[Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Government’s response to organised crime and young people’s safety.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans.
Nine young lives have been lost to violent crime in West Ham since 2017. Nine teenagers and young adults, with their whole life ahead of them, needlessly and tragically stolen from us. Nine lost children, who are mourned by their families every single day. Although there has been relative calm in West Ham this summer compared with last, the reason for this spike in violence still haunts our communities and our streets. County lines, as we know, is organised crime. It is adults grooming our children—mostly our young boys—and sending them off to deliver and sell drugs all over the country.
These people have created a cruelly efficient business model to distribute and sell drugs, using our children as expendable, cheap labour to enable large profits. It is a cycle of grooming. It is a cycle of abuse. It is a cycle of exploitation that has become an industry. The children live a terrifying existence, witnessing depravity and violence almost day to day. It is a modern-day version of sending children up chimneys. They are disposable children, making big profits for the criminals who control and exploit them.
I know that the Minister knows this. I have had several conversations with the Government about these issues over the past year. I am sure the Minister will tell me that losing 21,000 police officers, and the fact that the Metropolitan Police Service has lost more funding per person than any other force in the country, has nothing whatever to do with it. However, as I understand it, we have completely failed to identify, arrest, charge or prosecute those at the top of these organisations—those who are making a small fortune pimping our children as drug mules and reaping a good living from the destruction of our children’s lives.
The police are doing their best. I hope the County Lines Co-ordination Centre that opened this week will help. In the past year, there have been almost 100 arrests in Newham of those young drug dealers who laughingly call themselves “elders”. I know they do not consider themselves to be on the bottom rung of the gang hierarchy, but they are not the people who are in control of the organisation.
I, and the people I represent, want to know that we are making more headway in our fight against organised crime, that we are going to get those further up the food chain and that those who are controlling organisations, controlling children and reaping substantial economic benefits are going to be caught. I am happy to take a confidential briefing from the Minister on this, because I am not interested in party political points, but I want reassurance that those responsible for the creation and running of this sickening business are in our collective sights and will soon be serving very hefty prison sentences. I hold them accountable for the deaths in my community, the premature and heartless deaths of many of our young children, regardless of who finally pulled that trigger or wielded that knife.
This is my first ask. I want to know that we are putting money into locating, charging and throwing the book at those responsible at the very top of these organisations. I want assurances that we are closing in on them and that they will soon be languishing at Her Majesty’s pleasure, all assets seized.
My second ask is about providing our children with resilience against the grooming techniques of these criminals and their minions. Many of us talk about the value of youth clubs and supported play opportunities, using sport to divert children from crime. It is not that we believe that the provision of a table-tennis table per se will divert a child from the wrong path; it is the professional adult who accompanies the table tennis table, who our children can relate to and confide in, who can offer insights and strategies for dealing with the groomers and the gangs and help our children to navigate the minefield that is their lives.
Children need to know how to say no. They need to be given the skills and tools to resist the manipulation of the groomers. That takes resources; the Home Office cannot provide all the resources on its own, but crime prevention and victim support funding have a vital role to play in filling those gaps in the short term. We also need to develop a joined-up, strategic safeguarding response to the criminal exploitation of young people, with schools, social services, community groups and detached youth workers all playing their part. Teachers, parents, police officers and social workers need to understand the real threat of exploitation and grooming by organised criminals and what is in their power to do to stop it.
The hon. Lady is making some excellent points. Is she aware of the work of Scotland’s violence reduction units, which take a multi-agency approach to young people who were offending and at are risk of offending, to divert them into more productive activities, and the success that has come from that, seen in the reduction in youth offending in Scotland?
I thank the hon. Lady for that. I certainly think the only way forward is a multi-agency approach. I hesitate to say that the co-ordinating role should be placed at local government’s door, given the swingeing cuts that it is absorbing, but there is already a legal wellbeing framework that this work could fall under. The Home Office has a responsibility to demand such strategies from local government and strategic partners, to ensure that they are in place and that there are resources to provide for them. That is my second ask: a strategy and the necessary investment in services that provide resilience for children. I humbly suggest that professional youth and play workers are essential to that activity.
My third ask is about training for those in the field, who may not understand the full malignancy of the beast we are dealing with and how it cleverly manipulates our stretched services and staff to keep a child within its clutches. My constituent—I will call her Deepa—was increasingly concerned about her son. He had fallen in with a bad crowd at school, although she did not know it, but she knew he was slipping away from her. His best friend had been excluded from school for drug-related activities, but she did not know.
Alarm bells should have started ringing at the school when Deepa told them that her son was starting to spend more time away from home without any explanation, simply going missing, sometimes for days at a time. He had clothes and a phone that she had not provided and that he had no resources to pay for. He was yet another child being groomed and drawn into criminal activity, vulnerable to violence; I am sorry to say that, two years on, that is still the case.
Deepa raised her concerns at school, but the groomers are very clever. They know how to manipulate the system. Her son told the school that parenting was the problem, that she was too strict; he hinted at abuse, and that was it. Not only could Deepa not get any information or help from the school or social services once the allegations had been made, but she was put under investigation. His absences were placed at her door. They were her fault. It is clear that the social workers and the school involved simply did not understand the nature of the crime or the criminals they were dealing with.
Deepa and her son have also, sadly, been let down by a charity paid for by public funds to provide mentoring for her boy, to do intensive work with him to help him exit the gang. He was up for it. Things had happened that terrified him, boys he knew were dead or injured, but this charity was only paid for three sessions and he needed more. Things escalated. He needed help. He phoned them, wanting to talk to his mentors, absolutely desperate, but they did not respond. They had done their three sessions and they had no more money to do others. Deepa wanted to pay for sessions herself, but she could not; they were way too expensive. Her window to exit her boy from a gang is likely to be closed because the services that she needed did not have access to funding.
How much more expensive will putting that child into custody—that is where it is going—and reccurring offending be over the years to come? The Minister must know that it is a false economy. It will be another life wasted. My third ask is for effective, up-to-date training for professionals who come face to face with the strategies that criminals employ, and to provide those professionals with the resources that they need to fund effective treatments and techniques to remove our children from the clutches of these criminal gangs.
As the Minister knows, in order to catch these criminals we need information. Those with the information in the midst or at the edge of the gangs live in absolute fear, convinced that we—the state—cannot or will not protect them. Our children have no trust whatsoever in the systems that we have created, so they do not engage. If we are to get the information that we need, we will need to find new ways for our children and our communities to report to us. Frankly, as the Minister probably knows, Crimestoppers is simply not trusted.
My young constituents absolutely believe that calls to Crimestoppers are traced by the police, and that callers are attacked for being snitches as a result. There is no doubt in their minds that Crimestoppers is not safe, and that the police will arrive at their doorstep should they phone it. It does not matter if that is real or not—that is what they believe. My fourth ask is for a trusted third-party reporting system that will pass information on with absolutely all identifiable details removed. Callers have to know that they cannot and will not be called or visited by officers, and that they will not be targeted as a result of providing us with information.
