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30 Apr 2008 : Column 76WH—continued

I know that khat is not yet an illegal substance and that it is relatively new in this community. By itself, khat really is relatively harmless, but in combination
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with alcohol there is cause for concern. I hope that the Minister will look at that issue.

Fifteen local authorities have been funded to conduct research into gang culture. The one plea that I make to the Minister today is that that research programme should be extended to include other local authorities. Certainly, I make a strong case for my local authority to be included, as it needs to look at the gang culture locally and it requires the research materials to address that problem in the future.

We also need to take stronger preventive measures. I will not go into those measures as time is moving on, but we need to do more in our schools, pupil referral units and in the criminal justice system itself to divert our young people away from gangs and the gang culture that lead to the levels of violence that we now see.

We also need more comprehensive youth services and I shall touch on this issue briefly. I am not sure that the Minister will be able to respond to this point, but it is important to put it on the record. This process is not just about banging down on young people; we have a responsibility to them, too. In my view, in the past, we have not exercised that responsibility effectively and we need to look at what we are doing in terms of providing youth services. Since 2000, local authorities have certainly been spending a lot more on dedicated youth services than they did before. However, the question still must be asked; are they doing anything like enough?

I could point to many examples of very good practice in my local area. The Edmonton Eagles boxing club is one example, but its work is repeated in karate, judo and other such clubs up and down the country. They do excellent work in diverting young people into sports activity. That activity gives them self-confidence and the ability to gain from the sport they undertake, and I hope that it will have a positive impact on their life.

Community theatre is another example of youth services. In my area, there is a local community theatre group called Ghetto Youth theatre. In fact, it has written, produced and performed a play about knife and gun culture in our community, and that play is taken out to schools and community centres across Enfield. It does a great job in getting the right messages across.

Of course, the Government have put a high priority on youth activities. I could go into detail about the £150 million that the Government have set aside related to their “Youth Matters” Green Paper. That money will be spent this year and next year, and much of it will go directly to young people to give them a voice in their local communities, which is all to the good.

In 2006, the Government laid a duty on local authorities to secure access for young people to “positive activities”. We are yet to see that programme bed down, but I must say that “positive activities” is a rather nebulous form of words in relation to the responsibilities of local authorities. The term should be better defined.

The Government have also recently introduced their 10-year youth strategy. Again sums of money are attached to that strategy, and I think it will be some £180 million in the next three years.

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One could go on and on. Various sums have been provided. Indeed, even the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families announced an initiative on children’s play areas. I mention that because my local authority was fortunate enough to receive funding for that. We will get £2 million and some revenue support to provide play activities in the most deprived communities in my constituency. They will focus particularly on eight to 13-year-olds, but, of course, that is an important group. They will be coming up to the danger zone, if I can call it that, in which the attractions of gang and youth culture begin to take them away from the positive activities that we are trying to engender.

Many other funding schemes are available up and down the country. What we lack, and what I would like to lay on the table for discussion, is a comprehensive local youth service that reaches all the community, not one that involves our saying, as I often do when young people ask, “Where are the youth facilities?”, that there is a community centre two, three or four miles down the road. That is not an adequate response. I recognise that there would be a cost in delivering such a service, but it should be a Government aspiration. I shall quickly suggest some ways in which it could be provided.

First, the local authority should have a duty to draw up a youth strategy. Some years ago, the Government suggested a duty to draw up a homeless strategy. It has been successful, and most local authorities could have similar success if they were to draw up a youth strategy and try to deliver it to local young people.

Local authorities should also have a duty to engage with representatives of young people. We have set up various youth parliaments and organisations. They all exist on a shoestring, and three or four interested young people usually get involved. We need to be much more serious about hearing young people’s voices in all of this. We should be providing small grants for youth organisations. Rather than giving money to adults, professionals or the local authority, let us start giving some limited finance to young people themselves.

We need more community organisations, such as boxing clubs, judo clubs and community arts groups. They will engage young people on territory on which they can be engaged, and would deliver value for money for the Government. I hope that we would begin to see signs of reduced friction and tension in local communities and a reduction in violent crime as a consequence.

The appeal I make to the Minister is that we need the stick, but let us also have the carrot. In the long term, the carrot is much more important, although I understand the need to reassure communities that action is being taken. I hope that he will engage with the debate that is about to take place, and that Parliament and the Government working together can begin to address the real concerns up and down the country about violent crime in our communities.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Edward O'Hara (in the Chair): Order. Before we continue, I wish to make two brief statements. I remind Members that the winding-up speeches must start no later than 10.30. Secondly, I compliment the hon. Member
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for Edmonton (Mr. Love) on refraining from straying into issues that are sub judice. It is important to observe the sub judice rule and not discuss matters that are before the courts.

