Londoners deserve a safer city — and that starts with the Mayor
This week, I went to visit a mother in a comfortable home in a quiet south London street. She had lost her son. He had popped out to buy a lollipop for his two-year-old daughter (they were preparing a Sunday meal together). On the way back, he was stabbed in the chest. Together, we watched a video of her son in a trampoline park, somersaulting perfectly from trampoline to trampoline.
Then I met another mother, a mile away, whose 24-year-old had also been killed and left on the roadside. And at dinner, three miles further north, I asked the 19-year-old sitting on my left how many siblings he had. “I had three, now I have one.” Both his brothers had been killed in knife attacks.
In the past week I have been spending time staying with people in their houses and flats in different parts of Lambeth — high-rise, low-rise and mid-rise — at opposite ends of the long borough. Many were beautiful, warm places, testimony to years of settled life. Others had only a couple of pieces of second-hand furniture, no food in the kitchen cupboards, and bare walls. In a few places I didn’t get much sleep — a couple of my hosts watched television and played video games until 5am.
I listened to grandmothers who talked of the generosity of their children. I spoke to teenage boys who said that their mothers — often working very long hours — did not really know what they got up to outside the home; and others who felt that their mothers, by pushing them too hard to attend church or be home by 6pm, were driving them to rebel.
One man was still living with his parents — five adults in a two-bedroom flat. I saw him play beautiful football on an all-weather pitch, overseen by an ex-Arsenal talent spotter who gives up his evenings to coach young men and gets to know their families. The man was now hoping to make it as a musician, but he had no job, and recording studios are expensive. The coach was very worried about young men being pulled into crime. At the end of the game, the other players pulled out their BMW and Mercedes car keys, and held them like jewels in their hands. The musician walked home.
Many mothers showed me photographs of their lost sons (and post-mortem examination reports, because so far no one had been convicted of the murders). They remembered boys who had been good kids. Siblings remembered brothers, some of whom had been excluded from school and been quite a different person away from their mothers. But for everyone there was an unbearable sense of loss — and fear for a further generation of children who would now never know their fathers.
And for the mothers of young boys who had not suffered these losses, there was continual anxiety. Three mothers had sent their children back to school in Uganda or Nigeria, because they thought it would be safer than having them in London. This — in our capital — is an utter disgrace.
As a father of two small boys, and as a human being, I felt the unimaginable loss of those mothers. But as a candidate for London Mayor I felt just how much we need to do to prevent such horrors in the future. There is something profoundly and offensively wrong at the heart of this great city we love.
London’s future — its ability to flourish — relies in the end on the city being safe. There are deep challenges in our capital which will take a long time to fix, problems of resources and police numbers, and poverty. We need to support many more exceptional people — in charities, clubs, churches and mosques — to work with young people: many of whom have been in care, excluded from school, or suffer from mental health problems and addiction issues (and that is before you touch on childhood trauma — or the fact that no one has offered that 19-year-old, who lost two brothers, counselling).
But poverty and complexity can never be an excuse for what has been happening in London. The number of murders in London has now hit an 11-year high, even as the murder rate falls in other parts of the country.
The stories I heard when walking in Lambeth are not exceptions — there are, on average, two or three stabbings a day in that borough alone. And the trauma team at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel taught me just how many more would have died without new surgical techniques.
As prisons minister, I committed to resign unless we were able to reduce violence in prisons (after five years of steep rises). And thanks to the work of extraordinary governors and prison officers, we were able to succeed. Other cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and Glasgow have turned crime around.
We can — I guarantee — reduce knife-crime deaths in London. Security relies on a dozen things (including community programmes and sentencing policy). But the first step is policing. We must put thousands more police officers out on the streets in community and response roles — clearly visible to the public, easy to contact, patrolling neighbourhoods. And we must invest in their training — bringing back highly experienced officers to do so.
Above all, there needs to be consistent leadership from the top, and that starts with the London Mayor, who is required to create the police and crime plan, oversees more than 40,000 officers and civilian staff, and has a policing budget of £3.5 billion a year.
We are not going to solve this by moving left, or right, but by moving forward with competence, focus, energy and operational grip. These families — all families in London — deserve to be safer. We must make them so.