I beg to move,
That this House
has considered e-petition 233926 relating to knife crime.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. The petition, which was created by Mr John Perrins, has attracted 104,271 signatures and specifically calls for people
“found with a knife to get 10 years and using a knife 25 years in prison.”
At the outset, I would like to pay my respects to all the victims of knife crime and their grieving families. As we know from the tragic murders of 17-year-old Jodie Chesney in London and 17-year-old Yousef Makki in Manchester, the victims more often than not are younger people, and knife crime is often associated with that demographic. I would also like to take this opportunity to pay my respects to the family of Kelly Franklin, who was stabbed to death aged just 29 on
The Government responded to the petition on
“Conviction of a knife or offensive weapon offence—threatening or possession—is now more likely to result in some form of custodial sentence, and for longer than at any point in the last ten years.”
They went on:
“In 2015, we introduced minimum custodial sentences for repeat knife possession and offences that involve threatening with a weapon. Adults face a minimum of 6 months’
imprisonment whilst young people aged 16 or 17 face a minimum 4 month Detention and Training Order. Since the introduction of the minimum custodial term people caught carrying a knife or offensive weapon for a second time are now more likely than ever before to go to prison—in the year ending September 2018, 82% of offenders received a custodial sentence for repeat possession offences. These offences carry maximum terms of 4 years’
The knife crime statistics for this year alone speak volumes. We are only in March, yet those statistics show there have been 39 fatal stabbings in Britain since the beginning of the year. Since last Friday there have been three more, including of another 17-year-old.
I thank my hon. Friend for introducing the debate and I congratulate John Perrins on organising the petition, as well as all those who signed it. A 17-year-old died in my constituency on Friday night after a spike in violent attacks in Isleworth. Does my hon. Friend agree that, although there may be a place for stronger sentences, there is a lot that all agencies can do, and funding is needed for schools, youth provision, police support and so on?
I absolutely agree, and I will come to those points later.
Ministry of Justice figures released recently show that 21,484 people, including 4,686 here in the capital, were prosecuted or cautioned for knife offences in England and Wales last year. That is 2,000 up on 2016, 5,000 more than in 2013, and the highest number of arrests and prosecutions since 2009. No wonder people are beginning to describe the situation as an epidemic.
Whether or not they agree with that description, the Government have had to concede that there is a problem. Less than two weeks ago, in his spring statement, the Chancellor announced that the Government will award police forces an extra £100 million over the next year to pay for overtime and to support reductions in knife crime and violent crime.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way; he is making a significant start to the debate. Does he agree that, although investment in the police is good and well meaning, we need investment in other areas, such as youth services, schools and councils? We also need to invest in building relationships with parents and in working with them and their young people.
I absolutely agree. In fact, part of the Petitions Committee system is outreach work, and on Friday last we went to a school in Hartlepool, where the young people repeated much of that argument.
Many will agree that that £100 million is too little, too late and compare it with the £2.7 billion that has been taken out of the policing system since 2010, but any money targeted at tackling and preventing knife crime is welcome. For the record, my police force, Cleveland police, has had its number of police officers reduced by 500, a 37% reduction in staffing, following cuts of £25.5 million since 2010. The Prime Minister may be of the opinion that there is no correlation between police cuts and knife crime, but senior figures in the policing community, such as Cressida Dick, disagree. Considering that officer ranks have depleted by 20,000 across England, small wonder that people make that link.
The net effect of policing cuts was writ large when my constituency became the focus of a BBC film, which was broadcast on the national news, exposing that, in a town with a population of 92,028 at the last census, only 10 police officers were on duty on a Saturday night. Such a lack of visible police on the streets has resulted in our communities feeling less safe and more under threat. There is a real perception that crime will rise unless the police are better resourced. Cleveland police saw an increase in cautions and convictions for knife crime last year, and there has been a 4% rise since 2015. The police and crime commissioner, Barry Coppinger, is doing excellent work on crime prevention and intervention, but without the necessary resources he is swimming against the tide.
There truly is an argument not only for resourcing the police better but for increasing the tariff on custodial sentences. Clearly, in the mind of the public, current tariffs are not sufficient to act as a deterrent to criminals. The petition reflects that. The fact that the maximum penalty of four years applies only to reoffenders and not to first offenders is deeply worrying.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the debate so well. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. Families in my constituency who have suffered the tragedy of losing a loved one to knife crime say witnesses have not come forward as a direct result of their lack of confidence that those who committed the crime will receive lengthy convictions. Does my hon. Friend agree that the aims behind the petition would help address that concern by delivering longer sentences, encouraging witnesses to come forward and increasing the chances of securing prosecutions overall?
I absolutely agree. If anything, the petition opens up a debate about that whole subject, including prevention.
The petitioners’ call for mandatory tariffs of 10 years for possession and 25 years for the use of a knife may be seen as excessive, but there can be no doubt that, in the mind of the general public, the courts need to play their part in preventing the proliferation of knife-related criminal activity and, frankly, the murders that occur on our streets day in, day out.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his very good speech. I completely understand the public’s feeling that there should be longer sentences—I have heard that many times—but in 2015 the Government introduced a two-strikes policy, which means anyone over 18 who is caught twice gets a minimum six-month jail term. Despite that change, knife crime has rocketed. The number of people who are imprisoned for knife offences has increased at exactly the same rate as the number of people who commit knife offences, so that has had no deterrent impact at all.
I agree and I thank my hon. Friend for her contributions as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on knife crime. She is correct that we need to find some real solutions. To go back to my earlier point, the demographic of those involved in the increase in knife crime tends to be those who are under 18. There needs to be a rethink about custodial and preventative measures.
I congratulate my hon. Friend—you are making an incredible and impactful speech. We are talking about harsher sentences, but does he agree that they do not always act as a deterrent? We need to focus on more of the drivers that lead our young people into a life of crime, including sheer desperation, pressure or other factors. Prevention is key when we look at those drivers.
I thank my hon. Friend for her contribution and again I thank the young students at English Martyrs School in Hartlepool. They came out with exactly the same argument, mentioning the lack of youth services and poor mental health support. Young girls, two of whom had witnessed the display of knives in Hartlepool, were concerned about sexual assault as well as the use of weapons. Yes, you are absolutely right that we need to focus on those areas of prevention and gain an understanding of exactly where this problem has arisen.
In conclusion, I pay tribute to the staff of the Petitions Committee, who have engaged in educational and outreach work around the subject. As I have mentioned twice already, I also thank the students from the English Martyrs School in Hartlepool for their input and for adding their voices and opinions to the debate.
May I remind Members that they should address each other in the third person? Anybody who says “you” is talking to me, and I do not think that was what was intended.
I commend Mike Hill for bringing this debate to Westminster Hall. All of us here, but particularly those from Greater London, are affected in some way by what seems to be an epidemic of knife crime. I share the horror that others will express in this debate and which the hon. Gentleman articulated so well.
Everyone in the House will be united in grief by the tragic events we have recently seen, particularly the devastating murder of 17-year-old Jodie Chesney, which took place in Harold Hill, in the London Borough of Havering and in the constituency of Hornchurch and Upminster, represented by my hon. Friend Julia Lopez. Although it is in my neighbouring constituency, Harold Hill is considered by most people to be part of Romford. Therefore, my hon. Friend and I are working together, united in fighting against this horrendous attack on an innocent young girl and in bringing the community together. The whole community has unified to work together to eradicate such awful attacks. An innocent young girl, who was sitting in a park with friends and had done nothing wrong, was brutally murdered, which has had a huge effect on our community.
My heart, and those of everyone in the Chamber, goes out to Jodie’s family and friends today and in the future. I am wearing a purple ribbon in her memory. Purple was her favourite colour, and any hon. Members passing through the London Borough of Havering will notice such ribbons tied to trees, lampposts and fences, which is a mark of how hugely it has affected our community. I say to the hon. Member for Hartlepool that today’s debate means a great deal to the people of Havering, who have gone through a terrible trauma in the last few weeks.
While the debate was secured by worried citizens all over the country, it is telling that the biggest proportion of those signing the petition came from the three constituencies in the London Borough of Havering: Romford, Hornchurch and Upminster, and Dagenham and Rainham. When I raised the issue with the Prime Minister recently in a private meeting in her office here in the House of Commons, she rightly highlighted that the law already provides for mandatory prison sentencing for a second offence of carrying a knife, and that conviction for a knife or offensive weapon offence is now more likely to result in some form of custodial sentence than in recent years. The hon. Member for Hartlepool also made that point.
However, the figures reveal why the public still have little or no faith in our justice system. As it stands, two thirds of those carrying a knife escape a custodial sentence, and one in five repeat offenders avoid prison. People are frankly fed up with soft sentencing, and it is quite clear why. In Havering, knife offences have doubled since 2014, with 339 recorded cases last year alone. Although we are a Greater London borough, we are really in Essex, on the outer edges of London. We hear about this kind of crime in city centres, but in areas like ours we are not used to it. It has come as a terrible shock that these crimes are coming out as far as areas like ours, and indeed further afield.
Such is the desperation felt that people from across Havering have established a community group called Take a Knife, Save a Life. They are a completely independent group of local people who are now patrolling the streets and local parks, talking to young people, spending time with them, trying to understand what is in their minds and giving them the opportunity to anonymously hand over any knives or offensive weapons. That shows how people are desperate to do something. There is not the police cover that we want or expect, so people are taking things into their own hands in a law abiding way.
Some people may think this is dangerous, but it is no longer sufficient to merely request that the public are more vigilant. More work must be done to tackle these criminals, who simply have no respect for the law, authority or the communities in which they live. It is not just an issue of funding and numbers, but of police policy. Most people in my constituency favour a much more robust approach to dealing with violent criminals. We now have gang culture and youths coming from outside Havering, causing fear on the streets. It has got to the point where the Metropolitan police violence reduction unit will have to come to Havering, as confirmed by my recent meeting with Sophie Linden, the Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime.
I am glad that the Government’s push for knife crime prevention orders is taking place and I believe that the serious violence strategy is a step in the right direction, but we need a collective effort across London. It is no good just blaming the Mayor of London—I can criticise him, but I am not going to do so today, because this is too serious—or just criticising the Government. I criticise them because I disagree with comments the Prime Minister made about cutting police having had no effect on crime. Nobody out there believes that. It is no good making the subject a political football. It effects all our constituencies and our communities, and we have to work together with local communities to find solutions.
I like the points that my hon. Friend is making. He may have heard my urgent question about knife crime. Does he feel that MPs have a positive role to play in this situation rather than being just observers? Does he agree that my request to the Minister to give us information to help us to take action on the streets, such as setting up community groups as he described, is useful?
I thank my hon. Friend for that comment, because we all have a duty to our communities—we are community leaders. I am working with local groups to fight crime. We do not have a magic wand or a direct solution, but we can play a part. I commend the youth organisations, church groups and faith organisations that are taking a lead, including the Street Pastors and Scouts. Jodie herself was an Explorer Scout—something that has been highlighted about what was a tragic, terrible crime. Community and MPs have a leadership role and it is not just down to the police and social and youth workers. We all have a part to play.
The crime prevention orders were requested directly by the police. They favour a dual approach of tough measures and positive early interventions. I often stress the importance of community policing, with police based in communities, which they know and understand like the back of their hand, as I am sure we know from our constituencies. More importantly, with that kind of policing, the community get to know the police and become familiar with them. With familiar faces of policemen in the community every day of the week, trust and recognition are built, which grow in the locality. That brings people together, with trust in their local police, and it helps to halt or at least curtail crime.
I want to make a serious point that is particularly relevant to Greater London: neighbourhood police are the ones best placed to make interventions to protect residents, when the issue is community-based. I have attempted over and over to make that point in my 18 years as Member of Parliament for Romford, yet models of policing and resources are still outdated. Instead of being based around real communities as they should be, they are based around bureaucratic electoral ward boundaries on a map that bear no relation to actual communities. They are based on electoral numbers, which is crazy and does not make sense. Communities are divided up between police teams. Instead of policing based on true, natural communities, there are lines in a road, and one police team goes to one side but not the other because it is in a different ward. Wards are not the way to fight crime. Criminals do not base their crimes on ward boundaries. They can act anywhere, and the police should police communities on that basis.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point about the rigidity of ward boundaries, which is why, certainly in west London, we welcome the fact that the new basic command unit set-up has grouped the neighbourhood teams into a town base, bringing several wards together in a more logical way under a single sergeant. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance and value of neighbourhood teams. Does he agree that the number of people in them is important? In Hounslow, their strength has been roughly halved, from five per ward to three and a bit per ward. Is not that regrettable, and a result of the cuts imposed by the Government on the Metropolitan police?
