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10 Jun 2009 : Column 267WH—continued

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2.54 pm

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I congratulate my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), on obtaining this valuable debate. As she has rightly pointed out, it comes 24 hours after a debate in the main Chamber on knife crime specifically. I should make a confession: I could not contribute to that debate, not least because I was in the hon. Lady’s constituency. When I tell her that I am a member of the all-party group on cricket, she will perhaps understand which particular part of the NW8 posse I was involving myself with yesterday afternoon.

The hon. Lady has made an important point. It is sad that a debate on youth crime should involve, from the Back-Bench perspective, only Members from London, as though youth crime were only an urban phenomenon. The issue is obviously close to the hearts of all of us who represent London seats, but it applies across the country. She did not quite say this, but youth crime and problems between the generations have been with us for as long as there has been history.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to stress that when we talk about youth crime, too much emphasis is placed on the idea of young people as perpetrators rather than as victims, too. Of course, throughout the generations, the victims have also included a lot of older people. Older people are fearful, perhaps with some cause, although she is also right to point out that the media make a lot of some problems and perhaps exaggerate.

The hon. Lady quoted an interesting statistic, which I had not heard before, from her experience on the Select Committee, namely that only 12 per cent. of crimes are perpetrated by young people. However, it is fair to say that some young people are more guilty than other people within our society of antisocial behaviour and a lack of civility. Those things obviously do not appear on crime statistics, but they none the less play a role in cheapening and coarsening the areas where we live.

I had not intended to do more than intervene, but I think that I shall have the Floor to myself for at least a little while longer. I both agree and disagree with the hon. Lady’s concluding comments about rolling back the state. There is a difficulty. My party has rightly said that it believes in the idea of society, but society and the state are not one and the same thing. One need only look, on a related note, at the dreadful events in New Cross that came to court last week. There was the idea of a multi-agency solution, as though somehow everything could be solved through various parts of the state. All too often, those elements of the state are only as strong as their weakest link, which was one of the contributing factors in the terrible events involving the killing of two young French students who were studying in my constituency at Imperial college.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right—this is a fair criticism of elements of Conservative policy—to suggest that the answer does not lie in voluntary and charitable groups alone. Again, there are too many gaps. We are living in a very different society—maybe regrettably, maybe not—from the society of 30 or 40 years ago, when young, educated women who had started families were the leading lights of many voluntary and charitable organisations. Those days are gone, and the notion that we can return to them is, I am afraid, not borne out in practical reality.

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The hon. Lady is right to discuss gang attachment as a replacement for family structures. That applies just as much in my constituency, although not to the same extent. As she well knows, there are pockets in both my constituency and the area that she hopes will become her constituency, the Bayswater and Lancaster gate area, where there are problems. Things are often clouded by many of the issues occurring cheek by jowl with some of the wealthiest real estate in our country. Many issues occur literally 50 or 100 yards away from fabulously wealthy properties, which are often part of gated communities.

I am concerned that so many incidents receive enormous media coverage simply because of the sheer randomness of what has happened. Like the hon. Lady, I speak to young people in central London, so I know that there are real fears. I hear a lot of people say that they carry a knife for their own protection rather than with any sense of aggressive intent, and on one level one can understand that concern. People are concerned not just by the media perception of knife and other crime, but by their own experience of precisely what she has described. They may have experienced incidents that were not terribly serious but that rightly made them quite fearful, such as being bullied or going off the main track near where they live and finding themselves under intense physical threat. An element of the pessimism to which she has referred may simply be because people are getting slightly older and wiser in certain ways, but that should not necessarily make us complacent going forward.

I want to touch on a few of the local issues that the hon. Lady mentioned. In our part of central London, we have had great success in working together with the community, the police and local authorities, and it is only right and fair to say, as I said before last year’s mayoral election, that it is one of Mayor Livingstone’s great successes, in his eight years as Mayor, that he was able to bring much of that together with the safer neighbourhoods initiative. I am glad that our Conservative Mayor, Boris Johnson, is working on that seriously. There seems to have been a smooth, almost seamless, transition between the mayoralties in that regard.

