Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 600 - 619)



  Q600  Martin Salter: Just to give you a break, Patricia, my first question is to Vernon. We are all aware, and the Home Office is particularly aware, of the link between drugs and crime. We are also aware of problems with the rehabilitation programmes that are rolled out. I want to quote to you some evidence that we were given from Camila Batmanghelidjh, with whom I know you are familiar. "Drugs play a very major part. We cannot access rehabs for young people; and there are a lot of young people who want to give up drugs but it takes about nine weeks before a drugs worker is allocated; and most of the rehabs that are out there cannot cope with this aggressive client. The rehab model is based on a middle class talking-shop model, and these kids cannot control themselves very well so when they have an outburst in withdrawal in rehab they get chucked out." I raised this issue personally with the Prime Minister, and your predecessor I remember was sent delegations on the issue. Is not one of the causes behind some of the explosion in drugs crime we have that there is still a consistent failure to make a seamless transition from the court to the rehab unit without these unacceptable delays?

  Mr Coaker: This is a very important point that you make about the evil role that drugs play in many communities across the country. Could I explain that there is a number of elements to the whole purpose of the Government's drugs strategy. It does answer your question, if I can broadly draw the strategy. First of all, any part of a drugs strategy from the Government's point of view has to involve tough law enforcement. There has to be a clear set of rules which the police rigorously enforce, and that is one aspect of it. The second aspect of it is obviously education and ensuring that our young people and others are educated about drugs and the harm that drugs cause. The third element of course is the element to do with treatment. We would say, and quite rightly, that we can point to figures which show an explosion in the numbers of people that we have now entering treatment as a result of the drugs strategy. Many of those people access it, as you know, through the drugs intervention programme and tests either on arrest or charge. We get those people into treatment. We are also, alongside that, working with our colleagues in health to try to ensure that the criminal justice route is not the only route by which people can access treatment. Obviously we want that. We are looking at what we can do to increase the number of people accessing treatment through health, and also making sure that people have the information with respect to self-referral. Of course, once people are in treatment, by whichever route they have got into that treatment, the key then and the task for the drugs strategy now is to ensure that we keep those people in treatment when they come out, whether they are in treatment or in detox or in rehab. That requires a step change in what we are doing and what we are looking to do in terms of what that means not only for treatment in terms of heath but in terms of housing, benefits, self-esteem, employment and family relationships, all of those sorts of things. If we get that right, then of course we break that cycle of desperation and hopelessness. What we need to work on is this situation. I meet people across the country, say in Liverpool or Burton (Mrs Dean's constituency), and what they are concerned about when they are in rehab is what will happen to them when they leave. We have to ensure that when we have people in treatment we develop all those processes and programmes to break the link between offending and drug addiction for somebody who is not able to lead a full and proper life in their addiction.

  Q601  Martin Salter: When will we see that step change and how will this benefit policy?

  Mr Coaker: We would say that there has been a significant step change already: a huge increase in investment in the drugs programme, massive increases in the numbers of people going into treatment, and, alongside that, the development of services with respect to rehabilitation and other things. We need to ensure that whether you are in Newcastle, Cardiff, Plymouth, Reading or London, or wherever you are across the country, that access to those services is available to everyone and is not post-coded. Looking at it, we find there is some variation, and that is part of the work we are doing at the present time to refresh and to look at our drugs strategy again because we know, having got these people into treatment, that the next step is about ensuring that that treatment is even more effective.

  Q602  Martin Salter: To follow up, and this may be more appropriate for Patricia, the Home Office submission to us states that young black people make up 3% of the youth population but 10% of those arrested for drugs offences. You have also done some of your own research regarding the disproportionate number of young black people represented in figures amongst those arrested for robbery. Having got these figures, having done this research, what conclusions have you come to and what are you proposing to do about it?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: One of the things that we are really looking at is how we can stop these incidents continuing to occur. For instance, if you look at the programmes that we put in on offender management, the fact that we are looking at the seven pathways, we are working to identify, particularly in relation to young people with the young offender teams, the sorts of programmes that really work, the intensive supervision programmes, but we are also trying better to understand what other things are fed into that type of behaviour. It has been very interesting to see how, in various parts of the country, we have been able to put forward programmes which actually do appear to make a difference. What we are trying to do is to pull all that intelligence together because in many of these programmes, if you are able to put in a programme which has a number of core criteria, you can interdict that. That is what is starting to happen now. It really needs us to do this in a more comprehensive way. One of our aspirations for having offender management which is end-to-end is being able to target these issues in a much more creative and effective way than we have been able to do in the past.

