I beg to move,
That this House calls on the Government to establish an independent, all-party commission, involving a wide-ranging consultation, to identify the root causes, effect of, and solutions to, serious youth violence, including knife crime, its links to gang culture and the sale of illegal drugs.
At the outset, I wish to say how grateful I am to the Backbench Business Committee for granting this important debate, and I am also grateful to the 19 other Members of the House who supported this application. In particular, I have worked with my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) and for Westminster North (Ms Buck), my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed), among others, for several years on these issues.
The issues that we are discussing today are difficult. There is no single cause for the violence that we have seen, nor one single solution. What we are seeing on the streets of our country is leading to a senseless loss of lives. That perhaps explains why the digital debate organised on Twitter ahead of this debate by the House of Commons digital team was the House of Commons most successful such debate in terms of the number of Twitter accounts reached—more than 8 million. The hashtag for today’s debate is #stopyouthviolence. I recommend that anyone watching this debate uses it.
At the outset, it is important to acknowledge that our young people are among the very best in the world. Their creativity knows no bounds; their energy is infectious; and they put the great in Great Britain. They give us confidence that our future will be even better than our glorious past.
It is also important to note that the violence that we are talking about is committed by a minority—a significant minority—of young people. We should not draw the conclusion that all of Britain’s youth are engaged in serious youth violence. I say that because, too often, the youth of our country are demonised. They are demonised in our national media, and I do not want us to add to that today. It is important in this debate to recognise how wonderful our young people are and to celebrate them. It is because we care so much for them and because we do not want to see their talent and their futures wasted that we are holding this debate today.
In 2007, the violence in different communities—in urban city centres in particular—across our country was put into sharp relief by the shooting, in broad daylight, of a young man, Andre Smartt-Ford, at Streatham ice rink in my constituency. To this day, no one has been charged with Andre’s murder, but his mother continues to fight for justice and is now working through the JAGS Foundation to prevent other families from going through the same thing. Tracey Ford has voiced her strong support for this debate today. She is joined by many other parents, such as Richard Taylor, who also lost his young son, Damilola Taylor, to this violence. He set up the Damilola Taylor Trust, which established the Spirit of London Awards to celebrate our young people. Representatives from SOLA are here today. We pay tribute to all those parents and to those who are working to better the lives of our young people.
What followed from Andre’s death in 2007 was a catalogue of tragedy, with 29 teenagers losing their lives in London alone in 2008. The number of fatalities has abated since that time, but, let us face it, the problem has never gone away. Following falls between 2009 and 2012, we have seen the number of serious youth violence offences in London increase by 13.4% and the number of offences the Metropolitan police tags with its gang violence indicator measure increasing by more than 25% since 2012. Much of this goes unreported. Members can go to any A&E in the kind of communities that I am talking about, and they will hear about all sorts of things that are not reported and that do not feature in the figures.
According to Citizens Report, which is a not-for-profit organisation that collects local data on this issue, 17 teenagers lost their lives to this violence last year, which is up from 11 in 2014. Just two weeks ago, I was notified by police of gunshots being fired on a Friday in a location in the north of my constituency. On the Saturday after, there was a multiple stabbing of a young man in the south of my constituency, and then on the Sunday, just outside my constituency, there was a drive-by shooting. On Monday this week at 5.30 in the afternoon, a teenager was stabbed in the north of my borough, in Oval, after a fight at a chicken shop, and so it goes on.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I am so pleased we have been granted three hours to debate a crucial issue not just for young Londoners, but for all communities. Does he agree that there are far too many firearms in circulation in London, and that previously, where a fist or, dare I say it, a knife might have been used, now a very large gun and increasingly sophisticated firearms are being used in these terrible crimes, and that makes the situation even more difficult to manage?
I entirely agree. When I was a trustee of a youth charity in Brixton called the 409 Project, I wrote an article in 2007 about the availability of guns and knives, and I did a kind of focus group with some of the young people in our area. What shocked me was the level of detail that some of our young people in Lambeth were able to give me about a gun—they could tell me how many bullets a MAC-10 could spray in a second or in a minute. My hon. Friend is right to raise that issue, and she is right to say that this is not just a London problem. The situation is serious and it is getting worse. It is not confined to London. Last Sunday a teenager was stabbed in Bristol. We hear of this happening all over the UK.
In my constituency I have recently seen the impact of large-city drug crime moving into the regional towns, and I am very concerned to make sure that Avon and Somerset police devote enough resources away from the big cities such as Bristol to be able to combat that. I do not want see that deteriorate into violent crime which, thankfully, we have not yet seen, but what the hon. Gentleman is saying about the increase in London and Bristol is a worry.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which highlights the suite of issues, including the drug trade, which hang heavy over this debate and will come through as our dialogue progresses.
