This week I contributed to the debate on Serious Violence.
We have seen a sharp rise in knife crime across London, with 14,700 cases recorded last year, the highest in a decade. This has been felt in our community, with 561 recorded incidents in Lewisham in 2017/18.
The Government must take a public health approach to tackling this problem. This is a coordinated, national approach that focuses on prevention. It’s about having a properly funded police service, but also making sure health services, youth services, education and the justice system must all play a coordinated role.
Only a holistic approach with sustained, positive interventions can support young people and their families.
Watch and read the speech in full below
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak.
I want to acknowledge the speeches that have been made by Members on both sides of the House, but I particularly want to acknowledge the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft), and the work that she has done in the Youth Violence Commission. I remember when she launched the commission, many years ago. At that time, I was the cabinet member for community safety in Lewisham Council. It was a well-turned-out launch—at London South Bank University, if my memory serves me correctly. My hon. Friend has given me a nod.
I also want to acknowledge the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker). One thing that he said really stuck in my mind. He said that some young people were more afraid of gangsters than they were of the police. That gave me a sense of the gravity of the situation, and of the pressure, manipulation and oppression to which young people are being subjected. We must not fall short of acknowledging that young people do not start out in life saying, “I want to get involved in crime. I want to carry a knife.” They start out in life saying, “I want to be a police officer”, or “I want to be a fireman.” They have dreams. We need to help young people to succeed in their dreams and their visions, and to make a way for them as much as possible.
When I consider serious violence, I often think about knife crime. I think about young people, their vulnerability, and the risk of harm to them and to others. However, serious violence is not just about young people, and knife crime is not just associated with young people. In London, we are seeing a lower volume of knife crime but a higher harm rate, which is affecting young people significantly and causing fatalities. Figures from the Metropolitan police show that in 2017-18 there were 14,700 recorded crimes involving knives or sharp instruments, the highest number over the last 10 years. The proportion of black, Asian and minority ethnic young people who have been victims or perpetrators of knife crime—or have been involved in “joint enterprise”—has also increased, which is of great concern.
Young people and knife crime are my focus. When referring to young black people’s experience of the police, Robert Reiner, a retired lecturer from the London School of Economics, states that they experience over-policing and under-protection. I am genuinely concerned about the information that the Home Secretary has presented to us about increasing the section 60 stop-and-search powers.
The Scarman inquiry and the Macpherson inquiry talked about the tensions that can be created within communities and how they can affect our society. We need to think seriously about how we reach young people and help them to have trust in the police, so they go to them when they need their help. I do not think it is right to start on the offensive by stopping and searching young people. For me—I know there are many like-minded people and organisations—it is about building trust and relationships with young people, and about getting to know them. Only then will young people and their communities start to think and feel that they can go to the police when they experience harm or terror, which we need to encourage as much as possible.
I remember, as a young child, knowing my local bobby—I use that term endearingly. He used to come to our house and have a cup of tea. We all knew him and he was trusted in our local community. We had a very good experience of that. For that reason, we need more community police officers.
Some of the police’s attitudes and behaviour towards young black people need to change. That is not a new phenomenon. All young people need to know that they can expect help, support and protection from the police. Instead of carrying a knife for protection, they should be able to seek police protection confidently, as I have mentioned. For many young people, however, that is far from the truth. There has been some progress in many police forces across the country, but borough commanders move so quickly from one area to another that they hardly have time to implement what they have begun.
Serious violence is a complex problem that is not only about policing; there are many other contributing factors. That said, as we have already heard, young people need to feel like they have a voice and that their views are heard and valid. We must also remember that they are young, even though they can look much older.
I welcome the Government’s serious violence strategy, which the Home Office published last April. It attempts to look at the root cause of the problem and support young people to lead productive lives away from violence. Much more needs to be done, however, to support young people and their families where they experience deprivation and disadvantage in our society. Much more also needs to be done for looked-after children and care leavers, who rank highly in our prisons.
That is why we need to consider taking a public health approach for our young people. The strategy has been praised for its focus on early intervention and prevention. It is a holistic approach to truly combating the problem, which involves families and issues such as identity, a sense of belonging and young people’s wellbeing and mental health. It is about making structural changes to multiple systems and agencies, including the policing of young people, health services, youth services, housing, education and the criminal justice system.
I applaud Lewisham Council for developing its own public health approach against a backdrop of limited funds. In reviewing the public health approach, the Government might like to take some advice from our local authority about the strategy it has already developed. The public health approach needs to be taken more seriously, and there needs to be investment in youth services provision and the third sector.
Spending on youth services has fallen by 70% under the Government, which has affected the Grove Park youth club in my constituency. The club closed in 2013 as central Government cuts meant that the council could no longer afford to maintain it. Its catchment area encompasses around 7,000 young people, and it is situated in one of Lewisham’s most deprived wards. On the local estate, two incidents of serious youth stabbings have been recorded in the period since the youth club closed. Government statistics show that crime in the club’s catchment area rose between 2010 and 2015 despite an overall reduction in crime in the borough. I support bringing this much-needed club back into use; it should be given consideration as part of the Government-led public health approach.
In the meantime, I would like to pay tribute to the model of a mobile community youth service called XLP, which is being used in my constituency, and to Ubuntu, a third sector organisation that supports parents and young people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds in my constituency. They are both doing well at making the kind of sustained interventions in young people’s lives that make a real difference, also against a backdrop of minimal resources. As we have already heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling, third sector organisations such as these should not be “scrimping around” for money. The funding should be in place, because they are making a significant difference in reducing serious youth crime and empowering young people and their families. The Government could learn something from those two fantastic organisations and would do well to invest further in the third sector as well as increasing spending in local government for young people’s provisions and launching a public health approach to serious youth violence.