Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 825 - 839)



  Q825  Chairman: This is the final session in the select committee's inquiry into policing in the 21st century. May I, Mr Mayor, thank you for coming to give evidence and also the Deputy Mayor, Mr Malthouse, and congratulate you on your election as the Mayor for London and indeed, Mr Malthouse, on your appointment as the Deputy Mayor. Can I also refer all those present to the Register of Members' Interests where members' interests are registered. May I start with you, Mr Johnson? Do you believe that knife crime has overtaken terrorism as the number one priority for policing in London?

  Mr Johnson: If you think back to the campaign that has just gone by and lot of the flack that we took round about the autumn and Christmas for bringing this issue up the political agenda, and if you look now at what dominates the headlines, I do think that it was the right thing to do. We need to make sure that everybody works to solve this problem. I do not think it is an insoluble problem. With patience, we can make a great deal of progress. But, if you ask me to prioritise knife crime over terrorism, I would simply say to you that it is not a choice that we feel obliged to make. They are two very important priorities. I think Londoners want the maximum attention devoted to both. I do not think that the active pursuit of knife crime, or the active attempts to deal with knife crime, in any way diminish or reduce our ability to tackle terrorism.

  Q826  Chairman: The Government of course has announced a couple of proposals over the weekend, the most controversial of which was visits to hospitals by those who are perpetrators of knife crime. What are your views on the Home Secretary's proposals?

  Mr Johnson: As I understood what the Home Secretary was saying, she was proposing to elaborate systems of restorative justice of one kind or another. I think that there is a great deal of potential in restorative justice. I am not convinced, as it was presented by the media, certainly the idea of visiting people in hospital would necessarily be a good idea.

  Q827  Chairman: You have suggested, I think only yesterday, using football icons like Rio Ferdinand and others as examples of people who would be part of a wider awareness campaign to stop young people carrying knives because in the end, whatever legislation is passed, these young people who are carrying knives. How would that system work?

  Mr Johnson: That is absolutely right, Mr Vaz. I do think there is huge potential for getting people who are admired and respected by young people to speak against the evils of carrying knives. Rio Ferdinand and other people like him can certainly be enlisted in this cause. I have to say my heart sinks when I hear or read about some of the language that is used to describe the victims of knife crime by other members of gangs—this stuff about you were a good soldier or a fallen soldier. I do think we need as rapidly as possible as a society to detonate the myth that there is anything romantic or glamorous about these tragic episodes.

  Q828  Chairman: Finally from me, Alf Hitchcock has been appointed as the so-called knife tsar to co-ordinate policy. What kind of relationship will he be having with the Mayor's Office and indeed with you, Mr Malthouse? Have you met with him? Have you discussed strategy yet?

  Mr Malthouse: I have met him during my general meetings at the Metropolitan Police, but his appointment came as a surprise to us. I gather it was a personal contact from the Home Secretary that led to his appointment. Nevertheless, we will be talking to him over the week about how we can work with him and his panel. I understand his role is more to disseminate best practice across the country than to come up necessarily with any policy proposals. On the basis that we are all in this together, we are more than happy obviously to discuss our policy proposals with him in the hope that they can be disseminated across the country.

  Q829  Mr Winnick: Mayor, obviously everyone must be deeply shocked by the killings which have taken place in recent months, bearing in mind even more so the ages of those concerned. However, do you feel that the danger of knife killings has been somewhat exaggerated?

  Mr Johnson: I think that the risk of knife killing per se, if you look at the statistics, has not gone up. It is very important that we get across to people that London is fundamentally a very safe city. I think I saw some statistics saying that there were 70 knife killings in 2007 and 70 in the previous year.[1] I may have the years wrong but those were roughly the statistics. What has increased and what does need dealing with is an epidemic amongst young people of carrying knives. We are seeing this in the increase in the fatalities. I think also you have to bear in mind that beneath each fatality there is a pyramid of minor stabbings or lesser stabbings and injuries, and those are also very worrying and they need to be tackled. I do not in any way resile from our determination to bring this to the top of the political agenda. If you are going to deal with the bottom of the pyramid, so to speak, if you are going to deal with the root causes of knife crime and why kids are so disaffected, alienated and misguided as to carry knives, then you have to address the circumstances in which they are growing up and the lack of boundaries, lack of discipline, the feelings of alienation and disaffection from which they are suffering. I think it is wholly right to raise this up the political agenda in the way that we started to do last year, with a view to tackling it and to building a very broad consensus, which I think there is in this country, that it is a priority.

  Q830  Mr Winnick: Do you feel that stop and search powers could be extended in order to minimise the horrors of what we have seen? I ask simply because during May and June, as you probably know, the police stopped in searching on operation Blunt about 27,000 of what are described as likely looking types and found out of 27,000, only 500—that is under 2%—had knives on them? Do you feel stop and search can help in trying, as I said, to minimise such crimes?

  Mr Johnson: Let me say that also in that period the police, in the course of Operation Blunt 2, lifted about 732 knives or more now; they made more than 1400 arrests for knife-related offences. So their efforts were not by any means in vain. The other day I was out at Mile End tube station witnessing one of these operations. They had a scanner and people were being requested rather than required, if you appreciate the distinction, to go through the scanner. I talked to many of the commuters about the experience and they overwhelmingly defended what was going on. I feel people do think that it is worthwhile if it means that people are deterred from carrying knives.

  Q831  Mr Winnick: There is controversy about whether or not the Home Secretary has denied that she wanted those responsible or alleged to be responsible to visit victims in hospital. Leaving aside hospitals, do you feel there is any merit, in some instances at least, in those who were responsible for knife crimes or indeed other crimes, and we are talking particularly about young people under 21, visiting their victims and exchanging whatever they would exchange so they could see for themselves the terrible harm that they have inflicted on perfectly innocent people?