I want to say something about the title of this debate. I put in for it using the word “gang” deliberately, because we need to talk about the use of this term. We often refer to youth violence and gang or gang-related violence, but it is pertinent for us to question whether we should use the word “gang” at all, in spite of the title of the debate.
Ian Joseph of Middlesex University, who is watching this debate from the Strangers Gallery, has done some very interesting work in this area. He argues that the official definition of a gang distorts the focus of interventions and promotes an understanding of everyday behaviour that does little to permanently avert young people from the real causes of violence. He argues that to be effective, interventions must give greater account to how cultural norms and social processes impact on young people’s friendships and the local neighbourhood-based relationships that they have.
This is backed up by others. The Centre for Criminal Justice Studies has also questioned whether we should be using that term. I wonder whether, by using the term and labelling young people as gang members, we reinforce the notion that they are gangsters. What is a gangster? I wonder how helpful it is for us to use the term. Let us face the fact that using the term enables officialdom to put all these young people in a bracket—“Oh, they’re part of a gang. If they lose their lives, oh well, that doesn’t matter. They’re part of a gang.” I am not sure we should allow this to carry on.
I regret interrupting the fine speech that is being made. Is my hon. Friend familiar with the work of Harriet Sergeant, a rare journalist who has gone to great trouble to engage with members of this underclass? Perhaps “gang” is the wrong word. From reading her books and articles on the matter, one comes away with a profound feeling of regret at the gulf of misunderstanding between official bodies and those who are part of that underclass, and great sympathy for the problems involved and the depth of suffering of those gangs who, in my view and her view, have been badly neglected.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for referring to Harriet Sergeant’s work. Hopefully, those using the hashtag for this debate can post a link on Twitter so that those watching can read more of her work.
Part of the reason why I am not sure how helpful it is to use the word “gang” any more is that things have changed a lot just in the borough I represent in London. Around the time I was first elected, in 2010, we had mass groups of young people who had labels for their groupings. Now the situation is more parochial: things are often confined more to a particular estate, and we have much smaller groups of young people. The situation is also far more fluid.
Whitney Iles, the chief executive officer of Project 507 —she, too, is watching the debate in the House—works to prevent young people from engaging in this kind of violence. She put things really well when she told me that we give young people this gang label, but we never give them a way to get rid of it. So let us consign it to the bin, and let us not refer to it again in the House after this debate, if we can possibly avoid doing so.
The reasons for serious youth violence are not new, and we know what so many of them are. Yes, some violence is carried out by young people from dysfunctional, often chaotic families with a history of, say, domestic violence in the background. However, very often, a lot of young people who get wrapped up in these things come from quite stable families. Sometimes there is an issue because two parents are struggling to make ends meet and holding down two jobs to pay the bills. There is a link there because, as I heard from some young people this morning, someone will often have a desire to help provide for their family—for their mum—and they get wrapped up in these activities as a way of making money to help mum pay the bills.
I really do not care if the usual suspects in the media start saying, “Oh, you’re excusing all this.” We are not providing excuses today, but unless we look at why these things happen, we will not be able to prevent them. I can see the headlines: “MP says children are trying to pay the bills so they go and knife people”. That is not what I am saying; what I am saying is that we must understand the underlying causes if we want to prevent this violence from happening again.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making a very good speech. Is not fear the real reason why people join these groups? A young person who lives on an estate in an area where these groups operate and who is not a member of any group will be fearful that a group will set upon them and do them great damage. In my limited understanding of this problem, it seems that fear is the spur for young people joining such groups.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important intervention. I agree with him: fear is definitely a major factor, and I will come to it shortly. Trauma also plays a role, and I will come to that too.
There is another common theme, which I have talked about with my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham and my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North. Time and again, at every community meeting on this issue, we hear that there are simply not enough things for our young people to do. I get fed up with hearing that every week and every time we discuss this issue in the House, because nothing ever seems to get done about it. We have to ensure that there are more meaningful things for our young people to do outside school hours, and I am not talking about some windy church hall with a table tennis table. We need decent, proper activities that will expand our young people’s horizons and give them things they will enjoy doing in their local areas. Otherwise, we have the problem of collectives of their peers becoming their surrogate family. That relates to the issue that the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) talked about, but I will come on to that in a moment because I want to go through some of the other factors.
In relation to popular culture, it is too easy to blame rap music or whatever, but it is a society thing. We live in a society that promotes and glamorises violence. It is too easy to say that it is the fault of the creative industries. We increasingly have a society where our young people are encouraged to engage in these kinds of violent activities. This is promoted among us and we have to deal with it.
We live in a society that not only promotes violence and too often glamorises it, but promotes an ideal whereby our young people define themselves by reference to what they have as opposed to who they are. There is a consumerism element. Helping one’s family to get on is definitely an issue.
