Monday 25th March 2019

(5 years, 4 months ago)

Westminster Hall
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts

Westminster Hall is an alternative Chamber for MPs to hold debates, named after the adjoining Westminster Hall.

Each debate is chaired by an MP from the Panel of Chairs, rather than the Speaker or Deputy Speaker. A Government Minister will give the final speech, and no votes may be called on the debate topic.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Catherine West Portrait Catherine West (Hornsey and Wood Green) (Lab)
- Hansard - -

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. It is a real delight to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), who has done so much detailed work in this area. I put on record the work of the Youth Violence Commission, which my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) has been working on during this Parliament. I also put on record how much I appreciate the passion with which my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) spoke about his personal experience. I remember attending his conference speech in 1999 in Bournemouth when he was Policing Minister. He had people along to talk about young people and positive involvement with the police. He has a wealth of experience in the area, and it is pleasing to hear that he has not lost that passion for young people and social justice.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) for introducing this debate, in which we have had many interesting speeches from both Opposition and Government Members. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for her interventions and her expert knowledge, particularly about young children, nutrition and all the elements that go to make up positive primary schools, which we hear make such a difference for people’s long-term outcomes and whether they are caught up in the criminal justice system.

The debate is about sentencing, but I want to talk about enforcement and prevention, just to set the scene. There can be no more difficult thing for a Member of Parliament than to meet the grieving family of a youngster lost to knife crime. On 22 February this year, Kamali Gabbidon-Lynck was stabbed multiple times and lost his life. That was a real tragedy. I have been very involved, going to the gold groups with the police and working with the council and the Wood Green business improvement district to talk about our high street and how we can use its physical surrounds to improve our environment.

At its heart, this is a tragedy not only for the young man’s family—his mother is grieving and his son has lost a father—but for all the youngsters who knew him and loved him. The hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez) has met relatives, too, and brings it home to us just how many more people are affected now compared with perhaps 10 years ago. Those of us who have been involved with public policy for 10 or 15 years remember when it was perhaps one terrible thing over a three or four-year period. Now, it seems far too regular. The number of people now facing the impacts of knife crime make this the national emergency we all agree it to be.

In the terrible case of Kamali Gabbidon-Lynck, he passed away from loss of blood, in a hair salon. There were a number of children having their hair cut or whose parents were having their hair cut, and they witnessed this dreadful loss of life and heard the young man’s last words. Those people just getting their hair cut—an eight-year-old, a four-year-old, a mother with a tiny baby—will never forget that. That points to this feeling that it has become the wild west, and we need to bear in mind the number of people now affected.

Our victim support works according to a rigid model. Those people were considered to be witnesses to a crime, but in actual fact they were victims of that crime, too, because they suffered trauma and stress. It took an intervention by me at a roundtable at my advice surgery to gain expert counselling support for those families. If I had not intervened, I do not believe they would be receiving the expertise and counselling that they need. Our victim support needs to be much more holistic in its approach and to look at who is affected by knife crime.

We have been through the statistics on the lack of police. As other Members have said, because we are in a national emergency, we need to look at the enforcement side and talk about sentencing, police numbers and the lack of police in our schools. In London schools, we always used to have a full-time police officer in the school who the children knew. That developed a great relationship of trust. Those officers are now spread much more thinly, and often it is not the same police officer in the same school all the time. We need to put that right. For what it is worth, my view on funding is that if we can spend £800 million a week on Brexit, we can spend more on the safety of our families and young people.

I want to briefly talk about the work being done throughout the rest of the criminal justice system. Like many Members who have spoken today, I believe the legislation is probably right. Given their expertise in this area, I trust their views. As it is the Prisons Minister who is with us, will he say what he thinks constitutes a positive prison experience? I am one of the Members involved in the MPs scheme to visit prisons. I look forward to my first visit to HMP and YOI Isis next Friday. What does the Minister feel is the key to a positive prison experience? Some people say a short experience in prison is worse than a longer one, because some of the excellent prison officers working in our prison system have a really positive impact on many of our young people, particularly in our youth offender institutions. I am interested in hearing the Minister’s views on that.

To expand on the view put by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central, we know that literacy rates in our prison system are low. What is being done during sentences to push up the rates? Are there proper college courses? What are we doing so that when young people come out of prison they are ready to go into jobs and employment?

I cannot mention prisons without mentioning the use of drugs and how they have a negative effect on the staff inside prisons. Drug use can lead to attacks on staff, and staff themselves can become high as a result of Spice and other drugs being used in the prison system. The hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) mentioned that the Express has called for longer sentences. If longer sentences mean more low-quality experience with more drug use and attacks on staff, low morale and a lack of skills training, literacy or other meaningful, purposeful activities, I cannot support more and more and longer and longer sentences if they do not address the problem.

The National Audit Office has commented on the privatised service; it is poor value for money and is not leading to the outcomes that we want to see. We have very high rates of recidivism, as my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West mentioned earlier, and, unfortunately, a revolving-door system. I want to make a brief point about the prevention strategy. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central mentioned social services’ involvement with young people, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and I work closely in the London Borough of Haringey. We met the Home Secretary several months ago and he promised to look at the resources and the interconnection between the numbers of police, the probation service and the prison experience, yet we still have a crisis on our hands. It is an absolute tragedy that we are not able to get a grip on the situation.

