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Serious Violence: Battersea

Volume 742: debated on Thursday 14 December 2023

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mike Wood.)

I start by welcoming the Minister to his new post, although it is deeply worrying that his former role of Minister of State for Disabled People, Health and Work has been scrapped.

There is no doubt that cuts to police and public services are directly linked to the rise in serious violence in the country. I have called for this debate as meaningful actions are needed to tackle the epidemic of serious violence that we are seeing. It is no exaggeration to say that this is a national crisis—one that has been exacerbated by successive Conservative Governments.

For me, it is an absolute honour to represent Battersea, as it is a great place to live, work and visit. Sadly, however, over the past three months there have been three incidents of serious violence, two of which have resulted in fatalities. We have seen at first hand how serious violence can destroy lives, bring devastation to families and impact on the wider community’s sense of safety and security. There are no words to describe how difficult it is when I visit families who have lost loved ones to violent crime. It is heartbreaking to hear their feelings of helplessness and despair. Every incident should strengthen our determination to build a safer society for everyone.

The Tories like to talk tough on crime, but it is all words and very little action. The data tells a devastating story about their record on crime and justice, which is one of damaging decline and collapsing confidence. Nationally, serious violence is up by 60% since 2015, with knife crime, gun crime and robbery all increasing. Knife crime is up by 74%, with over 50,000 incidents last year alone and the highest number of fatalities in a year for 70 years. Most scandalously, it is young people who are most affected. Last year, the biggest increase in knife-related fatalities was among young boys aged 16 and 17. During 2021-22, a record number of children were victims of crime.

The criminal justice system is on its knees, with a backlog of 65,000 cases in the criminal courts. It is therefore no wonder that out of almost 28,000 knife possession offences recorded over the past year, only four in 10 led to any formal sanction. Why are the Government failing so badly to prosecute knife offences? These damning statistics are the result of more than a decade of austerity, cuts to public services and cutting around 20,000 police officers. This year, Baroness Casey’s review of the Met stated that it

“has been disfigured by austerity”

and that the number of police community support officers has been drastically reduced, leading to the collapse in neighbourhood policing.

After initially benefiting from a record of investment in policing under the last Labour Government, violent crime started to rise in London on Boris Johnson’s watch in 2014. He oversaw policies that led to police officer numbers falling to record lows and 9,000 police staff losing their jobs, including 72% of community support officers. Over 70 police stations closed, including Battersea police station in 2013. Obviously, the cuts have had a huge impact on policing. Emergency calls are not always responded to within the national target times, forcing the local Met to make changes to its emergency response.

While police numbers in London are now increasing, the Casey review highlighted the inexperience of new officers. By making cuts to policing, not only did we lose police officers; crucially, we lost experience. Although we now have a record number of police officers in London, with more than 9,000 officers recruited in the last three years alone, we need more. The Met commissioner, Mark Rowley, believes that 6,000 more officers are needed, yet the Government provided funding for only 4,500. Why will the Government not provide more officers in London?

When it comes to youth services, nearly £1 billion of funding has been cut. In London, spending fell by 59% in real terms compared with the period between 2011 and 2022.

Does the hon. Member agree that it is shameful that Sadiq Khan, as Labour Mayor of London and the police and crime commissioner for London, was the only PCC in the country who failed to use all the available Government funding, which cost London more than 1,000 police officers?

I would like to thank the hon. Member for his intervention, but obviously I do not. I am proud of what the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has been doing to plug the gaps caused by the Government’s failure and their cuts to police services in London.

With little or no formal youth services provided by local authorities, it has been left to fantastic organisations in Battersea including Elays, FAST, Devas, Providence House, Caius House, Carney’s and many others to deliver for young people. We know that nearly £1 billion has been cut from youth services. It is vital that those services are provided with funding.

Some young people face unprecedented threats from the influence of county lines gangs, damaging social media content and issues caused by the pandemic. According to the think-tank Crest, more than 200,000 children are vulnerable to serious violence. Data also shows that a record number of young people are seeking mental health support from the NHS.

It must be a national mission to tackle serious violence and divert young people away from violence and crime. After 13 years, the Government have offered nothing substantial to address the epidemic of serious violence. Their serious violence strategy was last updated five years ago. What happened to the taskforce? It has been disbanded.

I am proud that Labour has committed to a series of reforms to increase the proportion of violent crimes being charged, to rebuild public confidence in policing and to restore the rule of law. Labour will invest in neighbourhood policing, putting 13,000 more police officers and police community support officers on our streets and introducing a new community policing guarantee to make Britain’s streets safer.

