Knife Crime Sentencing Debate

Petition debates occur within parliament when online public petitions reach 100 000 signatures. Our constituency contributed the greatest number of signatures to a petition calling for tougher knife crime sentences. I made the following contribution to the debate, which was answered by Justice Minister, Rory Stewart. 

Julia Lopez (Hornchurch and Upminster) (Con)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this vital debate, which was secured by the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) and which is derived from the public outrage and utter despair about what is happening to young people on our streets and the intense worry felt by parents. I entirely echo the passionate view expressed by the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) that this is nothing short of a national emergency.

It is perhaps no surprise that my constituency topped the signature count for this petition, with the other two Havering constituencies not far behind. Three weeks ago, Hornchurch and Upminster saw the brutal and utterly senseless murder of 17-year-old Jodie Chesney in a Harold Hill park. We have heard this afternoon from my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) just how badly that has affected the community. The community response to Jodie’s murder has been profound, with marches and memorials, purple ribbons tied to trees, railings and lampposts in tribute to her, and a community vigil in Harold Hill. There has also been practical action, whether through support for a stronger Harold Hill street watch team or new initiatives such as the “Take a Knife, Save a Life” campaign, which seeks to collect weapons from the streets.

Havering remains, as we have heard, a comparatively low-crime borough. That partly explains the shock and utter outrage at Jodie’s murder. However, that kind of incident feeds into concerns that the kind of crime that we may once have associated with inner boroughs is seeping into the capital’s further reaches. I know that we were all hugely disheartened and worried by the fact that only last week in the Harold Hill area a young man was chased down a road and stabbed.

If young people begin to feel unsafe, the temptation only increases for them to carry a weapon too, so it is important not to let such perceptions escalate. On Friday, ​I met Rachel Grimwood, who works on alternative provision in schools. She showed me photographs of the kinds of weapons that children are bringing into local schools; many are concealed as pens, hairbrushes and so on. That is creating such fear among the local school community. She also talked to me about how young people are being coerced into crime, which feeds into the whole idea of whether it is right immediately to issue a sentence when a lot of young people are finding themselves in very frightening situations in which they are being threatened with violence if they do not also engage in criminal activity.

It is no use quoting statistics at communities about comparatively low crime rates. These kinds of incidents reverberate because of their severity and they lead to a particularly rapid loss of confidence in law and order in suburban areas. I think it is a tragedy that the Conservative party is losing people’s confidence in that respect.

I have been an MP not much longer than 18 months, but I have already met two parents who have lost a child to knife violence. Jamil Sarki from Hornchurch was murdered in January 2018. He suffered a fatal stab wound to his heart after accompanying a friend to recover money lost from a scam. He was a beautiful young man, an engineering graduate from a good family, with so much promise and so much life unlived. Jamil lost his life not in our borough but in Welwyn Garden City, and his case highlights the issue of the support levels available to families who are not connected into the community and systems of the area in which their child’s murder took place.

Today’s debate is fundamentally about the sentencing for carrying knives, however, and new sentencing guidelines brought in over the summer are expected to lead to more people going to jail for carrying knives, even though average sentences for such a crime have already been going up. There is a mandatory minimum sentence of six months’ imprisonment for an adult or four months for a young person if someone is convicted of a second bladed article offence, but if an offender is convicted of threatening with a bladed article, there is a prison sentence straightaway even if it is a first offence. The jail sentence can go up to a maximum of four years. As we have heard, the Government are bringing in new knife crime prevention orders, which are meant to give the police more tools in the fight, such as curfews, geographical restrictions and mandatory knife crime courses. However, I accept the need for caution as the orders are rolled out to ensure that they are a new solution rather than a new problem.

Many of my constituents want a far tougher regime, because they have lost confidence in the deterrent effect of the existing sentences. I appreciate that the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice may have concerns about getting the balance right, to give people a last chance to step away from crime and the criminal justice system. I would appreciate it if the Minister could tell us what has been done to review that balance, given that knife crime statistics are going in the wrong direction, and what intensive work is being carried out with young people who are caught for the first time carrying a blade.

In a previous debate on knife crime, I raised my concerns about referrals to youth offending teams—I have written to the Minister about that as well—and ​whether the young criminals who are sent down that route have any fear of it. I am keen to get the Minister’s comments on whether the effectiveness of YOTs is under review. I know from shopkeepers across my constituency that all too many young people are now going into their stores with a complete sense of omnipotence when it comes to intimidating people, shoplifting and then mugging people on the streets.