I agree. I made it clear a moment ago that I do not agree with what the Prime Minister said about cuts in police having no link to crime. However, I do not want to get into a battle today about resources from Government, or whether Sadiq Khan has not allocated as much as he should and the rest of it. We can argue about that but today is not the day. I hope we can agree that both the Government and the Mayor have a duty to allocate as many resources as they can to fighting crime, particularly in inner city areas, but also in outer London areas where crime has recently been rising. We should work together, because the public are losing patience. If we turn the matter into a political football they will not thank us. They want all of us to work together.
The week before last I raised with Sophie Linden my idea of getting rid of bureaucratic, inflexible ward boundaries and creating proper community police, with understanding. Unfortunately she did not say she would go down that route. I said, “Well, can Havering be an experiment, at least?” She did not agree, so I am disappointed, but we need to look at ways to channel resources to the best possible effect.
I agree that we need to look across politics to find the solutions. I just want to ask the hon. Gentleman to consider what organisations say about knife crime prevention orders. There is great concern among magistrates, lawyers, youth offending teams and a lot of charities. In fact, I have not found a single organisation that thinks the orders are a good thing—that they could be a replacement for antisocial behaviour orders, which the Prime Minister got rid of when she was Home Secretary. Actually, they will not work, and we could end up putting 12-year-olds who had committed no crime in prison. I agree with the intent, but will the hon. Gentleman look at the detail, and at the question of whether more work is needed before the orders are brought to our streets?
Absolutely. I will certainly do that, but I am sure that the Minister could respond in his closing remarks. It is important that whatever mechanism we use is effective, and not counterproductive. We all need to consider that.
I want to highlight the great success of the Police Scotland violence reduction unit, which has halved the murder rate in a 10-year period. Members will know that it worked closely with partners such as the NHS, education and social workers. However, its work went ahead in conjunction with a no-nonsense approach to those who crossed the line. I think that is what we need. I hope that we can replicate that in Greater London.
Low-level offences must be policed proactively, to challenge the culture of criminality and antisocial behaviour. That is why supporting the police is not just about resourcing. It is also about making sure they have the powers to get on with the job and be effective on the ground. I get deeply worried, as I am sure other hon. Members do, when I hear from constituents that they believe low-level crime such as shoplifting and burglary no longer gets taken as seriously as it should by the police. The Offensive Weapons Bill, which was introduced last year, will make it harder for young people to buy knives and acid online, and that is good. However, the public are wary of legislation that gives a tough narrative but leads to minimal action against violent offenders who will simply be more innovative about getting access to dangerous weapons.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and to my hon. Friend Mike Hill for their positive conduct of the debate. I am sure that Andrew Rosindell is right to concentrate for much of his speech on police resources, how the police are organised, and sentencing. He touched a moment ago on what happened in Glasgow. Does he agree that in addition to proper police resourcing and sentencing, it is necessary to interrupt the activities of organised crime, which often, through the drugs industry, sit behind the rise in knife crime? At the same time, should there be diversionary activities for the young people who are vulnerable to falling into the trap? All that takes resources.
I could not agree more. That is the route into much of the crime. There is a drug and gang culture. We see that across London, and although the right hon. Gentleman is not a London MP, I am sure similar cultures are building up in other parts of the country. As I said on the London section of “Daily Politics”, we have to crush that culture, no matter what community, town or borough we come from. If young people get into that culture, it leads to violence and ruins lives. We need to get underneath the problem and ensure that it is curtailed and stopped.
Although I hope that the serious violence strategy will deliver on its promise to provide more funds for such activities, we must provide legal powers to tackle this issue. The policies we put in place for knife crime prevention must not simply paper over the cracks.
I frequently request updates from my local police on Operation Venice, the operation launched to tackle moped-related crime. Naturally, I sought clarification on whether it was true that police were not giving chase to suspects on two-wheeled vehicles. I received countless reports from my constituents that the police were not being allowed to do their job and apprehend those hooligans.
I must tell the Minister that I was dumbfounded by the blame game that ensued. The Government said that guidance is provided by the College of Policing, yet police on the ground simply did not have comfort in the protections given to them. Eventually sense prevailed, and last November saw a massive crackdown on moped thieves, who were regularly threatening innocent people. Alongside the new confidence given to the police in using tactical contacts, the media covered the new approach widely. The result is that we have now seen moped-enabled crimes in the capital fall by 47% in the space of a few months.
A strategy such as that shows that we can tackle crime; where it is evolving and getting out of control, a strategy can be put in place and it can be knocked on the head. A similar, much more radical strategy is needed to tackle knife crime in London.
When we talk about knife crime among young people, we are talking about people who are often quite vulnerable. One of the things the hon. Gentleman mentioned was getting underneath the problem. In some cases, the problem is due to coercion, bullying and threats, which lead some young people to get involved in carrying knives. Does he agree?
I agree. There needs to be a restoration of police in schools; there are still police going into schools, but nothing like so many as there used to be. That has been reduced. Stop and search is also something that my constituents and I fully support. I do not think that any law-abiding person need fear. We all get stopped and searched at the airport, and members of the public are stopped and searched when they come in here. When we are seeing knife crime in our communities I think that, provided the police show respect and do it in a way that does not offend people—I am sure they are able to—knives can be found and confiscated, which will make our communities safer.
I am glad to hear the hon. Gentleman’s support for Operation Venice, which has had incredible results in my constituency as well, and I totally support his call for greater action on this issue across the board. The Prime Minister suggested last week that Brexit was blocking Parliament from taking action on NHS, education and knife crime issues. Does he agree that that premise is unacceptable? It is not an either/or for any Government; knife crime must be acted on. Having met with the Prime Minister, as he has already outlined, when does he expect further action?
I cannot speak for the Prime Minister, although I am sure the Minister will be able to speak for the Government later, but whatever is going on with Brexit cannot be an excuse for doing nothing on knife crime. It does not necessarily require legislation; it requires strategies, more resources and communities working together, so a lot can be done without necessarily having to pass new laws. However, in this instance, we are talking about increasing the penalties for carrying and using a knife, and I am totally in favour of that.
I can tell hon. Members that there is not a single constituent in my area—I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster will have had the same experience—who feels the current penalties are sufficient. They want to see much tougher action, much stricter penalties and a real deterrent, so that people fear being caught, apprehended and imprisoned for a long time if they carry and use a knife.
Returning to my comments, stopping low-level disorder and petty crime helps to curtail the invitation to more serious crime, which is why I hope that knife crime prevention orders will help. Yet we must not turn away from difficult questions. My constituents are particularly fortunate that Havering starts from a base of historically low crime, and they want to keep it that way. As legislators, we cannot throw money at a problem and expect that that will solve everything, that no questions need be asked and no reforms are required. That is simply not the answer; more needs to be done.
We must smash the myth on some estates that carrying a knife is a normal thing to do, and we should take a long hard look at compulsory custodial sentences for knife crimes. I hope the Minister will address that later. Law-abiding citizens, fearful for their children when they walk home from school or simply relax in a park with their friends, are sick of seeing soft sentencing for knife offenders.
I therefore call on the Government urgently to consider a minimum custodial sentence for a knife or offensive weapon offence. What do we say to the parent of a victim who is in despair at the cautions handed down to the perpetrators of these horrifying crimes? How have we arrived at the stage where a man who tries to smash a car window and attack an individual with a huge zombie knife in broad daylight is given a suspended sentence? The Minister needs to ask himself how that kind of sentence can be justified. The decision was only overturned after public outrage, when appeal judges replaced that notoriously lenient sentence with jail time.
Legislators and the courts are at real risk of becoming detached from public opinion on what is fast becoming a national crisis. We in this place have a duty to ensure that an effective deterrent exists to combat this evil culture, and to do everything in our power to prevent more young people from being slaughtered in our communities. We must now take action and, in so doing, honour the memory of Jodie Chesney.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mike Hill on his introduction to the debate.
I will start with this and get it out of the way: there is an issue with police resources and numbers of police, and there is an issue with the cuts there have been to local authority services and youth services. We will leave that for another day, but I do not want people to forget it, because there is a debate to be had. On neighbourhood policing, I say gently to Andrew Rosindell that there used to be huge numbers of neighbourhood and community police officers, backed by police staff, and that that made a huge difference.
In order to try to take this forward from where we are, and as my hon. Friends and other hon. Members will have heard me say countless times over the past few months, I say to the Minister that this is a national crisis. It is a national emergency. If it were any other type of national emergency, irrespective of what else was going on, the Prime Minister or the Home Secretary or the Secretary of State for Justice would be in the House of Commons at the Dispatch Box day after day after day, outlining what had happened and what the Government were doing about it.
That is why I called a few weeks ago for knife crime to be treated like terrorism—not to underestimate terrorism or decry the importance of dealing with it, but to give that sense of urgency. Instead, frankly, we drift on. As my hon. Friend Neil Coyle alluded to, the Prime Minister promised a knife crime summit nearly three weeks ago at the Dispatch Box. We are now told that one will take place sometime next week. I say to every hon. Member present that, in the face of a national emergency, a month’s delay—as it will be by then—is simply and utterly unacceptable and will be bewildering to the people of this country.
Virtually certainly, three or four times a week, not just in London but across the country, people are killed, horrifically, and we have to do something about it. We have to speak up and speak out about it more. It is absolutely astonishing that the House of Commons Chamber does not reverberate with the roar of MPs demanding action from the Government. The Government will say, “We are doing this, we are doing that”, but—as was certainly said by my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool and I think by the hon. Member for Romford—where is the urgency? Where is the passion? Where is the anger? Where is the desire to get a hold of this? The public do not see that, and I do not feel it.
People say it is ridiculous, but I have said, as did former Prime Minister Tony Blair this morning, that Cobra should meet because, irrespective of resources, cross-Government co-ordination is lacking. I will say something about sentencing in a minute to illustrate what I mean. Solving this is not only about police numbers—that is ridiculous—but a long-term public health plan will not prevent somebody from being stabbed tonight. Increased police resources and an increased police presence on the ground will stop that. That is not the overall answer of course, but that is where we have to go in the short term—the increase that the Chancellor announced will help.
The Government’s evidence in the serious violence strategy and the leaked Home Office memo—I know that the Minister is a Justice Minister—show that hotspot policing reduces knife crime. That is evidentially based. It also does not displace that crime to nearby areas; it stops the crime, because it tackles the people who commit those offences. Am I saying, “Lock them up and throw the key away?” Of course not. All I am saying is that we have lost control and there is no short-term alternative. Where are the intervention and prevention measures that were there before? Where have the youth clubs gone? Where are the street workers?
The hon. Member for Romford is right: when I was the policing Minister, the most effective people on the street, alongside police officers, were street pastors, and particularly the older ones. There are countless examples. They stop stupid incidents outside shops or in precincts, when there are issues between stupid kids and their stupid gangs. Somebody might look at somebody else, or bump into their bike—for Christ’s sake—and get stabbed. The street pastors get involved and prevent that. That sounds almost pathetic in the face of the huge rises in knife crime, but it actually works and makes a difference.
I will come to sentencing, but I would love the Minister to say that he and the Justice Department recognise that the Government have to more effectively co-ordinate what happens across Government rather than there being individual, compartmentalised elements. I hope the Minister brings the urgency I have seen in his reflecting on other things to dealing with this problem.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent series of points. I was hoping that we would cover that the break- down of the fabric of society is part of this. We cannot point to only one thing such as the 21,000 reduction in police officers. There are also schools exclusions, including unofficial exclusions. Kids are out on the streets, and there is a lack of youth provision and other preventive stuff. All of that should be looked at in the round. Does he agree that austerity has had an effect, and that this issue could be a consequence of it?
