I beg to move,
That this House believes that teenage knife crime and the increased incidence of carrying knives in many communities is one of the most critical social and law and order issues facing the country; welcomes the contribution made by the Home Affairs Select Committee in its Seventh Report, Session 2008-09, on Knife Crime, published 5 on 2 June 2009; commends the work done by voluntary sector organisations like the Damilola Taylor Trust to tackle the problem; and expresses the belief that the solution to knife crime will only come from cross-community co-operation to address its root causes.
Before I begin my remarks on the motion, I welcome the new Home Secretary and his new team to their positions. It is five years since I last did battle with the right hon. Gentleman over top-up fees, and it is a pleasure to shadow him again. I wondered whether he might prove to be the shortest-lived Home Secretary in the history of this country, but following last night’s meeting of the parliamentary Labour party it appears that he might have to wait a little longer before he gets the opportunity to move into No. 10. Seriously, however, I look forward to debating the issues facing us all over the months ahead.
No doubt we will argue intensively over the failures of Government policy, but today’s debate is intended to be different. I understand from the Clerks that it is customary for an Opposition day motion to be critical of the Government and their policies, but this motion is not intended to do that. Rather, it is intended to stimulate a serious discussion about an issue that has been of concern to all of us—knife crime, particularly among our young people. It is an issue that is both serious and disturbing and one that should be subject to dialogue across the political and community divides.
Last week, the Home Affairs Select Committee published a thoughtful report on the subject, and during the course of its inquiry it invited representations from across the House. The Committee took evidence from me and the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, as well as from Ministers, so it seemed logical and sensible for the House to have an early opportunity to discuss the matter. I very much hope that the Chairman of the Select Committee will be able to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, and give us his perspectives on the inquiry.
It is also sensible to give the House the opportunity to praise and discuss the views of organisations out in the community that deal with knife crime and its consequences. Our voluntary sector does hugely valuable work in trying to break down the knife culture and the tendency of young people to become caught up in gangs. We should recognise the importance of what they do.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his warm words about the Select Committee report and for the tone of the motion. In giving evidence to the Select Committee, he went out of his way to stress the importance of cross-party approaches, which also includes the voluntary sector. Does he agree that only by parties working together and raising the issue above party politics will we truly find a solution to knife crime?
That is right. There will be times when we debate issues on a party basis, but not because we have different objectives. We all share the objective of reducing crime and knife crime and of restoring stability to communities affected by it. There may be times when we disagree over methods or are critical of Ministers because we think they have got it wrong. That is right and proper, but organisations and individuals out there are looking to this House for a grown-up and mature debate. It is right and proper that with an issue as serious as this one we take a step back from time to time and have a grown-up discussion of the kind that the right hon. Gentleman rightly started in his Home Affairs Committee.
Before I get to the heart of the debate, I want to make one important point. There is no arms race going on among all children in the United Kingdom, nor are all seven-year-olds carrying knives for their elders. There is an acute gang problem in some parts of the country, particularly in inner-city areas and most significantly in parts of London, but the vast majority of young people are decent, law-abiding citizens, getting on with their lives, taking their exams, working on a Saturday morning and having fun on a Saturday night. We must not allow a serious and important debate to create the sense that young people are a problem today.
I, too, welcome the thoughtful way in which the hon. Gentleman is approaching this topic. I entirely endorse what he said about the majority of young people being law-abiding and going about their business as excellent young citizens in the making. Does he agree, however, that one issue with which all of us—politicians and others—need to engage is the fact that there is a fear race going on out there? As the evidence taken by our Select Committee confirmed, young people are often frightened of the streets, and frightened of the images conveyed to them about other people carrying weapons. We have a serious duty to get the balance right, and our media colleagues have a serious duty to help us.
That is absolutely true. We should not seek to create a climate of fear. In the vast majority of our communities, this is not the issue that it is in some inner-city areas, although there are certainly law-and-order problems up and down the country involving antisocial behaviour and some criminality. Happily, the incidence of serious knife crime remains limited to a relatively small number of communities, but it is there none the less, and it is to protect young people that we need to continue this debate. They are far more likely to be the victims of knife crime, and to be scarred for life or even worse. It is for their protection that we need to get this right.
The reality of the situation is quite stark. The level of fatal stabbings is the highest on record. There has been a 34 per cent. increase in the number of people killed by sharp instruments such as knives in recent years. The number of people stabbed to death in England and Wales increased from 201 a decade ago to 270 in 2007-08, the highest figure on record. That is a serious problem. A serious knife crime—although not a homicide—is committed every hour. According to recent figures, 22,151 serious offences involving knives were recorded in England and Wales in 2008. That is equivalent to 400 a week, or one every half hour. We are dealing with a major problem, although it is more confined to some communities than to others.
The Select Committee’s report highlights the contradictions that exist between some of the figures that are available. There have certainly been improvements in some areas covered by Government programmes, although I must say that I should have been worried if there had not been, given the money that has been spent. Equally, however, there is an inescapable pattern that illustrates the scale of the problem.
The Committee points out that there has been a big increase in the number of knife injuries since the mid-1990s, as is made clear by hospital episode statistics, and that the biggest increase has taken place since 2006. There is also an alarmingly high propensity to carry knives. A 2008 MORI youth survey indicated that 31 per cent. of 11 to 16-year-olds in mainstream education and 61 per cent. of excluded young people had carried a weapon at some point during the preceding year. Of course those figures are bound to mask some legitimate activity, such as the carrying of a penknife by a boy scout, but the overall picture is nevertheless unhappy. The Committee also points out that random knife crime against strangers is relatively rare, although the terrible attack in Grimsby this week is an indication that it remains a threat.
I believe—and here my view may differ slightly from the Select Committee’s interpretation—that the real problem lies in the gang culture in many areas. Whether kids carry knives because they are in gangs or because they are afraid of gangs—the point made by the hon. Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck)—in many areas it is the gang culture that drives the problem, and I think that we must break that gang culture if we are to deal with the problem of knife crime.
As I am sure my hon. Friend accepts, gang culture exists not only out in the community but, increasingly, on the young offender prison estate. On admission to custody, the first thing that young offenders almost certainly do is join a gang, which causes tremendous trouble on the estate.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. He knows about the reality of the situation from his professional experience, and he has taken an active interest in young offender institutions, their workings and their failings. I have visited a number of such institutions, and I share his concern about the fact that the gang culture is being perpetuated within prison walls—as, indeed, are some other problems that we face.
The root causes of the gang culture that leads to knife crime lie right across the policy spectrum, but they tend to be found in the same geographical areas. If we were to map out geographically rates of worklessness, family breakdown, educational failure and addiction in the family, we would find a high correlation between social breakdown and the gang culture, and the report makes it clear that there is a link between deprivation, gang membership and knife crime.
Is the hon. Gentleman also aware of research by the Sutton Trust, an educational research organisation, that importantly confirmed the apparent correlation between certain types of violent crime and inequality? It is not just a question of deprivation equalling violence; the sharp impact of inequalities in society unfortunately also has an influence on how some people behave.
The hon. Lady makes an important point, which she might elaborate on if she makes a speech later.
The truth is that those who join gangs often come from the most difficult family backgrounds—from an environment where they feel neglected and unwanted. Gang membership brings a perverse sense of belonging that they might not ever have got at home. It also exposes them to the danger of being exploited by the hardcore who build gangs around them, and increasingly by organised criminals who exploit local gangs for illegal trade, particularly in drugs. Some younger children are also vulnerable to being used by older gang members as caddies and—I know this from talking to young people in such circumstances—for carrying and hiding firearms. The Select Committee was right to seek information from the Home Office about the number of prosecutions in relation to caddies under the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006, and I hope the Home Secretary will make reference to this issue in his speech.
The hon. Gentleman is making a thoughtful contribution. I do not disagree with any of his points about what kinds of young people are most likely to become gang members, but in my constituency I have been particularly concerned about the dynamics of gang activity. We wanted to set up a youth facility in a school that crossed a geographical boundary, but many young people in my community—both those who did belong to gangs and those who did not—were not prepared to cross it. We have to understand more about gang dynamics if we are to make an impact on this problem.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and it illustrates why we must have community groups on the ground engaging in these problems. They understand the problems best, and former gang members can also be a powerful influence in trying to encourage young people who are a part of gangs away from them. They, more than anyone else, understand gang culture.
I am also in no doubt that tougher police action to smash up gangs is necessary. We have to break up the hardcore, and also, in a constructive way, peel away those around the fringes. Those two elements of the strategy are extremely important. To that end, the Select Committee has made a number of valuable suggestions. I do not agree with every one of its recommendations, but I think the report should provide a reference point for debating the issues.
I was particularly struck by the Committee’s comments about the influence of violent videos and video games on those with a propensity to violence. In most cases for most children, playing a violent video game is not going to turn them into a knife-wielding troublemaker, but for some it clearly can. The Committee’s comments about the presence of such material in detention institutions also raised a concern.
The Committee is right to highlight the need both to break down barriers between young people and the police and to address the reasons some young people seek “respect” on the streets. I also agree with it on the need for improved intervention at the point where a young person is excluded from school. However, there is in my view one area that can make a particularly great difference. In my evidence to the Select Committee, I focused on the need for early intervention. I believe that a successful battle against emerging antisocial behaviour can play an important role in combating more serious offences, particularly knife crime. As a society we do not intervene early enough to say no to a young miscreant. Most serious knife criminals are young men in their later teens, but all the anecdotal evidence I have been given is that they are often the same young men who three or four years earlier were responsible for less serious acts of antisocial behaviour in their communities. Not every 13 or 14-year-old troublemaker goes on to commit more serious offences—far from it—but some do, and we could do more to stop them.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree, therefore, that we should be ensuring at least a guarantee of continuance, but preferably an expansion, of some of the early intervention programmes that we have been developing, such as the youth intervention programmes and the youth offending teams? We have rolled out a range of early intervention schemes in recent years and their continuation is utterly reliant on Government funding.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his remarks—he is absolutely right about this antisocial behaviour point. My local police in Kettering have told me that they know who all the teenage troublemakers are and they are becoming increasingly frustrated that they do not really have the powers to deal with the problem effectively. The Home Office is rolling out the fixed penalty notice scheme in six police forces around the country, whereby they will be able to issue notices to teenagers below the age of 16. That is not available at the moment in Northamptonshire, but it is a tool that the local police would very much like to have, because they could use it to deal effectively with the ringleaders and troublemakers among teenage groups.
I agree with my hon. Friend that we need simple powers to be able to intervene early; indeed, I was going to set out some of the ways in which such change might work. We need a quicker, more comprehensive programme of early interventions designed to stop young people going off the rails without their being pushed straight into the criminal justice system and getting a criminal record that will blight their future. Far too often interventions are made too late in a teenager’s life and by the time the criminal justice system is brought into play irreversible behaviours have built themselves into that person’s life.
That does not mean that young people should not face the full force of the law if they have committed a serious offence—there will always be a need for some to be arrested and prosecuted because they have done so—but earlier, lighter and more straightforward interventions should be available to try to rein them back. As the Home Secretary will know, I have argued for a 21st century version of the clip round the ear: a series of swift, fair measures that can be deployed more nimbly than some of the cumbersome measures that are in place. That was what the Government originally intended with antisocial behaviour orders, but in the end they have created a system that takes too long to implement.
If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I will address that specific point a little later in my remarks—I will answer his question.
What we have proposed at this stage of the process is giving the police simple powers—working with a local magistrate—to issue grounding orders to young troublemakers and to apply simple community service penalties that do not give those young people a long-term criminal record. There will, of course, be instances where people break the law and use a knife to attack someone, and we need to have punishments available to break this cycle. That is why we also need tougher enforcement and sentencing. The precursor of a tougher approach on knife crime is getting more police officers out from behind desks and on to the streets, which is why it is so important that the Home Secretary continues to see through, and accelerates, the process of reducing police bureaucracy and paperwork, and why he will find, as he takes on his new job, that progress in some areas has been too slow. I hope that he will be able to accelerate things.
We also need to get much tougher when sentencing young people who are caught carrying knives or who commit other knife crimes. The issue of whether sentences should be custodial was extensively debated by the Select Committee—and with me when I gave evidence to it. I do not think that the current system imposes sufficiently stiff penalties. That must change because we need to create an environment where the default is not to carry a knife and where there is a big risk in carrying a knife, so that those who are more likely to offend do not do so and those who are afraid do not need to do so.
The starting point should be that anyone carrying a knife without a reasonable excuse should expect to be prosecuted—there are still those who are let off with a caution. We should make it clear that people convicted of carrying a knife should expect to receive a custodial sentence.
