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21 Oct 2008 : Column 25WH—continued

If ever one wanted a reminder of the importance of the issue when one is reading an academic or sociological report, one should begin with those names and figures.

The figures have gone up a little. I am concentrating on Greater London, but it is clear that in the past two years, there have been between 20 and 30 deaths of teenagers from stabbings in the area, and others have died through other violent crimes. Some 26 teenagers died violent deaths last year, and 27 have died violent deaths already this year.

I should like to pray in aid the work that is being done. Rather than repeat it all for the benefit of colleagues, I simply say that an enormous number of people have thought about and worked on the issue, and I want to pay tribute to them. A meeting in the Palace of the all-party parliamentary group on social science and policy was addressed by Deputy Assistant Commissioner Hitchcock of the Met. He said that politicians need to stop using the issue as a political argument and start working together—I say amen to that and commend the fact that there is very good working together at all levels of public authority and elsewhere. I shall suggest later how that can be extended.

We had a topical debate on 5 June in Parliament, thanks to the Leader of the House, and the Select Committee on Home Affairs held a one-day evidence-taking session in March. The Committee is about to begin an inquiry into knife crime, which I support. I hope and believe that it will hold one of its first sittings in a secondary school in my constituency, so that people can share their thoughts and reflections. The Home Office has consistently made commitments, including an announcement by the Home Secretary today, to which I am sure the Minister will refer, on additional funding, particularly to keep young people safe in and around school and when they come out of school. The evidence is that one of the most dangerous times of the day is the middle of the afternoon, just after school time; indeed, that was when David was killed, and when others have been attacked and killed.

The Mayor and the GLA have made it clear that they see the matter as a priority, and the Mayor is working on an announcement that is due in the next few weeks. We look forward to that, and I have no doubt about his commitment to doing all that he can. My local authority,
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like others, is working to prepare to collect the wisdom of all the other agencies involved and to take it on to ensure that the gaps are filled. It plans to hold a summit conference of all the agencies in Southwark within the next few weeks. Everybody is working hard, and there is no criticism that people are not seized of the issues.

I am not going to trouble colleagues with huge numbers of statistics that would distort the debate, but I would like to share a couple to put things in perspective. One of the relevant background facts is that we have only had statistics including knife crime for one year, so there is no easy point to be made by comparing this year with last year. The number of knife and sharp instrument offences, as recorded by the police, for violent crime offences in the Met and City of London police areas—Greater London—for the last year, is 7,428 in total, or 18 per cent. of all violent offences. That is the level of the issue. Nearly one in five violent offences involves weapons—either knives or sharp instruments. That is a warning sign if ever we needed one. There is a greater propensity now to carry a weapon—it could be a broken bottle, but it is often a knife.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I have listened very carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s arguments, all of which I support. Does he accept that evidence emerging from local hospitals suggests that the number of knife attacks may be a great deal more significant than that which is currently recorded by the Metropolitan police?

Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman is right. I had only two more statistics to give, and one is on that very subject. The statistics on hospital admissions are highly relevant, up to date and topical, but before I deal with them, may I just give the other crime statistics? The hon. Gentleman’s point is very important, and he was right to raise it.

In my own borough, in which we have excellent police leadership from our borough commander, Malcolm Tillyer, and from Superintendent Victor Olisa—both of whom I regularly meet—the figures show that knife crime is down 10 per cent., gun crime is down 36 per cent. and youth violence is up 7 per cent. Therefore, despite all the efforts, the one area of continuing concern is the lowering of the age of youngsters who are involved in violence and using weapons of violence.

I turn now to the statistics that the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) has mentioned. I have the London-wide statistics for admissions to hospitals for stab and gunshot wounds for 2006-07: there were 10 admissions of youngsters under the age of 16 with gunshot wounds; there were 38 admissions of 16 to 18-year-olds; and 160 admissions of over-18-year-olds. As a percentage for England—the figures are collected on an England basis— 10 per cent. of all those under 16 who were admitted were London youngsters; 38 per cent. of all those between 16 and 18 lived in Greater London, which is very high; and 17 per cent. of the over-18-year-olds lived in Greater London. In the last year for which figures for stab wounds are available, 72 of the under-16-year-olds who were admitted—or 40 per cent. of all those throughout England—were London youngsters.

Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Simon Hughes: In just two seconds. Some 33 per cent., or 252 youngsters aged between 16 and 18, were admitted with stab wounds, and 22 per cent., or 1,071, of over-18-year-olds were admitted. Like the hon. Member for Edmonton, I surmise that that is not the whole picture. Given my knowledge of the street—many others are pretty wise about what goes on in our communities—I know that people often do not go to hospital, because it is the last thing that they want to do.

Mr. Scott: I want to endorse that point. I recently met some general practitioners in my constituency who said that they believe that some of the young people whom they treat are victims of knife crime who give another excuse for why they have been injured. They believe that the problem is far greater than the statistics show.

Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman represents an east London constituency. We have heard hon. Members from the north and east of Greater London, as well as from the south, endorse that. I am sure that that is true—by definition it will be. The worry is that if someone goes public with their involvement, it will trigger a police investigation and then a victim will be really fearful. One of the issues is witness protection. Because I have been prompted, I will use the opportunity to say that although a defendant has been arrested in the David Idowu case, the community and the police are still short of all the witnesses whom they know exist. Obviously, there is a natural fear about giving evidence.

A lot of really good work has been done by organisations in London and beyond. Let me summarise that and, in addition to thanking the GLA for its submission, thank three other organisations which have given me some very good material. They are 11 MILLION, the office of the Children’s Commissioner for England, which is based in my constituency at London bridge, Action for Children, which is based in Highbury and the Howard League for Penal Reform. Those organisations give us a very clear indication of what young people themselves think. We need to ensure that we listen to those young voices.

Sir Al Aynsley-Green and his team are carrying out some research at the moment, which involves 90 children and young people. They have obtained these quotes from youngsters about youth violence. An 11-year-old girl said:

A 14-year-old said:

An anonymous teenager said:

Lastly, a 15-year-old girl said:

Youngsters realise that it is a minority who carry out such crimes. They know that, and they do not want to be misrepresented. However, they know that it is right to feel afraid.

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I have two more comments from youngsters. One said:

The evidence shows that carrying knives is initially thought to be cool, and then it moves on to being about feeling safe. All the evidence is that a person is much more likely to be unsafe if they go out tooled up with weapons.

The last comment is from an 11-year-old girl:

The young people come to some very good conclusions, to which the Minister has access. They talk about raising self-esteem and aspirations among young people, and rehabilitating, training and educating young offenders effectively. They also talk about the need for good education programmes, such as knife awareness programmes and knife referral projects, and good peer mentoring, because young people are most likely to be influenced by those of a similar age. They want young people to be given more good things to do—a common plea that we all hear in every constituency and community in the country. They mention the importance of role models, particularly when there are no adult male role models at home. All the evidence indicates that someone else needs to substitute, if there is not a father or father figure at home. Early intervention schemes are also cited. I say to the Minister—and I do not mean to be confrontational—that all the evidence is that most young people believe that stiffer sentences do not deter knife crimes. I know that that is controversial, but that is what young people say.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on a very thoughtful and balanced contribution to this very important subject. In drawing on some of his sources of information, is he aware that the Institute of Education has produced a very important piece of research, which also sets some of the issues that he is describing in a context of social inequality and polarisation. Tragically, there is a clear correlation between youth violence and highly polarised communities. The hon. Gentleman rightly lists a number of the complex causes of youth violence, but does he agree that there is this wider social context that we also need to address?

Simon Hughes: The hon. Lady is right about that. She is a really good London MP, and on London issues she is assiduously effective in raising what matters to our communities—particularly for people who are less well off and have harder lives, and for young people. I think it is important to say that.