I absolutely agree. I am making the point that it is not only about policing. However, in the short term, that is where we have to go. That is all I am saying. It should never have got to this point, with the breakdown of all that.
The system—this is true of Justice or whatever—does not look at what works. For example, on youth crime, exclusions, and kids not being in school, have an impact. That is a no-brainer. We do not need a research project on that costing millions of pounds. Everybody knows it. People on the street know it, every Member knows it and everybody watching our proceedings will know that it has an effect. We have a problem in how we deal with those young people. There are brilliant examples of pupil referral units and activity with young people excluded from school, but many of those young people disappear. Everybody is responsible but nobody is.
That has to change, otherwise those young people just drift into a twilight zone where they are exploited by criminals or associate with people who parade around estates saying, “Do you want to make some money? I’ll show you how to make some money. Don’t listen to them.” We know that that goes on. We have to take that culture on, but we cannot do it without being honest. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: proper provision for excluded young people is fundamental. Some of it works, and some of it does not. We have to find a way of ensuring that good practice is spread much more widely.
My hon. Friend speaks with his normal passion and insight. He is right on exclusions from school and young people disappearing, but there is another problem. When some youngsters are sent to alternative provision because they are too much of a nuisance in school, some of it is very good, but some of it is nothing more than poor childminding. We need to urgently look at alternative provision.
I absolutely agree. The Minister will know, because his Department will report to him, that some of the alternatives to prison or custodial sentences are rubbish, but other alternatives are brilliant. If we know what works, why are we not replicating it instead of the Justice Department funding alternative provision outside some schools or inside others? Why do we not replicate those things that work and that prevent young people who have been excluded from school from getting involved? I know that this is not a fashionable thing to say in a time of localism. Localism is absolutely right, but sometimes the Government have to pick it up and drive it. This is one area in which they should drive it forward.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool and the hon. Member for Romford made the point, as I am sure will others, that the Minister has a tough job. The public will say that anybody carrying a knife—I am not talking about the use of a knife—is completely unacceptable, and that they should be jailed straight away. They will also say that people should not have a second chance when it comes to something as serious as that.
All Governments, including the last Labour Government, write into every bit of legislation that courts have discretion to look at circumstances, but that is the bit of the mandatory sentencing guidelines that nobody reads. I am appalled by repeat cautioning and the fact that the courts seem in many instances to fail to act on persistent offending. However, even I can see that, if somebody stuffs a knife in the pocket of an idiotic 12-year-old lad but he cannot prove it, we have to let the court try to find out whether he deliberately carried the knife or whether somebody had put it on him, or had threated to beat him up unless he took it. We have to be careful about saying that, in every single circumstance and in every single case, the first time a pathetic girl or boy—that is what they are—carries a knife, they should be jailed forever and the key should be thrown away. I do not accept the inability of the state or the Government to explain that to people. Everybody says, “We’re going to be tough. We’re going to have mandatory sentencing. We’re going to lock all of them up.” Of course, that does not happen, because rightly in a democracy we have the legal system and the independence of the judiciary. The judiciary, including any of us if we were magistrates, would look at the circumstances of an individual case and say that in that instance they do not want to send the person to a place like that described by my right hon. Friend Mr Howarth, because they deserve a chance.
There are not many people in our Parliament who would not allow the courts discretion, but I say to the Minister—again, the Government should be shouting this—that he should explain that and tell people. He should not hide behind harsh rhetoric. He should do what I have just done and explain that, even in a national emergency—a knife crime epidemic—there will be circumstances in which the courts will want to exercise discretion. The Minister no doubt has that in the notes for his speech at the conclusion of the debate.
The legislation talks about mandatory sentencing except in exceptional circumstances. What does that mean? The Minister is brandishing the guidelines at us, but they are not interpreted across the judicial system in a fair and consistent way. That drives people mad—it drives me mad—and undermines the system. Alongside all the things that I have discussed, the sentencing by the courts is crucial. There has to be an expectation that people are jailed, whether they be young children, older children or adults, but there has to be more consistency. Figures were given by the hon. Member for Romford. It cannot be right that huge numbers of people are being cautioned again and again. It cannot be right that between different courts some people are going to jail and others are not. It cannot be right that nobody among the public properly understands what “exceptional circumstances” means—no Minister has properly gone out there to articulate and explain it. This Minister will have an opportunity to do that when he winds up the debate.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again. When I was chair of the all-party parliamentary group on basketball, we did an inquiry into how basketball could be harnessed as a sport that appeals to certain demographics. It attracts a high number of inner-city and black, Asian and minority ethnic participants. Basketball could be used as a sentencing tool. That might seem a crazy idea, but evidence was given by police and crime commissioners in Leicester and in one of the London boroughs—I think it was Newham—which were using things such as basketball to sentence some of the young people who were at risk of being the ones to get into knife crime. They were looking for alternative provision, and basketball was one of the things that it was deemed would work, so much so that, in the London Borough of Newham there is an initiative called “Carry a Ball, not a Blade”. Does my hon. Friend think that more initiatives such as that should be looked at as a means of prevention in sentencing?
I absolutely do think that more initiatives such as that should be introduced.
Let me finish with a personal account. I have been an MP for just nearly 22 years. Before becoming an MP, I taught for 20 years, mainly in inner-city schools in Nottingham. They had the challenges that anybody here could recount. Much of the time, when I started teaching, it was possible for somebody to choose where they went. It was possible to say, “I would like to go here,” and I always said that I wanted to teach in an inner-city school. Some people stereotype me—for good reason or not—but talking in the way I do helped in Nottingham. This is a point for the Government. When we went there to raise standards—without being arrogant, in all the schools I worked at, we raised standards—we did certain things. Among the things that we put in place was certainty that, if someone broke the rules, there would be a consequence. It was not a case of locking somebody up and throwing away the key, but people knew that there would be a consequence.
There was a lot of the alternative provision to which my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West has referred. I was the harshest disciplinarian in the school. I was not going to have people coming in who were not in uniform. People may laugh about it, but the truth is that out on our streets the police need to ensure the same certainty. Alongside that we need the sort of provision that my hon. Friend has talked about and opportunities for young people to get work, to have social mobility and to prosper. That is what will stop knife crime. I say again to the Minister that this is a national crisis and a national emergency, and the Government simply have to treat it as such by co-ordinating and driving forward change, rather than just making a series of compartmentalised, well-intentioned announcements that do not have the passion, drive and enthusiasm needed to effect change in the country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this vital debate, which was secured by Mike Hill and which is derived from the public outrage and utter despair about what is happening to young people on our streets and the intense worry felt by parents. I entirely echo the passionate view expressed by Vernon Coaker that this is nothing short of a national emergency.
It is perhaps no surprise that my constituency topped the signature count for this petition, with the other two Havering constituencies not far behind. Three weeks ago, Hornchurch and Upminster saw the brutal and utterly senseless murder of 17-year-old Jodie Chesney in a Harold Hill park. We have heard this afternoon from my hon. Friend Andrew Rosindell just how badly that has affected the community. The community response to Jodie’s murder has been profound, with marches and memorials, purple ribbons tied to trees, railings and lampposts in tribute to her, and a community vigil in Harold Hill. There has also been practical action, whether through support for a stronger Harold Hill street watch team or new initiatives such as the “Take a Knife, Save a Life” campaign, which seeks to collect weapons from the streets.
Havering remains, as we have heard, a comparatively low-crime borough. That partly explains the shock and utter outrage at Jodie’s murder. However, that kind of incident feeds into concerns that the kind of crime that we may once have associated with inner boroughs is seeping into the capital’s further reaches. I know that we were all hugely disheartened and worried by the fact that only last week in the Harold Hill area a young man was chased down a road and stabbed.
If young people begin to feel unsafe, the temptation only increases for them to carry a weapon too, so it is important not to let such perceptions escalate. On Friday, I met Rachel Grimwood, who works on alternative provision in schools. She showed me photographs of the kinds of weapons that children are bringing into local schools; many are concealed as pens, hairbrushes and so on. That is creating such fear among the local school community. She also talked to me about how young people are being coerced into crime, which feeds into the whole idea of whether it is right immediately to issue a sentence when a lot of young people are finding themselves in very frightening situations in which they are being threatened with violence if they do not also engage in criminal activity.
It is no use quoting statistics at communities about comparatively low crime rates. These kinds of incidents reverberate because of their severity and they lead to a particularly rapid loss of confidence in law and order in suburban areas. I think it is a tragedy that the Conservative party is losing people’s confidence in that respect.
I have been an MP not much longer than 18 months, but I have already met two parents who have lost a child to knife violence. Jamil Sarki from Hornchurch was murdered in January 2018. He suffered a fatal stab wound to his heart after accompanying a friend to recover money lost from a scam. He was a beautiful young man, an engineering graduate from a good family, with so much promise and so much life unlived. Jamil lost his life not in our borough but in Welwyn Garden City, and his case highlights the issue of the support levels available to families who are not connected into the community and systems of the area in which their child’s murder took place.
Today’s debate is fundamentally about the sentencing for carrying knives, however, and new sentencing guidelines brought in over the summer are expected to lead to more people going to jail for carrying knives, even though average sentences for such a crime have already been going up. There is a mandatory minimum sentence of six months’ imprisonment for an adult or four months for a young person if someone is convicted of a second bladed article offence, but if an offender is convicted of threatening with a bladed article, there is a prison sentence straightaway even if it is a first offence. The jail sentence can go up to a maximum of four years. As we have heard, the Government are bringing in new knife crime prevention orders, which are meant to give the police more tools in the fight, such as curfews, geographical restrictions and mandatory knife crime courses. However, I accept the need for caution as the orders are rolled out to ensure that they are a new solution rather than a new problem.
Many of my constituents want a far tougher regime, because they have lost confidence in the deterrent effect of the existing sentences. I appreciate that the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice may have concerns about getting the balance right, to give people a last chance to step away from crime and the criminal justice system. I would appreciate it if the Minister could tell us what has been done to review that balance, given that knife crime statistics are going in the wrong direction, and what intensive work is being carried out with young people who are caught for the first time carrying a blade.
In a previous debate on knife crime, I raised my concerns about referrals to youth offending teams—I have written to the Minister about that as well—and whether the young criminals who are sent down that route have any fear of it. I am keen to get the Minister’s comments on whether the effectiveness of YOTs is under review. I know from shopkeepers across my constituency that all too many young people are now going into their stores with a complete sense of omnipotence when it comes to intimidating people, shoplifting and then mugging people on the streets.
Beyond sentencing, we must accept that there is an issue of resource and attitude, which is why I have focused on trying to secure additional police funding for the Met. Policing has become a much more complex activity over the past decade, with officers asked to carry out a much broader range of activities, as gangs’ business models adapt rapidly with technological change. Following private meetings with the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, we have secured extra money for the Met, and the Chancellor has recently added an extra £100 million for knife crime since Jodie’s murder. That resource is welcome, and it is already making an impact, but we now need to see much more consistency in that funding, so that officers can plan much further into the future.
Constituents will always want more bobbies on the beat, and they are absolutely vital in gathering critical intelligence through the building of trust. However, we also need to ensure that the resource is going into the right places. I see it as equally important that we have officers who can work on collecting evidence and securing safe convictions. I note the important intervention by Neil Coyle in that regard. Witnesses need to be confident that trials in which they testify will lead to convictions.
We also need to ensure that we are building robust cases against criminals much higher up the food chain who are ruthlessly exploiting young people as an expendable resource. Similarly, the police cannot be expected to plug gaps in other services, so the resourcing of social and children’s services is critical in stemming a young person’s descent into crime. However, as I have said before in this House, that resource must be accompanied by leadership at every level, to ensure that extra cash is directed in the right way and bolstered by a sense of political focus, which gives the police and all other agencies the confidence to use the full range of their powers. I asked about that directly in Prime Minister’s questions recently. I would be grateful for an update from the Minister on the knife crime summit that was committed to.