10.4 am

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) on securing this debate, on the careful, thoughtful and intelligent way in which he introduced it, and on the positive messages in his contribution.

It is right that we should discuss knife crime and particularly its effect on young people. It is horrendous and awful, and disfigures communities. However, it is important to remember that young people are not all violent. They do not all carry knives or commit crimes. As my hon. Friend pointed out, they are actually more likely than older people or anyone else in society to be the victims of crime. Young people walking around often have a far greater sense of fear than adults do. I know young people in my constituency who are simply not prepared at night to walk down certain roads or even to cross certain roads because they feel that they would be in an area that is controlled by someone else. They feel that they are at risk. That is something within youth culture of which older people are almost oblivious—they simply do not notice that kind of thing. Many young people growing up in our big cities experience real fear, and we should have some consideration for that and concern about it.

We should also recognise that many young people, particularly teenagers, socialise on the streets. They hang around on the streets and chat to each other. Every teenager for ever has done that. There is nothing wrong with it; it is part of growing up, part of life. How many adults, when they see a group of teenagers standing around on a street corner, immediately have photo images running through their mind about knives, guns, drugs, violence and so on, and cross the road and walk away in fear? In reality, the danger to them is minimal. They ought to just walk by and say, “Hello, how are you doing?” The general approach should be to talk to people. It is a form of human interaction that goes a long way and has been around for a long time. It is possible for adults and teenagers to interact. I know that some people think that that is difficult, but it can actually be achieved. There needs to be a much more positive approach in society towards young people and their concerns, fears and hopes.

My hon. Friend described very well the tragedy of the five deaths from knife crimes in his constituency. Fortunately, I have not had as many in mine, but two young people have died from knife crime in the past year. I want to say a little about them. Their lives should be remembered, and the community response should be remembered and understood.

Last summer, a young boy, Martin Dinnegan, was walking home from a youth club. He came across a group of people and was stabbed to death on the street within five minutes’ walk of his home and within three minutes’ walk of the youth club that he had just left. An awful situation: a 14-year-old boy who was doing well at school, and who had a supportive family, great hopes for the future and a great life ahead of him.

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Several things were interesting. First, because we now have safer neighbourhoods teams in London and the relationship between the local community and the police is much better than it used to be, a great deal of evidence was provided very quickly. That assisted the police in making arrests. I compare that case, which is before the courts and therefore sub judice, with the stabbing of a young Somali boy in my constituency five years ago. There was much less co-operation with the police because there was not the same relationship with them. That is an important thing to remember.

The response of the community was also interesting. There were two church services. One was a service of peace at St. Mellitus church, led by Father David Ardagh-Walter, which was about peace in the community. It was followed by a peace march attended by 2,000 people. They marched down the road, and, after a period of silence, messages were given by the local police commander, the Mayor and myself to the assembled crowd.

The response in the community was good, and we have had a series of meetings since then to talk about knife crime, punishment, understanding, and building and providing a much better youth service. The role of Martin Dinnegan’s family and his parents, Jim and Lorraine Dinnegan, has been fantastic in trying to build good community relations, even though it is unbearable to think of losing a 14-year-old son in those or any other circumstances.

An even more recent tragic stabbing was that of a young man called Nassirudeen Osawe, who was walking through the Angel in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), although he and his family lived in mine, when he was stabbed to death for no apparent reason or motive. The case is now before the courts and various people have been apprehended as a result. Nassirudeen, a young boy who lost his life, was, tragically and ironically, from the same school as Martin Dinnegan, St Aloysius college in my constituency. He was a very promising and artistic youngster. This was yet another death. Another family is totally bereft, bereaved and uncomprehending of what has happened around them.

I attended the funeral of Nassirudeen, which was held at the East London mosque, and a large number of young people were there. Something poignant happened when they filed past the open coffin of Nassirudeen Osawe: they saw the reality of what happens when young people carry knives and are incapable of communicating with somebody else other than by the use of violence. The result was the tragic loss of this brilliant young man. It is an appalling tragedy. My heart goes out to his family. However, again, they are making a great contribution to the community and are doing their best to bring people together to try to create some sense of understanding of the dangers of violence in our society.

