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Youth on Youth Crime

4.30 pm

Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): I am grateful for this short debate. I believe that youth on youth crime is one of the most pressing social and crime challenges facing this country today. Too many teenagers live a “Lord of the Flies” existence with no real framework of security. Behaviour can escalate violently, sometimes to a fatal level, before being significantly addressed. Gun crime and knife crime might remain relatively uncommon, but youth on youth mugging is routine, and that is the area to which most of my comments are directed, not because it is the only crime committed daily against young people—it is not—but because it is emblematic of the lack of action against the overall problem.

Mugging is a frightening and violent crime. The Home Office survey on the impact of personal theft showed that 40 per cent. of muggings leave victims injured, and that 40 per cent. are carried out using a weapon, usually a knife. In my local London borough of Wandsworth last year, 38 per cent. of recorded mugging victims were 11 to 16-year-olds, and 40 per cent. of identified suspects were also 11 to 16-year-olds. An average 11 to 16-year-old in Wandsworth had a 1 in 20 recorded chance of being mugged last year. In London, which accounts for around half of all muggings nationally, a third of recorded muggings were against 11 to 16-year-olds, but a massive 49 per cent. of all suspects were also aged 11 to 16. In London last year, 271 children aged 10 or under were recorded as having been mugged. Detection rates for mugging in London were around 10 to 12 per cent.

The problem is that those figures are, at best, only a partial picture of what is really happening. There is poor transparency of the real level of youth on youth crime, including mugging, and that is a key reason for insufficient focus on youth on youth crime. The British crime survey does not interview children under 16. The Government set great store by that annual victimisation survey, but it does not talk to young people about their experience of crime. Civitas estimates that because of that it misses 500,000 crimes. Given what we now know about the mugging statistics to which I referred, surely that is indefensible.

The latest British crime survey also estimated that just 21 per cent. of actual muggings make it into recorded figures so, going back to my earlier statistics, the one in 20 chance of an 11 to 16-year-old being mugged in Wandsworth is probably more like a one in four chance. Moreover, if detection rates are 10 to 12 per cent. of the 21 per cent. of recorded muggings in London, just 2 per cent. of actual muggings have a suspect identified. Virtually all muggings in London go unaddressed as far as the offender is concerned.

The experience of young people who are mugged and its impact on them should not be underestimated. We know that such terrifying experiences can stay with children and shape their adult outlook. How can we expect young people to grow up to be positive, productive members of the community when that community, of which they are junior members, makes so little response to the important issues that they face? I hear regular stories of students being lined up by assailants and asked to show their mobiles so that a
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decision can be made about the best mobile to take. SIM cards are often returned to victims, which is humiliating because the offender robs the victim and then pretends to do them a favour.

I hear stories of young people being marched to a cash point by other young people to get money. One parent told me that she was frantic about where her teenage son was when he had not returned home late on a Friday night. She finally got through to him on his mobile to be told, “I can’t talk now Mum. I am being mugged.” Two youths had frogmarched him to a cash point, which was broken, so they frogmarched him to the next nearest one, which was some distance away. He was just getting money out of the cash point and the offenders were loitering round the corner when the mother called to find out where her son was.

Many young victims know the perpetrator of crimes against them, who may be another school student. I am told that victims are often warned about the escalating violence that will occur if they talk to police or parents. Offenders may live on the same estate and know where the victims live. I have no doubt that fear of reprisals is one of the main factors making it difficult for victims to go to the police, so under-reporting occurs. That is tragic, because the behaviour of offenders is often prolific. We must find a way of turning that prolific behaviour against the offenders instead of it working against the victims, who are caught in a layer of scared silence.

