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Parliamentary Debate on Gun Crime

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18 Oct 2004

Ms Diane Abbott: I am grateful to have a chance to speak in this important debate and I have listened with care to the contributions of hon. Members on both sides of the House. For more than a decade, gun crime has cast a shadow over my constituency. Sadly, every so often an incident occurs, normally involving a young girl or girls, such as the incident in Nottingham or the incident in Birmingham 18 months ago, and for a few days gun crime makes the headlines and we have debates in the House. But in Hackney, parts of Brent, Lambeth and Southwark and other inner-city areas in Birmingham and Manchester, gun crime has taken its toll year in and year out for a decade.

It is always important to remember in our discussions that levels of gun crime in this country are still only a fraction of those in cities such as New York and Chicago. I congratulate my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench on the steps that they have taken to deal with the gun crime menace—including increasing sentences for carrying a firearm and funding community organisations that address the issue. My Labour colleague, Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, has also been responsible for putting many more policemen on the streets of London, with the results that we see.

The particular problem of urban gun crime that I face in Hackney seems to be rediscovered every 18 months or so. We have always had armed professional criminals who commit a crime, take the gun home and put it away, but what has been happening on the streets of inner London for more than a decade is new. For young men—it is primarily young men—going out routinely armed is part of their style. They are not dressed to go out clubbing of an evening unless they carry a gun. The notion of guns as a style accessory that is part of a person's culture is new. As an east-end MP, I know all about professional armed robbers, but what we see on the streets of Hackney, Lambeth, Brent and Southwark is something else. We see young people for whom the gun culture is part and parcel of their youth culture.

Although the level of gun crime is tiny and it is important not to sensationalise it, the fact that an increasing number of innocent passers-by are caught up in the crossfire creates real fear in inner-city communities. The people most likely to be on the receiving end of a bullet fired by a professional armed criminal is another professional armed criminal and, sadly, security guards. In Hackney, however, people waiting at a bus stop have been caught up in gun crime. People have gone to clubs, a gun has been fired in one room, the bullet has travelled through a wall and has hit an innocent person in another room. Most recently, an 18-month-old child was shot as a result of a gun incident. Such pervasive and random crime creates fear in the community out of all proportion to the statistics.

In the short term, it cannot be repeated often enough that the majority of gun crimes are performed with replica weapons that have been re-engineered. I have asked Ministers about that before and heard about the difficulties of definition. I can only repeat that the police and people in the community want a complete ban on replicas. It cannot be beyond the wit of Home Office lawyers and the great brains that advise Ministers to devise a way of dealing with the menace of replicas that does not mean arresting children for carrying toys. The majority of the guns involved in inner-city gun-crime incidents are replicas. As has been said, a policeman called out to an incident at which there is a gun does not know whether he faces a replica or a real gun. It will not be too long before a policeman opens fire only to find that he has fired on a kid with a replica. I urge Ministers to consider a total ban of replica weapons.

Other steps need to be taken to keep guns off the street in the short term. I am chairman of the all-party group on gun crime, which last year took evidence on the subject. We were concerned to find that Customs does not keep records of the number of guns it confiscates when people try to smuggle them into the country. It needs to make gun crime more of a priority by tracking guns going in and out of the country. It is extraordinary that it cannot produce those figures. We need a more joined-up approach to gun crime, which embraces what is happening in Customs. Those are some of the short-term measures.

In the medium term, we need to do something about witness protection. A witness to a major gangland killing will be whisked away by the police, have their identity changed and the rest of it. Unfortunately, in Hackney, as in other inner-city areas, gun crime is almost too routine for that to happen. I cannot speak for Nottingham, Gloucester or other parts of the country, but gun crime in inner-city London is not stranger crime. By and large, people know who committed the crimes. If they do not know the individual, they know the gang.
 
The problem is that people are still frightened to come forward, because they believe that the police cannot protect them. As I have told Ministers before, more needs to be done to protect witnesses, not only witnesses to major gangland killings but to the intermediate type of gun crime. A middle-aged woman visited my advice session. She was a churchgoer and had gone to court as a witness. Since seeing someone go down for a gun crime, that woman, who is in her 60s, has had to move four times. She rings the police to ask for help, but the trial is over and they no longer have a role.