In some of our communities the polarisation can be because of different ethnic backgrounds. In Southwark, for example, we have quite a lot of relatively recently arrived people from the horn of Africa. There is a danger that they find their security in a sort of tribal grouping, which means that they are antagonistic to other groups. The factors are not always ethnic; sometimes they are to do with postcode. I learned something the other day: the biggest rivalries in London prisons are postcode rivalries, about where people come from. That
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is the biggest cause of conflict in prison now—and it has traditionally applied between secondary schools, and so on.

I have two last points to make about the research, before my concluding remarks.

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Love: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Simon Hughes: I shall give way to the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands). I am trying to make sure that I give way to hon. Members.

Mr. Hands: This is an important subject, and the fact that 14 London MPs are present for the debate is testimony to that. My question is about international parallels. The hon. Gentleman has talked about evidence from various UK organisations. What does he think that we can learn from, for example, New York city, which is possibly the most similar city to London, in many ways? The crime rate there has been quartered in the past 15 years.

Simon Hughes: I have been to New York and talked to the New York city police, and others, who have done some extremely good work. They do that most effectively through very good community-based policing and community-based projects. The sorts of things that work very well in New York are dedicated police for the estates and districts, who know the area like the back of their hand—they have push bikes and can abseil up tower blocks and so on. Involving the local community also works, so that the concierges on the estates are often people who live there, such as those who have taken early retirement.

I wanted to weed out material from my remarks rather than adding to it, but another interesting comparison is in a United Nations comparative report on children’s issues around the world that was published at the beginning of the month. It made the point above all that we in Britain still demonise our children more than most countries. That is the impression that I get. In continental Europe, the attitude towards children and young people is entirely different, by and large. Children and young people are included more, and they are not separated into age groups. They have much better relationships, normally, with parents and grandparents, which is very important, and families live closer together. We have suffered a lot—this is a slight distraction—from social housing policy separating families over 30 years, so that the grandparents live nowhere near the grandchildren. That has been a huge disadvantage, because all the evidence is that elders can be hugely influential in making sure that children stay on course. Often they are better confidants than parents, and they can be more influential.

Mr. Love: Will the hon. Gentleman give way one more time?

Simon Hughes: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I am really keen that as many hon. Members as possible, in addition to the Front-Bench spokesmen, get a chance to speak in the debate.

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I want to select the most important of the “Action for Children” comments. Some 41 per cent. of the young people know someone who has been personally affected by the things we are discussing—it has really spread now. The issue affects nearly half the families with young people in our area; 30 per cent. have been personally affected in some way, such as, for example, by the threat, “We’ll get you later”; 36 per cent.—a third—are worried about gangs in their area; and only 28 per cent. now feel very safe in their community. That is very worrying.

We are talking in this context not just about inner-city streets, which are traditionally the rougher, tougher areas, but places such as the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake). The views in Sutton, Barnet, Haringey, Hillingdon or anywhere else are no different. Youngsters believe that their image is directly related to knife and gun crime, which they see as symbolic. They believe that if knife and gun crime can be brought down, those perceptions will change.

The Howard League for Penal Reform makes things very clear in key statements in the foreword to its report, which has just come out and which I commend to all colleagues. It states:

It adds:

The report cites education over enforcement as the better way to proceed and states that all the evidence is that collaboration among the local organisations is what succeeds. There is mention of mediation, anger management and all those things, which we know work.

Out of all the difficulty—I want to end with this positive point—something came out very strongly. When I was standing in the rain, after David’s death, the mum of another teenager who lived just down the road said “What can I do to help?” That made me think that there are many people who want to do more but do not feel empowered. I talked to her, and to local families and youth organisations, and a coalition of organisations has now come together in my borough, Lewisham and Lambeth to turn our tragedies into a positive outcome. This Thursday, at 6.30 pm in the Royal Festival hall, that coalition of people will come together to launch their campaign. The website already exists. They have chosen, by a collective decision, the title, “Enough! Make Youth Violence History”. That makes the point that we do not need to reinvent the wheel; rather, we need to support and strengthen existing organisations that are doing good work on the ground and bring all the people, such as the mum who asked how she could help, into existing organisations that are looking for more people.

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