Sarah Jones (Croydon Central) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. Apologies for my tardiness at the start, coming in a bit late. I had made the schoolboy error of going to Westminster Hall itself, but of course we are not there.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) on securing this debate and on her speech. I congratulate everyone who has spoken on the knowledgeable and thoughtful way in which they approached a difficult topic. It is easy to have a sense of moral panic, which does not lead to solutions. I hope that the Minister has listened to everything that has been said by Members today on what needs to be done.
Practical measures, for example, include what my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) said about bleed control kits. I have heard about and seen that campaign, and I have talked to Emily Spurrell about the great job that she will do and about the support that she needs. My hon. Friend and all Members present are doing an incredible job on behalf of their constituents, trying to reduce violence. That has to be the first job of us as politicians, to keep people safe. What more important job do we have?
We heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) and for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) who, like me, are from south London constituencies and have particular issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East talked about relationships with the black community. It is of course incredibly important to understand that although I might feel that if something happens to me I can go to the police as my place of safety, there are communities that do not feel that. That needs to be fixed.
I pay tribute to my police force in Croydon. Every single week on Friday morning, the community and the police meet. They have built relationships ever since the death of George Floyd, to the point where there is a new trust and respect on both sides and a much better approach to things like handcuffing during stop and search. On that front, some brilliant activities by the police are going on. We need to harness and replicate those.
I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall, who now chairs the APPG, which I founded and was absolutely my baby for three years; these things are so important. She is doing a brilliant job keeping up the campaign.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made an interesting speech. He was talking about what I was talking to some police officers about the other day: people who are in the Scouts learn how to use pocket knives. People should learn how to use knives and what the implications might be, the knock-on impact, of using them wrongly and stabbing somebody. Many young people I have met have no concept of what might happen if they stab someone in the leg. They think, “They will be fine”, but of course they are not—the chances are, they will die. If we had more uniformed organisations teaching people how dangerous those things are, but how to use them safely, we might have a slightly different approach to some of the issues.
The spokesperson for the SNP, the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Allan Dorans), talked about the Scottish approach, which I know well. I visited and spent a long time with people from the violence reduction unit in Scotland and with others in America who have done similar things. The public health approach is absolutely the right one. There is plenty of evidence, which the Government are yet to pick up or act on, sadly.
Yesterday, I was with a senior police officer who said to me, “We are in a perfect storm. We have had years of cuts to services.” My hon. Friend the Member for Luton North, I think, said that the children who suffered the cuts 10 years ago are now the teenagers who are involved in knife crime, and that is exactly what the police officer was saying to me yesterday. He added that, on top of that, we have had a year and a half of covid restrictions with people in lockdown. Now potentially we face a summer of violence.
Knife crime reached its highest level on record in 2019-20, at more than 50,000 offences. That is an extraordinary number, which has doubled since 2013-14, when there were 25,000 offences. Between 2010-11 and 2019-20, knife crime rose in every single police force in the country. Since 2014, there has been a 72% increase in the number of 16 to 18-year-olds admitted to accident and emergency for knife wounds and the most common age group for victims of homicide recorded in the year ending March 2020 was 16 to 24-year-olds. That was followed by 25 to 34-year-olds. While the effects of lockdown saw a fall at the beginning of the year ending September 2020, there were still 47,119 offences: an average of 120 knife crimes a day.
Last week, the UK’s anti-slavery commissioner found that for the first time more children than adults were identified as potential modern slavery victims last year. The commissioner’s annual report found that of the 10,689 potential victims referred to the national referral mechanism, 4,849 were children. The unrelenting rise, which Members have discussed today, in county-lines drug dealing, where criminal gangs exploit children, is fuelling violence. and the Government are simply not doing enough to stamp down on criminal drug gangs. The Minister for Crime and Policing said last November:
“Back in the early part of the previous decade, we thought we had beaten knife crime, but unfortunately it is back.”—[Official Report, 9 November 2020; Vol. 683, c. 595.]