How can we crack down on gun crime if people who genuinely want to be witnesses feel that the police cannot protect them? We need to focus on witness protection, not just for major crimes but for the intermediate gun crime that is tragically an everyday reality in my constituency.

 Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey) (LD): As the hon. Lady knows, I support her hugely in what we are trying to do in the all-party group. May I add one more thing to her list? It is about victim support. My experience is that if people know that when they give evidence or a statement to the police it is bound to mean that they have to go to court, they will not come forward; whereas if they know that they can talk to the police but that a separate process requires their consent for the use of that evidence, we will receive much more evidence. People are willing to share information, but not if the result is their having to stand publicly in the witness box six months later.

Ms Abbott: That is a reasonable point. It is all to easy to bandy statistics on the subject, but I am looking at practical steps forward for people who face the reality of gun crime day in, day out. That would help my constituents, who want to go to court and see criminals behind bars but are terrified and, for whatever reason, rightly or wrongly, do not feel that the police can or will afford them protection, especially once the criminal has actually been sent to prison.

The police cannot fight gun crime on their own. It is in the nature of inner-city gun crime that the community often knows who is behind it. It is vital to have links with the community and to work with it. The Metropolitan police have shown the way with Operation Trident, although there is always more that could be done, but they were ahead of many police forces in realising that they had to enlist the support of the community.

The House may not welcome what I am about to say, but I have to point out that there is a history between many inner-London communities and the Metropolitan police. For centuries, the history in Hackney has been that Hackney people do not grass—rightly or wrongly. When, in addition, we consider some of the incidents of brutality and corruption that have characterised some inner-city police stations, we have to acknowledge that history. I say to the community that we must put the suspicions and issues of the past behind us, and work with the police to put criminals behind bars. However, I say to the House and the police that there is a history and we must work to bring the community and the police together.

I now turn to the long term. As I said, gun crime has been a problem in Hackney for more than a decade. Years before the House was talking about it, years  before the papers were talking about it, people were coming to me saying, "We see people on the bus with these guns. What is going on?" What really brought the situation home to me was when, four or five years ago, officers from Operation Trident showed me slides that they had taken of people who had died as a result of gun crime—the actual criminals, the young men carrying the guns. I saw pictures of young black men, not much older than my son, lying face-down in pools of blood and I asked myself, "What has our community come to that young people hold their lives and their communities so cheap that they will throw away their lives?" And for what? For nothing.

Gun crime is a particular tragedy for the communities in which it occurs. I have spoken of the fear that criminals often engender and of how people are frightened to come forward, but it is a tragedy for communities that there is a generation of young men, even if it is only a minority, who are so socially alienated that carrying a gun and being the muscle for a hard-drug operation is the height of their aspiration.

Obviously, criminals commit crime, but criminals are created from a pool of social alienation, and part of that alienation is the frightening, continuing educational underachievement of black boys in our schools system. I have said this before, but I will say it again: we cannot allow a situation where, year after year, other ethnic groups catch up with white children—in some cases, overtaking them—and black boys continue to fall further behind. Unless we address the underlying causes of that social alienation, a proportion of young people, a fraction, will always fall through the school system, fall into social alienation and then become prey to the gun culture.

I would advise against exaggerating gun crime in this country—it is nothing like what is seen in the United States—but I have no doubt, as a mother, a resident and a Member of Parliament in somewhere that has been a hot spot for gun crime for more than 10 years, that it creates fear in the hearts of residents, even if the figures about what is likely to happen and whether they are likely to see it are relatively low.

Thanks to the work of Operation Trident, gun crime has begun to recede. Trident has been successful, but there is more to be done. We cannot afford to let 18-month-old children become the victims of gun crime. We cannot afford to lose even one life to gun crime, so I urge Ministers to consider taking practical steps about replica weapons, to consider witness protection issues and to help those in Operation Trident work closely with other police forces to roll out its lessons about the importance of listening to the community. Above all, I urge Ministers to look at the reasons why some young men in some of our big cities seem to feel that life has nothing more to offer them than demonstrating their masculinity and status by holding on to guns.

It is tragic that, every 18 months, hon. Members get up in the House to say, "We have reached a watershed on this issue." We heard that about the Birmingham shootings; we have heard it today. This is not just about the rare case of a young girl that excites public opinion; some of us will not be satisfied until the relentless, week-on-week toll that gun crime causes in our communities is ended.
 


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