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6 Apr 2010 : Column 240WH—continued

The report also says that when individuals are sent away to serve youth custody sentences, they sometimes still have access to that sort of violent entertainment. That cannot help.

The report reaches two other conclusions to which I would like to refer. First, it says:

Instead, it is the prospect of "getting caught" that deters them. Young people are not normally thinking about a custodial sentence when they carry knives. Therefore, heavy, knee-jerk political responses such as, "Increase the sentence", are not normally the answer. A much more complicated response is required.

Secondly, the report did not recommend

in all schools. Instead, it argued that such detectors should be introduced selectively and where it is appropriate to do so. Similarly, the report said that stop and search is vital but that it needs to be carried out appropriately.

There are good signs. I have mentioned Millwall and Charlton who, like other football clubs, have sought to work from their local communities outwards. There are also lots of community campaigns that try to tackle gang violence. In my borough, there is a campaign called "Enough". In Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham, there are other locally led campaigns. Sports action zones seek to engage young people in street and community sport, and they are really positive in providing diversionary activity. There is also good parental involvement in youth clubs and after-school activities, and more schools are providing pre-school, after-school and weekend activities.

In addition, there are really good youth clubs. The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families came with his whole ministerial team the other day to the opening of the Salmon youth centre in Bermondsey. That is a fantastic new facility, which has climbing frames, training, apprenticeships and all sorts of other things. There are excellent initiatives.

Mediation is also important. The Southwark mediation service has young mediators who seek to teach youngsters how to mediate at school and also how to back off without losing dignity. Gang crime is often about respect. How does a youngster deal with someone causing offence to themselves or their girlfriend, sister or whoever it might be, without thinking that they have to pile in and steam in to the "other lot" who caused offence? It is often about learning that there are ways of dealing with such a problem that mean taking a step back rather than going forward.

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Mediation is also about helping young people to vocalise what they think, rather than physicalising it. There is an organisation called Speak Out, which teaches young people to speak about these issues as a way of communicating verbally.

We have touched on the causes of gang crime. Families and role models are really important, particularly the father, the older brother or the boyfriend. Violence at home is a factor. Families should not think that if they are violent at home, that does not make it more likely that their children will be violent out on the street.

I have already mentioned DVDs, videos and films. The hon. Lady rightly talked about the materialistic or "bling" age we live in and the culture of instant gratification. However, modern communication methods are also important. Flash mobbing happens. Someone can text and they can get loads of people together really quickly. They never used to be able to do that. Ease of travel is also important. It is a good thing, but it also means that a gang can all pile on a bus and be somewhere together, at no cost, in no time.

The answers to those problems are to provide the types of things that we have talked about: training, apprenticeships, and the incentives to believe that there is a valuable alternative to gang crime. That is why I have a problem with just thinking about what young people should do from the age of 14 onwards. I have always argued that we should introduce youngsters to work at the top end of primary school. There are some children in Southwark, as in Hackney and other places, who have nobody at home who goes to work. Those children need to see the benefit of work and the best schemes in that respect start with year 6 pupils in primary schools. The pupils go to do a week's work experience and they put on the kit or uniform to act as porters in the Marriott hotel, to count the money in Lloyds bank and so on.

What ought to happen about gang crime? I have made the pledge about crime statistics. I believe that there should be better data-sharing between hospitals and the police authorities, so that we identify where the problems of gang crime are worst. I also believe that we need stop and search, but it must be carried out sensitively. We need visible policing, but good neighbourhood policing is about good intelligence. Good intelligence is often the way to get into the gangs or groups before they really get going.

We also need larger numbers of detached youth workers in London. Like the hon. Lady, I was a youth worker for a long time before I was elected to Parliament. However, we do not need youth workers who sit in clubs waiting for kids to come to them; we need youth workers on the streets and street corners, who really know what is going on, who can act as role models and do other things. We also definitely need diversionary activities for young people.

The Government have worked hard on witness protection, but we still need better witness protection. I was involved in helping with the case of Jamie Robe, a young lad who was kicked to death, and I saw that people were terrified. Another youngster in my constituency, Daniel Herbert, was killed recently, apparently by a gang or a small group of people. Nobody has come
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forward to help. Everybody sort of knows who did it, but nobody has come forward to help. We need to ensure that we help witnesses to be protected. The Minister knows about this issue well. We should think about whether we need to go further than we have done already.

Ms Abbott: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. On witnesses, does he agree that, although there is, of course, adequate witness protection at the very highest level of gang crime, at the intermediate and lower levels there is not adequate witness protection? At those levels, people still do not feel confident about witness protection. In particular, they do not feel confident that they can be moved swiftly and effectively out of the area where they live, so that they are not subject to harassment.

Simon Hughes: I am working on a case where we have still not got somebody settled after moving her from her safe house to another area; I think that she has been in the new area for four years already, but she has still not been able to settle with her children. That was not a case involving gangs; it was a domestic violence issue. Nevertheless, we do not have a system that works, particularly between the police and local authorities, and we need to make it work much better.