Beyond sentencing, we must accept that there is an issue of resource and attitude, which is why I have focused on trying to secure additional police funding for the Met. Policing has become a much more complex activity over the past decade, with officers asked to carry out a much broader range of activities, as gangs’ business models adapt rapidly with technological change. Following private meetings with the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, we have secured extra money for the Met, and the Chancellor has recently added an extra £100 million for knife crime since Jodie’s murder. That resource is welcome, and it is already making an impact, but we now need to see much more consistency in that funding, so that officers can plan much further into the future.

Constituents will always want more bobbies on the beat, and they are absolutely vital in gathering critical intelligence through the building of trust. However, we also need to ensure that the resource is going into the right places. I see it as equally important that we have officers who can work on collecting evidence and securing safe convictions. I note the important intervention by the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) in that regard. Witnesses need to be confident that trials in which they testify will lead to convictions.

We also need to ensure that we are building robust cases against criminals much higher up the food chain who are ruthlessly exploiting young people as an expendable resource. Similarly, the police cannot be expected to plug gaps in other services, so the resourcing of social and children’s services is critical in stemming a young person’s descent into crime. However, as I have said before in this House, that resource must be accompanied by leadership at every level, to ensure that extra cash is directed in the right way and bolstered by a sense of political focus, which gives the police and all other agencies the confidence to use the full range of their powers. I asked about that directly in Prime Minister’s questions recently. I would be grateful for an update from the Minister on the knife crime summit that was committed to.

I do not seek to be partisan, so I will ask the same of the Mayor of London. The mayoral system was designed, in part, to bring greater democratic accountability to issues such as policing, and to provide drive, co-ordination and focus on performance when required. I appreciate that the Mayor is concerned about policing budgets, but I would also like to hear from him how he is articulating to Londoners what he is doing with his budget, and what his strategy is to change the weather on these issues.

When it comes to leadership and attitude, the police need to know that they are supported. In Havering, we are deploying greater use of stop and search, as well as facial recognition technology in our urban centres. However, there also needs to be a political focus on pulling all parts of the system together and making them talk to one another. From my work in the borough, it is clear ​that councillors, policing teams, charities, community members and churchgoers are all doing fantastic work on school exclusions, family breakdowns and flagging at-risk youngsters.

Most recently, I met Hornchurch-based charities Say It With Your Chest and You and Me Counselling, which focus respectively on excluded children, and on parents who feel at a lost as to how to best handle their disruptive children. We need to ensure that such work is directed into a broader local strategy to ensure that it is not just piecemeal or overlapping with existing initiatives. Council consultation on youth violence, for instance, will carry much less weight if it is not engaging with the right young people in the area who are most affected by it. Those charities with a presence on the ground are much more likely to be able to identify and relate to those children.

When I carry out school visits I am struck by the consistency with which mental health is brought up as an issue. Young people are struggling to understand their purpose, worth and value. That is often derived from a negative family and home environment, and fuelled by a lack of belonging or greater community around them. That is why they are so often vulnerable to a gang structure, where they get sucked into a spiral of negative activity. I recently met one of our Harold Hill councillors, who herself experienced that sense of dislocation during her school years. She highlighted to me the need for engagement programmes that are relevant to the particular communities that they are trying to plug into. For instance, she was British-Nigerian, and she said that it is much more effective if people from those communities are talking to those communities, rather than having that sense of somebody trying to interfere from the outside.

Nobody should pretend that these issues are easy to solve, because they are not. After all, the perverse sense of entitlement that allows someone to see it as their right to take someone’s life in a brutal way, such as with the murder of Jodie Chesney, betrays a complete absence of values, decency and human empathy. However, we have been here before when it comes to knife crime and we know what works. Criminals need to know that our attempts to understand their path to violence will be complemented with a hard-nosed intolerance of the mindless destruction they mete out.

One reason why my constituents support tougher knife sentencing is that people believe it is time we showed that communities are back within our control, and a key part of that will be taking criminals off the streets, but that is not solution enough. I would be grateful for the Minister’s assurances that knife crime will be the subject of relentless political focus, so that in criminal justice, education, policing and community outreach, we get the system firing on every cylinder.