Information is not only about initial reports. We also need more people to feel safe when acting as witnesses. My fifth ask is for better protection and care for witnesses. Darren is one of those affected. His house was attacked by armed gang members because of rumours about snitching, and his neighbour’s door was shot through three times. It is a wonder that no one was hurt. Three months later, Darren still had nowhere to move, was afraid to leave his home, and was under the constant threat of another attack.
Maybe Darren was helping the police, or maybe it was just a vicious rumour, but the effect of the failure to protect and move him is the same. Stories like Darren’s are known in my community, and they erode trust. Constituents who have information—children who want to break out of their exploitative relationship with a gang—are afraid to do so, because that is what will happen to them.
As the Minister knows, witnesses are amazingly brave in coming forward, and they deserve our greatest respect, our protection and our help to give them a new, fresh start. However, far too many get the exact opposite. That is what happened to Ashley, who is 16, and his dad, Nathan. Ashley did an amazingly brave thing: he gave evidence against a criminal gang member in a murder trial. He has personally experienced serious violence and has been threatened with death many times because he provided the police with information and stood up and testified in court.
The continuing danger to Ashley’s life is clear, so he and his father were given new identities and were relocated. It is reassuring that this basic protection was offered, but I am sorry to say that it was not followed through. Ashley and Nathan have been badly let down. Before his son gave evidence, Nathan had a regular job and a regular tenancy in a housing association home, which they had to leave. It was a stable life of contribution to the community. However, in the months after the trial, their situation became the stuff of nightmares.
Nathan had to leave his job behind, along with his name. He is now unemployed. He was left without any income because he and Ashley were not given the documentation—simple things such as photo IDs—with their new names, leaving him unable to claim the benefits that he is entitled to and that he and Ashley need to support them through this awful, stressful time. Nathan has been repeatedly forced to reveal their situation to jobcentre counter staff to try to get help. Every single time he does so brings the clear possibility of their being exposed, as well as fear and anxiety that the information could lead to his son’s life being in danger once more.
I will get to the end of the story. Nathan has now accrued more than £4,000 of rent arrears through absolutely no fault of his own. The system did not work. It happened because he was stuck for months between landlords, agencies and a local authority—not Newham—that would not talk to other agencies, and because he was given appalling and incorrect advice. The housing association allocated him a new property, but it was not nearly fit for human habitation: it had no heating, no furniture and no cooker; on the other hand, it did contain asbestos. All the while, Nathan and Ashley were penniless, stressed and awfully anxious because Nathan still could not access his benefits.
It came to a head last year. At Christmas they had no money for food, let alone gifts, and no secure home. Nathan was on the brink of returning home to his family in the area that he and Ashley had fled. It would have put their lives at risk of revenge violence, but at least they would have had some food and comfort and some of the basic support, understanding and respect that they had had so little of.
I am sorry to have interrupted my hon. Friend’s flow; I thought she had finished that story. She makes an incredibly important point. Does she agree that the Minister needs to respond fully to these points, particularly in the light of the Government’s policy now to use more children as covert human intelligence sources? The Minister needs to say something about that and to answer my hon. Friend’s points in full detail.
I absolutely agree. The system lets down young witnesses like Ashley and their families. It fails them at almost every turn, it puts them at risk and it erodes trust. That trust is necessary for us to get the information that we need, let alone anything else. Hearing these stories makes people in my community less likely to engage with the authorities when they have information that could help us. That has to change.
My fifth ask is for public bodies to have a duty of care placed on them to work together to understand and support families such as Ashley and Nathan’s, because without their help and co-operation, we will not get the information that we need to put an end to the blight of county lines exploitation. We need a national dedicated system of caseworkers trained to act as a single point of contact, working with statutory services; a named representative for those under threat because they have helped us, the police and the courts. They are trying to do the right thing. Nathan, Ashley and others like them deserve a genuine path to a secure future after the brave decisions that they have made.
Much of the violence is fuelled by social media, so my sixth ask is for stronger action against incitement online, whatever form it takes. In recent months, local people have been especially angry about one particular drill music video filmed in my constituency. It is effectively a celebration of gang murder. The rapper brags about killing with knives and guns and attacking people in broad daylight, and gloats about having killed one man by name and planning to kill his brother. He mocks other young men for just talking about murder and not acting. All of this was filmed by masked men in streets that my constituents recognise, because they live there, because they walk and work there every day and because their children play there.
The murders this video is about may be fictitious, but by looking at the online comments we quickly see many young people who believe it is real. They explain the murder references to each other and openly admire the rapper and his group for the supposed killings. The original copy of the video had more than 1 million views—that staggers me. It was taken down, but other copies have since been uploaded, and one has already had more than 120,000 views. The technology to remove those copies automatically exists, as the Select Committee on Home Affairs has repeatedly pointed out. We need to understand why that is not being done.
The law may be unclear about whether such videos illegally incite violence, but I believe they are dangerous. They make the grooming of children easier by glamorising drug dealing and murder as a lucrative and exciting alternative to the hard and unrewarding work they see demonstrated in the lives of their parents. Presented as an alternative economic model, it is offered to children and made to look exciting. The videos do not just glamorise crime; they taunt and humiliate rivals. These are young, impulsive teenagers; there is so much pressure pushing them to respond, and the music itself tells them what response is expected: more knife attacks and more children dead. The Home Affairs Committee called for a wholesale review of the legislation on hate speech, harassment and extremism online to bring the law up to date. I think that that is sorely needed, and a better approach to online incitement should be one of the goals, so that is my sixth ask.
My seventh and final ask brings me back where I started—the nine deaths and the trauma caused in my community and how we can help the healing. After the appalling murder of Sami Sidhom in April, there was an immediate and powerful surge of mutual aid and support in his community of Forest Gate. As I have told the House before, his neighbours rushed to help him and gave him some comfort as he died. They were traumatised, but they received so little support. The trauma is not felt just by the families, friends, schoolmates and neighbours, although of course they suffer the worst. In Forest Gate, there was a palpable feeling that the community was in crisis after Sami died. There was a cumulative effect, though, as it was not just because of Sami but because of all the other young people who had died in the year before, especially CJ, who was just 14 and was shot in a playground in Forest Gate.
We need to provide support for whole communities who are traumatised in the way that I have described. The strong response that I saw in Forest Gate can help local people to cope, recover and heal. Community leaders have a really important role, but often they are volunteers; they give their time and energy freely, and it is simply unfair to expect them to take on all this without training, resources or professional support. I think that we need a professional response to assist communities with the trauma and mental health issues that arise after traumatic incidents, especially those involving young people.
Having spoken to people about what they feel would help, I would like to see the development of peripatetic regional mental health teams, consisting of people who can provide rapid, accessible support for communities after tragic events. My seventh ask is that the Minister works with the Department of Health and Social Care and find a way to make that happen. I would be happy to sit down and think about that some more with him or any other Minister in the Home Office team. I know that Marie Gabriel, soon to be a CBE and chair of the East London NHS Foundation Trust, is keen to support it as well. This is not just about crime; I am sure that all of us can think of other tragic events—some of them not physically very far away from this building—after which mobile teams like that would have been very helpful.
