On the 9th December 2018, the green benches in the House of Commons were once again occupied by swathes of young people. At the annual meeting of the UK Youth Parliament (UKYP), elected Members of Youth Parliament (MYPs) debated four issues, voted for by over 1 million of the young people they represent. Homelessness, votes at 16 and ‘equal pay for equal work’ all featured – but the issue that prompted the most heartfelt debate was knife crime and its effects.
Knife crime is currently a very prominent issue in local and national news. Recently, the Guardian reported on the 119th person to be fatally stabbed in London since January 1st, alongside a worrying 40,147 offences across England and Wales between March 2017 and March 2018. This marks a 16% increase and the highest number since 2011. Young people are right to bring this to the focus of a nationwide campaign.
The UKYP is run by the British Youth Council and was founded in 1999 to represent young people from across the country. Every year any young person between 11 and 16 years old can stand and be elected by their peers as a Member of Youth Parliament for their area. MYPs stand on a local, issue-based manifesto, but also represent their constituents’ views on a national scale. Each year, all elected MYPs set out encouraging young people to take part in the national ‘Make Your Mark’ ballot: an opportunity to vote on the issues most important to them. The top four issues from this nationwide vote are then debated in the House of Commons, at the UKYP’s annual sitting. Aptly, 2018’s annual sitting took place three days before the start of National Democracy Week.
I watched the UKYP knife crime debate on Parliament TV, and was especially moved by the speeches given on knife violence. Since the riots in 2011, we have not seen young people overwhelmingly come out on a national stage and kick back against society’s acceptance of the violence. While there are numerous local campaigns, who are striving to eliminate knives on our streets, until Friday these groups haven’t had a united front in the heart of our democracy. This was not the first time the issue has been raised to me, however: in the 2017 General Election, I ran as an Independent with a manifesto pledge to bring in knife amnesties and conduct awareness sessions on the topic in schools.
Members of the Youth Parliament debated knife crime for the first time on the green benches due to the horrific rise in families and friends across the country having to say goodbye to their loved ones. At this point, I have to bring in Awez Khan, an MYP for Birmingham, who spoke with confidence and passion at the debate:
“For 11 years now, I’ve known this one boy – I called him my right-hand man, my brother. Recently, unfortunately he was stabbed and killed and when he did pass away a lot of people asked me ‘why did you get involved?’ and the simple answer is ‘they have no other way, they have no hope, no aspirations, no other option. They have a lack of opportunity and a lack of hope in them’.”
Awez didn’t waver even a little in his testimony to his brother, his friend and his inspiration. The MYP was strong and committed in communicating his message to the country. In the region Awez represents, alongside his Birmingham Aspiring Youth Council and Youth Parliament colleague Haroon Irshad, the police dealt with over 2,000 incidents involving knives in the first six months of this year.
But we cannot leave it to young people who have been struck by tragedy themselves to be the only voices on knife crime. In the face of rising stabbings which are blighting communities, we must – from today – take action to raise awareness of the dangers of knife crime. How do we do this? Addressing the background issues is vital: the decline in safe spaces for young people to meet; a reduction of youth workers on the front line; lack of opportunity for young people; and politicians not giving the issue the political capital it deserves.
It’s not an easy issue to tackle because there are many reasons people, especially young people, carry knives, with many saying it makes them feel safer. But we must break this viscous and often deadly cycle and say enough is enough. Young people across the country are shouting loud and clear: ‘let’s tackle knife crime’. Let me be as honest as they were in that chamber: our future generation is calling on us, their elders, to take action and stop this public health issue in its tracks.
I will leave you with the three words Athian Akec, MYP for the London Borough of Camden, said in the debate, which perfectly illustrate why we need to take action now: “lives above knives”.