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21 Oct 2008 : Column 30WH—continued

I shall give two examples of such organisations. One in my borough is called XLP, and it has been doing excellent work with young people for 10 years. It has a bus that is taken out to some of the estates. With more volunteers, XLP could go out more often. The Oasis Trust, just over the bridge in Kennington, does excellent youth work and radio projects in the summer with young people. With more volunteers, there could be more evening and youth club work. On Thursday, there
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is to be an appeal by all those local organisations—the list is too long to set out, but it is available on the website. The message is “Come and join us: if you are a company, perhaps use your community action day to come and volunteer; or increase the amount of mentoring you give. If you are an individual without much time but who may, even in these difficult days, have a bit of cash, could you put it into our organisation so we can fund another youth worker? If you are a mum who does not think she has much time, but who wants to do something, why not come and see whether you can volunteer with a local youth organisation?” The idea is to build on what exists. I hope that it will appeal.

We have also set ourselves a target—I mention this to the Minister, so that he can whisper favourably in his colleagues’ ears—that some of the money from dormant bank and building society accounts that the Government are legislating to release for youth projects, and for which we are grateful, should be available not only for capital projects and new buildings, but for revenue projects to support additional work on the ground in Greater London. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury kindly said that we can go to see her in the near future to make sure that the case is understood and that money can be drawn down.

I shall end with my shopping list. We, as a community, need to do all that we can to support parents and families. We need to support schools, which are increasingly doing early school support in the morning, breakfast clubs and after-school clubs. We need to minimise school exclusions. All the evidence is that the excluded pupil is the most vulnerable and prospectively the most troublesome pupil. We need to deglamorise gangs. All the evidence is that in the end gang membership is not a satisfactory way to live one’s life and is much more dangerous than other ways of life. We need to develop after-school, evening and weekend youth services. Youth services are often great on a weekday but not much good on a Friday night, Saturday or Sunday, because they are not open. We need to develop mentoring, starting really early. Good mentoring can start at 10 with the transition from primary to secondary school. We need to support our youth services.

I make a plea—my hon. Friend knows that I am seeking to persuade colleagues to do something in our boroughs, and I think that the Mayor is being positive about it—for a detached youth worker in every Greater London ward, to complement the safer neighbourhood teams. They should be independent of the police and should be good youth workers out on the street. Those are sometimes more effective at getting intelligence and young people’s confidence. I commend that idea and would be grateful if the Minister would be good enough to look at it. We need to increase the protection of witnesses, so that they are confident to give evidence, and we need to support existing good organisations.

Lastly, we need to be optimistic that together we can say, in the words of the newly-formed group that is launching on Thursday, “Enough! We can make youth violence history.” This level of youth violence is inevitable, and I think that we can have a different city, as New York and other places have evidenced. I am keen that we collectively look for ways to do that.

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Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): This is a most important and well-attended debate. I intend the winding-up speeches to start at 12 o’clock, so if hon. Members show a little self-discipline, I will allow as many as I can to speak.

11.31 am

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): I will keep my remarks short, Mr. Olner. I thank the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) for securing the debate and emphasising that people across the community in London are rising up to try to find a means of solving this significant problem.

In my constituency, interesting and good work has been done by young people who want to have an input in that debate. I particularly want to mention Eliza Rebeiro, who is 15 years old and runs the lives not knives campaign, and also Michael Castle. Both emphasise the importance, as did the hon. Gentleman, of not demonising young people and of recognising that they have a contribution to make to the debate.

As an MP I have visited families in Croydon who have suffered the loss of children through knife crime. Unfortunately, Croydon has the justified reputation of having the highest number of knife killings in this country, and the destruction to those families is especially heart wrenching. The parents of Oliver Kingonzila have lost another son this year through a heart attack, and in many ways they will also suffer the sadness of seeing their other son deported after finishing a prison sentence, so they are being punished once again.

I am also mindful of the extremely good work being done by the co-ordination between Croydon council and the Metropolitan Police Service in coming up with many solutions to tackle the issue. It is often forgotten that the Government put in place good architecture to encourage working between different parts of the public sector, and that has very much come to fruition in the work that has taken place in Croydon.

Mrs. Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a wider range of community groups also have an important role to play in tackling the tragedy of knife crime? I would like to highlight an initiative in Barnet in which the police, the council and a number of church groups have been working together on a project called the week of peace, which has a range of ways to try to promote youth self-esteem and mentoring and to tackle some of the underlying causes of knife crime.