The deaths over the past year have caused so much trauma and pain in my constituency, and they have exposed our failures in this place over many years to prevent the rise of county lines grooming and exploitation, and to give young people the hope and opportunities that would make them safer. The problems cannot all be solved by the Home Office acting alone, but children are dying in my constituency, across London and across the country, and all of us have an enormous responsibility to act. I believe that the Minister could play a very positive role in ensuring that the cross-departmental connections and strategies that we need are created, implemented and sustained. I would support him in that, and I hope to hear that he is committed to making those things happen.
Finally, I place on the record my enormous gratitude to a group of women in West Ham whose children have tragically been caught up in the county lines operation. I have learned so much from those women over the past year. They have been so honest and so generous with their time. I hope that today I have done them proud and represented them properly.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) finished her speech by saying that she hoped that she had represented her constituents well, particularly the women to whom she was referring. Anyone listening to what she has just said and the way she has said it—with the obvious depth of feeling on her part—will absolutely think that she has done her constituents proud, but more than that, she has done the country proud by bringing this issue to the attention of Parliament and bringing the Minister to this Chamber to answer on what is a national crisis.
This is not a few people in one part of the country experiencing a particular local difficulty. I am pleased that this Minister is here, because he will know from all his experience in his other roles that it is a huge problem that requires Government and ministerial action all the time. What I want to say to the Minister is this. He is a Minister of the Crown, a representative of the Government. He will be speaking for the people in response to my hon. Friend, who spoke for her constituents but also the country, I think. We have to do better. We come here as parliamentarians, and here we are in this beautiful building, but just half a mile or a few hundred metres away, young people have been stabbed. Go to any of our constituencies and that will be the case. The report I read that caused me to come here today—I will refer to it in a minute—shows that every single area of the country, across the United Kingdom, is impacted by slavery, trafficking, county lines and organised crime, which are an enemy within. I know that the Minister will take this point. He has the power to demand action from the system, whether that is the police, local authorities, the devolved Administrations or, indeed, all of us: yes, write reports, and yes, discuss what we are going to do, but let us get on top of this.
Merseyside Police tell me that community intelligence from the ground is integral to fighting back on this, but we need to look at the cuts in the number of police officers—we have lost 1,000 police officers across Merseyside. Unless we tackle the problem of policing, we cannot solve this problem.
I agree. I am a Labour politician, and the cuts in policing and to local authorities have consequences, which we all refer to. The Minister has to accept responsibility for that, but however many police we have, however many things are going on and however many resources are put into local authorities, there has to be a Government drive to push them into tackling this issue as a major priority.
What caused me to attend the debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham was a National Crime Agency report published a few months ago. It talks about an intelligence gap—we do not know what we need to know. I asked a parliamentary question, and the Minister’s colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, said that the Government did not know. They thought there were many thousands of people involved, and there was an intelligence gap. That was just a few weeks ago. That report said nine or 10 months ago that there was an intelligence gap, and the parliamentary answer two or three weeks ago said that there was an intelligence gap. That is not good enough, and the system will not change unless the Minister gets civil servants and other people in, and demands that something be done. Otherwise, in the Minister’s constituency, my constituency and, indeed, all our constituencies, in Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England and in all the regions, these incidents will continue and we will have to come to this Chamber again in a few months saying how appalling it is that young people have died on our streets as a result of their involvement in organised crime and their involvement in county lines. We do not even have the data, yet we see on our streets what is happening.
My hon. Friend is speaking with great passion. He strongly made the point that this is a phenomenon that is affecting the whole country. I completely agree with him. A young man was dragged out of his car, stabbed to death and left to die in a garden only a hundred metres away from my home in Cardiff, just a few weeks ago. That comes on top of many other attacks. This problem is happening across the country and we simply do not—as he says—have the intelligence needed.
I quite agree. To be frank, that is what has driven me to come here. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham described eloquently many of the challenges and the impact that has had on her constituency. I want to feel, as a Member of Parliament—in this democracy of ours—that the system somehow feels the emotion that she portrayed. I hope that the Minister, as a human being, will also feel it.
Why does the system not respond? People have different ideas. The hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) has particular views on drugs policy. That requires discussion. What is the most effective way of gathering intelligence? Why is it—as my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham says—that in all our constituencies young people cannot even get a basketball, a football, a kit or somewhere to go and play? We cannot even do that. We talk about diversion, we write a report and the next thing we know there is a 200-page document on the importance of children’s services and local authority provision to ensure that young people are not attracted to crime, because there are people working with them on the street. Goodness me! We don’t need a—I nearly swore there, Mr Evans. I will leave it at that. We do not need a report, do we? We must be able to do better on data and all of these things.
The Minister has a good briefing from the civil service. He has a speech prepared, and he will try to answer the questions as best he can. However, I want to know when we are going to be able to see, in each of our areas, that concerted and co-ordinated effort, in youth provision, diversion and dealing with these organised criminals. That is the main point I wanted to make.
Let me say this to the Minister, too. The Modern Slavery Act 2015 contains a provision that means that if children become involved in criminality as a result of coercion—through being duped, violence, threats or those sorts of things—they are seen as victims, not criminals. Many of these young people are victims—they are not criminals. I am not saying that we cannot hold people to account. I am not saying that saying sorry for murder is fine—do not misunderstand me. I am saying that many of these young people, who are very young, are exploited, frightened and terrified into doing some of the things that they do. It is about time that the people who are terrified are the organised criminals who are exploiting these young people. People are trying to help and work with the police, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham said, and I am sick and tired of criminals taking it upon themselves to terrify a community. It is not good enough.
I appeal to the Minister, when he goes back to his office, to call everybody in and say, “We have had one of the most serious debates that I have attended in recent years”—organised by my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham—“and as a personal mission, I will ensure that instead of writing a report, the system gets on with doing something about this national crisis.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), who set out a fantastic action plan and spoke with great passion about the challenges faced by her constituents. The horror stories we hear, particularly from London, shame the whole country, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) just pointed out, represent a national crisis.
This is indeed a national crisis, happening in cities and towns up and down this country. This is a new phenomenon: we have not previously seen this level of violence and involvement of young people. That is borne out in the Government’s serious violence strategy, in the NCA report, in what we have heard from the Home Affairs Committee and in what I hear weekly from my own police officers and community workers. There has been a dramatic and very unfortunate shift in the levels of violence, grooming and involvement of young people over the last six years, while I have been the Member of Parliament for Cardiff South and Penarth. Sadly, many of us warned that that would happen because of the trends that we saw and because of the cuts that we knew were coming in the police and community services. I will come on to the point raised about youth services.
I too have a litany of horrendous cases just from the last few months. I will not say that each of them has the same characteristics. They are often complex cases, some of them ongoing. I mentioned earlier the case from just a few weeks ago in Grangetown, Cardiff, where an individual was dragged out of his car and stabbed in the street, and left in a garden to die. Just a few months ago, another constituent of mine, Fatah Warsame, was stabbed to death in Liverpool, having been involved in some sort of engagement between Liverpool and Cardiff, showing that this is an issue that crosses between cities—not only London, but other cities in the UK. Tragically, just a few months before that, in Adamsdown and Splott, Sean Kelly was stabbed to death, also in a drug-related incident involving other individuals. Those are three of the most serious cases, but there are many more to report.
