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Whitsun Debate on Violent Crime

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24 May 2006

Ms Diane Abbott: I wish to raise one constituency matter and two international matters. The constituency matter on which I shall address the House is gun, knife and gang-related crime. The whole House will have read in the newspapers last week about the tragic stabbing of Kiyan Prince in north London. We in Hackney are familiar with the aftershock of such crime because in 2004, 16-year-old Robert Levy was stabbed to death by a 15-year-old.

I wish to say a few words about the matter because the problem with both gun and knife crime is that, when there is an especially spectacular incident, it is all over the papers for a day or two, but then people forget about it. However, the problem is ongoing. There is a rising tide of incidents in the inner city. The problem does not just affect London, because the number of incidents of gun, knife and gang-related crime is increasing in urban areas throughout the country.

We need to be aware that knife crime and knife homicide is a schoolboy’s crime because the peak age for knife crime is between 14 and 21. The idea of playground quarrels that would once have resulted in a bloody nose ending with someone bleeding to death in the gutter, like Kiyan Prince or Robert Levy, is tragic. Such tragedies are also avoidable.

I praise the Government for the work that they have already done on knife crime. We are going to raise the age at which it is legal to carry a knife from 16 to 18. We will also give teachers more powers to search schoolchildren for weapons, and there is talk of experimenting with metal detectors in schools. All those measures will be important and helpful, but I stress that we will not have an impact on knife, gun and gang-related crime in the long run unless we address the youth culture in our inner cities. The saturation of that youth culture with music, videos and video games, all of which are riddled with violence, lies behind some of the shocking incidents, such as the stabbing of the young man in north London a few days ago. Welcome though law enforcement measures are, they will not alone solve the problem.

In Hackney, in the aftermath of the stabbing of Robert Levy, the police and community made a tremendous effort to address the situation. The police went into schools to teach young people about the dangers of knives and set up all kinds of mentoring schemes to give young people alternatives to their malign role models on the street. Very often, young teenagers are mentored in the ways of violence and crime by older men, so the police in Hackney are targeting those people so that they can get them behind bars. Meanwhile, the police are trying to work with young people and support their parents so that they can be given a different value system from that of the street, violence and MTV. The Government need to address the problem through not only law enforcement measures, but resources for such long-term work with young people and parents, whether that is done through local authorities, or through partnerships among the police, local authorities and the voluntary sector.

It is easy for hon. Members from other parts of the country to say, “We don’t have the problem in my constituency. It is a localised thing in the inner city, so why should I concern myself with it?”. I would say to that that we are seeing the type of gun crime that was once a feature of areas such as Brixton and Hackney in Nottingham, Yorkshire and as far afield as Aberdeen, so what those hon. Members see in the city of London today, they will see in other urban areas tomorrow.

Some of the wards in London with the most serious problems relating to gun and knife-related crime are on the edge of what will be the footprint of the Olympic park. The idea that we will bring millions of people in 2012 into an area that has systemic problems with gun, knife and gang-related crime on its fringes could—I say only “could”—prove embarrassing to all of us. For the sake of the mother of Kiyan Prince, the parents of Robert Levy, a whole generation of young people growing up in our city and this country’s reputation, we cannot afford to let gun and knife-related crime to be only the stuff of a few days’ headlines before we all move on. We need sustainable work—both law enforcement and community work—that will help to save a generation of young boys who are being sucked up into a malign, lawless and violent culture.

I want to raise the international issue of Guantanamo Bay. Hon. Members might say, “It’s been there since 2002, so why should we talk about it again?” However, it is important to put it on record that, in the past week, important benchmarks have been set relating to the debate on Guantanamo Bay. First, the UN Committee against Torture has investigated Guantanamo Bay and concluded that the conditions there constitute torture. The Committee has also called for the camp to be closed down as soon as possible. We have also heard in the past few days that four detainees at Guantanamo have attempted to commit suicide, which gives the lie to the notion that there is nothing wrong with the regime there. Last but not least, our Attorney-General has taken the serious step of making a public speech saying that Guantanamo Bay should be closed as a matter of principle. Lord Goldsmith was swift to say that he was speaking in a personal capacity, and we must accept that, but when someone in his position with such a distinguished legal career steps up to condemn what is happening in Guantanamo, the House must listen. The Attorney-General is not the only person who has called for the closure of Guantanamo. The UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, has called for that, as have Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