I do not seek to be partisan, so I will ask the same of the Mayor of London. The mayoral system was designed, in part, to bring greater democratic accountability to issues such as policing, and to provide drive, co-ordination and focus on performance when required. I appreciate that the Mayor is concerned about policing budgets, but I would also like to hear from him how he is articulating to Londoners what he is doing with his budget, and what his strategy is to change the weather on these issues.
When it comes to leadership and attitude, the police need to know that they are supported. In Havering, we are deploying greater use of stop and search, as well as facial recognition technology in our urban centres. However, there also needs to be a political focus on pulling all parts of the system together and making them talk to one another. From my work in the borough, it is clear that councillors, policing teams, charities, community members and churchgoers are all doing fantastic work on school exclusions, family breakdowns and flagging at-risk youngsters.
Most recently, I met Hornchurch-based charities Say It With Your Chest and You and Me Counselling, which focus respectively on excluded children, and on parents who feel at a lost as to how to best handle their disruptive children. We need to ensure that such work is directed into a broader local strategy to ensure that it is not just piecemeal or overlapping with existing initiatives. Council consultation on youth violence, for instance, will carry much less weight if it is not engaging with the right young people in the area who are most affected by it. Those charities with a presence on the ground are much more likely to be able to identify and relate to those children.
When I carry out school visits I am struck by the consistency with which mental health is brought up as an issue. Young people are struggling to understand their purpose, worth and value. That is often derived from a negative family and home environment, and fuelled by a lack of belonging or greater community around them. That is why they are so often vulnerable to a gang structure, where they get sucked into a spiral of negative activity. I recently met one of our Harold Hill councillors, who herself experienced that sense of dislocation during her school years. She highlighted to me the need for engagement programmes that are relevant to the particular communities that they are trying to plug into. For instance, she was British-Nigerian, and she said that it is much more effective if people from those communities are talking to those communities, rather than having that sense of somebody trying to interfere from the outside.
Nobody should pretend that these issues are easy to solve, because they are not. After all, the perverse sense of entitlement that allows someone to see it as their right to take someone’s life in a brutal way, such as with the murder of Jodie Chesney, betrays a complete absence of values, decency and human empathy. However, we have been here before when it comes to knife crime and we know what works. Criminals need to know that our attempts to understand their path to violence will be complemented with a hard-nosed intolerance of the mindless destruction they mete out.
One reason why my constituents support tougher knife sentencing is that people believe it is time we showed that communities are back within our control, and a key part of that will be taking criminals off the streets, but that is not solution enough. I would be grateful for the Minister’s assurances that knife crime will be the subject of relentless political focus, so that in criminal justice, education, policing and community outreach, we get the system firing on every cylinder.
I thank the Petitions Committee and Mike Hill for bringing this debate. It is a pleasure to follow Julia Lopez and to hear what she had to say. Ryan Passey, Christina Edkins and Jaskaran Kang, young people from Dudley, were tragically murdered with knives. Last year, Yasir Hussain and Christopher Harm both lost their lives. Elsewhere in the Black Country last year, Reagan Asbury and James Brindley were both tragically killed on nights out. Our hearts go out to their families and friends.
People in Dudley are furious about the increase in knife crime. They want tougher action and more police on the streets to deal with it. The responsibility obviously lies with the people who go out with a knife and then use it, but we would not have needed a crystal ball to predict that cutting the number of police officers, huge cuts to neighbourhood policing teams, the closure of youth centres, sports projects, community centres and other organisations that keep young people off the streets, and sending fewer people to prison, would mean that crime—tragically, violent crime—would increase.
It is shocking to read the results of an investigation in today’s Express and Star:
“Less than one in three criminals arrested with a knife in the West Midlands are sent to prison”.
The paper is completely right to describe the situation in the west midlands as a knife crime epidemic, with the number of cases up 20% over the last year. The points made by my hon. Friend Vernon Coaker are completely right, of course, but how can it be the case that criminals are being spared jail despite committing dozens of offences? According to media reports this weekend, one dangerous offender was convicted 21 times for possession of a knife without being sent to prison and another committed 33 assaults before eventually being jailed for the 34th.
West Midlands Chief Constable Dave Thompson has declared knife crime across the region an “emergency”. He has implemented extensive stop and search powers in Birmingham following a spate of fatal stabbings. The force said that it had stopped and searched 408 people using its new powers over four days earlier this month, arresting 24 people and seizing 14 weapons.
My hon. Friend is highlighting the situation in the west midlands. Does he agree that the proportion of people who are being sent to prison for knife offences had doubled in recent years? We lock up more people than any other European country. About 400 children are serving life sentences or sentences of more than 14 years in this country, compared with just two children serving life sentences in the rest of the EU combined. Although I absolutely understand my hon. Friend’s point and his frustration, at a national level we need to accept that we put a lot of people in prison and so should carefully consider whether we increase that number.
I commend my hon. Friend for her work with the all-party group. I understand her point but, in the end, if someone has been caught with a knife 21 times, or has been convicted of 33 assaults, I think they should be in prison. Frankly, as I will talk more about in a minute, there should be strong sentences and tough deterrents. Of course, we also have to have all those other things going on in society to prevent people being sucked into crime, as she has talked about in the all-party group and I will go on to talk about as well.
When people use knives and behave violently there should be tough sentences. Society needs to send out a strong message that it is completely unacceptable. Although the number of people being imprisoned might have gone up recently, it is fair to say that it certainly fell in the previous few years under this Government.
According to Ministry of Justice figures, 1,182 people were cautioned or convicted by the West Midlands police for the possession of a knife or offensive weapon in 2018, but just 347—29%—went to prison. That represents a 7% drop on the previous year and is under the national average. Across the region, 326 knife criminals were handed a community order, 256 were given a suspended sentence and a further 99 were fined or discharged from court without a sentence.
One in four criminals cautioned or convicted were children. It is a tragedy that children are going out with knives.
For the record, we have gone from approximately 40,000 people in prison in 1995 to 82,000 people in prison now. In that period, the British population grew by about 15%, but the number of people in prison doubled. We have one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, so we have to be cautious about the idea that we are somehow soft on justice in this country.
I am sure the Minister will quote all sorts of figures as to why the knife crime epidemic is not the Government’s fault, is not the result of not sending enough people to prison, and is not because they have not kept the promises they made before they were elected eight or nine years ago—I will come to that. It is all well and good for the Government to claim that people caught with a knife are more likely to be jailed now than at any time in the last 10 years, but that is because the number of people being jailed fell after they came to power almost 10 years ago, despite all the promises they made so loudly and frequently in when they were in opposition. The promise was clear: anyone caught carrying a knife would go to jail.
In 2008, the then leader of the Conservative party gave an interview to The Sun, which said:
“anyone caught carrying a knife will be jailed under a Tory Government, David Cameron vows today. The Conservative leader declares automatic jail terms for carrying a dangerous knife is the only way of smashing the current epidemic gripping broken Britain”.
He repeated the pledge to relatives of high-profile victims, such as the father of Damilola Taylor and the former EastEnders star, Brooke Kinsella, whose brother was tragically murdered. The police and crime commissioner for the west midlands says that the courts are still failing to hand out sentences that reflect the public’s demands for justice after criminals have been arrested and charged.
Despite a lengthy police investigation and a court case, nobody has been convicted for the death of Ryan Passey, the young man I mentioned earlier who was tragically killed on a night out in Stourbridge. That is a source of huge public concern in Dudley and the Black country, and there has been a big campaign by his family and friends. Will the Minister meet me and Margot James, with whom I have been working, and the people campaigning about that case, so he can examine it in detail?
Of course we need schools, youth services, police support and more opportunities for young people, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling said, but people in Dudley also want to see more police on the streets, tougher sentences and proper punishments to prevent people from going out with a knife in the first place.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I thank Mike Hill for introducing the debate. I begin where I was going to end, by reinforcing to the Minister that, in this cross-party debate, we are taking the issue seriously, there is a huge amount of commitment to it, and there is an enormous strength of feeling in favour of dealing with it. If he has listened to all the contributions, he will understand that that is the feeling of the Chamber.
Depending on how one looks at the situation in my constituency, it is either not very good or too good. I recently looked at the neighbourhood policing reports for the Henley area and for a number of areas around Thame. In the Henley area, the neighbourhood report gave no examples of knife crime, and in the areas around Thame, there were two examples, so hon. Members may think that I am unable to talk about the issue. My constituency is in the middle of the wide Thames Valley police area, however, which includes Oxford, Abingdon, Reading and Slough. The Minister will be aware of a recent knife attack in Oxford, which brought the issue home to people there and in the surrounding area.
The figures show that the number of knife attacks in the Thames valley was marginally short of 1,300 in 2017-18, which is the highest figure since 2010. That is about a 50% increase on the number of knife crimes committed in 2012-13, which is a number that keeps on coming up in the areas that we are looking at. The Thames Valley police area is the largest area of knife crime in the whole south-east and far outstrips counties such as Kent, Sussex and Surrey. It stands in marked contrast to the calm and peaceful nature of the area as a whole.
Knife crime has played a part in seven murders, 40 rapes, 10 sexual attacks and 86 threats to kill, so it is not gang warfare, but a much greater set of crimes that involves us all. I agree with Vernon Coaker that it is not a simple task to overcome that, because in the Thames valley, recruitment is up and a tremendous amount of work is being done to look at intakes. I agree with my hon. Friend Andrew Rosindell that numbers will always make a difference to this situation, but we are asking, “Do they make the difference?” I agree with the hon. Member for Gedling that they do not, because we need to take into account a number of other things.
What the police want above all to tackle this problem is the certainty that the increase in numbers that they are seeing at the moment, which allows them to address recruitment, will continue. At the moment, they do not know that and they need certainty.
An equally big role that the police play—I think it has been mentioned—is in partnership with a number of other organisations. The agencies and organisations that the police are in partnership with include the NHS and others, but the one that I have the most sympathy for is the relationship that the police have set up with schools. There, they have a chance of breaking the link of knife crime to drugs, and as our deputy police and crime commissioner has said, “Once a young person has a knife, it’s almost too late”. However, working with schools is a way of breaking that link.
We have also heard a lot about stop-and-search, which has increased dramatically in my area by just over 50%. I have a mixed feeling about stop-and-search. I have participated in a group that included police and crime commissioners, the police and other politicians. There was a tremendous backlash among the group, including the police, against just carrying on with stop-and-search as it was. They did not see that that would create a favourable climate in which to tackle this issue because of all the things that are associated with the history of stop-and-search. We agreed that any stop-and-search operation needed to be intelligence-led, proportionate and appropriate, and I am very pleased that the Thames Valley police initiatives have all been intelligence-led and are having great effect.
Yes, we can and should increase sentences, and we have a unique position in this House to be able to comment on new sentencing guidelines—the Justice Committee always comments on them. After what I have heard today, I will certainly take back to that Committee a determination to make a more concentrated effort to ensure that we are as blunt as we can be in giving that information to judges.
As I said in my intervention, we all have a role to play. That is why in my urgent question I asked what role we as MPs can play, because I have noticed that currently many MPs are very much in the role of observers and have not yet found a way to become participants in it. The Minister thought that I had uncovered a pot of gold in saying that. I wish I had and I wish there was a pot of gold. However, if he knows what has happened to that initiative, on which I think there has been some progress, it would be very nice if he told us.
It is a pleasure to be here this afternoon under your chairmanship, Sir Graham.
We were here just a few weeks ago debating this subject, and indeed knife crime has come up regularly—we had the urgent question on Friday in the main Chamber. It is also right, as my hon. Friend Vernon Coaker said in his extraordinarily passionate and persuasive speech, that it is several weeks since we first heard about the knife crime summit, which apparently will happen some time next week. In asking a Minister a question about that on Friday, I said that I sincerely hoped that the summit would not be a talking shop and that we would see resources and action as a consequence of it.
I am glad that we are at last taking this seriously and debating it on a regular basis—I just hope that these debates lead to action—but I cannot help observe that, since the last knife crime debate in Westminster Hall, and since the knife crime summit was announced, there have been two murders in my borough: one was of a 17-year-old boy, for which offence a 15-year-old has been charged; and the other, just a week ago, was just outside my constituency and was the murder of a 29-year-old man, who was stabbed to death needlessly and pointlessly in an ordinary street. It is often said—this is one reason why we are now taking this very seriously—that for every one of these tragic murders, there are a hundred other stabbings and similar incidents. Some are not even reported to the police, and some are known only to the doctors who treat those involved. There could be thousands of instances of young people carrying weapons.