I want to make a final point. The hon. Lady was right to say that what happens with gangs in London is that they decide that an individual will be part of a territorial group or some other group. It is often based on postcode. It can be based on a place, such as Walworth or Peckham. It can also be based on an ethnic group: Afro-Caribbean, Bangladeshi, Chinese, Turkish, Kurdish or whatever. The feeling of being "one of us" is a bit like being a football supporter, but it occurs at a much younger age and in a much more violent way. All young people want to belong. People do not want to be isolated; we want to be part of a group. It is a natural human instinct.

My view, having thought about and worked on the issue, is that it is best not to try to prevent people from supporting a particular team or being loyal to their school but to ensure that from the earliest age, they spend time with pupils from other primary schools or do things in teams with other secondary schools. As well as competition between places-that is natural; it is what the Olympic games are all about-we need collaboration between young people. The Globe and Walworth academies, on opposite sides of the Old Kent and New Kent roads, include children from both sides of the road. If they spent time together from a young age doing sport, science, art, theatre and drama, it would start to break down the barriers between them. Faith groups have a large role to play, as they do not have nearly the same territorial catchment.

I end with a plea for work to be done to ensure that we in London all understand that although we may be from Hackney or Southwark, we are also part of a wider community and ought to have links from an early age. If all families, schools, youth clubs and faith groups sought to instil that idea, people might think less about being in gangs. If, at the same time, we made youngsters feel safer from an early age, they would feel less driven to join dangerous gangs in which they, rather than the people whom they set out to attack, are likely to be the victims.

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10.31 am

James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Weir, for perhaps the last time during this Parliament; we understand that the Prime Minister has now left Buckingham palace after having sought a dissolution of Parliament. Many events are taking place outside this Chamber, but that should not detract from the importance of the matters that we are debating here. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) on securing this debate and highlighting many significant points that must be considered carefully in the context of the issue of serious gang violence.

The hon. Lady painted a picture of postcode gangs. It is absurd that where investment has been provided in community facilities for the benefit of young people, those facilities may essentially be off limits to particular young people simply because of their location. Young people, even if they are not part of a gang, may feel too frightened to use them, simply because they live in a different area. The development of postcode gangs also involves the absurd perversion of colours and other symbols to indicate gang membership, including safe colours for transit through certain areas. Buses and public transport can be places of significant fear for young people who are innocently trying to enjoy their own lives and are not at all involved in gangs or gang violence. The indiscriminate way in which some postcode gangs operate can draw young people into violence.

Gangs are also linked with sexual violence, as the hon. Lady mentioned, including rape and sexual exploitation. I am sure that the Mayor of London will hear her clear call for the establishment of a rape crisis centre in her area to deal with some facets of gang culture and the perversion and exploitation that sit alongside it.

The hon. Lady mentioned gang injunctions and new powers. The Conservatives supported the introduction of gang injunctions, but I hope that the Minister will be able to update us on whether any have yet been used. It is all very well to introduce new powers and legislation, but enforcement is crucial. That has been one of this Government's shortcomings-legislating in haste without necessarily setting out clear pathways for using the powers created.

The hon. Lady rightly highlighted the issue of risk, particularly during the transfer from primary to secondary education. Many young people are at risk when they go from being big kids in a small school to small kids in a large school and a different environment. It can be difficult for them, and may cause them to gravitate towards gangs. Recruitment may occur at that stage. Children with behavioural issues or special educational needs such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder may become more and more isolated and thus more vulnerable to recruitment into gangs or similar exploitation. That is why we must consider carefully the link between primary and secondary education.

However, we must also celebrate success. We should in no way suggest that all young people are involved in gangs. Only a small minority of young people engage in serious criminal activity. Fantastic community projects are taking place across our city. Recently, I attended the launch of the Ten Ten theatre company, which goes into schools and uses drama to challenge thinking about
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knife possession and gang membership. Such concepts can be effective in engaging young people, challenging their perceptions of fitting in and addressing pressure to carry a weapon. We know that carrying a knife on the street makes a young person much more vulnerable to being the victim of a violent crime and having that weapon used against them, even though they may think that it protects them.

The London fire brigade is also doing good things with its LIFE project to engage young people and challenge them in a different way. It is a particularly good project. Another project by Metrac, the Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children, uses sport to harness young people's energy positively and show them that they do not need to feel that they must fit in by joining a gang.

The shocking events of the past few weeks, involving the tragic cutting short of young lives, underline the continuing problems of gang crime, knife crime and youth violence. The fatal stabbings of 15-year-old Sofyen Belamouadden from Acton and 17-year-old Godwin Nii Lawson from north London remind us all of the effect of such appalling crimes on families, friends and whole communities. The increasingly brazen nature of some of the crimes that have taken place in our capital in the past few months is also shocking and disturbing. Although the number of teenage murders in London fell from 29 in 2008 to 14 last year, recent cases underline the continuing challenge and the need for vigilance.