The problem with Guantanamo is partly what happens inside it, partly the dubious legal basis on which the Americans are holding the people and, finally, the negative effect that its very existence has on the war against terror. The Americans would argue that they are entitled to hold the people indefinitely without due process, as that would be internationally recognised, because they are at war. When it is suggested that, if the people are prisoners of war, they should be subject to the Geneva convention, the Americans refuse to accept that, but they cannot have it both ways. They cannot say that they are holding the people because they are at war, yet refuse to accept that the Geneva convention applies.

The Americans try to say that the conditions are fine and that the complaints of ex-detainees are unfounded, yet even the UN officials were not allowed to meet detainees without signing confidentiality agreements. Once the detainees actually leave Guantanamo—as did the British detainees, thankfully, due to the hard work of Lord Goldsmith and others—the stories that we hear about the treatment that they have endured are horrifying.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) said earlier this week, the Government should facilitate a visit to Guantanamo by a delegation of British MPs. The Government should also do more for British residents who are not necessarily British nationals who find themselves interned in Guantanamo. I know that it is not the practice of Britain to offer consular services to people who are just British residents, but it is also not the practice of Britain to stand on the side while people are undergoing torture. International institution after international institution, culminating in the UN Committee against Torture, have said that conditions in Guantanamo are tantamount to torture.

Tony Blair has to take advantage—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. The hon. Lady is an experienced Member of the House and knows that we do not address our colleagues in that manner.

Ms Abbott: My profuse apologies, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The Prime Minister should take advantage of his special relationship with George W. Bush to raise the issue of Guantanamo in more emphatic and public terms than he has hitherto. The House recently debated the report on the 7/7 bombings in this country. As a House of Commons, we talk about anti-terrorism measures and legislation, policing, enforcement and law and order to ward off the threat of terrorism. However, as long as young Muslim men and women, wherever they might be, including in this country, see the camp at Guantanamo and people held outside the law, and hear the allegations of torture, it undermines both our fight to get community cohesion and the war against terror. We need to demonstrate that when we talk about civil liberties, freedom and enduring international values, it is not just talk but something that we mean. There is much more that our Government and Prime Minister can do to close down Guantanamo once and for all. That would represent an advance in the war against terror.

The second international issue that I want to raise is the situation in Nigeria. It is a special country to me. I have one of the largest Nigerian communities in London and I have been privileged to visit it twice within the past 12 months. A horrible disaster took place in Nigeria in the past few days that was not been as well reported as it might have been. A pipeline explosion killed more than 200 people on the outskirts of Lagos. More than 100 blackened corpses were strewn on the water’s edge. The Lagos state police commissioner said:

“You can see the corpses. Some are burnt to ash. Others are remnants. We estimate”

that more than 200 people died. Those people died not as a result of a natural disaster, but because they were tapping into a pipeline that runs close to Lagos to take away petroleum in jerry cans to sell. No more dangerous activity can be imagined, but the idea that there are people who are desperate enough to make money from such an activity points to some of the social and economic dislocation in Nigeria.

Oil has been both a blessing and a curse. It has been a blessing because it could make Nigeria a prosperous country, but it has been a curse because, as is the case in so many oil-producing countries, it has brought with it corruption and an undue reliance on the oil production sector. It is not just that people die from tapping into pipelines. One of the other tragedies of oil production in Nigeria is that, although the Niger delta produces some of the highest quality oil in the world and makes billions, the Nigerians who live there exist not only in the most abject poverty, but in an area that has terrible oil pollution. The water is polluted. They cannot fish or farm, and they do not have access to fresh water. The situation has been going on for years. The huge profits made in Nigeria have not helped the people of the delta.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD): Does the hon. Lady agree that there needs to be far greater transparency in the payments made by extraction companies to developing countries? The brutal truth is that most of the money does not go to benefit the general population, but enriches a small elite.