  Q603  Chairman: Could I push you slightly? One of the things that has perplexed me and the Committee, and I am not sure we have had a coherent explanation, is that the patterns of offending amongst young black people are different to the patterns of offending of young white people. Young black people are much more likely to be involved in public disorder and burglaries, disproportionately so. Young black people who have drugs are more likely to commit robbery offences. Has the Home Office come up with a convincing explanation for why you get those differences of pattern of offending?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: Firstly, I do not think anyone has come up with a satisfactory explanation as to why we get those patterns of behaviour. One of the things that we know is that we are only going to come up with what works by working fairly aggressively and very differently with the different agencies and with the community so that we can get to grips with this. If there was, for instance, from this Committee an understanding as to what the silver bullet is, I can honestly tell you we would grasp that with huge acclaim, but we know that the thing that seems to be working is the joint working across the agencies, including the young people, working together with the community to make that difference. That is what we are trying to do, to try and understand better why the communities are functioning in slightly different ways. I said earlier in response to your question that we even have regional variations. There are ways of offending that happen in the north and in the Midlands which are significantly different from the patterns of behaviour that are happening in London. We have to look at those regional and cultural variations and try to better understand those if we are to make the difference.

  Q604  Mrs Dean: The Home Secretary has said he is considering gang membership an aggravating factor in sentencing but witnesses to this Committee have suggested that whilst gangs are a serious issue, this is often exaggerated and often groups referred to as gangs are nothing more than a group of friends. Is it really practical or appropriate to legislate against so-called gang membership, given the acute difficulties in defining these groups?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: In some ways you can. I need to emphasise that this is an issue that we are looking at. It is really important for us to understand what contribution gangs make and is it going to be an effective thing to do to identify it as an aggravating factor. There is no decision at the moment as to whether you should legislate on it. You know that we have the Sentencing Guidelines Council. We have a whole set of tools. What is important, and I think this Committee is emphasising this, is that we should not shy away from looking at that as an issue and looking at it as a reality of what is happening in the lives of a number of young people now. It is the looking at it which is important for us to better understand it and then to respond to see what we should do about it.

  Mr Coaker: This is very much part of what the Chairman was saying about the need not to shy away from difficult issues. There clearly is an issue, increasingly it seems anecdotally from when you go to communities and talk to the police, about gangs becoming more organised and people having more concern about what the gang thinks than society's values and the community's values. We need to try to find out what is going on in respect to that and what we mean. We have seen the various definitions, from a group of friends to street gangs to organised criminals, and all those sorts of differences in terminology. We need better to try to understand how that impacts on crime and disportionality. It is something we are looking at. Whether it is a good thing to do or not is something for the future. We should not shy away from it. The real concern that I am sure communities have told the Committee and have certainly us is the worry about the increasing loyalty that people feel to a gang, based on territory, based on other things. We need better to understand that and see how we can support not only the police but communities in trying to address that problem and reasserting society's values and the common values. Could I add one aside that I think is important. From reading the evidence, people have spoken about role models. The positive role models are absolutely right. That may be the focus of a question later. May I also say that part of tackling gangs and tackling this problem in communities—I know my fellow Minister believes this as well—is about needing to do something about the negative role models, the people in their communities who are clearly living beyond their means. People are asking why something is not being done about that. We can take away assets from the proceeds of crime. The police and the courts are working hard on that. We are trying to redouble our efforts on that. We need to do more on that issue so that these people do not get kudos, do not get a sense of people looking up to them from making money illegally and living beyond their legitimate means. We need to do more on that.

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: If you listen to what parents in all communities are telling us, and I think you have heard a number of adults from the black community, they are particularly concerned about how they feel their young people are almost being seduced away from their way of living into this alternative culture. It is as if it is a cult and they want to get them back out. We have to listen to that, address it and work with it. If we do not listen to what people are telling us, we are not really going to find a way out of some of the difficulties that we are all facing now.

  Q605  Mr Benyon: Minister, have you attempted to try to find a form of words that might work in the legislation that would define a gang as opposed to the evidence that we have heard that it is very difficult, because there are large numbers of groups of people that hang around street corners that many people consider to be gangs, but they are just simply groups of friends hanging around on street corners?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: Vernon has been doing a lot of work on the whole issue of gangs and how we take that forward. A definition is going to be of real importance. There is a Serious Organised Crime Bill going through now. We are looking at what serious crime is. There is a whole raft of things that we are now looking at in terms of the Hallsworth and Young definition which identifies three levels of groups. There is a way forward on this.

