Offensive Weapons Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:40 pm on 7th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Storey Lord Storey Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Education) 4:40 pm, 7th January 2019

My Lords, this is, quite rightly, a sombre Second Reading debate. I followed the passage of the Bill through the other place with interest and I share the sadness of many speakers so far that we need this legislation.

Sometimes we need to take a step back and understand why things happen and the causes of actions. Sometimes a knee-jerk reaction saying “We need to ban something” is not always the right approach. Let us be quite clear: today in our country many women, particularly young women, walk out at night with their car keys acting as knuckle-dusters in case they are attacked. It is a natural reaction to be fearful. If our communities were safer, if there were more police on the beat and if there were community policing, perhaps people would feel safer and would not feel the necessity to arm themselves. That is not to say that stabbing somebody to death or throwing acid in somebody’s face is acceptable. In my view, in most cases it is downright evil.

I cannot imagine anything worse than a police officer appearing at the door and telling you that your son or daughter has been stabbed or shot to death or being told that your daughter or son had been charged with a stabbing or shooting offence. It is sad that legislation is needed, but we must keep our communities safe and protect the most vulnerable. Only a few days ago in my city a knife-wielding gang ran amok in daytime in the city centre terrifying tourists and residents alike. I was shocked when my noble friend Lord Paddick said that every day in the UK somebody is stabbed to death. Many of us have mentioned Mr Pomeroy, who was stabbed nine times. Our hearts and thoughts go out to all the people who have been caught up in these awful events

In the Government’s Serious Violence Strategy, published in April 2018, we learned that:

“We want to make clear that our approach is not solely focused on law enforcement, very important as that is, but depends on partnerships across a number of sectors such as education, health, social services, housing, youth services, and victim services”.

The four strands of that strategy are:

“tackling county lines and misuse of drugs, early intervention and prevention, supporting communities and partnerships, and an effective law enforcement and criminal justice response”.

When I read the strategy, I was very pleased that the second strand was early intervention and prevention. I have an interest in children and young people. While the Bill is focused on the fourth of these strands—the effective law enforcement and criminal justice response—I think that in this debate we need to place on the record the importance of early intervention and prevention, which is a much more significant and positive approach than those which the Bill proposes.

Chapter 4 of the Serious Violence Strategy, published in April 2018, deals with early intervention and prevention, and there is a list of what the Government call “Key actions and commitments”. The chapter opens with the following:

“We must prevent people from committing serious violence by developing resilience, and supporting positive alternatives and timely interventions. Prevention and early intervention are at the heart of our approach to tackling serious violence”.

It goes on to say:

“A universal intervention builds resilience in young people through supporting positive choices, improving critical thinking skills, providing healthy, stable and supportive frameworks whether in the home or school”.

The strategy talks about further work to support schools and,

“plans to deliver face-to-face support for parents of children with mental health problems and improve early interventions with young people with mental health issues”.

I am tired of hearing about intentions to improve mental health provision for children and young people. We all know which road is paved with good intentions. The record of recent Governments on mental health in general and child mental health in particular is, quite frankly, not good enough.

Today, the Prime Minister launched the NHS Long Term Plan, with yet more promises about child mental health. The Government seem proud of the fact that,

“in 2017/18, around 30.5% of children and young people then estimated to have a mental health condition were able to benefit from treatment and support, up from an estimated 25% two years earlier”,

and they seem satisfied that:

“Over the next five years the NHS will fund new Mental Health Support Teams working in schools and colleges, building on the support already available, which will be rolled out to between one-fifth and a quarter of the country by the end of 2023”.

The intention to roll out support to 25% of schools and colleges by 2023 will be of no comfort to the 18,000 schools that do not make the cut. And to read that:

“The NHS work with schools, parents and local councils will reveal whether more upstream preventative support, including better information sharing and the use of digital interventions, helps moderate the need for specialist child and adolescent mental health services”,

is, quite simply, ridiculous.

Developing resilience is another major element of the preventive strategy. I am all in favour of developing resilience and promoting character-building in children and young people, but the Government still cannot agree to make PSHE a statutory part of the national curriculum or agree on what would be included in that provision. This is surely the subject in which resilience can be developed. Our children and young people are tested endlessly on a content-based curriculum, with school leaders and teachers’ futures dependent on performance tables. This focus on SATs and EBacc results has squeezed out many of the curricular and extra-curricular activities that help children and young people develop resilience and build character.

I was not going to mention social media, but the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, in her quite emotional speech, did. I do not think that we have understood the significant impact that social media can have on the minds of young people. To see teenage gangs glorifying knives and other weapons and being allowed to run these things on social media for days and sometimes weeks on end is, quite frankly, not good enough. Similarly, we have not completely understood the whole issue of video games. I think that they have a serious effect on young people. When children can get hold of video games that glorify violence, that must be something for us to think about, and perhaps this will be an opportunity for us to do so.

I shall give another example. In our rush to get better results, we now “off-roll” pupils. To get rid of difficult pupils and difficult problems, many schools will off-roll pupils to the street corner, where they become easy prey for violent teenage gangs and, in some cases, drug dealers. In terms of diverting young people away from violent activities, it is unfortunate, to say the least, that, as the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, rightly said, we have seen youth services cut to the bone, with the voluntary sector often the only providers of these services. Detached youth workers would seek out disaffected young people, whether they gathered near the bus shelter, on the street corner or in the park, and would talk to them, help and advise them. They no longer exist. There is no longer any support for those young people.

I am sure that we do not want to adopt the American response to violence which, with the full support of the President, is to give more people guns. The commission investigating the high-school massacre in Parkland, Florida, unanimously approved a report which included the recommendation that teachers should be able to carry guns—my goodness. Fighting fire with fire is not a solution for the UK. The answer is building up young people’s resilience, dealing with mental health problems immediately and effectively, and providing support in communities.

I support this Bill while regretting the necessity for it; however, I deplore the fact that austerity has been used an excuse to deprive young people of so many positive alternatives to carrying a knife or worse. Let us reflect on the fact that it costs £40,000 per year to keep a young person in prison—twice the cost of a youth worker.