I made the point to the Select Committee that the presumption should be that offenders will be sent to jail. The minimum sentence should be a community penalty, with the offender doing positive work in the community, not a fine or a caution. We should not remove all discretion from the courts, the Crown Prosecution Service or the police, but if the norm is a tough penalty it will have the effect of deterring many people from carrying knives in the first place and removing the pressure to carry them that some feel.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Part of what is needed is certainty, so that people who are committing crimes know what will be the consequence if they are caught. Part of the problem is that too many community sentences such as the intensive supervision and surveillance programme see routine breaches that do not lead to any comeback on the offender. Does he agree that there is a danger that that builds in a sense that people can break the rules and get away with it?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is a danger in the criminal justice system that we do not see things through, whether it is the enforcement of an antisocial behaviour order or the enforcement of a community penalty. If people see that they can get away with things, they will not respect the law. It is fundamentally important that if there is a penalty, we see it through and do not just let it lapse.
I see no reason to change the age of criminal responsibility at the moment, but I want those who carry knives around in their teenage years to be brought before the law and dealt with accordingly. I do not want a seven-year-old who is being used as a caddy to be prosecuted, I want the person using them as a caddy to be prosecuted. That is how the law should work.
What about an 11-year-old who has brought a knife out from home? Would the hon. Gentleman decide that that was criminal activity?
It clearly would be criminal activity, but if we get things right and create an environment in which we have tough sanctions for people caught carrying a knife, 11-year-olds will not feel the need to do so. That is the step that we have to take. We must create an environment in which people feel that there is a risk in carrying a knife, and therefore do not choose to do so. The risk that we can offer is a penalty that they will not wish to receive.
Does the hon. Gentleman believe that another matter that we should examine in relation to knives is the people who sell them? There have been many problems with them in the past and quite a lot of debates about the matter in the House. What is his view about that?
I would be open to all ideas as to how we can restrict the sale of knives to young people, and many retailers seek to do that. The problem is that it is not difficult for someone to buy a Sabatier kitchen knife from Sainsbury’s, pass it to one of the kids in their gang and go out and cause mayhem. That is the challenge—in our society, a knife is not a difficult thing to get hold of. We can take every step we want to restrict their sale, but ultimately that is a big problem for us.
There is one other area in which we need much tougher action. Drug dealing is endemic in many areas affected by knife crime. The Government have given out mixed messages about drugs in recent years, not just on classification but on sentencing policy and implementation. The truth is that we let off a significant proportion of drug dealers with just a caution, even those dealing in class A drugs such as heroin. That cannot be right, and it must change.
The Home Affairs Committee was absolutely right about the need for projects that engage and distract young people. We need both the carrot and the stick to deal with the problems of youth crime and knife crime. Up and down the country really worthwhile youth projects are helping, particularly in areas of deprivation where serious trouble and criminality can develop. There is the Frontline church’s youth work in Liverpool, Friday night football in Hampshire—in the constituency of the hon. Member for Eastleigh, where I commend the work being done by his local police—and martial arts work in Derbyshire. Those are all examples that I have seen in recent months of work being done to engage young people and get them away from an environment in which they may get into trouble.
I absolutely agree, and I pay tribute to fire services up and down the country that, along with their more straightforward work of putting out fires and cutting people out of wrecked cars, are doing serious work in engaging young people and involving them in life around fire stations and fire services. They are helping in the engagement process.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the importance of youth activity. May I also remind him of the importance of youth leaders being able to challenge young people who carry and use knives? Some 10 years ago I was a volunteer youth worker in Peckham and Bermondsey in south London and I remember having to ask the young people to leave their knives at the entrance when they came in to play basketball. The fact that young people participate in a youth activity does not mean that they stop their offending behaviour. That needs challenging by strong youth leaders.
My hon. Friend is right, and one of the things that make for an especially strong youth project is the leader, and their credibility in the eyes of those who participate. If it is someone who has been there, who knows and understands the streets, and who can challenge that behaviour, it is more likely to succeed.
The Centre for Social Justice and the Damilola Taylor Trust are offering awards to those who lead the most innovative projects in deprived areas, and the Mayor of London has set up several mentoring and engagement programmes for young Londoners that have the potential to make a real difference. However, as the Select Committee points out in its report, there are too few volunteers in too many areas to do everything that could be done. As Members of Parliament, we can all encourage volunteering in our communities and support it where it takes place.
The hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) has a point. We have similar problems in Coventry, and the Rotarians run a scheme every year that involves the police, the fire brigade and several voluntary organisations. They show kids the consequences of stealing a car and wrapping it around a tree. It is a very worthwhile scheme, and that is the sort of thing that we should consider.
The hon. Gentleman is right. For many of the young people who take part in such schemes, who come from the most deprived backgrounds, it is a new experience to have something positive to do and to be engaged in constructive activity. That is why the carrot—the community work and the support locally—is so important.
This is not a battle that any of us can afford to lose. Week after week, we hear reports of young people whose lives have been tragically cut short or who have suffered terrible injuries at the hands of other young people carrying knives. The Government have brought forward several initiatives, but the danger is always that Home Office initiatives just cost money and do not make much difference. I suspect that success will not lie simply with the efforts of this Government or a future one—albeit sincere and well meant—but with the way in which we harness the efforts of our whole society to try to turn back this unwelcome tide. It is important to ensure that in these difficult financial times the smaller voluntary projects that can make a disproportionate difference are not the first to be squeezed financially.
We have to tackle the root causes of worklessness, educational failure and family breakdown, and we have to foster a revolution in what we have dubbed our broken society. But we also need to deliver the direct, on-the-ground support that can steer those young people caught up in the knife culture away from it. The Damilola Taylor Trust and the Prince’s Trust are spearheading the “no to knives” coalition to seek to make a difference. I hope and believe that harnessing different groups to do what we as politicians cannot do on our own will help to create a coalition that can really transform things on the ground. I commend the groups involved in that work. They have the support of the present Government and will have the support of a future Conservative Government in continuing that work. We all want to see the day when serious youth knife crime is a thing of the past. Our job is to work together to bring that day about as quickly as possible.
I beg to move an amendment, at end add:
“further recognises that tougher penalties are being implemented against those who commit knife crimes, including a rise in the proportion of those caught carrying knives getting custodial sentences; supports the expectation to prosecute for knife possession and doubling of the maximum sentence for carrying a knife in public from two to four years; recognises that the Government has backed tough police enforcement action in the tackling knives action programme areas, including increased use of stop and search, noting that there were nearly 200,000 stop and searches, resulting in the recovery of over 3,500 knives, between June 2008 and March 2009; welcomes the additional investment going to providing targeted youth activity, including on Friday and Saturday nights; and welcomes recent provisional NHS figures showing a reduction in hospital admissions of teenagers following assaults by sharp objects.”
I thank the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) for his remarks and his welcome to me as Home Secretary. I do indeed remember the last time we faced each other over the Dispatch Box—
I like to think that the nation won—[Laughter.] On any disagreements that we have at the moment, the hon. Gentleman may catch up in a couple of years. We were talking about variable tuition fees—we do not call them top-up fees—and at the time he and his party were staunchly against them, but now they are very much for them. That is probably a prerequisite for the debates that we will have about home affairs.
I welcome this opportunity to debate this important issue for the first time with the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell and his Opposition colleagues, and with other Members. I do not think that there is anything at all in the Opposition motion with which we would disagree and the spirit in which it was moved reflects the importance that we all place on tackling knife crime. It also reflects the concern about knife crime felt on both sides of this House.
I welcome my right hon. Friend to his post. May I particularly welcome from the Back Benches the Government’s approach to this debate? The amendment before us this afternoon is an addition to the Opposition main motion, and does not traduce it. That is a welcome change.
According to the “A.B.C of Chairmanship” by Lord Citrine, on which I was raised, we would call our change an addendum, rather than an amendment, but there we are. I think that that is the right spirit in which to tackle this issue.
I am also pleased that the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell welcomed the recent report from the Select Committee on Home Affairs, which has made such a valuable contribution to this debate.
The tragic cases of youngsters killed because of knife crime in London and elsewhere have shocked and saddened the nation. Reducing knife crime and crime among young people more widely is of paramount importance, not only because of the need to deal with the very small minority of young people who are persistent offenders and who cause considerable anxiety and harm to their victims, families and communities, but because addressing the issues that can lead to criminality among young people is essential for a fairer, safer society.
The Government’s addendum is designed to ensure that the progress that is being made by the hard work of so many people is properly recognised. First, on the more general issue of youth crime, it is encouraging to see that the numbers of young people entering the criminal justice system for the first time fell by 9.4 per cent. between 2006-07 and 2007-08. Between 2000 and 2007, the frequency of reoffending among young people fell by 23 per cent.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on his promotion. On the philosophy of behaviour, how confident is he that all young people know that murder is wrong and that it is at the apex of antisocial behaviour not because it breaks the law or because a custodial sentence might be handed out to them by a judge but because it breaks behavioural norms and the moral order in society? What does the Secretary of State believe is the benchmark by which young people judge that murder is unacceptable?
I believe that it would offend all civilised values to think that any young person—other than, perhaps, young people from the most deprived and difficult backgrounds, who have experienced such violence from their early years—would believe that murder was anything other than a crime, and a heinous crime at that. I am not quite sure what point the hon. Gentleman is raising. However, if it is that we have to reinforce these arguments and to consider things such as video games—I welcome their inclusion in the Select Committee’s report—and that we have to ensure that the message of how heinous such crimes are is reinforced to young people over and over again, not just by figures who they would see as figures of authority but by peer groups and people in their community, his point is well taken.
On the question of young people’s attitude to murder, is it not perhaps so much that they think that murder is acceptable but that they believe in their gangs and their communities that anything is acceptable when it comes to enforcing respect, to territorial defence of their gang or to demonstrating how much of a man they are? It is such attitudes that we have to undermine.
From all my experience, I think that my hon. Friend is absolutely right. Incidentally, my press office had arranged for me to meet some police on Westminster’s Churchill Gardens estate yesterday and to walk around for my first on-camera shot as Home Secretary. By a real coincidence, that was where I was badly assaulted when I was 15. I came from the rough end of Notting Hill, and thought that this was a posh area of Pimlico, but the problem was a territorial thing because we were in an area that was not our territory.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) is absolutely right to say that such attitudes are ingrained in people, but sometimes they can be reinforced by the things that they see and read. That is why I want to repeat that the Home Affairs Committee has done us a service by mentioning the fact that people feel that they have to go to that extra level to prove how hard and tough they are, and how much harder and tougher they are than the other gang.
I was delighted to hear the Home Secretary say a moment ago that recidivism was falling. That is very positive, but does he share my concern about a small number of dangerous offenders who are convicted and imprisoned? Does he agree that, before they are released on licence, there must be a proper risk assessment and an absolute guarantee of ongoing supervision and monitoring?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Although I have not absorbed every aspect of this job in the last couple of days, my sense is that what he describes is already happening, and on an increasing basis, so that is an important contribution.
The youth crime action plan launched in the summer of last year is not only helping to bring young offenders to account for their actions, but is providing more support to address the underlying causes of poor behaviour. It places a greater focus on prevention to tackle the low-level but serious problems such as truancy or exclusion that put young people at increased risk of becoming involved in crime or antisocial behaviour.
Family intervention projects, which provide intensive and non-negotiable support for families living in chaotic circumstances, are having a remarkable impact. They are improving school attendance and behaviour, reducing incidences of domestic violence, and improving parenting skills. Operation Staysafe is preventing vulnerable young people from being drawn into criminal activity. The police remove youngsters from the streets late at night—a sort of 21st century version of the clip round the ear—and work with social services to establish what further interventions may be necessary to prevent them becoming victims of crime, or indeed, offenders.
There are now around 5,300 Safer Schools partnerships fostering better relationships between police and young people, with dedicated police officers working in schools to help tackle the causes of crime and antisocial behaviour. After-school patrols on bus routes and at transport hubs are tackling antisocial behaviour at school closing time, giving greater reassurance to parents and pupils.
I am pleased that the Home Secretary has moved on to the issue of parental responsibility. When I went out with the local police in Kettering, a number of teenagers were causing trouble and the police took them home to their families—who did not want to know. In fact, they were cross with the police for bringing the children back, so what more can the Government do to emphasise the point that parents have a big role to play in the activities that their teenagers get up to?
