30 Apr 2008 : Column 71WH

30 Apr 2008 : Column 71WH

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 30 April 2008

[Mr. Edward O'Hara in the Chair]

Teenage Knife Crime

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Roy.]

9.30 am

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome you to the chair, Mr. O’Hara. This debate is critical for Parliament because knife crime is on the increase up and down the country. I am sure that many Members in the House can give us their direct experience of what is happening in their constituencies. However, there has been a double impact for me. Over the past three months, five teenagers have been murdered on the streets in my constituency, which is totally unprecedented. Not only were there no teenage murders last year, but when we compare our recent figures with the overall figures for London—11 murders this year—we have faced an almost indescribable situation. A combination of fear and incomprehension has traumatised the community—whether it be the family, neighbours, or people who never knew any of the victims. Although we have been making steady progress in reducing the fear of crime in my community, recent events have changed that markedly and we are beginning to see real concerns expressed locally.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (UKIP): The hon. Gentleman is right to bring this important debate to the House. However, the debate is not new; the Government have been aware of the problem for some time. Although they have taken some excellent measures in law and order, this matter is one on which they have been found wanting. Did the hon. Gentleman see the 20,000-plus “knives or lives” petition that I took to No. 10 Downing street last year? Does he agree with the tougher penalties and honest sentencing policy of Gerard Batten, the London mayoral candidate for the UK Independence party?

Mr. Love: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. I will outline some of the proposals that have been made by my constituents and the ones that I will be recommending to the Government. I know that there has been a constant debate in Parliament, and I hope that by continuing the dialogue we can get the Government to do more. The essential message that has to go out from today’s debate is that we must do more to address the problems.

Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): I thank the hon. Gentleman for introducing this debate. Does he share my concern that knife crime and its consequences are spreading to virtually every constituency in this country? One of my constituents was killed in a knife attack just before Christmas. There have been other such attacks in areas that have been described as “leafy suburbs”. The problem is spreading across the whole country and the trend is very worrying.

30 Apr 2008 : Column 72WH

Mr. Love: I agree that the trend is very worrying. It is important that Parliament takes note of that and that hon. Members bring their experiences to the Government so that they can be addressed. That is what I hope to do this morning.

It is important that we state that the vast majority of young people are good, law-abiding citizens. In most cases, young people are the victims of violent crime and not the perpetrators. It is important to put the issue in context before we go on.

The nightmare in my constituency began in the early hours of 1 January when Henry Bolombi, a young man aged 17, died in a knife attack. He was returning from seeing in the new year at Trafalgar square when a row broke out between two groups of youths at a bus stop. Currently, a 20-year-old and a 14-year-old have been bailed in connection with that murder.

On 21 January, Louis Boduka, again 18 years of age, was stabbed to death in my constituency following a daytime street brawl. A 17-year-old who vehemently denies the charges is likely to go on trial sometime later this year. On 15 February, Ofiyke Nmezu, who was only 16 years old, was struck on the head during a street attack in Ponders End in my constituency. A week later, he died in hospital from a fractured skull. A youth from Essex, aged 18, has been charged and will appear at the Old Bailey in June.

I continue. On 13 March, Michael Jones, aged 18, was found with fatal head injuries following an horrific attack in the flat that he shared with his mother. A 45-year-old local man has been arrested and charged. That crime was quite distinct from the others. Finally, Rastafarian Bakari Bernard-Davis was stabbed to death in the street on the evening of 31 March. Two black youths were seen running from the scene of the crime, but, as yet, no arrests have been made.

What we have here is four street attacks in my constituency. Three involved knives and the fourth involved a young man being hit on the head with a blunt weapon. Three of the attacks may be gang related, one possibly has a drug intention behind it, and one may have been racially motivated.

As a consequence of recent events, I undertook an impromptu postal petition, which managed to gain 750-plus returned signatures—unlike that of the 20,000 of the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink). The petition, which was put together as a matter of urgency because of the developing situation, said:

I then followed that up with a crime survey, which elicited from my constituents a number of letters, expressing concerns about what had happened. Miss. M. from South Mall in my constituency said:

That is a challenge to us all. Miss. B. from Osward place in my constituency said:

30 Apr 2008 : Column 73WH

The events are doubly shocking and, as I mentioned earlier, unprecedented. According to all the figures, crime is falling both locally and across London. For example, Enfield is the 11th safest of 32 London boroughs. In 2006-07, in terms of crimes perpetrated by 1,000 residents, Enfield had a figure of 95.6 compared with 122 for London. Even the figure for England and Wales, at just over 100, was higher than that for my borough. There was a 10 per cent. fall in the number of offences committed in the London borough of Enfield between 2003 and 2007. Violence against the person in the year to October 2007 fell by 19 per cent. in Enfield, compared with just over 7 per cent. across London. The fall was 21 per cent in my constituency. Therefore, we had a higher fall in the number of crimes of violence against the person in the year immediately before these events.

