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Gangs and Youth Violence

Volume 529: debated on Friday 10 June 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Goodwill.)

I am grateful to have the opportunity to introduce this short debate on gangs and youth violence. I am pleased to see some colleagues here on a Friday afternoon to offer support and show the importance of this topic. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna), who has also been raising this issue in Parliament over recent months.

I decided to request a debate on this topic a couple of weeks ago when I was standing vigil with the mother of a young man, Daniel Smith, who was gunned down this time last year, at the age of just 22, as he stopped for a takeaway in Harrow road in Paddington, in what appears to have been a case of mistaken identity involving gangs. Winklet Smith, his mother, is one of several local women I know who are grieving. They include the mothers of Kodjo Yenga, who was killed in 2008 at the age of 16, Jevon Henry, who was killed at the age of 22, and Amro El-Bedawi, who was killed when he was just 14 years old.

On 20 April this year, a young man died in St John’s Wood after what was believed to be a gang fight that started just over the borough boundary. In the previous weeks, a teenager on the Mozart estate was stabbed 13 times and was lucky to survive, and another boy was kicked into a coma. Both incidents are believed to be gang related. In the months after the new year, two teenagers were attacked with bottles in completely unprovoked attacks, which were also believed to be gang related. Shortly before that, a 13-year-old was kidnapped off the street, held overnight and beaten up, in one of a loop of attacks and retaliations swirling around between youths in north Paddington, south Kilburn and north Kensington.

Ten days ago, on attending a meeting, I watched a fight involving, by the time it finished, 30 to 40 young men, who materialised out of nowhere. Using mobile phones and BlackBerrys, the young men called in support from other young people. A small conflict quickly escalated to a substantial and frightening one that ended with bottles being broken over heads and one young man being stabbed in the face with a screwdriver.

That list of events on the streets of north Westminster—not an area normally associated with high levels of gang or youth violence—is the tip of the iceberg, as discussions with young people, youth workers, schools and residents of the estates where these problems are inevitably concentrated will confirm.

A couple of weeks ago, a young mother and her baby in a minicab were surrounded by a group of youths who indicated, possibly untruthfully, that they had concealed weapons, because the gang across the border had been sending spies into their area in minicabs. Maybe they were armed or maybe not, but there is enough evidence of weapons, including guns, in the area to make the threat plausible.

The sister of the teenager who survived 13 stab wounds wrote to me recently:

“I saw about 20 young boys on bikes last Saturday and this Saturday just gone, Bandannas and riding around…What is the best thing to do in this situation? I suppose call the police, but they will have gone by the time they arrive?! Every time I see them and then see another young boy on their own my heart skips a beat”.

That is the experience of life even in communities in north Westminster. As my hon. Friends will testify, the toll of injury and death is far worse in parts of east and south London, and in some towns and cities in the north. I want, however, to focus on the impact on my constituency. It seems to me that if I think there is something approaching a crisis in my area, it is implicit that there is a problem on a far greater scale than has previously been appreciated.

There are excellent people working on this issue in my community. I cannot list them all, but I pay tribute to the safer neighbourhoods police officers, council staff, youth workers, teachers and volunteers. Their efforts deserve praise beyond words. I say to the Minister, however, that those efforts are insufficiently supported and increasingly look like straws in a wind that is blowing in the opposite direction.

Neither gang conflict nor youth violence are new phenomena. The statistics do not indicate a worsening picture of crime overall, but the figures for London obtained by my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham illustrate the fact that serious youth violence is a growing problem. Over the past five years, 107 London teenagers have been killed in knife and gun crimes. The welcome drop in the murder rate for all age groups in London since 2006, from 172 to 125, has not been mirrored by an equivalent fall in teenage homicides. That figure was unchanged between 2006 and 2010, although as we are all aware there was a peak in 2008, which was followed by a concentrated effort that brought down the number significantly in 2009, and I pay tribute to everyone involved in that. Serious youth violence is up. In 2008, there were 6,675 instances of youth violence in London. That rose to 6,859 last year. There is something of a consensus that the involvement of gangs in these problems is getting worse. Indeed, the Prime Minister confirmed that at Prime Minister’s questions this week.

I would like to spend some time talking about the definition of gangs, although I do not want to digress too much. Although serious organised crime gangs are operating across the country, the definition of a gang is much looser and more fluid in the case of young people. Gang identity is a factor in the behaviour of some of our young people and the conflicts they get into, but we should not be too easily diverted into trying to define exactly what a gang is and which individuals belong to which gangs. There is a danger, in so doing, that we will lose the opportunity to divert a wider group of young people from involvement.

