Previous Section Index Home Page

30 Apr 2008 : Column 82WH—continued

30 Apr 2008 : Column 83WH

Knife crime in England and Wales is, in some ways, young persons’ crime. It is an issue in Hackney because Hackney is a young borough. Under-18s comprise a quarter of our population and we have all the indices of poverty and deprivation: 60 per cent. of my people live in social housing and we are consistently in the top 10 in the country in respect of the unemployment rate. Unemployment hits young people particularly.

One of the characteristics of inner London is that terrible poverty and often shockingly high levels of deprivation, as some colleagues from outside London would acknowledge, go cheek by jowl with great wealth. It is not unusual in Hackney for Victorian or Georgian squares with houses worth £1 million to be next to estates that are still sinks of grim poverty, despite the money that the Government have spent on refurbishing them. When I see some of the savagery of the crime on London’s streets, there is a sense—this is not an excuse—of two nations living side by side in mutual incomprehension.

The other issue in Hackney relating to teenage knife and gun crime is the number of young people who fall through the education net. A former director general of the prison service, Martin Narey, said that on the day that a child is expelled from school, we might as well give them a date and time to turn up at prison. The route from educational failure and exclusion to life on the streets, gang culture, knives, crime and prison is direct. I do not expect the Minister to respond to the education and youth service issues that I want to raise, but provision for that must be interlinked with a long-term strategy to deal with the problem of knives and guns.

In Hackney in 2007-08, knife crime fell by 23 per cent., but my constituents do not believe that, particularly at election time. One issue with knife and gun crime is that the perception of crime is as much a problem as the level of crime. I could not walk through Stoke Newington and convince people that knife crime has fallen by 23 per cent., but it has. However, no matter how low the level of knife crime, it is still too high, particularly because it is a young person’s crime. We have had two fatal stabbings in Hackney so far this year.

Although 10 to 17-year-olds make up only 11 per cent. of Hackney’s population, they are responsible for 28 per cent. of reported crime. Why are young people carrying knives? I have been to schools and youth clubs and asked them why, and have tried to counsel individual young people who are brought to see me by their mothers, and they say that they carry knives to protect themselves. One simple thing that we could do is to go into schools and make them understand that carrying a knife does not protect them, but puts them more at risk, not least because it is a random weapon. A slip of the wrist or of the weapon and what was intended to frighten someone can end in murder.

Politicians have a tendency, and the media more so, to demonise young people involved in street culture, but we must remember that some—I am the parent of a 16-year-old— if not all of them, are quite frightened. They may look scary strutting along with their hoods and glaring menacingly, but they are frightened, and as much as we want to relieve the middle-aged, middle-class electorate from fear, we should consider how we can relieve young people from the fear that causes them
30 Apr 2008 : Column 84WH
to cling to their gangs. For many of them, the gang is their family because of family breakdown in inner cities. Young people who would once have found role models as apprentices in manufacturing industry now find their role models in street gangs. It is no coincidence that some of the centres of gang and gun crime—Brent, Hackney and parts of south London—were centres of manufacturing industry 20 years ago. As manufacturing industry and the possibility of employment for unskilled and semi-skilled males has declined, we have seen the rise of criminality almost filling that vacuum.

I want to stress that some young people, scary as they may look to us, are frightened. I had occasion to take issue with the Home Secretary, who is a wonderful Home Secretary in many ways, for saying that she would be frightened to walk the streets of London. I insisted that middle-aged ladies like me and the Home Secretary are perfectly safe on London’s streets. The people who are genuinely at risk are people of my son’s age.

I live on a street in Dalston in Hackney. At one end is the London Fields gang and at the other is the Holly street gang. I remember some young people at the Holly street end saying that there is nothing to do and when I said that there is a sports centre and a new lido at London Fields park, they replied that they did not dare to walk to that end of the street because it would take them into another gang’s territory. Those areas are less than quarter of a mile apart, and those young people live in fear.