There is the bigger picture on funding when it comes to what local authorities can do. However, specifically on the point that has been made about even primary school children beginning a journey into a life of crime at the end of primary and the beginning of secondary school, I have sought a meeting with the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government to discuss Haringey. Incidentally, Haringey has the highest level of police resource of any London borough because of our problems. I want to ask him for a special fund for a buddying and mentoring scheme for the families described by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central. Rather than a social services punitive approach, we need a friendly approach so that when the first letters come home from school saying that the youngster is not coping, the buddying and mentoring scheme can help the family and perhaps help with other siblings or whatever it is that stops that youngster thriving in school. We need to keep young people in school for as long as possible. We know that many of the prison population have been expelled or excluded from school from an early age.

Although it is tempting to jump on the bandwagon of longer sentences, I think the Minister has realised that what is important is the quality of rehabilitation in prisons and that we have to look much more closely at resources in schools and early intervention. We need also to look at what local strategies there are. A lot of good practice is carried out in Glasgow, which is certainly worth considering for other local authority areas. I want to emphasise that with Brexit costing £800 million a week, there must be more that we can spend on such a crucial situation.

I want to re-emphasise how pleased I am to see Members of all parties joining together to look at the problem as a national emergency. There is excellent police work in parts, but we must improve and increase that and bring together the passion that some Members have for this crucial area. We must not lose hope because that would be giving in. We must redouble our efforts to concentrate on the crucial question of young people and knife violence.

--- Later in debate ---
Rory Stewart Portrait Rory Stewart
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Out of that 82%, approximately 22% of the cohort do not receive a full custodial sentence. All that goes to the core of what the mitigating and aggravating factors in the judge’s hands are. As the hon. Member for Gedling pointed out, this is absolutely standard in any legislation that we bring forward—we leave some discretion for the judges.

One of the questions at the core of this issue has been raised again and again by the hon. Members for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) and for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova): deterrence. In order to be practical, we need to focus on the fact that the main thing that the evidence suggests makes a difference to somebody who is considering committing a crime is their chance of being caught. Their receiving a six-month, nine-month or 12-month sentence, or even a five-year sentence, is much less likely to motivate their behaviour than the chance of being caught. In burglary, for example, it is almost certainly the very low rate of conviction, rather than the length of sentence, which has made the difference. If someone feels that they have a 3% chance of being caught, it does not really matter how long the sentence is, which is why most of our focus is now going into putting another £100 million behind the police to focus on knife crime, rather than on increasing this form of sentence length.

There is another reason that we have to be cautious in response to the suggestions for a 25-year sentence for using a knife and a 10-year sentence for possessing a knife: any sentencing needs to balance with other forms of sentencing, otherwise victims and their families will feel that justice has not been done. What do I mean by that? If someone gets a 25-year sentence for using a knife in any way—cutting somebody with a knife—while the minimum custodial sentence for murder is 15 years, it would be very understandable that a family would look at somebody getting 15 years for murder and wonder why somebody else was getting 25 years for using a knife. The same would be true if someone got 25 years for using a knife and another person got 25 years for killing somebody with a knife; the family would understandably ask, “How come this person is getting 25 years for using a knife to wound, when here is another person getting 25 years for committing murder with a knife?”

It is a fundamental principle of our law that we look at the consequence of the crime and the culpability of the criminal; we do not look at the weapon used. We do not determine whether somebody used a crossbow, a gun or a knife; we look at whether it was murder or grievous bodily harm. What form of offence was committed? That is really important, because if we start introducing offences based purely on the type of weapon that is used, we will end up with injustice being felt all the way through our legal system. That does not mean that we cannot look at sentencing, but this particular proposal does not make sense.

Let me address the proposed 10-year sentence for possessing a knife. Currently the minimum sentence for possessing a firearm is five years. The public would feel a deep injustice if someone were to get 10 years for a knife and another person got five years for a firearm—it simply does not make sense. In thinking about sentencing, we cannot think about just one type of offence; we have to think about the effect on the whole system.

I shall move on quickly, because I am aware that we have trespassed on your patience for a very long time, Mr Davies. I want to discuss early intervention and prevention, supporting communities, and effective law enforcement, which are the three central planks of any response to knife crime. On early intervention and prevention, the hon. Members for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) and for Croydon Central made very eloquent interventions and speeches. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) for—given Scotland’s extraordinary success in this area—a very modest and charming speech. I thought it was a very intelligent speech, which demonstrated that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution and that we can learn from Scotland without replicating their approach. I pay tribute to what Scotland has done and the spirit with which the hon. Gentleman approached this debate.

Clearly we have to look at risk factors. The key risk factor in an individual involved in knife crime is the individual themselves. As the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has pointed out, that could mean an acquired brain injury, or neglect, or abuse in the home. The second factor is the family context, which is central. In a recent study, 47% of people who had committed homicide had been in care—almost half of them. The third factor is the community context in which people operate. Living in a deprived neighbourhood makes someone much more likely to commit knife crime.

Another important factor is the school that someone attends. Serious risk factors include an individual being caught up in bullying at school or playing truant, and we need to do more to work with schools. Schools are quite good at picking up on children who are victims of domestic abuse, but are they good enough at identifying people who are being sucked into knife crime? Should we be working with Ofsted to try to assess schools on how good they are at identifying people who are being sucked into knife crime?

Someone’s peer group—the people with whom they spend their time—is the fifth biggest risk factor in determining whether they get sucked into knife crime. We can respond; this is not just touchy-feely nonsense. We can prove that a targeted approach, not a universal approach, is most effective. It is about being really smart with public money. The answer is not to lecture every child in the country on knife crime, but to ensure that we target those who are most at risk with the most serious support. The likelihood of a child going on to commit a violent offence can be reduced by 25% by bringing in a therapist with a case load of five or six children and ensuring that the therapist spends time with the family once a week. That one thing makes a huge difference. As we begin to build up these different things, we can begin to address some of the underlying causes of knife crime.

The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East spoke eloquently about supporting communities. We need a multi-agency public protection arrangement-style approach, which is something that, again, the hon. Member for Gedling referred to. We need to think about comms and how we get a proper media approach. We need to think about how that could be a digital media approach. How do we communicate to people the dangers of knife crime? We need to think about what we do with retailers who sell knives, which involves bringing in trading standards. If we are going to wrap up different bits of Government, we need trading standards to get under-18-year-olds to try to buy knives online. We need under-18-year-olds to go into shops—even small retailers—to try to buy knives and then report back to the retailer if somebody on the shop floor has sold a knife to someone who is under age.

We need to think about victim support, as the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) said. The answer to her specific question is that anybody who witnessed the attack is entitled to victim support. They do not need to be related to the victim. I am very pleased that she champions that issue.

Catherine West Portrait Catherine West
- Hansard - -

Does the Minister agree that victim support is inconsistent? It is very good in some places but not so good in others. What measures are the Government putting in place to monitor where it is not good, and what are they doing about it?

Rory Stewart Portrait Rory Stewart
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The answer is that we have just published a victims strategy, and we are investing more in victim support—more than £90 million a year—as part of a broader spectrum of support. We now have £200 million going into a youth endowment fund, which is directly driven by the strategy and responds to the public health approach pioneered in Scotland. We have another £22 million going into an early intervention fund to respond to the stuff that we have been talking about in relation to schools and families.

That brings me to effective law enforcement, where my hon. Friend the Member for Romford is pushing us. He makes a very interesting point about the way in which community policing does or does not overlap with ward boundaries. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) also spoke in some detail about community policing. We need to balance that with very specific stuff on knife crime, which means ensuring that there are plain clothes officers in hot spot areas. Hot spot areas are central. In Peterborough, we discovered that taking a hot spot approach, getting the right data and finding where the problems are coming from reduced violence by 37% without displacing it to any other area, so hot spot policing is central.

--- Later in debate ---
Rory Stewart Portrait Rory Stewart
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Strangely, the experience is that there has not been displacement activity. We have looked at that very carefully, and it seems that, by targeting those areas, we grab it and do not push it on to neighbouring areas. There are different theories about that. One is that some of this is gang-related, and some gangs are geographically limited, so it is not likely to be displaced into other areas.

At the core of all this is crack cocaine and crack cocaine gangs, although the innocent victims have nothing to do with crack cocaine. Although drug use in general is coming down, crack cocaine use is going up. It went up 18% between 2016-17 and 2017-18. County lines, which are an incredibly important part of this, are also contributing. The same gangs are involved in both. That means that we have to get on top of mobile phones. We have had to bring in new ways of intercepting mobiles, which are central to the way that county lines gangs operate. We have set up a new National Crime Agency taskforce to focus on county lines, and we have had to be much smarter about data. In partial response to my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), who made a very good speech about that, one of the things we are learning is that our data has not been good enough. For example, we have not been coding knife crimes properly. Setting up smart software that allows us to pick out as knife crime something that was simply registered as grievous bodily harm makes a huge difference to our ability to target hotspot areas.

All the stuff that I have been talking about so far is about preventing somebody from being dragged into these gangs from early childhood onward. Then it is about the violent crime taskforce moving into an area to make sure that if somebody picks up a knife, we get them as soon as possible, particularly on possession. Then—God forbid—if somebody is convicted or uses a knife, we move on to the question of what happens in the courts, prisons and probation. There, too, we have to look at all these other issues. We have to take on board the fact that the real protection for the public is ensuring that the person who has offended once does not reoffend.

Statistically, we are doing a bit better on knife crime than on other crimes. Generally, short-term offenders reoffend at a rate of nearly 60%. Knife crime offenders reoffend at about half that rate. Half that rate is still too high, so we need to address addiction issues, get them jobs and help them into accommodation.

Catherine West Portrait Catherine West
- Hansard - -

I thank the Minister for giving way a second time. Does he agree that the current approach to drug rehabilitation services in prison is not robust enough? Not enough people have access to those crucial treatments and are cured of drug and alcohol issues.