Will my hon. Friend acknowledge that this is not just about young people providing for their family but about their desire to have things, and the role of criminal gangs in offering them a quick buck, so that they are able to earn money to buy things, which because of their low income they are otherwise unable to have?
There are so many big elephants in this room of issues, but one is poverty and deprivation. We cannot ignore the part that that plays. My hon. Friend is right to raise that issue. Young people who do not have anything are often robbing from other young people who do not have anything, then there is revenge, and we end up with a cycle of violence. That is definitely part of what we see happening.
Part of the reason that too many of our young people do not have enough money is the unemployment rate among them. Our education system is producing a whole generation who do not always have the skills that our employers need, particularly the technical and vocational skills. Let us face it, this has happened under Governments of all persuasions. I do not see this as a party political issue; I am not interested in scoring any points. We have to deal with the problems in a skills eco-system that is not giving our young people the skills that they need to offer employers to get a job. Let us not forget that hanging over this is the fact that youth unemployment is double the main rate.
The things I have spoken about are fairly obvious—the more talked-about factors—but we need to delve far deeper into the causes than we generally have. The hon. Member for Beckenham referred to the belief of many young people that they are safer in a group than they are on their own. As academics have argued, the perceived need for safety and protection tends to validate behaviour and levels of violence in ways that can obscure the boundary between right and wrong. There is also the issue of being bullied and how that interrelates with carrying or using a weapon. We do not like to talk about that, but we should. There is a semi-formal, often unsupervised daily routine outside school, but sometimes inside school too, that can incubate the production of behaviour and values that lead to a life of this kind of violence, and the expected norms of school and wider mainstream society are juxtaposed to that.
In addition to the fear that the hon. Gentleman talked about, the other big issue is trauma—the sheer trauma that many of our young people experience in their daily lives, which requires much greater consideration than we see reported in our media.
To return to the work of Whitney Iles, this issue needs to be seen as one not just of violence prevention, but of health, particularly mental health. Our young people are being traumatised by some of their experiences, but they are being given no support to deal with them. Unless we start engaging with them, not only on the obvious level, but at a deeper level, we will not be able to resolve the violence on our streets.
What should be done? First, the Labour Government introduced Every Child Matters, which had a strategic aim to provide wraparound care for young people from long before they went to school to long after they left. That did bring in teenagers, but I think we need to adopt an “every teenager matters” approach, with much more targeted schemes and versions of the previous initiative, in order to address problems experienced by teenagers. It must be said, however, that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham has said, the problems are impacting on younger and younger children, not just teenagers.
Secondly, we have to elevate the standing of youth work in our country. It is about time that we put it on the same pedestal as teaching. Often, youth workers spend as much time as teachers with our young people, but we do not talk about their profession in the same way. We have to do so and put it on a pedestal; we cannot just look at it as an add-on. Too often, youth work is left to people who have other jobs and who may, through their tenants or residents association, be providing youth work on top of their daily job. It needs proper funding so that people can do youth work full time and so that we regard our youth workers in the same way as we regard our teachers.
Thirdly, I really do think that the Government have done some good things, and that is why I want them to reverse their decision to disband the very important ending gang violence and exploitation peer review network, which spreads best practice to local authorities and others. It is due to end in April—next month—but I really hope the Government will reverse that decision, because it is a good network and I have heard very good feedback about it from all over the country, including Lambeth. I want it to continue.
Fourthly, we have to ensure that our young people are properly taught in school about the consequences of what they do, and that they are provided with support to deal with their experiences outside school as well. I want to see more role models who have been members of groups and who have been victims, or even perpetrators, of acts of violence and suffered the consequences. I want more of them to go into schools and tell their story so that future generations do not take the same wrong turn as they did. There is nothing like having somebody who has lived that life telling young people what will happen if they carry on down that avenue. We need to provide much more support to our schools.
This is controversial, but I do not care and am going to say it anyway: a lot of the young people who get wrapped up in all this ultimately have quite commercial and entrepreneurial instincts. Their energy, however, is simply not channelled in the right way and the result is that they turn to criminality and highly illegitimate, terrible ways of doing things. If many of our young people received enterprise teaching in our schools, and if they were provided with inspiration and more access to opportunities to set up their own business, do their own thing and work for themselves in a way that delivers the goods and some money, perhaps we would be able to stop them taking a wrong turn. I can just see the write-ups saying, “MP says terrible gangsters should start businesses”, but, frankly, I do not care. If they have that kind of instinct, I want to make sure that they do not end up taking a wrong turn and doing illegitimate business, but that they set up a business and become the next Branson. I would like to see many of the kids from the Tulse Hill estate in my constituency going on to be the next Richard Branson.
My hon. Friend is making a very important point. Does he agree that the Evening Standard should be congratulated on its campaign? He is recommending precisely the sort of work that it has been doing in support of people turning away from gang violence. It is turning young people’s skills and expertise towards business and entrepreneurship, and ensuring that they are able to make something of their lives.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The Evening Standard has done excellent work in its “Frontline London” campaign, which it has plastered on the front page frequently. I would like to see other publications and media outlets following its example.
