Louise Haigh: UK has never seen a knife crime epidemic like this

Sheffield Heeley MP Louise Haigh
Sheffield Heeley MP Louise Haigh
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Louise Haigh is desperate to talk about anything other than Brexit.

The Sheffield Heeley MP joined Parliament in 2015, a year before the Brexit referendum and has unwittingly spent her political career embroiled in a debate about the UK’s relationship with the EU.

And there seems to be little hope of any respite in the near future, with no resolution in sight and the atmosphere in Westminster becoming increasingly detached from reality.

“Everyone has just lost their minds,” she laughs.

“I can see people developing twitches…and stammers. People’s mental health has definitely been affected and that’s not helped by them making us stay here all the time.

“Nobody’s got any sympathy with us – rightly – that they have cancelled recess but being stuck here and not being able to go home to our constituencies and our loved ones and get a decent night’s sleep is definitely making people behave in a more extreme way.”

The Labour MP, though one of the youngest in Parliament, recognises that endless scenes of MPs squabbling over Europe are viewed as juvenile outside the Westminster bubble.

“I think people just think we are a bunch of children and it is really embarrassing... This will not be looked well upon when the history books are written. And sadly this chapter of politics is my chapter.”

Before she entered Parliament, Ms Haigh was a union shop steward for Unite as well as a Special Constable.

Her experience and ability quickly led to her being drafted into Labour’s Cabinet, rising to Shadow Policing Minister.

And despite the Brexit preoccupation that has gripped many of her colleagues she has managed to remain focused on the issues that are top of the agenda in her Sheffield constituency and elsewhere in the country.

The surge in knife crime has hit people in her community as well as grabbing the attention of politicians and police chiefs.

The causes are complex, but for Ms Haigh the rapid decline in community policing is at the heart of the worrying new trend.

“Obviously the loss of police officers has had a huge role and the loss of neighbourhood policing because that has completely removed their ability to prevent crime taking place in the first place,” she says.

“Most people think of the police as someone you ring when an emergency has happened and turning up with the blues and twos, but a lot of their work is in building relationships and building trust and gathering intelligence in communities and being able to prevent crime from happening in the first place.”

While it is the tragic stabbings in London that have dominated the headlines, knife crime in South Yorkshire has almost doubled in the last nine years - one of the highest increases outside the capital.

And in Ms Haigh’s city of Sheffield there were eight fatal stabbings in 2018.

“This is an epidemic that frankly hasn’t been seen in the UK before,” she says.

“We had a spike in 2008 but it was very London-based. It was a one year spike, this has been an onward trend for six years now.”

Reflecting on her own experience, she adds: “I was a Special Constable in Brixton so I was always coming up against organised crime and victims of those being exploited by criminal gangs, but to have them on the streets of Sheffield is something we have never experienced before.”

For Ms Haigh the solution to the rising scourge of gang crime lies in preventing young people falling into the lifestyle in the first place, and part of that is lowering the rate of school exclusions.

She explains: “We’ve got a real problem in Sheffield with school exclusions, they’re incredibly high compared to the rest of the country. Everyone accepts that there is a really strong link to being excluded from school and being caught up in youth violence, whether it’s as a victim or as an offender yourself.

“I had a young lad who was murdered - again in my constituency last year - a 15-year-old by another 15-year-old.

“There’s a serious case review ongoing and a lot of that will throw up school exclusions, because he wasn’t going to school. He had been turned away from several different providers and it just left him in this void in between where the devil makes work for idle hands.”

Ms Haigh also believes that seeing young offenders as children being manipulated by organised crime barons is fundamental to reducing the violence, and she urges the authorities to learn the lessons of the Rotherham grooming scandal - where young victims were systematically ignored and viewed as criminals.

“There is still a job to be done of challenging that culture in the same way that we did with Child Sexual Exploitation. In Rotherham the girls that were victims there were seen as almost deserving of their exploitation and not true victims. We need that same cultural and attitudinal shift to victims of child criminal exploitation as well.”

The urgency of this issue is not lost on her, but addressing it means Parliament must move on from Brexit. “I think I’m with country really in that we are just desperate to focus on domestic issues again”,” she concludes. It’s hard to disagree.