Youth Crime speech – WH 10th June 2009

Posted: 10/06/09

Ms. Karen Buck (Regent's Park & Kensington North) (Lab):

I am pleased to have been successful in obtaining the debate. A large part of the reason why I wanted to initiate it on the back of the publication last week of the report by the Select Committee on Home Affairs entitled "Knife Crime" was that agencies and individuals in my constituency made a very important contribution to that report. At the time, I did not appreciate that there was going to be an Opposition day debate on knife crime last night-a debate in which I took part. As an aside, I originally applied for a debate on knife crime, then made a positive decision to change the title to "Youth Crime". I have been given to understand that the initial debate last night in Opposition time was to be on youth crime but was changed to one on knife crime. That is quite important in its way, in that there is a broader reason why I wanted to speak on the subject this afternoon. Knife crime is understandably the focus of much of the thinking on youth crime because of its lethality and the very high profile that it has had in the last couple of years, but it should never be considered in isolation from the broader issues of crime and young people. That means considering young people as perpetrators, victims and, not infrequently, both at the same time-a theme that I shall develop.

Knife crime is the most dramatic embodiment of a larger and much more complex pattern of youth behaviour, ranging from the emotional element that is so much a characteristic of many teenagers-the fear that many young people feel on the streets, and the bravado-to the relationships dimension. What we call gangs can range from a very loose network of affiliations to a much more structured gang that is sometimes involved in quite hard criminal activity such as drugs. Gang attachment underpins and sometimes even replaces family support, particularly on the streets. Then we come to the policy questions, involving decisions about school exclusions and what happens to young people after they have displayed a pattern of offending behaviour. Then we come to the broader material factors of poverty, inequality and the means by which tough neighbourhoods come into being and people are sometimes trapped in a cycle of violence and criminal behaviour. We do not tend to talk about this in the same breath as youth crime, but also relevant are the patterns of adult criminal behaviour, particularly relating to the drugs trade, the trade in stolen goods and so on, to which young people can be actively recruited or in which they can be trapped.

All those characteristics come together to form a wider pattern of youth crime, with knife crime at the extreme end. We often focus on that too much, at the expense of the wider context. We cannot understand knife crime without understanding young people and criminal behaviour more generally, and that cannot be understood in a context that divides young people into two distinct categories: the so-called innocent or good young people and the bad, who are often described in quite stunning language, particularly, although not only, in the media. I am talking about the depiction of a yob culture and young children being feral and part of an underclass.

The truth is that at any given time the overwhelming majority of young people are not involved in a gang or criminal behaviour. A YouGov poll last year, which I think was commissioned by Barnardo's, revealed that the public believe that young people are responsible for half of all crimes committed, when in fact the figure is about 12 per cent., so we start with that enormous overestimate of the extent of young people's responsibility for crime. The report by the Select Committee, of which I am a member, found that 5 per cent. of young people commit 50 per cent. of all the crimes committed by that age group, so the core number of offenders is relatively small.

We also know that, overall, crime levels have fallen. I was pleased to see an acknowledgement of that fact in the briefing by Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London. It confirmed a 17 per cent. fall in crime in London in the past five years and a 10 per cent. fall in violence in the last year. However, as can be confirmed by any parent of a teenager in particular-I speak as one-the truth is that a great deal more is going on out there in the streets, estates and schools than the flat statistics show. We do not really know, because we do not have the information to make a judgment, how much more crime there is between young people or whether there is less, and how much of that can be explained by the availability of gadgets-mobile phones, iPods and so on-which makes an individual a desirable target for robbery. There is an awful lot that we do not know, but we do know that although the high-profile violent crimes have fallen generally, there is a very serious problem on our streets involving young people.

The boundaries between the innocent and the guilty are far more fluid than our policy makers, at all levels, tend to be able to respond to. There is a fluidity between the victim and the perpetrator, between the serious and the occasional offender and between the people who are not caught or convicted of a crime and those who are deemed to be innocent. Behaviour that we can criminalise and describe as criminal now would not necessarily have been criminalised a few decades ago. Many people are involved in lower-level criminal behaviour and antisocial behaviour, but that information is never brought to public attention. The overwhelming majority of those young people grow up and grow out of it. Age is a critical factor and getting work is often a critical factor in that. I worry-this came through in the Select Committee report-that there is a rigidity in the way in which the media describe youth crime and in the way we as policy makers often respond to it.

I shall now consider some of the issues as they are reflected in my own area. North Westminster, in common with many inner-city areas, faces three challenges. First, far too many young people are anxious or frightened on the streets and far too many-probably most-have had at least one bad experience that confirms them in that view. Secondly, there has been some evidence of gang activity in the past couple of years. I am, however, pleased to say, having met senior police officers yesterday, that the situation that was emerging over the past couple of summers seems to be calmer. There has been effective police action and other preventive action that may have helped us to deal with that, but only a fool would be complacent about the gang-related behaviour that we have seen and that is deeply entrenched in some parts of our cities. I do not believe that there are many communities that are wholly immune from that. Fashion tends to be a factor in these things and there is a fashion for postcode-dominated gang-related behaviour at the moment. It would be naive of us to believe that these things cannot emerge in Westminster, Kensington or Camden, albeit at the moment they are not as developed there as they are in some other areas.