Those cases sit with the national trends. The number of police-recorded crimes involving knives or sharp instruments increased by 22% in the year ending December 2017 compared with the previous year, continuing an upward trend since 2014. A lot of that increase is in the Met police area, but other areas are affected. Possession of an article with a blade or a point is up by 33%. Hospital data confirms that, with admissions related to stabbing and other incidents up by 7%. Trends involving firearms are also up. Those statistics are confirmed and acknowledged by the Government’s strategy.
This is not all to do with county lines, but that is a significant part of it. We need to be clear about what we mean by county lines. I had community workers come to me the other day and say, “What do you actually mean by county lines?” so I will read for the record the definition the Government use:
“County lines is a term used to describe gangs and organised criminal networks involved in exporting illegal drugs into one or more importing areas…using dedicated mobile phone lines or other form of ‘deal line’. They are likely to exploit children and vulnerable adults to move (and store) the drugs and money and they will often use coercion, intimidation, violence (including sexual violence) and weapons.”
That phenomenon of grooming young people and the involvement of young people unfortunately has many of the characteristics—I have seen this in my own constituency—that we see in the grooming of young people to be involved in terrorism, extremism and other forms of criminal behaviour. It is often the same tactics, the same methods, and the same insidious exploitation of often young and vulnerable people.
I have been told about a phenomenon that goes on in my local area called “blessings”, where people are given small items—a pair of trainers or a bit of money—but not asked to do anything initially; later, people who are higher up in the system come back to them and say, “I gave you a pair of trainers. How about you keep an eye on that corner for me?” or, “How about you transfer this package to someone?” It is a slippery slope. People get involved in more and more dangerous activity.
The Government’s own strategy suggests that the drugs and county lines phenomenon is very much behind the rise in violent crime. They say:
“There is good evidence that these dynamics are a factor in the recent rise in serious violence.”
The Government’s report—again, this bears out what I have seen on the streets of Cardiff—talks about dealing in new psychoactive substances, such as spice, the increased involvement of young people, the rise in crack use since 2014, the surge in illegal cocaine production and the increase in the purity of cocaine imported to the UK from places such as Colombia since 2013. The changing nature of drug markets has led to what we see in the geography—the nationalisation—of the problem.
The Government’s report states that one of the most striking findings about the rise in serious violence since 2014 is that it has not been limited to the main metropolitan areas. We are seeing drug-selling gangs from major urban areas such as London, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester, perhaps driven by excess supply, by technology or by new opportunities, spreading their evil networks out to other cities and towns across the UK. The NCA report is clear that the majority of police forces are identifying that the involvement of vulnerable children and people is one of the key hallmarks of county lines activity. The trend has arisen in just the past few years. The problem is very new and politicians, the Government and agencies are struggling to catch up with the shifting trends and changes. As the evidence shows, a crucial feature, again acknowledged by the Government, is that drug-selling gangs are now generally much more violent than the local dealers who had previously controlled the markets.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham spoke passionately about the importance of multi-agency working. There are no easy answers. We often have to have localised and carefully calibrated responses to deal with local circumstances, but I want to put on the record my praise for the group of agencies in Cardiff and the Vale, particularly in Cardiff in Butetown and Grangetown. I praise our police commissioner, our local police officers and our local council. I particularly praise Councillor Lynda Thorne, a cabinet member on Cardiff Council, and Councillor Saeed Ebrahim, one of our local councillors in Butetown. He is a former youth worker who worked with many of the young people involved. Those councillors are really trying to get to grips with the problem and bring together all the relevant agencies. I look forward to meeting them again in the next couple of weeks to discuss the progress they have made on the various strategies in different areas that they are putting forward.
I am proud that the performance of South Wales police in dealing with violence with injury and other issues is strong, but like many other police forces, it is struggling to cope. I have spoken to individual police officers and senior officers who tell me about the strains that they face in crime demand and non-crime demand. We all know about the pressures from mental health and missing persons. The Government can argue about this all they like, but the reality is that the number of police officers on our streets has come down substantially in the past few years, as has the number of community police officers, PCSOs and others. In individual areas, we have been able to keep the numbers up. We have PCSOs funded by the Welsh Government who are doing a fantastic job in our communities, but unless we have police officers on the ground who have relationships with young people, with other agencies and with the families, and who have that crucial local intelligence that my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling talked about, we will not be able to deal with the problem, which has been magnified by particular challenges in Cardiff.
We in Cardiff do not get the capital city funding that Edinburgh, Belfast and London get, yet we host major events We put huge strains on our police force when we host events such as the UEFA Champions League and the Anthony Joshua fight. Those wonderful things come to our city. We all love them. They are all great, but they have a knock-on effect on day-to-day policing. Although additional money is sometimes provided, we see a knock-on effect on our shift patterns and holiday time and so on, which has a direct result in the communities facing problems. I look forward to meeting the Police Minister shortly with our chief constable, Matt Jukes, and our police commissioner, Alun Michael, to discuss Cardiff’s specific needs.
Alongside the challenge for police funding is the challenge of other services facing cuts. We have done a great job of trying to protect services in Cardiff. We have a Welsh Labour council doing a fantastic job, but we need statutory youth services. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) has spoken out about this. We must have that resource going into community youth workers. My father was a youth worker and I have worked with young people. Unless we have youth workers outside schools, having relationships and knowing what is going on in the crucial communities, we know what will happen. We warned of this years ago, and unfortunately we are now seeing it on the streets of Butetown, Grangetown, Splott and other areas of Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan.
Lastly, I will re-emphasise what my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham said about social media companies. I have spoken a lot about such companies and their responsibilities this week in cases ranging from the Lucy McHugh case to terrorism and the abuse of public figures. The social media companies are simply not taking their responsibilities seriously when it comes to the dissemination and sharing of information online that leads to intimidation and grooming of young people. Young people have told me about the challenges of closed Instagram groups where music videos and threats to individuals are shared, and closed YouTube videos are shared, making threats back and forth. Language is used that perhaps we would not understand, but it is very clear to people of a certain age and disposition, and they see it as threatening or encouraging or dragging them in.
As a Government, as a Parliament, as local representatives, we must get a grip. Social media companies have a huge responsibility, and we need to provide the police with the training and resources to be able to treat the cyber world in the same way as the physical world, because there is a direct overlap. We heard yesterday in the Home Affairs Committee about a direct overlap between domestic violence, violence against women and girls and the cyber world and the physical world. Exactly the same thing goes on when it comes to young people, county lines and drug-related violence. We have to get a grip on this. I want to hear from the Minister what he is doing to bring in those social media companies and make sure they live up to their responsibilities. Again, I praise my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham for securing a debate on a national crisis. There should be more Members in the Chamber. I hope this will not be the last debate on this subject.
I congratulate the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) on securing this debate. Her constituents in West Ham should be very proud of her. She has done exceptionally well, so well done to her.
