Tackling knife crime in London: good news

Spent Friday afternoon with Blunt 2 Taskforce – the key policing taskforce set up after the 24th knife murder in London. Well impressed with the Met’s concentrated focus and gold service in terms of trying to tackle what everyone is screaming at them to tackle – stopping our youngsters killing each other.

The idea is to stop trouble before it escalates into violence – so from a control centre in Central London key hotspots are watched and every bit of intelligence that comes in is monitored. If it looks like problems are brewing – then teams are sent in to diffuse anything that might kick off, as well as act as a deterrent. When police vans arrive in an area – word gets round pretty quickly to stay in and leave weapons at home if going out.

So – the Met has responded to our angst in London about the number of young people dying and injured on our mean streets. Those I met were dedicated, committed and determined. They were very aware that the increase in Stop and Search had to be not just about the action – but include engagement with young people if it is not to cause alienation. (Very important as ease to see how handled badly some of these tactics could go very wrong.)

They know that they need to take these actions with respect – but equally it was clear that they felt that the stop and search powers which have come under such scrutiny and criticism in recent years have a key role in tackling knife crime.

They’ve taken around 2,500 knives off the streets – with no complaints. On the whole, the police work with communities these days and – according to them – find the communities grateful for the protection that they bring in areas where kids are afraid to go out. No doubt I will at some point have this confirmed as the statistics filter through (albeit statistics got a bit of a bashing this week).

Since July 14th and the setting up of the task force there have been a further three murders. That is dreadful – but it is a slowing of the rate we saw for the first seven months of the year. Blunt bluntly admit they cannot exactly claim specific credit – but that is I guess because it is impossible to measure things that don’t take place. So if incidents are disrupted and don’t happen – they are not counted. Tricky.

Anyway – the point is I thought the project, the team, the resource committed to it and the effort are all very impressive. But – as the police were only too aware – it isn’t a matter of simply the policing and judicial side – it is about young people’s lives, diversions, aspirations, families and all of that wherein lies the long term solutions.

Catching those who do carry is obviously hugely important – but it’s also about what happens to that young person thereafter to make him or her change their behaviour. And as I said after my visit to Haringey Youth Offending Service last week – the resource going into preventative work, restorative justice, reparation and rehabilitation just doesn’t come near the level of resource on the judicial and policing side.

But if we do not do anything to change behaviour – then the police will be catching the same people over and over again!

Knife crime and arches: are the police getting things wrong?

The police placed a metal detection arch at Turnpike Lane a few days ago – and a colleague phoned me to tell me about it. He (being a lawyer) walked around it and challenged the police as to whether they thought they had the powers to make him walk through. In the end, when he walked around the arch, not through it, no one stopped him or followed him.

Rather a mess of a situation if you ask me! His legal view (and that of others I’ve spoken to also) is that the police have no powers to make people walk through the arches – but then I’ve also heard accounts of the police behaving as if they had. So – better information for the public and better training for the police needed by the sounds of it.

Also – from the accounts I’ve heard it also looks as if almost anything metal sets off the arches – and of course we all carry many metal things other than knifes. So there are two steps of police decision – who do they ask to go through the arches and then, if the alarm goes off, do they closely search the person? And again – the accounts I’ve heard are worrying, in that the police, or rather some police officers, seem to be slipping in to bad old habit of deciding whether or not to take these steps based on inaccurate cliches such as whether or not someone looks Muslim. White boys carry knives too!

Even if all these issues are got right, this isn’t the long term solution, much as it may bring very welcome short term benefits. Long term – we have to invest the resources to support young people so that there are other ways in life. Changing behaviour and culture is the issue.

Labour abuses non-partisan meeting on gun and knife crime

Amongst various meetings, briefings etc yesterday I popped into the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Guns, Gangs and Knife Crime. Massive meeting with lots and lots of young people – excellent!

The APPG is chaired by Dawn Butler – a Labour MP. I could only stay for half and hour – and Vernon Coker (the Labour Minister) certainly made a decent speech. Various members of the audience contributed too – in the usual way.

But looking around the audience I noticed they all had a printed piece of literature in front of them – pinky purple in colour. Clearly it had been distributed to them – but then I realised what it was – it was Labour Party literature (their pamphlet for young people) including a request to join the Labour Party.

Well – this is a no no! APPGs are just that – non-partisan – but you can’t get much more partisan than handing out leaflets praising one party! Indeed, it is strictly against the rules to distribute party literature. The Conservative member of the panel is writing to the Speaker and when I spoke to him later that night in Parliament he said that there were three other serious transgressions which he would also report. I had also reported it to our Chief Whip to take further.