  Mr Coaker: We use the definition of Hallsworth and Young, which defines these three levels that I was talking about before. There is the peer group, which is just people who congregate together, of mixed ethnicity, with shared leisure choices, the sort of thing that we all recognise, the group of friends like that of my son or daughter or your children or grandchildren. That is clearly not a gang but it is a group. They define that. Then there is what we often call a street gang where you start getting into territory and identity. These people may carry and use weapons, including firearms and knifes. The issue about the street gang element of this three level definition that Hallsworth and Young use and the police use as well is that it is becoming more associated with criminality. Frankly, it is becoming more violent, more distant from the values of the community in which they live, with almost a separate entity, as Patricia was saying. Then there is the organised criminal network. It may be wrong, but I think the area where people are particularly concerned is the street gang and what is happening with respect to street gangs. On Mrs Dean's question about whether membership of a gang should be an aggravating factor, we know that street gangs are becoming more organised and more violent. Can we come up with a definition that's workable, commands a consensus and will help us? The answer is that that is work to be done. I do not think we should rule it out. We cannot say: yes, this will happen. The Hallsworth and Young definition at the moment is a generally accepted definition that is being used.

  Chairman: That is very helpful. They have submitted their work in evidence to us drawing on similar sources.

  Q606  Mr Winnick: On gun crime, to some extent leading on from some of the earlier questions put to you by the Chair, do you accept that there is a particular problem affecting the black community? Let me be more specific: young black people, the subject of our inquiry, but particularly young males as opposed to females. There does not seem to be a particular problem with young black females. Does the Home Office accept that there is a particular problem involving gun crime amongst young black males?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: We accept that there is a terrible, regrettable and increasing problem on the issue of the use of guns. It is something that we are radically trying to address. What we have not had any evidence of to date is that this issue is either solely, mainly or disproportionately an issue for black young men. We know that there are more black victims of gun crime than white, but there is no current data to indicate that this issue of guns is specifically a black as opposed to a generally criminal issue.

  Q607  Mr Winnick: Lady Scotland, I wonder if I could just give you a few quotes from Lee Jasper, the adviser on race matters to the Mayor of London. I quote what he told us in this inquiry. "We have, quite literally, a crisis in the black community amongst our young, black people". A black pastor who gave evidence to us said as follows about our inquiry: "My gut feeling was `about time' and the feeling that it has been overlooked, undermined, underplayed and has not been given the effective attention it needs. I suppose in local communities it is more obvious. The dream had been that the centre would pick it up and do something". Finally, the Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police said: "... there is a huge overrepresentation of young black people, both as suspects accused, and, indeed, as victims," as you have just said. Surely that demonstrates, does it not, that there is a crisis from the quotes that I have given and that perhaps there is a certain amount of complacency on the part of the Home Office?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: There is absolutely no complacency on the part of the Home Office. If you look at the actions that we have taken to address this issue, both from the police and the community, I am sure Lee Jasper and the members of his committee will have told you about the community response and the action the Metropolitan Police are taking to address this issue together with the Home Office, so there is certainly no complacency. The other issue that I would invite the Committee's attention to is that of course those who have given evidence have done so about the situation in relation to London. The areas in which this activity is occurring have a number of features which are similar to other areas where similar activity is occurring, but the complexion or composition of the communities differs. If one were to look at the situation across the country as opposed to those conurbations that may have an overrepresentation of black young men who are within the age range and in the sorts of communities where this is featuring, one would see that there is a correlation between those two. Therefore, I am not for a moment moving away from the point that this is a real issue certainly amongst those and a real issue for London. Then to do the quantum leap, which I must say to the Committee I think is quite dangerous, and to say that this is solely or predominantly a black issue as opposed to a general issue in relation to guns would be a profound mistake.

  Q608  Mr Winnick: Lady Scotland, what concerns many of us is the phrase used by the police and I am not criticising the police, black-on-black. I am not suggesting the police are doing this but there is a sort of feeling that it only really involves the black community; the victims are mainly black as a result of the gun crimes against them and so on. Therefore, and I am not suggesting the police are saying what I am now going to say, there is a general feeling that it does not involve the wider community and the victims are black. There is no doubt that in nearly all cases, the large majority of cases, would you agree, where violence has been used by blacks, the victims have been black?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I think there have been a number. Can I say that I agree with you that to talk about black-on-black violence is wholly unacceptable, not least because the majority of offences are of course committed generally—and I am not talking about gun crime—by white people on white people and nobody calls it white-on-white violence. So I think it is very regrettable, verging on the offensive, to talk about it in those terms. Also, it has to be absolutely understood that if an offence peculiarly affects the black and minority ethnic community, that does not mean that it should deserve a lesser degree of attention. The Home Office would not give it so. We want a criminal justice system which is equal and fair to all, irrespective of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or faith. If we do not have a system which delivers that, then it is not a system which can truly be called fair. If the Committee has an anxiety about that issue, can I say very profoundly that we share it. This is not a black issue. It is a general issue of concern which needs to be addressed wherever it arises.

