My Lords, I am very pleased that we are having this debate in the House today and that there is a strong willingness, across both Houses, to tackle this most challenging issue of serious violence.
We have been extremely concerned about the increase in the rates of knife crime, gun crime and homicide, and the horrendous attacks involving acids and corrosives. Since the beginning of the year, there have been—sadly and tragically—74 reported homicides on London’s streets alone, and many of these have been stabbings. It is, however, not a London issue alone. Tragically, for example, we have also seen fatal stabbings in Wolverhampton, Ipswich and Sheffield in recent days. The Office for National Statistics has reported that, from December 2016 to December 2017, police-recorded knife crime increased by 22%, the possession of knives increased by 33%, offences involving firearms increased by 11%, and homicides increased by 9%.
Too many young people have, sadly, lost their lives in needless violence, and it simply has to stop. This is clearly unacceptable. We are determined to end this deadly cycle of violence, and that is why the Government published the Serious Violence Strategy in April this year. Anyone committing these acts of violence must feel the full force of the law. Our absolute priority is the safety and security of our citizens, and my heart goes out to the victims and their family members and friends who have been affected by this senseless violence. It is incumbent on all of us to do whatever we can to help tackle it in every way possible.
On 9 April this year, as I said, the Government published their Serious Violence Strategy, which set out the action we are taking to address serious violence and, in particular, the recent increases in knife crime, gun crime and homicide. The strategy sets out an ambitious programme involving over 60 commitments and actions, supported by £40 million over two years to back the initiatives in the Serious Violence Strategy.
It is very important to stress that the approach to tackling serious violence set out in the strategy is a multiple-strand approach. Law enforcement remains very important, but the strategy is not solely focused on law enforcement, as it depends also on partnerships across a number of different sectors such as education, health and the voluntary sector. In particular, the strategy stresses the importance of early intervention to tackle the root causes of serious violence and to provide young people with the skills and resilience to lead productive lives free from violence.
The scope of the strategy is concerned with specific types of crime such as homicide, knife crime and gun crime, and the use of acids and corrosives as weapons. It also covers areas of criminality where serious violence is inherent such as gangs and county lines drugs dealing. Serious violence extends to other forms of serious assault, of course. We know that a significant proportion of violence is linked to either domestic abuse or alcohol, but these two important elements are not driving the increases we are seeing in violent crime. The strategy does not address specifically sexual abuse, modern slavery or violence against women and girls. They may all involve forms of serious violence but there are already specific strategies that address those important issues, and so they are not included within the scope of the strategy.
What is behind the recent increase in serious violence? Our analysis shows that about half the rise in knife and gun crime is likely to be due to improvements in police recording of crime, but for the remainder a major factor behind the increase is changes in the drugs market. Crack-cocaine markets have strong links to serious violence, and the latest evidence suggests that crack use is rising in England and Wales due to a mix of supply and demand factors, such as increased supply of cocaine from overseas and the spread of county lines drugs dealing which is associated with hard class A drugs.
In addition, drugs-market violence and gang-related violence is facilitated and spread by social media, which has become more and more accessible and part of everyday life through the widespread adoption of smartphones over the past decade. Social media platforms such as YouTube and Instagram are used to glamorise the gang or drug-dealing life, to taunt rivals and to normalise weapons carrying. Sadly, it leads to tit for tat.
Through our analysis in the strategy, we have also identified that the increases in violence have been accompanied by a shift towards younger victims and perpetrators than earlier in this decade. We have also identified that we are not alone in seeing recent increases in serious violence. The US, Canada and a number of other European countries have seen similar long-term trends. This suggests that there is a global component to the trend and so our strategy includes a commitment to hold an international violent crime symposium in autumn 2018. This will bring together academics and experts to explore the trends in serious violence in different parts of the world.
Our analysis points to a range of factors driving increases in serious violence. The issue is complex, but our analysis is that changes in the drugs market are a major factor behind the recent increases. While there is good evidence that enforcement can play a vital role in tackling these offences, most academics agree that big shifts in crime trends tend to be driven by factors outside of the police’s control—such as drugs trends and markets, changes in housing, vehicle security and so on. Available evidence suggests this latest shift in serious violence is no exception. We are aware of, and have noted, though, what the Metropolitan Police Commissioner said recently about police resources, and the Home Secretary has committed to making police funding a priority at the next spending review, which will set budgets for the longer term.
As I have said, the Serious Violence Strategy puts a greater emphasis than previously on early intervention and prevention. It is at the heart of the approach in the strategy and has been informed by our analysis of the evidence of what works and is most effective with young people. The work on early intervention and prevention focuses on steering young people away from crime and tackling root causes. As we all know and accept, we cannot arrest our way out of the issue, so we are clear that we must prevent young people from committing serious violence by developing their resilience and supporting positive alternatives to a life of crime, with timely interventions.