The activities that have happened locally as a result of those two deaths have, in some ways, been positive. There is increased co-operation with the police through the safer neighbourhoods team. I thank Commander Bob Carr of Islington police and his colleagues in particular for the work that they have done supporting all the community organisations and initiatives. I want Islington council to understand the need to invest more
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money in youth services and to welcome the initiative by the Mayor of London to improve and increase youth provisions and services all across London.

Young people growing up in our society are subject to many pressures, including the pressure to conform, and to the glamour of violence, knives and guns. They feel that a knife gives them protection. If young people are asked, “Why do you carry a knife?”—and many of them do—they say, “It is for my protection.” It should be pointed out to them that it is more likely that they will be killed by their own knife if they get involved in a fight: somebody will take it from them and they might well end up being the victim of their own knife. We have to get a message across to them that carrying a knife is dangerous and is going to result in somebody getting hurt and possibly dying as a result of that.

The debate is also about the degree of violence that young people in particular are subjected to through television and in the media all the time. Violence is glamourised; the idea is that someone is big, powerful and strong if they kill somebody in war, a fight or a gang brawl. We need to promote the idea of community, peace, understanding and reconciliation between people.

We must also look at the way in which people live in inner-city areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton mentioned the perceptions of gang culture around the place. In some ways, a gang can be quite benign: it can be a group of young people, who do not necessarily mean violence or harm, getting together and simply calling themselves a gang. There are plenty of hooray Henrys in Oxford and the public schools who form gangs of all sorts, but they are not seen as threatening. [Interruption.] I do not wish to name names on this occasion, because this is an important debate.

Ms Abbott: Some people might call the Bullingdon club a gang.

Jeremy Corbyn: They might, indeed. It is a small gang—

Mr. Love: An affluent gang.

Jeremy Corbyn: Yes.

We have to say to young people that there is no harm in socialisation. As youngsters, I am sure that all hon. Members hung around with a crowd of people that would, these days, be called a gang—it was just a crowd of people we hung around with and went out with or whatever else. We have to recognise that. However, we must also recognise that in the inner-city areas represented by those of us contributing to this debate—four of the hon. Members speaking today have adjoining constituencies in north London—housing is part of the problem. A teenager growing up in my constituency, or those of my neighbours and colleagues, who is sharing a small, crowded flat and has to share his bedroom with one or two siblings of a similar age or even much older does not have space to socialise. They cannot bring their friends home or have them stay over; they cannot do any of things that everyone wants young people to be able to do, because there is simply no space. So they are forced to socialise
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outside whether they want to or not. Obviously, I do not want to stop people socialising outside, but we need to recognise that housing is part of the problem.

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I have raised that issue often in evidence to planning committees. Does he think that there is a need to look at the minimum requirement for space standards, which are impossible and build in problems for the future?

Jeremy Corbyn: I agree; they do build in space problems for the future. In a former life I was councillor in the hon. Lady’s constituency and chaired various committees. I recall doing a study on Chettle Court—she will know the place well—which is a large block of flats built in the late 1960s, early ‘70s. We studied the costs of not providing community space and of providing small flats, and the additional costs over the next 30 years in relation to social work, special youth provision and special centres, and so on. We are building problems for the future by not building good quality homes today. It is so important that we improve the space standards and that, instead of every planning decision revolving around one and two-bedroomed flats, particularly in inner London, we consider the need for family sized accommodation and family homes.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton and I were Haringey councillors in the 1970s and ‘80s. I recall with great pride that we finally achieved the point at which no families were being housed in tower blocks and every new property was a home with a garden. That did not last long because the Tory Government came along and took the money away. However, we achieved a huge amount there. We should work towards that aspiration.

I shall conclude because I want to ensure that my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) gets to speak. This is an important debate and an important subject. I say yes to youth provisions, yes to understanding young people and yes to punishment for those who knowingly carry knives with intent and who use them with intent, because I have no sympathy whatsoever for those people. But when we put young people into detention, whether it is Feltham or any other institution, I do not want them to come out in four, five or however many years later—having committed some horrendous crime—as brutal people ready to commit another crime. We must have a criminal justice system that arrests, apprehends, prosecutes and, if necessary, imprisons people, but we should encourage them to come out as better people than when they went in, rather than create the universities of crime that so many of our penal institutions have become. There is a huge debate and a huge issue here. Avoiding the debate will not solve the problem. Having the debate and meeting the needs of young people will do some good in that direction.

10.18 am

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): I am glad to have the opportunity to contribute to a debate on teenage knife crime, because it is such a huge issue for my constituents in Hackney.

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