I do not want to exaggerate, because on the whole our constituencies are still safe places and walking around them at night, or at any time, is a perfectly safe and reasonable thing to do, but there is a cultural change and a change in how communities feel about knife crime. They feel that it is not just about one or two people, or gangs, or known criminals. They feel that it is now inculcating the atmosphere of where we live. That is why I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that knife crime is a national emergency or a matter for Cobra—we have to take it extremely seriously.
One of the young people who died in my borough, Ayub Hassan, was 17 years old. He was born and lived in my constituency, and he was killed in my constituency. As his mother told me, he was her best friend. She is inconsolable at his death. Although there is almost a pyramid, of which the killings are at the top, and although we worry about every offence, there is something absolutely significant about young lives being taken in this way, and the opportunity that is lost, and the way that people did not have a chance to live their lives, and about how it affects their siblings, their parents, their wider family and often the whole community where they live. We have to get to grips with knife crime. It is an incredibly complex, multi-layered issue, and will take a number of years to get right. However, it also requires urgent action.
This debate is about sentencing. It is an important aspect but, as we have heard in all the speeches so far, it is only one element. I suspect that my views on sentencing are probably closer to those of the Minister than they are to those of Ian Austin. I am a former shadow Justice spokesman and have looked into it in some detail. I am not a big fan of mandatory sentencing. As has been pointed out, mandatory sentencing itself often has a degree of discretion of which the courts make due and proper use. There are sentencing guidelines, but we have to leave individual cases to the judiciary. We have a very competent judiciary —it is not a soft judiciary—in this country. As we have heard, we have one of the highest incarceration rates. Yes, there should be appropriate sentencing and, yes, people should be locked up for many offences, whether it is for carrying a knife, using a knife, or for any serious violence that results from knife crime. However, we will not solve this problem by sentencing policy.
[Geraint Davies in the Chair]
We need to start with something a number of Members have mentioned: proper community policing. The loss of that in London over the past few years has made a dramatic difference. When it started, it was an experiment —we were told it was about reassurance. Those were times of greater plenty as far as public funds go, and it was felt that, in addition to everything that was supposed to work, including response policing and detection, we could afford the luxury of putting police back on the streets—bobbies on the beat, community officers.
Then the police would have told us, “We’re not going to catch people doing crimes. We’re not going to solve crimes, but it’s an important community role”. Many senior police officers now admit that they were wrong about that, and that community policing has played a valuable role in reducing crime. A dedicated, in both senses of the word, group of police, even a small group—it was typically six per ward—got to know the community and which people were good and bad. The intelligence they collected and their knowledge of what was going on meant that it was not about just reassurance; it was about policing in the way we do best in this country, by consent and with the support of the community. It was resource-intensive, and it is impossible for those who agree about that policing, whichever party they come from, not to acknowledge that the resources were just taken away.
The Mayor of London has done a very good job in putting resources back—we were down to one officer per ward at one point. It is a semantic thing to say that ward boundaries are the problem. The resources are the problem, and they need to be increased quickly. If that prevents further serious injury and death, it will go at least some way to turning this juggernaut around—all the indications are that we are going in the wrong direction.
I will make a pact with Government Members if they concede that resources have been cut back too far. Local authorities have lost 50% of their funding, meaning that things that are often discretionary, such as youth centres and youth funding, have been cut by even more than that. Most of the youth clubs in my constituency have closed over time. When they were being closed, it was fashionable for some politicians to say, “How on earth does youth work—diversionary activity—decide whether people will go out with a piece of metal and stab someone?” Such comparisons are crass. The opposite argument is that if young people are given something useful to do, are made to feel they are worth while and are shown that there is investment in them, their neighbourhoods and their communities, they have a different outlook on life. Life does not become hopeless. It does not become just a wasting of time and getting into trouble. If Members on both sides will admit that we must reverse that absolute drain on resources in our local communities, I will not make a party political issue of it. I concede that I think everyone is of goodwill whatever their views on aspects such as sentencing, penal policy or investment. I believe that there is a will across political parties to get this right in response to the horrific things we have seen. Having that intention is a good start, but it is not where we need to go.
The second thing we need to do is engage some of the expertise and knowledge that is out there. Part of that is in our policing and our judiciary, and among our medics and the experts in the field, but part is in the community. I spent half an hour at surgery this morning with the mother of a young boy in my constituency. She had not come to ask me to do anything. In fact, the surgery was almost the other way around—I learned far more from her than she did from me.
We spent half an hour talking about exactly this problem. Her son had a very late diagnosis of special needs, and all the trouble he was having at primary school was put down to bad behaviour. He ended up being excluded from secondary school at an early stage and going into alternative provision which, his mother said, was dreadful and dire. It was not just that he was not being properly educated and his needs were not being identified and no action taken; before he was a teenager even, he had been cast out—he was now excluded, no longer part of acceptable society.
The second thing that happened, of course, was that he was put with all the other naughty boys, and when naughty boys go around together, perhaps not doing terribly bad things to begin with, after a while one or two of them will get into trouble and get convictions for this, that or the other—a bit of criminal damage perhaps. My constituent’s son now has a conviction for carrying a knife. That comes about either from neglect, bureaucracy or lack of intervention by, or resources from, statutory bodies of all different kinds.
Where does that leave the parents? My hon. Friend Ruth Cadbury, who is no longer in the room—she tragically had a death in her constituency over the weekend—said to me, “Where is the support for parents of victims but also for parents who have tried to do their best to keep their children out of trouble and who worry every night about where their sons or daughters are?”
On my hon. Friend’s powerful point about who people come into contact with when they are first getting into trouble, if there was an automatic 10-year sentence on first arrest for carrying a knife, a young person who had not been in trouble at all could find him or herself not just in a young offenders institution but among the prison population, with some very, very bad people who had done much worse things. Turning someone who is carrying a knife because they are scared into a hardened criminal eventually could be an unintended consequence of what we hope to achieve with sentencing.
My hon. Friend shows a lot of compassion and understanding.
I do not advocate a soft approach; on the contrary, we need rigour in the system, but not the knee-jerk reaction that we will suddenly cure this by sentencing. How often have we heard that in relation to every possible offence? Is that not what has driven the prison population to double, and the conditions in prisons and the assistance for those leaving to be so dire in this country that it is an international embarrassment?
I do not want to say much more. I believe not just that we are well-intentioned but that we are resolved to tackle the issue. The expertise is there, and part of that is listening to our communities.
I am almost dreading the summit next week, because I fear it will be a talking shop, a couple of press releases and not much more to get the Government through another week or two. I hope the Minister will tell us that that is not the case. I also hope that we will hear from him before 7 o’clock—I apologise, Mr Davies, that I will not be here after that. If I miss the end of his speech, I will read it diligently, as I always do. I know that it will be worth reading because he shares that view.
I respect what the people who drafted, motivated and signed this petition are trying to achieve, because they are expressing the same frustration as the mother who came to see me today: that Members are standing around, looking powerless—they might think we are uninterested, but we are not—and are not solving problems that are solvable. Those problems are getting worse and worse: they are now affecting not just individuals, but whole communities. This is a national emergency, and we need to act.
Thank you, Mr Davies, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mike Hill on having secured a really good cross-party debate, in which we are agreeing on a lot of issues. I wish that my hon. Friend Vernon Coaker had been my teacher; I had not realised that he was a teacher for 20 years, and I feel that I would have listened a lot more in school if he had been teaching me.
It is right for us to pay tribute to the family of Jodie Chesney, who Members have spoken about being from their area. I also want us to think about the people who have died in my constituency: Kelva Smith, Andre Aderemi and Jermaine Goupall, three people who lost their lives recently through knife crime. I am not going to talk about the need for funding, because we have established that, and I think we all agree on it. I will just say that there is a need to fund not just youth work and education, but housing. I currently have a mother and her eight-year-old daughter in my office who have been refused housing by everybody, and are completely destitute; we are desperately trying to get them somewhere to sleep tonight. Those wider issues massively impact on the life chances of our children, and we must never forget about them.
I will focus on sentencing, which is what we are debating. This issue is too important for us to not look at the facts about what impact sentencing has. We know that knife crime is at epidemic levels, with over 100 knife offences a day. Fatalities are at the highest level on record, with 285 people dead last year, and knife crime has gone up across virtually every area and police force in the country. Young people are disproportionately affected: 39 young people were killed last year, the highest level for 10 years, and according to NHS figures, there has been more than a 50% increase in stabbings of teenagers. More than 1,000 teenagers were admitted to hospital with stab wounds last year, and we know that many others do not go to A&E because they are scared of what might happen.
People are rightly concerned about this national crisis, but my view is that dramatically increasing sentences for knife offences is not the answer. We cannot enforce our way out of this problem by increasing sentences. We already have a tough regime for knife offenders, which has been getting tougher over the past decade. As I have said, we lock more people up than any EU country, and 400 children are currently in prison serving life sentences or sentences over 14 years. The proportion of people being sent to prison for knife offences has almost doubled: in 2010, about 40% of people caught with a knife were given a custodial sentence, but today, the proportion of knife possession offences receiving a custodial sentence is closer to 70%. Last year, more than a third of knife offenders received an immediate jail sentence, and in 2015, the Government introduced their two-strikes policy, which I mentioned earlier. That policy means that anyone over 18 who is caught twice gets a minimum six-month jail term. Despite those changes, knife offences have risen from 25,000 to over 40,000 since 2013. Contrary to what might seem to be the case, the evidence shows that tougher sentences do not deter people from committing crime.
Four main factors go into sentencing decisions: punishment, deterrence, public protection and rehabilitation. We are debating all those factors today. To begin with punishment, people who commit knife offences—particularly attacks on other people—absolutely need to receive strict punishments, but those are already available under the law. The types of punishments we are debating are not proportionate or appropriate for the vast majority of knife crime, particularly as those involved are disproportionately young people. The majority of children carrying knives are extremely vulnerable, and it is increasingly evident that many are being criminally exploited, groomed and coerced. Punishing them with punitive sentences risks turning this generation of young people into a generation in prison.
Would my hon. Friend give some details about why some of those young people are carrying knives—details that she will have picked up through all her work in this area? I know there has been lots of coverage of that point in some of our news media, and fear seems to be the main reason, but I wondered whether my hon. Friend could give some more details.
I could, and I could speak for far too long about that issue. It is not possible to say “all young people carry knives for this reason”: everybody has a different story to tell. In many of the tales shared by the young people who I have met, vulnerability is given as a reason, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right that fear is another one. We know that knife crime is contagious. It acts like a disease; it spreads. As I have seen in Croydon, if some people in a school are known to be carrying knives, others will start to carry knives. That results in situations in which people are not in gangs and are not dealing drugs, but are carrying knives because they feel that they need to, so when there is a fight, instead of using their fists, they use a knife. There is a whole raft of issues involved; we have already talked about involvement in drugs and gangs, as well as violence in the home and in the family during a child’s early years. All kinds of things lead to people carrying knives, but fear is definitely a big one.
Turning to deterrence, a large body of research on knife crime over the past few years shows that simply setting longer sentences does not deter crime, as the Minister knows very well; I am sure he will talk about that. Research consistently shows that, if anything, it is the certainty of being caught that acts as a deterrent, not how severe the sentence is. A recent evidence review concluded that lengthy prison sentences and mandatory minimum sentencing cannot be justified on the grounds of deterrence. For sentences to be a factor in deterring crime, people need to know what the punishment for the crime is and then make a rational choice about whether to offend. However, awareness of sentencing is very low, and many people involved in knife crime—particularly young people—do not act rationally. People who have been in and out of prison for carrying knives have attended meetings of the all-party parliamentary group on knife crime, and they say that prison is not a deterrent at all: it is a break from the streets, somewhere they can be safe for a while before they have to go back.