There are three families mourning young men who have died as a result of knife crime in my constituency in the not-too-distant past. The men who died were Kodjo Yenga, Jevon Henry and Amro Elbadawi. As tiny as that figure is, each person represents a tragedy of awesome proportions. It is absolutely incumbent on us not to minimise the scale of the challenge that we must confront.

Thirdly, there are frequent flare-ups of antisocial behaviour and lower-level criminal activity involving young people. Sometimes they involve the same people who are involved in some of the loose gang networks, and sometimes not. Some young people are victims, some young people's behaviour towards other young people spills over into criminal behaviour and some young people are involved in behaviour that, at its extreme, can destroy the lives of the people who are on the receiving end of it. We have to accept that truth.

The local Uncut project, which is part of wider network called Working With Men, has worked with more than 1,000 young people locally. I was pleased that the project brought young people from a number of schools and youth organisations into Parliament to talk to our Committee. The presentation made difficult hearing. They were a delightful bunch of young people and I knew many of them. The majority of young people whom Uncut consulted knew someone who was carrying a knife, but very few would be comfortable repeating that information. The reluctance of young people to report what they know and what they have experienced, even when they have been victims, to the police and others is one of the most critical problems that we face. Many of those consulted did not feel safe and most felt that weapons were carried in response to fear, although they felt that peer pressure and robbery motivation were factors. Many felt that the situation was getting worse. In fact, the pessimism of some young people was one of the most striking elements of the presentation.

Although it is sometimes hard to know how people interact in an event such as the presentation, and some element of fashion influences how they will respond and present their problems, there is a genuine issue. We have heard that many times, particularly from people in our most challenged communities where opportunities are fewest. Uncut and many similar projects do phenomenally important work. They make shock tactics much more effective than they would be if they were pursued, for example, by MPs or senior police officers, because they have a valuable closeness to the community. I commend to hon. Members a superb short film that Uncut showed the Committee. It was based on the Mozart estate and in some ways reflected the tragedy of Amro Elbadawi's death. It was very well received by young people, unlike some of the "talking heads" warnings that they receive.

However, the truth is that projects such as Uncut cannot serve everyone who needs early intervention, mentoring or shock tactics, even in an area such as north Paddington. The early intervention work with families that is being delivered in partnership with the youth offending team and others with Government support is excellent and intensive, but the requirements are far greater. That is not a criticism, but an expression of the mismatch between need and the delivery of services.

At a time when we face retrenchment in public spending, it is vital that we do not abandon support for a spectrum of measures, many of which were discussed by the young people themselves. I shall go through some of the things that the young people articulated. First, young people themselves want to feel safe on the streets, but many do not feel safe. That is the overwhelmingly powerful message. Safer neighbourhood policing is absolutely fundamental to that, and it has been a hugely important and successful development in many areas. It must be defended and we must, above all, ensure that we are putting safer neighbourhood policing resources into the areas that need them most. There is an inequality, rather than an equality, of need, and we must target accordingly.

Secondly, the continuing problem of the dysfunctional relationship between the police and too many young people needs to be addressed. Stop and search is a vital tool in effective policing, but as the police, including the Met, have recognised, inadequately targeted or badly handled searches by response teams are counter-productive-sadly, this often happens with response teams who are not familiar with a neighbourhood or the people in the community. Such searches in large part explain exactly why we are unable to get the reporting and flow of information that we need.

For example, only three in every 100 stop-and-search stops in London involving young people in the year before last resulted in a knife being found-the number went down to 1 per cent last year. I calculate that more than 280,000 stops took place last year, disproportionately involving black and minority ethnic communities, without anything significant being found. That is a genuine problem. That does not call into question the stop-and-search tactic in principle-it can have an important deterrent effect-but we must keep the measure under constant review. To a certain extent, that has happened, which is welcome, but it must continue. We need to give an even higher priority to managing the conduct and relationships of some police. It is difficult. A 22-year-old police officer could find themselves facing a big strapping 18-year-old who is giving them a bit of lip. It is not an easy relationship, but we need to work on making it better.

Thirdly, co-ordination and communication between agencies is vital, and it is still not as good as it should be. Good schools are not arms of the police force, but good policing is vital to effective schooling. The same goes for the youth service. It is difficult to over-estimate how important it is to have stable, embedded police working well in schools. Weaker and less trusting relationships with agencies such as the youth service and the police are counter-productive.

