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21 Oct 2008 : Column 36WH—continued

Ms Buck: There is a problem with perception in some schools, which, I suspect, goes across the board. Schools that are seen to be addressing and debating issues of youth violence, including those in which police officers have been stationed, often report parental concern, particularly at the time of application, about the very fact that there is a police officer linked to the school or that there is a high-profile debate about youth violence. Other parental concerns include schools’ work with
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community organisations such as the excellent Uncut, which works in my area. Those concerns put parents off and are perceived to demonstrate that those schools are in trouble. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to urge all schools, in London and elsewhere, to recognise that this issue is a fact of life that we have to debate and address? Does he agree that if a school does so, it is not a sign that it is a sink school?

Mr. Field: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. She has made her point extremely well, and I do not need to add to it.

Concern about youth crime extends to older constituents, because youth violence spills out into busy public areas. Many hon. Members will know that one of the most high-profile knife killings occurred in my constituency on 13 May last year, when a 22-year-old man had his throat slit in a McDonald’s on Oxford street. That happened in front of horrified shoppers, while rival groups hurled drinks and fought on the pavement outside. That sort of youth crime is not somehow ring-fenced; it affects the population at large.

I recently met one of Britain’s top trauma surgeons, who operates at the Royal London hospital. He confirmed that there are significant problems with the collection of evidence and reporting of knife violence to the police, and recommends a more joined-up approach between all the authorities concerned, including the police, the Home Office, hospitals, the Mayor of London and local authorities. I am pleased that the Mayor intends to emphasise the need for joined-up thinking in the strategic framework for London that he will launch next month. Similarly, Westminster city council is keen to develop information-sharing protocols and codes of practice with neighbouring authorities in order to work together on addressing the serious youth crime and violence that transcends boundaries. As the hon. Lady has rightly pointed out, in many of our schools in Westminster, the majority of children and parents are from outside the borough, which makes such joined-up thinking all the more important.

We have discussed the complex factors that interact to increase the probability of a young person turning to violence. They include a lack of discipline and of role models, fractured families, personality type, lack of support and the influence of peers and siblings. I am afraid that the glamorisation of gang violence is another factor, which will be very difficult for us to counter fully.

My final point is about the initiatives that are taking place in Westminster city council. Today is probably an appropriate day on which to mention this, because the leader of the council has just come out with a detailed plan to address what he regards to be the 3 per cent. of problem families who produce 97 per cent. of the work load in a whole range of Government Departments. One initiative in particular is worth serious consideration. Offenders who are sentenced to do community service are often required to do hundreds of hours of unpaid work, and the council would like to incorporate that work locally as part of suitable youth diversionary projects. That would also help to introduce a sense of responsibility and purpose, and would, I hope, do its bit to reduce reoffending.

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11.54 am

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I, too, start by congratulating the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) not only on having the good sense to secure this important debate, but on regularly speaking up in Parliament about London-wide issues.

I think that I am, unfortunately, the Member with the largest number of knife murders this year in my constituency. As those events unfolded, my constituents and I were not prepared for what was about to happen, and we did not fully understand the gravity of the issues that we would have to face.

[Sir John Butterfill in the Chair]

Today, I shall draw out three issues that are critical if we are to deal effectively with the wave of knife and gun crime in the capital. I hope that the Minister will address them all in his response. The first issue, which I have touched on in questions that I have asked previously, is the lack of adequate research into some of these issues. I have two examples to demonstrate that, one of which was mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. He discussed the territorial aspect of much of the friction that occurs in relation to prisons, but there is much evidence emerging in my constituency that people who live in the N18 area will not cross into the N9 area. I am sure that there are similar problems in other constituencies. We do not fully understand that problem, and more research is required to do so.

My second point relates to gang culture. There was an interesting seminar last week, which many hon. Members present attended, at which detailed research was discussed. Most of that research is going on in other parts of the country, but the area most affected by this problem is Greater London. We need much more research into gang culture. I suggest to the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) that understanding why and how horrific incidents take place, including the reasons for them, would take us a long way forward in producing policies in response to such incidents.

Several hon. Members have mentioned schools. They play a critical role, but not in the conventional sense. It is the wrong approach to talk about introducing wands and other mechanisms to find out which pupils are carrying weapons. We need to monitor what is happening in schools, because much of the evidence that has emerged in recent years suggests that exclusion is the first alarm bell regarding possible antisocial problems. It is obvious that schools have a role to play in that regard. They know when there are difficulties at home and where there are fractured families. They know, from the exclusions themselves, that antisocial behaviour is beginning to occur. When kids are permanently excluded, they are well on their way to some of the difficulties that we are experiencing across London. Schools play a critical role, but that role should be about information, education and trying to bring kids back in, rather than excluding them. Schools should involve other agencies when they are experiencing difficulties, and they should be able to include all pupils in their activities.

