2008 has seen two tragic fatal stabbings in Hackney – Matalan store manager Jamie Simpson and 17-year old Devoe Roach. Every day there are reports in the papers about fights that get out of control and end in stabbings. We are hearing more and more stories about young people carrying knives around with them – to school, in the park and around the streets. There is a variety of legislation designed to tackle knife crime. Most recently the Violent Crime Reduction Act made it illegal for under-18s to buy knives. It also increased the maximum jail sentence for carrying a knife from 2 to 4 years. Police and head-teachers may search people they suspect of carrying a weapon and people who use others to carry or conceal knives can be arrested. But despite these tough criminal justice measures, knife crime continues to be a serious problem that appears difficult to tackle.
One of the main difficulties is that young people are disproportionately the victims of violent and street crime. Often people survive stabbings but are frightened into carrying weapons themselves. Young people in Hackney and Stoke Newington talk about carrying knives to protect themselves from crime. But carrying a knife also makes a person more likely to be a victim of crime. Police say that often a young person carrying a knife has not really thought about the consequences of their actions. However streetwise they may be they do not have a real sense of the seriousness of stabbing someone. Therefore a key part of tackling knife crime is showing young people the true consequences of carrying knives.
But there are also a number of difficulties arising out of Hackney as a borough. The population in Hackney is very fast-growing and it is made up of a large number of under-18s. Unfortunately many of Hackney’s young people have experienced living in poverty or hardship and at times are unemployed or out of education. These factors give us an idea of how knife crime can be most successfully tackled.
For what is lacking in the criminal justice approach to tackling knife crime is dealing with these underlying factors that can lead to an involvement in crime. The tough measures that have been introduced may work as a deterrent to an extent, but is it right that the UK sends more young people to prison than any other Western European country? Once a young person becomes involved in the criminal justice system it makes it that much harder for them to turn their lives around. Young people need a chance at making a success of their lives before they get into trouble.
A focus on improving the education and employment opportunities for our young people is therefore the most important thing we can do to tackle knife crime. And with this we need to pour resources into youth projects that help take young people off the streets and give them a new focus in life. During a Westminster debate this month I called for more money to be spent on such projects. The Labour Government has done a lot for children and families: over 600,000 children have been lifted out of relative poverty since they came to power and more money than ever is going into education. But more needs to be done to deal with global issues that become local problems: the decline in manufacturing jobs, the rise in debt, and the increasing price of living in the capital, all mean that young people are vulnerable to becoming disheartened with the opportunities open to them. Hackney has many fantastic youth projects that are turning this situation around for some young people. I say let’s give these projects the funding they need to make it happen for all our young people.