As the MP for Vauxhall and Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Knife Crime and Violence Reduction, I see the devastating impact knife crime is having on families and communities of those affected. We see life-changing injuries that victims have to live with for the rest of their lives. Most tragic is the avoidable loss of life—mostly among young, Black males. Only last month just a short walk away from my constituency office near the Oval cricket ground, a 16-year-old was stabbed.
We know the journey towards committing knife crime starts from a young age. More than a fifth of offences involving knife crime were committed by children under 18, some as young as nine years old. It is impossible for me to imagine a scenario where a nine-year- old child could be involved in something like this- but that’s the reality of what services are seeing. There are children behind every single one of the statistics. It’s important to remember too that a 17-year-old is also still a child. They may look and sound more mature, but they are still a child, both in the eyes of the law and according to our values as a society. But the criminal justice system doesn’t always see this. Many young people involved in youth violence have been exploited and groomed - they aren’t simply ‘perpetrators’ who have committed a criminal act. They are also victims of exploitation and these children need our help and our protection.
The National Youth Agency report “Hidden in Plain Sight” highlighted that gangs have been running recruitment drives of vulnerable children, especially girls, because they are less likely to be stopped by the police. And we know that young people were coerced into dressing as key workers during lockdown so that they could move around freely with a supply of drugs. The threat to young people is ever changing and we all need to remain vigilant to keep children and young people safe.
At the APPG on Knife Crime and Violence Reduction, we have heard from frontline workers and experts about measures that the UK Government can take to help tackle this epidemic. And we must acknowledge that it is an epidemic—children are dying and many more feel unsafe and traumatised in their everyday lives. We cannot continue to put this in the “too difficult” box to solve, as unfortunately we have done for many years.
One relatively simple step that the APPG on Knife Crime and Violence Reduction is calling for, and believes would go some way to protecting young people, is to create a statutory definition of child criminal exploitation. There is currently no overarching statutory definition which has meant that there is no one consistent agency response to safeguarding children and the consequence is that this risks some children falling through the cracks. The UK Government should take the opportunity it now has to amend the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to make this change right now – we cannot wait because children’s lives and futures are at risk.
Secondly, key to tackling the root causes of knife crime is ensuring that all professionals and agencies, such as local authorities, police, health bodies, and others, work together. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill introduces Serious Violence Partnerships, which will for the first time see a statutory duty placed on agencies to work together to tackle serious violence. However, those duties do not specifically include putting plans in place to prevent, reduce and tackle child criminal exploitation and serious youth violence. This is a missed opportunity to put the safeguarding of children front and centre of our approach.
Finally, if we view social care as the fourth emergency service, then youth services are the fifth. Often young people are labelled ‘hard to reach’ or blamed for not engaging with services. However, we know local youth services and activities are a vital tool to reach and engage young people. During the pandemic ‘See, Hear, Respond’, a Government funded programme delivered by Barnardo’s in a partnership with 87 other charities reached 27,000 young people at risk of criminal exploitation. Youth workers are in a truly unique position to build trusting relationships young people, and they hold vital information that could support other agencies like the police, schools, and social services to better protect and safeguard children at risk of harm.
The APPG I Co-Chair has campaigned for youth services to be a statutory provision so that all young people can access free, high-quality youth services to help them develop in their formative years.Youth services must be part of the holistic approach, linking up with public health, children’s social care and housing. I pay tribute to the youth workers, voluntary groups and community groups across Vauxhall and right across the country, who are working flat out to support our young people day in, day out. When most of us are at home with our families or on vacation, they are working—some of them on a shoestring budget, and some of them chasing funding application after application to support our young people.
Over the last decade, we have seen reductions and in some cases closures of vital youth services which is a false economy. If we are to tackle knife crime, serious violence, and criminal exploitation of children we must do a better job of preventing it in the first place. As we begin our recovery from the pandemic and find a new normal, we can’t go back to business as usual in terms of tackling youth violence.
Florence Eshalomi MP is Co-Chair of the APPG on Knife Crime and Violence Reduction alongside Taiwo Owatemi MP. Find out more about the group at preventknifecrime.co.uk