None of us is excusing wrongdoing; none of us is excusing the violence that we see; and none of us would argue that for people who commit such offences, there should not be sanctions. Of course there should be sanctions. I suppose the point that everybody will make today is that if we can prevent people from doing such things in the first place, we will not have to apply those sanctions. Too often, the debate is about clamping down, zero tolerance and banging people up. It is harder to focus on how we prevent them from doing those things in the first place.
That is, ultimately, why I would like the Government to set up an independent cross-party commission on these issues, involving a wide-ranging consultation that, importantly, includes young people. Too often, we talk about young people but they are not at the table when we do so. I would like the commission to identify the root causes and effects of, and the solutions to, youth violence so that we do not see more death on our streets.
To wrap up, I think we should be absolutely honest, up-front and frank about the fact that if we were talking predominantly about middle-class children from comfortable, middle-income families and wealthy neighbourhoods, the issue would be much higher up the national agenda. The murder of young people by other young people who fit that middle-income demographic profile would command many more column inches. It is a disgrace and a damning indictment of our society that, increasingly, it is becoming immune to what is happening on our doorsteps. Our society is ignoring the issue, putting a whole generation of young people into a corner and saying, “That is what happens with those kinds of young people from those kinds of areas.” I want to make it very clear in this debate that the House of Commons recognises that no matter what their background—whether they grow up on an estate or in a comfortable neighbourhood—every single young life matters. We will not stand by while violence and fatalities continue to hit the next generation, because it is our future.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) on securing a debate on this most important of issues. He gave a powerful and articulate speech. Last year, 188 people were killed with a knife and 119 sexual assaults took place at the point of a knife. Attempted murder and threats to kill involving a knife totalled over 2,100 incidents. It is no exaggeration to say that thousands of Britons, many of them young, have feared for their lives through stabbing.
When I was elected in May last year, I pledged to my constituents that I would do all I could to tackle to scourge of knife crime. Why? Colchester has seen too many young lives destroyed by crimes involving weapons. Jay Whiston, James Attfield and Nahid Almanea all lost their lives too early, and each case was a personal tragedy. Too many people, particularly our young people, still feel that it is acceptable to carry blades and knives. They wrongly believe that doing so will keep them safe. Let us be clear. Carrying a knife does not keep them safe; it is illegal and puts them and others in grave danger.
I believe that some people carry such weapons because they feel that doing so gives them status.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point, and he is absolutely right. There are many reasons why young people carry blades. Sometimes it is to do with fear—that relates to his earlier point—and sometimes they are a status symbol. We have to hammer home the message that not only is it illegal to carry a knife, but a person is statistically far more likely to be the victim of a knife crime if they do so. We have to get that message out loud and clear.
I believe that the answer to youth violence is threefold, involving deterrence, education and intervention. In the interests of time, I will focus on the first two. I welcome the steps that the Government have taken, such as minimum custodial sentences for repeat knife possession and the commitment on police budgets. I agree with the hon. Member for Streatham on the need for education, which has a key role to play. We need to do far more to educate our young people about the dangers of carrying knives.
I have campaigned for some time with a local knife crime charity, Only Cowards Carry, which provides weapons awareness lessons in schools. The charity, which is based in north Essex in the Clacton area, was set up in 2012 by Caroline Shearer, whose 17-year-old son, Jay Whiston, was fatally stabbed that year. Since then Caroline, who is an inspirational woman, has campaigned to show the devastating impact of knife crime on young lives and families, and she has provided weapons awareness lessons in schools. Those hard-hitting lessons show young people the dangers of carrying knives and blades. I have been to one and, trust me, they leave an impact. Students who are usually cocky and confident finish the lesson shocked and startled at the brutal impact that knives can have on lives. The images of knife attacks and knife wounds on young people hit home very hard. We need to send out the message that all it takes is one moment of stupidity for lives and reputations to be shattered.
We teach our young people about internet safety, road safety and citizenship. There is a strong case for more schools to teach pupils about the danger of carrying knives. As I have found, Ministers regularly throw back the challenge that the demands on the curriculum are great. I accept that point, but, to be clear, I am talking about one 45-minute lesson in year 9 or year 10. That would not be a huge burden on the national curriculum.
Last summer, Caroline Shearer and I presented a petition with 50,000 signatures to Downing Street to call for charities such as Only Cowards Carry to go into schools to give those hard-hitting lessons to our young people. That would be a big step forward in tackling knife crime, not only in Colchester and north Essex, but across the country. The Government should take another hard look at encouraging more schools to introduce weapons education lessons.
