crime requires an approach that spans right across government. In 2002 the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, convened weekly meetings in COBRA with relevant Ministers and all the responsible agencies to deliver a dramatic reduction in street crime. In London, the deputy mayor for policing is hosting fortnightly meetings in City Hall to bring about multiagency collaboration on knife and gang violence in the capital. Where is the parallel grip and focus at the national level today?

Violent crime is taking lives in our cities—more in a year, incidentally, than died from terrorism in the last 20 years. We are risking the loss of a cohort of young people to gang violence and drugs. Are the Government going to step up and take the ambitious measures necessary? I beg to move.