The Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism (Mr. David Hanson): I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Weir, for what will undoubtedly be my last Adjournment debate of this Parliament, although hopefully not the last of my time in Parliament.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) for securing this useful debate. She has a sound record of tackling this issue not just through policy, but by providing support on the ground for young people in her constituency and across London. The points she has raised have been supported by the hon. Members for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) and for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire).
My hon. Friend has raised important policy issues with which the Government are wrestling. She mentioned education, which is crucial in raising the abilities and achievements of young people across London. She mentioned positive role models, underachievement and the importance of positive employment. I am sure that we all remember the importance of peer group support and of being part of a group when we were young. Sometimes that can be a positive experience, but it can turn into negativity, as she described. She mentioned the increasing role of women in gangs, which is an important issue. Last week, the Minister for Schools and Learners and I met with Carlene Firmin and Theo Gavrielides from Race on the Agenda to consider what
we could do following an important conference we attended recently in London that focused on how women are drawn into gangs, often unwittingly, to support their male colleagues, friends or partners, and on how they become victims of gang violence. I hope that we can discuss those key issues that she has raised.
The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey made a plea for integrity in statistics. I, too, want to see that because we need to be able to trust the statistics that we work with and to know that they are independent. He praised the work of the police in London and elsewhere. He helpfully drew attention to the Home Affairs Committee report that raised a number of important issues. He raised the way in which we develop interpersonal skills, how violence at home can impact on people's attitudes to violence in the community and the importance of witnesses and witness protection. I draw his attention to the fact that investigation anonymity orders, which provide for the anonymity of witnesses during an investigation to encourage them to come forward, are available from today for witnesses involved in trials for murders committed using a knife or gun. That is important legislation.
Ms Abbott: On the question of witness protection, is my right hon. Friend aware that a key issue for some of my constituents is that they need to be moved away from people who might take revenge on them? What are the Government doing to ensure that all London boroughs contribute to the pool of accommodation available in such cases? The problem is that some boroughs are not contributing to that, which makes it hard to move people.
Mr. Hanson: I will certainly consider that issue in detail. The purpose of the anonymity orders that I mentioned is to give witnesses anonymous protection in relation to giving evidence, which is important, rather than moving people around because they happen to be witnesses and are willing to come forward. That is an important part of the prevention mechanism for individuals. However, ultimately, we need to give people anonymity, so that they do not have to fear being moved. Even if individuals who give evidence are moved, they will ultimately face potential intimidation downstream.
The latest recorded crime statistics show that knife crime is falling. There has been a 7 per cent. fall in recorded knife crime and a 34 per cent. fall in homicide with a knife or sharp instrument. The risk of being a victim of gun crime remains low and recorded crime involving a firearm has fallen for the fifth year in succession-the number of recorded offences involving firearms has fallen by 18 per cent. between 2007-08 and 2008-09. Firearm homicides are at their lowest point for 20 years, violence incidence has fallen by 49 per cent. since 1999, and there are 2 million fewer victims. In London, which is of particular importance to the debate today, the number of homicides has decreased. As the hon. Member for Hornchurch mentioned, there were 15 such incidents last year and 30 the year before. Homicide overall is down 24.2 per cent. in the year to February 2010.
Gang-related offences in the Metropolitan police area account for very low levels of crime-less than 0.3 per cent. of all recorded crime. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington
mentioned, although much work has been going on to help to drive down those figures, that does not mean that we are complacent or that we are satisfied with the situation to date. As hon. Members have mentioned, the murder of Sofyen Belamouadden at Victoria station on 26 March and that of Godwin Lawson on 27 March are stark reminders that such incidents occur. In many ways, those incidents were more visible and horrific than some of the other major incidents that we know about. Twelve young people aged between 16 and 17 have been charged with the murder of Sofyen Belamouadden, but unfortunately no charges have been brought in relation to the murder of Godwin Lawson. I send my sympathies to both families. Whatever the overall decrease in statistics relating to such crimes and the level of work that has been done, those incidents, which have occurred in the past month in London, show that issues still need to be addressed.