We have had a form of organised crime for many years in Northern Ireland in the form of proscribed organisations such as the UVF and IRA, with people fighting for their beliefs in a terrorist manner that was dangerous and harmful to communities and will take years to get over. Thankfully, we have moved away from the troubles, but, worryingly, we have moved towards the form of organised crime that is prevalent in the mainland, which the hon. Lady and others have referred to. We have young people joining organisations and being used as drug mules and pushers, doing the dirty work of those who will not get their hands dirty and who keep their names off police registers by abusing the trust and loyalty of young people. I see it at work in my community and it breaks my heart, as it does the hearts of the hon. Ladys and the others who have spoken.
Illicit tobacco seizures have prevented the loss of £1.25 million in revenue in Northern Ireland and £50,000 worth of cash has been seized. We had a seizure of £100,000 of illegal drugs in Newtownards on Monday. Local paramilitaries, as they call themselves—really, they are criminals—were involved in that activity. Detective Superintendent Singleton from the paramilitary crime taskforce said:
“When we look at these paramilitary organisations as organised crime groups we see a lot of similarities. The number one commodity for organised crime in Northern Ireland is drugs. 75% of our organised crime groups are involved in drugs either directly or indirectly. When I say directly I mean dealing them, when I say indirectly I mean extorting and taxing people that are involved in the drugs trade. Some of the Republican groups, like INLA or Action Against Drugs, we believe are actively involved in taxing drug dealers. If people don’t pay they are the victims of paramilitary-style attacks, if not murder or attempted murder. You also have the violence that’s associated with drugs as well as different organised crime groups who compete for their share of the market. That’s why we see the likes of paramilitary style attacks, attempted murder, and in some cases very serious violence within our communities.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the problem, in addition to what we have heard very powerfully throughout the debate, is that in some communities these activities are glamorised and young people’s eyes are not opened to the reality of what happens to them after they get involved? Do we not need to tackle that in a co-ordinated way?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is absolutely right. I was going to quickly touch on that.
I have seen too many broken mothers in my office who tell me the same story. Their child was given a freebie—a joint or a little tablet—and the next week they are told that they owe for it; either they can pay immediately or interest will be added. What was £10 can rocket to £50 in a matter of days. They are then given the option to work off their debt: just lift a packet from a drawer in this house and deliver it to that house; just collect a parcel from this person and leave it in this place. Before the young people know it, they are heavily embroiled in the crime gang. Their parents are worried sick and wondering how it has happened, often trying to pay extortionate sums to release their child from the chains, only to have to repeat it in six months’ time. It makes me sick to my stomach to know that crimes are being organised by certain people who use young people with no criminal convictions as their hands and feet, and when the PSNI catch up with them, those young people receive a sentence and those in charge walk away laughing.
Organised crime is not glamorous. It is not the stuff of “The Sopranos” or other TV shows. It is the mechanism whereby too many of our young people become hooked on drugs and involved in things they do not want to be involved in, but cannot escape. Some are lured with mottos such as “God and Ulster” and they are in too deep before they realise that it is nothing to do with God or Ulster, but is about lining the pockets of disgusting men who are too gutless to do their own business, but run an empire that targets children and vulnerable people and destroys our communities.
I met the local superintendent last week in my constituency office to discuss the issues. We can and must do more to share intelligence. For the mothers who come into my office pleading for help, for the young people who are too frightened even to make eye contact with me and who are stripped of their bravado and facing imprisonment, and for my community which is crying out for change, we in this place must do more to help our police, our community development officers and our schools to protect our children and to reach out.
I know that the Minister has no direct responsibility for Northern Ireland, but he will understand my frustration because we have no functioning Assembly, and these issues are as apparent in my constituency as they are in others. We have an epidemic of massive proportions, and the lives of many families are being destroyed. Some 98,301 crimes were recorded by the Police Service of Northern Ireland in 2017-18, which is a rise of 0.3% on the previous year. Crime is up, but the number of officers is down. We need better police co-operation, more funding for communities, and for schools and churches to do what they can within communities. As the hon. Member for West Ham said in her opening remarks, we must instil confidence in our young people that there are measures to protect them if they provide information. There are anonymous ways to provide the police with information that will get drugs and criminal gangs off our streets. We need to send a message, and it must be strong and effective and come from the highest level down in order to affect everyone.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) for securing this important debate. It is a shame that more Members are not in Westminster Hall to reflect the severity of this issue, but that should not detract from how important it is.
As my hon. Friend said earlier, local communities play a vital role in tackling violent crime through mental health support, the offer of opportunities, and work with authorities. Across the country, violent crime has risen by 16% while police numbers are at their lowest since records began. Our police and frontline emergency services do incredible work, but at times they are over-stretched and under-resourced. This is a national problem. Our Government can turn away from the truth as long as they like, but the stark reality is staring us in the face.
Over the past 12 months, there have been a number of violent incidents in Tooting and Earlsfield, including some tragic fatalities. Local residents come to my advice surgeries afraid for their children’s lives—afraid that county lines are robbing children of their lives and tearing families apart.
As an A&E doctor at St George’s Hospital, I have treated teenagers who were once full of bravado on the streets, but who lay there, dying in front of my eyes, with tattoos emblazoned “Born to die” on their chest—children who were crying out for their mothers in their final moments. I have been with grieving parents who have arrived at the resuscitation room only to see their child die before them. The scream and echo of that pain—that audible anguish—never, ever leaves you. Once heard, it is never forgotten. Unfortunately it is a sound that we are hearing over and over again on our own doorstep and on our own watch. This has to stop, and I implore the Minister to listen to the arguments presented today.
As a Member of Parliament, I have listened to parents who cannot comprehend what has led their children to die before them. I am a parent myself, as are many in this room—imagine holding your dying child in front of you, knowing that they are dying not from some incurable disease, but from something that could be entirely avoidable but is part of an epidemic sweeping our country. Those parents cannot understand why they had to hear that their children died alone, why they went to work and came home to hear that the children they were raising died alone in their own blood on the streets, why the authorities were not there to support them through their grief, and why there was no way to prevent such tragedy. Enough is enough.
Just three weeks ago, I held a violent crime summit in my constituency of Tooting, bringing together the Deputy Mayor of London for Policing and Crime, the head of south-west London Metropolitan police, the chief executive of Wandsworth Council, and local community groups. It is imperative for local organisations that support young people and their families day in, day out, to be able to speak directly to the authorities and discuss how they can be a force for good and shape the way forward for young people in London and across the country. Only together, along with our communities, can we discuss the root causes of this rise in violence, and only together can we get weapons off our streets. Only together can we decide that this is not just another debate held day in, day out, on a number of topics that are discussed in Westminster, because only if this debate is treated with the respect it deserves can we truly save lives.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), who spoke so movingly, as she has done many times. This is such an important issue.
In 2013, the coalition Government published their “Serious and organised crime strategy”. Prevention was cited as a key component of that plan to end gang and youth violence. As part of that strategy, the Government spoke about the utilisation of youth workers and youth services to identify high-risk individuals and help steer them away from crime. Despite the danger of sounding like a broken record, it will be no surprise to colleagues that I intend to speak about what has happened to youth services since then, and the problems that that has led to in our communities.
