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Knife Crime - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:37 pm on 27th June 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development) 1:37 pm, 27th June 2019

My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, for introducing this debate on the impact of government policy on knife crime. I also thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this important wide-ranging debate, and join the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, in commending organisations such as Redthread for the invaluable work they do, in many cases saving young people’s lives.

A comment was made by the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, about the briefings. I would love the House authorities to make those briefings available online, because sometimes Ministers do not actually get them. I have full support for that. I agree with many of the sentiments that have been expressed this afternoon, particularly on the complexity of this matter, as the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, said. The violence we are seeing on our streets is a major concern to us all, with people becoming both victims and perpetrators, as the noble Lords, Lord Dholakia and Lord Rosser, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said. We have heard movingly today from the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, about the victims of knife crime and their families in his area of Sheffield. Our hearts go out to all of those who have been affected by violence. There was one such incident the other week, literally around the corner from my house. I cannot begin to imagine the pain and suffering of parents and families who have lost their loved ones.

The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, spoke also of the latest tragic such incident here in London, reported just this morning, and the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, mentioned the cycle of repeated offending that needs to be stopped in its tracks and prevented by a public health approach—the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, is right that people are hotfooting it to Scotland to see the fantastic work that has been done up there.

The Home Secretary has described knife crime as a national emergency that we must tackle head on. This is why the Government have put in place a major programme to tackle knife crime and serious violence on a range of fronts. This absolutely includes supporting the police in taking the action needed to address the violence that we are seeing—as my noble friend Lord Wasserman said—but, as we have heard today, important though tough enforcement is, it is not the whole solution. My noble friend talked about a “two-pronged approach”, both national and local, to address this problem. I agree. The noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, talked about both a short-term and a long-term approach. Who knows better than he does? I pay tribute to his work in bringing down the incidence of knife crime here in the capital.

Perhaps I may start by discussing the national approach. The Government’s serious violence strategy, published last April, balances the need for tough law enforcement with a greater emphasis on prevention and early intervention to stop young people being drawn into violence in the first place before it is too late. It is also clear that it is a matter not just for the police; it needs a multiagency approach, as many noble Lords have said, so that we can tackle violent crime and its causes effectively.

I was disappointed to hear the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, being critical of the Government’s strategy, as I do not think that our approaches are that far apart. The serious violence strategy sets out the overall approach that the Government are taking. It stresses the importance of a multiagency response, with education, health, social services, housing and youth services all playing their part—as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans said. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked me about the consultation on the public health approach. As she will know, it has only just closed, but we will respond to it in due course.

The strategy also underlines the importance of tackling the drivers of serious violence. It recognises, for example, how changes to drugs markets—which the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, talked about today and has done so previously—and the spread of county lines are driving much of the serious violence that we are seeing. My noble friend Lord Cormack also referred to that. The noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, talked about the upstream effort to prevent the importation of drugs. I know that he will be pleased to hear that 2.1 tonnes of cocaine have just been seized in Cornwall, which is a very good outcome—that is just the latest seizure. As the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, said, the Home Secretary has appointed Professor Dame Carol Black to undertake an important—and independent—review of drugs, which will inform our approach. I note the noble Baroness’s disappointment that drug law is not within the scope of the review, but I admire her persistence in raising this issue at appropriate moments. We do not have any intention to change the law to legalise illicit drugs, but I would be very happy to meet her if she would like me to do so.

The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, talked about how great the troubled families programme was. It was an absolutely brilliant programme. I was in DCLG at the time and was compelled by the, in effect, public health approach that it took in respect of families for whom there might have been several interventions from different agencies all the time, whereas this programme took a whole-family approach. I am pleased to say that it is still going.