Public protection is very important; we must of course keep the public safe by making sure that dangerous people are not on our streets. Home Office research found that a 15% increase in the use of custody would be required to produce just a 1% decrease in crime, and as we have talked about, our prisons are already overflowing. Surely it would be better for the Government to build on their recent £100 million boost to police funding and set a strong new basis for police funding in the autumn statement, in order to deter people through policing on the streets, rather than funding a huge increase in custodial sentences that would lead to a very small decrease in crime.
When it comes to rehabilitation, we know that dealing with children and young people outside of the formal justice system is more effective at reducing offending than punitive responses. Involving a young person in custody makes them more likely to commit crime in the future. Young people who spoke to us at meetings of the all-party parliamentary group on knife crime talked about prison as a training camp, as the things that their colleagues could teach them were likely to increase crime, rather than reduce it. As the Minister also knows, conditions in prisons do not lend themselves to positive rehabilitation. Young people can be locked in their cells for 23 hours a day, and research has found that they face
“hunger, denial of fresh air, cramped and dirty cells, strip-searching, segregation, the authorised infliction of severe pain, uncivilised conditions for suicidal children” and bullying and intimidation.
I apologise for interrupting my hon. Friend’s excellent speech, but I would have thought that part of the problem with rehabilitation is the recidivism of repeat offenders. Does she have an opinion about the part played by our now poorly functioning privatised probation service, through which offenders are probably not being rehabilitated as well as they should be?
I absolutely agree. There is a cycle. Surgeons in King’s College Hospital say that they are seeing the same children coming back again and again. The prison system says that the same children are going back time and time again. There is the same cycle of going into prison, coming out of prison, committing a crime and getting stabbed. It is awful, and we need to break that cycle and get children and young people away from the situation they are in.
In terms of the four factors considered in sentencing, the evidence is just not there for harsher sentencing in this area. I will not talk about the public health approach and what we should be doing on prevention, but I want to highlight some work done in my borough of Croydon that paints the picture of where we need to go with our young people. Croydon completed what I think is a landmark report investigating the cases of 60 vulnerable adolescents. Those 60 children had all been involved in serious cases of violence or exploitation. Five had lost their lives. Three had been convicted of murder. One third of the boys had been victims of knife crime and three quarters were involved with gangs. More than half the girls in the cohort had been victims of sexual exploitation.
Of the 60 people who had been deeply involved in violence, half were known to children’s social services before the age of five. We knew who these children were from the very beginning. In all the cases, there were many interventions by the state, but they did not work. The state was involved in crisis management—when something happened, there was an intervention, but the state did not do the right thing to help those children.
Half of those 60 children had witnessed or experienced domestic violence. We know that violence breeds violence. It is learned behaviour. If children see it in the home, they do it later on in life. Three quarters of the children had a parental absence on the father’s side, and a quarter had an absence on the mother’s side. There were many parental issues around drug or alcohol misuse and mental health funding. A third of the children had already been excluded by the time they left primary school, and every single child who was later convicted of a crime had been excluded from school.
I will not talk more about what that says, other than to say that they are vulnerable children growing up in difficult situations. That does not excuse the crime at all, but in so many of the cases I have come across, who is the victim and who is the perpetrator is the luck of the fight. It is not right to categorise some children as the evil ones perpetrating the crimes and some as the victims, because there is often crossover. In some cases, people are being harmed when they have absolutely nothing to do with anything, but in other cases, they are all in a difficult situation because they are all vulnerable. I would argue that putting them in prison for longer is not the answer. In Scotland, they are putting far fewer young people in prison and focusing on the ones who are there. In the youth offending prison, they are giving them lots of training, teaching them to read and write and giving them education and skills, and that has to be the right approach for the long term.
This is a national crisis. My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling put it correctly when he said that the Government need to come together to tackle the issue. In terms of this debate, sentencing is not the answer; many other things are.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. It is a real delight to follow my hon. Friend Sarah Jones, who has done so much detailed work in this area. I put on record the work of the Youth Violence Commission, which my hon. Friend Vicky Foxcroft has been working on during this Parliament. I also put on record how much I appreciate the passion with which my hon. Friend Vernon Coaker spoke about his personal experience. I remember attending his conference speech in 1999 in Bournemouth when he was police Minister. He had people along to talk about young people and positive involvement with the police. He has a wealth of experience in the area, and it is pleasing to hear that he has not lost that passion for young people and social justice.
I thank my hon. Friend Mike Hill for introducing this debate, in which we have had many interesting speeches from both Opposition and Government Members. I thank my hon. Friend Mrs Hodgson for her interventions and her expert knowledge, particularly about young children, nutrition and all the elements that go to make up positive primary schools, which we hear make such a difference for people’s long-term outcomes and whether they are caught up in the criminal justice system.
The debate is about sentencing, but I want to talk about enforcement and prevention, just to set the scene. There can be no more difficult thing for a Member of Parliament than to meet the grieving family of a youngster lost to knife crime. On
At its heart, it is a tragedy not only for the young man’s family—his mother is grieving and his son has lost a father—but for all the youngsters who knew him and loved him. Julia Lopez has met relatives, too, and it brings home to us just how many more people are affected now compared with perhaps 10 years ago. Those of us who have been involved with public policy for 10 or 15 years remember when it was perhaps one terrible thing over a three or four-year period. Now, it seems far too regular. The number of people now facing the impacts of knife crime make this the national emergency we all agree it to be.
In the terrible case of Kamali Gabbidon-Lynck, he passed away from loss of blood in a hair salon. There were a number of children having their hair cut or whose parents were having their hair cut, and they witnessed this dreadful loss of life and heard the young man’s last words. Those people just getting their hair cut—an eight-year-old, a four-year-old, a mother with a tiny baby—will never forget that. That points to this feeling that it has become the wild west, and we need to bear in mind the number of people now affected.
Our victim support works according to a rigid model. Those people were considered to be witnesses to a crime, but in actual fact they were victims of that crime, too, because they suffered trauma and stress. It took an intervention by me at a roundtable at my advice surgery to gain expert counselling support for those families. If I had not intervened, I do not believe they would be receiving the expertise and counselling that they need. Our victim support needs to be much more holistic in its approach and to look at who is affected by knife crime.
We have been through the statistics on the lack of police. As other Members have said, because we are in a national emergency, we need to look at the enforcement side and talk about sentencing, police numbers and the lack of police in our schools. In London schools, we always used to have a full-time police officer in the school who the children knew. That developed a great relationship of trust. Those officers are now spread much more thinly, and often it is not the same police officer in the same school all the time. We need to put that right. For what it is worth, my view on funding is that if we can spend £800 million a week on Brexit, we can spend more on the safety of our families and young people.
I want to briefly talk about the work being done throughout the rest of the criminal justice system. Like many Members who have spoken today, I believe the legislation is probably right. Given their expertise in this area, I trust their views. As it is the prisons Minister who is with us, will he say what he thinks constitutes a positive prison experience? I am one of the Members involved in the MPs scheme to visit prisons. I look forward to my first visit to HMP and YOI Isis next Friday. What does the Minister feel is the key to a positive prison experience? Some people say a short experience in prison is worse than a longer one, because some of the excellent prison officers working in our prison system have a really positive impact on many of our young people, particularly in our youth offender institutions. I am interested in hearing the Minister’s views on that.
To expand on the view put by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central, we know that literacy rates in our prison system are low. What is being done during sentences to push up the rates? Are there proper college courses? What are we doing so that when young people come out of prison they are ready to go into jobs and employment?
I cannot mention prisons without mentioning the use of drugs and how they have a negative effect on the staff inside prisons. Drug use can lead to attacks on staff, and staff themselves can become high as a result of Spice and other drugs being used in the prison system. Ian Austin mentioned that the Express has called for longer sentences. If longer sentences mean more low quality experience with more drug use and attacks on staff, low morale and a lack of skills training, literacy or other meaningful, purposeful activities, I cannot support more and more and longer and longer sentences if they do not address the problem.
The National Audit Office has commented on the privatised service; it is poor value for money and is not leading to the outcomes that we want to see. We have very high rates of recidivism, as my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West mentioned earlier, and, unfortunately, a revolving door system. I want to make a brief point about the prevention strategy. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central mentioned social services’ involvement with young people, and my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy and I work closely in the London Borough of Haringey. We met the Home Secretary several months ago and he promised to look at the resources and the interconnection between the numbers of police, the probation service and the prison experience, and yet we still have a crisis on our hands. It is an absolute tragedy that we are not able to get a grip on the situation.
There is the bigger picture on funding when it comes to what local authorities can do. However, specifically on the point that has been made about even primary school children beginning a journey into a life of crime at the end of primary and the beginning of secondary school, I have sought a meeting with the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government to discuss Haringey. Incidentally, Haringey has the highest level of police resource of any London borough because of our problems. I want to ask him for a special fund for a buddying and mentoring scheme for the families described by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central. Rather than a social services punitive approach, we need a friendly approach so that when the first letters come home from school saying that the youngster is not coping, the buddying and mentoring scheme can help the family and perhaps help with other siblings or whatever it is that stops that youngster thriving in school. We need to keep young people in school for as long as possible. We know that many of the prison population have been expelled or excluded from school from an early age.
Although it is tempting to jump on the bandwagon of longer sentences, I think the Minister has realised that what is important is the quality of rehabilitation in prisons and that we have to look much more closely at resources in schools and early intervention. We need to also look at what local strategies there are. A lot of good practice is carried out in Glasgow, which is certainly worth considering for other local authority areas. I want to emphasise that with Brexit costing £800 million a week, there must be more that we can spend on such a crucial situation.
I want to re-emphasise how pleased I am to see Members of all parties joining together to look at the problem as a national emergency. There is excellent police work in parts, but we must improve and increase that and bring together the passion that some Members have for this crucial area. We must not lose hope because that would be giving in. We must redouble our efforts to concentrate on the crucial question of young people and knife violence.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the petitioners and the Petitions Committee for bringing this urgent issue to our attention. I also thank Mike Hill for his very able and comprehensive introduction to the subject, and I thank all hon. Members for their thoughtful and thought-provoking speeches. As others have done, I want to start by reflecting on the horror and the personal tragedy that each instance of knife crime represents. Our thoughts and our hearts go out to all who have been impacted, including whole communities such as Havering, Dudley, Hammersmith, Croydon, Wood Green and many others across the country.
The petition—like the debates that we might have tomorrow on the Offensive Weapons Bill—asks where the balance should lie between different policy responses to knife crime. The petitioners have placed their focus on sentencing, and that is entirely understandable, particularly for those who have experienced or been affected by knife crime. Of course, there must be proper and appropriate punishment of offenders. In Scotland, sentencing has been a small part of the response, as Andrew Rosindell mentioned earlier. Maximum sentences for possession have been increased to five years, and the average length of custodial sentences for knife possession and offences have increased, too, albeit without the introduction of mandatory prison sentences, about which I share the scepticism of Andy Slaughter.
The key point is that sentencing policy in Scotland is broadly in the same ballpark as that in England and Wales. I do not agree that the upsurge in knife crime in too many areas of England and Wales is down to a lack of appropriate sanctions. There is no evidence for that. As Sarah Jones said, there is little or no evidence that increasing the length of sentences will have any significant deterrent effect.
I share the views of the hon. Member for Hammersmith. We tend to put far too much faith in sentencing and harsh sentences to fix all of society’s ills, whereas prison often causes more problems than it solves. Short sentences in particular often operate almost as a training camp, as the hon. Member for Croydon Central said. The focus should be on other policy areas, many of which were touched on during the debate and which I will refer to briefly now.
Policing numbers are also relevant, despite the Prime Minister’s protestations. Hon. Members have been almost unanimous about that today, and senior officers have said the same thing. Although I am always reluctant to compare apples and oranges—it can be a crude way to do things—I was struck when I read the other day that in September 2018 there were roughly 32 officers per 10,000 of the population in Scotland, compared with around 21 officers per 10,000 in England and Wales. That is a hugely significant difference. There might be other explanations for it, but if I were an MP in England and Wales, I would ask questions about how that gap had arisen. Members referred to the need for local policing or hotspot policing. That is necessary and we need to see resources invested in it.