Last week, I spoke at a conference in the docklands organised by Through Unity, a charity that brings together and gives a voice to families touched by appalling crimes of violence. Its members are ordinary people pushed to the forefront by unimaginable circumstances who, despite personal loss, demonstrate a driving sense of purpose, a desire for good to emerge from tragedy and evil and a commitment to bringing about change and improvement in our communities and our country. Through humility and grace, they turn adversity into hope.

The event was as inspiring as it was humbling. It was a reminder why we all need to focus on preventing more such crimes from occurring. I agree that families have an important role to play in advocating and driving through change. I have met families over the past few years who have, sadly, been touched in that way. Their passion for seeing good come from the loss that they have suffered is powerful and impressive. We need to work with such families as much as we can.

Simon Hughes: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will join the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington, the Minister and me in appealing for those who know something about the unsolved London deaths of recent years to come forward, as this debate might be our last opportunity to do so. I have four names: Adam Regis, whose mum has tried to get to the truth, the rapper Isschan Nicholls, the teenager Billy Cox and the student Nicholas Clarke. There are others. As a city, we owe it to the families of those people to bring those who are responsible forward. Those who know something must speak out.

James Brokenshire: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The sense that justice has been denied or has not been followed through is a recurring theme among many
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families I have spoken to. There is a need for justice to be seen to be done. The perpetrators of crimes that have not been solved must be brought to justice. We need to consider carefully the protection and support that are offered to communities to ensure that people feel able to come forward, as he said in his speech. That is a significant factor that we must retain our focus on to ensure that these appalling crimes are solved and that those who commit them are brought to justice.

Part of the solution lies in more effective community policing. It is not good enough that less than 15 per cent. of a beat officer's time is spent on patrol. We need officers to be on the streets, not behind their desks. That is why we believe there should be a cut in the form-filling and bureaucracy that prevent police officers from doing their job and from providing the reassurance that so many communities desperately need. One practical example is that we would give the police greater discretion to make charging decisions on a number of offences to speed up the processing of arrests and get officers back on the beat. We would also give police officers the discretion to deal quickly and effectively with young trouble makers who are committing antisocial behaviour before they go on to commit more serious offences.

We need to improve the intelligence on the prevalence of violent crimes because many incidents go unreported. I endorse the Mayor of London's support for greater use of depersonalised A and E data across London alongside police data to provide a more comprehensive crime picture on prevalence, geography and trends. I welcome the fact that the Government are now acting on that and hope that the Minister will provide an update when he winds up the debate on the number of hospitals that are providing such data.

The risk of getting caught with a knife must be a real factor in the mind of someone getting ready to go out. That means that the police must make proper use of the power to stop and search. The Operation Blunt 2 task force has provided a focused response in hot spots across London and more people are being charged for possession of knives and sharp instruments. I pay tribute to the work of the Metropolitan police in carrying out such operations. When offenders are caught, they should usually be prosecuted and given the most severe sentences appropriate. Fines are an inadequate deterrent. There should be a presumption that offenders will receive a custodial sentence or a tough, enforced community penalty, not a so-called unpaid work requirement. The offender should wear a high-visibility uniform.

I pay tribute to the Mayor of London's work on the Heron wing of Feltham young offenders institution, which focuses on rehabilitating new young offenders and showing them that there is a different path. The fear is that once somebody is in the criminal justice system, it can be difficult to break them out and to provide an exit route from gang membership. I am following closely the Mayor's work on challenging such behaviour and preventing reoffending and further crime.

We would legislate to give police sergeants at the heart of community police teams a new authorisation to conduct searches for knives and other weapons. That limited power would enable them to act more quickly when they pick up intelligence suggesting that weapons are being carried in their community or that an act of serious violence is about to occur.

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A recent Home Affairs Committee report noted that knife carrying is

The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) referred to some of the points made. I have touched on the issue of the perversion of protection. There is an issue with the insidious links to gang membership. Gangs use recruitment techniques that focus on people from less able backgrounds and that seek to exploit factors such as mental illness and unemployment. The Centre for Social Justice has highlighted clearly and commendably the fractures and fault lines that run through our society. We need to focus on the intergenerational dysfunction that lies behind youth victimisation, gang membership and youth crime. If a young person's experience of life is of violence and aggression, should we be surprised if violence and aggression are the methods by which that child seeks to resolve disputes?

There is a need for a change of approach. To make a sustained change that enables our communities to break out of gang violence and the scourge of crime, we must look to the long term as well as the short term. It is not simply about enforcement, but about the many other factors that have been highlighted this morning. We need a change that recognises the need for clear and robust sanctions for those who break the law, that devolves greater powers and responsibilities to those who respond to the problems on our streets and that recognises that strong families and communities are more effective at instilling a culture of respect and responsibility than any rule, law or regulation. Ultimately, societal change is required to promote safer and more cohesive communities not just in our capital city, but across our country.

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