The next stage would be parenting orders or family contracts, and there is a range of other measures that can be used. I discussed this matter with a chief constable only this morning and I was told that, although some parents do not take full responsibility and act in an unacceptable way, the approach that the hon. Gentleman has described works on many occasions. It is a simple thing, but very effective. It always amazes me that, before the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, the police did not have the power to take a truant back to school, let alone take a child back home. The simple powers that the police have asked for are very necessary, in my view.
I have talked about the more general issue of youth crime but, on the specific issue of knife crime, there are now tougher penalties for those who carry knives. The maximum sentence has been doubled and those convicted are more likely to go to prison. The age at which a person may purchase a knife has been raised to 18 and it is now an offence to mind a weapon on someone else’s behalf.
In June last year, my right hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), my predecessor as Home Secretary, to whom I pay tribute for the work that she has done in this post over the past two years, launched the tackling knives action programme focused on 10 police forces across England and Wales rapidly to address the issue of knife crime in those areas. We now have an extended programme covering 16 areas, and have invested a total of £12 million. The programme is not only taking knives off the streets. It is also improving understanding among young people of the dangers of knife possession. As the Home Affairs Committee report acknowledged last week, there has been a notable reduction in hospital admissions for stab wounds in the areas where the programme is running.
Our amendment to the motion welcomes provisional figures published last month, which suggested a substantial reduction in the number of hospital admissions caused by the assault with a knife or sharp object of 13 to 19-year-olds for the 12 months ending January 2009 compared with the same period the previous year. Since the amendment was published just yesterday, a more recent set of figures published this morning shows that the trend is continuing, with a drop of 22 per cent. in admissions of teenagers with stab wounds during the tackling knives action programme implementation period from June 2008 to February 2009, compared with the same period the previous year. Provisional figures show a drop of 26 per cent. across England and a fall of 30 per cent. in nine tackling knives action programme areas.
I welcome the Home Secretary to his new post. I know that he will be a terrific success in all the challenges that he will face over the next few years. [Interruption.] With reference to his kind words about the Home Affairs Committee report, which we gratefully accept, one of the key points that we made on admissions to hospitals was that it was important that information should be shared between agencies. For example, the NHS trust in Manchester shares its information with the police and other agencies. Is it not important that that should happen across the country? That is one way to tackle the problem in a particular area.
I am tempted to blame the Health Secretary for the present state of affairs. May I say how much I appreciate my right hon. Friend’s contribution in this area, which, as Home Secretary, I know I will appreciate even more? When I was Secretary of State for Health, we made it clear in the operating framework, which is an important document for the health service and used to be called their marching orders, that it was a tier 3 local priority to exchange information and to engage and co-operate in this way. As a result, double the number of hospitals now provide the information. I accept that we have to go further, but that is an important result, given that we made it an operating framework tier 3 priority only last December. We are on the right track.
The figures are extremely encouraging. During the action plan’s first phase, there were 200,000 stop and searches and 3,500 knives were seized.
I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new post. My area is one in which the action programme has been introduced because of the problems that we have had with knife crime, resulting in a number of deaths, ending, unfortunately, with Ben Kinsella’s murder last summer. Youngsters were afraid to go out on the street because they thought other people were carrying knives, so they carried them themselves. The introduction of random stop and search among all young people was extremely helpful in putting a cap on the carrying of knives. I commend the policy.
I am grateful to the Home Secretary for giving way, and I echo those comments. However, he will surely realise that there is no such thing as random stop and search; it can be carried out only when a section 60 power is in place, and then it lasts for only 24 hours. Is that not one of the problems that he might want to address—how to enable random stop and searches in areas where there are real problems?
I acknowledge the special knowledge—the special constable knowledge, even—of the hon. Gentleman. I shall look at that issue, but, once again, my discussion with the chief constable of Warwickshire this morning suggested what the figures show—that, after eight months, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. These are eighth month statistics: 3,500 knives seized from 200,000 stop and searches. So we are at least on the right road, but, of course, I shall look at other issues.
I do not like to intervene in the conversation about stop and search, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Select Committee was right, however, to raise the concern that a small number of young people are worried about their safety and feel that they need to carry knives to protect themselves. Senior police officers have told us that the fact that fewer stop and searches now uncover a weapon suggests that the number being carried is declining further. But it is absolutely critical that we get the message across to young people that carrying a knife does not make them safer.
The advertising campaign “It Doesn’t Have to Happen” has been designed by young people, for young people, with that precise purpose. Aimed at 10 to 16-year-olds, the adverts portray unflinchingly the physical effects of knife wounds and have been viewed more than 13 million times. Of those youngsters surveyed, 73 per cent. said that they were less likely to carry a knife as a result of seeing the advert.
Through the Be Safe programme, 1 million young people will be able to attend workshops over the next five years on the dangers of knives and other weapons. We cannot be the slightest bit complacent, and one knife crime is one too many, but police forces tell us of encouraging signs that knife carrying is falling among young people, and the statistics on NHS admissions and on crimes committed support that view. Between October and December 2008, there were seven fewer fatal stabbings compared with the same period the previous year.
I completely agree with the reference in the Opposition’s motion to “cross-community co-operation”. Community and voluntary sector organisations have a crucial role to play in tackling knife crime. The motion is right to praise the work of the Damilola Taylor Trust, and I mention in particular Damilola Taylor’s father, Richard Taylor, who was appointed by the Prime Minister in February to be his special envoy on youth violence and knife crime.
I am most grateful to the Home Secretary for giving way a second time. We in the Select Committee were very keen to ensure that our report was not a knee-jerk reaction to another tragic death; that is why we took six months to complete it. We have also decided that, at the end of July, we will bring the stakeholders together to consider the report’s conclusions thoughtfully. I am very pleased that the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), has agreed to participate in that seminar, and I hope that the Home Secretary will also find the time to come along and give us his views on the issue—as a way of keeping the issue going and retaining the consensus, which is extremely important. Without the stakeholders working together, no single agency can solve the problem of an increase in knife crime.
That is a very important development. Around that time, after the first year of the tackling knives action programme, we will be hosting an event, so perhaps we could combine the two in some way. I shall talk to my right hon. Friend about that.
It has been acknowledged that projects that work with young people and provide peer mentoring, diversionary activities, education and training can help prevent them from becoming offenders. That is why investing in better local services and activities for young people is so important, and, through the youth opportunity fund and the youth capital fund, and schemes such as the myplace programme, we are providing a total of £900 million to improve local services for young people. The best providers of such services are often local and community groups, which have a profound knowledge of the area and the needs of the people with whom they work. Over the next three years, we have specifically earmarked £4.5 million to help up to 150 local groups that are working to tackle knife crime, gun crime, and gang-related activity. We will announce the successful bidders for money from that fund next week.
On that point, apparently 20 per cent. of volunteers in Britain are male, and 80 per cent. are female. Obviously, many of the issues that we are discussing relate to male role models, or a lack of them. Does the Home Secretary have any views on what we could do to encourage more men in our communities to get involved and play a role in helping to be role models for young adults—younger males—whom they could probably help with the benefit of their experience?
The Minister of State, Home Department, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), just reminded me about Baroness Neuberger’s report on volunteering. Also, I know from my constituency that every year, in volunteers’ week, a special push is made to get people who do not normally volunteer—sometimes that is men, but it is other groups in our community, too—to realise the benefits of volunteering. There is more that we can do in that regard.
The issue of knife crime among young people is serious, and the motion rightly reflects that fact, but the tackling knives action programme is showing encouraging early signs of success. Through tougher action on those who offend and a greater focus on the causes of knife crime, and through excellent leadership and strong partnerships between the police, schools, social services and community groups, properly organised and adequately funded, I believe that we can address an issue that is rightly seen by the public as absolutely critical to the well-being of our society.
The issue will be one of my major priorities in the coming months. Along with the Secretaries of State for Justice and for Children, Schools and Families, I will host an event in July, as I have said, to discuss the outcomes and experiences of the first year of the tackling knives action programme, and will consider what further steps need to be taken to keep knives off our streets. I commend the Opposition for tabling the motion, and I commend the amendment to the House.
I, too, very much welcome the tone and the approach taken by the official Opposition, who have given us an opportunity to discuss this key issue. I also very much welcome the approach taken by the Home Affairs Committee in its attempt to build cross-party consensus, which hopefully can make real progress on the issue. May I also welcome the new Home Secretary to his post? I look forward to lively debate with him in the coming weeks and months, in the hope that I may agree with him on Home Office policy as much as I do on electoral reform.
The official Opposition are absolutely right in their motion: knife crime is one of the most serious problems facing Britain today. The number of children admitted to hospital having been assaulted with knives has gone up by 83 per cent. in five years. That is frankly shocking, but sadly there are no simple solutions, as we have heard; there is, perhaps, consensus across the House on that. We need a response from the education and health services, the police and the criminal justice system, so I was heartened to see the emphasis on cross-community co-operation to address the root causes of knife crime in the motion, and to hear it in the speech of the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). That appears to us to be a new emphasis, which we welcome.
There is, however, still a clear distinction between the approach of Liberal Democrat Members on the one hand, and the approach of the Opposition and the Government on the other. That is highlighted in the addendum to the motion that the Government propose. Those two parties still continuously seek to try to outdo one another by advocating tougher penalties, which in the main serve to criminalise young people. By contrast, we believe that what is needed is an effective system of prevention that tackles the root causes of why people, particularly young people, carry knives, and which is coupled with targeted, intelligence-led, visible policing. We need to reassure young people that they do not need to carry knives for their own safety, and we need the support of the community to catch and convict those who threaten others.
Last year, 43 young people died from stab wounds. Of the 773 homicides in Britain in 2007-08, 270—35 per cent., or a little over a third—were caused by sharp instruments. That is the highest number of knife killings since records began in 1997, and it represents an increase of a third since that year. There was a 48 per cent. increase in stab-related hospital admissions between 1997-98 and 2006-07, and nearly 50,000 people, including 4,510 children, have been treated in hospital for knife wounds since the Government came to power.
Knife crime disproportionately affects young people. Between 2003 and 2007, stab-related hospital admissions for under-16s increased by 63 per cent. The Youth Justice Board’s 2008 MORI youth survey found that 17 per cent. of 11 to 16-year-olds in mainstream education had carried a knife in the previous year; the figure rises to 54 per cent. among young people who have been excluded from school. Some 85 per cent. of young people who carry knives claim that they do so for their own protection.
Those statistics speak for themselves. The toll of knife crime is horrendous and its increasing regularity is rightly fixed in the public consciousness as an overwhelming problem. There can be few more graphic or horrifying thoughts for any parent than that of their child being attacked with a knife. The images that we have seen in the media of the devastation wrought by knife crime over the past few months and years remain a harrowing reminder of the damage that these crimes can do.
The Government have made progress in tackling knife crime, but the problem remains far too large. In the eight months to November 2008, 3,259 people were admitted to hospital in England with stab wounds; that was a fall of 9 per cent. on the same period in the previous year, but it still represents a very substantial level. Furthermore, 604 of the victims were teenagers.
The tentative improvements are welcome, but they are far from being enough. Despite the evident escalation in the problem during the Government’s period in power, Ministers have clearly not given the sustained priority to tackling the problem that it deserves. We had some sense of the issue in the exchange between the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee and the Home Secretary earlier in this debate, but to our continuing amazement Ministers have not fully implemented tactics that have been proven to work dramatically to reduce the problem. I shall come back to that issue in detail.
The effective policing of knife crime is about intelligence-led stop and search. Many people on estates where the problem is most serious know exactly who the menace is, but they are afraid to say. Visible and approachable policing is essential, not just for reassurance—as I said, many young people carry knives because they are afraid, not because they intend to use them—but for intelligence gathering. Metal detecting arches and wands used by police have helped to tackle knife crime, with outstanding success in areas such as Newham in east London, where I have seen them in operation.
However, one of the most effective means of reducing knife crime has not been rolled out nationally—in part, I suspect, because it needs co-operation between the Department of Health and the Home Office. I am referring to the so-called Cardiff model, which was created six years ago by Professor Jonathan Shepherd, a surgeon in Cardiff. The aim of the model is to improve police effectiveness and reduce emergency department admissions for violent crime-related injuries.
The accident and emergency department collects anonymous data on the precise location and time of the violent incident when patients first attend. Those data are shared by the hospital trust with the crime and disorder reduction partnership. The partnership then produces maps of violent crime, including knife crime, for its area, allowing the police to track violent crime trends and allocate resources to violent crime hot spots accordingly. That proven technique has cut hospital admissions for violence-related attendances by 40 per cent. in Cardiff. That information is from a peer-reviewed study: it is good, hard, solid evidence. In Cardiff’s Home Office family of 15 similar cities, it went from mid-table in 2002 to safest city in May 2007. In a recent study for the think-tank Reform, Cardiff was 51st out of 55 towns and cities with a population of more than 100,000 in terms of incidences of robbery or assault.
