Taiwo Owatemi: ‘How many must suffer the horrific consequences of knife violence before we act?’

As a nation, we face an epidemic of knife crime. The statistics paint a sobering picture. 99 people aged under 25 were murdered with a knife or sharp object between March 2021 and March 2022. 13 were aged under 16. In England and Wales, around 45,000 police recorded offences involved a knife or sharp object in the same time window. This is a 9 per cent increase on 2020-2021 and 30 per cent higher than 2010-2011.

The horror of such statistics is apparent when we remember that behind every number is a face, a name, and a story. Every child lost is an unacceptable tragedy, creating a hole in the heart of each family and leaving communities in anguish.

Juveniles aged 10 to 17 are the offenders in 20 per cent of cases. At such a young age, children should be at school, playing, learning, and preparing for the future they dream of.

Criminal gangs recruit their members predominantly on school grounds, where they have access to vulnerable teenagers. Gangs often provide the friends, family, money, protection, and acceptance they lack elsewhere. We need to break this cycle through better prevention, engaging with young people in schools by providing more youths’ clubs and after school activities.

We simply cannot ignore this any longer. As a member of the APPG on Child Criminal Exploitation and Knife Crime, I have long been calling on the Government to adopt a serious, multi-faceted approach to this issue. As Idris Elba pointed out through his Don’t Stop Your Future campaign, when we acknowledge a serious threat to our safety — such as poorly trained, poorly handled dogs — we are able to take dramatic action. The same level of resolve and determination is needed from the Government, yet they continue to sit on their hands, too focused on their own party politics to save lives.

In April 2023, Coventry entered a Community Initiative to Reduce Violence, a deterrence programme which aims to identify and help individuals most at risk of participating in violent crime. Working with local police, they meet children where they are, with highly personalised interventions. The programme was tried and tested in Northamptonshire and recorded a 40 per cent drop in offending after only 6 months.

With such promising results, implementing more preventative support programmes across the UK could provide us with the change we so desperately need. Unfortunately, the closure of so many youth centres mean organisations like Fridays and Coventry Youth Partnership in my constituency are having to try to fill this gap.

It is a scandal that the loopholes allowing the online sale of zombie knives are still in existence. The government has repeatedly committed to solving this, yet their bill is still yet to be passed. Alongside these legal changes, we desperately need to craft specific laws outlawing the grooming of young children into criminal gangs, shutting off this path before it even begins.

Moreover, we must ensure police forces across the country have the proper resources and training to get these knives off our streets. The government has perpetually failed in this area. For instance, West Midlands Police, my local force, has seen the highest incidence of knife crime of any force in the country, yet we have had the lowest increase in police numbers since 2010. It is no surprise that with such inadequate support from the Government, police forces have been struggling to hold back the growing tide of knife crime.

Yet, as the schemes in Coventry demonstrate, prevention is our best chance for creating the change we need. This increased support for the police must be coupled with community outreach programmes and educational initiatives in schools, that recognise the socio-economic factors at play. At their heart, these schemes must meet young people where they are at, seeking to empower them to make their own positive choices.

Following the Conservative Party’s complete inability to get a grip on this, the Labour Party is ready to tackle this issue head on. As a first step, we have committed to outlawing the grooming of children into gangs and to providing mental health support for children at high risk, whilst also further integrating youth workers into police stations, reaching children who have begun to be involved with gangs.

The recent memorial in Parliament Square was a harrowing reminder of what it means for us to fail in this task. My heart broke to see parents holding up pictures of their children who they will never get back. How many more people will need to bear the horrific consequences of knife violence before we do the right thing? We must act now. We have the chance to stop lives being ruined, changed, and lost over knife crime. Let’s help people get back on the right path and provide them with the tools to thrive once again.

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