  Mr Johnson: Yes, Mr Winnick, I do think there is merit, as I said earlier on, in programmes of restorative justice.

  Q832  Bob Russell: Mr Johnson, I am grateful for your contribution in raising the profile of knife crime. I believe the official statistics are: one gun fatality, three knife fatalities. There is also evidence which suggests that a lot of knife crimes are not finding their way to the attention of the police. Would you therefore perhaps set up a system at the accident and emergency departments of hospitals in London to see whether we get a more accurate figure of what is really going on?

  Mr Johnson: I do think there is a very strong case. When someone with a gunshot presents at A and E, the hospital is under an obligation to report it. I think we should look at making sure that hospitals are similarly useful in dealing with knife crime by reporting knife wounds. There is an argument to be had about whether or not this would deter people from seeking medical attention in the event of a knife wound, so we need to look at the possible adverse impact that policy might have on those who have been wounded.

  Q833  Martin Salter: Mr Mayor, I very much endorse your approach to try to promote positive role models for young people. Other witnesses we have had before us have shown quite clearly that the rise in knife crime is attributed to some extent to the carrying of knives becoming a fashion accessory. In raising this up the agenda as we are doing here today, and we have all been doing, is there not a danger of course that by cranking it up—and some of the publicity and some of the stats quoted are, frankly, fanciful in some newspapers—that of course we reinforce that impression that knives are an essential fashion accessory? How do we square that circle?

  Mr Johnson: I think it is a very acute point, if I may say so. I do think that is the problem that we need to solve. We need to de-glamorize knife crime; we need to make clear to people that this is moronic and wasteful. This is not the death of Mercutio taking place on the streets of London.

  Q834  Martin Salter: Who was that? Your education cost more than mine!

  Mr Johnson: It is a play that is readily available in all good outlets by the noted British author William Shakespeare. A guy called Mercutio was killed in a gang fight. It is worth studying the text actually.

  Q835  Chairman: Not today.

  Mr Johnson: I commend it to the committee. It does teach you something about the bogus atmosphere of glamour that can surround these gangs and the strong romantic sentimental feelings that can start to accrue to knife crime and gang culture generally.

  Q836  David Davies: Mr Mayor and Mr Malthouse, some police officers feel there is a gap in stop and search powers at the moment. They are quite complicated, as you know. If a police officer stops somebody for a minor offence on which they are not going to arrest but perhaps deal with by summons, technically speaking they do not have any power to search that person, even if they discover that he or she has recent convictions for carrying knives, guns or for other kinds of violence. Would you consider asking the Home Secretary for a change in pace so that anyone who has been convicted recently—let us say within six months, 12 months or two years—anyone with a recent conviction for carrying a knife or a gun can be subject to a quick, non-invasive search, an airport style pat down, if they are stopped for any legitimate reason by the police?

  Mr Johnson: It certainly seems to me to be a very reasonable proposal. We will take it up with the Home Secretary.

  Mr Malthouse: Under Blunt 2, we are obviously using the section 60 search, which would cover that as well.

  Q837  David Davies: I think section 60 only runs for 24 hours; it might be for 48 but only in specific areas. A section 60 only covers a tiny percentage of the capital and yet on a day-to-day basis police are stopping people for relatively minor offences, which are not going to be arrestable, and they are not be able to search them, despite knowing that they are quite likely to be carrying some weapon on them.

  Mr Malthouse: We will definitely look at that.

  Q838  Tom Brake: In the pledges that you issued in the run-up to the election, one of those was to tackle knife and gun crime. To quote from this document, you say that you are going to demand that they are treated as a high priority by the police. Was it your view therefore that they were being treated as a low priority by the police at that point?

  Mr Johnson: I certainly think, put it this way, that the police have stepped up their operations. If you look at Blunt 2 to which Mr Winnick and Mr Vaz have already alluded, there is no doubt that they are putting a great deal more effort and energy into dealing with this problem and to the policing solutions. There are 75 knife officers now that have been specifically dedicated to the task of moving around London trying to deal with it. I think that is the right thing to do. If you talk to the Commissioner, Sir Ian, he will tell you also that he agrees as well.

  Q839  Ms Buck: I want to turn to some of the issues around stop and search. First, can I ask you this? You make the point about boundaries and responsibly. I think we all absolutely endorse that. Is it not also true that 98% of these violent crimes are occurring in areas involving young people from extremely deprived and challenged neighbourhoods? Will you endorse the previous Mayor's strategy and will you turn it into new strategy that will, in addition to a policing response to this, ensure that we are directing resources at the social and economic conditions in those neighbourhoods that are producing these gangs?

  Mr Johnson: Yes, Ms Buck, that is an absolutely vital part of what we intend to do. I think last time I gave evidence to your committee, we spent quite a lot of time talking about that. I do think that the so-called soft side of this, the early intervention side, is absolutely vital if we are going to make a long-term difference. I do not think that this kind of activity, which will not necessary win massive plaudits in some newspapers, will deliver results over the next three or four years, but in five or six years I believe it will make a huge difference. I am talking about things like re-focusing the work of the London Development Agency to deal with youth opportunity. Particularly we are looking at obviously the Mayor's Fund for London by which we hope to raise a great deal of private sector money to give to the voluntary sector that works so hard in London to change the lives of kids, but also to work with the boroughs that hold so much of the solution in many of the operations that they are already supporting.

1   Figures provided by the Metropolitan Police indicate there were 68 fatal stabbings in 2006/07 and 73 in 2007/08, Back

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