Fear of crime, which is almost as important as crime itself, has also shown a downward trend. In my borough, 60 per cent. of people believed that it was not safe to go out at night in 2003. By 2007, that figure had dropped to 47 per cent. The percentage of people who are scared of going out during the day has fallen from 18 per cent. to 8 per cent. Again, those are positive figures. The position is similar across London. Murder reduced by 18 per cent. between 2002 and 2007 and knife crimes of all types, from the smallest use of a weapon through to the most serious crimes, went down by 30 per cent. in that period.

A number of London initiatives that I would like to see in place in my borough have had a dramatic impact. For example, Operation Blunt introduced a knife amnesty. I know that there are some concerns about knife amnesties, but they have made progress in reducing the number of weapons on the streets. A lot of the operation is intelligence-based enforcement—getting into the gangs, finding out what young people are doing and being there when there is likely to be a confrontation between young people. That is the essence of the operation, and it has been successful.

Operation Shield makes great use of portable metal detectors, the so-called arches and wands, and the initiative has been successful. It is used sometimes in schools, although I understand that there are concerns about the use of the detectors in schools, and certainly in train stations, bus termini and shopping centres. That is a helpful development. Of course, the Mayor’s gangs, guns and weapons reduction board, which co-ordinates activity on youth crime, is important and does essential work in spreading best practice to address the problem.

I know that detection rates are always a matter of controversy, but the Metropolitan police has had considerable success. It increased the crime detection rate in general from 17 per cent. to 25 per cent. in the two years from 2005 to 2007, and the detection rate of street murders is more than 90 per cent. It looks likely that people will be brought to justice for most, if not all, of the relevant crimes that have been committed in my constituency.

It is important to examine some of the research that has been carried out on gang culture and the violent use of weapons. I have come across two recent studies that throw that into sharp relief. The first was by a
30 Apr 2008 : Column 74WH
charity called the City Bridge Trust, which carried out a comprehensive research project including a literature review, a survey of schools in its local area and a discussion with people involved in the issues of young people, gangs and the violent use of weapons. It found, first, what we would expect: that knife crime affects young people, mainly those from black and ethnic minority communities and deprived areas. I do not think that there was any surprise in that. I found it more surprising that knife crime is four times more prevalent than gun crime. The most shocking statistic that I came across was that one in four of the 16-year-olds surveyed carried a knife, and one in five claimed to have used it at some point.

Bob Spink: The hon. Gentleman has explained eloquently that knives can kill just as easily as guns. In fact, more young people are murdered with knives than with guns. Knife crime and the carrying of knives is often dealt with in magistrates courts, where the maximum sentence is only six months, which in reality means serving only three months because of dishonest sentencing. That is simply inadequate to provide the necessary deterrent. Will he encourage his Front-Bench colleagues to do something about that?

Mr. Love: The hon. Gentleman is in a great hurry. If he will allow me, I would much rather state my case. It is important that any judgments that we make are evidence-based, and I should like to set out some of the evidence before I draw conclusions. However, I have some sympathy with his points.

I mentioned the shocking number of young people who both carry and claim to use knives. Numerous studies have suggested that knives hold a great fascination for young people. Whether that is because it gives them status, because they think that they are a fashion accessory, as many people have claimed, or because it is simply a matter of street cred, that is clearly true. That places an onus on our education and youth services to address those issues.

The research also shows that the motivation for carrying knives is primarily fear. Many of the young people carrying knives do so because they have been threatened with a knife at some time. We must address that spiral. We must also examine the impact of gangs, drugs and alcohol as a motivator that fuels the aggression that is shown in some instances. That was one of the themes that emerged when NCH, the children’s charity, surveyed young people. It interviewed roughly 100 young people up and down the country about their attitude to violent weapons. Its findings accorded with the other study that I have mentioned, because 63 per cent. said that image and peer pressure led to young people carrying weapons. Some 41 per cent. said that they knew someone who had been affected by knife or gun crime. NCH’s position on its study is that it is important for young people themselves to be involved in the design of services aimed at them and in how we address the motivating factors that lead them to carry knives and guns. I shall return to that theme. What have the authorities done to respond? I shall start by addressing the point that the hon. Member for Castle Point raised.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): As this is a Chamber of the British Parliament, it is worth saying that Glasgow is the city
30 Apr 2008 : Column 75WH
in this country that has the highest level of knife crime, and has had it for a very long time. Until quite recently, knives, rather than guns, were the weapon of choice for Glasgow’s gangs. That shows that the demography of knife crime is more complex than one might think from reading the Evening Standard.

