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The Centre for Social Justice and the Damilola Taylor Trust are offering awards to those who lead the most innovative projects in deprived areas, and the Mayor of London has set up several mentoring and engagement programmes for young Londoners that have the potential to make a real difference. However, as the Select Committee points out in its report, there are too few volunteers in too many areas to do everything that could be done. As Members of Parliament, we can all encourage volunteering in our communities and support it where it takes place.

Mr. Jim Cunningham: The hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) has a point. We have similar problems in Coventry, and the Rotarians run a scheme every year that involves the police, the fire brigade and several voluntary organisations. They show kids the consequences of stealing a car and wrapping it around a tree. It is a very worthwhile scheme, and that is the sort of thing that we should consider.

Chris Grayling: The hon. Gentleman is right. For many of the young people who take part in such schemes, who come from the most deprived backgrounds, it is a new experience to have something positive to do and to be engaged in constructive activity. That is why the carrot—the community work and the support locally—is so important.

This is not a battle that any of us can afford to lose. Week after week, we hear reports of young people whose lives have been tragically cut short or who have suffered terrible injuries at the hands of other young people carrying knives. The Government have brought forward several initiatives, but the danger is always that Home Office initiatives just cost money and do not make much difference. I suspect that success will not lie simply with the efforts of this Government or a future one—albeit sincere and well meant—but with the way in which we harness the efforts of our whole society to try to turn back this unwelcome tide. It is important to ensure that in these difficult financial times the smaller voluntary projects that can make a disproportionate difference are not the first to be squeezed financially.

We have to tackle the root causes of worklessness, educational failure and family breakdown, and we have to foster a revolution in what we have dubbed our broken society. But we also need to deliver the direct, on-the-ground support that can steer those young people caught up in the knife culture away from it. The Damilola Taylor Trust and the Prince’s Trust are spearheading the “no to knives” coalition to seek to make a difference. I hope and believe that harnessing different groups to do what we as politicians cannot do on our own will help to create a coalition that can really transform things on the ground. I commend the groups involved in that work. They have the support of the present Government and will have the support of a future Conservative Government in continuing that work. We all want to see the day when serious youth knife crime is a thing of the past. Our job is to work together to bring that day about as quickly as possible.

4.13 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Alan Johnson): I beg to move an amendment, at end add:

I thank the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) for his remarks and his welcome to me as Home Secretary. I do indeed remember the last time we faced each other over the Dispatch Box—

Rob Marris: You won!

Alan Johnson: I like to think that the nation won— [ Laughter. ] On any disagreements that we have at the moment, the hon. Gentleman may catch up in a couple of years. We were talking about variable tuition fees—we do not call them top-up fees—and at the time he and his party were staunchly against them, but now they are very much for them. That is probably a prerequisite for the debates that we will have about home affairs.

I welcome this opportunity to debate this important issue for the first time with the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell and his Opposition colleagues, and with other Members. I do not think that there is anything at all in the Opposition motion with which we would disagree and the spirit in which it was moved reflects the importance that we all place on tackling knife crime. It also reflects the concern about knife crime felt on both sides of this House.

Rob Marris: I welcome my right hon. Friend to his post. May I particularly welcome from the Back Benches the Government’s approach to this debate? The amendment before us this afternoon is an addition to the Opposition main motion, and does not traduce it. That is a welcome change.

Alan Johnson: According to the “A.B.C of Chairmanship” by Lord Citrine, on which I was raised, we would call our change an addendum, rather than an amendment, but there we are. I think that that is the right spirit in which to tackle this issue.

I am also pleased that the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell welcomed the recent report from the Select Committee on Home Affairs, which has made such a valuable contribution to this debate.

The tragic cases of youngsters killed because of knife crime in London and elsewhere have shocked and saddened the nation. Reducing knife crime and crime among young people more widely is of paramount importance, not only because of the need to deal with the very small minority of young people who are persistent offenders and who cause considerable anxiety and harm to their victims, families and communities, but because addressing the issues that can lead to criminality among young people is essential for a fairer, safer society.

The Government’s addendum is designed to ensure that the progress that is being made by the hard work of so many people is properly recognised. First, on the more general issue of youth crime, it is encouraging to
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see that the numbers of young people entering the criminal justice system for the first time fell by 9.4 per cent. between 2006-07 and 2007-08. Between 2000 and 2007, the frequency of reoffending among young people fell by 23 per cent.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): I congratulate the Secretary of State on his promotion. On the philosophy of behaviour, how confident is he that all young people know that murder is wrong and that it is at the apex of antisocial behaviour not because it breaks the law or because a custodial sentence might be handed out to them by a judge but because it breaks behavioural norms and the moral order in society? What does the Secretary of State believe is the benchmark by which young people judge that murder is unacceptable?

