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I shall draw my remarks to a close. The inter-agency working under Operation Blunt, and its capacity to intervene early, has been important. The use of knife arches and other such measures is also important. Knife crime may involve only a minority of our children, but it strikes fear into the hearts of communities and parents. Education is significant. It is a fallacy that carrying a knife makes someone safer; in fact, it puts them more at risk. We do not need to educate only young people; too many parents allow their children to take knives from
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home to “defend themselves”. The answers are multi-agency working and more education—and, where necessary, measures such as knife arches and targeted stop and search. Those measures are important.

It is wrong to stigmatise a whole class, generation and cohort of young people. However, knife crime is a serious issue and we have to consider the short-term criminal justice measures. It is important for us to do more to protect witnesses and to make it easier for them to be anonymous if they need to be. Recently, I had a meeting with the Secretary of State for Justice about possible changes to the court process to make it easier to ensure that when gang members are caught, they go down. There is no more important disincentive to a gang member than the notion that they will actually go down; the issue is not about the length of the sentence. Criminal justice measures can be taken.

We have had successes as a Government, but knife crime is emblematic of what has gone wrong for a generation of our young people. I do not want to sensationalise the issue, as some of our media do, but nor do I want to underplay it. The Government have done good work, but there is more to be done—particularly, as I have said, in considering the long-term social context of the problem.

6.13 pm

Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to participate for a few short minutes in this extremely important debate. I commend not only my colleagues on the Front Bench for pressing for it, but all Members who have participated for the tone in which it has been conducted. We have had an extremely useful and constructive discussion about an extremely important issue.

Several Members have already commented on the consensual tone of the debate so far, but the public expect nothing less from us—they are crying out for action on and solutions to this extremely difficult problem. They are sickened and appalled every time they read in the newspapers or see on television reports of the murder of another teenager on the streets of London or of other cities and towns across the UK. That is why they take to the streets and march for action, as we saw last June in London. In September there were more marches in London and in Gourock, near Glasgow in Strathclyde. Members of the public have taken to the streets to campaign on the issue and say that enough is enough. They do not want to live in communities blighted by fear or scarred by street violence. They want to see us in Parliament taking action that will prove effective in the long term.

I should like to make a few brief points. The first relates to the nationwide nature of the problem. Yes, it is true that knife crime is overwhelmingly concentrated in certain urban centres, but the problem is also experienced in many communities that have not traditionally had such crime on their streets. I am thinking particularly of my own community in Pembrokeshire, in rural west Wales. In November 2006, a fine young man—an excellent soldier from the local 14th Signal Regiment—was stabbed to death outside a nightclub in Haverfordwest, in the heart of Pembrokeshire. The community was truly shocked because people have not been used to such crime. It is true that it was a one-off which has not been repeated, but it created enormous shock in the community.

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Such an incident encourages a ratchet effect. I do not like the phrase “arms race”, which has been mentioned this afternoon, but when young people are seen to start carrying and using knives, fear is created in the community and other young people feel that they have to arm themselves as well if they are to be able to respond to any threats. When knife crime starts to spread out from urban centres and hits communities such as mine in rural west Wales, there is a risk that other young people will be encouraged to become involved.

My second point relates to young women. Yes, the typical carrier of a knife is a young male aged between 15 and 19 living in an urban area, but an increasing number of young women are using and carrying knives and being drawn into gang culture. I saw that for myself when, three years ago, I visited Eastwood Park women’s prison with the Welsh Affairs Committee. There I met a young woman who was serving a sentence for taking someone’s life by using a knife. The knife crime problem overwhelmingly involves young males, but we should not allow the stereotype to prevent us from looking at all aspects of the problem and recognising that young women are drawn in as well. Such young women have often been victims of horrendous abuse in their earlier lives, and when they get sucked into gang culture they find themselves becoming victims of abuse again.

My third point is about statistics, which have been discussed this afternoon. The Home Affairs Committee report recognises that we still lack data robust enough to enable us to understand the true scale of knife-related crime. There is a paucity of good data about the activity of gangs around the country. If we are to have effective, local solutions, we need better data to be collected by the police, other agencies and third sector organisations that work at the coal face.