Just before the meeting I met a very genuine and successful peace campaigner who works tirelessly with young people – but who was leaving rather than going to the meeting. I asked why he was leaving and he said because he couldn’t sit through another one of those meetings where people just talk – not again.

I still think these type of meetings are worth having – even if they are mostly talk – as they engage quite a lot of young people and the more people we can engage the better. But it’s just not on to use young people as Labour fodder. And that is what the whole thing looked like to me. Anyway – I’m going to meet up on my own with this peace campaigner to see about action not words!

Major gang fight in Haringey

Since I posted the piece on meeting three representatives from Haringey’s Youth Council and Youth Parliament and said how knife and gun crime was a key issue that worried them – we have had a major gang fight between gangs from Wood Green and Tottenham yesterday afternoon with four stabbings. I will try and get this raised in Parliament – as for all the Government’s knife or gun summits, the problem and the causes of the problem stumble on untouched. The police work hard – but it is clear that what is needed is a massive effort and resource – a continuing focus not just when the headlines hit if we are to impact this at all. So many issues involved – and they all need addressing!

Anti-knife crime week

Woodside High School are having an anti knife-crime week – and all Tuesday is taken up with me and police and young people talking, with theatre and panels on how to resolve the terrible problems that carrying knives have become.

I give a ten minute introduction and then a senior police officer tells the hall (full of year 11s etc) what the police are doing. Then the Comedy Store takes over. They have a production which addresses the issue through humour, but which addresses the issues of the law, the dangers, situations, peer pressure, life choices – so much better than just talking heads.

People seemed to really enjoy it and so the panel afterwards were flooded with questions – some cheeky – but many seemed very concerned as to what they could or couldn’t do within the law. I really hope it beds in. Knives can mess it all up for a child who otherwise has a great life and great contribution ahead of them.

Full marks to Woodside for taking it so seriously and devoting proper time and effort to it. They have a fabulous police officer in the school – Velda Ewen: an absolute gift for the school – committed, enthusiastic and with just the best personality for the job! Congrats to all who took part – and to the kids – ‘cos its their lives and in the end – it’s they who have to take responsibility for their actions.

Violent Crime Reduction Bill – nearly there!

The Violent Crime Reduction Bill came back to the Commons for Lords Amendments. All over bar the shouting really! The Government had finally realised that it had to lay amendments lengthening the sentence for carrying a knife or bladed weapon in a public place. There had been a Tory amendment to lengthen it to 5 years and a Lib Dem one to lengthen it to 7 (same as for a gun) – but the Government had voted against previously. However, it is often the way that the Government just won’t vote positively on an opposition amendment. They vote against and then bring it back themselves later in the process. So who cares – so long as they finally saw sense.

That having been said – it ain’t just the sentence. The real proof of pudding will be less young people carrying – and that needs a mix of police work, prevention, education, making kids feel safe on the streets, giving them life chances, working with them to show it’s not ‘cool’ – as well as the deterrent of a longer sentence and the actual custodial detention itself. It isn’t quick, cheap or easy to change a whole culture – but that’s what we are up against.

The other highlights were around imitation firearms, Drink Banning Orders and Alcohol Disorder Zones. We support totally the tackling of the twin challenges of weapons and alcohol – but it’s how these laws are enforced that will matter. Anyway – now that one is on its way to the final stage of legislation. Whew!

Knife crime

Managed to get called during Business Questions – which is a quaint way of bringing constituency issues to the fore and asking the Leader of the House (Labour MP Jack Straw) for a debate. The debate I asked for was on the rate of grant from the government for statutory support for asylum seekers.

In Haringey we happily provide support for a very high level of asylum seekers. But if you take even just one element of Government funding support – the rates for looking after unaccompanied asylum seeker children – the grant doesn’t come anywhere near the actual cost. And even worse – not only does the Government funding not cover the costs, but the costs racked up by the Government’s failure to make asylum decisions quickly – because much of the cost in that maintenance is due during the period whilst the Home Office (that oh so fit for purpose establishment) takes years to process the legality or otherwise of the asylum seeker.

It is completely unfair and unsustainable on those areas where asylum seekers naturally congregate.Jack Straw’s answer – he would pass on my remarks to the Home Office and a slagging off for the LibDems in general. That really raised the tone!

