Offensive Weapons Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:51 pm on 7th January 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Couttie Baroness Couttie Conservative 4:51 pm, 7th January 2019

My Lords, I begin by reminding the House of my interest as a deputy chairman of the Local Government Association.

No local authority leader will ever forget the first death from a knife attack on their patch, while they were in charge. Early in my leadership of Westminster City Council, I was deeply affected by the murder of a 16 year-old boy who was hacked to death with machetes by a gang of youths on a busy Pimlico street at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. This horrific crime was part of a dispute relating to drug-dealing territories; the police swiftly found the perpetrators and brought them to justice along with those who attempted to hide them. This was about seven years ago; as we all know in this Chamber, knife crime, along with serious violence involving guns and corrosive substances, has continued to rise and it is our young people, often from deprived areas, who are in the front line. For this reason, I welcome the Bill and its approach to tackling violence on our streets.

The Offensive Weapons Bill will give police greater powers to tackle the growing problems we face but, more importantly, it is part of the Government’s Serious Violence Strategy launched in April last year. This strategy advocates a partnership approach between the police, local government, charities and local people; in my experience, it sets out the collaborative working needed not only to deter potential offenders, through swift and strong justice, but to divert those at risk of becoming victims or perpetrators from becoming part of the culture—often linked to gangs—that is so prevalent in some of our most deprived areas.

In the interests of time, and basing my words on my own experience, I will speak about the work that London Councils has undertaken to combat this growing problem in our capital and to illustrate how the Serious Violence Strategy can work in practice. All 32 boroughs plus the City of London work collaboratively across London; they do so not only as boroughs, but by bringing in many other relevant providers in sectors such as health, schools, the voluntary sector, the GLA and local residents, as well as, of course, co-ordinating with the police. Within London boroughs many, such as Westminster, take a cross-departmental approach, bringing in expertise from housing, social services, planning, culture and children’s services.

London is a very diverse city; it is therefore important that each borough develops approaches that suit its local needs and can be co-ordinated across boroughs. Boroughs have developed different approaches to best fit their circumstances, and this allows cross-borough experimentation and learning. London Councils has established a repository of practice on serious youth violence, which has useful links to data sources and other resources and makes available to boroughs the knife crime action plans of community safety partnerships. These set out the core elements that would appear effective in a local knife crime plan so that boroughs developing plans do not have to reinvent approaches.

In order to facilitate this collaborative approach, some boroughs have established integrated gangs or anti-violence units. Some have collocated staff from different departments and other bodies while others use virtual collocation; both strategies seem to be working well. Westminster has one of the highest volumes of weapon-enabled crime in London, as a result of the concentration seen predominantly in the West End area and linked to the night-time economy. The council has used the multiagency approach to tackling this issue to great effect. It begins with a grass-roots approach, which challenges the belief that carrying a knife keeps you safe and that selling drugs has no victims. It is an online platform that uses a series of films to portray the full impact of drug dealing and carrying knives. The films are made by young people from Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, and Hammersmith and Fulham.

Westminster’s integrated gangs unit is a multiagency team launched in 2011 in response to the rising rates of gang violence and aims to intervene and divert young people away from gangs and criminality. In 2018 Westminster established a task group to look at the changing nature of violence and weapons use and ways that council departments and other agencies can further work together to greater effect. The youth offending team not only works with those who have committed a crime but delivers a range of preventive interventions targeted at young people and parents. Community weapons sweeps aid the removal of offensive weapons from our streets, while anonymous reporting gives the council and local police valuable intelligence to help the fight against violence. The Westminster trading standards team is also working with local businesses to create a partnership to stop the sale of corrosive substances to young people.

Several boroughs have taken a public health approach, focusing on harm reduction, primary prevention and early years. This approach is focused on analysing the underlying causes of serious youth violence and tackling those issues before they develop into a serious problem. Similarly, other boroughs such as Lewisham use a trauma-informed health approach, the key principles of which are to develop a local understanding of the adverse impact of childhood experiences on the prevalence of violent crime. They endeavour to ensure that schools are a place of safety for young and vulnerable people and offer a space to address adverse childhood experience early, aiming to develop resilience and emotional intelligence in children so that they understand how to live a safe and healthy life.

One particularly effective technique used by many schools and youth groups is talks by ex-gang members about the dangers of the lifestyle that they have left behind them. The speakers are usually young men who the children can relate to, who look cool and could be seen as role models. But it is not just about trying to put young people off involvement; alternative activities need to be available as well, which is where youth clubs and programmes have such an important role to play. Boxing clubs, football clubs and centres that offer facilities with teachers for young people to compose or play music, or for other creative activities, are vital for ensuring that young people are engaged in positive activities in a social environment instead of on the streets with little to do, where they are easy prey for those wishing to pull them into the gang lifestyle.

There is still much to learn and much to do to reverse the frightening trend of increasing serious youth violence and its use of offensive weapons. The Bill will help the police to target and punish those who are already intent on inflicting or threatening injury and those who assist them, and I support it. It is clear, however, that to really have an impact, prevention needs to be at the heart of any approach. Diverting those who are at risk of being sucked into gangs or feel vulnerable if they are not armed must be at the centre of what we do, and I sincerely hope that the Government’s serious violence strategy is backed up with sufficient resources, not just for the police but for those other bodies on the front line of dealing with this problem.