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Knife Crime - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:54 pm on 27th June 2019.

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Photo of Lord Hogan-Howe Lord Hogan-Howe Crossbench 12:54 pm, 27th June 2019

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, for this useful opportunity to reflect on the progress of the Government’s serious violence strategy, announced last year, in reducing knife crime. The Government have taken useful action which has been effective in reducing knife crime, but there remain significant questions as to whether their approach will be successful in the longer term.

At times in today’s debate it has been suggested that there are alternatives and that the choice is between short-term and long-term measures. I am afraid that the reality is that we will need both. If we do not take some of the short-term measures, people will die while the long-term measures take effect. There will therefore have to be tactical responses as well as some of the more profound strategic measures. I continue to urge the Government to have a profound crime prevention strategy, which I do not think is in place. This can also be said of health but it is certainly true of crime. The strategy should have five elements: design of places and things, drug abuse, alcohol misuse, mental health, and self-education so that people can protect themselves from becoming victims.

Although today’s debate has veered, quite understandably, into discussion of economic circumstances and the level of government support for vulnerable individuals, it is about the impact of government policy on knife crime. While low economic vibrancy can certainly lead to more crime, the debate is specifically about how government policy is affecting knife crime. Why is the current situation disproportionately causing people, particularly young people, to stab one another?

The effective measures taken include finding an extra £1 billion, or something of that order, for police funding, which is a good thing. There has also been an increase in the average sentence for those convicted of a second knife offence. My friend the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, and others are not persuaded that prison sentences are the answer, but they certainly must be part of the answer. As I think he acknowledged, if someone is stabbed or there is an offence of serious violence, the young need to know that this is a terrible thing and that there is a serious consequence in the most extreme cases. It will happen only on a second conviction, and the average sentence has risen to eight months. The dilemma is that to arrest and to take serious action against someone carrying a knife before stabbing someone is a preventive measure against the murder that may subsequently occur. If we take no serious action against those carrying knives, we will have problems. The initiation of local serious violence units to work long-term on a public health approach, which the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, talked about, is a good investment, and I am sure that we will see its benefits in the coming years.

I do not necessarily share the confidence we have heard in the data we are offered to decide whether things are getting better or worse. The reports by the House of Lords Library are very good but are based on data that concludes in December 2018, and here we are in June 2019 and someone was stabbed to death yesterday. We do not know whether things are getting better or worse. Surely that data should be available. The statisticians often want this data to be perfect, but it must be available and transparent. I hope the Government have that data, and the police should have it so that they know whether or not the action they are taking is helpful. We also need statistical information because it helps us to stop having moral crises about things that may just be blips. I do not think the rise in knife crime is a blip, but there are statistical ways of checking that. This type of crime is seasonal. When the weather gets warm, the profile is different. Certain things can affect crime which can be analysed statistically. The bottom line is that every murder and stabbing is a serious event that we all need to take seriously, as we are doing.

My analysis, which is supported by that of the serious violence strategy, is that there are four principal causes of what we see at the moment. First is the increase in the supply of cheap cocaine, which has destabilised the controlled drug market, leading to more violence. Secondly, the distribution methods have changed such that there is now online ordering and delivery of drugs to customers rather than collection from their dealers. The very young are becoming involved in this, which is leading to the issue of county lines we see right across the country. Thirdly, clearly too many young people are carrying knives, and they are not deterred by being caught or by its consequences. Finally, communities that are getting younger see higher incidence of violence.

The questions that remain for the Government concern two things that have been in their control but have aggravated the situation I described. The first is the loss of 20,000 police officers since 2010. I am afraid I still cannot understand why, if the Government are putting £1 billion in, they have promised only 3,500 more when officers cost on average about £50,000 each; £1 billion should provide about 20,000. I do not understand why there is such a big discrepancy between the promise and the money being put in. My second point has been picked up by many people: the exclusion of young people from schools and the limited effectiveness of the pupil referral units, which I am afraid are becoming pathways to crime rather than inhibitors of it.

The questions that remain for the Government are these. First, if it is true that police officers costs on average £50,000, why can the Government not promise more officers? When they arrive, can they give any kind of assessment to the police about where they will put them? If they end up being shared politically or equitably that will not be the right way to distribute them.

Secondly, the National Crime Agency, which is charged with stopping the importation of drugs, still does not have a tier 1 objective to try to control the supply of controlled drugs. It has a very vague set of words and the performance data is almost meaningless. What about stopping some of the drugs getting in? How much is getting stopped and seized, with people being arrested and put in prison for 80 kilos of heroin? These are vital things that the NCA should have. The Government have not given it an objective to explicitly stop that supply.

Thirdly, have the Government considered amending the criteria for intrusive surveillance to monitor online ordering? It is currently reserved for the most serious of crimes, such as 80 kilos of heroin being imported, but in these cases we have very low volumes of cocaine being delivered and somebody, such as a 16 year-old who delivers it, dies. That is a serious event, which is why intrusive surveillance is so important to match the nature of the problem.

Fourthly, what is the Government’s analysis of the adverse impact of educational performance indicators on exclusions from schools? What are they doing to improve the performance of pupil referral units? Fifthly, what technology is being made available to the police to improve the quality of stop and search? That can make a real difference.

Finally, I recently did a documentary TV programme in which I suggested that there should be a tsar to pull this together. As a result, I saw the Home Secretary say that he did not agree with tsars. As it happens, I am not entirely confident that tsars always work, but if Ministers do not like tsars, who is pulling this together? Who will drive it forward and who will make sure that, across government, someone will do something week by week and day by day, and not report in six months’ time, when, sadly, things get out of control? It needs a drive. Contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Wasserman, said, sometimes central government can make things happen.