The single most important element of much of the safer neighbourhoods initiative in London has been the work of local authorities. To be fair, the hon. Lady rightly pointed out that Westminster council has had great success in that area with many initiatives such as the one city initiative and the civic renewal initiative. Looking into the future, I hope those initiatives will mean that, insofar as there are to be budgetary cuts, this area will have a strong priority, even if it is not entirely ring-fenced. She is absolutely right to say that policing needs must be localised, particularly given the controversy surrounding stop-and-search. I think that stop-and-search is justifiable in many ways, but she is right that a localised sense of trust needs to be built up, so that any flash points can be sorted out relatively quickly.

I accept what the hon. Lady has said about overcrowding, but there are no easy solutions to that problem, not least when one looks at the situation with social housing organisations and associations. Many of them say that any additional private flats that come on to the market—the property market has gone through some travails in the past couple of years—are sub-standard, in relation to overcrowding, for their purposes. That is a major issue, which I hope that all the parties understand. There is no
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doubt that living in flats or apartments may contribute to a stressful cocktail, particularly for young men who have a lot of surplus energy that needs to be got rid of.

For the past two years, I have been the president of the St. Andrew’s club, which is a quarter of a mile—literally a stone’s throw—away from here, in Old Pye street, which is part of the Abbey Orchard estate. I am glad that the new lord mayor of Westminster, Councillor Duncan Sandys, who happens to represent that ward, has made it his big charity of the year. It is the oldest youth club—it was a boys club when it was set up in the 1870s, but it now takes girls as well. It does a tremendous amount of work with art, dance and various acting shows, and it has a significant number of football teams and other activities.

That club is a beacon, and I hope that the fact that the lord mayor has made it his specific charity will provide the foundation for its financial wherewithal for some time. I have been lobbying Westminster city council at a time of great constraint, and it has been able to provide a certain amount of money, but the club has effectively been losing money year on year and has had to dig into its reserves. On a positive note, it has an initiative with the private Westminster school, which is in the vicinity, and tries to gain income from allowing the school to use its facilities during the day. I suspect, for the reasons that I have set out, that the club is rather luckier than many such clubs throughout the capital and the country, which are under increasing financial constraint.

These issues are important, and I look forward to hearing the contributions from Front-Benchers. It is easy to be glib about this issue, but youth crime is important. It is not just an inner-city problem and it is not just a problem for young people, as it affects all of us in society. We have to get things right. There have been some positive developments. I speak largely from an inner-London perspective, but I hope that there is little dispute between all of us in politics on this issue. We understand the importance of this issue and that there is much work to do. The statistics might be moving in the right direction, but that is no cause for complacency.

In the latter part of 2007 and in the beginning of 2008 there seemed to be headlines in the national press, and certainly in the Evening Standard, every week about the death of yet another young person in London, but that is no longer the case. That may not mean that those incidents have stopped altogether—it is partly that the media bandwagon has moved on—but there have been improvements, which is one reason why it is less of a high-profile issue. However, there should be no complacency. I am pleased to have been able to say a few words, and I thank the hon. Lady for introducing the debate.

3.6 pm

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) on securing the debate. As she said, it follows on from yesterday’s debate in the main Chamber, but also complements it, because it looks at slightly different aspects of the issue. The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) has just made a thoughtful contribution that strongly reflected the tenor of yesterday’s debate. As the hon. Member for
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Regent’s Park and Kensington, North said, yesterday’s debate was very constructive and welcome. I made only a brief contribution, and I found it surprising that all three parties made almost exactly the same points in a constructive tone. We were well away from the rhetoric that we have usually had in the past 10 or 12 years about what to do about youth crime, being tough and locking people up. There was none of the rhetoric from outside this place about bringing back corporal punishment. Instead, there were many thoughtful contributions, both about the fact that, although the problem is serious, it is certainly exaggerated in the media and about how we should deal with the problem constructively, in ways that work, rather than in ways that simply look like tough knee-jerk responses to please the media and look good in headlines. So yesterday’s debate was welcome, and today’s debate has been of the same tenor.

We know that issues such as vandalism and drug abuse—mainly of alcohol rather than the traditional illegal drugs that we always hear about—foul language and knife crime are very serious and are undoubtedly major problems, but one welcome thing from both debates is that everyone who spoke in them reiterated the point that the vast majority of young people are not involved in those things. My constituents often make the point to me that most young people get tarred with the same brush, and there is a bad impression that they are all like that. I taught in secondary schools for 22 years, and I know that the vast majority of the thousands of children aged 11 to 18 whom I taught in that period, in three different schools in different parts of Derbyshire, were fantastic. All the stuff we read in press headlines bears no relationship whatever to the way in which most children behave and conduct their lives. Good news tends not to make it into the press, so we do not see that perspective from the press.

I am a parent of two children who are now adults aged 24 and 20, and one who is only 16 and is sitting one of her GCSE exams at this very moment. Parents meet children who come in with their sons and daughters, and I know from watching my children grow up and mixing with their friends that those kids are, almost without exception, fantastic.

Ms Buck: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) on their balanced and thoughtful contributions. However, does the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) agree that part of the issue, as I tried to suggest in my speech, is that great kids can sometimes offend? We have to recognise that, and find ways of ensuring that their lives are not destroyed if they sometimes step over the line as a result of youthfulness, temptation or peer pressure. We must find ways to support them and bring them back so that they can grow out of this behaviour and live a better life, without their actions becoming a scar on their lives in perpetuity.

Paul Holmes: Yes, absolutely. Almost my next point, as well as another later on, covers exactly that issue, but perhaps I can make a final point to finish this section of my speech.

I am a former teacher, and most of the kids I worked with over 22 years were fantastic. As a parent, I see my kids and their friends, and the kids I come across are,
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almost without exception, fantastic—they are not what we see in the newspaper headlines. As a politician—I was a borough councillor for 12 years and I have been an MP for eight years—all kinds of problems are brought to me. The vast majority of contacts with constituents that involve young people are about good things, but those are not the things that hit the headlines. When we are invited into schools, community centres and youth clubs, we see a terrific range of children involved in a terrific range of things, but that does not tend to hit the news in the same way. So it has been good, in our debates yesterday and today, to hear all the thoughtful comments emphasising the fact that we should not tar all children and teenagers with the same brush.

In her opening comments, the hon. Lady said that we criminalise behaviour today that we would not have criminalised in the distant past or, indeed, when I was a kid in the ’60s and early ’70s. Today, unlike in the past, certain behaviour will automatically be reported to the police and it will go down as a police crime statistic. There will be a criminal record and DNA will be taken, to hark back to our debates on DNA during consideration of the Policing and Crime Bill.

One example that always springs to mind involves a local history fair that I went to in the St. Helens ward in my constituency last year. We were looking at a photograph of some old stone cottages—now demolished—on Wharf lane next to the old canal basin. One old guy, who was 70-odd, told me that he lived there as a little boy. He said that back in the 1930s, they would tie a string to one door knocker, run it through all the others in the row of 10 cottages, stand at the end, pull the string, knock all the knockers and run around the corner or behind the hedge to watch all the 10 residents come to the door and start cursing. I knocked on doors and ran away as a kid in the ’60s, and that old man and his friends did it in the 1930s, but the police would be called today, and if somebody was caught, there would be a criminal record. We have criminalised a lot of behaviour by young people in a way that is counter-productive.

People leave messages at their MPs’ offices, saying, “The children are playing football in the street,” but what did they do as children? I did not play football in the street, because I never really liked organised team games, but what did those people do when they were young? They played football and cricket in the street. On the one hand, people say in the press, “Children today don’t play football and cricket in the street like they used to. That’s why we don’t win competitions around the world any more.” In the next breath, they are on phone to the police, saying, “These kids are playing in the street. Come and move them.”

One of our councillors said that people ring him up about children scrumping apples and that they phone the police. He said that when he grew up in a Nottinghamshire pit village, people scrumped applies, but no one would have dreamed of calling the police. Now, however, it would be a criminal offence. In another example, which I raised in Committee when we discussed DNA during consideration of the Policing and Crime Bill, two children built a tree house in a cherry tree, but they ended up being arrested, criminalised and having their DNA taken and put on the DNA database. That would have been unthinkable 20 years ago, let alone 40, 60 or 70 years ago. We need to consider carefully the fact that we are in danger of exaggerating these problems and criminalising young people.

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Many people have a rose-tinted view of the past. They say, “We didn’t have these problems in the past. We didn’t have these crimes.” I recently read an article about a charity home in Chesterfield, which a local philanthropist had donated so that unemployed people could gather, play cards and the rest of it. However, it had to be knocked down because it had been so badly vandalised—the lead had been ripped out and stolen, and the building had been smashed up. When did that happen? Not during the miners’ strike in 1984 and not in 2009—in the wicked days that we live in—but in 1945, at the end of world war two, when we had standards and such things never happened.

Another example that I read about related to a wonderful Victorian park in Chesterfield, which has been done up in recent years with Heritage Lottery Fund money. After two or three attempts to make an aviary, the council had to abandon the idea and instead turned the building into a glasshouse with plants because local youths were going in and killing the birds. That was not in 2009; it was in the 1930s, when we had standards, such things never happened, children behaved and everybody could leave their doors opened because nothing ever got stolen.

So there is the rose-tinted view of the past and there is the over-criminalisation of a lot of behaviour. However, there is the other extreme, and we know all the crime statistics about knife crime and so forth. One thing that encapsulated that for me in a shocking way was the film “Kidulthood”, which came out two or three years ago—“Adulthood” came out as a follow-up more recently. The film was based on the experiences of the person who wrote and directed it and who had grown up on a very tough inner-city estate in London. It was fictional, but it none the less gave an incredibly grim portrayal of stories like those that we regularly see in the newspapers today. So there is a serious problem, but let us not exaggerate it and let us remember what most children are like and what life is like in most areas.

How do we tackle the problems that undoubtedly exist? One of the traditional answers is that schools should teach standards, but I always find that very insulting as somebody who worked in schools for 22 years. I never worked in or visited a school where the teachers did not go out of their way to teach standards, manners and behaviour to the children—as if teachers would do anything else. However, we sometimes hear crass comments—occasionally from politicians, but more often in the press—suggesting that schools should teach standards. Of course schools try to do that, but the greater the problems and the deprivation in the area that a school represents, the more difficult that will be. I forget the precise numbers, but there are some famous figures showing that children spend far less time in school from five to 16 than they do at home with their parents or out playing with friends at weekends and in the evenings. School is only part of the mix. If we think that children are less respectful of authority and that they swear and answer back more when we tell them off, that is a problem for society as a whole. That is not something that teachers or we as politicians can solve by clicking our fingers or waving a magic wand; it is a much wider problem, which every parent has to tackle, rather than leaving it to somebody else.

We have heard about increasing constructive activity. I sometimes become a bit impatient when people say that there is nothing for kids to do. Kids today have
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more money, they are more affluent and they have more access to Xboxes, video games and the rest of it than I did when I was young in the ’60s and ’70s and certainly than children did back in the 1930s. If kids want to take part in activities, there are a lot available. As we have heard this afternoon, however, there is a danger that constructive guided activity will be one of the first things to be cut when there is a problem, as there is now with the recession and the tough financial situation that we face over the next few years.

We have heard examples of constructive activities from London, and there are other examples from Chesterfield. Traditional activities such as scouts, guides and youth football teams are flourishing. In fact, I was reading only this week that there is a waiting list of 30,000 people to join the scouts nationally, but they cannot get in, because there are not enough scout and guide leaders to run activities. There is a big demand for these activities and they are thriving—they are not withering away, as some people would have us believe.

There are also the things that councils can do. For more than 20 years, we have had a BMX track in one of the local parks in Chesterfield, although, of course, BMX goes in and out favour. In the past few years, the council has also opened a skateboard park and it will open another, much bigger one this autumn. The park was designed by local teenagers, although those teenagers are now adults, because it has taken so long to get the money together to get the park working. None the less, there are some fantastic facilities for young people.

One local police constable, who was an enthusiast for boxing, started some boxing clubs. That is not a sport that appeals to me, but it is popular, and it has spread across Chesterfield into other parts of north Derbyshire. It gets kids off the street and into organised, disciplined activity. I have also been to open martial arts centres that do exactly the same constructive activities with children. Another activity, called Gamezone, involves anything up to 10 or 15 volunteer parents, and I would mention Mick and Christine Samuels in particular. I have been to their youth club activities, which take place in some of the most deprived bits of Chesterfield and Staveley. As many as 90 or 100 children can be involved in indoor activities. Some activities involve computer games, but they also involve children socialising as they would at a youth club. Otherwise, those children would be on the streets.

A letter from the inspector who used to be in charge of Staveley police said that a couple of years ago, in the weeks in which Gamezone was operating, such as school holidays, the police could log on to their computer and look at the figures for referrals for vandalism, kids getting into people’s gardens and kids drinking on the street corner. The figures just plummeted in the weeks in which Gamezone was operating, because instead of being out on the streets causing trouble, these youngsters, all of whom are under age, were involved in constructive activity and social engagement with other people, including adults.

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