Mayor of London Sadiq Khan recently admitted that knife crime keeps him awake at night – and with fatal stabbings of teenagers in the capital rising to their highest level in over a decade on his watch, I can understand why. It’s a vicious cycle, one in which the perception of London as a violent capital prompts young people to carry knives out of fear. To break it, we need bold leadership and a greater sense of urgency.
In July 2018, I authored the all-party Youth Violence Commission’s Interim report, which urged Khan to establish a Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) in London, based on the model that has worked in Glasgow. I was pleased when Khan adopted this recommendation, but since it was launched in October 2018, the London VRU has met just seven times – meaning that on average, 20 people have been murdered in the capital between each meeting. That’s not a sign that this mayor is treating the knife crime crisis with the urgency it requires.
Nor is Khan’s default response of blaming the government for knife crime the sign of a strong leader. Of course we would all like more police officers on our streets. But there is so much more the mayor can and should be doing to address the root causes of knife crime.
First, neighbourhood officers must have a visible presence in the heart of our communities. I would therefore reopen the more than half of London’s police stations the mayor has shut; if appropriate, in accessible public spaces like post offices and libraries. I would also double the number of dedicated ward officers across the capital, with an ambition for every ward to have at least four officers by 2024. I would ensure that every secondary school in London has a dedicated police liaison officer, and encourage police to build positive relationships with primary schools, too. Establishing these links between officers, young people and local communities is crucial to repairing trust between the Metropolitan Police and the public they serve.
Next, we need to address why so many children are excluded from mainstream school in London and end up being drawn into criminal activity by organised gangs. There are some fantastic examples of schools in the capital who have successfully adopted an inclusion approach, but sadly this practice is not widespread. I would host a Schools Inclusion Summit at City Hall to bring together heads, academies and colleagues from pupil referral units to develop a London-wide inclusion strategy, with the overarching ambition of eliminating permanent school exclusions. It is in everyone’s interest to ensure that a disruptive pupil who is banished from a classroom does not end up committing knife crimes. The current mayor has spoken about the link between exclusions and knife crime, but done little to address it. At the very least, City Hall can serve as a facilitator of change.
Third, we must do something to address the fact that so many youth centres that have provided sanctuary to some of our most vulnerable children have closed in recent years. For whilst there are still many amazing organisations doing brilliant youth work, we need to deliver so much more to make a difference. I would set up a new London-wide Youth Service which would focus on after-school activities, as that is when so many of our young people fall prey to gangs.
I would work borough by borough to see community halls, sports clubs, night clubs, as well as schools themselves play host to this new service. And I would appoint a Young Mayor for London, paid for out of my mayoral salary, to oversee this new service. This appointment would send a powerful signal that offering hope and security to young people is central to my kinder London.
Fourth, my work on the Youth Violence Commission highlighted the indisputable link between knife crime and the illegal drug market. London is awash with powerful and violent drug gangs, who exploit vulnerable young people in our communities to carry out their day-to-day operations. It’s time we took back control of our streets. I would like to see London used as a pilot for a legal, regulated cannabis market to remove power and money from gangs, and free up police time to deal with more serious crimes, and raise millions of pounds in tax – money which could be used to fund the London Youth Service, and to support those addicted to harder drugs. I’d also like to hold a Cannabis Conversation Weekend, bringing together everyone involved in this area, including not only the police and the public, but also academics, clinicians, cannabis industry representatives and cannabis activists. With popular opinion moving towards legalisation, and increasing appetite for an inquiry into the links between cannabis use and knife crime, it’s time for a grown-up, public conversation on about cannabis.
As Sadiq Khan well knows, too many lives are lost in London to knife crime. Too many families and communities live in fear of it. It won’t be a quick fix, but we can, and must, turn things around. The first step is a mayor who will tackle this avoidable epidemic with the urgency and leadership our city needs.
Siobhan Benita is the Liberal Democrat candidate for London Mayor 2020.