Two years on from when I first secured laws in Parliament to help tackle knife crime, the attacks and killings continue to increase.
Last year saw a 20 per cent rise in knife attacks involving injuries to victims, up from 3,663 to 4,415. That’s someone being injured every two hours. This year alone there has been 30 deaths – and 24 of the victims have been under 25 years of age.
Politicians appear to be floundering in their response, with the latest being the Mayor of London who finally launched his knife crime strategy last week.
Whilst he presents a comprehensive analysis of the problem he does not offer any new solutions. He offers more politics and promises. The former does him no credit, the latter is something that rings hollow after wasting over a year doing nothing.
This is an issue which in last year’s election he claimed would be a top priority, yet it has taken 13 months to produce a document which offers very little in the way of new thinking – and in places is actually contradictory.
The Mayor has chosen to lead with eye-catching measures such as metal detecting “wands “ in schools to search for knives – which I agree will help keep them out of schools – but as I witnessed it will probably just mean knives end up being hidden in parks for use at another time.
He has re-stated his support for more police operations to remove knives from the streets, but he still maintains a lukewarm approach to Stop and Search.
It is however welcome to see him planning to build on the work of the government to remove the sale of unacceptable knives from online and retail units, including a possible name and shame approach and a licensing scheme.
More worrying however is that the Mayor’s strategy persists in sidelining to a significant degree the immense role gangs play in generating the culture and practice of carrying knives. Gangs are huge operations now.
Their tentacles reach out from a very small, high-level command across a periphery of young adults, teenagers and even youngsters of 10 and 11.
They in turn help spread the fear that drives many not involved with gangs (but acutely aware of them) to carry knives in the mistaken belief that doing so makes them safer.
Knife crime is not the exclusive preserve of gangs, but they are a huge driver of the unwelcome increase in possession.
To tackle the gangs is to tackle a major source of today’s knife-carrying culture and the violence of gang members, but the Mayor’s strategy explicitly down plays the significance of knife crime incidents to gangs, whereas evidence from Strathclyde violence reduction unit shows that the actual break up of gangs, including dispersal of gang members with the support of their families, reduced gang and knife crime by over one third.
After all, if a mother is visited by the police and it is explained she will end up choosing between visiting her son (and it is more often than not a male) either in hospital or at his graveside, the willingness to change your neighbourhood and play your part in dispersing gangs to save your son is high. 2015 saw yet another double digit fall in knife crime.
When in 2013 I worked to deliver a Parliamentary amendment that meant anyone convicted of carrying a knife for the second time would receive a mandatory custodial sentence, I thought we were well on our way to tackling the huge threat of knife crime across the UK.
Judges, however, continue to let us down. Only 60% of repeat offenders are being sent into custody on conviction, and this at a time when the police are successfully arresting more offenders than ever before.
However, as I made clear at the time of introducing this law, it had to work hand in hand with more effective early intervention programmes before youngsters get caught up in the judicial system.
The Mayor’s strategy unsurprisingly recognises this, but is unclear if he will be bold enough to recruit the community groups who surface often after a tragedy has taken place in their family and local community.
I was pleased to see organisations that I have worked with consulted in the preparation of this document, but it did not need another year, effectively wasted, to reach the conclusion that so many have reached before about the effectiveness of early intervention.
What could have been done in the last year is that the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (who allocate the funding to early intervention projects) simplify the process and make it truly accessible for small, but effective, organisations to access these funds now.
In fact the Knife Crime Strategy is weak and vague on early intervention – while it suggests that schools should play a role, there is little detail of how this will work and how it will be ensured that schools will allow groups working to tackle knife crime into lessons.
There is considerable resistance from many schools, and clearly he will need the help of government to open doors that are presently shut. Instead, in a typical partisan fashion, Sadiq Khan makes no acknowledgement of this, sticking instead to criticising the Government.
It remains unclear how disruptive he will be in how to intervene early and effectively, whether he will be prepared to engage with groups that are not embedded in the existing programmes or often, because of bureaucratic hurdles are presently un-favoured for financial and advocacy support from the state, including some schools and councils.
A soon-to-be-published report by KidsCount on knife crime and gangs has drawn on the experiences of young people caught up and affected by knife crime and is a powerful testament to how many projects, both community based and state run interventions, can make a huge difference to young people’s lives.
That Sadiq Khan has taken his eye off the ball in his first 12 months is a lost opportunity. For knife crime in London, it is now all or nothing.
There has been a 31 per cent increase in knife crime – with a 22 per cent increase in knife-related injuries. Of around 4,500 knife injuries, 2,000 of the victims were under 25.
It is disappointing that even at the launch of his own strategy he has played politics with this issue, claiming that “The only way we can truly beat the scourge of knife crime on our streets is by properly funding youth services”, adding that the Government need to step up, reverse the cuts etc.
If it really was that simple, why did we see a huge decline in knife crime deaths in 2008 and 2014, which was during tough financial times?
Further, why is it that when death from knife crime last surged in London in 2008 it was at a time when at the time no “cuts” had been imposed, being prior to the country facing up to the reckless management of the economy by his Labour government?
This simplistic political opportunism is a sad hallmark of the present Mayor which can be tolerated on most political issues, but not when it comes to acting on something so serious as knife crime. It really would be more productive to work together.