I find myself increasingly aware of the striking fact that people such as me walk different streets from those that are walked by young people in our cities. At least in our major cities, there is an increasingly dark and disturbing story that only partly shows up in the crime figures, and it often passes by the adults who live in the same community as the young people affected. It is almost like a science fiction story in which we inhabit parallel worlds. Our young people are going out on to the streets and experiencing something completely different from what we experience, and it is often chillingly frightening.

Not only are thousands of young lives being blighted by the violence and criminality that I have described, but fear and anxiety about youth violence is spread much more widely. When I visited a primary school recently, I was stunned to hear the majority of children of seven and eight years old talk about their awareness and fear of the violence that stalks our streets, which involves groups of young people and can readily spill over into fighting. According to the Citizenship Foundation, in a report that was commented on in the media last week, knife crime is in the top three concerns named by nine and 10-year-olds. I find that completely astonishing and deeply disturbing.

Less surprisingly, I have discovered from discussions with secondary school heads the extent to which gang tensions have percolated through into their schools. Possibly saddest of all, when we talk to street-smart young men of 16 and 17, we should not be surprised if they tell us that it is impossible for them to consider, in the case of those from north Westminster, visiting a sports centre in Ladbroke Grove or walking a major road into Kilburn safely. No doubt young people in Kilburn would say that it was impossible for them to go swimming in the Jubilee swimming baths in north Westminster. The invisible boundaries of postcode areas are chalked deeply into their consciousness.

We know that the factors underpinning gang membership and youth violence are complex and multi-layered. They are social, cultural and economic. “Fear and fashion” is a slogan used to campaign for anti-gang work, and both elements of it have truth in them. Many young people associate themselves with gangs and carry weapons out of fear that if they do not do so other people will be armed and they will be put at a disadvantage. We know that coming from a damaged and dysfunctional family in which drugs, alcohol, domestic violence and mental illness are factors can increase the risk of gang involvement, but I have known violent young people to emerge from the strongest and most loving families because the pull of the street can be so strong.

We know that children who are out of school because of exclusion, or young people who are not in employment, education or training, are disproportionately at risk, and that their number has grown. The absence of diversionary activities and work opportunities cannot be an excuse for violence, but such factors are contributory. It is no coincidence that our gravest problems are often rooted in our poorest neighbourhoods.

We need a sustained focus on the underlying causes of gang membership and youth crime and violence. We know that there will not be any quick fixes, but we need swift action to limit the worst of the challenges that we face today and prevent a deepening crisis. That lead must come from the top—from the Government, the Home Office, the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Department for Education, the Mayor, the Metropolitan police and local councils.

Of course, some investment is being made, and I am not for one moment arguing that nothing is being done. However, I do not believe that the level of attention or resources is equal to the task, which is likely to get harder. Policing is vital, but insufficient. Stop-and-search powers must be applied, but they must remain proportionate and intelligence-led. We must not lose sight of the importance of maintaining relationships between young people and the police.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on holding this important debate in this important week, in which I lost one of my young constituents. Does she agree that the House must send a message to communities up and down the country that it is essential that people give what intelligence and information they have to the police when these acts are perpetrated? It is not a question of snitching, as has been put about in some boroughs in London, including mine, but a question of people protecting their family, friends and communities. The problem could affect any family. It affects not only families whose children are involved in gang violence, but those who get caught in the crossfire. That will not stop unless people come forth with intelligence.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If intelligence of such activities is not passed on, young people will die. It is as simple as that. I could not agree more with him.

My hon. Friend underpins the point I was making. The relationships between young people and the police, who in this context are represented in the best way, in most cases, by safer neighbourhood officers, are critical, but above all are the relationships between young people and youth services. We are most likely to build the relationships of trust that ensure that intelligence flows between young people and voluntary or statutory youth services.

One of my big concerns is that the scaling back of youth services is leading to reduced capacity to provide diversionary activity and to work and build connections with those young people, but in addition there is an increasing tendency—this did not start in May 2010, although I sense that it is becoming more entrenched—for so many projects on gangs and young people who are at risk of being drawn into violence to be short-term, piecemeal and fragmented, although I pay tribute to the quality of those projects. In Westminster, the Brathay project works with young men in Queen’s Park. The UNCUT project went and came back—but for how long? A local scheme called ENDZ United does mediation work, which is one of the most constructive ways in which we can deal with gang violence, but its funding is for only 30 weeks. It is almost counter-productive for young people to build up a connection with a scheme that will be gone after six months or a year, and those relationships of trust between youth workers and young people are dissipated.