Despite the Government’s plan, a 2016 study—these are the latest figures we have—found that 600 youth centres in our country have closed, and that 3,500 youth workers, who were positive, adult influences on our young people, have lost their jobs. Some 140,000 places for the most vulnerable young people have been deleted. Those figures are two years old, but the cuts have got worse. That crippling effect has led to the collapse of youth services across our country, and there has been an increase in what we see as the exploitation of our young people.
To put a figure on this, in 2010 £1.2 billion was spent on youth services and youth prevention programmes, but last year just £358 million was spent. That is a 68% cash-terms cut: in today’s money, £1 billion has been ripped out from prevention—the very thing that the crime strategy said it needed to focus on. What has happened, unsurprisingly, is a jump in knife crime, which is up by 69%, and now the rise in county lines is affecting every corner of our country.
Councillor Richard Watts, chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people’s board, recently said:
“Councils must be given the resources they need”
to stop just picking up the pieces and to start to tackle the problems. That highlights the current reactive approach as opposed to the positive approach that we have. In reality, if this issue was directly affecting your child, Mr Evans, or my child, or the children of people of influence, buttons would already have been pressed, strings would have been pulled, and rules would have been changed. However, the children and young people who are most affected often come from the poorest and most disadvantaged communities, and those with the least voice. We therefore see nice plaudits but—unfortunately—inaction, which is why we need a decent preventive strategy.
Last year, the Government slashed by half the budgets of youth offending teams. The principle was that a young person who got into trouble would have professionals to steer them away from that life. However, if the Ministry of Justice is cutting in half the amount of money that we are spending on that, we have to cut not only our preventive programmes but the programmes that pick up the pieces.
I ask the Minister to ask his colleagues at the Ministry of Justice to restore the youth offending budget, to speak to the Minister with responsibility for youth services and ensure that those services are invested in, and to make sure that those buttons are pressed and those strings are pulled. We must ensure that there are no more unnecessary deaths and ruined lives on this country’s streets.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans, and to speak on behalf of the Scottish National party. I thank the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) for securing the debate. What we have heard about county lines is undoubtedly alarming—the sheer scale of the problem should give us pause for thought. According to one estimate, 46,000 children in England and 4,000 teenagers in London are being exploited. The National Crime Agency notes that the evidence gap means that the true scale of exploitation remains hidden.
Reports have highlighted the link between violent drug gangs and the exploitation of vulnerable people in the north-east of Scotland, particularly around Aberdeen, Fraserburgh and Peterhead. In line with what has been discussed in the debate, the experience there is of the threat or use of violence to exert power, particularly on vulnerable young people. In my constituency, drug deaths have more than doubled in the past decade.
The interconnected drug market that exists throughout the UK means that it is in all our interests to share best practice about how to combat this destructive force and to identify where Government policy is ineffective. That is a key point, because it is precisely our drug policies that have gifted a lucrative market to organised crime gangs who have the money, power and expertise to thrive in such an environment. The trafficking and exploitation of young people is simply an extension of their power.
Understandably, we seek vengeance. We want to see those responsible for the violence and abuse—those who exploit these vulnerable young kids—locked up, but experience tells us that whenever we incarcerate somebody for dealing, pushing or distributing, there is always somebody else in the background to step forward and fill their boots. Neil Woods was an undercover policeman for 14 years. In his book, “Good Cop, Bad War”, he outlines how he put his life at risk, day in, day out, with the aim of locking up drug dealers. Neil reckons that his actions locked people up for thousands of years, and disrupted the supply of class A drugs for a few hours.
Yesterday, there was a well attended meeting in Committee Room 10—better attended than this debate, unfortunately; where are all our fellow MPs? Most people there were serving cops or police and crime commissioners. A common phrase, repeated throughout that meeting, was, “We can’t arrest our way out of a drugs war.” That is from serving law enforcement agencies throughout the United Kingdom. We need solutions, not retribution. I understand it—if one of my kids was sold a tab at a music festival, and that tab could kill them, as we have seen time and again, I would want to hunt down the person responsible and nail them to a wall. That might make me feel good, but it would not stop the distribution, and it would not help the next parent going through the same agony that I had just been put through.
Anyone’s Child is an organisation set up by people who have lost loved ones to the drug war. Its stance is not retribution but that we need to change the legal framework and our drugs policy if we are ever going to make things better. I fully agree with Anyone’s Child and Transform that if we regulate the drug market, we will remove one of the financial incentives to enslave young people. That will also enable authorities to identify those children as victims of modern slavery, rather than criminalise them and drive them further into a criminal underworld.
In becoming involved in a life of crime, even unwillingly, those children are learning to become intimidating and violent. They have to, because the scariest dealers do not get informed on. We must be honest in recognising that that development is a direct result of the police pursuing those children. The more we try to clamp down on the drug problem, the more the violence will escalate. That is the reality on our streets. Indeed, the Home Office’s 2010 drug strategy recognised the unintended consequences of enforcement.
I completely agree with former undercover drugs detective Neil Woods, the chairman of Law Enforcement Action Partnership UK, who said:
“How do people think these kids get recruited? Do people imagine that they just get randomly approached by dealers or cold called asking them if they fancy a life of crime? They are recruited through the cannabis market with the most promising youths being recruited for a County Line, dealing heroin and crack. By regulating the market we separate the link between organised crime and teenage consumers.”
Neil Woods clearly understands that disrupting the supply chain is not enough. A drugs market in flux is a drugs markets of aggressive competition where violence and intimidation will become more common as competing interests try to maximise more lucrative profits. Expendable young people who are enslaved within the system will not benefit from even more violence and turbulence.
Neither are we helping children caught up in county lines by employing them as so-called child spies. That practice casts moral ambiguity on the UK Government at a time when they are criticising the exploitation carried out by others. I am at a loss to see how we can reconcile the UK Government’s responsibility to protect minors with simultaneously exposing them to abuse rings for the sake of intelligence gathering.
Do we fully understand the long-term physical and mental ramifications of using young people in that way? Is there a clear code of practice on how children’s welfare is protected while working with the police or security services? How does an authorising officer weigh the intelligence benefits against the potential impact on the juvenile source? A report published by the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee suggests that the UK Government do not have satisfactory answers to those questions.
I am encouraged that the Scottish Government take a different approach to combating violent crime. As was mentioned earlier, a peak of 137 murders in Scotland prompted the formation of the violence reduction unit. By taking a public health approach to violence, the VRU and the Scottish Government have made significant headway in preventing such crimes. Instead of driving young offenders into prisons, they offer them alternatives—training, mentoring and employment opportunities—thereby breaking the cycle of reoffending. Since 2007, violent crime has almost halved in Scotland and crimes involving a weapon are down by two thirds. That did not happen by accident.
Likewise, I would like our drugs problem to be reclassified as a public health issue and regulated, as I mentioned earlier. If we were to take that road, it would reduce the burden on law enforcement and the NHS, and the saved funding could be invested in treatment, rehabilitation and harm reduction instead. By taking the approach that I have highlighted on violent crime and drug addiction, we can make significant strides against county lines.