I hope that noble Lords will find it helpful if I provide an update on the progress that we are making—particularly the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, who asked me to outline it. Perhaps I may talk first about early intervention and prevention, about which the noble Lords, Lord Storey, Lord Browne of Ladyton and Lord Rosser, and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, all asked. Our focus on prevention includes the £22 million Early Intervention Youth Fund, which supports approaches that work with young people at risk of criminal involvement, gang exploitation or county lines to turn them away from violence before it takes a grip. Noble Lords may have seen that the Home Secretary announced yesterday that a further 11 projects will receive funding this year from that fund in addition to the 29 projects in England and Wales already doing so. That is in addition to the £200 million Youth Endowment Fund. This major new fund is about the long-term change that noble Lords have talked about, delivering a 10-year programme of grants that will enable interventions targeted at children and young people who are most at risk, and acting as a centre of expertise. The Government’s approach includes the #knifefree campaign mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser. Mostly on social media, it is working to educate young people about the dangers of carrying knives, using real-life examples to challenge the false perception that carrying a knife somehow makes you cool or safer or that everyone is doing it. The noble Lord talked about it being done in the lead-up to the summer holidays but asked, “What about the other 51 weeks of the year?”. He is right. The summer holidays can be a particular flashpoint for issues such as this, but it is not that we are taking a one-week approach; it is that some of our campaigns are timed for when the dangers might be greatest.

I absolutely agree with the noble Lords, Lord McNally and Lord Addington, about the importance of sport for young people. I might have told this story before, but I remember when my son went to secondary school and the headmaster said, “Never worry that your son is doing too much sport”. He was so right. Sport not only improves people’s mental health but it keeps them in a routine, and it is a great achievement for some of the things that you can go on to do within sport.

The noble Lords, Lord Paddick, Lord Dholakia, Lord Rosser and Lord Hogan-Howe, talked about supporting the police. Of course it is true that if we do not support the police this problem will get worse. I know that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has acknowledged the demands being placed on the police, which have increased in the past few years. We recognise that they are on the front line in tackling those who carry knives. That includes the national weeks of action under Operation Sceptre mentioned by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans. The last week of action in March saw more than 1,300 arrests and almost 11,000 knives taken off the streets. It is vital that the police have both the powers and the resources they need to tackle serious violence.

On resources, we have heard today about the importance of providing police forces and police and crime commissioners with the funding they need to recruit more officers to keep our communities safe. The Government have increased funding for the police by £1 billion this year, as the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, said, including through council tax and the new £100 million Serious Violence Fund which the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, talked about. I shall say more about the fund later, but it is worth noting that the overall settlement for the police this year represents the biggest increase in police funding since 2010. The partial answer—I am sure it is not the whole one—to why the amount going in does not seem to correspond to very many police officers is that there is always a lag between money coming in and police being recruited. I will try to answer that valid point more fully in writing.

The Serious Violence Fund was announced in the Spring Statement on 13 March to help the police’s immediate response in the force areas most affected by serious violence, and to invest in the development of violence reduction units. We have allocated £63.4 million of the fund to the 18 forces most affected by serious violence to pay for surge operational activity, such as increased patrols and weapon sweeps. We have also allocated £1.6 million to help improve the quality of data on serious violence, particularly knife crime, to support police planning and operations. The noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, referred to this. Last week, the Home Secretary announced plans to allocate the remaining £35 million of the fund to support the establishment and development of violence reduction units in the 18 force areas. This is a true public health approach, based on the Glasgow model, so again I thank our Scottish friends. Violence reduction units will bring together representatives from the police, local government, health and education, community leaders and other key partners to develop a joint approach to tackling serious violence in local areas.

We are also supporting the police in their use of stop and search. The Government are clear that stop and search is an important police power and we encourage its fair, appropriate and proportionate use in helping to tackle serious violence. I note and support the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, about how we can also use better intelligence and technology to support that. Noble Lords may be aware that, to go further in supporting the police, on 31 March the Home Secretary announced changes to Section 60 stop and search powers, to make it simpler for officers in seven force areas to use these powers in anticipation of serious violence. The College of Policing is supporting forces with guidance on community engagement to address the issues of fair and appropriate use. I recall the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, speaking a few months ago about the importance of engagement with local communities. Other noble Lords have spoken about this today. This is a clear example of the Government stepping up when the police tell us that they need further support.