I congratulate the Government on their legislative programme covering gun and knife crime. The Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 raised the legal age for buying a knife from 16 to 18. That was important. It made it illegal to use others to hide or carry a knife intended for unlawful use. It increased the maximum sentence for carrying a weapon in public from two to four years. It allowed teachers to search pupils if they thought that they might be carrying weapons. The Knives Act 1997 prohibited the marketing of knives in a way that suggests that they could be used for combat. It is illegal to carry a knife in public without good reason or lawful excuse, and the stop and search laws mean that the police can stop people if they believe that they are likely to be carrying knives.

I welcome the Government’s legislative changes, and I am not against increased sentencing, which is what people called for, but ultimately it is not legislation, or even doubling or tripling sentences that will make a difference. One thing that will make a difference for both knife and gun crime is certainty of prosecution, so for some time I have tried to stress to Ministers not just the sentencing framework, but the protection that we give to witnesses and the extent to which we build confidence in the community. In many ways, knife crime is like gun crime. In those small networks of young people, it is no secret who has committed the offence, but they are often too terrified to come forward and to be witnesses.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love), I believe that although legislation and law enforcement must be the short-term answer, particularly because we want to build confidence in our communities, we must consider youth services. I have been an MP long enough to have seen during the 1990s
30 Apr 2008 : Column 85WH
the collapse of the youth service as local authorities such as mine came under financial pressure. It was a non-statutory service, so it was easy to cut. A project here and a project there, however lovely, with short-term funding that has to spend the first 12 months setting itself up and the final 12 months looking for other funding to replace its term-limited funding, is no substitute for a stable youth service that knows its community and whose youth workers are out on estates and streets engaging with young people and bringing them to the services and facilities.

Jeremy Corbyn: Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be helpful if there were a statutory requirement for a youth service which was clearly defined with ring-fenced funding accordingly?

Ms Abbott: If we are talking about joined-up government and are concerned about knife and gun crime, the Government should consider making a youth service a statutory provision. It is precisely because it was not statutory that it collapsed in Hackney. It was replaced with many different little projects, but a patchwork of projects with time-limited funding is not the same as a stable youth service that can offer continuity and personal relationships with young people and communities going forward.

As with so many things, education is at the heart of the matter. Young people who become involved in knife and gun crime have almost invariably fallen through the education net. We must focus on educational underachievement, especially of young black men and Asian men. The idea has always been that a colour-blind approach is helpful when talking about deprivation and so on, but what has happened is that despite the money that has been pumped into schools in London and so on, young black men and some recent young male asylum seekers remain at the bottom of the education pile. Starved of any opportunity for self-esteem and pride in themselves within formal education, they look for that self-esteem and pride in the negative culture of the world of gangs.

This is a serious problem. Sadly, people’s fear and perception of the prevalence of the problem is greater than the figures, but that does not mean that we do not have to deal with people’s fears and reassure them. The Government have done a lot through legislation and there may be more that they can do. We need to consider the long-term strategic issues on the provision of youth service and education.

10.30 am

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) on securing such an important debate. So far, I have not disagreed with anything that has been said—there is a lot of sense in this room.

Like all MPs, I dread getting a phone call from the police; one knows that it will be bad news and that there will have been an incident. In December 2006, I received a call—not one of the worst that I have received—about 60 to 80 youths rampaging up Lordship lane, which resulted in a number of stabbings. Mercifully, none of the stabbings was serious in the
30 Apr 2008 : Column 86WH
sense that none was fatal, but the fact that that is happening must be of concern to hon. Members from all parties. Such violence has spread way beyond the areas where one would traditionally expect there to be trouble; the problem goes right across my constituency of Hornsey and Wood Green, from the wealthy, leafy side to wards with some of the highest levels of deprivation in the country. The fear is the same across all of those areas and some of the incidents are the same, too.

As a Liberal Democrat, I believe that our approach should be the three Ps: prevent, protect and punish. I agree with the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) that education should be at the highest end of the spectrum of issues. Some good initiatives are taking place. For example, during anti-crime week, I visited Woodside high school, which is a big secondary that faces many challenges. Everyone worked together: the police, the young people, and a theatre group—the Comedy Store, which did a role model play. Once young people talk openly, it becomes clear that they are petrified. The event at Woodside was a bit difficult at first and the first half hour went a bit slowly because having police in the room is not necessarily the natural environment for people to express openly who is carrying and who is not. Nevertheless, as the morning progressed, the fears came out and, above all, young people said, “Well, I carry because I’m scared not to. If I knew that there were not knives on the streets, I would not need to carry a knife.” I think that that set the task that we faced.