We should not be handing the market to violent criminals, and we should not allow the economic conditions to exist that incentivise gangs to exploit children. Legalising and regulating will put the Government in control and drastically reduce the illegal exploitation of children. Finally, I put on the record my appreciation for the work of Transform, LEAP UK, Release and Anyone’s Child, which continue to produce invaluable research.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) on securing the debate. It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. Over the summer, the Metropolitan police launched their 100th murder investigation, but it is not just a London problem. In towns and cities all over the UK, the dynamic of crime is changing, and the need to change attitudes to policing has never been greater.
County lines are a devastating crime tsunami, as I have seen first hand in my own city, where the excellent South Wales police are fighting what is, in many cases, an invisible enemy—faceless in appearance, but devastating in action. Last Thursday, I spent the evening on the streets of Swansea with the Safer Wales outreach bus, which works with victims of prostitution. I heard about two young ladies—their age is disputable—who had gone missing. It was assumed that they had been taken by drug gangs—county lines—because of debt. I heard that they were likely to be trafficked. It was explained to me what punishment they could expect, but it is too dreadful to repeat in this place. That is the reality of what we are facing.
We are losing cities and towns up and down the country to the devastating phenomenon of county lines. Drugs, trafficking, prostitution and community devastation are the dreadful consequences of this life-sucking social cancer. They are taking our children’s lives, both metaphorically and literally. We must stop thinking that current police numbers and the availability of social and community work are adequate.
The level of support, training and intervention that the Government are providing is far below what is needed. Serious crime is threatening to overwhelm our communities. I acknowledge that the Government are trying, but it is time to try harder. The number of children aged between 10 and 15 being treated for stab wounds has increased by 69% since 2013. More than half the crimes against children from that same age group are related to violence. At the centre of those rises are tragedies we should never forget. Far too many young lives are being senselessly lost.
The Children’s Commissioner has shown that a total of 70,000 youths aged up to 25 are feared to be part of a gang network. Too many lives are being wasted, too many families destroyed and too many communities devastated. The current surge in serious violence is a textbook definition of a whole-system failure, which Ministers must acknowledge. These children are the victims of austerity and rising poverty, and the figures tell their own story. Some 120,000 children are homeless. More than 70,000 are in care. Many thousands are excluded from school. The consequence for many hundreds of families is total devastation. Vital services are being pared back as a result of local authority cuts. Families arrive into the system when they are already at crisis point.
Violent crime has more than doubled in the past five years and is now at record levels. Last year, offences involving firearms increased by 11%, while those involving knives and sharp instruments increased by double that. I could regale the Chamber with examples from London, the midlands, Yorkshire or Wales—in fact, I could give examples from anywhere in the country. Despite the stories I could tell, the ending gang violence and exploitation fund, which is part of the serious violence strategy, will be just £300,000. That is hardly a commitment to tackling the reality of the serious crimewave engulfing our towns and cities.
I urge the Government to invest more in the battle fund and to meet this war—it is a war—head on. We cannot have any more families devastated. We cannot have any more lives lost. The time has passed for talking. We need to be fighting to protect our families, our communities and our children. It is time for the Government to invest the appropriate time and resources to tackle this demon head on.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I thank the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) for securing this debate. I take the issue incredibly seriously, as do my colleagues. As the Minister for Security, my portfolio covers what we have just seen in the Chamber—the GRU, counter-espionage and counter-terrorism. However, the part of my portfolio that scares me the most, which I know I will see in my neighbourhood, my friends’ neighbourhoods and my child’s school, is serious organised crime.
One has to be very unlucky to be a victim of terrorism. One has to be even more unlucky to be a victim of an espionage event. The scale of organised crime and the empowerment of those networks in the past few years poses a threat not only to our young people of all classes through grooming, the growth in the use of drugs and the fuelling of that growth, but to all our communities. County lines have enabled crime to be exported into large parts of the United Kingdom that never had violent crime or serious organised crime. They might have had the local dealer or the local burglar, but they have never had the type of organised violence that is now wreaking havoc on their streets.
I heard the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), whom I have known over the years. He was a Home Office Minister in 2008, I think. What he said was incredibly pertinent. It was a well-crafted speech, if nothing else, and as ever I will horrify my officials by not reading my well-crafted speech or quoting endless facts about fund Y or fund B. I have been in this House long enough to know about listing funds—I have listened from the Opposition Benches to other Governments doing it. I am happy to write to Members with the list of funds for communities.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that, to fix this problem, we will need to drive integration both horizontally and vertically. We need to integrate the community response, the local authority response, the healthcare response and the voluntary response with the vertical driving together of local policing, regional policing through the regional organised crime units, and national policing. We will need to do that to get some of the very serious gangsters at the top and bring to bear, where we can, the weight of the state to weaken them. That is not often going to be driven by the experts—the experts know what to do and are just all in different buildings in different parts of Government. It takes a ministerial drive.
One of the weaknesses in our system—I would be interested in whether the hon. Gentleman agrees—is the length of time we as Ministers have to drive the system. It might be one year in the Home Office. I have done this job for two years, and I happen to have a background in counter-terrorism. I went through all those lessons in counter-terrorism in the early 1990s in terms of sharing intelligence, ensuring we tackle permissive communities and supporting communities in distancing terrorists from that support base. I happened to start at a run, but I have been here for two years and who knows how much longer.
One of the strengths we have in our system is to drive through, to knock heads together and to box clever within Whitehall, but it is a challenge. How do I get the DCLG—I forget the new name; it is too long now they put an H in front of it—or the Cabinet Office to do something? How do I lobby the Chief Secretary to the Treasury that something needs to be done? We can sit here and talk about cuts and I can talk about debt, but it is also about priorities. If Opposition Members were on the Government side of the House, they too would be having discussions about priorities and where to spend money. We have to have stability.
The great thing about the work that the hon. Member for West Ham has done is that it is more collaborative. The way she has gone about tackling and highlighting the threat of county lines is an example to us all. We are all trying to find a solution collectively, both locally and nationally. If I may, I will address her points rather than those of other Members because of the short time available. She eloquently set out her asks.
First, there is an ask from me on social media and communication. What has accelerated county lines? What has gripped? Organised crime has existed for many years. Violence has existed in some pockets. What has accelerated county lines is social media and secure communication. There is à la carte drugs-buying from people who are posted. Sometimes they are groomed and abused, and sometimes they are willing. They go to other towns and boroughs and people order drugs à la carte through WhatsApp and Instagram. That is communicated safely to the drug barons and the drug buyers with end-to-end encryption. People can buy anything. There is an incredibly good documentary by a girl called Stacey Dooley on BBC—it is about kids buying drugs—that brings the issue home. She went to WhatsApp to show the research, and they would not even answer the door. The fuel on the fire has been that safe environment.
I do not have time. I remember Labour introduced the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, which is where Labour brought in youth covert human intelligence sources. It was not a Conservative thing—it has been going on since 1999. When I was in the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish National party did not oppose it either. Using young people as CHIS has been around for many years.
When we introduce legislation to try to seek ways into encrypted technology there is often a knee-jerk reaction from the likes of Liberty, and too many people go along with it. Legislation is vital if we are to get into the top of those drug gangs and find out what is going on. The head of a cartel was arrested in Glasgow, I think last year. He had military-grade encryption to order directly from cartels in central America. He even distributed to the cartels and then distributed drugs back into Glasgow. We have to tackle that because that has been part of the fuel.