Mr. Pelling: That kind of joint approach is a good one. I am keen to give other Members the chance to speak, so there is not enough time to detail the work on those initiatives being led by our borough commander, Mark Gore, and a leading councillor, Steve O’Connell, but some of them include working with education and welfare officers to identify those youngsters who might be at risk of being involved in a conflict and taking them from the streets before they get involved in trouble. They try to bring together all of the different members and stakeholders in the public sector in what is called a turn-around centre so as to identify how they can work to deal with the issues. Croydon also has a licensing committee in situ that is able to meet at 24 hours’ notice and remove a licence from a premise that has obviously been a source of trouble, as was done in the case of the murder of the young Oliver Kingonzila.

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I would like to conclude by making a more controversial statement. I have seen incidents in my town in which there has clearly been no respect for the police service. We had an incident in front of 300 shoppers last Saturday afternoon during which there was a pitched battle of extreme violence between youngsters. It did not lead to a killing, but nevertheless we see a situation in which no respect is given. I believe that the very good work being done by the police, local authorities and others in the public sector will eventually lead to a success, but in the immediate short term, a more radical solution is needed. I know that in saying this I will raise the spectre of Croydon’s reputation being further damaged, but people are already being killed on the streets of Croydon. We have an Army with the highest reputation in the world for civil policing. For a short period, and as a pilot programme, I believe that our Army would be better used on the streets of Croydon, rather than being left at Basra airport. That would send the message that we will no longer tolerate the killings.

I have already written to the Minister of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), about that proposal, and I am extremely grateful to him for coming to Croydon to listen to the views of young people there. It was really impressive that a Minister came to listen and not to speak. He is truly a listening politician. I know that he has not been able to reply to the letter that I wrote to him on that controversial idea, but when people are being killed on the streets of Croydon, we have to do something immediately to try to stop it.

11.38 am

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): I will keep my remarks as brief as possible, as you have suggested, Mr. Olner, as a few other colleagues would like to speak.

This is an important debate. I will start by saying that Upminster is part of the London borough of Havering, which as an outer London borough does not suffer the same level of youth violence as some inner London boroughs. Nevertheless, we have had a mercifully small number of tragic incidents. Each and every incident in which a child dies is a tragedy for the families concerned. If there has been no successful prosecution, those families find it almost impossible to grieve properly and move on because they are unable to feel the sense of closure or of justice being done that would enable them to at least cope with—they can never get over it—the loss of a child.

There are two aspects to the debate. One relates to the reasons young people get involved in gangs and violent behaviour, and the other, which flows from the first, is what action can be taken. The reasons why young people get involved in gangs are wide-ranging, and those involved often come from homes in which there is no order or support from parents. Children often turn to gangs for a sense of belonging, and the gang leader is often a charismatic young person who might have suffered violence or a lack of order in their own lives. They gain self-respect and self-confidence by intimidating, bullying and manipulating other people, sometimes weaker, young people, who will feel safer within a gang, in the knowledge that they are less likely to become a victim themselves.

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Friends of mine who are criminal barristers have said that some young people will attend court having got into trouble without really understanding where they are, or why they are there, and that sometimes their parents do not bother to turn up. I ask hon. Members to imagine a young person who has committed an offence and ended up in court, but who does not have the support of family members. That is the case with a small proportion of them.

Ms Buck: I hope that the hon. Lady accepts that tragically many young people involved in criminal and antisocial behaviour often come from families where the parents might have been drug or alcohol abusers or have severe mental health problems or other similar conditions. In addition to working through the youth services and with young people, we need to look at the capacity to provide family therapy and support to help break that cycle of difficulty, which can cascade down through generations.

Angela Watkinson: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. A safe, secure and supportive family background is the foundation that children need to lead productive lives and to take every opportunity, educational and social, put in front of them. Without that, they face enormous difficulties.

For the small number who receive a custodial sentence, it is essential that while in custody they receive an education and training and develop an understanding of right and wrong, which they might not have had before they went in, so that they come out better people and with an understanding of what went wrong in their lives. That way they will be better placed to have a positive and constructive future.

Mr. Love: Does the hon. Lady agree that there is a dire need for more research? The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) mentioned the role of postcode, geographical frictions in our society, and we heard last week at the all-party group on social enterprises about the role and amorphous nature of many gangs. Surely society needs to understand better the motivations of the young people who get involved in violence.

Angela Watkinson: That would also help schools, which are doing a lot of good work through their pastoral care and the clubs that they run for the social side of young people’s lives. However, schools cannot be expected to fill a void in young people’s families. The demands on schools are growing every day, but there is limited time in the school day. They are doing their very best—they do everything possible—but full responsibility cannot be put on them to control, for example, knives and drugs entering their premises. There is no magic wand. A combined effort is needed: schools, families, the police and community groups need to join together. There is no magic, two-minute solution.