In local government, Labour has demonstrated the positive impact that can happen through sustained investment and action. The Mayor of London has plugged the funding hole created by the Tories with investments of £1 billion in policing. That will lead to an additional 1,300 officers on our streets and 500 police community support officers. In 2022, the number of murders in London was the lowest since 2014, and teenage murders reduced by 50%.

I firmly believe that tougher criminal justice measures alone will not solve the problem of serious violence in our communities. We also need to have a laser-like focus on prevention. For too long, the Government have written off young people, who have been pushed around by Government Departments, local authorities, mental health services and the police. There needs to be a holistic and joined-up approach. That model has already been pioneered by—yes—the Mayor of London. His violence reduction unit focuses on prevention and early intervention to help divert vulnerable young people in London away from violence and towards positive activities, opportunities and employment. More than 150,000 young people have been supported since the VRU was set up, which has resulted in a 25% reduction in homicides, a 15% fall in knife crime injuries among the under-25s, and a 26% reduction in robbery. The VRU shows how investment in prevention can lead to positive outcomes.

Alongside investment in youth services, we need to ensure that there is a community-based, localised, tailored support service to address the emotional and psychological needs of those directly and indirectly affected by serious violence. Following incidents in Battersea, Wandsworth Borough Council has commissioned a bereavement service to provide a 12-month pilot project, providing support to those bereaved due to violent crime, as well as incident and trauma counselling to those who have been victims of, or have witnessed, serious violence. It has also set up community-based support groups in areas where critical incidents have taken place.

While we are talking about serious violence, I want to touch briefly on violence against women and girls, following the tragic murder of Sarah Everard in south London and of many other women over the past few years. In Battersea, I have launched a safe spaces initiative, working with the police and local businesses to ensure women and girls can always feel safe on our local streets, wherever they are and whatever the time is.

In closing, I ask the Minister what action the Government are taking to tackle serious violence. If they are really committed to tackling this issue, why have they not updated their serious violence strategy for five years? Do they ever plan to do so? How are the Government plugging the gap in police funding and providing the investment needed in London to deliver more officers to help deliver a safer city for everyone, as the commissioner has called for? Where is the investment in prevention and youth services to stop the criminal exploitation of our children and young people? Will the Minister back Labour’s plan to introduce a new definition and specific offence of criminal child exploitation? Why will the Government not back our plans to put a mental health support worker into every school and youth workers into our accident and emergency hospitals to prevent people from becoming involved in gangs?

What investment are the Government making in community-based, localised, tailored support services to address the emotional and psychological needs of those directly and indirectly affected by serious violence? Increased investment and resources will be an investment in our young people, but also in their futures. It is time for the Government to act, but if they cannot deliver the change that our country so desperately needs, they really should get out of the way and let Labour get on with fixing the mess they have created. If they do not act now, then when? How many more lives must be destroyed by serious violence before this Government act?

I am, of course, grateful to the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) for securing this debate, and for the opportunity to respond to it.

May I first deal with the point that was raised at the outset of the debate? I wish my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies) all the very best as she assumes her responsibilities as the Minister for disabled people within Government. Having worked with her in the Department for Work and Pensions, I believe she will take on those important responsibilities with real vigour and do justice to them. It was an enormous privilege to serve as the Minister for disabled people over the course of the past 14 months. I am enormously grateful to all those I worked with—disabled people, disabled people’s organisations and the various charities—along with the many disabled people I met over the length and breadth of Britain, who made that an unforgettable time in ministerial office. I am proud of the work we did, and I know that my hon. Friend will continue that work over the coming weeks and months. I wish her well.

To return to the substance of today’s debate, the hon. Member for Battersea has spoken powerfully and passionately about the impact of serious violence in her constituency. I realise that this debate has had more of a local dimension, but I think it is worth reflecting on the national picture for a moment. Serious violence causes significant distress and harm whenever it occurs, and the Government are absolutely committed to tackling it. I think that all of us in this House can agree, whatever our political affiliations, that we want our communities to both feel safe and be safe wherever people live, and the senseless loss of life that she has described is a tragedy in every sense of the word. I say that as a former victims Minister who has met families who have lost loved ones in the most horrendous of circumstances. I do not think there is any politician on any side of British politics who is not moved by those stories and does not want to take action to prevent other families from experiencing the unimaginable loss and trauma that they have experienced when love ones are taken in such horrific circumstances.