When I talk to young people after such projects end, they respond by saying, “I’m afraid that just goes to show how little anybody cares about us, because no sooner do we get connected with important schemes than they are over.” The consistency of project work is critical, as is the scale of the work that we do with young people. Despite the good work that I have mentioned, sadly, Westminster is cutting £225,000 from its youth service this year. Although around £100,000 is being put into various anti-gang initiatives, Westminster managed a few weeks ago to find £100,000 just to replace railings in Sussex gardens, and it has spent £144,000 to send managers on away days. That is a problem with spending priorities.

We need to do better than we have been doing on cross-border liaison. Brent council, which is central, has such major problems on the Stonebridge estate that it has been unable to focus as much as I would like on south Kilburn and Paddington. Kensington council, I am afraid, has something of a head-in-the-sand attitude—it seems to think that it does not have a problem at all.

In conclusion, I want to ask the Minister a few questions. Is he satisfied that there is a coherent, strategic approach to gangs and youth violence across Departments, and if so how is it demonstrated? Will he take steps to satisfy himself that boroughs such as mine that were not previously regarded as high risk do not sink into complacency, but develop their own strategic plans and monitor progress towards them? Will he liaise with his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Education to review the impact of spending cuts on youth services, especially in higher-risk areas? How can the Government help to ensure that interventions aimed at those at risk are not always short-term, fragmented programmes whose premature end undermines so much of the value that may have been achieved? Far too many lives are being lost on our city streets, and an even greater proportion of young lives are being blighted under the shadow of violence, at least some of which is accounted for by the growing problem of gang association.

This is an extremely important debate, and I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing it. The House spends an enormous amount of time talking about the bad things that young people are responsible for, of which this is one, but does she agree with me, and no doubt the rest of the House, that there are many things for which young people are responsible that we should, and do, celebrate? Neither this debate nor the bad things we read in the media are indicative of what young people are for.

I absolutely agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman. In an way, it is because I see so many young people whom I admire and love, and because I see the damage that violence and the fear of it are doing to them that I am motivated to come here and raise this issue. Many—almost all—of the young people whom I see who commit crimes do bad things but are not bad people, and they deserve the chance of an alternative life and rehabilitation.

That is the context. We have heard much about the many tragedies affecting south London, Nottingham, Manchester and so on. That was confirmed again by my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham. I know that many of my parliamentary colleagues will want to return to this issue, but I have to tell the House that when a problem this grave affects even the streets of a place such as Westminster, we have a graver problem than anyone has recognised, and I look to the Government to help us respond to and deal with it.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) on securing this debate. I know, from the debates and discussions she and I have had in the Chamber and outside over a number of years, how seriously she takes this issue. I know how keenly she feels about the matters she has brought to the House’s attention, and about the need to ensure that the Government, at all levels, are doing all they can to safeguard our communities and the opportunities of young people growing up in them. That is why I appreciate the opportunity to respond to this short debate.

I am pleased to see a number of hon. Members here this afternoon, despite it being a Friday and a time when the House might not normally sit. That underlines the commitment of many people across the House to identifying the solutions—not the short-term fixes, but the long-term sustained effort required to deal with a problem that is complex and has different facets. Those include society, family and the breakdown in certain communities across our country, and it will take a lot of focus, effort and time to get things right. I value the chance that the hon. Lady has given the House to consider these matters.

I pass on the House’s thoughts and condolences to all those who have suffered as a consequence of youth violence and violent crime, whether in London or across the rest of the country. I obviously note that the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) is in his place this afternoon, and our thoughts are with the family of Nana Darko-Frempong. That is a recent tragic case of a young life being cut short. I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s efforts to bring this matter to the House’s attention not just today or this week, but over an extended period. He has done that in a measured and non-partisan way. He should be congratulated on the work he has done.

Although the overwhelming majority of young people are law-abiding and responsible citizens, sadly a small minority engage in intimidating and violent behaviour. Their actions can have a terrible and lasting impact on the lives of victims, their families and local communities, as the hon. Lady acutely highlighted. There are a range of issues being addressed—I will talk later about those issues—through the work that the Government are doing, as well as through the local action that Westminster city council and other councils are undertaking, along with the Mayor of London, to deal with what is a serious problem.

