Iain Duncan Smith calls for Government, local government and community groups to work together to tackle knife crime

24th January 2019

Speaking in a debate on knife crime, Iain Duncan Smith calls for all political parties, Government, local government and community groups to work together to tackle the problem nationally, in London and in Waltham Forest in particular.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer)—I know that I am not meant to call him that, but he is genuinely a friend—on securing this debate. He, our colleague the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and I have discussed how to deal with knife crime, which is a problem nationally, a problem in London and a particular problem in the borough that the three of us represent. I will take each aspect of the problem in order.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to the debate. The issue of knife crime tends to be shovelled away because the media too often see it as a spat between members of different gangs; it only ever breaks the surface when somebody they cannot pigeonhole is abused or murdered, as in the terrible event that happened recently in the hon. Lady’s constituency. I pay tribute to the victim’s family for their behaviour and their demeanour—our hearts go out to them. Yet somehow the media’s game always seems to be, “As long as it is not people we think are important, it is acceptable.” I will cite some figures later to suggest why that is the case.

Violent crime is increasing, not just in London but across the country. It exacts a terrible toll on our most disadvantaged and impoverished communities. The London murder rate has reached the highest level for a decade, with stabbings and shootings often linked to gangs and the supply of drugs. People often say that a lot of it is not related to the gangs, but even when the gangs are not directly involved, the gang culture on our streets has a massive effect on young people’s behaviour, even if only defensively. Many who are not involved in the gangs end up being bullied or coerced for not wanting to be part of the process, and sometimes they succumb and find themselves trapped. The gang culture is sapping away at some of the best of our young people; they are exchanging their future prospects in return for short-term gain, or what appears to be gain.

In London alone, more than 25,000 incidents of serious violence were recorded across the 32 boroughs in the 12 months to the end of June 2018. Most of those incidents were completely unreported to the general public, except maybe in the local area. In my borough, Waltham Forest, the number of knife crime offences was 27.34% higher than in the previous year. This is a growing problem. Intriguingly for the three of us who represent the borough, the increase in knife crime in Waltham Forest is significantly greater than in the Metropolitan police’s service area as a whole. We have a local problem, a city-wide problem and a national problem.

Violence against the person has been on an upward trajectory in the borough for several years. Since 2010, there have been an average of 525 violent crimes per month, but there has been only one month since April 2015 with fewer than that. That is a shocking statistic that tells us what a daily event knife crime is. I saw that at first hand when I went out recently with a police patrol—I am sure many other hon. Members present have done the same. It was on a Friday afternoon, not a Friday night; everyone assumes that things are all right in the afternoon, but in the space of three and half hours we attended one shooting, two stabbings and a knife threat to a family.

The police said, “This is not prime time—it will really kick off after you’ve gone.” That tells us just about everything we need to know. We went at speed up and down the borough—from one end of my constituency to the bottom of the constituency of the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead. I swear to God: it was an eye-opener. I did not think my eyes needed opening, but I was wide-eyed by the time we had finished.

Commentators too often say that London is a city of 8 million, with 19 million annual visitors, so the level of violence is a problem but not a crisis. I have read articles that say, “Yes, we are awfully fussed about this, but it is contained.” That is shocking. Tell that to the families whose children have been damaged or murdered, or to the communities that have been blighted.

It all comes back to the point about culture, because the gang culture blights whole areas. Shops do not open in areas where the gangs operate significantly, because they come under threat. Kids who go there come under threat, too, so the streets become less occupied and people are more worried about going there. There are families whose children are being bullied and are frightened to go out, because they know that they will meet a gang member who will tell them that unless they get involved, something will happen to their families. People disappear from public spaces, and parts of our city end up deserted by decent people because they are frightened and worried. Even if they have not seen anything, hearsay tells them that things are going on in their area.

The point of challenging knife crime is not just that we are worried about violence and crime, but that we are worried about our communities not thriving as they could—their economies are bad, jobs are going and all the rest of it. We need to see the issue in a wider context, because it is about the health of a city.

A decade ago, the Centre for Social Justice, an independent organisation that I am part of, set up a programme to investigate what was going on in cities and look at what had gone right elsewhere. Its report, “Dying to Belong”, was about the nature of the people who end up locked into gangs. We commissioned its authors to look at cities that have had the problem, possibly for longer than London: they went to America and looked at Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Boston and even New York, and then they came back and looked at Glasgow and Liverpool. The Glasgow experience was particularly interesting, and so was the Matrix project in Liverpool; it was perhaps not as comprehensive as the Glasgow model, but it had some similar and very interesting outcomes.

What came across constantly from those visits was that the cities that have successfully controlled their levels of gang activity, and thus violence and violent crime, have all used a two-pronged process. First, policing needs to be absolutely and conclusively co-ordinated with the local area. I accept that the word “consent” is bandied around, but it is more a case of co-operation, understanding, shared intelligence and a sense of where and who to police.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the loss of neighbourhood policing has had a major impact on the situation he describes? The sense of communities working with the police has been shattered.

Yes—I will come on to that point. It is about intelligence on the streets, both for the communities and the police, and the operational matter of how to target policing.

What came across from Boston and Cincinnati was particularly interesting. Their gangs were very similar to London’s: they tended to be multi-racial in the sense that, unlike in Los Angeles, they were postcode gangs drawn from whoever lived in the community and reflecting the balance of people in the community. In Boston, Operation Ceasefire led to a 63% reduction in youth homicides. The level of violence is different in American cities, mostly because of firearms, but the overall suppression as a result of the operation is staggering. The figures have continued to reduce and have remained low because it is a permanent process. It is not about the police arriving in a borough, targeting people for nine months and then going somewhere else; it is constant, perpetual and part of the community.

The interesting point about the findings and the recommendations of that report is that, too often, we just focus on one or the other. I want to come to the comment made by the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier). Since the report was published, too little of it has been implemented around the UK. There was lots of talk. I talked at length at that time to the Labour Government—it was published under the last Labour Government. There was lots of interest in wanting to take it forward, but the issue comes down to the activity of the cities and the boroughs themselves—they have to want to take the decisions. There are issues for the Government, which are clearly to do with funding and organisation, but there are also issues to do with the local areas.

In the areas where they did pretty much next to nothing about the issue following the report, and carried on in the same way, some 700 young people have been fatally stabbed and shot. I believe those are 700 young people we could have saved, had we operated across the board, comprehensively. The level of co-operation, co-ordination and joint activity is a problem for London, with its 32 boroughs.

I had very interesting dealings with Waltham Forest Council at the time. It is a Labour-controlled council, and has been for some time, but the reality is that it was more important for us to work together to try to find a way through. At that time, to its credit, it implemented much of what the report was about: it brought the Glasgow people down, looked at the report and thought about how to act on it, and it set up an organisation and enhanced support in communities. For a time, the level of violent crime in the borough reduced. It was a good record, and I was proud of that. It was not my political party, but I was proud of the fact that we could get something done—it showed me that the report could work.

Since a while back, the pressure has come off and there have been other distractions, and this whole issue of where the Government funding went and how the boroughs reacted came to life. The point I want to make is that if the changes are not permanent, everything comes back. We see that now in Waltham Forest. I am not by any means attempting to be critical; I just simply make the point that this is not the first time.

The process in Glasgow that has been persistently and constantly maintained contains a number of things. The city was once dubbed the murder capital of Europe: someone below 22 years old in Glasgow was literally more likely to die by being stabbed than through a road traffic incident. That was unlike anywhere else. That is how terrible it was. The films of some of the gang violence going on in the city at the time were really concerning. As a result of the consistent activity in Glasgow, there has been a 46% fall in violent offences, a 73% fall in gang in-fighting and an 85% fall in weapon possession. They call it a health programme, because they talk about the community work at the same time, and co-operation with the health department and the intelligence that is necessary. It is not just about policing.

If it had just been about policing, there would have been a moment when they had reduced the level of crime, but that could not have been sustained forever, because there would have been no stoppage. As they said, they needed to get to the younger kids in the gangs and take them out of the gangs, into remedial work, through community groups and other groups that work to change educational outcomes and that get them re-stabilised—perhaps there is an unstable family, or a family who are threatened and need to be moved. All that has to happen at a community level and be led at the bottom, and it requires us to ask how we focus in on the necessary funding—not just across the board, but in the areas most greatly threatened by gang violence. It is perhaps time for us to ask whether specific areas and councils need a more targeted approach to support them.

Too often, that sort of process is effectively forgotten. I mentioned two cities in the UK that genuinely set about the process, but in all the rest, on all the visits I have been on, the work is patchy. As a result, we thought we needed to look at that report again. I say that as a member, as others are, of the Government’s violence taskforce, which is very helpful for presenting the case to the Government. I genuinely do think the Government are now seized of the need to resolve the situation.

The things that need to be done are not rocket science and they are not new. Although we talk about county lines and the way the drugs trade is changing and stretching out from London, in the end it all comes down to gang activity. If the young kids are able to be in the gangs, the gangs can operate. If the gangs do not have the young kids coming into them, then they die. The guys at the top of the gangs cannot operate without the runners and the young kids taking stuff from A to B, collecting the money and doing all the legwork, away from them. Those are the young people they need and they are the ones they threaten, so the community-level approach of stripping those young people out of the gangs is vital.

The police can target the top of the gangs, take them out and put them through the criminal justice system—throw the book at them—and police them on the streets and do their stop and search through intelligence-led processes. However, as the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead said earlier, the reality is about getting the young kids out. It is about them leaving the gangs and taking them out. It is not even early intervention—it is after the event. Even when they have gone into the gangs, we have to bring them out, take them away and get them through other work. Where that is done, as it has been seen and done in those cities, almost immediately the gangs begin to fold in on themselves. It does not matter who is running them—it does not matter if we are talking about the Mali Boys or whoever—the truth is that, at the end of the day, the top guys in these gangs do not operate if they do not have the young kids running and doing the work for them. If we can get to them, it strengthens the policing activity.

We cannot police our way out of this. We need organisations such as those I visited in south London, such as XLP and London Gang Exit, or Gangs Unite up in our area, Key4Life and Growing Against Violence. There are lots and lots of groups who do fantastic work in changing the nature of what goes on.

I have a very simple message. All the patterns and strands of work—from aggressive but targeted policing, through community work and the council working together, all rely on something very important. This is the last strand of what I was talking about, and it is in the book we published.

It is absolutely vital that all the Government agencies and local government agencies sign up to working closely together. Too often in the past, that has not happened with some Government Departments. I say this regretfully, but having talked to the areas that have addressed this issue, I think the most difficult Department to get involved in the giving of intelligence is the Department of Health and Social Care. It holds its intelligence very carefully and worries about it going out. In many households, the health visitor is the first person they will have in and the very last person they will eventually chuck out if they are worried about life. Health visitors hold a wealth of information about the problems of certain families. We need to find a way to use that intelligence.

We talk about early intervention. There are a wealth of signposts when it comes to kids who are excluded from school or playing truant, or families who we know are dysfunctional or already have problems or criminal activity in them. When I went to visit the programmes up in Glasgow, they pointed out to me that too often the courts are simply unaware of the kind of street that they are about to place the kids back into, or the worries about the families. More than that, they talked about why young people in certain areas will not travel to work and take jobs: if the normal map is overlaid with the gangs map, it is immediately obvious why. The young people will not cross the gang areas because they are frightened about crossing, being seen and getting caught.

Cross-party, throughout the Government and local authorities, and through community groups, we have to make a real pledge that we are not going to let this problem go on any longer—that in my borough and others, we will now work together. If money is required for funding, we must find it and make sure it is targeted. We cannot make political capital out of this issue. We have a duty to ensure that the next generation that comes through are not blighted by the times of the last.

Hansard

‘Dying to Belong’ report

‘It Can be Stopped’ report