We also have to tackle education. What do we need to spot? It is the cuckooing and the vulnerable people. It is about educating local people, especially those in the leafy suburbs who have never seen it, and who do not know that a young person who has suddenly appeared in a flat is the victim of trafficking. Human trafficking leaks into the issue. There are nail bars up and down the country often manned by Vietnamese people who take only cash. Those people are trafficked 99% of the time, but in middle-class areas everyone still goes in to get their nails done. No one says, “There’s something odd here.” It is in plain sight, and we are working with our local authorities—the regional organised crime units are also working with them—to improve spotting the signs.
On reducing violent crime, I asked my officials to go and see an interesting project in Glasgow. I do not pretend that there have not been cuts to police, but in Glasgow, even in environments where there were falling police numbers, knife crime incidence has been massively reduced, which shows that working better together can sometimes make a significant difference. Some great work has been done in the Scottish Government on tackling that, which is important.
It leaks into the wider grooming piece. I see it in Prevent and in counter-terrorism. It is the same method whether it is sexual exploitation, crime or whatever. We have to take on the social media. That is why we are consulting, including on introducing regulations in this House. I went slightly freelance at one stage and said, “The polluter can pay.” If we have to spend hundreds of millions of pounds on police, I know where I would get that money from. They need to step up to the plate. There is the technology and we can do more. We have to tackle grooming and put people in the category of groomers. They are not glamorous. They are the same as paedophiles. They are dirty little rotten groomers who are sacrificing young people.
I saw a very successful Merseyside operation that was brilliantly done. It goes back to how we are pursuing the organised crime. As the hon. Member for West Ham said, I want to see the bad guys at the top get it. A brilliant operation was done in Merseyside where county lines were coming up into Lancashire. The police went top and bottom and worked with local authorities. Good police forces have something called local organised crime panels. Chief Constable Mike Barton in Durham has used local authorities on a regular basis. On such panels are the Environment Agency and representatives from local government. A whole load of government agencies are on the panel, saying, “If we can’t arrest them for X, we’re going to make their life a misery. We’re going to do them for fly-tipping, and then we’re going to publicly expose them and take the glamour off them.” That is happening, and with good results. Other areas could follow suit better. Some do and some do not.
I totally agree with what was said about witness protection and having a trusted system. I worked in intelligence. If no one picks up the phone, we are flying blind. No matter how many neighbourhood policemen and women we have, if people are doing it in their bedrooms on secure comms we need someone to pick up the phone and to trust the system. That is really important.
This year and next year we are going to move witness protection away from the regions. It will be administered in the regions but it will be nationally co-ordinated by the National Crime Agency. However, the Met police has not opted to do that. I urge the hon. Member for West Ham, as a London MP—this is about working with everyone—to have a word with the Mayor of London about whether that is the right way to tackle it. Some of the biggest exporters of county lines are London into the regions and Merseyside into the regions. I can say that because my home plain is Lancashire. Between the two, we need to think with our Mayors about how we can tackle some of that permissive society—some of it is permissive.
It is not just the raw victims—there is a hard edge, which is why we sometimes have to use youth as CHIS. I can write to the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) with the many safeguards that we put in place around that risking. It is overseen by the Investigatory Powers Commissioner, Lord Justice Fulford. It has been in existence since 1999. Sometimes—very rarely—we do it. We have to do it if we are to penetrate where encryption is used, and some of the county lines where it is not. It is not something we want to do, but sometimes it is useful and we have to do it.
I would be delighted to take up the case of Ashley and Nathan if the hon. Member for West Ham and I could have a meeting. How they have been treated is outrageous. That is not the message we want to send, and I will do everything to ensure that they are given the support that they should be given. I had experience of settling people who were under threat of death if they were caught, and some of them tragically were killed.
Finally, the hon. Members for Gedling and for West Ham asked what we are doing on the organisation to tackle crime. Some 128 tonnes of class A drugs were snatched last year. Thousands of people were arrested by the NCA and 628 guns were seized. As with the Contest strategy, which started under Labour and has been refined with mistakes learnt from and driven into the fingertips of Britain, we have got to a place over the last few years where the policing response is in the right place. We have regional organised crime units, we have the National Crime Agency above that and we have local forces. If somebody goes to visit their local regional organised crime unit they will see that collaboratively such units are bringing to bear some very good resource. I am happy to facilitate that for whoever wants to go.
The Met are not in the ROCU—it chooses to do it separately. I have lots of faith that the Met has the resource—it has much more resource per head than we do in Lancashire and Merseyside—but there is a plus and a downside to that. It is well worth exploring with the Mayor of London whether he thinks that that is the right apparatus. The regional crime units can bring specialists and specialist surveillance. We often find that county lines cross county borders and constabulary borders. That is why the regional organised crime units work. My one in the north-west is based in Warrington. I will visit it again, and regularly. I have been around all of them in the country. Part of what they do is about gathering better intelligence, as the hon. Member for Gedling said, and mapping organised crime groups. Individual forces have been pretty weak at finding a common denominator. Cumbria claims to have more organised crime groups per head than Merseyside or some other parts of the country. That is a bit different, so we have to improve the intelligence.
I am happy to facilitate visits to the NCA where we can. With the upskilling and the changes that we implemented last year to conditions to make them compete better, we are getting much better capability. We are starting to deliver and bringing to bear purely intelligence-led collaborative working. I am not deaf to concerns about neighbourhood policing or cuts to the police. I know that there have been cuts to the police—I do not deny that. We can sit here and argue all day about why that had to happen and whether our priorities are right, but I recognise that we have to do something about it and we are going to try. Certainly it is about prevention as much as arrest. That is true of so many crimes, even this one—we cannot arrest our way out of it. I will not go down the long path of legalisation, but we have to keep empowering local authorities. I will send hon. Members the lists of what we do in local authorities.
One thing that I see from my desk at the Home Office—the hon. Member for Gedling will have seen this—is lots of people not bidding for funds. Colleagues understandably come and complain, and I say, “But your force or local authority didn’t actually bid into it.” I am very happy to share that with anyone if they come and say that they have seen the fund and no one has got it in their community. I can find out about it, and we will go together. We will go to Brighton and say, “Why didn’t you bid for it?” Not everybody can have the funds, but it is interesting that there are some who always bid and get them and some who never bid at all.
Mr Evans, I will sit down now and let the hon. Member for West Ham wind up the debate.
Thank you, Mr Evans, and thank you to the Minister for sitting down and giving me the opportunity to wind up quickly. It has been a superb debate. Every Member who has spoken today has brought something special and unique. They are passionate about their communities and about keeping them safe. All the contributions have been excellent.
I thank the Minister for his response. I do not often feel like doing something like that, but I thought his response was excellent and his tone was right. I am so grateful that he did not read out the speech he was given. I take him up on all the offers that he has made today, and I will be happy to provide him with information about Ashley and so on.
The problem with funding is short-termism. If people are asking for money it is for only 15 or five months’ work, which is a problem.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).