Finally, I should like to draw to the attention of my party’s Front Benchers and the Minister a report entitled “Dying to belong”, which was published recently by the Centre for Social Justice. It is the best survey of the problems of gang crime that I have come across. It was produced by a Centre for Social Justice working group, chaired by Simon Antrobus, chief executive of Clubs for Young People. The working group comprised people from Nacro, academics studying the problem and people working at the coal face. The quality of the group’s research on the nature of gang-related crime and possible effective solutions is very high, and I commend the report—along with the Home Affairs Committee report—to the House.

6.19 pm

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): It has been a pleasure to listen to the debate. I am sorry that the House is so empty at the moment, because the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) made, without doubt, the best speech of the afternoon; indeed, it was one of the best speeches that I have heard in this place. I am not just saying that. I disagree with some of what she said, and she will disagree with some of what I am going to say—but she knows what she is talking about, this lady. Before she leaves, I want, if I may, to invite myself to talk to her again about these issues, because I am going to mention one of the areas that she talked about—not in her constituency—which I have also visited. She may know that I have worked for some years as a special constable.
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I have arrested people not only for carrying knives, but more seriously—and, I am thankful to say, more rarely—for carrying guns. I have enjoyed working with her colleague, the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), who has chaired the Home Affairs Committee in a non-partisan way that is reflected in this debate.

Over the past six months I have visited some of the areas in question myself—not dressed as I am now, but wearing a tracksuit, an old pair of trainers and a T-shirt—to try to get a sense of how it feels to live in them and whether the perception of crime is matched by the reality. I am glad to say that I am still here; I was certainly not attacked. However, in at least two of the four more notorious areas of London, I felt very threatened and intimidated by what was going on. I saw groups of young people like those that the hon. Lady mentioned congregating at the side of the road. I watched them going silent and looking at me when I went past, and I kept my eyes to the ground and kept walking in a straight line as though I knew where I was going, which in some cases I did not. Frankly—I am sorry to have to say this—my thought on returning from one of those visits was, “Thank God I don’t live in that area and my children don’t go to school there.” That is just being honest.

Ms Abbott: I see the same groups on my way home, as I live in my constituency. I would say this to the hon. Gentleman: if you were a middle-aged black woman and looked them straight in the eye, you might find that they took a step backwards.

David T.C. Davies: If the hon. Lady looked me straight in the eye in a venomous way, I would probably take a step backwards as well.

Is it the reality that crime is high in these areas, or is it a perception? I do not know, but the numbers of people found carrying knives indicates that there is a serious problem. People have told me about the trainers hung from lamp posts to mark out gang territory, although I did not see that myself. In one community centre, they told me that people were being delivered to the area by car because they were afraid not only to walk but even to use public transport into another postcode district. I am happy to give the hon. Lady exact details about that. There is no doubt that there is a perception among law-abiding people living in those areas that there is a real problem, and the question is: what can we and should we be doing about it?

The hon. Lady talked about her upbringing in what I think she described as a traditional working-class household. I was brought up in a conventional middle-class household, but I recognise most of the values that she talked about because they are the same: bringing up children to say please and thank you, teaching them to eat with a knife and fork, and getting them to understand the importance of education and doing what they are told at school. Those values are universal. My upbringing was conventional and middle class, but that is not the case with many of my family. My mother was a miner’s daughter. I remember going into miners welfare institutes, where one would see great books; they would have whole libraries there. What happened to those traditional working-class values of betterment and education, whereby people could go into a miners welfare institute and not just have a couple of pints but read quite intellectual books? That
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sort of thing seems to have died out somewhere along the way. The problem in many of these areas is not particularly one of deprivation or poverty. One of the problems is the development of an under-class of people who do not seem to share the same values that are universal to so many of us in this Chamber.

Mr. Crabb: My hon. Friend is making an important point. I do not think there is a difference between working-class values and middle-class values. It is not the values that have declined, but the vehicle for transmitting them to young people, which is essentially the family unit: that is where the problem lies.