According to the crime survey for England and Wales, violent crime is down since 2010, but according to violence against the person statistics recorded by the police, violent crime has increased. The picture is far from clear, and the reasons for spikes and falls in violent crime are not well understood. It is essential that the police, supported by good academic analysis, do the research to enable them to understand what is happening in our towns and cities.
There has been too much speculation about the causes, and we really need to focus on the facts. In Essex, more than half of the notable increase in recorded victim-based crime in the last 12 months—4,463 of 8,165 crimes—was in the “violence without injury” subcategory of violence against the person. That has traditionally covered harassment, shouting and very minor stone throwing, but the Home Office has decided that it should also include online bullying and harassment. That is nonsense, and it will really distort the debate.
I believe that there is a strong argument for a new stand-alone crime type category for recording online crimes. If those crimes continue to be placed in the category of violent crime, it will be difficult to debate violent crime and its specific causes. Of course, online bullying and harassment are extremely serious crimes, which sadly affect young people more than people in any other age groups. However, the steps we need to take to tackle physical violence and gang violence are different from those needed to tackle online abuse and harassment, so it is important to look at recategorisation.
In my constituency, victim-based crime is up by 821 offences on the year. Within that, violence is up by 681 offences. As I have just mentioned, a staggering 93% of those crimes are violence with no injury, and much of the total is made up of online bullying or harassment. That puts the rise in a very different light.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in relation to reported crime, particularly among young people, so much violent crime goes unreported?
The hon. Lady makes a good point. Lots of crimes up and down this country go unrecorded for all sorts of reasons. I very much support police forces, such as Essex police, that are making it easier for people to report crimes, particularly online. We must make it far easier for people to report crimes and give them the confidence that they will be followed up by the police.
To return to the point I was making—I apologise that it is a little detailed—it is really important to be able to base this debate on accurate statistics. It is almost impossible for us to have such a good, clear debate when the Home Office has provided such broad and unclear definitions of violent crime. Better categorisation is needed, including, as I have said, a separate category for online offences.
Another serious concern is to do with geography and location. In Essex, there is very clear evidence of increased violence related to gangs involved in the supply and distribution of class A and other drugs. The hon. Member for Streatham made the point about the clear link between gang or youth violence and class A drugs. Communities in Essex are consistently evolving, as they always have, with the movement of people from London. The sad reality is that some of the gang problems traditionally associated with areas of London are spreading to many, if not all, towns up and down the country, as my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Marcus Fysh), who is no longer in his place, pointed out.
There have been a number of murders, often involving stabbings, where neither the victims nor those arrested and, in some cases, nor those convicted of the offences live in Essex. The London gangs are, without doubt, extending their county lines into Essex. Violent gang members have been using intimidation and violence, often against vulnerable people, to take over properties in towns such as Southend and Basildon, and even as far north as Colchester, to supply drugs to local dealers. This is not just about drugs, but about serious intimidation and threats against vulnerable people. We know what happens in London, and even outside London there is sometimes extreme sexual violence against women and girls who associate with such gangs.
It is essential that our police forces co-operate really closely on this issue. I am pleased that Essex police already co-operates well with the Metropolitan police, but it is extremely disappointing that, in 2016, most police forces still do not automatically share crime data and that they operate on different crime systems. I commend Essex for leading the way in having the first fully collaborative policing IT system, which will soon be used by nine forces. I am also pleased that the very recent report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary on police effectiveness judged Essex police to be good at dealing with serious crime of this sort. Other forces quite simply must follow their lead in taking a more comprehensive approach and working more closely together.
To conclude, it is refreshing to hear a sense of cross-party consensus in the Chamber—not entirely around possible solutions, but certainly around a willingness to address this most important of issues. I very much support the call made by the hon. Member for Streatham for cross-party working on this issue. A fact-finding exercise to identify the root causes would be a sensible step. As I have mentioned, perhaps a little long-windedly, better categorisation is important so that we can get to the root causes and have a debate based on facts, rather than conjecture. Education, deterrence and intervention are also absolutely key to reducing violent crime and serious youth violence. For many of our young people, delaying action to address this problem is simply not an option.
I am very grateful for the opportunity to participate in this important debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) on holding it. I know that, behind the scenes, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) has been quietly campaigning in the Tea Room for such a debate because of the concerns in her constituency. It is fantastic to be joined by my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), who has huge experience of these issues and has continually brought them, certainly during my years in Parliament, to the House’s attention.