That is why we have deployed a twin-track approach, combining tough enforcement with intervention to prevent people, especially young people, from being drawn into violent crime, and that work is delivering strong results. The latest crime statistics show that homicides fell by 10% compared with the last year, and were 15% lower than the year ending December 2019. Violence against the person offences fell by 1% compared with the previous year, and by 19% compared with March 2020. More than 120,000 weapons have been removed from Britain’s streets since 2019 through a range of tactics, with almost half seized through stop and search. Again, I am sure all Members of this House would want to thank the many organisations across the country involved in facilitating the work of getting those dangerous weapons off our streets and helping to keep people safe. Through the work of violence reduction units and the Grip hotspot policing programme, we have prevented 136,000 violence without injury offences, as attested by an independent evaluation of the two programmes. Of course, we have recruited an additional 20,000 officers across England and Wales. We are making progress, but there is more to do. This threat is too serious and, in the worst cases, deadly for us to be anything other than relentless in our approach.

Does the Minister agree with me and with Baroness Casey who says that this is also about the experience that has been lost? Yes, there is now the recruitment of more officers, but that experience has gone since the Government chose to cut 20,000 officers over the past decade.

I hear the point that the hon. Lady makes. I think that the commitment to deliver the 20,000 additional police officers was the right commitment to make. I well recall debates, which may have been before her time in the House, when I was on the Back Benches and those on the Labour Front Bench were arguing for us to cut funding for policing. I did not support that approach at the time, and I can only imagine where we would have been had we taken that advice. Instead, this Government have gone in the opposite direction, and we have increased policing numbers by 20,000, exactly as we committed, and I believe that it is making a difference on our streets. Of course, drawing on the experience of officers who have served in policing roles for a long period is invaluable to training the next generation of officers, and that is precisely an endeavour on which we are focusing.

We are determined to go further, which is why, earlier this year, we ran a public consultation detailing five proposals to tackle knife crime, and all of them will be taken forward in the most suitable way when parliamentary time allows. We will introduce via secondary legislation a ban on certain types of large knives that seem to appeal to those who want to use these items as weapons—for instance, zombie-style knives or machetes. In the Criminal Justice Bill, we have introduced provisions that will give the police more powers to seize dangerous weapons, created a new offence of possession of a bladed weapon with an intent to harm and increased sentences for those who import, manufacture or sell dangerous weapons to under-18s.

I turn to some of the specific areas touched on in the hon. Lady’s remarks. We have listened to officers on the frontline to understand the problems they face day in and day out, and we have worked in collaboration with the National Police Chiefs’ Council to develop a ban on the machetes and large knives that are becoming more prevalent in serious crime. The ban focuses on features that are commonly found in the types of knives being used in serious violence and serious crime.

Since we launched our consultation on measures to tackle knife crime there has been an interest in extending the ban to include swords, and I understand the reason why. However, during our conversations with the police, swords were not raised as a specific concern. The police tell us that the greatest risk at the moment is the criminal use of zombie-style knives and machetes, so we agreed to focus on specific features commonly found on the knives and machetes increasingly being used on our streets in incidents of serious violence. We will, however, keep that under review.

We are clear that it is illegal to sell knives to a person aged under 18, and that applies to face-to-face or online sales. The Offensive Weapons Act 2019 stopped knives being sent to residential addresses after they are bought online, unless arrangements are in place to ensure that the items will not be delivered into the hands of someone who is under 18. We want strong deterrence to the sale of prohibited weapons, and of any knives to those under 18. That is why we are increasing the maximum penalty for the offence of selling knives to someone under the age of 18, whether online or face to face, from six months to two years. That change will reflect the severity of the offence itself, and will be brought forward as soon as possible.

One of the most powerful preventive measures we have is getting dangerous weapons off the streets entirely. Every knife seized is a potential life saved. More than 120,000 weapons have been removed from Britain’s streets since 2019, as I mentioned, through a range of tactics, with almost half seized through stop and search. Proactive police work is also vital. Operation Sceptre involves intensive activity over several days, and has been running successfully for a number of years. The latest phase of the operation took place in November. It had a positive impact, with more than 12,000 knives seized, surrendered or recovered. Those bursts of activity are important, and can make a real difference, but we also clear that this needs to be a priority all year round.