David T.C. Davies: I agree with my hon. Friend. What I detect in these areas is an irresponsible approach towards family. Far too often, young people think that it is okay to bring children into this world without considering the implications. I am certainly not talking about single mothers, or women in particular—it takes two to tango—or about people who get divorced or whose partners die, or who become pregnant by mistake, which can happen as well. I am talking about people who have no concept of the problems caused by having two, three, four or five children when they are still in their early 20s. Those of us who are parents, as virtually all of us here are, know how difficult it is to bring up children at the best of times.

Walking around those areas, I saw another problem—although the hon. Lady may disagree with this. It was fairly obvious that many of the people living there had probably arrived in the country relatively recently and had not yet integrated. I am not necessarily talking about people who are black or Asian, but just as much about people from eastern Europe. My wife is from eastern Europe, so that is in no way meant to be derogatory. There is a problem when large groups of people who have come from a variety of racial, religious and ethnic backgrounds are all dumped into one particular area, cheek by jowl, without any attempt to integrate them.

Ms Abbott: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. However, I have paid a lot of attention to black boys’ educational achievement, and he might be surprised to know that newly arrived African immigrants’ boys do significantly better than West Indian boys whose families have been in this country for generations. Time does not allow me to explain why that is.

David T.C. Davies: I recognise that. I am also aware that black boys from Barbados seem to do much better than those from Jamaica. It is a complicated issue. That makes me wonder whether the question of family structures and strong family values is not more important. My wife is the daughter of an east European farm labourer. She was brought up on an estate of grim tower blocks in southern Hungary—her parents still live on it—but walking around there one sees no problems whatsoever. In that part of the world there are strong family structures and a strong sense of community and homogeneity, so there are not problems of the sort that we see in some parts of inner-city London. I am struggling to find the answers, but I do not think that the problem is one of poverty: the lack of social cohesion is part of it, as is the lack of family structures.

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We have heard about role models. Why is it that all too often, black youth growing up have as a role model somebody they have seen on MTV driving around in a fast expensive car? What happened to the black role models who run churches and youth groups? Why are they not looking up to people like that?

These are important questions, and they will not be answered today; it will take many decades to sort them out. However, there are things that we could be doing, and the Home Affairs Committee report has drawn attention to a few of them. We heard earlier from Liberal Democrat Members that one of the greatest disincentives to carrying a knife is the fear of being caught. That makes me wonder why they, more than anyone else, have opposed measures to allow the police to stop and search young people in areas where there is a particular problem.

The Government—for all that I criticise them, quite rightly on many occasions—have been trying their utmost to tackle this problem. They have been moving in the right direction, but there is more that they could do. For example, it is ludicrous that if the police stop somebody for carrying out a minor offence that will not lead to an arrest, and they discover, or already know, that that person has recent convictions or a propensity to carry knives, they cannot immediately carry out a simple stop and search because they must have the evidence that the person has a knife on them at that moment, which they will not have unless someone has seen it, or can see the handle sticking out of the person’s pocket. That situation is ludicrous, and I hope that the Government will think about changing it. However, they have made it easier to bring in section 60 orders, which allow stop and search to be carried out.

It was suggested earlier that a young person who is excluded from school might as well be told when they can turn up to prison. I do not accept that. There are good projects taking place in the inner cities: for example, the London boxing academy in Haringey, which young people who have been excluded from school are strongly encouraged to join. When they are in that placement, they get a couple of hours of sport every day, as well as learning. They are taught by qualified teachers and have mentors who are former boxers and can therefore maintain a sense of discipline that might be lacking in other places. The pilot project has been successful; we could do with many more such projects in inner cities to reach people before they get as far as prison or a young offenders institution.

