My Lords, as other noble Lords have done, I thank my noble friend Lord Harris of Haringey for tabling this Motion for debate. Since I will refer to local authorities and council funding, I draw the House’s attention to my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. There have been some excellent contributions dealing with the causes and the very serious issue of the rise in violent crime that we have seen in recent times. I pay tribute to the police and other professionals in the public and voluntary sectors working to keep us safe and deal with some very challenging situations day after day. I fully endorse the comments from my noble friend Lady Donaghy on the work that social workers do day by day, dealing with crisis situations.
In his Motion my noble friend Lord Harris talks about,
“the case for a cross-Governmental response that includes not only policing … but also health services, youth provision and opportunities for young people”.
The noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, mentioned domestic violence. It is a wicked, evil crime, hidden behind closed doors. Early intervention is needed here. When I visited the domestic violence unit at Greenwich police station I was very impressed by how closely it worked with the local authority, and by the officers’ real care and concern for the victims. There is no doubt at all that they have saved many people’s lives and, for many people, prevented serious injury.
That got me thinking about the issue in the Motion about the cross-government mind-set. I then began thinking about the debates we have had in this House only recently about the funding for women’s refuges. The noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, who is not in his place, was very supportive of the women’s refuge movement and what it does, but at the same time decisions were made by the DWP that risked their funding model and undermined their work. In the end it was sorted out, but it took people from Women’s Aid, other campaigners and members of all parties in this House and the other place raising the same point again and again until finally the Government acted. That was good but it shows that, if you get these cross-cutting issues wrong, one department can decide something that will have a very difficult and negative effect in another department and be really damaging to policy. This is one of the key problems the Government have in trying to meet various challenges.
Looking at the Library briefing for this debate, with all its various statistics, it seemed to me that one could rely on some of the figures to support any argument that one wanted to prove at any time. For me, that highlighted what a complicated problem this is: if it were easy, it would have been solved a long time ago and there would be no violent crime, or at least very little. I very much endorse the comments of my noble friend Lord Harris of Haringey in this respect. My friend in the London Assembly, the leader of our group, Mr Len Duvall AM, has also raised these issues and has written an excellent article for the Fabian Society, making it clear how important it is to have this multifaceted approach to tackling the tide of violent crime. I recommend that all noble Lords read that article, and I make it clear that I am a member of the executive of that society and very proud to serve on it: it is the original think tank.
It is disturbing that you could make the case that crime levels are, on the whole, falling. One can see the figures, but serious and violent crime such as murder and knife crime has seen a worrying increase, along with links to the drugs trade. We have heard about the issues of county lines many times today. The number of police officers has fallen by 20,000 since 2010 and is now, as my noble friend Lord Harris said, at the lowest level since the 1980s. This has had a damaging effect on neighbourhood policing, which is a shadow of its former self, as he said. That has led to crimes not being able to be investigated and to gangs being able to operate openly in communities.
My noble friend Lord Young of Norwood Green made a very important point about the effectiveness of body-worn video cameras. When I was at a police station a few months ago, one officer told me that when they came along he was very much opposed to these cameras. He thought they were a terrible idea but very quickly he discovered how great they are and became a very big supporter of them. They are able to give live evidence on the incidents they go to address and it is very important that we understand that.
Obviously I will wait for the noble Baroness’s response, but if she is going to suggest that there are no links between the levels of violent crime and the numbers of police officers, many of us just do not accept that. The noble Lord, Lord Blair, who is not in his place, spoke in this House on
The noble Lord, Lord Wasserman, made a very interesting contribution. I am confident that the police can and do undertake significant work to keep us safe. The problem for the police and other agencies is the lack of funding in large parts, which makes addressing the problems all the more difficult. My noble friend Lady Donaghy talked about how small budgets for different initiatives are not helping to solve the problem. Some of the really serious issues with gangs need a multiagency approach. I have been out with the police when they have been dealing with issues that cause real problems in town centres. I was in Woolwich a few months ago. The council has spent a lot of money improving Woolwich town centre, but the gangs come in and drive customers away from businesses, making it a place where people do not want to go. It is left to people dealing drugs on the street, and the police have a difficult job going in there every night trying to disrupt their activities. It was not a safe place for local people.