We have tried to tackle the problem through engaging in four main areas of activity: first, prevention; secondly, strong enforcement; thirdly, information and intelligence sharing; fourthly, rehabilitation. Our ultimate aim must be to prevent young people from being involved in a toxic and negative gang lifestyle in the first place. We and other Departments have tried to take prevention extremely seriously. In the youth crime action plan, which has been put in place across England and Wales in a large number of areas, we have considered a number of activities-for example, activities on Friday and Saturday nights, focusing on vulnerable individuals, after-school clubs, policing in our communities as a whole and other positive activities.
The Department for Children, Schools and Families has provided £2 million additional funding to the 81 local authorities that have been particularly blighted by youth crime and knife crime, so that provision relating to Friday and Saturday night activities can be boosted. We have put more than £270 million into the myplace programme to ensure that young people have high-quality, safe places to go where they can access activities to help them towards positive activity as a whole. That, coupled with the £4.5 million community fund and more than £600,000 of support given to community projects in London, is witness to the Government's work, to which my hon. Friend has paid tribute.
In light of that, on prevention activity, my hon. Friend will know-the hon. Member for Hornchurch mentioned this-that in September 2010, over-18 gang injunctions will be put in place. Legislation for that has been passed, but it will not be implemented until September 2010 for over-18s. If the Crime and Security Bill finishes its passage through both Houses in the week before Parliament is dissolved, I hope that we will be able to consider gang injunctions for under-18s.
We are strongly considering the question of enforcement. I accept what the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey said: sentencing is not necessarily an immediate deterrent. However, it is important that we consider sentencing as part of our work to help to reduce knife crime. The principle is that we need to catch people, and the threat of being caught is extremely important. The role we have given to neighbourhood policing and police community support officers, and the fact that we have the largest number of police officers ever in the capital city of London, shows that that is important. However, we also need to increase the
strong stance on enforcement, which we have done. The starting tariff for the sentence given to adults who commit murder has been increased to 25 years. Those carrying a knife are more likely to go to prison than they were 10 years ago.
Dealing with enforcement also involves addressing important issues, such as knife arches, and a range of factors to do with test purchases in shops and other matters. It is important to ensure that we take the problem extremely seriously. In London, through Operation Trident, the Metropolitan police have disrupted 75 criminal networks. That has involved arrests and the confiscation of a range of live firing weapons, assets, drugs and other things that drive crimes related to young people generally. Action plans have been developed to address gun crime in the London boroughs of Lambeth, Lewisham and Southwark-the borough of the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey. Plans have been drawn up with the help of community leaders and independent members to ensure that we take the issue seriously.
Hon. Members will know that Operation Protect and Operation Blunt 2 have also dealt with these matters in an effective and important way. We have undertaken intelligence and information sharing, particularly in relation to hospitals, which the hon. Member for Hornchurch mentioned. We have worked closely with hospitals and I am happy to tell the House that 31 hospitals in London are sharing data. They are part of 110 hospitals across England that are currently sharing data. Some 84 of those areas are within the knife crime action plan areas, where we have recently announced additional resources of around £5 million to help to tackle knife crime in the longer term. Intelligence sharing is important, so that we can tie up neighbourhood policing with prevention and with an assessment of the threat in particular areas. It might be of interest to my hon.
Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington to note that intelligence sharing has also involved information being given to Hackney community safety partnerships, so that they can target their activities in Hackney. Through the National Ballistics Intelligence Service, or NABIS, we are looking at the use of guns and the tracking of the use of firearms across the country as a whole. That has shown a very interesting picture of illegal firearms and their use.