Other hon. Members have also mentioned that it is helpful to communicate about the issue through drama, and in the case I mentioned that was done through the Comedy Store. Police and politicians talking to people is good and engaging, but the role model play made it clear—I watched the performance and thought it was fantastic—that if someone carries a knife, there are two outcomes. The first outcome is that the person carrying a knife may end up injured or dead, and as the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) said, that could be a result of their own knife. The second outcome is that they will end up with a custodial sentence, which will ruin their life just as surely as anything else. The role model play was a good way of getting that message across.

Having a police officer in each school can be a good measure—we certainly have experience of that in Haringey—but it can depend on the police officer and how far they engage with the young people. At Woodside, the police did a lot of good work. I am concerned, and perhaps the Minister will address this, that the Government are not doing enough in terms of funding. The Connected fund supports community-based work to tackle gun, gang and knife crime and has been providing grants. In the Home Office’s most recent report the fund is feted as a flagship of Government effort to educate, engage, and dissuade young people from carrying knives. However, the last round of grant application finished in May 2007 and I do not know what further work is being done or what is happening in relation to that. Will the Minister elaborate on the current state of the fund and say when and if the next round of grants will come forward?

30 Apr 2008 : Column 87WH

As hon. Members have said, prevention is definitely about investing in youth services. In Haringey, our youth service has been decimated, and those involved have almost an impossible task. Yet it is crucial to get into the communities and work with the young people who need that kind of attention. In autumn 2007, a MORI survey on youth crime commissioned by the Youth Justice Board showed that 43 per cent. of young people think that their peers commit crime because of boredom. We should listen to young people and to do that we need to invest in them. The issue is not just about banning violent computer games or censorship; it is about giving people pathways, aspiration, hope, and care and attention. Banning things often makes them more glamorous.

We need modern heroes who are both cool and positive for young people to aspire to—the role models who go around the schools have not always been that. Sports facilities and somewhere for young people to hang out are also important, as hon. Members have said. However, that does mean the yesteryear thing of a church hall with a table tennis table, which has limited attraction.

Jeremy Corbyn: Probably zero attraction.

Lynne Featherstone: Or, as the hon. Gentleman said, zero attraction. Young people need somewhere to hang out; in fact, a commercial enterprise has opened a non-alcoholic pub that is incredibly successful. I do not know where that is, so if anyone knows, I would appreciate it if they could tell me. When I visit schools, the sixth formers all say that they want somewhere to hang out so they can be warm. They do not particularly like being out on the street when it is freezing, and there are ideas to deal with that that could be utilised, such as having non-alcoholic pubs.

Sports facilities are important, but unfortunately even in Haringey, £32,000 to develop youth sport will not go a very long way. We need to devote the funding to the need. In terms of prevention, most of all, young people need someone who cares about them when they come home, and when they are at school. Young people also need someone who cares about their achievements and what they are doing and someone who knows when they are getting into trouble. Ideally, of course, that should be a parent, but it can be any adult. Quite often the sports coaches at New River sports centre take on youngsters and encourage them to become coaches. They take an interest in an individual young person and that makes the young person want to do well and to achieve. Such schemes turn lives around and many of the volunteer coaches from that sports centre go on to have careers. Such things are really important.

As has been said, protection relates to the issue of fear. When I met Haringey youth council and youth parliament, young people said that fear of crime is their number one issue and that they are afraid because they are vulnerable to others carrying knives. Young people also think that carrying a knife gives them status. As the hon. Member for Islington, North said, if someone comes from a deprived area they might not have much, but with a knife they feel like a big guy and can say to themselves, “If I can show that I’m a man, who’s going to diss me now?” We have to show that that
30 Apr 2008 : Column 88WH
is not the case. Some kids do not even realise that plunging a knife into someone’s leg can be fatal; they do not necessarily know that there is an artery there that can kill someone because they think the leg area is not the same as the chest.