The Centre for Social Justice review of street gangs in Britain, “Dying to Belong”, which was published in 2009, found an increase in gang culture and associated violence in Britain over the previous decade. The report found that the composition of gangs and the nature of gang culture had shifted. Gang members are getting younger, and geographical territory is an increasingly important factor, which is related to the concept of the “postcode beef”—that is, the lines in the road that we do not see, but which young people do, and the impact that has on their ability to use community facilities and live their lives normally in the way that we did when growing up in our communities. The report also found that violence is increasingly chaotic and without sense.

We face specific challenges in relation to gangs and youth violence, but it is important to put the issue in context, as the hon. Lady did. Overall levels of violence have fallen by around 56% since 1995. The most recent recorded crime statistics show a 6% reduction in police recorded violence against the person in the 12 months to December 2010, and an 11% reduction in offences of actual or grievous bodily harm involving knives or sharp instruments. Data published by Professor Jonathan Shepherd also show a 16% reduction in accident and emergency department admissions as a result of violent assault among teenagers over the same period. In addition, the British crime survey report on “Children’s experience and attitudes towards the police, personal safety and public spaces”, which was published last month, found that only 1% of 13 to 15-year-olds said that they had carried a knife for protection in the last 12 months. However, that is 1% too many. Any child carrying a knife is a matter of extreme concern, and when young people are drawn into gangs and violence, we need to take all possible action to stop this happening. The Government are committed to making our communities safer places for everyone.

Last June, the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary asked Brooke Kinsella, whose brother Ben was tragically murdered in 2008, to undertake a fact-finding mission about schemes in local communities that are working to stop young people committing violence, including violence using weapons. Brooke’s report, “Tackling knife crime together—a review of local anti-knife crime projects”, was published in February. Her recommendations include anti-knife crime awareness in schools; better information-sharing between police, schools and other agencies on local issues; a best practice website for local organisations; and more work with young children to stop them getting involved in youth violence.

Responding to Brooke’s report, the Home Secretary announced a substantial funding package for anti-knife crime initiatives over the next two years. The package is fully in line with Brooke’s recommendations and includes £10 million for prevention and diversionary activities, and engagement with young people at risk of becoming involved in crime; £3.75 million for London, Manchester and the west midlands, the three police force areas where more than half the country’s knife crime occurs; £4 million for a “Communities against gangs, guns and knives” fund to help local voluntary organisations across England and Wales work with young people to stop involvement in knife and gang violence; funding to provide free materials to schools to help young people keep themselves safe from knife and gun crime; and £250,000 for the Ben Kinsella fund, to be administered by the Prince’s Trust, for young people to run anti-knife crime projects in their local areas.

The funding will support vital police work where it is most needed too, and, most importantly, will give support to young people and local voluntary organisations working at the heart of our communities, because we need to look at this issue in that context too—a point that the hon. Lady also made. Indeed, I noted her comments about Westminster city council and getting local join-up. I was interested to note that Westminster is developing relationships with the youth offending teams in Kensington and Chelsea and in Brent, as well as with the safer neighbourhood teams. It has established a monthly gang meeting to identify problematic young people who offend or cause trouble in neighbouring boroughs and to share information and intelligence on those young people.

The hon. Lady made it clear that there is a need for a cross-over between council areas and communities and for a joined-up approach to ensure that information can be better shared between agencies within a local council area and, when a pervasive problem spreads beyond that area, in a way that will bind the process together more effectively. It certainly sounds as though there is more work to be done, although I was pleased to note that that thinking was taking place, and that the problem is being looked at in a broader context to ensure that the solutions are more effective.

As well as preventing young people from getting involved in violence and gang activity, action must be taken against those who break the law. To help local agencies to prevent gang-related violence, the Government introduced a new type of injunction across England and Wales in January. I went to Waltham Forest to launch the gang injunctions at the time. Initially for use against adults, gang injunctions give the police and local partners an additional tool to prevent serious violence and, above all, to protect the community. These injunctions allow the courts to require gang members to keep away from other gangs’ territories or to participate in activities to get them out of gangs. The first gang injunction was obtained by Southwark council in February, and it stopped one particular gang member entering a specific area and mixing with other gang members. We are aware of other action being taken as well.

The Home Secretary’s “guns, gangs and knives” round-table seeks to bring together all those who have a valuable role in developing the work on youth violence, including the work on the involvement of women and girls in gangs. It therefore provides a top-level way of bringing this together and engaging the Home Office in these matters. I pay tribute to all those working in this arena to prevent gang crime and youth violence. I want to assure the hon. Lady of this Government’s commitment to freeing up local areas so that they can tackle this problem in the way that works best for them. I also want to thank all those who work so hard to keep our communities safe.

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).