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My Lords, according to the BBC this morning, a teenager has been stabbed to death in west London. Knife crime is increasing at an alarming rate, having reached its highest rate in eight years in 2017–18. Every death is a tragedy, and too many of our young people are losing their lives. However, the parents, friends and relatives of those killed want not just our sympathy but to do something about this. I propose a five-point public health approach to knife crime, only one point of which involves more resources for the police. This should be primarily about addressing the causes, not the symptoms, of knife crime.
The picture of knife crime is complex. First, there are those who rely on violence. Drug dealing, because it is an illegal activity, cannot be legally regulated. It can be fatal in a direct way, because there is little or no quality control—no information about purity or potency, and no restrictions on who can buy drugs or in what quantity. But it is unregulated in another way—deals are enforced and competition is challenged using violence, because there is no legal means of doing so. Whether to ensure that your stash of illegal drugs is not stolen or that the buyer pays, or to defend your turf, knives are used to regulate. This trade is spilling out from our big cities into the countryside and seaside towns through county lines. Vulnerable young people are being exploited, being sent to live in appalling conditions to sell drugs hundreds of miles from home under the threat of being stabbed by their own and rival gang members.
However, many in the black community feel that the drugs element of knife crime is overplayed, even racist. All the drug dealers I have met have been white. Use of knives among criminal gangs is as likely to be about so-called respect: respect for senior members of the gang, who stab junior members who step out of line, and respect for a gang’s territory and standing by threatening or stabbing members of rival gangs. It is not just me saying this, but the College of Policing’s evidence-based report on knife crime.
Connected to gang rivalry are the violent lyrics of drill music and violent YouTube videos. Some say they are legitimate artistic expressions of lived experience, reflecting the violent environment in which they live. Others say they encourage, incite and drive violence, as the competition to be the gang with the greatest number of hits or views on the internet rises in proportion to how shocking the violence contained within them is.
At the same time as the criminal gang culture has grown, the visible presence of authority on the streets has diminished. Community police officers and, more importantly, police community support officer numbers have been decimated. There has been a 19% real-terms reduction in total funding from central and local government to police and crime commissioners from 2010-11 compared with 2018-19. Central government funding for commissioners has fallen 30% in real terms since 2010-11. Since the peak of
I am a member of the All-Party Group on Knife Crime, ably led by Sarah Jones MP. We have heard from young people involved in knife crime about the impact of these cuts and the impact they have had on them. One told us that she used to feel safe when she saw safer neighbourhood teams, who worked out of her local police station. The safer neighbourhood teams—one sergeant, two constables and three PCSOs in every ward in London—now consist of two officers per ward, provided that they are not on their day off, on holiday, off sick, or on maternity or paternity leave. There is no backfilling. That same young woman described her term in Holloway prison as the best time of her life. Detention is no deterrent and knife crime prevention orders work against a public health approach, potentially criminalising more and more young people.
The second group of knife carriers are those young people who believe that they need to carry a knife to protect themselves from those who rely on violence because they see no visible uniformed presence on the streets. Even if the police were there, many believe they are not there to protect them. Many in the black community still feel they are overpoliced and underprotected—that the police are there only to stop and search them or arrest them, even when they are innocent. Blanket Section 60 operations simply add to that perception. Community policing is not just a visible deterrent to criminals and a reassurance to victims; it enables community intelligence more accurately to target stop and search on those who the community know are knife carriers—policing carried out with the community, not done to a community.
Some noble Lords, including the Minister, might say that they do not recognise the scenario I am describing, and it is easy to ignore the reality when the violence is largely contained within these communities, rarely spilling out to disturb the likes of you or me. However, I have talked to young people who live in these areas, I have worked in these areas, I still live in one of these areas and I recognise what young people are describing.
What makes young people join gangs? At an individual level, many of them are suffering from adverse childhood experiences: domestic violence; abandonment through divorce or separation; a parent with a mental health condition; being the victim of physical or sexual abuse or neglect, either physical or emotional; where a member of the household is in prison; or growing up in a household where adults are experiencing alcohol or drug-misuse problems. Many have grown up in a situation where violence is seen as the normal way to resolve problems, where bullying and misogyny are normalised and where involving outside help is alien. When members of the APPG visited the only young offender institution in Scotland, without exception the inmates had experienced multiple ACEs.
Scotland invests in young offenders. There, they are counselled about their adverse experiences. A resident police officer explains that the police are there as much to protect them as to lock them up. A woman’s refuge worker explains what normal families and healthy relationships look like.
Some of this emotional neglect—not being made to feel loved, wanted and belonging—is not the fault of hard-working parents, some of whom must do multiple jobs working 16 hours a day six or seven days a week to pay the rent and put food on the table. They simply do not have the time or energy to do what they want to do for their children, to do what their children need and want from their parents.
Many children do not belong to a school community either. Whether it is a rigid traditional education that fails to engage all pupils, or whether ACEs result in disruptive behaviour, many find themselves officially excluded from school or informally off-rolled. School performance targets result in schools taking the easy option of jettisoning so-called difficult pupils. On the APPG’s visit to Glasgow, we learned that the number of pupils excluded from school in the city was less than the fingers on one hand. In the London Borough of Croydon, more than 1,500 pupils have been excluded from school in recent years, and that is just in one London borough.
I suggest five priorities for government action. First, we need to tackle in-work poverty by mandating the real living wage and providing parents with the support that they need in order to provide for their children, through such things as children’s centres and Sure Start. Councils have suffered a 77% decrease in government funding between 2015-16 and 2019-20.
Secondly, we need to provide safe and healthy alternatives to criminal gangs by properly funding youth services, outreach workers and the kind of modern youth clubs that really engage young people. Charities and sports clubs need to have long-term core funding—which local authorities used to provide—and churches, mosques, synagogues, gurdwaras, temples and others that provide somewhere safe for young people to go should be acknowledged, supported and encouraged.
Thirdly, we need to heal the damage caused by adverse childhood experiences, investing in children’s mental health and intervening in teachable moments, such as Redthread’s work in emergency departments with the victims of knife crime.
Fourthly, we need to provide truly inclusive education, where no pupil is left behind. Compulsory sex and relationship education for all pupils without exception needs to include teaching the violent, exploitative realities of criminal gang membership, like the excellent work done by the charity of which I am patron, GAV.
Finally, we need to create an environment in which communities and the police can unite against knife crime by restoring community policing.
The situation is far more complex than I have been able to outline in the time available. I hope noble Lords will add to my necessarily limited opening to this important debate. I must emphasise that this is not a Liberal Democrat plan; it is the result of my membership of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Knife Crime, under the excellent leadership of Sarah Jones MP. If noble Lords have had the chance to look at the Barnardo’s briefing which they will have been sent in relation to this debate, they will recognise a lot of what I have said in my opening.
As I previously mentioned, the evidence-based briefing of the College of Policing talks about heavy-handed stop and search resulting in it being less likely for communities to come forward with the vital intelligence that police forces need. Even though there is no direct proportionality between crime reduction and the number of police officers, once you get below a particular level of policing criminals feel that they can act with impunity and victims of crime feel that they have no choice but to defend themselves.
One of the most disheartening responses this morning on Twitter to the plan which I have just outlined to your Lordships was, “And who is going to pay for this?”. The people who are paying for this now are the victims who are dying on our streets, and the families and relatives of those who are dying. If we do not do something about this, those families and young people will continue to pay for our inaction.