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Knife Crime - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:50 am on 27th June 2019.

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Photo of Lord Wasserman Lord Wasserman Conservative 11:50 am, 27th June 2019

My Lords, I commend the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, for seeking a debate on this very timely subject and for his wide-ranging and comprehensive introduction to it. I also commend him for the piece he wrote on this subject for the latest issue of the House magazine. In his article, which I am sure many noble Lords have read, he describes the complexity of the knife-crime phenomenon and discusses its underlying causes and its potential solutions. The solutions he mentions in his article, and has just mentioned in his speech, are not the kind of things one would normally associate with someone who spent most of his professional life as a police officer on the streets of London. But they are the kind of things required to solve complex social problems such as violent youth crime, which results from an amalgam of, among other things, poverty, inequality, poor schooling, unemployment, social alienation and racial prejudice. There are no quick fixes in this world and I commend the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, for making this abundantly clear.

I also commend the Government for taking a similarly broad and longer-term approach to this problem. As my noble friend Lady Barran said in answer to an Oral Question about youth violence last Thursday morning:

“'The Government are taking steps to address all aspects of youth violence, from prevention to enforcement. Diverting young people away from crime is at the heart of our approach, which is why we are investing more than £220 million in early intervention schemes to steer children and young people away from serious violence”.—[Official Report, 20/6/19; col. 842.]

How refreshing to hear a Minister discuss a complex social problem without either minimising its significance or promising to deal with it almost instantaneously, without giving any indication of how this is to be achieved.

Having said this, I do not believe that we are condemned to live with blood-stained streets for decades until these longer-term solutions finally work. Although tackling the underlying causes of social violence will take time and money, on the basis of my own experience of working in the New York and Philadelphia police departments from 1996 to 2004, I would say that the level of violent crime on our streets can be significantly reduced in the short term by proactive policing based on good intelligence, adequate resources, a well-developed strategy and effective tactics and leadership.

We do not have to look overseas for examples of successful policing operations. The recent success of our own Metropolitan Police in tackling moped crime is an excellent example of how effective policing can eliminate, within weeks, problems that have reduced whole communities to an abject fear of public spaces. That is why what is required to tackle our present knife crisis is a two-pronged approach: a longer-term strategy focused on underlying social problems of the kind that the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, mentioned, as well as short-term tactical action based on high-quality, proactive and innovative local policing using good information and good technology.

I say “local” policing because I believe that violent crime on our streets is most effectively tackled by local police forces acting with the support of their local communities. There are two main reasons for this. First, street crime is basically a local problem. Although it is now widespread, it does not affect every city or town to the same extent. Even within a single county, there are major differences between one part and another. As Matthew Ellis, PCC of Staffordshire, said in a press release only yesterday—announcing new measures against knife crime—although some places in Staffordshire have an issue with knife crime, most places in the county do not.

Secondly, effective policing depends critically on community co-operation. Even American police chiefs, whose approach to policing is often derided in this country as overly aggressive, recognise that community support is the foundation of community safety. For example, Bill Bratton, who dramatically reduced crime as chief of police in both New York and Los Angeles, writing in a national UK newspaper about knife crime in London, said that it is not a matter of simply putting more cops on the streets—although he called for more cops on the streets—it is a question of what they are doing on the streets. I quote:

“You don’t want them just being seen, enforcing all the rules and regulations, you want them interacting with the community. [They] need to be developing a relationship with the community that allows … an intimacy of understanding”.

It is only when such an understanding with the community has been established that police operations such as stop and search can be effective. Without this understanding and rapport, police officers carrying out this basic policing operation are often seen as an occupying army. That is why I urge the Government to adopt this two-pronged approach to knife crime: a combination of national policies, programmes, resources and leadership aimed at tackling the underlying complex social issues that lie at the heart of the problem; and local policies, programmes, resources and leadership aimed at tackling the immediate problems on our streets.

The good news is that our local police and crime commissioners and their forces are more than able to rise to this challenge, not only in tactical policing operations but with imaginative social programmes involving local schools and doctors. I wish I had time to tell noble Lords about some of these programmes, such as those developed in Norfolk by PCC Lorne Green, in Bedfordshire by PCC Kathryn Holloway and in Staffordshire by PCC Matthew Ellis.

I believe that knife crime is best tackled by our national and local institutions working together. I feel strongly about this, because I fear that a new Prime Minister, whoever he may be, will wish to demonstrate the smack of firm government by taking personal control of the fight against knife crime and directing it from No. 10—which I call the Tony Blair approach to fighting crime. I do not for a moment oppose all interest in this issue from the centre. Indeed, more funding from Whitehall is always welcome and useful, provided of course it is distributed to those programmes and forces that have most need for it. What I fear is operational direction from Whitehall, which is almost always counterproductive. It is aimed primarily at attracting national headlines rather than solving local problems. Our present arrangements for ensuring local community safety are more than fit for the purpose of tackling the problems of knife crime effectively and sensitively. There is no need to develop new arrangements for this job. Let us simply provide those who are doing the job with the support they need to do it.