This is where I start: the issue is not new. In a sense, it is very important not to have this debate as though this is a year zero moment. We have had this problem for several years. Problems with young people getting caught up in crime, particularly in urban and deprived areas, are absolutely not new. Those at home over Christmas who landed on the show “Dickensian”, an adaptation of many of Dickens’s books, and those very familiar with both “Great Expectations” and “Oliver Twist” will know that we had gangs in London. We had groups of young people getting up to criminality in London, and above such gang activity was usually the adult activity running the gangs, so these issues are not new. I was born in the period just after the huge public concern about mods and rockers congregating in different parts—
I notice that the Front-Bench Opposition spokesman is absolutely aware of that. She is ever so slightly older than me. At that time, there was real concern about gang activity in seaside areas or in urban areas of the country. The debate in this House about young people and crime and about gang activity is not new, so what is new? I think that the level of violence is new, the age profile is worrying and the geographic spread feels out of control.
On the age profile, the Met police says that its matrix—its central way of recording who is caught up in what it describes as gang activity—had a total of 3,459 individuals at the last time of publication in May 2014. There were 500 individuals under the age of 18: two 13-year-olds, 21 14-year-olds, 71 15-year-olds, 138 16-year-olds and 268 17-year-olds. There were also 356 18-year-olds, while 55% of the total were aged 18 to 22. Something is going on, and it is something we should be very worried about.
Any Members with significant housing estates in their constituency will talk about the arrival in this country of a phenomenon, which we often associate with America, of young people—teenagers—running drug activity on behalf of older individuals.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the serious violence against women and very young girls associated with gang-related activity is not presently recorded appropriately or understood, and that not enough action is being taken on that specific part of this important problem?
I am so pleased that my hon. Friend raises that issue, because that is the other factor that is new. I am about to come on to that.
The young age profile has something to do with the fact that enforcement on this national problem is working: the police are locking people up. We are serious about people carrying a knife and, historically, we have been serious about people carrying a gun. The police have locked up some of the older individuals, particularly after the 2011 riots, but all that has done is to drive the crime down to younger individuals.
My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham made a point about the definition of gangs. It is very dangerous to call any congregation of young people a gang. It almost feels as though we call any congregation of young black and brown people a gang. Those of us in the House who have children, particularly children who are getting to their teenage years, know that, to a 12 or 13-year-old, joining a gang is quite attractive. We therefore need to be very careful about the definition of gangs.
My right hon. Friend rightly raises what happens when the police target older members of criminal gangs—I am talking about criminal gangs, not groups of young people—in operations. It leaves a vacuum that triggers a spike in violence among the younger, lower orders of the gangs, who have been drawn in for the very reasons he cites.
My hon. Friend is completely right. What is unfortunately being said about the moral compass of these young people is incredibly worrying. They are impressionable; they are young. For reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham raised, when I say that they are impressionable, I am referring to the fact that we live in a society that has prioritised choice for the individual above everything else. We live in a society where people have the choice of whether to be exposed to quite serious violence on social media, on television and in parts, although not all, of the games industry. It is hard for modern parents, however much money they have, to distinguish between access to those images and that impression.
We therefore have young people stabbing others, almost as if they do not realise the consequences. It is quite, quite bizarre that someone might not realise that puncturing skin and causing blood loss might lead to a loss of life. I have seen images—they are on YouTube, so we can see them—of young people being stabbed continuously and it being almost like a pastime. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford is right that much of this goes completely unreported. It never turns up in our hospitals. It is solved by self-medication. People go to the pharmacy and get their band aid. It is sorted out in the community, so there is an indication that this violence is going down.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) raised something else that is new and worrying and that we would not associate, historically, with mods and rockers or Dickensian times: the phenomenon of women, including young women, being at the centre of the action. Again, as some of the older individuals who run the gangs have been locked up—actually, let us be clear that they can still run a gang from prison—they bring in the younger folk. Why? Young folk are less likely to get a sentence if they are caught. They also bring in the women on the estates and prey on the young women. Historically, the Children’s Commissioner has done tremendous work to raise issues such as the sexualisation of women and the way in which women become the victims of gang activity. Someone can hide the knife in their girlfriend’s bedroom or hide their stash with her. She can walk quietly over to the opposite estate and perhaps not get detected or picked up in quite the same way, so the profile is changing.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way during his powerful speech. The issue is not just girls and women concealing weapons or being used to conceal weapons, but the straightforward exploitation of women in our communities, who are passed from one group of young lads to another. That just does not get talked about nearly enough in my view, as my fellow Lambeth MP, my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), said.
Absolutely; there is a deeply disturbing pattern in the sexualisation of these women, and they are victims. That issue has not been picked up, as has been debated in other places.
All of this leads to a disturbing combination of violence, sexual activity, real victims, both young and female, and criminality in our areas. It is not just Members who are saying that. Dean Haydon, head of Scotland Yard’s homicide and major crime command, said that the presence of 13 and 14-year-olds on the gangs matrix was concerning and warned of exploitation. It is very worrying that 17 men aged 18 or under were fatally stabbed in London just last year.