  Q609  Mr Winnick: I certainly agree with you of course on the phrase black-on-black, a phrase which I would never use. I am quoting here. One would hope the police would not because obviously it minimises the suffering and terrible hurt it causes to those who are the victims of crime, regardless of the colour of their skin. Can I put to you bluntly, Lady Scotland. You said there is a danger of pursuing the inquiry in certain ways, or words to that effect. Do you think, and I am going to put the question as bluntly as possible, that it is racist to look into the possibility that a lot of the gun crime involves young blacks, not older blacks or female blacks, under the age of 21 than otherwise. Do you think there is a sort of racist possibility or rather that it can be seen in that light by probing the amount of gun crime involving young black offenders?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I think that it is really important not to conflate the two issues. There are issues in relation to proportionality and how black and minority ethnic people are participating within the criminal justice system. It is important for us to understand why that is and for that exploration to be rigorous. Therefore, I really welcome the highlight which this Committee has given to that issue. It is unfortunate to conflate the two issues in relation to gun crime and disproportionality. The reason I say that is because, just as with knives and with gangs, those are issues which tragically impinge on all of the communities. I would certainly be very anxious that the work that this Committee is doing should not be misunderstood and used in a way which I think nobody on this Committee would like. Certainly the issue in relation to gun crime and all its manifestations and how it affects all communities should be looked and looked at rigorously.

  Q610  Mr Winnick: The witnesses who appeared before us who happen to be black do not seem in any way to have misunderstood our inquiry, and indeed have welcomed it. I hope that is the reaction at the Home Office. Can I ask you this regarding the question of gun crime and sentencing. The Home Secretary has very recently announced his intention to lay a parliamentary audit to ensure that 18 to 20 year olds are subject to a minimum of five-year sentences for possession of a prohibited firearm. At the moment, and obviously you are the Minister and you know, it only applies to 21 and over. Why did the Government not lay such an order earlier when Parliament voted for a five-year sentence in 2003, it voted for it being applicable to those aged 18 and over? Why the delay?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I think there was a lacuna. In the way in which the law worked, it was believed that those individuals would be covered. As a result of a recent court decision in Campbell, it identified that the court took the view that those individuals within that age group were not covered. As a result, it has been necessary to lay an order but, before Campbell, the way in which the provisions had been interpreted was that individuals who fell into that age group would be caught. We have identified, as a result of Campbell, that they are not caught. Obviously we are seeking to remedy it. You are absolutely right that Parliament clearly intended that they should be covered. This simply seems to have been an issue which was not addressed in a way that enabled that to occur. By virtue of laying the order, we are seeking to fill that gap.

  Q611  Mr Winnick: Had many convictions actually taken place for those 21 and over who had been found guilty of possession of a prohibited firearm?

  Mr Coaker: I understand there have been but we do not know the number. If it would be helpful, we could write to the Committee with that information.[1]

  Q612  Chairman: When was the Campbell case?

  Mr Coaker: It was about a year ago.

  Q613  Chairman: Can I ask why it was not until the recent shootings took place that the Government decided to announce that it was going to reinstate the position that Parliament thought it had voted for? Why did it take a year?

  Mr King: We were considering what the best response would be. It was considered that it might be appropriate to appeal against a different judgment in a different case. I think what has happened recently is that we have made a decision that the quickest way to ensure that 18 to 20 years olds are caught is to lay an order. It has just been a process of considering what the best response would be.

  Q614  Mr Winnick: Has the order been laid?

  Mr Coaker: No, it has not.

  Q615  Mr Winnick: When is it going to be laid?

  Mr Coaker: We anticipate it will be done by June.

  Q616  Chairman: In hindsight, it might have been better to have moved more quickly after the Campbell case.

  Mr King: Yes.

  Q617  Mr Winnick: It will be done before the summer recess?

  Mr King: Yes, it will be in force by the summer, so it will be laid shortly.

  Q618  Mr Browne: Baroness Scotland, may I start by saying that I did not hear a single Member of the Committee say that the increase in gun crime was solely attributable to black people. You were the only person who made that claim, as far as I can recall. I would not wish anybody to infer that that was the view of either myself or of any other Member of the Committee that I am aware of. You also said that there was no evidence at all in the Home Office either to support or refute the assertion that black people are disproportionately responsible for gun crime. Is it your intention to undertake that research and when might we know? At the moment there seems to be a lot of listening and understanding but there does not appear to be very much concrete action.

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: One of the things that you know we have done is to better engage in terms of getting the datasets. We did not have the sort of data that would enable us to make critical and informed choices. If you look at how we changed the way we collate data, the investment you have seen here and through the changes, and we have spent about £2 billion on that, we are hoping to get real time data which we would be able to use as a management tool for the criminal justice system generally.

  Q619  Mr Browne: The ethnicity of people who are convicted of firearm offences is not recorded by the Home Office. Is that what you are saying?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I think the ethnicity of those who offend is increasingly recorded to enable us to better understand the shifts in population and the nature of offending.

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