The third area that I want to discuss is our short-term approach, because there is a need to reassure the community that we are dealing with gun and knife crime effectively. We have Operation Blunt to disrupt the activities of gangs and youths who are involved in antisocial behaviour
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and violent crime, and we need to look at the criminal justice system. I ask hon. Members to look carefully at how the youth justice system is responding to this wave of violence. There has been a greater recognition that cautioning is not good enough, but I think we should go further.

The latest case in my constituency was a murder at the beginning of the year. The young person who was found guilty of that crime was given only a five-year sentence. I will not comment directly on that case as I am sure that specific factors led the court and jury to that decision. However, I point to the signal that it sends out about how seriously we are dealing with the problems. There is a role for the whole criminal justice system in taking care to ensure that we send out the right signals about how seriously we treat these issues.

I hope that the Minister will respond to those points. Once again, I congratulate everybody on contributing to this debate on what is a very important issue.

12.1 pm

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Like others, I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) on securing this debate. He has led from the front on issues of violence in his constituency. Indeed, his life was put at risk by the actions that he took in trying to bring a case to justice, and I commend him for that. I also congratulate the Minister on his first attendance at such a debate. He has missed the four or five that have been held in the last six months on this issue. No doubt he will be in post for the four or five that I anticipate will regrettably be held in the next six months.

Like my hon. Friend, I will start by setting out some ground rules that should apply to this debate and to debates of this nature. First, we must not typecast youngsters. I am pleased that nobody here has done so. Some hon. Members have deployed statistics to confirm that only a very small minority of young people are violent. The figures I have heard are that 3 per cent. of young people are members of gangs and a third of gang members do not offend. We are therefore talking about only a small number of young people. Only 3 per cent. have carried a knife, which means that 97 per cent. have not.

We must accept that there are no simple solutions. There have been calls for mandatory prison sentences, huge increases in school exclusions and short prison sentences for youngsters when the evidence shows that that is unhelpful and does not lead to a reduction in reoffending. Hon. Members have outlined a number of possible solutions today. We must accept that the solutions will be complex and will involve many different aspects of work for many different Departments and organisations, such as the police.

We must accept that there is a sound basis for the crime statistics that we use so that we do not argue about those instead of about what the solutions should be.

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): The hon. Gentleman has made the point that the solutions may be complex, but they must also be relevant. Particular attention must be given to the times when the mass of
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problems occur. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) mentioned after-school responses by youth workers. Also relevant is what is offered by the youth services. In my constituency, Working Together for Wimbledon has youth workers working after school and offers young people the chance to do sessions in rap and music rather than the more traditional activities. That is an important part of the response.

Tom Brake: I agree entirely. The solutions must be appropriate and timely. An example that I have often heard and that I am sure the hon. Gentleman has heard is the timing at which safer neighbourhood teams are out and about patrolling. We need them not at 9 o’clock on a Monday morning when nothing is happening, but at 9 o’clock on Friday and Saturday nights when things are beginning to hot up, so to speak.

We are all in broad agreement that the problem we are trying to tackle is the growth in youth violence and in the number of young people who are dying as a result of knife crime. We all recognise that area of growth. Unfortunately, we are on track for a record number of young people dying by stabbing in London this year.

People are trying to tackle this problem in different ways. My hon. Friend has described what is being done by “Enough!” and I wish it good luck and success. There have been a series of marches because communities have felt that they need to do something. A march is a visible way of raising concerns. We have heard protest songs. Perhaps other hon. Members have been e-mailed by Kinzli Coffman, who sent me her protest song. That was the only way that she could think of to respond to this issue as an artist. Choice FM has been running a successful campaign to reduce violence and has been trying to find diversionary activities for young people to take part in.

I will try to give the elements that must be in a comprehensive solution. Clearly I cannot give an exhaustive list and I may repeat what other hon. Members have said. The starting point must be to boost the public’s confidence and reduce their fear of crime. We must also increase their confidence in the system’s ability to respond to the issues that they raise. On reducing the fear of crime, we had an interesting sitting of the Home Affairs Committee last week where the regional editor of the Newsquest Media group confirmed that his group has agreed no longer to carry adverts for massage parlours because doing so feeds the trafficking of women. In effect, it is pimping for pimps. Perhaps regional editors should look also at their role in the reporting of crime. That is not just about the impact that that has on the fear of crime, but whether it potentially leads to more young people carrying weapons because of what they read in the press. We need a greater level of responsible reporting.

To boost people’s confidence in the system, the police must look at how they are equipped to respond. Over the summer, Ian Johnston made some interesting comments about the public’s perception of the police, particularly in relation to very simple things such as whether the police answer the phone when somebody calls. The police must look at how they should respond.

