Bishop of St Albans speaks about knife crime

On 20th October 2022, the House of Lords debated a motion to take note on Violent Crime, Gang Activity and Burglaries. The Bishop of St Albans spoke in the debate, with particular reference to knife crime:

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Snape, not only for obtaining this timely debate but for his introduction to it. I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

I will focus on just one specific area of this huge topic, which I imagine many of us will want to address: knife crime. The diocese I serve encompasses Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire; in Bedfordshire, knife crime has increased by a third since 2010. There are various estimates about the increases over the last year, but it is something in the region of 10% across our nation. There was a fall during the lockdowns, but we are now rapidly reaching the same levels as pre Covid and the projections are stark—so it is deeply worrying.

It is engendering huge levels of fear: as I go around talking to people, many of the elderly are fearful of their houses being broken into, although they are statistically unlikely to be the victims of knife crime. However, when you go into schools, it is a topic of which many young children are terrified, not least as they make their way to and from school. Hospitals are dealing with soaring numbers of stab victims: 4,112 cases were recorded last year, a 2% increase on the previous year. Of those, 855 were in London, 405 in the West Midlands, 310 in Greater Manchester, 240 in West Yorkshire hospitals, 175 in South Yorkshire and 140 in Merseyside. In other words, this is not just a case of stories being particularly highly reported in the papers of London; it is something that affects areas—particularly urban but even sometimes rural—across our country. It is particularly concerning that a recent report suggests that only one in six crimes involving a knife in London has been solved by the police over the last two years.

I know that others will comment on the police, but we need to start by thanking them for being on the front line, which is the most terrifying place to be when you are confronted with a knife. Having been out sometimes with a night shift to watch what our police are having to cope with, I have nothing but admiration for them putting their lives on the line and having to deal with situations I would not know how to begin with—and some of them are doing it night after and after. We really need to support our police. This is why we need to ensure that the promises that have been made to recruit 20,000 new police officers are met, and that we get those people in place. The latest I can find out on recruitment is that we are sort of half way there. I will ask the Minister a bit more about that at the end. We need to have people on the ground who are policing, and we need to support our police and everybody in our criminal justice system.

Having said that, when someone is convicted, it is too late: we need to get far ahead on preventing it before we are simply dealing with the effects. As noble Lords know, some people say it costs—we hear various figures—something like £40,000 a year to keep someone in a young offender institution. It would be far better if we were spending that money on preventive work with youth workers and other people to get ahead of the game. We need to try to work out how we can support the police and get ahead of this terrible problem that is affecting so many communities.

How can we work to beat our swords into ploughshares and our knives into useful tools? In the areas where I work with voluntary groups and churches, there is an awful lot of work going on and a lot of analysis about how we can build the sort of communities that are likely to reduce the levels of knife crime. This is not a problem for just the left or the right; we need solutions from all political sides if we are going to get on top of this. According to a very interesting analysis I read, there is poverty of resources, poverty of relationships and poverty of identity.

On the poverty of resources, we are not investing in the way that we used to in youth work, and we are not investing in enough groups, sports and other activities to give young people activities to engender their sense of competition, pride and so on. We really need to think about how we are investing in this. In the communities in which I work, so many of our youth centres are being sold off. I think I am right in saying that my diocese now employs more youth workers—as a voluntary organisation—than Hertfordshire County Council and the Bedfordshire unitary authorities combined. That is good, but we need to invest more and recognise that there is a poverty of resources.

From the perspective of the right, there is a poverty of relationships. We have a crisis of children being brought up in families with absent parents and where there are no role models. A lot of the extended family has gone—where, for example, when a marriage broke up there was probably an uncle who would come round and be in loco parentis. A lot of that has gone. We need to look at how we can invest in our family life and how we think about young people having real mentors who can hold them responsible. It is vital that we think about these role models.

Finally, on the poverty of identity, many young people feel as though there is nothing to which they can aspire. They are being sold an awful lot of guff in the media about how everybody can be successful and famous. It is no wonder that they are dismayed when they know there is no way out of their local community. How can we provide ways for these young people to see that there are alternatives to finding their identity and role in society that are not based on holding a knife and saying, “Do what I say, or else”? Some of the very interesting work that has gone on with our churches has involved knife amnesties. Some noble Lords will have seen the extraordinary sculptures made of the knives that have been handed in; we had one recently in one of our churches in Luton.

I will ask the Minister three questions. First, may we have an update on the recruitment of police and police community support officers? That needs to include how many are leaving, not just how many we are recruiting: are the total numbers going up, because we need to ensure that we have the resources on the ground? Secondly, may we have an assessment of the success of serious violence reduction orders in reducing knife crime? Thirdly, may we have an assessment of the troubled families programme, which ran from 2013 to 2020 and worked with over 400,000 families? What lessons did we learn and are we implementing them?


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe (Lab): We have had a very important debate, covering a wide front—perhaps there is something there for us to reflect on when we come to address some of these fundamental issues. One thing that came through very clearly is the requirement for more money to be spent in this area. It behoves us to see how we can raise the money. Invariably, it will mean that taxes have to be found in one way or another, but I also share the view of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and the noble Lord, Lord Bird, that there ought to be more fundamental work done in shifting from dealing with the problems that arise in crime to looking at the fundamentals that cause crime in the first instance. That takes us back to really basic issues about the family and so on. Yes, poverty is a very big factor in dealing with this, but the other factor is the poverty of spirit that we now have in the country. We really ought to go back to some basics. Even though we were in poverty, people in my youth did not necessarily commit crime. Therefore, it is not solely an issue that stands on its own ground.

Lord Paddick (LD): As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans said, the issues of gang violence and knife crime are complex and deep-seated. Restoring a visible police presence may at least stop the vulnerable from carrying knives for their own protection, but only if they believe that the police will be there to protect them, whatever the colour of their skin.

Concerning gangs—here we go, I am going to be controversial—drug law reform needs to be seriously looked at, to take drug dealing out of the hands of criminals and put illegal drug dealers out of business. The two main political parties in this country need to get over the ideological aversion to serious drug law reform. People are dying: from knife crime, from drug misuse and from overdose—including a former partner of mine—because of ideology.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con): The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans made a very good point when he reiterated how important civil society is. Much of that is down to local authorities and activities in local areas, but the Supporting Families programme has helped thousands of families across England—162,000 this year alone—through a whole-family approach.

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