The Minister published a strategy in January 2016. I ask her as gently as I can, does this problem merit an eight-page strategy or something more considerable? At the back of the strategy in annex A, there is a list of the constituencies that are described as being “Ending Gang and Youth Violence areas”. The first question I have in relation to that is what we mean by “ending”. Are we really dedicated to ending this problem?
I have been in the House for 16 years and this story began around about the time that I came here. In 1994 or ’95, at about the time that Tony Blair became the leader of the Labour party and John Major was coming to the end of his leadership of the Conservative party, we would not have had a debate about youth violence and gangs. It just was not present in the British lexicon at that point in our history. Towards the end of the ’90s, we started to see an upsurge in gun violence and Operation Trident began. I thought this was inappropriate, but it was termed black-on-black violence. That morphed into the strategies that we saw, particularly under Charles Clarke’s leadership as Home Secretary, under the Tony Blair Government. After the riots under the coalition Government, there was also an upsurge.
Why am I talking about annex A? We have to decide whether we want to end this problem. I am afraid that it is going in the wrong direction. I have talked about the young people. I have talked about the women. I have talked about the violence. Other hon. Members have mentioned trauma. Let us look at the geography. In April 2012, the areas that were identified were places like Hackney, Haringey, Islington, Lewisham, Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham and Sandwell. Hon. Members will not be surprised that those were the areas we wanted to deal with. By December 2012, it had moved on to include Hammersmith and Fulham, Merton and Leeds. When it got to Barnet, Bromley, Havering and Thanet, it started to get quite worrying. Last year, it included Basildon, Grimsby, Harrow, High Wycombe, Southampton and Swindon.
What is going on here? Something that was urban and inner-city has become incredibly suburban. Murders that were traditionally black have become white. It is reflecting on all our young people and they are being caught up in this violence. The picture is not unique to particular communities, but is spreading. There is a geographic spread.
I therefore come back to whether this problem is worth just an eight-page strategy of very anodyne statements:
“We will continue to prioritise the reduction of gang related violence including tackling knife crime.”
How? By when? Local areas are encouraged to continue to follow the approach of
“bringing key partners together and developing an effective local response to gang violence.”
How? Who is going to do that? How do we know what is best practice? We have evidence that some of the gangs straddle different local authorities. There is real spread. Gangs in London—adults, actually—are running young people into the suburbs to sell drugs. How does the strategy in Lewisham or Haringey relate to the strategy in Kent? What is the pattern? That is not mentioned.
Apparently, the Ministry of Justice has brought together analysts
“to examine the evidence base”
“ensure responses will be more coherent”,
but how is that analysis being shared? Where do I get hold of it? How are we coming together to deal with it? It does not feel that there is enough of a grip on a spreading epidemic that is taking the lives of young people and inflicting real pain and hardship on differing communities. I believe that is why my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham secured today’s debate.
What is required? We need much better understanding of best practice, and we have to get into the issue of violence in society. Any social worker or youth offending team worker will tell us that domestic violence is often going on in the homes of the people involved. We have the troubled families initiative, but what impact is it having on the problem that we are discussing, given that it seems to be getting worse? The statistics are worrying. The figures up to January 2016 show that there has been an 18% increase in assault with injury and a 22% increase in violence against the person in London. Data from the London ambulance service—we know that there are profound problems with its data, so they are not necessarily the best—show a 9% increase in assaults involving knives. Knife crime is up by 14% in London as a whole over the past 12 months. The situation is urgent, yet it is not figuring in our national conversation and responses in the way that it ought to.
After the 2011 riots, there was huge fanfare, because the Mayor of London, now the hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson)—he is obviously very good at fanfare—brought in Bill Bratton, the commissioner from New York. Hon. Members will remember that he had all the strategies and plans, but what happened to them? There has been some discussion of the model used in Glasgow, where there was a significant problem. What bearing does what Glasgow has done with its violence reduction unit have on the Government’s plans? We have also heard about what has gone on in Chicago and in Boston. The ideas to end the problem are out there, and there are solutions, but where is the coherent strategy to deal with it?
I am sorry to challenge the strategy document, but to people living in or representing one of the areas affected it feels like a civil service exercise, not the deliberate action that we will require. We particularly need not enforcement but diversion activities, especially for our very young souls.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. Before I call the next speaker, may I say that we want to start the wind-ups at about half-past 1? We have three more Back-Bench speakers to go, so if they can keep to 10 or 15 minutes, everybody will get in.
I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) on introducing this important debate and on his powerful speech, which set out the challenges that we face. We have heard some extremely strong speeches, in which Members have made the point that this is not year zero. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) said, there is a long tradition of violent groups in this country, going back centuries in different manifestations. However, the nature of the problem is changing. It is growing younger and more female, and it is spreading to other areas. Yet it remains true that the crisis largely, but not exclusively, affects black and minority ethnic populations and is one of deprivation.