In other words, the experiment clearly worked. It began in 2002, and the Department of Health commissioned a paper from Professor Shepherd in 2004. It was updated again, explicitly for the then Health Secretary, who is now Home Secretary, in October 2007. However, a parliamentary question that I tabled both to the Home Office and to the Department of Health in November 2008 revealed that information on hospitals running such a scheme was not centrally collected. I am pleased that the Home Secretary has provided some evidence of progress in rolling out the scheme, but when will all hospitals be applying it and co-operating with their local police services? When, indeed, will all hospitals in TKAP areas be co-operating? My office had to submit a freedom of information request to all English NHS trusts, which revealed that as of today, of 135 relevant trusts that answered my request, only 29 share data in this way—just over 21 per cent.
I am pleased that the Home Affairs Committee has picked up on this point, which I made to it in evidence. At paragraph 39 of its conclusions, it says:
“We were disappointed to learn that this has not been fully implemented throughout England and Wales and recommend that this is done immediately. All agencies within partnerships should have an equal duty to share.”
This should not be a political issue: it is very straightforward. We know that the scheme leads to dramatic falls in cutting knife crime—it is an easy hit—but it has one major snag: it involves two Government Departments working together on a matter of overwhelming priority for the public, and I am afraid that until now they have signally failed to do so.
Will the hon. Gentleman place on record, for the sake of my successor as Health Secretary, that he is saying that we should insist from the centre that every local acute trust must adopt this system? I say that because I have spent the past two years being lectured by Liberal Democrat Front Benchers about the need to devolve power to the front line and not to engage in central direction.
That is an absolutely splendid smokescreen from the former Secretary of State for Health, not least because he knows very well that the only elected person in charge of the national health service is the Secretary of State for Health. I am convinced that if the NHS had accountability to elected people on the lines proposed by the Liberal Democrats the change would have been far more dramatic. People want knife crime to be tackled, and they do not want a load of excuses from one part of Government about not delivering on an objective set by another part of Government.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the evidence that he gave to the Select Committee and the useful comments that he made about Cardiff. I agree with him. Of course it is important that local areas should make decisions on their own, but where, as in this respect, there is a clear-cut case for the sharing of information because it will help other agencies to ensure that knife crime is reduced, it is important that the Government accept that recommendation and implement it.
Absolutely. We have had so many examples, over so many years, of this extraordinary Gosplan centralism applied to the NHS and to many other public services, in theory delivering the same standard of service across the country but completely failing to do so because the levers are not connected. Perhaps the former Health Secretary would like to come back to the Dispatch Box to explain why it has taken so long for the Department of Health to deliver on this overwhelming public objective, which, after all, came as an initiative from within the Department—from a surgeon who was fed up with fixing the faces of young people who were damaged by knife crime.
Why has it taken so long? The Government launched the tackling knives action programme in June 2008, part of which was to implement data sharing between hospitals and the police. In none of the nine TKAP areas were all A and E departments sharing data in that way, and in three areas—Essex, Lancashire and Nottinghamshire—no A and E departments shared data. Perhaps the Home Secretary would like to tell us why even the areas that were running the scheme did not apply it. There is such an obvious case for the scheme—for public health reasons and the objective that we all share of tackling knife crime.
Will the Home Secretary also tell us why the TKAP programme, despite its success, ran for less than a year before being incorporated into the Home Office’s violent crime unit? Surely any solution to knife crime must be a long-term commitment, not a flash in the pan and a headline-grabbing gimmick.
Further evidence, if it were needed, that the Government have not taken knife crime seriously in the past is the failure to collect the relevant statistics. The British crime survey started collecting data from under-16s—a significant group, as victims and perpetrators of knife crime—only since January. Police-recorded crime figures included data specifically on knife crime only from July 2008, even though statistics for hospital admissions show that the problem has been escalating for several years.
The Government have consistently failed, on almost every count, to take opportunities to tackle head on the problem of rising knife crime. Meanwhile, the public debate about tackling knife crime between the Government and the official Opposition still revolves around tougher punishment. We had confirmation of that today. The Conservatives believe that the current system lets people off too lightly and that anyone convicted of possessing a knife should expect a custodial sentence. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) confirmed that in his speech—it was not in the motion. The right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) has said:
“If you are carrying a knife and you are caught, you should expect to go to prison. Plain, simple, clear.”
However, the official Opposition have obviously not done their sums. Based on the annual cost of imprisoning somebody, the number of extra prison places that would be needed and the estimated number of new prisoners as a result of the policy, we calculate that they are looking at a cost of £4.9 billion a year. The policy, from a party that has pledged to cut all sorts of taxes in a recession—corporation tax, inheritance tax, VAT, national insurance temporarily, stamp duty—would be the equivalent of adding a penny on the basic rate of income tax. If the official Opposition would not pay for it through a tax rise, will the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell tell us how they would fund it? He is not attempting to rise to provide some explanation.
Putting the policy’s questionable arithmetic aside, it also ignores the evidence that tougher penalties are far less effective as a deterrent than catching more criminals. A Home Office-commissioned study on sentence severity, which leading criminologists conducted, concluded that there is
“no firm evidence regarding the extent to which raising severities of punishment would enhance deterrence of crime”.
We already lock up more people per head of the population than any other EU country except Luxembourg.
Knife crime is perpetrated primarily by young men, yet the reoffending rate for a young man serving a first custodial sentence is 92 per cent.
I am sure that everyone is getting a sense of déjà vu at such exchanges, but the hon. Gentleman clearly knows that young men serving their first sentence are almost invariably given a short sentence and released less than halfway through it. That is why the reoffending rate is so high. If they were given a meaningful term, they would be much less likely to reoffend.
The hon. Gentleman assumes that if something does not work, it will begin to work if there is twice as much of it. A much more common-sense approach is to assume that, if a short sentence given to a young man leads to a 92 per cent. reoffending rate, it would be better to try alternatives, particularly since short sentences are given for relatively trivial offences. There was one thing that I entirely agreed with in the speech by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell, which was his point about the need to head young people off—young men in particular—and stop them getting involved in a life of crime.
I am following the hon. Gentleman’s argument about reoffending, but in one way the situation is even worse. The figures vary from age to age, but the statistics show that somewhere between 70 and 90 per cent. of young people on release reoffend, which means that they reoffend up to 4.5 times on average in one year. However, he will realise that, because only about one in seven crimes is detected, that figure probably means that a young man on release will have reoffended up to 30 times in one year, so we are talking about reoffending not just once, but many times.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point, which emphasises the need to try alternatives to short custodial sentences—alternatives that do not involve educating young men in skills that we do not want them to acquire, and at an extremely high cost to the taxpayer. That is why I find so unsatisfactory the knee-jerk reaction of those on the Labour and Conservative Benches whenever there is a problem—“Lock them up for longer and throw away the key,” which flies in the face of the evidence of what works.
More than 25 years ago, I was a career civil servant in the prison department in the Home Office, working on criminal justice policy. Twenty-five years ago, when sentences were longer, the reconviction rates were the same. All things being equal, young people are much more likely to reoffend if they are given a custodial sentence. The experts have known that for a quarter of a century. When are we as politicians going to move away from the knee-jerk reactions of the tabloid press and deal with what works?
I very much agree with the hon. Lady and congratulate her on her excellent sound effects earlier in the debate. I certainly agree that criminalising a generation of young people who have become involved in knife crime, rather than addressing the reason why they become involved—exclusion from school, fear, peer pressure, gang membership, social deprivation and poverty or family breakdown, to name but a few—does the young people of this country a great disservice.
What we need, in addition to more effective stop and search and the wider implementation of the Cardiff model, is an end to the blanket criminalisation of young people. Of course those convicted of serious and violent crimes need to be dealt with proportionately, but we need to stop young people turning to crime in the first place and help those who stray into it to get back on the right track. Preventive programmes, such as a youth volunteer force, should be created to give kids something to do and to provide skills for later life. There should be more youth facilities to stop the devil making work for idle hands. There should also be more dedicated youth workers in safer neighbourhood teams and an effort by schools not only to identify kids at risk of being sucked into gangs at a young age, but to contact and enrol their parents in the fight to stop that happening.
For those who are beginning to commit low-level offences, acceptable behaviour contracts and positive behaviour orders should be used, which, unlike antisocial behaviour orders and curfews, require offenders to take responsibility for making amends for their actions without criminalising them unnecessarily. Custodial sentences are of course necessary for serious and serial criminals, but they should be the last resort, not the first.
That is a major point of difference between us and the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell, who talked about the presumption of a custodial sentence for carrying a knife. It is already possible to send someone to jail for four years for carrying a knife, but we cannot punish anyone unless we catch them first. What is needed to tackle knife crime is a lot less posturing about punishments and a lot more catching criminals by using the obvious tools that we have to hand. Labour cannot change its policies and the Conservatives have barely scratched the surface of what needs to be done.
I am interested in the hon. Gentleman’s comment that so little is being done. Presumably he is aware of Operation Blunt Two in London. In the past year, more than 2 million people have been stopped, 10,000 arrests have been made—a rate of one every 51 minutes—and 25,500 knives have been seized. There has been a 30 per cent. fall in serious stabbings, and 90 per cent. of those caught in possession of a knife have been charged. Is that a good performance?
I began my speech, as I hope the hon. Lady recognises, by citing the fact that there has been a fall in knife crime and that the problem is being tackled. I find it distressing, however, that some of the easiest hits on getting knife crime down are being missed, particularly the application of the Cardiff model. We know that that model has reduced the number of people being admitted to hospital with knife wounds by 40 per cent. in the areas in which it has been applied. That is potentially a very dramatic gain, and we ought to be making it a serious, top-rate public priority to ensure that it happens. I do not get a sense of urgency, either today from the new Home Secretary or from his Department and its officials; nor is there an acknowledgement that this is an easy hit that could provide real action very quickly.
We will support the Opposition motion today because its emphasis is right, but we believe that the Liberal Democrats are the only party that is able to take a targeted and effective approach to knife crime that will really work.
I will certainly bear that in mind, Mr. Deputy Speaker, although I know that your request was not directed only at me. My speeches can be quite brief on occasions of this kind.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne). He and the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) gave evidence to the Select Committee and they can take credit for the recommendations that we made in respect of knife crime. I also want to reiterate my welcome to the Home Secretary. If every debate on Home Affairs issues is as consensual as this one, they will be extremely boring for the public, who expect them to be extremely robust. We will take this one as an exception, however. I perceive in this debate a willingness on the part of all the political parties to work together to ensure that we rise above party politics to find a long-term solution to the problem of knife crime that is affecting this country.
The motion tabled by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell is one that I can gladly vote for. I know that the Government have tabled an amendment to it, but I hope that when the Minister winds up the debate, he will tell us that the Government will not vote against the Conservative motion. It would be good to send a message to the public that on some issues—not all, by any means—we can be united in our hope to deal with a major problem.
I also want to place on record my appreciation of the work of the previous Home Secretary. It is in the nature of democratic politics that we do not get to say goodbye before people go, even though the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell tried to say goodbye to my right hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith) the last time she was here—
In my view, my right hon. Friend was a first-class Home Secretary, certainly as far as the Select Committee was concerned. Whenever we asked her to give evidence to us, she readily did so. She was always available to provide us with information, and I hope that the new Home Secretary will take the same position. I know that the Select Committee is seeking an early meeting with him; we have given him some dates to consider.
I also want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), formerly a Minister of State at the Home Office. He has now left the Department and gone to one with which, as a former schoolteacher, he has a kinship. He is the son of policeman, so obviously having the job of policing Minister was good for him, but he has now gone off to be the Minister with responsibility for children and schools. I wish him well. He, too, was very willing to work with the Select Committee.
I welcome the Minister of State, Home Department, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), to his new position. I have known him for many years in the House and I wish him well. He has a tough job. He will find the Select Committee very robust with him. He has just left the Ministry of Justice with the Sonnex case ringing in his ears. As I say, he can expect us to be very strong with him over ensuring that there is a proper joined-up criminal justice system. As someone who has come from the Ministry of Justice, he will understand the need to ensure that it is seamless. I do not blame him for what happened in the Sonnex case, although until last week he was the Minister responsible for probation. We hope that he will keep a close eye on what is happening in the Home Office.
