John Howell (Henley) (Con)
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I thank the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) for introducing the debate. I begin where I was going to end, by reinforcing to the Minister that, in this cross-party debate, we are taking the issue seriously, there is a huge amount of commitment to it, and there is an enormous strength of feeling in favour of dealing with it. If he has listened to all the contributions, he will understand that that is the feeling of the Chamber.
Depending on how one looks at the situation in my constituency, it is either not very good or too good. I recently looked at the neighbourhood policing reports for the Henley area and for a number of areas around Thame. In the Henley area, the neighbourhood report gave no examples of knife crime, and in the areas around Thame, there were two examples, so hon. Members may think that I am unable to talk about the issue. My constituency is in the middle of the wide Thames Valley police area, however, which includes Oxford, Abingdon, Reading and Slough. The Minister will be aware of a recent knife attack in Oxford, which brought the issue home to people there and in the surrounding area.
The figures show that the number of knife attacks in the Thames valley was marginally short of 1,300 in 2017-18, which is the highest figure since 2010. That is about a 50% increase on the number of knife crimes committed in 2012-13, which is a number that keeps on coming up in the areas that we are looking at. The Thames Valley police area is the largest area of knife crime in the whole south-east and far outstrips counties such as Kent, Sussex and Surrey. It stands in marked contrast to the calm and peaceful nature of the area as a whole.
Knife crime has played a part in seven murders, 40 rapes, 10 sexual attacks and 86 threats to kill, so it is not gang warfare, but a much greater set of crimes that involves us all. I agree with the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) that it is not a simple task to overcome that, because in the Thames valley, recruitment is up and a tremendous amount of work is being done to look at intakes. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) that numbers will always make a difference to this situation, but we are asking, "Do they make the difference?" I agree with the hon. Member for Gedling that they do not, because we need to take into account a number of other things.
What the police want above all to tackle this problem is the certainty that the increase in numbers that they are seeing at the moment, which allows them to address recruitment, will continue. At the moment, they do not know that and they need certainty.
An equally big role that the police play—I think it has been mentioned—is in partnership with a number of other organisations. The agencies and organisations that the police are in partnership with include the NHS and others, but the one that I have the most sympathy for is the relationship that the police have set up with schools. There, they have a chance of breaking the link of knife crime to drugs, and as our deputy police and crime commissioner has said, "Once a young person has a knife, it's almost too late". However, working with schools is a way of breaking that link.
We have also heard a lot about stop-and-search, which has increased dramatically in my area by just over 50%. I have a mixed feeling about stop-and-search. I have participated in a group that included police and crime commissioners, the police and other politicians. There was a tremendous backlash among the group, including the police, against just carrying on with stop-and-search as it was. They did not see that that would create a favourable climate in which to tackle this issue because of all the things that are associated with the history of stop-and-search. We agreed that any stop-and-search operation needed to be intelligence-led, proportionate and appropriate, and I am very pleased that the Thames Valley police initiatives have all been intelligence-led and are having great effect.
Yes, we can and should increase sentences, and we have a unique position in this House to be able to comment on new sentencing guidelines—the Justice Committee always comments on them. After what I have heard today, I will certainly take back to that Committee a determination to make a more concentrated effort to ensure that we are as blunt as we can be in giving that information to judges.
As I said in my intervention, we all have a role to play. That is why in my urgent question I asked what role we as MPs can play, because I have noticed that currently many MPs are very much in the role of observers and have not yet found a way to become participants in it. The Minister thought that I had uncovered a pot of gold in saying that. I wish I had and I wish there was a pot of gold. However, if he knows what has happened to that initiative, on which I think there has been some progress, it would be very nice if he told us.