Gang-style networks are often behind the offending with theft takings being fed into the local drugs economy. There has been much discussion in the media recently about the prevalence of gangs, particularly in places such as London, and I want to discuss briefly my local experience of gangs. I have several gangs in my area, but I will not give them credence by mentioning them by name. They are essentially postcode driven, and there seems to be no real join-up process. Membership seems to be automatic, and depends on where people live. Young people locally tell me that it is a problem to live in Wandsworth, for example, and to go to school in Merton where a different gang is based. Students travelling by bus to and from school may be asked which gang they belong to: the Wandsworth one where they live, or the Merton one where they are at school. They may not and generally do not want to be in either, but they feel at a greater risk of being mugged if they say no. Saying that they are part of a gang gives them some sort of protection from the wider group, and in the absence of frequently patrolling police, they feel that that is a pragmatic response to enable them to remain safe on often dangerous estates. What a damaging perception! If our young people feel that being part of a gang is the only way to stay safe, we have truly let them down.

Those secondary school students say that they are desperate to see more police patrolling the streets, and that they do not want to belong to gangs. I have heard stories of secondary school students being mugged by people who routinely say that they are a member of the local gang, even if they are not that involved, because that can encourage compliance by victims who are aware of how violent gangs can be.

The main gang in central Wandsworth even has its own MySpace page, which has a rest-in-peace memorial to one of its members who was recently
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knifed to death in Mitcham. That is the world that teenagers inhabit. It is a “Lord of the Flies” existence in which violent crime is committed, especially if it is youth on youth, with apparent impunity. The statistics that I outlined show that muggers are unlikely to be caught and prosecuted, even when the police have an idea of who they are, because getting the necessary evidence to bring a successful case in court is extremely difficult. Victims are scared of going to the police for fear of reprisals to them and their family.

A group of local secondary school children recently visited Parliament. One girl asked what I knew about local gangs, and said that she hated what was going on in her area and on her estate, but that the police seemed unable to do anything about it because it was so widespread. She said that she had seen everything: knives, guns, the lot. What happened? Another student at the back of the room told her to stop snitching.

There is massive pressure on students not to discuss what is going on, but they look to the local community, schools and police to provide a secure framework in which to grow up, but in many places, especially in urban areas and cities, that is not happening. They feel that they are left to fend for themselves.

I want to talk about a way forward. Is the situation irretrievable? I do not believe that it is, but there are no easy or quick solutions to the vicious cycle of violent crime and non-reporting. I shall suggest some areas of policy development. First, we must ensure that our recording of crime is set up to monitor successfully the particular problem of youth on youth crime.

I said that the British crime survey does not interview people under 16. That is clearly inadequate and a fundamental flaw. Today, I am writing to the Office for National Statistics to ask it to consider extending the British crime survey to include children aged 11 and above. Will the Minister assure me that the next British crime survey will be broader and include younger interviewees?

Similarly, although internet reporting of crime is increasingly possible, it is cumbersome. Web-based reporting of crime must improve and assume a greater role, and incidents must be routinely e-mailed to local police. Perhaps we can encourage young people to e-mail police on the basis that they will receive a reply only if there is a sufficient body of evidence for the police to take action against an offender. Otherwise, the message is that if the young person reports a crime, they risk having to go it alone in launching a prosecution. E-mail reports might not all be recorded as muggings as they ought, but at least the police would routinely gather more incident reports and intelligence. Better reporting, and therefore better information, must be the key to taking action.

We must also recognise that frightened teenagers who have been mugged are unlikely to feel comfortable visiting a police office. My local police shop in Putney is open from 10 am to 1 pm daily, and is not easy to reach in short school lunch breaks, or especially when children are not allowed off the school site. It must be possible to make more effort to improve web-based and e-mail reporting, so will the Minister outline the role that the Home Office could play to make such reporting easier for young victims, and to support the efforts of local forces?

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Young people have sent a clear message that they want more daily policing on the ground, especially in some of our city estates, to keep them safe. Whatever increase there has been in police numbers throughout London, in my borough of Wandsworth, there are now fewer trained, uniformed police officers than there were in 1997. The relationship between the police and schools is more significant than we previously realised, and in some cities, it is the most important link with the community in the fight against crime. The development of that relationship must start early, and perhaps routinely in primary school. For students in secondary school, a close relationship with community police officers is critical, and some schools are working closely with local police. In my constituency, Southfields community college has a very close and positive working relationship with local police, but many schools are reluctant to acknowledge that they have a problem, for fear of bad publicity, which does not help to develop that relationship.