On the possible solutions, I am grateful to Juanjo Medina from the school of law at the university of Manchester. I was at last week’s session where he set out his suggestions. I also thank 11 MILLION, as did my
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hon. Friend, and Jennifer Blake of the Eternal Life Support Centre, whom I met on Sunday when I heard some of her ideas. The first point must be about research. All hon. Members have said that we do not have a detailed body of research that assesses what works and what does not. Apparently, we do not have longitudinal studies looking at young people from an early age up to their teenage years to see what is effective. My first question to the Minister is whether he will make a commitment on behalf of the Home Department to commission that research or pull it together so that there is a body of detailed research that we can look at.

There must also be research into what is happening in accident and emergency units. The police, the health service and the Home Department must work together to ensure that there are detailed statistics. I understand that there has been a significant increase in the number of people going into A and E as a result of violent incidents, but that our health service is fortunately getting much better at saving them. Those incidents do not therefore feed through into death statistics. However, there is an increase in such instances.

We must then look at policy. The Government are doing good work in tackling issues such as child poverty and social exclusion, which clearly feed this problem. We must look at the level of support that is available. The support must target the most prolific gang members, but it must also help their families, perhaps in a discreet way rather than in a head-on way.

We must look at the support that is provided to schools. I will be interested to hear what the Minister, who was a teacher in his previous guise, has to say about this issue. As has been said, exclusion is the single greatest trigger of future problems. The Minister could usefully comment on what can be done to assist schools in that respect and in tackling the issue of knife crime without scaring off parents. Other support includes trauma counselling for those who have witnessed violence, who are often very young people.

Then, clearly, we need to move on to the policing aspect. Stop and search has a role, as long as it is targeted and as long as police recognise that, for example, some gang members are on the periphery of the gang and are not involved in criminal activity; in their case, therefore, the approach needs to be as subtle as possible.

I will bring my remarks to a conclusion by referring to the issue of diversionary activities. We hope that those activities will be funded by dormant bank accounts, once that money is tapped. In the all-party group on child and youth crime, we heard that in Moss Side, rather than in London, young people have to be taxied from that area out to youth activities, because, astonishingly, there was nothing for them to do there. I hope that that is not also the case in London, but it may be, and if it is the case, clearly we need to see investment in youth provision—not necessarily youth centres, but youth activities—in the areas that need it most.

I hope that the Minister, for his maiden experience of these sessions, has heard a reasonably cross-sectional and apolitical contribution from all Members, apart from the little diversion there about school exclusions, and also some very sound suggestions that I hope he will take on board.

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12.11 pm

James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): I would also like to congratulate the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) on securing this debate and on the very mature and well-grounded comments that he made. I know the passion that he has about this issue, which I share. We both took part in the people’s march against knife crime on 20 September and I know that he was as affected as I was by the contributions made by family members, friends and other people in the community who had been touched by knife crime against people whom they knew. It would have been very difficult not to have been moved by the outpouring of emotion that came from that event and, in part, that emotion has been reflected in other contributions that we have heard from Members today.

It certainly puts this debate in context that there has been another murder overnight, admittedly not in London but in Liverpool, and I am sure that the thoughts and prayers of everyone in the House will go to the friends and family of everyone who has been touched by these appalling incidents.

I would also like to congratulate the Minister on his appointment and welcome him to today’s debate. I hope that he will bring some new focus and attention to this most serious of issues.

This has been a well-informed and interesting debate and I have agreed with a large number of the points that have been made by Members during it. I would just like to pick up on the last point that was made by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) about the situation in Moss Side. Sadly, the taxiing of some young people to youth facilities from that area was not necessarily simply because those youth facilities were not on the doorstep; it was the fact that those facilities were in a different gang member’s area and therefore it was not safe for members from a rival gang area to go there. That highlights the terrible tragedies and issues that, sadly, so many young people have to face in their everyday life, not just across London but across the whole country.

I would also caution the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) about the idea of very firm approaches to this problem, including his suggestion that the Army be used. That would be absolutely the wrong way to address this issue, which can be dealt with by firm policing, prosecutions and prevention strategies, building through communities. To use the Army would send out entirely the wrong message.

Simon Hughes: One of the phrases that has emerged in all the discussions in south London has been that we want a “volunteers army”, rather than the military. We need more people to become involved, to provide that extra capacity and to be the type of role models that the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) and other hon. Members referred to earlier.

James Brokenshire: That emphasis on community is extremely important in this debate and we should recognise the very positive contribution that young people play in their communities and the essential role that they perform. Last night I was at a school prize-giving at the Chafford school in Rainham, which has a very good peer mentoring process. It is championing and leading the way on this issue, showing that we need to focus on community activities to make a difference.

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