Ms Abbott: I agree absolutely and wholeheartedly, and I shall come to that point because it is at the heart of my remarks.

The natural gas from oil extraction is flared night and day, which means that villages are illuminated night and day. That shows the crudeness of the oil industry. It does not bother to use the natural gas as a resource in itself because the profits to be made from oil are so vast. Who benefits from that? As the hon. Gentleman said, there is no transparency in the payments made.

The last time I was in Nigeria, we had a meeting with Shell. When I asked about oil pollution, the senior person in the company said that it was all caused by people tapping into its pipelines. I said, “Are you saying that there was never any oil pollution in the delta until people started tapping into pipelines?” She said, “No.” I then asked, “Does Shell take no responsibility for the lack of infrastructure and schools, and the desperate plight of the people?” She said, “Well, no. We give money to the federal Government and local politicians. Our responsibility ends there.” It is not good enough for a company with such strong British links to have that attitude to the environment and poverty reduction.

We have worked with Nigeria on debt relief and governance and we all welcome the return to democratic elections. However, we need to work with Shell and other oil extraction companies to tell them that it is not enough for them to wash their hands and to say, in effect, “We have paid off federal and local officials. What more do you expect us to do?” Shell bears a big responsibility for the plight of ordinary people in the delta. It is time it faced up to that responsibility. Anything Her Majesty’s Government can do to help them do that will be important.

When I was in Nigeria, we heard about attempts by President Obasanjo, who is in his second term in office—in fact, he did another term as general in the long period when Nigeria was under military rule—to change the constitution so that he could have a third term. Fortunately, the Nigerian Senate debated that and voted his proposal down. That is a victory for democracy in Nigeria.

This Government have a proud record on raising concerns about Africa and trying to work with it on debt reduction, most notably with Nigeria itself, but we need to go further. The Chancellor recently made a speech on corruption, but we need to go further still. We need to impress on a country such as Nigeria, which has the potential to be very wealthy, that there are still outstanding problems with governance, transparency, and the fact that the people of the Niger delta and across the country live in such poverty when the region is Shell’s most profitable area for oil production.

I make no apologies for raising Nigeria in the Chamber. Africa has so much potential. To visit Africa and see its raw materials and the potential of its people being wasted because of governance problems is tragic. I am grateful for the opportunity to draw those things to the attention of the House.

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): I am pleased to be able to participate in this Whitsun recess Adjournment debate and to raise some important issues that are of major concern to my constituents in Bexleyheath and Crayford. Those mainly concern crime, antisocial behaviour, vandalism, graffiti, juvenile drunkenness, gangs and the availability of knives across the constituency—in fact, across the borough of Bexley.

Those problems, which mainly affect town centres in our borough and in my constituency, particularly Bexleyheath, Crayford and Welling, have spread to residential areas. There is an increasing problem—an epidemic—which is the No. 1 concern of residents in our borough of Bexley. People feel that not enough care and consideration are being given to those issues by national Government and that their quality of life is being affected.

The police, the national Government and the recently defeated Bexley council all said that they were concerned and talked a lot about the issues, but people locally feel threatened by behaviour of the sort I am describing—in the streets, the shopping centres and their homes—and that the Government have not addressed it.

The Prime Minister raised the respect agenda, but many in my area feel that it is just another gimmick. We have two good local free-sheet newspapers. This week, one, the Bexley Extra, has a headline “Boy, 15, Stabbed Opposite Church”. The other, the News Shopper, has a headline “Teenage Rampage: Knife-Wielding Youths Riot on the Streets”. Those are the things that worry and anger people in the borough of Bexley.

I listened with interest to the speech made by the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), particularly the first part, which was about Hackney and the knives and the culture there. I endorse an awful lot of what she said, because we have the same in south-east London. It has already spread out, as she highlighted, to the suburbs, where there is great concern of a similar nature to that which she raised. I commend her views on the fact that we need things for the young people to do, role models and so forth. She made an important point and I am grateful to be able to follow that part of her speech.

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