The data that I have gathered and presented pose some real questions for the workings and establishment of safer neighbourhoods teams of police and safer neighbourhood panels. The teams set local policing priorities, and I am greatly concerned that, inevitably, they do not prioritise youth on youth crime, because so few young people are involved with safer neighbourhood panels. The panels may quite rightly prioritise the curbing of antisocial behaviour among young people locally, but the brunt of their—often criminal—behaviour is borne much more by their peer group than by the broader community. What assessment has the Home Office made of how well the safer neighbourhoods policing model is building youth on youth crime into local priorities?

In the long term, we must tackle the underlying reasons behind criminality. My party’s leader, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), has talked about the need to support families, which is no doubt a critical part of the solution. It must sit alongside much stronger community policing, whereby there are enough police on patrol to address low-level behaviour before it has the chance to escalate and become such violent behaviour as mugging; we must combine it with education about children’s responsibility to one another to report crime and keep themselves, as a group, safe; and we must also examine the potential to create a school version of neighbourhood watch.

Finally, a key factor is a greater emphasis on the eradication of the drugs culture that underpins so much crime. Until we start winning the battle against drugs, we will fight youth on youth crime with one hand tied behind our back, because so often the people involved in such crime are the foot soldiers for drug-related gangs managing their turf.

I realise that I have taken some time to outline my concerns about youth on youth crime, but I am truly worried about the consequences for our country and our communities if my concerns are not taken on board. Owing to its long-term impact on victims, and owing to the escalation of criminal behaviour, tackling youth on youth crime must be at the heart of our UK crime strategy. At the moment, it is not.

We have high hopes for our children and young people, and from us they seek a secure community in
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which to grow up. Too many of them do not grow up in such communities, and I hope that the Minister will be able to provide young people, who are at the sharp end of youth on youth crime in Britain, with more than just platitudes when he responds to the debate.

4.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): I am not usually accused of mouthing platitudes; I usually try to answer the question. Before I read my speech, which raises some important issues, I shall deal with some of the specific points that the hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening) has raised.

It was remiss of me not to begin by congratulating the hon. Lady on securing this important debate, and I also welcome to these discussions the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire). He and I have had many discussions about such issues.

I shall refer to a couple of specific points, so that I do not miss them when I make my general points. We have reviewed crime statistics, and as a consequence, we are reviewing the design of the British crime survey to include people aged under 16. On the hon. Lady’s specific points about the survey, we are considering the way in which we develop it, so that we include the points that she has made. I hope that that provides some reassurance to her.

On the issue of reporting crime and the use of e-mail and the internet, the hon. Lady will be interested to know that, in October, I went to Leicester where there is a project called E-Cops. It is not necessarily targeted at young people, but people can e-mail the neighbourhood policing team with their concerns about what is happening in their area. I have spoken to the chief constable of Leicestershire, Matt Baggott, who is also the Association of Chief Police Officers’ leader on neighbourhood policing, and the project will, I hope, spread throughout the country. I agree with the hon. Lady that for young people in particular, e-mail and the internet is a way of reporting crime more safely and securely, and E-Cops, which is used in Leicester, is a very good example of that.

The hon. Lady made another point about neighbourhood policing, which is crucial to giving young people confidence on the street. We are always examining the effectiveness of neighbourhood policing, the models that are developed throughout the country and the way in which they provide reassurance to people on the street. We often do not talk about the other important factor: the need to provide a deterrent. There must be a consequence for people on the street who act wrongly and against the law. We must ensure that they are caught and punished, and alongside all our other work, neighbourhood policing helps in that aim.

On the issue of police and schools, the hon. Lady will be aware of the safer schools partnership. Throughout the country, there are up to 500 such partnerships. Individual police officers are designated local schools; they work to reassure young people, and they are a good means of reducing and detecting crime. Only recently, my hon. Friend the Minister for Policing,
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Security and Community Safety and I met Lord Adonis from the Department for Education and Skills to discuss with the police how we can accelerate the roll-out of safer schools partnerships throughout the country, because it is an exciting and interesting model.