I turn to austerity and resources more generally. Last week, witnesses before the Home Affairs Committee were clear that austerity and cuts to services were having a significant impact. The witnesses said that safe spaces, youth clubs and council-funded sports facilities and teams have faced the brunt of the cuts. Those are places where young people find diversion and meet role models, and the cuts undoubtedly have an impact. Services such as social work, employability and mental health are all buckling under the strain, and all those services count in the battle to stem the tide of knife crime.
Some hon. Members referred to stop and search. I agree that that can play a role, but it is far from an answer in itself, and it must be used extremely carefully and in a way that does not risk undermining trust in the role of police. It must be done on the basis of reasonable suspicion. “Intelligence-led” and “proportionate” were the words that John Howell wisely used.
Tomorrow, or soon, we will debate knife crime prevention orders. We heard some differing views on that subject today. We do not have them in Scotland, and based on what I have heard so far I severely doubt that I would like them to be introduced. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Croydon Central for all the work that she does with the all-party group on knife crime, and for the event that she organised this lunchtime at which we heard from a range of actors about why knife crime prevention orders appear to be filling a gap that does not really exist and that lacks an evidence base. Instead, they risk seriously counterproductive unintended consequences.
Putting that aside, more generally I welcome most of the provisions in the Offensive Weapons Bill. However, it is a small piece of a much bigger picture, and the area where we can make a significant long-term difference is away from purely criminal justice measures. That is where Scotland has already seen some success, if only because we experienced horrendous levels of violence not so long ago that required an urgent response. It is important to remember just how bad the position was. As recently as 2005, the UN talked of Scotland as among the most violent countries in the developed world, and the World Health Organisation referred to Glasgow as one of the murder capitals of the world. Although we still have a long way to go, the evidence points to significant success in reducing levels of violence, as the hon. Member for Romford pointed out.
Recorded violent crime in Scotland came down by 49% over the decade to 2016-17. The homicide rate halved over the decade from 2008 to 2018. Offending by young people has halved since 2008, and various other dramatic statistics show that a long-term public health approach can make a difference. Although other policies have undoubtedly played a part, including those related to sentencing, I think we all know that that public health approach has been responsible for turning the tide.
Such an approach is about addressing the underlying risk factors that increase the likelihood that people will become a victim or a perpetrator of violence. It means an evidence-based, whole-of-Government approach that seeks to tackle the causes of violence, rather than just the symptoms. It is about prevention and early intervention, rather than action after tragic events.
Members knows about the work of the violence reduction unit, together with organisations and campaigns such as No Knives, Better Lives and Mentors in Violence Prevention. On the ground, it is about seeking opportunities to divert from prosecution, community alternatives to secure care and custody, and improving reintegration back into the community. It means improving life chances, promoting school inclusions, strengthening relationships and engagement, building life skills, improving health and wellbeing, and trying to improve employability.
None of that is new, much of it is common sense, and all of it has been learned from other cities such as New York and Chicago, and tweaked and honed to work in Glasgow and other parts of Scotland. I hope that the same thing can work over the longer term in parts of England. It is not about directly copying what has gone on elsewhere, but learning what works and what can work, and tailoring it to local circumstances. I welcome, for example, the fact that Mayor Khan has established a violence reduction unit in London.
The UK Government have published their serious violence strategy, which includes a move towards a public health approach. Whether that is a modest change of emphasis or a full-scale rethink, only time will tell; however, to save lives there should be a genuine and cross-Government commitment to pursue that approach, making available the funds that are needed.
I support what Vernon Coaker said when he raised what seems almost to be a lack of urgency in the response to this national crisis—or epidemic, as hon. Members have described it. The problem has been getting worse for the best part of two years, but until now the response has largely been local and operational, rather than strategic and at a national level. If not through Cobra, there has to be another type of serious, cross-Government co-ordination. This matter needs national direction, and it needs it urgently.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I too thank the petitioners and the Petitions Committee, and my hon. Friend Mike Hill for opening the debate and making very important points, along with Andrew Rosindell, who rightly set a measured tone across the Floor. Some broader political points need ironing out, but today may not be the day for that. I will refer to them briefly, but in the light of what the hon. Gentleman said I have altered huge parts of my speech—I thought he made a good point about that.
I join many of my hon. Friends in remembering all the tragic victims of knife crime—those who have been mentioned, and those who have not.
It would be remiss of me not to mention two young people from Sunderland who were also victims. In the north-east, we do not have an epidemic of knife crime. There is a regional element to it, but none the less 31-year-old father Gavin Moon from my constituency was a victim, as was 18-year-old Connor Brown, from the neighbouring constituency of Sunderland Central. As my hon. Friend was talking about victims, I thought I should mention those two.
This has been an excellent debate. I did not intend to stay for long, but it has been so good I have stayed for the wind-ups.
I join my hon. Friend in remembering the victims she refers to, and all other victims. Our thoughts and hearts go out to the grieving families. These are tragedies beyond words.
We have heard moving accounts from hon. Members from their constituencies—from communities coming together to deal with the issues to the broader impact and trauma, which is sometimes not acknowledged, on society as a whole and on communities. All those things happen in the aftermath, and are sometimes not given as much thought as they should be. I thank all hon. Members for their valuable contributions.
The rise in knife crime and the number of young people who have been killed should keep us all awake at night. It is deeply complex. Although we support robust sentencing, the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on knife crime, my hon. Friend Sarah Jones, made pertinent and persuasive points. I do not wish to repeat them, but I believe that she set the tone regarding the broader impacts by giving some hard facts. In particular, she referred to the record numbers of offenders sentenced for knife crime, with more people being given an immediate custodial sentence. She rightly pointed out that we must realise that we cannot achieve lower levels of crime through sentencing alone. We need an approach that is rooted in effectiveness. Only then can we begin to stop the rise in violent crime.
In taking such an approach, we need to understand what is driving knife crime. Although, as we have seen today, there is little consensus on what has been the trigger for the marked increase in knife crime, the drivers and issues that have created the conditions in which this epidemic has been able to grow are difficult to dispute. The clearest is that, with such a dramatic rise in knife crime, young people are now more scared of becoming victims than ever. They have seen friends wounded or killed and fear that the same will happen to them. They even feel ignored by authorities when they raise that fear, particularly since those who are most likely to be victims live in high-crime neighbourhoods where police are sometimes seen as unable to protect them. That is compounded by a rise in violence and a fall in the proportion of crimes for which an offender is identified.
We cannot get away from the fact that police numbers have been slashed: there are 20,000 fewer police officers than there were in 2010, and police community support officers, who are so vital to building relations, have also been lost. At the same time, there are serious issues in our schools: as schools face significant funding pressures, interventions for vulnerable children are being cut and there has been a marked increase in exclusions and illegal off-rolling. We know that vulnerable children are more likely to be off-rolled or excluded, and the Children’s Commissioner has reported that those who are excluded are 200 times more likely to be involved in gangs, which demonstrates that we simply cannot ignore the correlation between the rise in exclusions and the rise in knife crime.
There have also been huge reductions in the services available for young people. Again, I am not making a political point out of this but just giving the hard facts. Some 3,500 youth service jobs have been lost and 600 centres have closed, with 130,000 places lost. There have been sweeping cuts to education, and teachers and vital early intervention services have been lost as councils face unprecedented funding cuts. Youth offending team budgets have been cut in half, curbing interventions and degrading services that help to prevent young people from becoming victims and offenders in the first place. All those services assist people who are already disaffected and vulnerable. It is no coincidence that victims and offenders are from areas of huge social disadvantage.
We cannot address the drivers of offending with more sentencing alone. We can address them only with an interdepartmental approach, because sentencing is a downstream solution that is applied when it is already too late. We need an upstream solution that identifies the root causes of crime, brings together organisations across central Government, local government, the police and the community sector, and is built on the well-documented public health approach that many hon. Members have referred to, which involves collecting data, identifying the factors at play, implementing solutions and rolling out the ones that work.
More broadly, solving the issue requires the stimulation of housing, employment opportunities and community facilities, as the Association of Directors of Children’s Services suggests. It also requires investment in young people, who are overwhelmingly the most affected, and a cross-departmental approach like that of Police Scotland’s violence reduction unit in Scotland, with close co-operation among partners in the NHS, education and social work. That will help to give young people the future they deserve and lift them out of the dire situations in which they find themselves, which all too often lead them to fall into a life of crime.
Such an approach is far from being soft on crime but, as Stuart C. McDonald says, it gets results. The considerable success of the approach taken in Scotland, with homicide rates halving between 2004-05 and 2016-17, has led the Youth Violence Commission, the Select Committee on Home Affairs and the head of Scotland Yard to call for it to be implemented in England. Even the Home Secretary has said that we need to treat knife crime “like a disease”. Unfortunately, he has offered to tackle the symptoms—stabbings and possessions—but not the causes.
We need to do more. We need to shift the focus of our model away from purely specific interventions for high-risk individuals and cast the net wider, to focus on low and medium-risk offenders, from whom most of the cases arise, and avoid a prevention paradox. We need joint ownership to be taken of the problems that lead to knife crime, because responsibility does not lie just with police—we have to be clear about that. Ultimately, we need to adopt an approach that recognises violence as preventable, not inevitable. We need a meaningful public health approach that can address knife crime and its causes.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I pay tribute to Mike Hill for introducing the debate and to Imran Hussain for the compassion and empathy of his speech. In a debate that has lasted for two and a half hours now, I cannot help but reflect on how committed all hon. Members are to the issue. As a Justice Minister, I have learned an enormous amount, from many different angles. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend Andrew Rosindell for the extraordinary passion with which he spoke about victims in his area, and to Vernon Coaker, who is a real firecracker—he made a great speech with huge energy and passion, and I am sure that the issues can only ever be gripped in the way that he described.
I have picked up the sense of frustration around this Chamber. The situation is very disturbing and has been getting steadily worse, so I completely understand why people feel infuriated and frustrated and want more action more quickly. I can reassure hon. Members on one particular question by confirming that the Prime Minister will hold the summit at Chequers next week. In her defence, there is a reason why in the past two weeks she has found it difficult to organise a meeting there: Brexit has not stopped everything else happening in the Government, but it has stopped many of the things that might otherwise be in her diary.
To get a grip on the situation, we have set up an inter-ministerial group on serious violence, which meets regularly and is chaired by the Home Secretary. I am a member of that group and we are making a lot of rapid progress; as the hon. Member for Gedling implied, such a Cobra-style approach is vital to bringing everybody together. In thinking about the problem, we need to be realistic and, above all, practical. The Government’s serious violence strategy contains any number of ideas—probably 200 or 300, all of which are good and all of which make a difference.
Interestingly, knife crime prevention orders are not part of that strategy. A lot of the organisations that I have spoken to suspect that the orders were partly a knee-jerk response to show that the Government were acting, and that they were never part of the strategy that the Minister is talking about, which is comprehensive in its diagnosis—if not in setting out a solution.
I will come back to knife crime prevention orders. The interesting thing about this debate is that although we all share a horror of knife crime, not everybody in this Chamber agrees on the particulars, such as knife crime prevention orders, sentence lengths or whether courts should have discretion. In a sense, the debate in this Chamber is a reflection of the debate among the public.
The core question is which of the dozens of suggestions in the serious violence strategy will make most difference as quickly as possible and be most effective. There may be many individual initiatives that are fantastic at a community level, but others may be even better, and those are the ones that we need to focus on. I want to focus on four areas in particular. The first is sentencing—this is a debate on sentencing, and I am here as a representative of the Ministry of Justice to talk about sentencing. It is true to say that following on from the 2015 two-strike rule, more people are now going to jail for knife possession offences, and they are going there for longer. My hon. Friend Julia Lopez raised the question of whether we have got that balance right, and it is a difficult balance.
The hon. Member for Gedling, a very experienced ex-policing Minister, asked exactly how these exceptions are defined. They are defined quite closely. Some 82% of people found in a double possession will find their way towards a sentence. Who are the 18% who are not getting sentences? The guidelines stipulate very clearly what the mitigating factors are and lay them out. In extreme cases, it could be somebody with learning difficulties, mental health problems or a serious medical problem, or it could be somebody who has co-operated with the police—all these things are mitigating factors that might lead to someone not receiving such a sentence.