All Members were right to mention the massive concern among the public and in the media about knife crime. We tend to react to high-profile cases, which is why the Select Committee felt it important to ensure that we did not produce our report too quickly; we wanted to bring together all the stakeholders, including the Opposition parties, the voluntary sector, the Government, the NHS and so forth—so that together we could try to fashion a number of recommendations that would be readily accepted by all political parties.
I did not intervene when the Home Secretary was presenting statistics, but I do not absolutely share his rosy view that knife crime has disappeared. There are, of course, trends showing that knife crime has reduced, but the headline figures are still very worrying indeed. Knife homicides increased by 26.9 per cent. between 2005 and 2007, and there were a total of 270 knife murders in 2007-08—the highest since the homicide index was invented in 1977. Knives were used in 6 per cent. of the British crime survey’s violent incidents in 2007 and in approximately 138,000 robberies, woundings or assaults.
Although there was a bit of banter about the hospital statistics, the fact is that the number of patients admitted to hospitals after stab wounds rose by 48 per cent. The total number of admissions to A and E—5,239—may seem relatively small, but the percentage increase causes us a great deal of worry. That is why the Select Committee fully accepted the Liberal Democrat viewpoint when the hon. Member for Eastleigh gave evidence: it is no good Manchester producing those figures and Leicester not producing them; they should be readily available to all the agencies that seek to deal with this important matter. Whether or not that amounts to central control, or central diktat, we need those figures if we are to get a clear picture of what is happening.
It is, of course, the victims about whom we should be primarily concerned. If any criticism of the Select Committee report could be made—and I make it as its Chairman—it is probably that we did not spend enough time talking to the victims. It is in practical terms difficult to do, because there are so many of them, so we concentrated on those who had entered the public domain and the people who were prepared to come and talk to the Committee about their own personal experiences. It is important to highlight the necessity to provide as much information as possible to the victims during the processes of the criminal justice system. If we do that, we will be much stronger in dealing with the overall causes of knife crime.
What are the causes? I know that the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell was not overly taken by our description of an “arms race”. He pointed out that the vast majority of young people do not go around carrying knives; only a small proportion carry them, but the damage they do is profound. The Select Committee used the term “arms race” because we thought it an appropriate description of why young people decided to carry knives. A survey conducted by the OCJS—Offending, Crime and Justice Survey—showed that 85 per cent. of knife carriers in 2006 said that they carried their knives for protection. In other words, the only reason why they were carrying knives was that they felt that someone else was doing so, so they must protect themselves.
That means that there is a real problem with those who are supposed to protect young people: parents, the state—through the police—community services and, indeed, schools. We concluded that those four agencies were primarily responsible for ensuring that young people were protected, and that their failure, either individually or collectively, had led to an increase in the level of knife carrying. Someone who carries a knife and is in a situation of violence is likely to use that knife; that, in my view, is the reason for the problem of knife crime.
Is not another, perhaps longer-term, problem the fact that such people are growing up with the sense that they are on their own and must fend for themselves in society? The first time they need practical help from others in the community—people in authority, people who may be older than they are—they often find that it is not there, which conveys a very bad message to them. They tell themselves, “I’m going to have to take care of myself.”
The hon. Lady is absolutely right about the problems that young people encounter when they are on their own and feel isolated. They feel that they have to carry knives because that is the only way in which they can protect themselves.
Let us think about those four agencies. Parents must ask their children where they are going and what they are doing. I think it was the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies), a member of the Select Committee, who raised the issue of parental responsibility. Parents do have that responsibility. My children are aged 14 and 12. I ask them—not as often as I should—where they are and what they are doing, and I ask them to keep in touch with me if they are going out with friends. That is something that all parents need to do.
As our report states, the Committee found that the majority of knives carried by young people—34 per cent.—were kitchen knives from the family home. We do not expect parents to go around counting the kitchen knives every time their kids go out, but an awareness that the knives may well come from the home should be enough to get them thinking. The report also contains a paragraph on the importance of parents’ awareness of what video games their children are watching. I know that I have raised this issue in the House on a number of occasions. We feared that violent DVDs and video games contributed to the problem to some extent, because those who were predisposed to violence would be affected by very violent video games.
As for the police and other agencies, we believed that the initiatives on which the Government had embarked were important. As we have heard from both the present and the previous Home Secretary, a huge amount of money is involved. We did not feel that the “tackling knife crime” initiative had been around for long enough for us to say definitively whether it had been a success, and I welcome what the Home Secretary has said about the need for a review after a year. I am glad that he is getting all the stakeholders together. We would like to be very much a part of that—or we would like the Home Secretary to be very much a part of what the Select Committee is proposing to do. However, we consider it important for the various initiatives not to be duplicated. We feel that they should follow each other carefully and not be taken in isolation, because otherwise the problem will arise of spending money without knowing precisely what it is being spent on.
Let me now say something about schools. I am glad that we have been joined by the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell). I believe it was his idea that one of his constituents, Mrs. Ann Oakes-Odger, should give evidence to the Select Committee. She produced some very interesting evidence about work that she had done with Essex police. A short film was made by another organisation, the UNCUT project in Leeds. These are examples of local good practice that should be followed in other parts of the country. We felt that there needed to be early intervention. This has to be done at primary school level; it is too late by the time children go to secondary school. That is why we felt that all year 7 schoolchildren should be asked to participate in an assembly or lesson dealing with the issue of knife crime.
We received some very impressive evidence of what the police are doing, especially in Scotland. We have to give young people alternatives to violence, and some of the schemes we heard about led to a reduction in knife crime. We were particularly taken by a scheme in Glasgow. As well as being the agency that tries to discover whether young people are carrying knives, the police are the best agency to prevent knife crime. We shall want to return to this issue, because the prevention of knife crime is the most important aspect of any discussion of the wider subject.
May I put on record the fact that Mrs. Ann Oakes-Odger, whom the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, is dedicated to tackling the curse of knife crime because her son was killed by people wielding knives? She is now devoting her life to ensuring that others do not experience what she had to experience.
I am happy to agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I wish to express my gratitude to him for ensuring that Mrs. Ann Oakes-Odger gave evidence to the Committee. It is terrible experiences such as hers and that of the widow of Philip Lawrence that drive people to come forward, because there is nothing they can do to bring their loved ones back but they can put up ideas and fashion thoughts as to how we can proceed. We are very grateful for all the work done by the hon. Members for Monmouth and for Colchester, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) and the other Committee members.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. His Committee’s report is a very good and important document, and the subject of gangs is one of the most important areas it covers. Does he think that the Committee should return to this area in greater depth, because some of the statistics we have heard in the debate suggest that the growth in knife-related incidents in the last three or four years is a direct result of the increase in gang activity?
We certainly will return to this subject. We received evidence from young people—some as young as seven—who were a part of gangs and who said they were being used as caddies to carry knives for older children. The nature of gang culture makes it possible that knife crime will increase even further.
It has been a pleasure to serve, with colleagues from both sides of the House, on the Select Committee. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as we recognised in our deliberations, there is a danger of demonising all gangs, and that gangs per se do not lead to an increase in knife crime? Instead, what happens is entirely dependent on the activities of the gang, and on whether a knife has become almost a fashion icon, before moving on to become something much more insidious and dangerous.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I pay tribute to him because the Committee was initially keen to produce a quick study and report on knife crime following a recent spate of knife attacks in London, but he said that the report needed to be much longer and more in-depth, and should examine a wide variety of issues.
What my hon. Friend says about gang-related violence is right. We are not here to demonise gangs. I am sure that the Scouts would not want to regard themselves as a gang. You may well have been a scout, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was not one, but I know that the hon. Member for Colchester was. The Scouts gave evidence to the Committee, telling us that it is important to provide purposeful activities for young men—and, in the context of the Girl Guides, for young girls—to undertake.
In conclusion, the top few things that I would like the Government to do—the new Minister may announce all this at the Dispatch Box in his reply; who knows?—are as follows: ensure better data sharing about knife violence at a local level; implement the Select Committee’s domestic violence recommendations from 2008; ban violent video games and DVDs in young offender institutions; and provide early intervention. Those are just four of the points that the Committee made in its detailed report.
I would also like better activities to be provided for young people to ensure that they are engaged in constructive, rather than destructive, activities. The Committee looks forward to the Government’s response; we know that we published our report only last week, but I am sure that the Minister will respond within the due time. We will continue this conversation with the Government and we want to continue it with the Opposition too, because only by working together can we have a set of policies to which all stakeholders will be able to sign up. Let us keep the party politics out of this and ensure that the House of Commons is united in dealing with this terrible form of crime.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) on the way in which he introduced this motion from the Front Bench in a very thoughtful speech. I also thought that the Home Secretary’s first foray from the Dispatch Box in his new role was very thoughtful. He is clearly concerned and interested, and he listens to arguments. I look forward to his period as Home Secretary, although I hope it is not as long as perhaps he hopes it will be.
I also congratulate the Select Committee on Home Affairs, whose report I read with interest. I should say how much I agreed when the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) said, at the end of his contribution, words to the effect that the House should try to unite on some of these difficult issues and put its best constructive views.
I have spoken about crime and knife crime for what seems like many hours in this Chamber over the past few years. I have spoken in Committee for what seems like many days or many weeks on the same subject; I well remember the Violent Crime Reduction Bill being discussed, day after day, in Committee in 2005, and knife crime featured heavily in our debates. I managed to obtain figures showing that at that time some 60,000 children in our country admitted to carrying a knife, for either defensive or offensive purposes—a truly horrifying statistic.
I have also spoken in this Chamber about the very real fear that I have seen on the faces of witnesses in court who are forced to relive a moment of terror when a knife was waved at them; it is a truly horrifying experience. All through these years I have wondered what we can do to reduce this awful crime, which puts so much fear into so many people and which blights so many of our inner-city areas. I was, therefore, pleased to see that the motion talks about tackling the problem and about solutions.
May I be forgiven for putting forward some of my own solutions to the House for a few minutes? They apply not only to knife crime, but to crime in general and to young people in particular—mostly it is young men who carry knives. I shall start with a statistic and ask whether we are getting value for money.
Let us assume that we put a young man away in Feltham remand centre for carrying a knife. The average cost of a place in a young offenders institution is £32,800 a year—a lot of money.
Yes, and of course my hon. Friend may say that while the young man is in custody, he is not committing crimes outside. I much look forward to hearing his speech on that point. I merely point out that Government figures show that £32,800 is the average cost. Yet we know that when the young man comes out, he will offend. There is a 70 to 80 per cent. chance of his reoffending four or five times officially, and perhaps 25 to 30 times in fact, in one year. My first question, therefore, is whether we are getting value for money from our young offender custodial estate, and my answer is no.
Let us go back to the time before that young man was put into the custodial estate. Who is he? Where is he from? What is the problem? I have come to the conclusion that there is a great link between crime and school exclusion, and between school exclusion and literacy. An important inspection report in 2004 told us that 83 per cent. of boys under 18 in custody had been excluded from school, and 50 per cent. had been excluded permanently. Why? It was because they had behaved badly. In my judgment—I believe that others share this view—there is a link with literacy. A young man may fall behind in class and begin to behave badly. He cannot keep up, and his behaviour gets worse. He begins to truant, perhaps partly because of the fear of being called stupid or because of embarrassment. He is behind, he is out of school and he has huge literacy problems.
Let us step forward a bit. I have done a trawl around a number of young offenders institutions in the past 12 months, and person after person who runs these places tells me that 80 per cent. of their youngsters aged 15 have the literacy and numeracy levels of an eight-year-old. That is not good news. Although it is not a rule right across the board, there is a link between that and the youngster who gets on badly at school and cannot keep up. He starts to behave badly, has very low literacy and numeracy levels, plays truant, gets excluded, gets permanently excluded, goes out and joins a gang, and does not want to go back to school because he is frightened and embarrassed. It starts off with literacy, which is a big problem.
When I look at our young offenders institutions, I ask, “Well, what are doing about it there? What is actually going on?” Are the youngsters in those institutions getting 20 hours a week of education? No, they are not. Government figures show that at Feltham, they get seven hours’ education a week. At Rochester, they get three and a half hours, and at Reading five hours. It is just not enough.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned Reading and touched on a particular cause of mine, which is the causal link between illiteracy and reoffending. Does he agree that our current reoffending rates are nothing short of a national disgrace? Some 70 per cent. of youngsters on a first-time custodial sentence in young offenders institutions will reoffend within two years. It is utterly ridiculous for the first period of internment to be short and without training.
The consensual atmosphere of this debate comes through again, and the hon. Gentleman makes a valid point.