Community support is a vital part of the issue, and it is essential that we involve all parts of the community—not only the police, but schools, health bodies, local authorities and all partners in the community. The hon. Lady made that point, and she will be aware that with our review of the framework for police performance indicators, we will introduce an assessment of performance and community safety from April 2008, which may lead us to undertake more of the initiatives that she mentioned.

With those opening remarks, I hope that the hon. Lady will realise that I am keen to try to respond to Adjournments debates like this one, in which hon. Members raise significant issues. I shall try to answer some of the points that she raised, in particular her point about the British crime survey and the reporting of crime among the under-16s.

I should like to focus attention on what the Government have done to improve the youth justice system over the past 10 years, notwithstanding some of the points that the hon. Lady made. In 1997, the norm was the existence of single agency services, operating with different sets of priorities. The police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts were slow and inconsistent. Standards of regimes in young offender institutes were much lower than they are now. Today things are different. There has been a transformation in how we think about youth justice. Many agencies now have a single vision of preventing offending by children and young people. We have created new structures to plan and deliver youth justice services, through youth offending team partnership. Multi-agency working is a given.

Innovative and groundbreaking legislation was at the heart of that change. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 created youth offending teams. The multi-agency nature of those teams has served as a blueprint for other public sector reforms. The Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 and the respect agenda have pioneered a twin approach: providing young people with support packages to help address behaviour early on, backed up by strong enforcement. The hon. Lady talked about the importance of early intervention and tough enforcement—not either/or, but both operating together. The Children Act 2004 focused effort on ensuring that all children and young people succeed in life, regardless of their backgrounds or individual circumstances. Over the past 10 years a lot has been done.

I turn to the situation today with youth on youth crime. Do we live in a lawless society in which our children roam the streets in violent gangs? The answer is no. As I say in many debates about young people, it is imperative to stress that the majority of our young people throughout the country do not offend. They do not harm anyone and they do not bully anyone. They live good and proper lives. It is imperative that we continue to make the point that the vast majority of young people in our society make a huge contribution to it. For example, more young people volunteer than any other age group. They are also more likely to recycle, because they care about the environment in
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which they live. Although this debate is focused on problems, it is crucial to set them against the fact that only a small minority of young people offend and cause problems in our community. Of course they need to be dealt with, but if we do not get across to our young people the fact that we not only value them and understand their problems but recognise that the vast majority of them are decent, we will face real problems.

Why is that important? It is because young people are the victims of the majority of crime, which is another important point that the hon. Lady made. That is why young people want something done about the problem. We are often portrayed or caricatured as a Parliament that is out of touch—a load of older, middle-class men and women who do not understand life on the street. Well, we do understand life on the street. A minority of people cause a problem and the majority of young people, who are decent, want something done about it. They want us to work with them to do that, because they are the victims.

I feel strongly about the need to praise the majority of our young people because, as I am sure Opposition Members will confirm, when we talk to young people in schools, in uniformed organisations or in youth clubs, they say, “Yes, target those who cause problems, but don’t tar all of us with the same brush.” That is an extremely important message that we need to get across.

Youth offending has in fact not risen since 2003. Indeed, the 2005 offending, crime and justice survey showed that only about 1 per cent. of young people aged 10 to 25 had committed burglary or robbery in the past 12 months. However, as the hon. Lady mentioned, there is increased concern among all of us about violent offending by young people. As the tragic events of the previous month and the example that she gave show, the use of guns by young people in particular remains a concern, as does the use of knives. I hope that I do not need to stress how seriously the Government and, to be fair, the whole of Parliament treat the issue. Prevention is a key plank of the Government’s recently announced three-point plan on guns.

However, youth on youth crime is a complex issue and generalisations are not easily made. It is true that young people are more likely to be victims than any other age group, and at the hands of other young people. They are also particularly subject to repeat victimisation. There is also an overlap between youth victimisation and offending. Research shows that 15-year-olds who have been victims of certain types of crime are seven times more likely to have offended than those who have not been victims and that 56 per cent. of young people who have committed an offence have also been victims of crime themselves. The designation of victim and offender is therefore not always clear-cut.

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