I am including suspended sentences as well as immediate custodial sentences. In the case of a suspended sentence, if somebody breaks their licence conditions, they will be recalled to court for the remainder of their custodial sentence.
Out of that 82%, approximately 22% of the cohort do not receive a full custodial sentence. All of that goes to the core of what the mitigating and aggravating factors in the judge’s hands are. As the hon. Member for Gedling pointed out, this is absolutely standard in any legislation that we bring forward—we leave some discretion for the judges.
One of the questions at the core of this issue has been raised again and again by the hon. Members for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) and for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova): deterrence. In order to be practical, we need to focus on the fact that the main thing that the evidence suggests makes a difference to somebody who is considering committing a crime is their chance of being caught. Their receiving a six-month, nine-month or 12-month sentence, or even a five-year sentence, is much less likely to motivate their behaviour than the chance of being caught. In burglary, for example, it is almost certainly the very low rate of conviction, rather than the length of sentence, which has made the difference. If someone feels that they have a 3% chance of being caught, it does not really matter how long the sentence is, which is why most of our focus is now going into putting another £100 million behind the police to focus on knife crime, rather than on increasing this form of sentence length.
There is another reason why we have to be cautious in response to the suggestions for a 25-year sentence for using a knife and a 10-year sentence for possessing a knife: any sentencing needs to balance with other forms of sentencing, otherwise victims and their families will feel that justice has not been done. What do I mean by that? If someone gets a 25-year sentence for using a knife in any way—cutting somebody with a knife—while the minimum custodial sentence for murder is 15 years, it would be very understandable that a family would look at somebody getting 15 years for murder and wonder why somebody else was getting 25 years for using a knife. The same would be true if someone got 25 years for using a knife and another person got 25 years for killing somebody with a knife; the family would understandably ask, “How come this person is getting 25 years for using a knife to wound, when here is another person getting 25 years for committing murder with a knife?”
It is a fundamental principle of our law that we look at the consequence of the crime and the culpability of the criminal; we do not look at the weapon used. We do not determine whether somebody used a crossbow, a gun or a knife; we look at whether it was murder or grievous bodily harm. What form of offence was committed? That is really important, because if we start introducing offences based purely on the type of weapon that is used, we will end up with injustice being felt all the way through our legal system. It does not mean that we cannot look at sentencing, but this particular proposal does not make sense.
Let me address the proposed 10-year sentence for possessing a knife. Currently the minimum sentence for possessing a firearm is five years. The public would feel a deep injustice if someone were to get 10 years for a knife and another person got five years for a firearm—it simply does not make sense. In thinking about sentencing, we cannot think about just one type of offence; we have to think about the effect on the whole system.
I shall move on quickly, because I am aware that we have trespassed on your patience for a very long time, Mr Davies. I want to discuss early intervention and prevention, supporting communities, and effective law enforcement, which are the three central planks of any response to knife crime. On early intervention and prevention, the hon. Members for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) and for Croydon Central made very eloquent interventions and speeches. I pay tribute to Stuart C. McDonald for—given Scotland’s extraordinary success in this area—a very modest and charming speech. I thought it was a very intelligent speech, which demonstrated that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution and that we can learn from Scotland without replicating their approach. I pay tribute to what Scotland has done and the spirit with which the hon. Gentleman approached this debate.
Clearly we have to look at risk factors. The key risk factor in an individual involved in knife crime is the individual themselves. As Chris Bryant has pointed out, that could mean an acquired brain injury, or neglect, or abuse in the home. The second factor is the family context, which is central. In a recent study, 47% of people who had committed homicide had been in care—almost half of them. The third factor is the community context in which people operate. Living in a deprived neighbourhood makes someone much more likely to commit knife crime.
Another important factor is the school that someone attends. Serious risk factors include an individual being caught up in bullying at school or playing truant, and we need to do more to work with schools. Schools are quite good at picking up on children who are victims of domestic abuse, but are they good enough at identifying people who are being sucked into knife crime? Should we be working with Ofsted to try to assess schools on how good they are at identifying people who are being sucked into knife crime?
Someone’s peer group—the people with whom they spend their time—is the fifth biggest risk factor in determining whether they get sucked into knife crime. We can respond; this is not just touchy-feely nonsense. We can prove that a targeted approach, not a universal approach, is most effective. It is about being really smart with public money. The answer is not to lecture every child in the country on knife crime, but to ensure that we target those who are most at risk with the most serious support. The likelihood of a child going on to commit a violent offence can be reduced by 25% by bringing in a therapist with a case load of five or six children and ensuring that the therapist spends time with the family once a week. That one thing makes a huge difference. As we begin to build up these different things, we can begin to address some of the underlying causes of knife crime.
The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East spoke eloquently about supporting communities. We need a multi-agency public protection arrangement-style approach, which is something that, again, the hon. Member for Gedling referred to. We need to think about comms and how we get a proper media approach. We need to think about how that could be a digital media approach. How do we communicate to people the dangers of knife crime? We need to think about what we do with retailers who sell knives, which involves bringing in trading standards. If we are going to wrap up different bits of Government, we need trading standards to get under-18-year-olds to try to buy knives online. We need under-18-year-olds to go into shops—even small retailers—to try to buy knives and then report back to the retailer if somebody on the shop floor has sold a knife to someone who is under age.
We need to think about victim support, as Catherine West said. The answer to her specific question is that anybody who witnessed the attack is entitled to victim support. They do not need to be related to the victim. I am very pleased that she champions that issue.
The answer is that we have just published a victims strategy, and we are investing more in victim support—more than £90 million a year—as part of a broader spectrum of support. We now have £200 million going into a youth endowment fund, which is directly driven by the strategy and responds to the public health approach pioneered in Scotland. We have another £22 million going into an early intervention fund to respond to the stuff that we have been talking about in relation to schools and families.
That brings me to effective law enforcement, where my hon. Friend the Member for Romford is pushing us. He makes a very interesting point about the way in which community policing does or does not overlap with ward boundaries. Andy Slaughter also spoke in some detail about community policing. We need to balance that with very specific stuff on knife crime, which means ensuring that there are plain clothes officers in hot spot areas. Hot spot areas are central. In Peterborough, we discovered that taking a hot spot approach, getting the right data and finding where the problems are coming from reduced violence by 37% without displacing it to any other area, so hot spot policing is central.
The Minister is making a very thoughtful speech. Although we do not agree on everything, he is talking a lot of sense. A piece of work on that has just been done on that in Croydon. There are 10 areas in Croydon where most violence outside occurs. It is in the places we would expect, such as outside the supermarkets. He is absolutely right that targeting them with effective policing would be an incredibly sensible way to spend public money.
The answer to everyone in the Chamber who spoke about law enforcement is that community policing plays a part. There is a 10 am meeting of the violent crime taskforce every day in Lambeth, where it gets the intelligence from the previous 12 hours about where people have gathered and where the weapons are moving. It then targets its intervention for the day. It has its own team of uniformed officers who back up the plain clothes officers on the ground. They go in and do weapons sweeps and community weapons sweeps. They use section 1 orders to go after individuals and section 60 orders to go after geographical areas. They go after habitual knife carriers. They conduct searches with search warrants, based on drug suspicion in houses. By doing that, and through Operation Sceptre, through which we have 42 police forces across the country doing this at the same time for week-long periods, we are able to hoover up astonishing quantities of knives.
The community part is the real key to that, because it is the local community leader, the head of the local boxing club or somebody who wants to speak for the community who is out there doing the community sweep, finding the knives concealed in hedges and cars. That is far more effective than police officers just doing it on their own.
I am curious to know, in the light of those kinds of activities in boroughs such as Lambeth, whether the Minister has seen any displacement activity? Does he see people move into neighbouring boroughs, or does it have a real impact on knife crime over a much wider area?
Strangely, the experience is that there has not been displacement activity. We have looked at that very carefully, and it seems that, by targeting those areas, we grab it and do not push it on to neighbouring areas. There are different theories about that. One is that some of this is gang-related, and some gangs are geographically limited, so it is not likely to be displaced into other areas.
At the core of all this is crack cocaine and crack cocaine gangs, although the innocent victims have nothing to do with crack cocaine. Although drug use in general is coming down, crack cocaine use is going up. It went up 18% between 2016-17 and 2017-18. County lines, which are an incredibly important part of this, are also contributing. The same gangs are involved in both. That means that we have to get on top of mobile phones. We have had to bring in new ways of intercepting mobiles, which are central to the way that county lines gangs operate. We have set up a new National Crime Agency taskforce to focus on county lines, and we have had to be much smarter about data. In partial response to my hon. Friend John Howell, who made a very good speech about that, one of the things we are learning is that our data has not been good enough. For example, we have not been coding knife crimes properly. Setting up smart software that allows us to pick out as knife crime something that was simply registered as GBH makes a huge difference to our ability to target hotspot areas.
All the stuff that I have been talking about so far is about preventing somebody from being dragged into these gangs from early childhood onward. Then it is about the violent crime taskforce moving into an area to make sure that if somebody picks up a knife, we get them as soon as possible, particularly on possession. Then—God forbid—if somebody is convicted or uses a knife, we move on to the question of what happens in the courts, prisons and probation. There, too, we have to look at all these other issues. We have to take on board the fact that the real protection for the public is ensuring that the person who has offended once does not reoffend.
Statistically, we are doing a bit better on knife crime than on other crimes. Generally, short-term offenders reoffend at a rate of nearly 60%. Knife crime offenders reoffend at about half that rate. Half that rate is still too high, so we need to address addiction issues, get them jobs and help them into accommodation.
I thank the Minister for giving way a second time. Does he agree that the current approach to drug rehabilitation services in prison is not robust enough? Not enough people have access to those crucial treatments and are cured of drug and alcohol issues.
Yes, that is absolutely right. We should do much, much more on addiction. Shoplifting is a big problem. We have a lot of shoplifting, and the majority of people get short sentences of less than six months. The highest single offence is shoplifting by a very large margin. Of those offenders, 76% are crack cocaine or heroin addicts. The real way of dealing with the problem is to deal with their crack cocaine or heroin addiction.
The Minister has given a very thoughtful, measured and informed response, and people listening to it will say, “That’s great. How will the Government and Parliament make that happen?” As part of that, will he tell the House that he will go back, wake up the people who need waking up and introduce regular statements to Parliament, every single week at least, about what is happening, what progress is being made and what is or is not being done? It should be a regular statement to Parliament, not a response to an urgent question.
I have enormous admiration for the hon. Gentleman, and I would be very proud to have him as part of our team dealing with this. I am sure he would deal with it very well. I am not in the business of committing colleagues in the Home Office to making statements, but I assure him that we take this very seriously. I have not spoken enough to Ian Austin, but we are putting another £100 million into policing, particularly driven by violent crime and knife crime, in addition to our investment in the youth endowment fund.
Action is not just what happens in Parliament. It is not just about the inter-ministerial group that has been set up and the meeting that the Prime Minister is holding next week. It is about setting up the violent crime taskforce and that 10 am meeting every morning in Lambeth, and about ensuring the money and resources begin to flow in behind this. I believe that this will make a significant difference, but I absolutely agree to sit down with the hon. Member for Gedling. The only way of doing this or anything in Government is with urgency, grip, imagination and passion. Above all, it should be rooted in realism. I thank the hon. Member for Hartlepool very much indeed for this incredibly informative debate.
I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) and for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), and the hon. Members for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez), for Dudley North (Ian Austin) and for Henley (John Howell) for contributing to this important debate. I also thank those who made important interventions—not least my hon. Friend Mrs Hodgson—and the Front-Bench representatives, who all made incredible contributions to this very important debate.
I am sure that many more people would have been in this Chamber were it not for the business in the main Chamber. The subject areas that we covered were important and diverse: deterrence, prevention ,and cause and effect, as well as the sentencing element of the petition. I could not end this debate without paying homage to one of our own: PC Keith Palmer, who was a victim of knife crime only a couple of yards outside this very building.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered e-petition 233926 relating to knife crime.