Alan Johnson: I believe that it would offend all civilised values to think that any young person—other than, perhaps, young people from the most deprived and difficult backgrounds, who have experienced such violence from their early years—would believe that murder was anything other than a crime, and a heinous crime at that. I am not quite sure what point the hon. Gentleman is raising. However, if it is that we have to reinforce these arguments and to consider things such as video games—I welcome their inclusion in the Select Committee’s report—and that we have to ensure that the message of how heinous such crimes are is reinforced to young people over and over again, not just by figures who they would see as figures of authority but by peer groups and people in their community, his point is well taken.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): On the question of young people’s attitude to murder, is it not perhaps so much that they think that murder is acceptable but that they believe in their gangs and their communities that anything is acceptable when it comes to enforcing respect, to territorial defence of their gang or to demonstrating how much of a man they are? It is such attitudes that we have to undermine.

Alan Johnson: From all my experience, I think that my hon. Friend is absolutely right. Incidentally, my press office had arranged for me to meet some police on Westminster’s Churchill Gardens estate yesterday and to walk around for my first on-camera shot as Home Secretary. By a real coincidence, that was where I was badly assaulted when I was 15. I came from the rough end of Notting Hill, and thought that this was a posh area of Pimlico, but the problem was a territorial thing because we were in an area that was not our territory.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) is absolutely right to say that such attitudes are ingrained in people, but sometimes they can be reinforced by the things that they see and read. That is why I want to repeat that the Home Affairs Committee has done us a service by mentioning the fact that people feel that they have to go to that extra level to prove how hard and tough they are, and how much harder and tougher they are than the other gang.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): I was delighted to hear the Home Secretary say a moment ago that recidivism was falling. That is very
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positive, but does he share my concern about a small number of dangerous offenders who are convicted and imprisoned? Does he agree that, before they are released on licence, there must be a proper risk assessment and an absolute guarantee of ongoing supervision and monitoring?

Alan Johnson: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Although I have not absorbed every aspect of this job in the last couple of days, my sense is that what he describes is already happening, and on an increasing basis, so that is an important contribution.

The youth crime action plan launched in the summer of last year is not only helping to bring young offenders to account for their actions, but is providing more support to address the underlying causes of poor behaviour. It places a greater focus on prevention to tackle the low-level but serious problems such as truancy or exclusion that put young people at increased risk of becoming involved in crime or antisocial behaviour.

Family intervention projects, which provide intensive and non-negotiable support for families living in chaotic circumstances, are having a remarkable impact. They are improving school attendance and behaviour, reducing incidences of domestic violence, and improving parenting skills. Operation Staysafe is preventing vulnerable young people from being drawn into criminal activity. The police remove youngsters from the streets late at night—a sort of 21st century version of the clip round the ear—and work with social services to establish what further interventions may be necessary to prevent them becoming victims of crime, or indeed, offenders.

There are now around 5,300 Safer Schools partnerships fostering better relationships between police and young people, with dedicated police officers working in schools to help tackle the causes of crime and antisocial behaviour. After-school patrols on bus routes and at transport hubs are tackling antisocial behaviour at school closing time, giving greater reassurance to parents and pupils.

Mr. Hollobone: I am pleased that the Home Secretary has moved on to the issue of parental responsibility. When I went out with the local police in Kettering, a number of teenagers were causing trouble and the police took them home to their families—who did not want to know. In fact, they were cross with the police for bringing the children back, so what more can the Government do to emphasise the point that parents have a big role to play in the activities that their teenagers get up to?

Alan Johnson: The next stage would be parenting orders or family contracts, and there is a range of other measures that can be used. I discussed this matter with a chief constable only this morning and I was told that, although some parents do not take full responsibility and act in an unacceptable way, the approach that the hon. Gentleman has described works on many occasions. It is a simple thing, but very effective. It always amazes me that, before the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, the police did not have the power to take a truant back to school, let alone take a child back home. The simple powers that the police have asked for are very necessary, in my view.

I have talked about the more general issue of youth crime but, on the specific issue of knife crime, there are now tougher penalties for those who carry knives. The
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maximum sentence has been doubled and those convicted are more likely to go to prison. The age at which a person may purchase a knife has been raised to 18 and it is now an offence to mind a weapon on someone else’s behalf.