The Serious Violence Strategy sets out a range of universal and targeted interventions, including the early intervention youth fund, which will be launched this summer, to which police and crime commissioners can apply. The fund is designed to help local partnerships support early intervention and prevention activity with young people. It has £11 million available over two years to support such local activity and will link up with existing programmes.
We will also provide support additional support for organisations such as Redthread to expand and pilot its youth violence intervention programme outside London in Nottingham and Birmingham and continue to develop its service in London hospitals. The Redthread programme is based on the concept of the “teachable moment”. This means that hospital emergency department staff will ask a youth worker to speak to a young person who has been admitted with violent injuries caused by stabbing, for example. If they need help, the youth worker will help identify and refer them to where they can get help to leave a gang for example.
I now move on to how the strategy will tackle specific areas of violence, beginning with county lines, because drugs are a major factor behind the recent increases in violence. What are county lines? Gangs and organised criminal networks involved in exporting illegal drugs into one or more importing areas in the UK, use dedicated mobile phone lines or other form of “deal line”. They are likely to exploit children and vulnerable adults to move and store the drugs and money and they will often use violence. This is a major cross-cutting issue involving drugs, violence, gangs, safeguarding, child criminal exploitation, modern slavery and missing persons, and it involves the police, a wide range of government departments, local government agencies and voluntary sector organisations.
We are particularly concerned about the county lines issue because of the violence and exploitation of children and vulnerable people that it involves. That is why we are supporting the establishment of a new £3.6 million national county lines co-ordination centre to help bring together the law enforcement effort. The links behind county lines are complicated, and the threat crosses police force boundaries. The centre will support the police operationally, help build the intelligence picture and support police forces to close down mobile phone numbers used for county lines drug dealing.
The strategy also sets out how we will work with the Department for Education on the support and advice offered to children educated in alternative provision, including those who have been excluded, to reduce the risk of them becoming victims of county lines exploitation and being drawn into crime.
We are taking a range of actions to tackle knife crime focused on operational enforcement, work with retailers, legislation and early intervention and prevention. In March, we launched a major media advertising campaign, #knifefree, which is aimed at raising awareness among young people and young adults about the risks of carrying knives. This was chiefly delivered through social media targeted at young people. We are currently evaluating the campaign, but it has had a very positive response from our partners.
We are also providing up to £1 million for each of the next two years for our anti-knife crime community fund. This fund, which was launched on 18 May, provides support for local initiatives which work with young people to tackle knife crime. It includes early intervention and education, as well as mentoring and outreach work. Last year, we supported 47 projects across England and Wales through the community fund.
We are also taking action to improve legislation and practice in relation to the ownership and licensing of firearms. We are actively strengthening controls on legally owned firearms to mitigate the risk of them coming into someone’s possession illegally and being used for criminal purposes. It is clearly important that the controls are as robust as possible to prevent firearms getting into the hands of criminals, and we are taking action including the greater regulation of antique firearms, statutory guidance to be issued to the police on firearms and shotgun licensing, and improving the arrangements for the use of medical information in licensing decisions.
Attacks on people involving acids or other corrosives are a serious matter that can result in huge distress and life-changing injuries. We are taking action, with proposed new legislation to make it an offence to sell the most harmful corrosive substances to someone under 18 years of age. Although the strategy places a new emphasis on early intervention, we are clear that, where individuals commit serious violent offences, they must be met with a robust law enforcement response.
Taking effective action means that the issue needs to be understood and owned locally. Communities and the relevant partners must also see tackling serious violence as their problem. Police and crime commissioners have a vital leadership role to play through working with and across community safety partnerships. Other local partnerships can also play an important role.
Our strategy also sets out how we will continue to support communities to build local resilience and awareness by continuing to match-fund local area reviews. The reviews help to identify the resilience and capability of local areas in responding to gang-related threats, with follow-on support to help partners. To date, we have funded 28 local reviews across England and Wales and two strategic reviews in Bedfordshire and Thames Valley. In turn, MOPAC has to date supported 16 reviews since 2016. We are increasing our offer of support to local areas this year with further local and strategic reviews, with follow-on operational support available.
Finally, to support delivery of the strategy, the Home Secretary has established a serious violence task force to drive implementation of the strategy and support delivery of its key objectives. This task force brings together Ministers, Members of Parliament, the Mayor of London, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Director-General of the National Crime Agency, other senior police leaders and the public and voluntary sectors’ chief executives. The task force met for the first time on 26 April and discussed the issue of county lines and what more could be done to tackle this issue. The task force also met again this morning to discuss the challenge of serious violence material on social media and again considered what further it could do to support action on this issue.
The multi-strand approach set out in the strategy, with a greater emphasis on early intervention, will address the increases in serious violence and help young people to deliver the skills and resilience to live happy and productive lives away from violence, as well as ensuring that people feel safe in their communities and their homes. I beg to move.
I thank my noble friend for his statement. I recognise that both those factors are an important part. I alluded in my opening speech to the importance of support. However, I recognise that other noble Lords will be speaking today and, in order to keep my speech short, I thought I would include those issues in my concluding remarks.