Skip to main content

Knife Crime

Volume 458: debated on Monday 19 March 2007

I wish to begin by offering my personal condolences and, I am sure, those of the whole House to all the loved ones, relations and family of the recent victims of the tragic and awful knife crimes.

The Government fully recognise the seriousness of the issue of knife crime and have put in place a variety of measures, encompassing legislation, enforcement, education and prevention to address it. We will continue to work in partnership with the police and local communities to get those weapons off our streets.

In supporting the Home Secretary’s condolences, may I remind him that a particularly vicious crime was committed 18 months ago in my constituency? Two teenagers were stabbed to death in Finchampstead and the case is now before the Crown court. At the time and afterwards, with the backing of Ministers, I gave the victims’ families assurances that action would be taken, but in light of the latest dreadful murders over the past few days, I think that they all have the right to feel that we have collectively let them down. What more can we do?

The right hon. Gentleman is right: we need to take action before, as well as during and after, the awful headlines that we have seen. Perhaps I can reassure him and some of his constituents—if not about the terrible recurrence and instance of such awful crimes—about the fact that we have been taking action. Just a few weeks ago on 12 February, for instance, we doubled the maximum sentence for possession of a lethal weapon or knife in a public place without good reason. In a few weeks from now, on 6 April, we will implement the new offence of using someone to mind a weapon; if the weapon is a knife, the maximum sentence will be four years. We had already planned a few weeks after that to give school staff powers to search pupils for weapons. Those are among the range of measures we have introduced.

In addition to the measures we have brought in over the past few months, I can announce to the House two more steps that I hope will assist in combating knife crime. First, I have authorised that, as from next month, data on serious violent offences involving the specific use of knives and sharp instruments will be separately collected so that we can provide a more detailed understanding of the prevalence of the problem than is currently available. Secondly, we will improve facilities to allow the public to play an even greater part in providing the authorities with information on knife and gun crime. I have today spoken with the chief executive of Crimestoppers to see what additional work can be undertaken to encourage the public to report offences, and will shortly have a meeting with the organisation on that subject.

Finally, I have spoken today to Assistant Commissioner Tim Godwin of the Metropolitan police about the specific events of the recent tragedies, and I urge anyone with information about the deaths of Kodjo Yenga or Adam Regis to contact the Metropolitan police. More generally of course, people can provide information about gun or knife crime through the Crimestoppers number, which is 0800 55511.

Last Thursday, two of my constituents, Susan Hale and Sarah Merritt, were found murdered—reportedly stabbed to death—in a flat in the Townhill Park area of Southampton. The man initially sought by the police has been arrested and now, like the victims’ family and friends, we must wait for justice to take its course. However, reports of the incident highlight the fact that not all knife crime has young people as its victims or that they are necessarily the assailants. Can my right hon. Friend give the House an assurance that in the renewed focus on knife crime and knife violence in our society we will look carefully at all the circumstances in which knives are used in crimes of violence so that we have a full picture and can tackle every aspect of those dreadful crimes?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. I think that I can give him that assurance. We have more police than ever before, as well as more police community support officers. We will bring in more powers to sentence where it is appropriate, and for longer in particular circumstances. At the end of the day, neither the Government nor the authorities, nor more powers nor more police, can on their own tackle the problem. Unless we empower communities and engage the whole community as partners in the fight against knife and gun crime and other violent crime, and emphasise the role of parental and personal responsibility as well as the police and powers, we shall not achieve our aim of combating those crimes effectively. I agree that there is a need for particular information about a range of circumstances, and I hope that my announcement today about data collection on violent crimes where knives are involved is a step in the right direction.

Although I do not doubt for a moment the Home Secretary’s commitment on this matter, may I ask him for an assurance that, by the time schools return from their Easter holidays, all inner-city schools will be adequately monitored to ensure that pupils do not go to school possessing these weapons? It is deeply disturbing that so many of the apparent perpetrators are of school age.

As I have already said, I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern and, as of May, we are giving school staff powers to search pupils for weapons. As I said, those powers and police presence alone will not solve the problem, but they are a necessary part of the solution. May I correct the telephone number that I provided a few moments ago? Crimestoppers is 0800 555 111.

I join the Secretary of State in sending condolences to the families and others affected by these tragic incidents. Will he join me in urging people to redouble their efforts to engage with young people in the community in order to divert them from such crime? Does my right hon. Friend agree that, notwithstanding what the Government have already achieved through youth offending teams, for example, his Department should work with the Department for Communities and Local Government and others to provide further resources to help local communities to come together and tackle this crime? We need to work with young people to stop them getting involved in the first place.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, which is one of the reasons why, before this recent terrible spate of deaths and attacks associated with knife crime, we had a round table meeting that brought together not just the Government and local authorities, but local, voluntary and charitable organisations. We need to go further and involve other Departments—it is a cross-departmental Government issue—particularly the Department for Education and Skills. It is no consolation to any of us to know that the incidence of knife crime, which is in the order of 6 to 7 per cent. of all violent crime, has remained relatively stable. That is a cold statistic, but it conceals within it some of the terrible tragedies that happen when these weapons are used. I am sure that the whole House wants to do everything possible—not just within the Government, but throughout the country in the communities and in local government—to make sure that we combat it.