In that context, we need to ensure that there is downward pressure on school exclusions. That is a policy difference between Labour and the Conservative party, which tends to look at how we could make it easier for schools to exclude. One understands on one level why the pressure to exclude emerges within schools, but all the evidence points to the fact that weak attachments to school and school exclusions are correlated with offending behaviour and the risk of drifting into a gang culture.

Fourthly, intensive family support must be more accessible, because domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse and mental ill health among adults is a key trigger for much of the behaviour that I am talking about. Fifthly, chronic overcrowding in our housing stock drives young people on to the streets. Westminster has some of the highest levels of overcrowding in the country. Although it would be crass to draw a causal link between offending behaviour and overcrowding, I have not the slightest doubt-I know this from extensive experience-that the stresses that many people grow up with in their homes push them on to the streets where the risk factors are high.

Mr. Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): I indicated to my hon. Friend that I wished to intervene, but I am not sure that I need to because she is doing the job so well. She is showing the great knowledge and understanding that I wish all politicians had on these matters.

My hon. Friend is a constituency neighbour of mine and Kodjo Yenga, whom she mentioned, was killed in Hammersmith grove, which borders my constituency. Such things are tragic. I went to a residents meeting earlier this year following another tragic death of a young man, Craig Brown, in Loftus road. There was a huge turnout of residents and the Greater London authority, the council and so forth were there. The issue of youth crime and young people having meaningful things to do was the main thing that came out of the meeting.

Miss Anne Begg (in the Chair): Order. I am sure the hon. Gentleman could catch my eye and make these points in his own right rather than in an intervention.

Mr. Slaughter: I am sorry, Miss Begg. Partly because my voice is not as strong as it usually is and partly because I have to be elsewhere, I am unable to do that. It is essential that there is investment and that we do not have cuts in services from either central or local government. Unfortunately, that is what is happening locally at the moment.

Ms Buck: By a happy coincidence, my next point concerns precisely that. Although no one can legitimately claim that they picked up a weapon or committed a crime because they were bored-people are sometimes represented as though they were apologising for criminal behaviour when they talk about the level of funding for services-my hon. Friend is absolutely right that inadequate or expensive out-of-school provision, whether in the evenings or during the school holidays, be it sport, entertainment, drama or other activities, does absolutely nothing to prevent antisocial behaviour or gang culture. Again, Westminster trailed in terms of after-school provision but is improving now, and the extended school programme is an important contributor. That is all discretionary spending, and there is a fear that those kinds of service are likely to bear the brunt of downward pressure in public spending.

Mr. Slaughter: To give an example that my hon. Friend might share, youth clubs are being closed in Hammersmith and Fulham borough simply so that the sites can be sold off to make money. Youth services are being cut by £100,000, and out-of-school services are being completely decimated across the borough. Conservative politicians are proud to respond with quotes such as:

"Kids do not decide to stick a piece of metal into another human being because they are bored."

That is a crass attitude.

Ms Buck: It is absolutely crass. We know that providing diversionary activities cuts crime. It is as simple as that; it has been researched. To be fair to my borough, Westminster has recognised that. I am happy to say that those services are not being cut but improved, although not as much as I would like. I worry about what might happen if the regime changes. It is right that we should provide those activities, and they must be very cheap or free if we are to make inroads into families whose disposable income in a week is inadequate to send a child to the cinema, let alone to afford a broader range of activities.

In Uncut's meeting with the Select Committee, many young people expressed the view that they would like the opportunity to earn money legitimately. We are all of slightly different ages, but it was not uncommon for people to have Saturday jobs when I was growing up. That is not common now. A lot of 16 and 17-year-olds who would like to have £20 in their pocket to pay for the cinema, football training or whatever simply cannot get jobs like that. It is a hard sell when there is an economic downturn and jobs are a problem, but it needs to be factored into people's thinking. A targeted programme of access to part-time employment for young people from tougher backgrounds would be really beneficial, and they want it. They ask for the opportunity to work.

The big picture remains inequality. That is demonstrably the case. Research carried out by the Sutton Trust and others has demonstrated a causal link between extreme inequality and crimes of violence. We cannot turn our eyes from that bigger picture, even while we rightly discuss a range of policy prescriptions. Like so many other factors, it does not excuse criminal behaviour, but it helps explain it.

Finally, my hon. Friend has helped lead me into a warning. Families and civic society are key to helping children make a successful transition into decent adulthood, but it is a dangerous illusion to believe that rolling back the state will help create strong families and communities. Indeed, it is precisely where need is greatest that civic responses are often weakest, or at least patchy and inconsistent. A slash-and-burn approach to public spending in those areas will, I fear, simply end with slashing and burning of a different and more dramatic kind.

There have been real successes in tackling crime in recent years. A whole range of agencies such as the police, voluntary and community organisations, local government and others should be encouraged in the work that they do, and it must not put at risk by either oversimplifying the problem, as is so often done, or undermining the solution.