Children need to know that if they do something knowingly wrong, there must be a penalty and that they must take personal responsibility for their actions. The youth facilities in my borough are extremely good and wide ranging, but I am constantly being written to by young people telling me that there is nothing to do; they are quite surprised when I write back with a big list of all the things to do. However, it is not the responsibility of councils, schools or anyone else, to entertain children.
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Parents have the primary responsibility for knowing what their children are doing and finding things to occupy and interest them.

Detached youth workers have been mentioned in respect of the unclubbables— young people who do not want to belong to anything—but that is a very long-term procedure. I have spoken to detached youth workers who will identify groups of young people out in public places at night and getting themselves into trouble. It takes a very long time to approach them and to even get them to talk. Getting them to change their attitudes and to understand that there are other, more positive, ways in which they can spend their time is a long-term procedure. It is very valuable, but will not bring an immediate solution. Clubs and organisations for young people have something to contribute: the armed forces cadets, scouts, guides, boys’ brigades, St. John Ambulance and church clubs all have something to offer young people. If only we could get them there to see what is on offer, they would find that actually they could enjoy it and acquire new skills and a sense of self-confidence and self-respect, which are the essential precursors to having respect for other people and to moving forward in their lives.

Finally, I shall mention something that might surprise hon. Members, because it is not something that we instantly associate with youth violence. I would like to see promoted the benefits of dance, socially and in schools. The health, social and artistic benefits of dance could bring in disaffected young people who perhaps do not want to do sport—the physical benefits of dance are just as great. Particularly with the music that goes with it, it might be attractive to those young people. We should find ways of promoting dance among them and diverting all that negative energy into something positive that could change their direction and bring out their talents. It would be an investment in the future, because our young people are the next generation of professionals in this country, and we need to bring out the best in them. We must work together to put back on to the right track those going astray and in the wrong direction.

11.47 am

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Olner, for allowing me to make a brief contribution to this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) on obtaining this debate; his contribution on his own inner-London borough was very thoughtful. It is a tribute to the importance of this debate that so many hon. Members have turned out today. We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) and from the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling). This is a major issue about which we all feel very strongly.

To be brutally honest, I fear that we will not necessarily be able to find an enormous number of solutions out of hon. Member’s speeches, and I confess that much of what I shall say will be to put on the record some of the concerns in the city of Westminster. In the past six months there have been some 303 recorded youth violence incidents in Westminster—a 6 per cent. drop from the previous year. We can all be pleased with that reduction,
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although I take on board a number of the concerns about the reliability of certain statistics, particularly in relation to the more serious aspects, such as knife crime.

The very great majority of youngsters in London constitute a positive and valued part of London’s population, but find themselves tarred with a particular brush and considered a problem in their youth—that probably happened in all our youths, but it seems to be an even more prevalent media story today. I am not complaining about the media, and one fully understands that some of these terrible crimes need to be covered, but the fact remains that the great majority of London’s youngsters are extremely hardworking and thoughtful. We have all visited schools. It never ceases to surprise us how well genned up are many of our youngsters on matters political and how in many other ways they are able to make a great contribution.

It must be extremely difficult to be brought up in the very busy parts of London, particularly of inner London, where there are relatively few things for teenagers to do.

Simon Hughes: To reinforce that point, one of the most exciting things that I have done in the past few weeks was to visit the City of London academy in Bermondsey where, last Friday, it held a school election for its head girl and boy. The turnout at all the assemblies was huge. There were six candidates—three girls and three boys—which was a sign of real, mature interest, excitement, enjoyment and fun. This morning, I had the privilege of being able to ring up the winners and say, “Good luck, guys; I hope you live up to your promises.” The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that there is much good energy and talent, and that we need to pick up on those examples, rather than look elsewhere.

Mr. Field: I could mischievously suggest that the hon. Gentleman should also speak to those who came third. That would be a very typical thing for a Liberal Democrat to do.

Simon Hughes: In Bermondsey, it is always the Conservatives who come third.

Mr. Field: I guess I stepped into that one.

As is the case with a lot of crime, the perception and fear of crime are often at the heart of the problem. The significant coverage given to all the recent knife and gun crime fatalities has meant that young people naturally feel scared. I have heard of pupils from Westminster City school articulating their concerns about feeling intimidated by gangs of youths in the street and on buses. It is important that young people believe that youth crime is taken seriously, that reported incidents are dealt with swiftly and effectively and that there is a police presence on our streets and transport systems to make people feel safer.

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