In fact I have just written to Jack Straw over his outburst last week on knives. My Lib Dem colleague, Mark Hunter, raised the issue of lengthening sentences for carrying a knife in a public place and Jack just ranted about Lib Dems opposing longer sentences for knife crime. This is misleading Parliament in the first degree (i.e. untrue! and you can check in Hansard from report stage of Bill in Commons). Not only is this assertion factually incorrect but also completely unwarranted. In response to the recent surge in knife crime, a Liberal Democrat sponsored amendment was laid down in the Violent Crime Reduction Bill (on which I lead for my party) that would increase the sentence for carrying of a knife in a public place to seven years. This amendment was not voted on as a Conservative amendment, take before it ,which would have increased the sentence to five years was defeated by the Government. So the truth is – Labour voted against increasing the penalty for carrying a knife in a public place.

The Bill is coming back to the Commons for Lords Amendments next Monday and Labour will be tabling an amendment to make the sentence four years (which is better than the current tariff), and although it doesn’t extend it far enough in my view it is a step in the right direction. I will go into this further when I write up my blog after the debate next Monday.

Do music lyrics cause crime?

Police dog at Haringey Police Open DayBusy, busy day! First port of call – Haringey Police Open Day held at St Ann’s police station. Beautiful weather – so I wasn’t expecting many people to be there, but there were. How far we have come in terms of community relations and making the police part of the local vernacular! The police have worked bloody hard to achieve this. So in the courtyard there was face painting, police motorbikes, a police dog (gorgeous – a six month old pup called Oscar being trained); first aiders, a history of identity parades and much more. So it was fun!

Haringey is a hugely diverse area, and actually does very well in terms of integration. We have huge challenges – but as demonstrated after 7/7 the communications between our communities is there. There wasn’t a single incident or attack following the bombings in our area – and it is this work and all the work by the various faith, race and umbrella groups that achieved this. Full marks to Haringey Police for walking the talk!

Straight on to Campsbourne Community Residents’ Association where there is an open day for residents to look at the plans for the little square of grass on the estate. There are two alternatives – both very imaginatively designed – and people who come are asked to express their preference. There are also some alternatives for what should be painted onto the paving stones as play equipment is not to be installed. Amongst the choices are hopscotch, clocks and so on. I am reassured that the option of hopscotch is by far and away the most popular – thus proving that just sometimes the old ones are the best ones!

Straight on to Jacksons Lane Community Centre for a two-hour panel debate on Gun and Knife crime. It was a very interesting and lively debate. The officer in charge of Operation Blunt, two mothers from Mothers against Guns, a youth worker and myself, plus a chair.

The audience (which was small and only just outnumbered by the panel) was up for participation – so despite the small numbers I thought some valuable ideas were raised. The most interesting contribution was from a young guy at the back. We on the panel had been banging on about youth diversion etc – and he was saying that you needed to get in and show young people how to earn money (enterprise).

Coincidentally at the police station I talked for a long time to a guy who is running an enterprise effort called BusKids (excuse spelling, may not have got that quite right?). This is a programme to go into schools and teach teenagers money management and entrepreneurial skills to set up small businesses and so on.

The other ruck at the meeting was over reference (by me and others) to gangster rap and hip hop. There was a debate as to whether this was or was not in any way responsible for the rise in gun and knife crime. I think it has an influence but probably not a direct correlation. It sets an atmosphere rather than directly making someone go out and do something. In the end solutions have got to be about changing a whole culture and changing life chances.

Just time for a quick wash and change before it’s on to the 40th Anniversary Ball of the Highgate Society. I grab a dress I have never worn and shoes that are incredibly uncomfortable and off I go. The Highgate Society does and has done over many, many years, the most incredible job of working to improve and protect Highgate. It’s a grafting organisation. Day in day out, year in year out, good people work for the betterment of the local and local people – from planning issues to ensuring the future of Highgate Village.

It is much undervalued I believe, for the work it does. Highgate gets scant attention and support from either Haringey or Camden councils who both seem to write it off as being somehow not part of their borough. Reverse snobbishness – which abandons a large swathe of people who have a variety of incomes from indeed the very rich to quite frankly the very poor.

The Ball is held in Highgate School’s dining room on the side of one of the playing fields. It is so beautiful – the epitome of an English cricket green with the evening sun falling and sparkling. I dance once – with the new Chair of Highgate Society – and then just before midnight I decide enough is enough and walk home bear footed carrying my high heels in my hands and sink gratefully into bed.