Nick de Bois is the former member of Parliament for Enfield North.
It was a depressingly familiar tale reported in the Evening Standard last week. Three young men – all in their teens or early 20s – were admitted to hospital with suspected stab wounds after an apparent knife fight in a leafy part of north London around mid-afternoon.
This was in Primrose Hill – not a place you immediately associate with high levels of deprivation or disadvantaged families.
In London alone were 147 more offences recorded in March 2015 than in March 2014. This represents a very unwelcome surge, bucking the trend of the last three years. The total for the twelve months was 881.
The underlying trend for knife crime assaults is still down considerably since the ghastly peak in 2008, so it would be wrong to jump to the conclusion that we are facing a new surge, but clearly there is much that needs still to be done.
During the last parliament I was able to navigate through the House of Commons a law that introduced mandatory custodial sentences for those convicted of carrying a knife for a second offence.
Despite opposition from our then coalition partners the Liberal Democrats, but with support from Labour and Conservative backbenchers, the amendment I tabled received Royal Assent in February 2015.
That the new Government has not yet enacted the law is inexplicable. It should be put into practice immediately – all the more so because they support it and encouraged it through the House of Commons.
Ministers should perhaps reflect that to kill someone with a knife you first have to carry a knife, and anything the law can do to discourage such practise should be in place.
Yet I am also the first to argue that a deterrent is not sufficient to curb the horrors of knife crime in this country. It will only be part of the solution. What is needed is a robust prevention strategy, as well as a tough sentencing regime for persistent offenders, and that strategy needs to be threefold.
First, a sustained enforcement programme by the police in vulnerable areas.
The Metropolitan Police Commissioner himself told the Greater London Assembly this month that “targeted enforcement” had produced the fall in knife crime as a whole (including those where injuries occurred) but that the Met now needed to refocus its efforts.
He pointed out that because there had been a switch in police emphasis to the supply of drugs to the Home Counties by London gangs, there had been a shift away from targeted work on knife crime and possession.
Surely we have hampered the police’s own efforts by blanket changes to stop and search laws which presumably restrict a police officer’s attempts to detect those carrying a knife?
Is it not logical that if this is indeed the case, then a re-examination of the stop-and-search changes introduced in the last parliament by Theresa May, the Home Secretary, should urgently take place?
Second, whilst politicians and indeed police officials may dispute statistics and trends, of one thing I am certain: there is a huge amount of knife crime that is not reported.
As I witnessed in my constituency advice surgeries on a regular basis, the fear of reporting a crime and being the victim of a further attack far outweighs the desire to report an attack and see the perpetrator punished. And what’s more, in many of the communities where knife crime assaults take place, many young people see it as a badge of honour not to help the police.
Only by rebuilding people’s trust in the police and the justice system will we ever have a chance of breaking down this critical barrier. To do that, the police should be free and encouraged to take part in prevention and not just enforcement. Some forces do, but not all.
Thirdly, and in my view most importantly, is a total commitment to prevention.
Following the riots of 2011 which I witnessed personally in Enfield, the Government introduced a very well thought-out response to gangs and youth violence in its 2011 “Ending Gang and Youth Violence: a Cross-Government Report”. Iain Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, in his foreword wrote:
“We understand that you can’t arrest your way out of the problem, and that is why we have been clear that only with full cross-departmental support can we make an impact… There is already a wealth of expertise and best practice that can be harnessed, but there is no quick fix.”
In her foreword Theresa May added:
“Our proposals are wide-ranging. They are focused on five areas: prevention, pathways out, punishment, partnership working and providing support… Stopping such violence is not a task for the police alone. Teachers, doctors and youth workers all have a vital role to play. Success will only come when local areas and local agencies like these work together and share information”.
Few would disagree, but since then there has been no review of how successful this has been on the ground with practitioners and local authorities (on whom much of the responsibility rested), their agencies, and more importantly the volunteer groups actively involved on the front line of knife crime.
Indeed, there is a suggestion that the fruits of this strategy are not reaching the front line of the campaign against knife crime.
In a letter written only this week, the Ben Kinsella Trust noted, “Education and early intervention are the key but we cannot do it alone.” Appealing for more local government funding the Trust continues: “We are senselessly losing teenagers on a daily basis. Our children are precious and it must stop.”
That’s not to say there is no share of the funding being directed to this and other similar groups, just not enough to have the level of impact we all wish to see.
I know from my own experience over the last five years that many action groups, formed out of personal tragedy from within their own families and their own communities, have been excluded from the educational and prevention programmes by bureaucratic processes.
There is also a seeming reluctance by local authorities and agencies to engage with them because they have no corporate structure or well thought-out business plan.
I believe that we should help grassroots organisations overcome the hurdles to cooperating with the public sector, as they are better placed to engage with young people.
Almost five years since the Government set out what it proposed to do about youth violence, the time has come to assess progress and implement revised strategies, rather than wait and see if the current increase is a new surge or not.
Either way, for London alone to have 881 offences in the year to March 2015, up 20 per cent on the previous year, is far too many.
Once reviewed and revised, the Government would do well to enforce the cross-government strategy in a meaningful and targeted way, as there is no shortage of volunteers who would put those resources to very effective use.