On action to get knives off the street, yes, random arches are good at stations, but I worry that they are of limited use in schools where there is a real problem because the knives would not be taken into school. But, random use outside nightclubs is good. Intelligent stop and search should be used because at the moment it does not target carrying and barely picks up on knives. As the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington said, we need information from the community. The community knows who carries a knife and if it trusts, it will share that information. The police can then stop the relevant person. If we can remove knives from the streets, kids will not feel the need to carry them, and if that confidence is there, the intelligence will be forthcoming. The knife amnesties that bring in 90,000 knives are great, but there is not a corresponding drop in knife crime. We need to think about how those things are working.

Will the Minister give the prosecution rate for young people carrying knives? In the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 I argued for longer sentences—the third of the three-piece punishments—and we have to send out a message on that. However, I have been unable to obtain the figures on how many young people who carry knives are prosecuted and what sentences they receive. More to the point, just arresting people, particularly young people, and putting them in prison will not help to change behaviour, and changing behaviour must be the goal of any punishment, penal system or messages that we send. We are here to help young people on to good pathways and into good lives, not to harm them permanently. We owe it to our young people to ensure that we keep the focus on all those strategies.

10.40 am

James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) on securing the debate, as it is very timely. His contribution was serious, sober and touched on a number of extremely important points that lie behind not only knife crime, but the crimes of violence that affect too many of our communities.

It is telling that the hon. Gentleman highlighted the five victims in his constituency, the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) highlighted the two victims that there have been in his area in the past year and the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) highlighted the two fatal stabbings in her community. These crimes touch many different people. Let us not forget that all the people involved were brothers, sisters, sons, daughters and friends. They have all left loved ones behind, and that loss has a continuing impact on the close relations and friends who are touched by these appalling incidents. The hon. Member for Edmonton summarised very clearly the sense of trauma that the incidents have engendered in his area. When we read the record of the debate, we will read the testimony that he offered from two of his constituents on their experiences, feelings and real sense of fear. That was extremely moving and highlighted extremely well the personal impact that these crimes have on so many people.

30 Apr 2008 : Column 89WH

It is important to stress that although all the contributions thus far in the debate have centred on London—apart from the Minister, all those present are London Members—the issue does not only touch London. Many other cities, communities and areas are touched by the impact of knife crime and crimes of violence.

The hon. Member for Islington, North highlighted some of the intergenerational aspects of the issue, which I believe are very important. Young and old do not necessarily mix as well as they should do. Research bears that out: young people in this country spend more time with their peers as opposed to their families than young people in any other country in Europe. That is a fundamental issue. The fragmentation that we see in our communities and societies lies behind some of the factors and features that are, sadly, displayed on our streets in the violence that takes place.

Another issue is housing and people having a sense of space. We need to ensure that people have decent homes. High-rise living has an impact, in that it does not engender a sense of belonging, of community, of ownership. I fear that the mistakes of the 1960s are likely to be made all over again as a result of some of the applications that have been continuing to come through in recent months.

The hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington highlighted education. Education provides hope, aspiration, self-worth, confidence and a deliberate career plan. One of the problems with the gang culture is that some organised criminal gangs target the most vulnerable members of society. They use lack of opportunity as a means to take young people down an alternative career path involving drugs and violence. They actively try to undermine the social pressures and social norms of family that usually take people down a very different path to a very different life outcome. We need to focus on education in trying to combat some of the themes underlying the debate.

The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) talked about listening to the voices of young people. I could not agree more. It is extremely important to restate that young people are most likely to be the victims of crime, rather than the perpetrators. We must ensure that we listen to their voices and their fears, hopes and aspirations because, sadly, too many of them are falling victim to these pernicious offences and live in fear of going out into their communities. We have heard many such stories this morning.

The number of homicides in which sharp instruments such as a knife are used has increased by 40 per cent. since 1997, with 185 killings in 2006-07. More than 230 violent crimes involving a knife are committed every day. One of the most disturbing aspects of that rise, and the reason why today’s debate is so prescient, is that both the victims and the perpetrators of these appalling crimes are becoming younger and younger. In a study conducted for Hampshire police, one in five 15-year-olds said that they had carried a knife at some point.

Next Section Index Home Page