At the other end, youth services that have been decimated and hardly exist at all. The consequence for everyone is severe, not least for the young person who could have their whole life ruined, if they got into a life of crime.
As many noble Lords know, I grew up in Southwark and went to primary school in Camberwell. A couple of years ago I visited a voluntary project on the Wyndham council estate, which is next to my old primary school, St Joseph’s. As a child, I had walked round the estate while walking home almost every day. But some of the young people at the project told me they would not cross the Camberwell New Road to go into Lambeth, as a particular gang operated there and it was their territory. It was a shock to hear that in an area I know really well. The project does great work, while operating on a shoestring, and tries to get children to play sport together—particularly, football—to break down these terrible barriers, but to do that there needs to be a proper youth service and proper youth provision. These problems are not unique to Southwark or south London but they are real and, if not tackled, can have very serious consequences for people who go off the rails, and for the victims of mindless crime and drug abuse.
As many noble Lords have mentioned, knife crime is a particular problem, with so many lives lost and others ruined by senseless violence. I have seen police officers conduct searches of areas outside schools to locate the knives left there by pupils in the morning; when they come back out of school, they pick their knives up on the way home.
I also saw on the news last night some terrible violence with a zombie knife. This leads me on to the role of the internet providers and platforms such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites. I very much agree with the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Bertin, about the responsibilities of companies. Companies should pay their fair share of tax and spend a little less time on being advised how to mitigate tax. I also recommend that they follow the example of the Co-op by getting the fair tax mark if they pay tax fairly. Allowing zombie knives to be sold on the internet, where other illegal material is hosted—there are, frankly, poor excuses from businesses for not taking swifter action to remove and prevent the posting of illegal content—is just not good enough. The Government will have to take further action to prevent this material being hosted when it fuels hate, abuse and crime. Claiming that nothing can be done, that “We are only a platform and not the publisher”, or that “We are doing all we can” is just not good enough. People are sick and tired of these excuses. I also think that the social media providers which make a proper effort to sort this problem out will benefit, as consumers will flock to them and support their businesses for taking that action.
The destruction of Sure Start has removed from communities a solid support for young parents and children. It has been left a shell of its former self, as the programme was not protected from local government cuts. That has been hugely damaging. Mental health provision has to be part of the joined-up thinking that we need as well. I was shocked to learn of the amount of time that police officers spend dealing with people who have serious mental health problems and need specialised treatment on the NHS—and how often, when attending an incident, it results in people being taken to the hospital rather than the police station when the officer determines that they need to been seen by a health professional first, before anything else happens. I very much support the comments of my noble friend Lady Healy of Primrose Hill about the work of the Youth Violence Commission, chaired by my friend Vicky Foxcroft MP, the Member for Lewisham, Deptford. I also endorse the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick, about indeterminate prison sentences. I know that the Ministry of Justice seeks to deal with this issue, along with the Parole Board, but more needs to be done. I fully accept that these sentences were brought in by a Labour Government but this need to be resolved very quickly.
There is lots that the Opposition can support in the Serious Violence Strategy but, as my noble friend Lord Harris of Haringey said, it is long on analysis and short on remedies. I agree with him that the strategy should be much more ambitious. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, has a number of questions to answer so I will ask only one further. Can she explain to the House how she, as a Minister, seeks to have proper cross-departmental discussions with her ministerial colleagues on key policy initiatives which are affected by the actions of other departments? That is crucial in this debate. Finally, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this wonderful debate and my noble friend—my good friend—for tabling the Motion. I look forward to the Minister’s response.