I agree with most hon. Members that short sentences are a waste of time. They carry no incentive to behave and, as others have pointed out, little is done with people who go to prison or a young offenders institution for a short time. A Faustian pact seems to be made, whereby the prison officers allow offenders to have a relatively comfortable time, provided that the offenders give the officers no trouble. That is simply not good enough. We must get people into a routine in which they get exercise, education—basic literacy and numeracy—and basic vocational skills. That cannot be done in a short time—it takes at least one or two years. Instead of saying, “Let’s not put people in prison if it’s going to be for a short time; let’s give them community sentences instead,” we should say, “We’ve got people here who have transgressed, and who will go on transgressing. Put them in prison, by all means—but not into a prison
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that’s just a Victorian cage with an iron door and bars on the windows.” They should not be left in such places, but, once the punishment element of their sentence has been served—if the offence is minor, perhaps that element is not needed—they should be put into a college surrounded by walls. Rather than roaming the streets, they should be forced to learn and get the basic numeracy and literacy skills that they need, and we should tell them that they will not be allowed out until they have got those skills, but that they can come out much earlier if they do acquire them.

Keith Vaz: I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his work on the report. He is picking up a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) made. Prison does not always work—the Minister of State, Home Department, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), is, of course, a former prisons Minister—and we must consider alternatives because the reoffending rate is so high. The hon. Gentleman is basically saying, “Incarcerate”—that is, punish—“but make sure that people use their time productively so that they don’t come out and reoffend.”

David T.C. Davies: That is exactly what I am saying. I do not believe that community sentences work, having seen them in action. Even when I went to see such a scheme as a Member of Parliament, no semblance of order could be maintained. At the scheme I visited in Gwent, people were cursing and swearing at the leaders in front of me. I remember one young offender turning round to one of the people supposedly keeping order and demanding, in language I will not use, “Where are my blinking chips?” He had not had his fish and chips, and she went off and got them for him because he did not want to queue. That is what goes on in a community sentencing scheme.

Chris Huhne: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

David T.C. Davies: Yes, I am happy to give way, though the hon. Gentleman had plenty of time earlier.

Chris Huhne: I was tempted to intervene earlier, when the hon. Gentleman traduced Liberal Democrat policy on stop and search. However, it is obvious that community sentencing will not be effective unless it is properly supervised, and we need a probation service that does that. Surely that is a more sensible way of spending taxpayers’ money than short-term custodial sentences. There seems to be general agreement between hon. Members of all parties that they are ineffective, lead to high reoffending rates and can be counter-productive if those serving them learn skills that we do not want them to have.

David T.C. Davies: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would be right if people were able to keep order on such schemes, but they are not. People never will be able to do that, because of all the human rights legislation and so on. When we talk to people who run those schemes, we hear about those who do not want to do community service because it is raining and they will get wet, and those who do not want to wear their orange tabards because they feel that it is against their human rights. There is no one in the probation service who is prepared
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to lay down the law and say, “You will go out there and do this; otherwise you’re going straight back to prison.” When we talk to those young people, we find that they do not want to go to prison. Prison is seen as much worse than community sentences. Defence barristers never say, “M’lud, please don’t give him a community sentence, it’ll be far too tough—please send my client to prison instead.” When defence briefs start making such pleas, I will start believing that community sentences are a worthwhile deterrent.

Earlier, the hon. Gentleman said that catching people was the best incentive. One reason for the police’s inability to catch people is that the criminals are all out on the streets. If we took some of the worst ones off the streets and kept them in prison for a while, the police could start concentrating on the rest. Resources are currently spread too thinly.

Chris Huhne: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

David T.C. Davies: I will not, because I was told to speak for only 15 minutes.

I have heard more common sense from Labour Members than I expected, though the Government could do much more. I heard the Minister, in a previous role, speaking on “Analysis” on Radio 4. He spoke well and the BBC did not do him justice in that programme, because it did not accept the point about the worthiness of prison.

I look forward to working with the Home Secretary—although I do not know how long he will be Home Secretary; the public may have other ideas shortly, as he may. He may apply for a new job in Government. However, I will work with anyone who wants to tackle the menace of crime. I particularly hope that the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington will allow some of us who have an interest to take up her offer of seeing what is happening in her constituency because we could all learn a lot from her.

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