He may be good at acknowledging that there is a serious problem with serious violence in this country, but not so good at actually doing something about it.
More than 20 teenagers have been killed in London this year and many more have had their lives cut short across the country. How many children will die before the Government recognise this as the violent epidemic that it is? I came into the House in 2017 determined to tackle the scourge of rising levels of serious violence. I set up and chaired the all-party parliamentary group on knife crime, and it is very sad to be speaking in the House today when yet another young life has been lost in my constituency. Two weeks ago, a 16-year-old boy called Camron Smith was murdered in his own home in front of his mother in a horrific murder that could have been avoided.
Last week in the Chamber, I asked the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), whether the Government would commit to helping every vulnerable child this summer. She replied by saying that they were doing that through increased investment through the Department for Education funding over the summer, but that funding is limited. It amounts to a few pennies per child and excludes a large number of children who might otherwise need safeguarding support. The Government’s education recovery proposals are one tenth of Labour’s offer and, unlike Labour, contain no money for breakfast clubs or extra-curricular activities. The Under-Secretary referred to the Youth Endowment Fund, which is welcome, but it is £200 million over 10 years. Again, statistically, if we look at the number of children we need to help, that sum is small fry in comparison with what is needed.
I do not need to repeat the level of cuts to youth services that we have seen over this period of government, as well as the cuts to local government, policing, police staff, domestic-abuse risk officers and forensic officers. We have not just lost police officers on the beat; we have lost the whole apparatus behind that of people who actually help prevent and solve crime. We have 8,000 fewer police staff now than we did 10 years ago and more than 7,000 fewer police community support officers. We know that PCSOs were a key link between communities and the police: people we know, see and understand, and we and know their names. We have a relationship with them and they might talk to someone’s mother if that person got into trouble. That has been decimated by the Government.
We have heard many solutions and I think we would all be happy to sit down with the Minister and talk about those further. We know it is possible to reduce violence. As the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Allan Dorans) says, violence is not inevitable. We know that things can be done. We know that knife crime goes in peaks and troughs and when there are interventions, violence goes down. However, those interventions need to be long term and rooted in communities.
It is important that the Government, local authorities, the police and the voluntary sector are able to join together to prevent, recognise and respond to violence. Central to that is the need to prevent the criminalisation of children, as well as early intervention to prevent young people from becoming involved in violence in the first place. So many cases of youth violence tell the same sad story in which the victim and the young person inflicting violence have both had adverse childhood experiences.
We need to look to authorities such as Lambeth Council. Over the summer, Lambeth has taken the approach of identifying the most vulnerable children—the 100 most vulnerable, say—who are at risk of getting involved in crime or who are already involved in crime. The council has a plan for what each of those children will be doing over the summer and where—for example, this week, that child will be going to this activity; the following week, they will go to that one, and so on. That is a really interesting and important approach, and one that we can look at replicating. The amount of money that we spend on interventions with our young people— social care, council and police interventions over the years—is probably absolutely extortionate, but all those interventions do not actually amount to the protection we need to give those children so that they are not getting involved in crime.
It is time that we looked at the justice system and sentencing. That is a really difficult area because we are talking about children. We know that prison is not the answer, but the police would say that if a vulnerable and exploited child becomes involved in a criminal gang, and he carries a knife, no one will tell the police, so they do not know. If he stabs someone in the leg as part of the criminal activity, that person will go to hospital, but no one will tell the police, so they do not know. If he then gets caught with a knife, the police know, but there is no intervention to take him out of that situation. He will be referred to the youth offending team and there might be some kind of intervention.
This is very difficult, but I know of cases where young people have been caught carrying knives and, because there was no intervention at that point, they have gone on either to commit murder or to be murdered themselves. This conversation is very difficult because they are young children. Of course, we need to do all the prevention and intervention, but we also need to think about when we do it. I know of a case where somebody was caught carrying a 3-foot zombie knife and nothing happened as a result. I think the Minister needs to look at that.