In June last year, my right hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), my predecessor as Home Secretary, to whom I pay tribute for the work that she has done in this post over the past two years, launched the tackling knives action programme focused on 10 police forces across England and Wales rapidly to address the issue of knife crime in those areas. We now have an extended programme covering 16 areas, and have invested a total of £12 million. The programme is not only taking knives off the streets. It is also improving understanding among young people of the dangers of knife possession. As the Home Affairs Committee report acknowledged last week, there has been a notable reduction in hospital admissions for stab wounds in the areas where the programme is running.

Our amendment to the motion welcomes provisional figures published last month, which suggested a substantial reduction in the number of hospital admissions caused by the assault with a knife or sharp object of 13 to 19-year-olds for the 12 months ending January 2009 compared with the same period the previous year. Since the amendment was published just yesterday, a more recent set of figures published this morning shows that the trend is continuing, with a drop of 22 per cent. in admissions of teenagers with stab wounds during the tackling knives action programme implementation period from June 2008 to February 2009, compared with the same period the previous year. Provisional figures show a drop of 26 per cent. across England and a fall of 30 per cent. in nine tackling knives action programme areas.

Keith Vaz: I welcome the Home Secretary to his new post. I know that he will be a terrific success in all the challenges that he will face over the next few years. [ Interruption. ] With reference to his kind words about the Home Affairs Committee report, which we gratefully accept, one of the key points that we made on admissions to hospitals was that it was important that information should be shared between agencies. For example, the NHS trust in Manchester shares its information with the police and other agencies. Is it not important that that should happen across the country? That is one way to tackle the problem in a particular area.

Alan Johnson: I am tempted to blame the Health Secretary for the present state of affairs. May I say how much I appreciate my right hon. Friend’s contribution in this area, which, as Home Secretary, I know I will appreciate even more? When I was Secretary of State for Health, we made it clear in the operating framework, which is an important document for the health service and used to be called their marching orders, that it was a tier 3 local priority to exchange information and to engage and co-operate in this way. As a result, double the number of hospitals now provide the information. I accept that we have to go further, but that is an important result, given that we made it an operating framework tier 3 priority only last December. We are on the right track.

The figures are extremely encouraging. During the action plan’s first phase, there were 200,000 stop and searches and 3,500 knives were seized.


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Emily Thornberry: I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new post. My area is one in which the action programme has been introduced because of the problems that we have had with knife crime, resulting in a number of deaths, ending, unfortunately, with Ben Kinsella’s murder last summer. Youngsters were afraid to go out on the street because they thought other people were carrying knives, so they carried them themselves. The introduction of random stop and search among all young people was extremely helpful in putting a cap on the carrying of knives. I commend the policy.

Alan Johnson: It is valuable to get that first-hand experience from one of the TKAP areas. I am sure that that experience is repeated elsewhere.

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): I am grateful to the Home Secretary for giving way, and I echo those comments. However, he will surely realise that there is no such thing as random stop and search; it can be carried out only when a section 60 power is in place, and then it lasts for only 24 hours. Is that not one of the problems that he might want to address—how to enable random stop and searches in areas where there are real problems?

Alan Johnson: I acknowledge the special knowledge—the special constable knowledge, even—of the hon. Gentleman. I shall look at that issue, but, once again, my discussion with the chief constable of Warwickshire this morning suggested what the figures show—that, after eight months, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. These are eighth month statistics: 3,500 knives seized from 200,000 stop and searches. So we are at least on the right road, but, of course, I shall look at other issues.

Emily Thornberry: In Islington, if an area had particular problems, the police were given for a limited period but for much longer than 24 hours the power to stop all youngsters, and that really helped.

Alan Johnson: I do not like to intervene in the conversation about stop and search, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Select Committee was right, however, to raise the concern that a small number of young people are worried about their safety and feel that they need to carry knives to protect themselves. Senior police officers have told us that the fact that fewer stop and searches now uncover a weapon suggests that the number being carried is declining further. But it is absolutely critical that we get the message across to young people that carrying a knife does not make them safer.

The advertising campaign “It Doesn’t Have to Happen” has been designed by young people, for young people, with that precise purpose. Aimed at 10 to 16-year-olds, the adverts portray unflinchingly the physical effects of knife wounds and have been viewed more than 13 million times. Of those youngsters surveyed, 73 per cent. said that they were less likely to carry a knife as a result of seeing the advert.


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