We are also considering the issue of rehabilitation. Some people are being caught and some people are being sent to prison, but we need to change their mindsets and take them out of prison and youth offending in a positive way. Since last October, all youth offending teams in England and Wales-97 in total-and the teams across the 15 knife crime areas have been involved in working with offenders to change their attitudes on knife crime and to bring home to them the consequences of carrying a knife. That includes meeting victims and other agencies and working through how we deal with the matter. In January 2010, there will be a knife crime prevention programme pilot in Feltham young offenders institute to ensure that intervention is delivered to people, particularly in custody.
From my perspective, knife crime, gun crime and gangs are serious issues. My hon. Friend has raised some key points. We want to ensure that we work on prevention, enforcement, rehabilitation, tackling the long-term issues and working with the community to ensure that we reduce knife crime, gun crime and gang activity. We have a positive record, but there is more we can do. In the next Parliament, I look forward to working with colleagues across the House to make that difference, to reduce deaths and injuries and to break up the gangs that are having a negative influence across London. Many young people have a very positive influence on society and we should never forget that. The consideration we give to the positive work of young people is as important as that we give to gang-related violence.
Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise this important issue because it is very dear to my heart. I am sure that this will be my last speech as a Member of this House, so I am fortunate in having secured the debate. This subject is so complex that I could speak for a very long time.
During my speech, I shall draw on a number of important publications that I have recently read. The first is "An Anatomy of Economic Inequality in the UK" by the National Equality Panel-I congratulate the Government on setting up that panel because it demonstrates their determination to take inequality seriously. I shall also draw on "The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better" by Professors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Finally, let me draw Members' attention to an excellent publication by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) and the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) entitled "Early intervention: good parents, great kids, better citizens", which is an excellent example of cross-party working.
Before this debate, I also read the transcript of the February 1995 debate, "Poverty and Unemployment", which was initiated by the late Donald Dewar, who was then Labour's shadow spokesman for social security. The debate was interesting because it showed the attitudes that prevailed at the time. The then Conservative Government denied that poverty was a problem and derided the whole idea of having a minimum wage, because, as they said, it would mean going from "low pay to no pay". Wages at that time were extremely low. Members in the debate cited examples of people being offered £1.50 and £1.90 an hour.
I should like to provide a brief history of inequality. On Good Friday, I was hoping to watch my son racing his bike at Herne Hill cycle stadium, which was built for the 1948 Olympics. The stadium is somewhat run-down and will no doubt not be used for the 2012 Olympics. None the less, it served its purpose at the time. In those days we were probably more equal as a society than we had ever been. The belief was that we should have maximum working together and joint effort. It was felt that we were all in it together and that having a more equal society was very important.
Unfortunately, I did not see my son racing on Good Friday because the heavens opened and it poured with rain. As cycle tracks are dangerous in the rain, the whole meeting had to be abandoned, and I had paid £12 to no avail. As I was coming home somewhat bedraggled from the rain, I thought about the money; £12 meant nothing to me and its loss had no impact on me. Then I thought, "What would it mean for somebody who was on the minimum wage, unemployed or in a low income family?" They might have saved up £12 to see their son racing, and for them it would be an awful lot of money to lose. However, for someone such as myself, who is highly but by no means outrageously paid-I am on an income in the 10th decile of the upper incomes-it was not much at all. That got me thinking about when I was younger. Our household was quite poor because
my father suffered from schizophrenia and was unable to work most of the time. Although my father had a high level of education, we were probably among the poorest people on our council estate because in those days-in the '50s and '60s-there was full employment. My mother worked hard for low pay. She scrimped and saved to give my sister and me a good start in life.
When I started secondary school, my mother had to pay out quite a lot of money for my school uniform. The one item that I remember in particular was a pair of hockey boots that cost 17s 11d. I had been at school for only a week when some smart Alec decided to pull out one of my hockey boots from my locker, leaving me with just one boot. I was mortified because I knew that my mother had had to work hard to buy me those hockey boots. I did not tell her about losing one of them; I just made do with my pumps when playing games. I lost sleep at night over the waste, especially as I thought about the effort that my mother had spent on getting me those boots. Today, there are many families who would feel the same way if they had spent money on their children to no avail.