The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, and my noble friend Lord Cormack talked about county lines. We are working with the police to tackle this highly violent form of child exploitation, which we know is drawing vulnerable young people into carrying knives and serious violence. As part of the serious violence strategy, we have provided £3.6 million for the establishment of the new National County Lines Coordination Centre to enhance the intelligence picture and support cross-border efforts to tackle county lines. The centre launched in September last year and has overseen and carried out three separate weeks of operational intensification, leading to more than 1,600 arrests, more than 2,100 individuals being safeguarded and significant seizures of weapons and drugs.

On the public health approach, we know that there is no single solution to serious violence, and that no single agency can deliver a sustainable solution on its own. It is only by working together to tackle the root causes and prevent young people becoming involved that we will see lasting change. That was the underlying theme of the serious youth violence summit hosted by the Prime Minister at the beginning of April. A clear aim of the summit was to help forge a commitment to a multiagency public health approach to tackling serious violence. One immediate outcome of the summit was the establishment of a new ministerial task force, chaired by the Prime Minister, to drive action across government departments, supported by a new dedicated team in the Cabinet Office. The summit coincided with the launch of the Government’s public consultation on a new statutory duty to underpin the multiagency public health approach. The purpose of the proposed statutory duty is to make tackling serious violence a top priority for all key partners, by ensuring that agencies are working together to prevent young people being caught up in a life of crime and violence. The proposals set out in the consultation were not about giving new responsibilities to individual teachers, nurses or other front-line professionals; rather, they were about a new duty that would require public bodies such as schools, hospitals, councils, youth offending services and police forces to work better together, to share information and to jointly plan and target their interventions to prevent and stop violence altogether. As I said, the consultation closed at the end of May and we intend to publish the Government’s response shortly.

We have legislated through the Offensive Weapons Act to close the net around violent criminals by giving the police more powers to tackle knives, acids and firearms. In particular, it will make it illegal to possess dangerous weapons, including knuckledusters and zombie knives, in private. It will also bring in the new knife crime prevention orders. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, is still very sceptical about these; he has made his views clear before. However, the police have told us that they need the new orders to help divert at-risk young people from knife crime, not to criminalise them. I emphasise that to address the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, and other noble Lords. We want orders to be preventive, not punitive. They are not an alternative to prosecuting those who are already acting violently, where existing criminal offences are more likely to be the appropriate course. The important point is that the orders will enable the courts to place on the holder restrictions, such as curfews or geographical restrictions, and positive requirements such as engaging in relevant interventions.

I am aware that time is running out. A number of noble Lords talked about school exclusions. The noble Lords, Lord Paddick, Lord Scriven, Lord Storey, Lord Addington and Lord Rosser, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans linked them to knife crime. We welcome Ed Timpson’s wide-ranging review of school exclusions, which adds considerably to our understanding of current practice. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, outlined the very patchy picture of school exclusions. The review makes 30 recommendations to support children at risk of exclusion to remain in mainstream education, to ensure that permanent exclusion is used only as a last resort, and to reduce disparities in exclusion rates between different groups. We welcome those changes, which will ensure that schools remain accountable for the outcomes of the pupils who they exclude and place a register—oh, that flashing light has made me completely lose my place: I will shut up very shortly.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans talked about employment and about churches keeping their doors open. I commend them for that; people do feel that churches are a very safe place. My noble friend Lord Cormack talked about the importance of citizenship. I do not know if he has come across the fantastic National Citizen Service, introduced under the previous Government. The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, mentioned the importance of mental health. Redthread has been instrumental in working in hospitals, including mental health work. The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, asked that we have just community sentences, rather than short ones. You cannot have a community sentence if the option of a custodial sentence is not available. As the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, said, custodial sentences have their place in some instances.

I have run out of time. I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate.