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10 Jun 2009 : Column 274WH—continued

One young lad came to me recently from an old pit village called Duckmanton just on the edge of Chesterfield—it is the last stop before the Bolsover constituency on the M1. He had been in trouble as a youngster—he is only about 19 now—and had got out of it by doing some motorbike racing, for which he was sponsored. He now wants to get a patch of land nearby,
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just on the other side of the M1, at junction 29A, which some hon. Members may have heard of—it is going to be a big industrial park—and open it up for youngsters from the local area who get into trouble with the police for riding their motorbikes on the street. He wants to get them involved in constructive activity, learning to ride on that waste land, and learning to do the jumps and the rest of it. He has it all worked out: the business plan and the insurance that is needed. He has been to look at two similar schemes that exist in other areas. It is a fantastic scheme, if we can work with the council to provide the land and get such an activity going.

Everyone can come up with examples of such positive ways to provide constructive activity for young people, rather than just leaving them to it, to hang around the streets and inevitably start to get into trouble for quite low-key activities, which, 30 or 40 years ago, would not have got them a police record. However, as we have heard, there is the threat of cuts. If councils’ budgets become tougher and tougher, what will be one of the first things to go? Back in the 1980s in Derbyshire, one of the first things to go was almost the entire youth service. It has slowly been rebuilt in the past 10 or 15 years, and now we all wonder what will happen in the next three or four years.

Another aspect of the matter is the importance—not for hard-hitting law enforcement, but for proactive prevention—of the visible police presence. The Government deserve congratulations, because there are more police officers and police community support officers around; there is a more visible uniformed presence. Last Hallowe’en, I went out on patrol with the specials in Chesterfield, and that night there were more of them than regular police on the street, because of the number of volunteers. I think they got 13 out on the night. Because there was a uniformed presence in such numbers, they could go to all the known trouble spots: the playgrounds, the high streets where young people hang around drinking outside shops, and the graveyards. They could be visible there all night and they were a deterrent. It was the quietest Hallowe’en for the past 10 or 15 years, because of the number of people on the street to act as a visible deterrent. The more people see a uniformed presence, the less there will be trouble that gets out of hand.

That takes us right back to the zero tolerance approach in New York, for example. When there is a deterrent to low levels of activity, serious levels do not arise in the first place. However, the presence on the streets is needed to achieve that. Derbyshire police are underfunded by £5 million a year and are being rate-capped by another £1.6 million for next year, and will have to cut 60 police officers as a result. How does that help, when Derbyshire police are already 380 uniformed staff down in comparison to equivalent counties? Obviously, it does not help.

On the question of alcohol, I mentioned earlier that the biggest problem in the context of drugs and young people is not illegal drugs but those that are legal, although it is illegal for people under 18 to get them. That is far and away the biggest problem. The effort that has traditionally been put into tackling alcohol issues is a fraction of what has gone on dealing with illegal drugs. Again, more constructive attention is now being paid to alcohol, and there are measures in the
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Policing and Crime Bill, which is going to the House of Lords, to permit further steps to be taken, although I think that an opportunity has been missed on such approaches as minimum pricing for alcohol. It is the super-strength cheap ciders and lagers that young people buy from the off-licence that are the real problem, not the beer that they buy in the pub in a managed, more adult environment.

Mr. Mark Field: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there are some deep-seated and long-standing issues about the use of alcohol, not just in British but, one might argue, in northern European society? However, there is some hope if one considers the sea change that has taken place in the past two decades in tobacco use. I accept that tobacco is a legal drug, and one that has tended to be used almost as a rite of passage at a particular age; but what has happened with tobacco must bring some hope that the policy changes that can be, and are being, made over a period of time will lead, much more importantly, to a sea change in general attitudes, which is the only realistic way in which we can ensure that the blight of alcohol—not just alcoholism but antisocial behaviour by young people—can be kept to a minimum.

Paul Holmes: It is one of those intangible problems, a bit like saying, “Children swear more on the streets, and answer back when you tell them not to do it, which they would never have done in my day.” In so far as that is true, it is down to parents to change their attitude. The alcohol issue is another such intangible. The Government cannot click their fingers and solve the problems, and neither can schools or the police. Society must change its attitude, although Government can give nudges in the right direction. As the hon. Gentleman has said, smoking was prevalent, but the number of smokers is now down to 30 per cent. of the population. That is partly because of health education campaigns, cracking down on the sale of tobacco to under-age people and banning smoking in enclosed public places—which I was an enthusiast for, and which we were one of the last western countries to do.

All sorts of things have led to the sea change in attitude, and we need that to happen for alcohol. The idea that 24-hour licensing would mean a continental café culture, just like that, was nonsense. It is to do with society and how society sees things. That is where I took issue with the chief medical officer when he recommended that parents should never let their children drink any alcohol at home until they are over 15. As I have said before in debate, when my children were as young as five, they would have some watered-down wine when we were sitting eating a meal and drinking wine. By the time they reached their early teens alcohol was not a great, exiting, illicit thing, and they did not go out and get drunk, and collapse in the streets. That is how things are done in most of Europe and why there is a café culture there. Parents, with their children, treat alcohol with respect and as a family thing—not as a mysterious drug to rush out and get drunk on in the street at the age of 13, 14 or 15. Social attitudes are what need to be changed.

As for a targeted stop-and-search for knives, not much has been said today about the use of metal arches, but they are being used a bit more in the UK. The Select
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Committee on Children, Schools and Families was recently in New York and we saw that every school automatically has police on duty in the entrance way, and a metal-detecting arch. It is not necessarily in use all the time, but it is there so that children going to school know it could be used, and they could be picked up carrying knives or, of course, in New York, guns. We are a million miles from that situation, but the judicious use of mobile metal arches on the underground, and of stop-and-search, has been very successful in the past year.

There are some startling comparisons to be made by considering a wide picture of the youth justice system: £300 million a year is spent locking young people up, and £30 million is spent on prevention. That is utterly the wrong way round, because, to go back to a point that the hon. Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North made several times, we should not be criminalising young people of 11, 13, 14 or 15 if we can avoid it. When they step out of line, we should try to avoid the automatic process of police, crime, arrest, custody and young offenders institutions. That balance, of £300 million on locking up 2,800 young people this year, as against £30 million on trying to prevent that happening, is the wrong way round.

The Youth Justice Board started to take responsibility for that aspect of the matter in 2000, and I know it would say that since then things are starting to move in the right direction and the numbers are going down. We are locking up fewer young people and putting more effort into prevention. If young people who are put in young offenders institutions come out with the same low level of education and drug or alcohol problems that they tend to go in with, and the same mental health problems they probably go in with—the same is true of the adult prison population—all that happens is that 70 per cent. reoffend within two years of leaving. What is the point of that? It may look tough; but countries such as Norway, Canada and the Netherlands do not take the macho, tough approach. Instead they do what works and concentrate on rehabilitation and help, and intensive fostering programmes—all things that the Government, to their credit, have started to introduce in the past year or two—and that is a far healthier way forward, which will bring the results we want in the long term. However, there is no magic wand. We cannot click our fingers or pass a law to solve the problems. It is a shame that the media give the impression that we can do so. The tenor of the debate, and of yesterday’s debate, from all three parties, suggests that we are at long last moving in the right direction.

3.29 pm

James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): This has been another constructive and positive debate on youth crime, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) on securing it and on the way in which she approached it. We have heard about its effect on her constituents and the people in her community who have been touched by appalling incidents of violence, other examples of which we heard yesterday. There is a significant impact on our neighbourhoods, communities, friends and family and others whom we know, because of the effect on their perception of safety and security at home and work. That is why the issue is so important.

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I agree with the hon. Lady: we should not frame these debates so that they are simply about knife crime. We need to look at the broader spectrum of youth crime and what that means. Someone does not necessarily automatically go from not being an offender one day to being a criminal or someone who has perhaps perpetrated one of the appalling incidents that gathers media coverage and is discussed in the debates that we have sadly had on far too many occasions over the past couple of years.

We need to look back at someone’s history, their family, their neighbourhood and, indeed, the issues of inequality that the hon. Lady highlighted. That was reflected in an excellent report from the Select Committee on Home Affairs. We do not necessarily agree with everything in the report, but it has some good ideas and thoughts. Indeed, from the Government’s comments yesterday, I know that they will be reflecting on the interesting analyses and themes that come out of that report, as we will be.

I want to pick up on a few things that the hon. Lady said, particularly the issues of schools, education and exclusion. I know that she and I have discussed those matters privately and have talked about how exclusion is often a big red flag in terms of quite serious offending thereafter. I have certainly been struck by some of the analyses, of which she will be aware from her membership of the Home Affairs Committee. For example, Operation Trident has offered profiles of some of the most serious offenders and it can almost be guaranteed that such offenders will have been excluded from school. That was quite a striking factor that came out of the evidence that was provided, and I am sure that it is reflected more generally.

In terms of the difference in the approach that we take, we believe that it is important for schools to have greater discretion to be able to exclude. That does not mean someone who has been excluded should be written off and that that is, in some way, where it all ends. Ofsted said that pupil referral units are the

That is simply not acceptable and is why we would reform pupil referral units to ensure that they adopt the best practice of those units graded by Ofsted as outstanding and of special schools that cater for children with behavioural difficulties. We would also do a number of other things. This matter is so important. I strongly believe that pupil referral units should be made much better than they are at the moment.

Ms Buck: Of course, the standard of practice in pupil referral units may well vary and the worst need to be brought up to the standard of the best. However, the core truth, which I think is unarguable, is that if the most challenged and difficult children—in terms of offending behaviour or behavioural disorder—are concentrated together in one institution, almost nothing can be done to get the standard within that unit up to the standard of an average school because of the residualisation and concentration of pupils with a problem. That is why I disagree with the Conservative party’s policy on exclusion.

James Brokenshire: I recognise that disagreement and respect the difference of view that we have on this. Our perspective is that we should ensure that schools are not
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disrupted by pupils who are misbehaving, so that there are good standards in those schools and standards and expectations are raised. However, for those who have been excluded, we need to improve the pupil referral units by, for example, working with those parts of the voluntary and third sector that have experience of turning lives around. We need to ensure that pupil referral units provide a transition. It is not simply a case of sending someone to a PRU; the aim is to get that young person back into mainstream education. Turnaround services need to be piloted in specific areas through those exemplary third-sector organisations, so that schools have the option of either sending someone to a PRU or using a more intensive volunteer-led provider of education and training to ensure that those young people make progress.

I respect and recognise that there is a difference of perspective in terms of what the right way forward is and I am sure that we will continue to discuss and develop those views. I know that the hon. Lady holds genuine and strong opinions on this.

Ms Buck: I will do the hon. Gentleman a deal. If he can demonstrate to me that, say, 20 per cent. of the most successful schools in the country are willing to come to the table and accept a proportion of formally excluded pupils on their journey away from a pupil referral unit, I am prepared to accept that his policy might be the right one. In practice, the consequence of his policy is that even when a child has been through the PRU, the only schools that will usually accept them are those that are themselves the most challenged. That is why his policy will not work. However, if he can demonstrate that the more successful schools will take those pupils, I will rethink the matter.

James Brokenshire: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that challenge because I certainly believe strongly that we need to ensure that young people who get into difficulty are not simply written off and that they are able to fulfil their potential, their ambitions and aspirations.

We should look back to what happened in a young person’s life before they went to school. The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) made an interesting point in relation to his experience as a school teacher and the expectations that we have of schools. However, we need to look back even further to the early years and the family from which a young person has come, so that we get, for example, the necessary health interventions. We also need to ensure that health visitors are available for those first few days and months of life, so that we give young people the chance to make the most of their potential.

There is not some sort of silver bullet. Again, Trident did some good analysis on the issue. When I started to look into the subject, I noticed that it had produced a wonderful spidergraph of all the potential contributory factors that might lead to a young person offending. We should look at this matter in context. Yes, of course, I believe strongly that we should ensure that we have proper policing and robust enforcement—potential punishment is an essential strand in providing that safety and security—but we should also have targeted intervention and, more generally, primary prevention,
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so that we can ensure that we are giving young people and their families the strongest possible opportunity to move forward.

It is important to reflect on some of the good community work that is taking place. The hon. Lady referred to the work going on in her constituency, and some of those issues were also highlighted yesterday. For example, sport can be a powerful way in which to engage with young people. I recently visited Charlton Athletic football club to see some of its very good community work. We should not simply use sport as a diversion, but as a means of moving young people on and getting them into education. It can also be used to enable them to develop other skills, such as team and partnership skills, self-respect and self-confidence. We need to consider how we can use sport—whether football, boxing or other activities—not simply as a diversion, but as a means of ensuring that a young person is able to fulfil their potential. I was certainly struck by the work that Charlton Athletic football club and various other sporting and other groups are undertaking in terms of channelling that energy and enthusiasm positively. That is why it is important to stress that point.

Dealing with this issue is also about building a relationship with the police. The hon. Lady referred to young people’s reluctance to report crime, and that theme came out in the Home Affairs Committee report. An interesting analysis was produced by 11 Million, an organisation led by the Children’s Commissioner, on the confidence that young people have in the police and how their relationship with the police starts off positively and erodes over time. There is a change in the relationship between the police and young people so that the police go from being seen as an organisation that will protect and support young people to being an enforcer against them. We need to consider that carefully.

In some parts of the country, the fire service has been good at engaging with young people—for example, it is working with young people from challenged backgrounds through the local intervention fire education project. That gives young people self-confidence in a positive way. That is a good example of how one uniformed service has engaged with young people—although, of course, there are differences with the police.

The other interesting factor that came out of the Children’s Commissioner’s report was that young people tend to have a much more positive view of the police the more that they see them and have an interrelationship, a reaction or some sort of engagement with them. Again, that supports the model of visible policing, because it means a relationship can be built up when moving forward. I agree entirely with the hon. Lady about the importance of safer neighbourhood teams and the community policing model. That is something that I believe in very strongly. The safer neighbourhood teams and policing need greater emphasis and discretion.

Yes, we have been critical. There is some consensus on the matter, but we have been critical of the target-driven approach embodied in some of the previous plans for policing, which perhaps has not allowed officers discretion and has played into criminalisation, which is a theme that came through in contributions to this debate. Perhaps it is because of targets that the police feel that they have no discretion other than to go down the path of criminal charges. That is why we need to row back from rigid, target-driven approaches.

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I appreciate that the Government are now saying that there is a change of approach, but the Minister will recognise that that is perhaps not universally accepted. For example, he will be aware of the comments at the weekend of the chief constable of Greater Manchester police, Peter Fahy, who stated:

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