What would I want to happen to that young man who entered a young offenders institution aged 15 or 16? First, I would make a thorough assessment of his literacy and numeracy abilities. An individual plan would be drawn up for him. If, as is probable, he had been statemented earlier in his life, the statement would form part of his papers on admission and would be acted on. I would also ensure, if possible, that he had proper literacy and numeracy education for 25 hours a week, and I would make that compulsory for under-16s in custody.
I am very depressed by Government statistics that tell me that in fact our young man would be locked up for 16 or 17 hours a day out of 24. What kind of a world is this? That means that he is out of his cell for seven hours a day, maximum. How much sport would he play in that time? Never mind pumping weights in the gym for a couple of hours—as has been pointed out, that just makes them stronger and fitter and able to run away faster. Where the devil do team sports come into the picture? I am old-fashioned—I cannot help it—and I believe in team sports. They create self-discipline and teach people to win or lose and to take a knock. I have seen young men playing rugby at Feltham and it has been like a breath of fresh air to see how it improves their characters. Team sport is very good for them, as is pursuing the Duke of Edinburgh awards, but hardly any of that happens in our young offenders institutions. Team sport is a terrific thing to do for a young person and their self-esteem and confidence.
The hon. Gentleman makes some interesting points. In north-east Lincolnshire, some excellent work is being done with young men, in getting them to play football, and with young women, getting them into street dancing. This is being done before they offend. Does he agree that such work should be extended across the country so that we can get people to work co-operatively and make use of their energies before they are ever arrested?
The hon. Lady makes a good point and I support what she says.
Now I come to a revolutionary idea. I do not think that it is mine—I would be very surprised if it were—and I must have heard it somewhere. In any event, I have written about it and published work on it. I think that sending a young person into custody for anything less than eight months is a total waste of time. I have spoken to many judges about this, and my view is that there is no point in putting a young man into a young offenders institution for anything less than 12 months. If he is in there for only five, six or seven weeks, he lies low, joins a gang, does not do much, comes out and goes straight back where he came from. If the offence is not serious enough to merit 12 months in custody, it should be dealt with in the community. Only in a period of nine to 12 months can we really do some good and turn that young person around.
I am pleasantly surprised to say that I agree with every word that the hon. Gentleman says, given our previous exchanges in a debate on drugs and alcohol when we did not agree on everything. Does he agree that if we adopted the policy that short sentences should be served in the community, it would relieve some of the pressure on prisons and we could have more training and education in them? In the last Parliament, the Education and Skills Committee’s report on prison education found that all the good intentions in adult and young offender institutions were being destroyed because there were not enough prison officers to take people from cells to training areas, and there were so few hours available it was meaningless.
Another way of saying that is that if young offenders institutions are going to do real good—there is no point in having one if they are not going to do good—they should do good not just for three or four weeks but all the way through a proper-length sentence.
What about the last three months of the sentence? First, where is the emphasis on resettlement? We should have resettlement wings in all our young offenders institutions into which people who are about to leave them should move. The emphasis should be on preparing them and the outside for when they come out. These wings should get the family, the housing and the job ready and should deal with resettlement. There is just not enough emphasis on resettlement.
I commend the intensive fostering programme, which takes place in Hampshire, I think. Families take young offenders on remand as an alternative to custody. I would not mind seeing that extended to young offenders who leave custody. If they leave the custody estate and go back into exactly the same circumstances they were in—where the home and the scene are miserable, where there is no job and where there is no education—they have had it. It is as simple as that. There is not a cat in hell’s chance that they will stay straight. Where is the huge emphasis that we must have on proper resettlement so that people go back into education, get themselves into a job and, possibly, get themselves away from the communities in which they have lived so far?
Finally, where are the mentors? Gosh, we should have more mentors in life. I would love to see those in their last three months in a custodial estate for young people being given a permanent mentor who came to see them once a week, tried to help them get a job, filled out their CV and went to interviews with them. We have to make our young offenders institutions places that give a real chance to young people to reform themselves and in every respect to come out better than when they went in. We want them to come out with many more chances than when they went in—chances in education, jobs and hope. Only if we focus on those areas, in my judgment, will we ultimately reduce the incidence of crime among young people and, in particular, the incidence of knife crime.
I appreciate the tone in which the debate has been conducted. It has been very consensual, and that is a refreshing change from some of the partisan debates about crime that we have had in the past, and in which there has been too much point scoring.
My speech today will not be long. I will focus, in particular, on one recent case, which was briefly mentioned by the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, and that is the death this week of Claire Wilson in Grimsby. On Sunday afternoon, 21-year-old Claire was walking to work at the Pizza Hut in the centre of Grimsby. She was just doing what people often do. Apparently, she was followed for a short while, and she was stabbed to death in what appears to have been a random attack. Claire lost her life, as did her unborn child—she was seven months pregnant and very excited about the prospect of becoming a mum. Her fiancé, Adam, was also excited.
That case is one of the saddest that I have had to deal with in my years as an MP. It is so, so senseless and shows the sheer horribleness of knife crime. A young woman has lost her life, and the life of her unborn child could not be saved. Her family, friends and neighbours are devastated. The nature of this crime has affected the entire communities of Grimsby and Cleethorpes. A 53-year-old man has been arrested.
Knife crime is not confined to young people. Gang culture and the attempt to stop the arms race among young people are very serious issues, but the case that I have cited shows that knife crime is not committed only by the young.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I merely wanted to say that another horrific case happened in my constituency in Luton a year or two back when John Henry, a policeman, was killed. However, from what my hon. Friend has said, it seems that the person involved in the case to which she has referred was not involved in youth gang culture. Instead, he may have been seriously mentally disordered, because—
Yes, it has happened before.
My constituents are understandably very shocked and saddened by this crime. As I was about to say, it horrifically echoes another case that happened in a nearby constituency. Tina Stevenson was murdered in Hull some four years ago as she walked home from antenatal classes, and my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) mentioned a similar case in his constituency. When we are dealing with knife crime, we have to look beyond young people and take account of the danger posed by other people using knives on our streets.
People in my community are in a state of shock, and they need to be reassured that the criminal justice system will not let Claire and her family down. Because of this crime, the mood in Grimsby and Cleethorpes is that residents feel that their towns have become lawless. They also feel that they cannot go out: the randomness of the attack means that everyone is more fearful of becoming a victim of crime. That has wiped out a lot of the good work that the police have done in tackling volume crime and antisocial behaviour. Sadly, it has wound the clock back on people’s fear of crime, which is often out of kilter with the likelihood of their becoming a victim.
I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) is the Minister of State who is here listening to the debate, as he is familiar with the justice system. There is certainly a mood among people at the moment that sentences for knife crimes are far too low. I realise that progress has been made, but people certainly feel that knife crimes are not taken seriously enough.
I want to talk now about a couple of other things, namely the gang culture and young men. I intervened on the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) earlier because it is right to say that far too many of the young men who get sucked into gang culture or who end up in young offender institutions and subsequently prison have atrociously poor literacy and numeracy skills. Because persistent young offenders tend to be given lots of short sentences, we never seem to address their lack of those skills as well as we should.
I know that people want to do more in that regard, but too often it appears that the problem is not addressed and the result is that people coming out of young offender institutions cannot get jobs. The economic climate is not good for anyone, but least of all for people with very poor literacy and numeracy skills. If we are to tackle knife crime at all levels, we must tackle the educational attainment of people in our criminal justice system, particularly young men.
In North East Lincolnshire some phenomenal work is being done by the police with vulnerable young people, such as fair play football, as they call it, for the boys. Points are awarded not just for scoring goals, but if, after a tackle, the players shake hands and make up. That does not sound much, but the sense of fair play, respect for others and working collectively in a team is important in trying to break cycles that have persisted for some time in many of our inner-city communities. The girls are not being ignored. They have been doing dance classes. The work is having a powerful effect on the young people in our area.
It is not just the police who are engaged in such work. One of the neighbourhood watches near where I live has been working with young people in one of the more deprived communities in Cleethorpes. With the young lads, they have been using sports such as football and many other activities to try to break the attraction of gang culture. The desire to belong, which is typical of many young men, makes them want to be part of a gang and leads to many territorial disputes.
The challenge is to make young people feel that they belong to the community in which they live. Some youngsters get the sense from adults that the young people are committing all the antisocial behaviour, so they almost feel rejected by their own community and are seen as bad lads, for example. Adults adopting an inclusive approach towards the young people in their community, which they probably have not always done in the past, is having a powerful effect on those young people.
If any Minister could come up and see examples of such work, I would very much appreciate it. Grimsby-Cleethorpes on the east coast of Britain is a bit of a hike to get to, but some powerful work is being undertaken by the police, neighbourhood watch and voluntary groups to do their best to tackle antisocial behaviour and deal with persistent young offenders.
That is why the loss of Claire in the murder earlier this week is doubly sad. People feel that all that good work has been wiped out and has not had an effect. The communities know that the work is happening, but there is a sense that the town has become lawless. If there is one comment that has been made to me over the past few days, it is, “What on earth has our town come to?” It is very sad that people have had to say that. I hope we get justice for Claire and her family, but our whole community has suffered.
I shall be brief, as I know that many other Members want to speak. I am a south-west London MP, and knife crime is an issue that we have felt acutely on our side of the river. Many of us recognise that the problem has been building up for years. Since 2005 it has become more prominent in the press, but that reflects the tip of an iceberg of general youth-on-youth crime. That is the aspect that I shall speak about. It has a much broader impact than we see in the newspapers, where only the unfortunate fatal cases are reported.
A couple of trends have led over recent years to the current situation. First, there is technology. Crime has moved out of the home and on to the street in the past 10 years, so there is now less and less point in breaking into somebody’s house to try to lug their plasma TV down the road unnoticed when they have a burglar alarm and all sorts of protection for their property; it is far more effective to steal somebody’s iPod, expensive mobile phone or all the portable kit and possessions that people have on them in the street. The people with those possessions are far more likely to be young, and now they end up on the front line of crime in a way that they simply did not 10 or 20 years ago.
Secondly, there is the rise of gangs and the longer-term, associated issues of family breakdown and housing overcrowding, which mean that our young people are out on the streets socialising with one another, when, 10 or 20 years ago, they might have returned to their homes and been up in a bedroom on their own or with a smaller group of friends. We see children socialising in larger groups more now than we ever did. Often, their parents are working, so they are not around to provide as much supervision as I am sure many of them would want to.
We have heard the underlying statistics that go beyond the fatal knife crime statistics that we read about in the papers and hear about in our constituencies from our constituents. The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) set out the statistics on A and E admissions for knife wounds, serious knife wounds and emergencies, and they are staggering. There was a large jump in 2005-06 and the numbers rose in the intervening couple of years, but they have now reached a plateau. Clearly, we are now dealing with an ongoing knife crime problem that will be very stubborn and difficult to reduce in the long term. Nevertheless, we need to do so. I take the point that the hon. Gentleman and other Members made about how we need better to understand and share data about knife possession—whether on knife wounds, from people who turn up at A and E or in schools and in youth provision, when different community stakeholders pick up information about the possession and prevalence of knives among our young people.
I challenge the Minister to refer in his response to the British Crime Survey, which still does not talk to people under 16-years-old. We have seen the rise in the number of younger victims of crime in Britain over the past few years, and the problem goes back to the fact that street crime is focused on young people so much more than it used to be.
I want to talk about a way through, however. A huge amount of work is going on not just in London but throughout Britain, and there are huge opportunities for young people, meaning that they do not necessarily have to go down the route of crime. It is worth saying that, overwhelmingly, most young people will not get involved in crime but will contribute huge amounts to their communities. On Friday night, I was at the Putney division of the Wandsworth sea cadets, who were having a great time and learning brilliant life skills. I can point to another project in my constituency, the Regenerate project on the Alton estate, which directly tackles youngsters who are more likely to get into crime and knife crime. That is an entirely different project, dealing with different youngsters, but again it is doing fantastic work.
There is a way through the problem, and it involves us all working together. We must agree that, in the short term, initiatives such as Operation Blunt Two in London, are absolutely critical to addressing today’s problem. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) talked about the fact that, in the medium term, we need to understand the individual issues that lead people down such paths. In my view, the problem is not caused just by learning difficulties, although that is a big part; much of the problem is caused by aspiration and what young people in some parts of our communities see as success and the route to success. For too many, success in the area where they grow up means climbing the gang hierarchy and being seen to make progress on that route, rather than going into business or being successful in different walks of life. We must ensure that, for our children, wherever they grow up, there are many more visible pathways to success and its acknowledgment.
