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Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I should like to focus on the issue of gun crime and the steps in the Bill that, I hope, will help us to tackle that scourge. As I said in an intervention, gun crime casts a peculiar shadow over communities such as mine in Hackney. I remind the House that when those of us who live in the inner city talk about gun crime we are talking about something very different from the criminal use of guns down the ages. Guns have always been used in crime, including, for example, the great train robbery. In the past decade in inner-city Hackney, however, I have witnessed the growth of a specific gun culture, in which young men do not feel properly dressed for a night out unless they are tooled up.
People may talk about guns as replicas or collectors' items, but individuals who want guns as ornaments on their dining-room table or on their walls are feeding the gun culture. Another feature of Hackney's gun culture is the random nature of shootings. Once, unless people were armed robbers or security guards, they were unlikely ever to find themselves face-to-face with a gun, but in my constituency there have been drive-by shootings in which people were killed while waiting at a
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bus stop. At a party, people have been killed by a bullet from a gun fired in another room that passed through the wall. In the past two weeks, people were shot up in a Turkish restaurant in Dalston by people travelling past on a motorbike. Imagine the terror experienced by people in a restaurant, at a bus stop or walking up the street when they see two guys go past on a motorbike spraying bullets.
The random nature of gun crime in the city and its international nature give Hackney's gun culture a specific character. Disputes about drugs and payment may originate in Mountain View, Kingston in Jamaica but they are resolved on the streets of Dalston in Hackney. Just as business and labour have gone global, so has crime. Hackney is involved in the traffic of criminals between New York, London, Jamaica and elsewhere. There is therefore a distinct and unnerving phenomenon in an area where high-value housing lies cheek by jowl with what is commonly known as murder mile. For many years, I have urged Ministers to take tough action on imitation firearms. In Hackney, such firearms are not ornaments like vases or a piece of china. They are one step away from real firearms. The majority of what are misleadingly described as Yardie-type shootings in Londonmost of those involved do not come from Jamaica or have not travelled thereare perpetrated with activated imitation firearms. That is why I take a tougher line than colleagues who regard such guns merely as ornaments.
The problem is not just a media scare. The publication of annual crime figures show that gun crime has risen by 10 per cent. and the use of imitation weapons by 66 per cent. Last Monday, a 22-year-old was shot in Dalston, and he is still in hospital. In the past 10 days, a 20-year-old who was trying to stop a friend being beaten up was shot in the face. As I said, bullets were sprayed into a Turkish restaurant by a gunman on a motorcycle in Dalston. Gun crime is a tragedy not just for the people who are shot but for their family and the community. What can it be like to be a mother who says goodbye to her son in the morning or the afternoon only to receive a call from the police saying he has been shot and may be dying?
I welcome the Government's action, including tougher sentences for people carrying imitation firearms. I particularly welcome the creation of a new offence for using other people to hide and carry guns or knives. For many years in Hackney, 11, 12 or 13-year-old children have been used to keep guns, because the owners know that when those children are discovered they will not receive the sentences given to adults. The Bill's clear intention to bear down on the carrying, sale and use of imitation firearms is welcome, and my constituents will be grateful that the Government are listening.
We must make it clear, however, that the glorification of guns and firearms is not unique to youth culture or even black youth culture. Recently, promotions for the film "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" featured the gimmick of a glamorous coupleBrad Pitt and Angelina Joliehandling guns. Sometimes people assume that gun culture is specific to inner-city areas such as my constituency, but guns have been glorified in American culture since the days of Wyatt Earp. I welcome the
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measures in the Bill on imitation weapons, for which the police have been calling for many years. I do not want those measures to be watered down by people who consider such guns to be merely ornaments.
Measures in the Bill, however, will not wipe out the menace of gun crime in the inner city. We need to look at a number of underlying issues, including education. I have spoken many times in the House about the underachievement of black boys. I am not claiming that every child who underachieves at school joins a criminal subculture and goes on to become involved in firearms, but there is a direct link between criminality, whatever one's colour, and underachievement. If we are serious about beating gun culture in the Hackneys and Harlesdens of our country we must look at educational underachievement and the need to create routes into employment. Someone can stand in the middle of Dalston in my constituency a few hundred yards from the scene of various shooting incidents and see the towers of the City of London, including the gherkin and the NatWest tower. For most of my young male constituents, however, those towers might as well be on the other side of the world, so remote is their opportunity to find a job in the City, one of the biggest employers in Europe.
We must therefore look at education and routes into employment for my constituents. We must also look at witness protection. In HackneyI do not know about areas outside the M25by and large the identity of individuals carrying out the shootings is not a mystery. The gangs and perpetrators are well known within their communities. The problem is that people are terrified to come forward because we still do not have adequate witness protection. If there is a big gangland investigation, people can have their identity changed or whatever, but I have spoken to middle-aged ladies who have gone to court and been witnesses in the trials of gun criminals and have had to move two or three times to get away from the fear of retribution. Witness protection is extremely important.
We also need to look at better control of the illegal importation of weapons and at the issues that colleagues have raised in relation to the sale of weapons on the internet. Of course we do not have anything like the level of gun crime that exists in the United States, and of course only a fraction of our young people are involved in the kind of gun culture that I described, yet that has cast a terrible shadow over my constituents because of its random, international and cultural nature. I am glad that in the Bill the Government are taking important steps towards dealing finally with the menace of gun crime in our inner-city communities.
Here we have the 41st or 42nd Home Office Bill in the history of this Government. Once again, I am afraid, the most effective part of the Bill is the title, which bears little relation to the contents. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) said earlier
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that if existing legislation with regard to knives were put into effect properly, we would not need any reference to knives in the Bill. However, I welcome part 2.
Richard Burden: With respect, I did not make the comment that the hon. Gentleman attributes to me. The point that I was making was that there is existing legislation on knives which needs to be enforced properly. I did not say that we do not need the provisions of the Bill.
The offence of minding a weapon is an excellent step forward. From my experience of the courts, it has been needed for some time. The Government have got that right. The provisions on firing beyond premises are also right. I welcome the provisions on imitation weapons, a subject on which I have campaigned long and hard. I am pleased that something is being done. With regard to airguns, a licensing system would have been preferable. Those can be extremely dangerous, and we know that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, for example, reports many garden birds being killed year on year. There are also several examples of domestic animals being shot with airguns. The Government have rejected the idea of licensing, but in the spirit of the Home Secretary's opening remarks, I hope that there can be a dialogue on the matter in Committee and further consideration of the matter.
Mr. Weir: My hon. Friend will know that in Scotland there is a great deal of cross-party consensus on the need for tighter legislation going beyond the Bill. That was supported by the First Minister before he was slapped down by the Home Secretary. Given that consensus, does my hon. Friend agree that there is an opportunity to trial a licensing scheme in Scotland?
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