Although it was a more equal society in those days, I clearly remember the stigma that we suffered because my father did not work. He was ill, but he had no obvious disability because he suffered from a mental illness. We were ashamed that our father did not work and, unfortunately, those attitudes live on today.
I was fortunate because I received a good education and I prospered. Looking back, I can see how I prospered and how other people did not do so well. Inequality fluctuated slightly in the '60s, and even improved a little in the mid-1970s before slightly increasing after the financial crisis. During the 1980s, it soared as unemployment reached 3 million in 1983. At the end of that period, inequality had gone up several fold, which is well documented in the report of the National Equality Panel, the figures from which were used by my colleagues in the 1995 debate. None the less, our concerns were ridiculed by the then Government.
Thank goodness we then had a Labour Government, who took poverty seriously. However, I am not so sure that I can say the same about inequality. For those groups of people who were seen as the more deserving poor, the Government have introduced changes that have benefited them greatly.
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing the subject before the House. Her story is compelling and I am listening carefully. I entered Parliament in 1992 and, to be honest, in my time here I have probably moved, on the issues of equality and the distribution of wealth in this nation, more towards the hon. Lady than she has towards me. I thank her for that.
Poverty is most felt by elderly people on small fixed incomes. While the hon. Lady is talking about special groups, will she urge the Government to bring forward for that special group the re-indexation of basic state pension to earnings? Will she also take the opportunity to urge the Tories not to break the link again, should they form a Government at any time in the future? That was a major cause of poverty for that elderly group.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that, but I think I got there long before him, when I was writing pensions articles calling for the restoration of
the earnings link and expressing great concern about the means-testing of people who did a little bit better for themselves than they would have by relying completely on the state. I urge whoever is in government not only to restore the link but to do so as quickly as possible.
To go back to 1997, the poorest pensioners were expected to live on £69 a week. Thanks to the current Government, no single pensioner in this country need live on less than £132 a week. In 1997 we were very much aware of growing inequality. It will be recalled that there was consternation about the executives of newly privatised industries paying themselves huge amounts of money in salaries and share options. The name of Mr. Cedric Brown comes to mind. At about that time chief executive officers were paid about 40 times average pay, but today they are paid about 81 times average pay.
There have been huge changes: the poorest pensioners and people on disability benefits have been guaranteed a minimum income; and there are now working tax credits and the child care strategy for families with children, with large numbers of extra child care places available, and help in paying for them, as well as Sure Start and improved maternity pay; and there is now a carers strategy and rights for carers, who are some of the most neglected people. However, sadly, inequality has continued to widen because of the large increases at the very top of the scale, such as those I have mentioned. It is not just a question of the highest-paid executives or a small number of people: the highest-earning 1 per cent. of the population has a huge impact overall on the median income-the income level at which half the population has more and half has less.
"Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones or inhabitants of different planets".
Only last week, echoing those sentiments, Richard Lambert, the director general of the CBI, pointed out that chief executive officers are so differently remunerated that they are in a "different galaxy" from the rest of us. The recent Evening Standard pull-out special edition on London's forgotten poor, said:
"London is a shameful tale of two cities. In the richest capital in Europe almost half our children live below the poverty line."
Despite the best efforts of the Labour Government in lifting half a million children out of poverty we still face a huge, uphill task. I congratulate the Government on their commitment, in the Child Poverty Bill, to bring down those horrendous figures.
As to solutions, we must first recognise that inequality is not just about the difference between the average and the poorest. It is about the total inequality in society. We are now a much more unequal society than many other countries in the OECD, apart from the United States and Portugal. The huge salary increases at the top end, which put people out of touch with the reality of life for those at the poorest end of society, have not been replicated in other countries with more equal societies, where economic development is just as good as ours, if not better.