If there is one idea that we should consider as a community, not just in my constituency, but throughout London and throughout Britain, it is the idea of more volunteering by men. They can be role models for the younger male adults growing up in our communities. Perversely, 80 per cent. of volunteers in Britain are women, but never has there been more need for more men to come forward—whether for the Scouts or for charities such as Regenerate in Roehampton. Male volunteers can give young men, in particular, the benefit of their experience and a sense that one can achieve many more positive outcomes in life by contributing positively in our society and as part of our community than one can by simply climbing the gang hierarchy and leading a parallel life to that which so many other people lead. If we as a House work together and continue to debate these issues constructively, we will achieve something that will be extremely valuable not just to our children growing up today, but, I hope, to their children in the future.
I am very glad to be able to take part in this important debate, and I congratulate the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), on the excellent report that he has helped to bring to gestation. I am sure that it will fashion and inform our debate for a long time to come.
It is important in such a debate first to stress that the majority of our young people are not caught up in knife crime, gun crime or gang culture. It is easy to get carried away and criminalise young people as a class, inner-city young people as a class and, even, young people of a certain skin shade as a class. I might shock the House to say that one might walk through Hackney and see a group of gangling boys lurking under their hoods and think that they are plotting murder and mayhem, but they might just as well be on their way to play basketball. They will be quite pleased that people are frightened of them, but they will be trotting behind their mother to church on a Sunday. The media encourage us to jump to conclusions about young people, but we should not, so I want to put it on record that, although we have our issues in Hackney, the majority of our young people are not in that criminal sub-culture.
I do not know of many young inner-city men who when shopping up the west end have not been descended on by store detectives, or who have not walked down a street and had women clutch their bags closer to their bodies because they have just assumed that such men are criminals. We have to beware of criminalising our young people in that way. None the less, as a Member for an inner-city area and as a parent, I know that knife crime and the related issues of guns and gangs are very frightening to parents and communities, not least because one can say goodbye to one’s child as they go off in the morning to school, college or their first job, and by the evening receive a phone call saying that they have been caught up in an incident—sometimes quite innocently. That is a frightening thing for parents in an inner-city area to live with, because when the gun, gang and knife cultures erupt, they often touch and harm young people who are simply going about their business.
I want to talk about the long-term issues of knife crime, the medium-term things that we as the Government and society can do, and the short-term response that we need from the criminal justice system. Where does the young man, swaggering around an estate with a knife up his sleeve, thinking that he can demand respect with the point of a blade or a gun, come from? I do not believe that he is the result of listening to music or watching video games. I do not believe that the culture produces criminal behaviour; I believe that the criminal sub-culture produces the music and the games.
Where do such young men come from? They come from families, many thousands of them on estates that I represent in Hackney, where young boys are growing up not just in female-headed households—I would be the last person to say that a single parent cannot be a good parent—but in households where they have never seen men getting up and going out to work, and meeting their responsibilities as men; nor have their friends seen that. When they go to school, most of their teachers are women. As they grow up, their notion of manhood is a vacuum. I was fortunate; my family are working-class Jamaicans, but every day that God sent, my father went out to work, and on a Friday he brought home his wage packet. That was my notion, and my brother’s notion, of what being a man was all about.
There are too many young children on estates in Hackney who do not have a notion of manhood. They do not see people—men or women—going out to work and meeting their responsibilities. As they grow up, their minds are filled with a notion of manhood that is informed partly by popular culture, yes, but partly also by the guys they see on the street with the big cars and the gold chains. They do not know that those guys will have a very short “working” life. They do not know about the downside. All that they see is the swagger, the big car, the gold chains, and the notion that that guy is the one whom all the girls are after. Into those boys’ imagination comes a notion of manhood that I do not recognise, that people in the House do not recognise, and that my father would not have recognised. That is the notion of manhood to which those boys aspire.
That is right. The notion of role models is often misused. It is not a question of pulling in people from outside a community and saying, “Look, you can be him.” Young people should be able to see people who are recognisably like them, and recognisably part of their lives—people who are leading the sort of lives that, a few generations ago, inner-city communities took for granted.
As I say, the process starts in the home. When the children I am talking about go to school, increasingly teachers are finding that some of them have not been spoken to. That is a curious thing. When I was growing up in the working-class West Indian community, the one thing that a person could never complain about is people not talking to them; people talked to us the whole time. However, in some of the communities that I am talking about the mothers are watching television or listening to their iPods. When such children attend school for the first time, valuable time is lost just socialising them—teaching them how to use a knife and fork, and how to work co-operatively. That is at the heart of some of the educational failure that we see further down the line.
I believe that the long-term origins of the social dislocation that leads to gangs, guns and knives is in the home. That dislocation starts with young women who, although they may love their children, do not know how to parent them. Their idea of parenting them is having them dressed up in designer clothes from top to toe. When my son was at primary school, he was constantly complaining that the other little children had a lot of expensive designer stuff. Their mothers were on benefit; I was a Member of Parliament. He could not understand why he could not be in designer clothes, but that was the limit of those girls’ notion of parenthood.
In the summer holidays, when I took my bus pass—I am not a driver—and took my son to reading schemes in the library, or youth projects in museums, or whatever a person could take a little child to on a bus, I would often find that I was the only ethnic minority parent there. It is not that other minority parents in Hackney do not care for their children, but their notions of being a parent are limited. They perhaps come from cultures where the child would have been brought up collectively by aunties and grannies. Instead, they are isolated on some estate, and the aunties and grannies are not within reach. The parents are thrown back on to their own knowledge, which is limited.
I take the view, I am afraid, that my Government’s emphasis on putting single-parent mothers out to work is wrong. Some of those single-parent mothers need first to be taught to be decent parents. Once they have been taught to be decent parents who are at home when their children come home from school, it will be time to talk about sending them out to work to stack shelves.
I have set out some of the issues relating to home life that I believe form some of the rootless, valueless young men who grow up to be involved in gangs and knives. The answer to those problems is long-term; there is no question about that. We have to look at our policies on work, and look at how we support parents. We have to look at how we work with the Churches. I admit that I am not a regular church-goer myself, but often the only bastion of order, values and boundaries in inner-city areas is the Church.
I have set out the sort of home life that some of the young men in question have. Having said that, I can show hon. Members families in Hackney in which one young man will tread the straight and narrow and be a credit to his family, and another will be in gangs. For three years I have run an awards programme for top-achieving black children in London. I remember that in the first year we gave an award to a young boy from Somalia who had been brought up on the Chalk Hill estate, one of the toughest estates in Brent. He had been to state schools, but on leaving state school he was able to go to the university of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and graduated with a first. His brother was a gang member. Having said what I said about home conditions, individuals are individuals, and we should always account for that. I have mentioned family dislocation. We are talking about cultures where, generations ago, children had been brought up by an extended family network, but people now find themselves isolated on estates without that support.
I want to move on to some of the medium-term issues, and I want particularly to focus on education. I was struck by something that a past director general of the Prison Service said: on the day that we permanently exclude a boy from school, we might as well give him a date and time to turn up in prison. I am not saying that educational failure is an excuse for criminality. I am saying that the statistics show a clear link between educational failure and exclusion on the one hand, and criminality on the other. It stands to reason that a boy who is in class studying for his AS-levels is not wandering up and down estates in Hackney doing what he should not be doing.
I have paid a lot of attention to and spent a lot of time on issues of educational failure, and I believe that we have to focus on particular communities in a laser-like way. The danger with some of our education programmes in the inner city is that it is children from the more motivated families—often quite middle-class families—who get on the “gifted and talented” schemes. Quite gifted, intelligent, talented boys get pulled in another direction. Let us remember, some of the boys in gangs may do dreadful things, but they have tremendous qualities of leadership and tremendous skills, and often have tremendous ability. The problem is that we are not intervening early enough to direct that energy and charisma and those leadership skills in the right direction.
For more than a decade I have organised a conference on education; it is called “London Schools and the Black Child”. Every year, I get 1,500 black parents and teachers to talk about the issues facing our children. Hon. Members should never believe that inner-city parents are not concerned about their children; they are concerned. There is more that we can do to tap that concern and encourage them to understand that the school system is on their side.
As I have said, I also run an award scheme, and the House would be amazed to see the children from some of the toughest estates in London—black children from state schools—who get 10 As at GCSE, and four As at A-level, and who study medicine and go to Russell group universities. As I said right at the beginning of my contribution, knife crime and gangs are a terrible problem, but we should never forget how many of our young people—young black and Asian people—even in the inner cities achieve extraordinary things in the face of adverse circumstances.
I believe that education is key, but this is a home affairs debate. However, I could say more about the need for a teaching work force in London who look like London; the need to recruit more black teachers; the need for more male teachers at primary school level; and the need to target different groups quite specifically, which I mentioned. It is no good talking about ethnic minority children. The needs and the results of a Chinese child who lives above a takeaway, a third-generation West Indian child, a first-generation African child, and a middle-class east African child are very different. Those children perform very differently academically, so I believe in targeted intervention and education.
Finally, I want to talk about the criminal justice response to issues of knife crime. Some Members have mentioned the importance of longer sentences, but what deters the young people involved is the certainty of being caught. The focus on sentencing is a problem as we try to fight against the gangs, guns and knives. It makes the public feel good—“Put them inside and throw away the key. Give them 10 or 20 years.” However, the point is not the length of the sentence, but the certainty of being caught.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way, and I agree with what she has said. The all-party group on child and youth crime, of which I am a member, is looking into knife crime at the moment. When we spoke to young people, they said to us that it did not matter what sentence they got if they were caught. They felt that they had to carry a knife because they felt safer. The fact that they were then more likely to be the victim of knife crime was irrelevant; they felt safe carrying a knife. Whether the sentence was one year or 20 years made no difference to them. The issue was all about whether or not they felt safe.
I agree entirely with that intervention.
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 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
I welcome the Home Secretary to his new position—I am sorry that he is not here to hear that—and the consensual approach that he took to the Opposition motion by tabling an addendum to it rather than trying to amend it or strike it out. That emphasises the need to come together to look for common solutions to a problem that affects so many of our communities throughout the country.
I also welcome the new Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), to his post. He and I have debated similar issues previously, albeit in the TV or radio studios. I therefore look forward to robust and detailed debate across the Dispatch Box so that we can ascertain where there is common ground and where there is difference between us.
I also send my best wishes to the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker). I will miss our exchanges. Despite our differences, he always showed passion and genuine personal commitment to the important matters that we are considering. I wish him well in his new post in the Department for Children, Schools and Families.
The scourge of knife crime has touched too many families and communities across the country. In 2007-08, some 270 people were stabbed to death with a sharp or pointed instrument. As we have heard, that is the highest total since records on homicide started to be collected in 1977. It is important to note that the proportion of homicides in which a knife is used has risen to more than a third of all homicides. The Home Affairs Committee’s report made that point.
Sir Igor Judge, the president of the High Court Queen’s bench, made a clear and powerful statement on the current disturbing situation last year when he noted:
“Offences of this kind have recently escalated. They are reaching epidemic proportions. Every knife or weapon carried on the street represents a danger and, therefore, in the public interest, this crime must be confronted and stopped.”
The costs are not simply social and personal. The youth organisation, Kids Count, estimates that knife crime costs the state approximately £1.25 billion a year. I commend Kids Count for its work in giving young people a voice and for its awards, which recognise inspiration, good practice and good organisations that do tremendous work at the coal face.
When one talks to people who have been directly affected by the appalling incidents, one is humbled by the strength of character and resolve of so many of those who have lost loved ones. Their determination to ensure that some good should come out of the appalling tragedies that they have suffered and that long-term change should be achieved to prevent more lives from being cut short is powerful. We all have a duty in this House to make good on those families’ expectations, for the benefit of society as a whole and the next generation in particular.
This has been a well-informed, wide-ranging and interesting debate. The tone of this debate and the manner in which it has been conducted reflects well on this House, which has come in for a lot of criticism for the way in which we debate such issues. However, today’s debate highlights the House at its best. Now that he is in his place again, I commend the Home Secretary for his initial comments and for the constructive way in which he has sought to engage with the debate and set out some of his initial thoughts on how he will approach the issues.
It will be interesting for Conservative Members to see how the Home Secretary’s thoughts develop and, in particular, how he intends to take forward programmes such as the youth crime action plan. How will it be delivered and what responsibilities will it be given? At the moment, various different agencies, organisations and Departments are involved in the project, but if it is to have an effect, its implementation will need to be pushed hard. We will look closely at how that works, how developments such as the safer schools partnerships, which we think are valuable and important ideas, are pursued and how the Home Secretary deals with some of the points that have rightly been raised about the sharing of data and information to ensure that more informed, effective and targeted approaches are taken to deal with the offences being committed.
