POLITICS
09/04/2018 12:07 BST | Updated 09/04/2018 13:54 BST

Ex-Gang Members Demand MPs 'Listen To People Who Know' As Amber Rudd Unveils New Violent Crime Strategy

'They should step back and let us lead on strategy.'

Frontline experts in the fight against street violence say it’s time for the government to hand over the reins to “people who know what they are talking about”, as the number of serious incidents skyrockets. 

On Monday the Home Secretary Amber Rudd unveiled the government’s new £40m strategy for tackling violent crime, after denying having seen a leaked Home Office document linking the increase with police cuts made under the Conservative government.

The home secretary said changes to the drug market were largely to blame for the rise, and said the government’s response would also focus on tackling drug use. 

The much anticipated new plan proposes to restrict the online purchase of knives, give additional powers to police to crack down on people found to be carrying acid, and establish a cross-party group to help come up with “solutions” to violent crime escalation. 

The programme will also focus on community-led early intervention to prevent young people being drawn into gangs, with an £11m youth fund set up to support local projects, and £3.6m to tackle “county lines” drug distribution, which sees urban gangs use children as “couriers” to branch out into more rural areas.

But Labour has criticised the plan, claiming it offers no new money or extra police officers, and many grassroots campaigners are also sceptical, saying the time for politicians to be in charge of decision-making is over.

Sheldon Thomas, the founder of Gangsline, which runs outreach programmes with young men and women involved in gang culture, said ministers should hand over strategy to those working directly with children and teens.

An ex-gang member himself, he said: “MPs should not be leading on anything at all any more.

“Don’t consult people like me at the end – come to us at the beginning. Pay us, give us the resources, and we will come up with a strategy and implement it.”

He added that it was time for politicians to put people in charge “who have lived this life, who know what they are talking about. I’d be happy to work with them.”

Sheldon Thomas
Sheldon Thomas

In response to criticism from Labour, Rudd - who did not include a full analysis of the impact of police cuts in her plan - said “tit for tat” over officer numbers was doing a “disservice” to affected communities. 

Thomas said he had repeatedly warned politicians that violent crime among young people was set to rise. “It should be us leading, and MPs listening,” he said. “Not the other way around. Things have to change and MPs have to get out of their comfort zone.”

Thirteen Londoners were killed in a two-week period last month alone. 

Latest figures show knife crime increased by 21%, gun crime by 20% and murder rates by 17% across England and Wales in the year ending September 2017.

“This isn’t just a London problem, it’s nationwide and it stems from economic suppression,” Thomas said. ″The first thing that needs to happen to tackle this is that communities need to own the problem – and at the moment they don’t.

“Politicians need to trust us, show us respect and work with us, otherwise there will be no real change.

“Pick up the phone to us and stop recruiting people who cannot relate to these young people,” he said. 

PA Wire/PA Images
Amber Rudd has unveiled the government's new knife crime strategy.

Police have warned that social media is playing an increasing role in the escalation of gang violence, with trivial disputes exploding “within minutes” when rivals set out to goad each other on the internet.

Sarah Jones, who chairs an All-Party Parliamentary Group on knife crime, said it is time for online giants to step up and tackle their part in the problem - a sentiment shared by the home secretary, who said it was “everyone’s responsibility”.

The Croydon Central MP has previously called for knife crime to be treated as a “public health issue”, with ministers tackling it as they would an epidemic rather than a justice matter.

“Social media does bear some of the blame for what has happened over the past few years,” she said.

“Government should do more to use criminal behaviour orders to block high-risk individuals from using social media.”

Jones’ call comes following the conviction of the killers of Croydon teenager Jermaine Goupall earlier this year.

The court heard how Jermaine’s killers had been producing music videos threatening to stab people as part of a “postcode war” between rival gangs in the borough.

The videos in question were removed by YouTube on Friday - long after they had been flagged to the company.

“One of Jermaine’s killers was known to police for knife carrying but was still allowed to post goading videos threatening stabbings,” Jones added.

YouTube bosses were lambasted by the home affairs select committee in March, after failing to act to take down far-right extremist content on their website. 

A spokesperson for the company said: “Our hearts go out to Jermaine’s family. We do not allow videos that are abusive or that promote violence on YouTube.

“We work closely with organisations like the Metropolitan Police who understand and provide relevant context for videos, and we act quickly to review and remove them when they violate our policies.

“In the UK, we have developed policies specifically to help tackle knife and gang crime. We continue to work closely with the police and community groups to tackle this issue.”

Jones wants to see an increase in the use of Criminal Behaviour Orders to ban proven knife offenders from using certain social media platforms, and to penalise companies who fail to remove content where it is proven to be inciting violence – similar to a system used in Germany, where offenders are fined for not taking down offensive material quickly enough.

Sarah Jones
Croydon Central MP Sarah Jones

School exclusions have also been suggested as a possible reason for the rise in violence attacks, with more young people with behaviour issues being sent to Pupil Referral Units after being kicked out of mainstream education.

Those known to social services, or suffering with mental health issues, are ten times more likely to end up in a PRU and black Caribbean children are also four times over-represented in such units when compared to the national population’s ethnic breakdown.

According to The Difference, a charity which focuses on social exclusion, there has been a 40% rise in school exclusions in the UK over three years, with four London boroughs making the top 20.

Chief executive Kiran Gill said: “I don’t think exclusion is the single root cause of offending but I do believe it is exacerbating safeguarding issues that can lead to offending and youth violence.

“Often, it is a safeguarding concern that might mean that the child is excluded - so for instance substance misuse, bringing a weapon to school, even things like violent behaviour - these are all indications that something is not safe or normal in a child’s life. 

“These children need an intervention that helps keep them safe but often they get less support and find themselves in a less regulated part of the sector.”

Additional reporting by Rachel Wearmouth