Kodjo Yenga was tragically murdered on Hammersmith grove in my constituency last week and I would like to put on record my sympathy for the family and my praise for Hammersmith and Fulham police for acting and getting on the scene extremely quickly. Hammersmith and Fulham police and the British Transport police have been very effective in recent months in monitoring and examining the prevalence of knives in Hammersmith centre; there have been a number of metal detector searches at Hammersmith bus station, and so on. The Home Secretary offers a solution of more data collection and more offences, but does he agree that it is time to look again at the regulations behind stop and search, particularly in London? The current practices of stopping and accounting for searches are simply not working. We need far greater prevalence of stop and search in areas such as Hammersmith centre.

May I express, through the hon. Gentleman, our sympathy for the family of Kodjo Yenga, who was so tragically and awfully attacked, and say how sorry we are for what they are undergoing.

We look at everything that can contribute towards a solution. I have not pretended to be offering a solution today, because I do not think that it is within the power of the Government alone to do so. As I said, personal and parental responsibility as well as the local community must be involved. However, there is an obligation on Government to give a lead and provide the powers, the authorities and the assistance to enable the community—in partnership with us—to fight these terrible incidents. We will look at any means necessary to do that.

On the particular issue that the hon. Gentleman raised, we have to be careful to recognise that, in taking some steps, we may with the best of intentions alienate the very communities that we seek to engage in partnership. I do not say that that is an easy question to resolve. The point that he has put to me has been put to me by people from all different backgrounds in the community. In the meantime, however, I think I will concentrate on the measures that I have brought forward today.

My right hon. Friend has had the chance to meet Hackney police and hear from their lips how crime has dropped by 16 per cent. in Hackney. There were nearly 3,000 fewer victims in the past year. However, the number of stabbings rose by a third in the same period and, as other Members have said, 25 per cent. of the victims of stabbing are aged between 15 and 20 years old. That is a big concern for those of us in Hackney with concerns about our young people.

My right hon. Friend has explained all the hard measures that are in place in terms of sentencing, but could he outline what plans the Home Office has to put money into communities to support parents and community groups who are keen to tackle this problem from the inside rather than at the end point when someone has committed a crime and created a victim?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I very much appreciated her assisting me to meet members of the safer neighbourhoods team—police, local councillors and many other local people—who are working in partnership and taking the matter into their own hands as well as their own heads so as to improve the local community. My hon. Friend is right to say that that cannot be done without local partnership and that is why, in answer to the specific question that she raised, I can tell her that, in the last couple of weeks alone, we have announced an additional £500,000 through the Connected fund to be made available to those in local communities who are fighting against the gangs who would use violence of any sort. I can also tell her that, in October, we will raise the age at which someone can purchase a knife from 16 to 18. I therefore hope that we are moving forward both in addressing the problem of young people using these weapons of violence and in assisting those in the community who are trying to combat that.

I join the Home Secretary and other hon. Members in passing the House’s condolences to the families of Adam Regis, Kodjo Yenga, Father Paul Bennett, Keith Platt and other victims of knife violence.

More than 230 knife-related violent crimes are reported every day. Youth Justice Board polling suggests that more than a quarter of all school pupils have carried a knife in the last year and nearly a third of all homicides now involve the use of a sharp instrument, yet Ministers emphasise the view that the terrible tragedies of the past few days are isolated incidents. Although I hear what the Home Secretary has said about the new measures to be brought forward, including those on the use of data and providing more qualitative assessments of the incidents and the information that is available, when will the Government recognise the full impact of the social and family breakdown and drug abuse that underline the causes of these appalling crimes? Is it not time that the Government focused more on the issues that will deliver more order on our streets rather than simply on delivering more laws and legislation?

The hon. Gentleman should be careful of two things. The first is that in an attempt to understand the complex causes he does not fall into excusing it by referring to family backgrounds—

The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but I am cautioning him. It is one thing to understand the complexity of causation and another thing to provide an alibi for it. There is no excuse for using knives or guns to inflict such terrible damage on anyone.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman talks about the incidents not being isolated, but I have not in any way attempted to minimise the situation. I have said that it is no consolation even to know that the level of knife-associated violence is stable. However, we should not brand the large majority of young people as associated with this. They are the potential victims, not the perpetrators. No one is threatened as much as young people. Furthermore, it is not just young people or black people who are threatened; people of all ages are threatened when there is an acceptance of this situation.

I am the first to accept that this is a complex situation, but, if one looks at addressing the underlying causes—if they are deemed to be, in part, poverty, lack of education, family background, unemployment and deprivation—what the Government have done in every one of those fields stands far better comparison than anything the hon. Gentleman’s Government ever did in the almost 20 years that they were in power.