The Government will always act in the interests of the law-abiding majority, including by strengthening the law where necessary. We want to have strong deterrents for knife possession, with the maximum sentence for possessing a knife in public being four years’ imprisonment. In recognition of the seriousness of offences related to knives, the law provides for minimum custodial sentences for repeat knife possession and offences that involve threatening with a weapon. The court is able to impose a minimum six-month custodial sentence for adults, or a four-month detention and training order sentence for 16 and 17-year-olds. We continue to strengthen the law in that area to ensure that we are getting offensive weapons off the streets. That is why we are increasing the maximum penalty for sales of prohibited offensive weapons, and also for sales of knives to under-18s. We are also introducing a new offence for the possession of a knife with the intention to cause harm or fear of violence. The new offence will provide police with the power to charge someone who is found to be in possession of a knife or offensive weapon with a more serious offence than possession in public.

There is also a role for technology in this, which can help us to improve our response. We should be open to such possibilities. The Home Office is actively researching and developing technologies that are capable of detecting knives carried on the person that could be concealed, distinguishing them from other benign objects such as door keys. This is still in the developmental phase, but the Home Office and partners are continuing to engage the market to identify new and promising technologies to reduce knife crime.

The Offensive Weapons Act 2019 introduced knife crime preventions orders, which are court orders designed to prevent people aged 12 and over from carrying knives and becoming involved in serious violence. The aim is to stop a small but high-risk cohort of individuals from causing immediate harm to others, and to support earlier interventions to turn young people away from a life of crime. Knife crime prevention orders were piloted by the Metropolitan Police Service from July 2022 to March 2023, and it is currently evaluating that pilot and its effectiveness. That will then inform any decision on whether to roll out the orders to all police forces in England and Wales.

As I said in my opening remarks, we are supporting the police every step of the way in these endeavours to tackle violent crime. We have given them more powers and resources to go after criminals, and to take knives and other dangerous weapons off our streets. We promised to put more police officers on our streets, and we have delivered on that commitment by recruiting more than 20,000 police officers. As a result of the Government’s police uplift programme, the Metropolitan Police Service now has more than 35,000 officers. That is the highest number on record and higher than the pre-PUP peak of 33,820 in March 2010. I am sure that the House would join me in saying how fantastic it is that so many people are taking up a career in policing, and I say that as the son of two former police officers. Every new recruit has a role to play in our fight to tackle crime and keep the public safe. I place on record how grateful I am for all that they do.

I have mentioned the funding for Grip and violence reduction units, which are the Government’s preventive programmes to tackle serious violence, including knife crime. Violence reduction units identify people, particularly young people, in danger of following the wrong path. They bring together partners from health, probation, policing, housing and beyond in a partnership approach to invest in the best evidence-based interventions to prevent and deter young people from involvement in serious violence, exactly as I saw for myself last summer in Leicester. Violence reduction units are critical, as is the Grip programme, which is a hotspot policing initiative funded by this Government. In essence, it involves a data-driven approach to identify the precise location to street or neighbourhood level most at risk of serious violence so that we can support them with additional visible police patrols and problem-solving activity to stop crime from happening in the first place.

It was welcome that the hon. Lady touched on the work of the London violence reduction unit, which is in receipt of Government funding. We have funded 20 violence reduction units across the country since 2019, investing £160 million, and they are making a considerable difference. Members across the House can welcome that, and I am pleased that the VRU is making a difference on the ground in Battersea, too. We are ensuring that we are targeting crime at root and at source and investing in prevention and early intervention. We are investing £200 million over 10 years in the Youth Endowment Fund, as well as co-funding the delivery and evaluation of high-impact and innovative interventions.

The Minister has rightly spoken about the VRUs and the brilliant work taking place in London. At the heart of all this are our children and young people. We know, as I alluded to in my speech, that many could be exploited by some of these criminal gangs. As I have asked him—I wonder whether he will come on to it—will he back Labour’s plan that would introduce a specific offence around child exploitation?

Bearing in mind that I am covering this debate for the Policing Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp), I will, if I may, gladly ask him to pick up on any points that remain outstanding from my remarks. I genuinely believe that the Youth Endowment Fund is helping to transform our understanding of what works to prevent children and people from being involved in violence and from being exploited. It does so by funding grant and evaluation programmes and working with many organisations to ensure that they are investing in programmes that have a real impact.

I will finish by offering my thanks again to the hon. Lady for securing this debate, to colleagues in attendance and to those across Parliament who I know take a real interest in these matters. These are some of the most serious issues that we deal with as constituency MPs. We all want to see the most robust action taken in responding to serious violence wherever we find it. The strength of feeling and desire for sustained effective action is clear. Each and every one of us knows how vital it is for our communities and our constituents. I can assure the House and the public that this Government get it. We know the stakes, and that is why we are taking action across multiple fronts to tackle knife crime and keep people—especially young people—safe.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.