I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) and his Committee for producing an extremely good report, which provides a framework for this afternoon’s deliberations. He raised a number of extremely important points about the need for long-term solutions. Some short-term wins may have been highlighted—the use of stop and search, Operation Blunt Two here in London and the work of the Mayor of London—but I am under no illusions. The problem appears to be persistent, and, although some short-term benefits may come from the enforcement strategy, we should not kid ourselves that the job is done. So many entrenched social issues lie behind the problem that we need strategies that deliver in the short, medium and long term. The Home Affairs Committee report does justice to that need—that aspiration, that requirement—if we are to achieve what our communities and our society need us to achieve in dealing with this intractable and difficult problem.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments. That is why it is important that the dialogue should continue and not be based just on a debate of this kind. The relationship that has been built up between the parties on the issue has to continue if we are to find a long-term solution to the problem. Knives will always be with us. So long as they remain in the kitchen and people need them to eat their meals, they will always be there. We need to keep the dialogue going.
The right hon. Gentleman is right that we need an informed debate. He will remember the debate on knife crime in this Chamber 12 months ago, in which we both took part. He said then that he felt that the debate was consensual, that there was common ground and that there were issues on which we had agreement across the House. We need to focus on those areas where we can seek agreement. At the same time, however, there will be differences. We will not shrink from being critical or from highlighting failures or those areas where the approaches taken are not effective. It will be important to have a constructive dialogue and debate about such matters.
The right hon. Gentleman raised in his report the important point about how we need an informed and considered approach to the issues and about how, sadly, the knives out on the streets largely come from the kitchen. The previous focus was on knife amnesties—he will remember the almost annual pictures of the knives handed in to police stations—but they had the wrong emphasis, because the knives largely came from the kitchen drawer, as his report rightly highlighted. Indeed, that was also the feedback that we received from the police.
We also need to focus on some of the implications of violent video games and DVDs and the factors that might lead somebody down the path of committing violent crime. That will become more challenging. One issue that I am focused on is the move from traditional media to the internet and what that may mean for the ability to regulate and give parents the right signposting about the material and information being used. That issue will become more complicated.
The insights into the criminal justice system and the role of young offender institutions that my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) shared with us were very important. I am struck by the fact that some perverse incentives exist for local authorities, whereby it is almost cheaper for them to have someone in a youth offender institution than it is for them to make some of the interventions or do some of the practical work in the community that might stop a young person ending up in that situation. We need to focus clearly on that.
I do not think that anyone in the Chamber can have failed to be moved by the comments that the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) made about the appalling case of Claire Wilson, the 21-year-old mother-to-be who was stabbed to death, and about the impact that it has had on the community in the hon. Lady’s constituency. I am sure that everyone in the House would wish to pass on their best wishes and respects to Miss Wilson’s friends and family and to all those who have been directly affected by that appalling incident.
Equally, the hon. Lady highlighted the fact that we must not lose sight of the good community work being done across the country. I pay tribute to those working in her constituency and to those, as we have heard, working in constituencies across the country. Sporting activity can be used as a way of engaging young people, not simply by giving them something positive to do, but by being a catalyst to leverage in positive things such as education, self-respect and self-esteem, which can make a long-lasting difference.
My hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening) has had a long-standing interest in combating gangs and the postcode approach. Young people are being robbed on the street because of their possessions. She also made an important point about how the British crime survey has only belatedly taken the under-16s into account.
The hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) made a powerful contribution about how we should not treat young people as an amorphous group. I had a discussion with about 200 young people that was organised by the YMCA. One young person posed this question to me: “If you saw a group of older people out on the street, would you describe them as a gang?” That young person was trying to articulate the fact that people are grouped too readily. We should look at young people as individuals and try to see the challenges and issues that they face, rather than trying to say that all young people are bad or writing people off. The points that the hon. Lady made were very powerful.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) that we need a measured debate. Knife crime is not something that we should see as being confined simply to inner-city areas; rather, it is more wide ranging. I have read the Centre for Social Justice report in detail and have met colleagues as well.
We are talking mainly about gangs and knife crime this afternoon, but in my constituency—the quiet backwater of East Devon—we had a terrible incident in Sidmouth involving somebody with a samurai sword. There followed a big campaign against samurai swords, although I thought that it did not go far enough in addressing the culture of knife crime. Will my hon. Friend take into account the fact that the problem affects individuals in more remote locations, as well as urban and inner-city gangs?
My hon. Friend makes his point well, and I am sure that we will all reflect on how the issue touches so many different communities.
Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) gave his insight, as a special constable, into knife crime and the use of stop and search. We have proposed some amendments to stop-and-search powers to give greater discretion to community sergeants at the heart of safety neighbourhood teams. We need to focus on that issue to develop it further.
This has been a good, constructive debate. We look forward to continuing to engage with the Government on the issue, but as I have said, we will hold them to account if they fall short on the aspirations of our communities.
I thank hon. Members for the constructive way in which this debate has been approached. This is my first debate in my new position as a Home Office Minister, just as it is my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary’s first debate in his new role. I suspect that not all our debates will adopt the same tone, but this one has been very constructive.
I should like to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) for the positive way in which he kicked off the debate, and for tabling the motion before us today. He made the important point—which was echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott)—that many young people are not, and will not be, involved in crime but lead good, decent lives. For those who have become involved in criminal activity, there is often a reason for their doing so. Part of our job as Ministers is to tackle those underlying reasons, as well as their consequences.
I thank the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) for his welcome, and for his gracious tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), who served in my post for some years and did a sterling job, working with the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell), to focus everyone across government on the issue of knife crime and other important areas.
We have had an interesting debate today on some extremely complex and disturbing issues. If we could solve them easily, the Government and the Opposition would undoubtedly do so. The hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening) made an important contribution on culture and role models. The hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) talked about enforcement, early intervention and the role of custody, and about supporting alternative activities and family support. We heard a characteristically thoughtful speech from the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) about the use of custody and the need for intervention and education. He talked about partnership working, parenting, school failure and sentencing policy. He also touched on social justice and other related issues.
These are all important issues that we are seeking to address, and we are committed to doing that through the youth crime action plan and the tackling knife crime action programme. I recognise the Conservatives’ and Liberal Democrats’ commitment to these issues, but I hope that the House will make no mistake: the Government are committed to trying to find workable, practical solutions to reducing knife crime and to tackling its underlying causes. These matters were also raised by the hon. Members for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb), for Monmouth, for Putney and for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne), and by my hon. Friends the Members for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) and for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington. I shall come to the important report produced by the Select Committee chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) in a moment.
I apologise to the House for not being here for the whole of the debate; I have been on a Committee. Many people say that a knife amnesty would make a contribution to reducing a knife crime, although it would not be the only answer. Would my right hon. Friend consider that option?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s contribution, and pay tribute to his service in the Government as well. Knife amnesties have played an important part, and they are one of the tools that we can use to raise awareness of the need to tackle knife crime and to provide opportunities for some of the very dangerous weapons that can be found in households to be presented to an appropriate authority for disposal. When I was a Northern Ireland Minister several years ago, we had knife amnesties and took some very difficult weapons into proper police care. The same can apply elsewhere. That is an important strategy, and we need to consider it.
The issues raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East and the report that his Committee has produced have made extremely useful contributions to the debate. Obviously, he will not expect the Government to respond to the report tonight. We will have to consider it in detail. In his speech, he mentioned culture, enforcement, family, violent video games and the use of custody. Those are important issues, not just for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and the Home Office but for the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the National Assembly for Wales in relation to education, and for the Ministry of Justice in regard to the responsibilities of the Youth Justice Board.
I hope that the House will make no mistake: the Government are committed to tackling these issues in a detailed and effective way, especially in the light of the tragic case of this week’s knife crime incident involving Claire Wilson, which was brought to our attention by my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes. That case, and the meetings that I have had with victims of knife crime, bring home the real and tragic impact of such events.
We need to focus on the issues that have been mentioned in the debate, as does the report produced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East and his Committee. We have put in place the youth crime action plan, which has been given an additional £100 million of new money to tackle some of these long-term issues in the community. We are also focusing on the knife crime action plan, and on prevention, intervention, enforcement and education. Given what the Government have tried to do through those programmes over the past couple of years, I hope that the House will share our aspiration to tackle these problems effectively.
The knife crime action plan initially put £7 million into 13 areas—that has now been extended to 16 areas—to have a serious impact on high levels of knife crime and to tackle the issues that we have discussed today. The plan includes the use of stop and search and of search wands to detect illicitly carried knives. It also involves extra policing positively to deal with these issues. This is about partnership. The plan also involves raising awareness, and encouraging schools to undertake wider education programmes. Only this morning, I visited Croydon, where I looked at a reparation scheme, visited a local school and met local community support and police officers who are undertaking alternative activities such as evening football clubs. They are trying to provide alternative activities to divert young people from falling into crime.
We now have 5,300 safer school police patrols, and extra money is going into family intervention. Money is also going into Friday and Saturday night activities under the knife crime schemes and the youth crime action plan. Thanks to work done by my predecessor and other colleagues, £3 million is going into advertising campaigns, because it has been found that showing young people the consequences of knife crime has given rise to a greater awareness among 73 per cent. of 11 to 16-year-olds.
Through the sterling work of the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth, we now have great support from retailers who are signing up to not selling knives to under-18s, and we are working on online knife crime activity and looking at schemes such as the knife amnesties that my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East just mentioned. There have been 200,000 stop and searches in one year, which discovered 3,500 knives and gave an element of enforcement at the same time.
I take the point made by the hon. Member for Eastleigh that we need to improve our data sharing. We strongly support the Cardiff model; Jonathan Shepherd came to the knife crime action steering group earlier this year. Already, 45 hospitals in the tackling knife crime action plan areas are sharing data—twice as many as only a year ago. We are also putting hundreds of thousands of pounds into the Department of Health and the Home Office to train NHS staff and the police to share data.
The hon. Member for Woking mentioned literacy and numeracy. We have talked about these vital subjects on many occasions. Education, training, sport and purposeful activity in custody provide the route to preventing reoffending. There is agreement that short-term sentences are not the most productive use of custody for individuals in our community, and we are now working on the intensive fostering projects that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and on the use of alternative community penalties. Later this year, a new reparation order will come on stream through the Ministry of Justice, providing another step before custody needs to be considered. There is general agreement among Members—with the honourable exception of the hon. Member for Monmouth, with whom we often disagree on these matters—that alternatives to custody are important. We need to look at partnership working, and to work with not only the police but youth offender teams, local councils and the voluntary sector—as mentioned by the hon. Member for Putney—when dealing with these issues. We also need to look at sentencing.
Under this Labour Government, more people are being caught, more people are being sentenced, and more people are receiving longer sentences. We have seen the doubling of the maximum sentence for the possession of knives and an increase in the minimum age for buying a knife from 16 to 18. People are now 55 per cent. more likely to go to prison for these offences than they were last year. The number of offences resulting in immediate custody has gone up by 23 per cent., and the average immediate custodial sentence has risen from 133 days to 184 days during that period. The outcomes mean that we have secured a 22 per cent. fall in knife-crime hospital admissions for teenagers. We have a culture of change, and we have had fewer deaths so far this year than last year. Those are all objectives that the House shares.
I commend the Government’s work and I thank the Opposition for their constructive approach. I give a commitment on behalf of this ministerial team that we will continue to press hard with our Education and Justice colleagues to ensure that we drive down the incidence of knife crime and, ultimately, the deaths resulting from it.
Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this House believes that teenage knife crime and the increased incidence of carrying knives in many communities is one of the most critical social and law and order issues facing the country; welcomes the contribution made by the Home Affairs Select Committee in its Seventh Report, Session 2008-09, on Knife Crime, published 5 on 2 June 2009; commends the work done by voluntary sector organisations like the Damilola Taylor Trust to tackle the problem; and expresses the belief that the solution to knife crime will only come from cross-community co-operation to address its root causes; further recognises that tougher penalties are being implemented against those who commit knife crimes, including a rise in the proportion of those caught carrying knives getting custodial sentences; supports the expectation to prosecute for knife possession and doubling of the maximum sentence for carrying a knife in public from two to four years; recognises that the Government has backed tough police enforcement action in the Tackling Knives Action Programme areas, including increased use of stop and search, noting that there were nearly 200,000 stop and searches, resulting in the recovery of over 3,500 knives, between June 2008 and March 2009; welcomes the additional investment going to providing targeted youth activity, including on Friday and Saturday nights; and welcomes recent provisional NHS figures showing a reduction in hospital admissions of teenagers following assaults by sharp objects.