Mr. Love: I agree entirely. We can learn a great deal from the long experience in Glasgow, especially about the interaction between different gangs and geographical locations. We appear to be repeating some of the experiences there, so we need to examine Glasgow carefully, especially in relation to gangs and knives and in relation to drugs and alcohol as a fuel for the activities in question.

I return to what the authorities are doing. We have set up safer neighbourhood teams, which have been warmly welcomed across the House and contributed significantly to reassuring the public and reducing crime levels. In my area, there have been increased patrols by safer neighbourhood teams, and the police in general have been much more visible and on the streets. That is clearly an attempt to reassure the public that there is a response to the increase in violence that we have seen locally.

Since this Monday, local resources have been reinforced by the Metropolitan police in an operation that is intended to prevent, deter and disrupt gang, criminal and violent activity in the communities in my constituency and, I hope, lead to the arrest of some of those responsible. Again, these measures have the dual purpose of getting to where the violent crimes are perpetrated and reassuring the community about what is being done.

There has been a significant increase in the use of portable metal detectors. Last week, at one of the busiest stations in my constituency, such detectors were on show and my understanding is that they were very successful in detecting a number of weapons that were being carried and, it must be said, not just by young people. Those detectors are having some success.

We have safer schools teams in Enfield and one of the largest safer schools projects in London. Those teams have been going out to schools and redoubling their efforts to try to get some of these messages across to young people. I will return to that critical activity at a later stage.

My local authority has also set up a commission that is very much based on the one set up by Lambeth for very similar reasons: to look into the causes and effects of the significant increase in violent crime locally and also the policies that are necessary to try to address it. Furthermore, my local authority is co-ordinating a summit to discuss the relationship between crimes and drugs. We are acutely aware that drugs fuel criminal activity and there is some evidence to suggest that they also increase the level of aggression that is shown in some of these instances of knife crime.

I now to come to some of the areas that the Minister may be able to look at in addressing the crime issue. NCH, the children’s charity, says that it is quite important that, in future, the under-16s should be included in the crime survey work that is carried out nationwide, so that we can have a better handle on the figures and also a better understanding of what is happening out there in the community. Is that idea something that the Minister has looked at?

30 Apr 2008 : Column 76WH

Many people also believe that there should be a lower criminal age for the possession of violent weapons. I know that that issue has been discussed in the House and it is an issue that we need to address. If we look at the ages of the people affected and, indeed, the ages of the people carrying out these crimes, we see that some children under the age of 16 are involved, so we need to get a handle on what is happening to very young people in our community.

I refer again to my petition. I did not want to mention the mayoral election at the moment, but all the major candidates are suggesting that we need tougher sentences for the possession and use of knives; indeed, in the debates that we have had in the House recently similar recommendations have been made by individual Members. Could the Minister comment on the balance of judgment required, in relation to whether we need to send out a signal about the seriousness of the crimes that are being committed?

I want to see even more arches and wands used in our community. Shopping centres, railway stations and similar areas need to be targeted. If we are to believe the statistics, many people carry weapons. According to the statistics, 40 per cent. of young people carry weapons at some point during the day or in the evening and we need to take some action on that.

There is also a great need for more research on alcohol and drugs, and their role in violent crime. A phenomenon in my constituency would not be found everywhere, because it is located mainly in the Somalian community, and that is the use of a mild drug called khat. The police in my area report to me that the combination of khat and alcohol is leading to much greater levels of aggression among Somalian youth than they have seen in the past. That is a subject where more research could be carried out. The Minister may be able to comment on the fact that the Government have funded 15 local authorities to conduct research into gang culture in their communities.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way on this point, and he is making a very significant speech on this issue. Does he agree that it is also important not to allow the media or anyone else to characterise the Somalian community and Somalian youths as intrinsically violent or drug-obsessed? Often, Somalian youths have suffered very bad discrimination and many of their families have suffered in war-torn Somalia. The Somalian community needs to be recognised and supported and, in particularly, we should recognise the role of the very strong Somalian community organisations that are doing their best to ensure that young Somalian people achieve something in their lives.

Mr. Love: I endorse what my hon. Friend says about the strengths of the Somalian community organisations and about their work; that has certainly been my experience in my constituency. Also, I certainly agree that many young Somalians have been traumatised by their experiences back in Somalia, where there is a vicious, ongoing civil war.

Next Section Index Home Page