It is a great shame that we do not have more Members of Parliament in the Chamber to discuss this subject, and I fear that my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham is right that if the problem were not overlaid with that of deprivation, we would have more. It is critical that we exercise our duty as Members of Parliament to all our constituents, and that we echo the cries of pain that we hear in our communities by addressing the problem.
Because this is not year zero, we know that after a sharp increase in deaths from serious youth violence in London in 2007 and 2008, action was taken and the situation improved in the years to 2011 or 2012. The last debate that I secured on gangs and serious youth violence was in 2011, and after that time—I am not saying that the two facts were connected—there was genuine progress. Steps were taken, and there was a welcome reduction in the number of deaths in London. As my right hon. and hon. Friends have set out, that success is now being reversed, which is extremely worrying. As others have said, by no means all incidents are reported to the police.
Westminster North is not Lambeth, Haringey or one of the other areas usually associated with such pressures. It is certainly not south central Los Angeles. However, I will tell the House about some of the incidents that have happened there over the past couple of months. In January, just after the unfortunate removal of security cameras in Church Street in my constituency, a young man was stabbed in the street in front of witnesses. A constituent emailed me to say:
“This brutal and bloody event was shocking to witness and occurred immediately outside two shops that belong to”
the local trading association.
“I understand…that the victim is in surgery, and was lucky that a deep stab wound just missed his heart.”
Two days before Christmas, a young man I know well who did work experience in my office was surrounded by a group of 20 local young people and stabbed in the chest. The knife entered the fatty tissue of his heart, and he was extremely lucky to survive.
A few weeks earlier, a constituent who lives in my road emailed me to say:
“I was awoken by noises in the street outside and some desperate shouting. I got up and looked out of the window and saw a young lad on the phone, he was saying to someone on the other end; ‘I’ve been stabbed’.
I called 999—it took a long time for me to persuade them it was a real, serious incident. I understand that the boy had 4 stab wounds.”
That boy was 16 years old. In October, constituents reported violent clashes in St Mary’s Paddington Green and in Paddington recreation ground, tweeting at me:
“We desperately need police on patrol. The situation is out of control.”
They said that violence was rampant, with drugs and gangs, and tweeted:
“Huge gang fight behind Little Venice Sports Centre”.
That is a few weeks in Westminster North, which indicates how real the problem is.
It is true that, as my right hon. and hon. Friends have said, people can live in the communities affected and be completely oblivious to the situation. As a middle-aged woman, I can walk the same streets and live in a different world from the one in which our young people live in our cities, but increasingly also in some of our towns. Their experience of it is different, and the adult community needs to wake up to the challenges.
It is important to note that although most adults might be oblivious to every single one of those incidents, they have ripples, which spread out. The 20 young people who stabbed the young man who had done work experience in my office know what happened. Their families and relatives know the risks and dangers, and so do the family of that young man himself.
One of the most distressing things that I encounter is when I go into schools in my constituency and talk to eight or nine-year-old children and ask them how they feel about their community. One point they raise is gang violence. They ask whether it can be stopped, because they fear for their relatives.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. In my constituency, the youngest gang member is eight years old and the oldest is 61. That shows the breadth of the problem in communities such as Brent Central. As she says, many people are oblivious to what happens on the streets.
My hon. Friend is right. We know the parents of those children who are injured or tragically murdered. They are in the community, in their churches and neighbourhoods, and their agony echoes throughout the community.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. My constituency is in mourning this week because, on Monday, a young, 11-year-old lad was the victim of a hit and run by young people in a vehicle. He was killed outside the mosque in front of his father, and the whole community is in mourning. As I have said before, often our young people do not understand the consequences of using weapons, and they feel that it is just part of being in a gang, or part of youth culture. That has serious consequences for the rest of their lives and for the whole community.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I do not want to go into the causes because they have been well set out and time is pressing, but she is right about the lack of understanding of the consequences of violent behaviour. A community group in my constituency ran a campaign called “fear and fashion”, which encapsulates the story perfectly. People are frightened, and “fashion” refers to people knowing that these things are going on in the community and considering them to be normal.
Every single incident, even non-fatal ones, is a tragedy that has ramifications and an impact on communities.
My hon. Friend will know, as a former member of the Home Affairs Committee, that the Committee conducted an inquiry into this—I think she was a member at the time. Given the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna), is it not important to revisit some of the conclusions because some of the knowledge is already there and just needs to be revisited and acted on?
My right hon. Friend is right. As we have heard, there are changes in the way in which gang and serious youth violence is working itself out, but constants remain, and we need to learn from that experience.
Some positive things are going on in the work that community organisations do. I do not often praise Westminster council, but I do when it deserves it, and it has a gangs unit that includes excellent staff, who work intensively with young people. Redthread community organisation works out of four accident and emergency units and tries to catch young people at what it describes as a “teachable moment”, when injury has been inflicted and young people can learn from it.
There is therefore much that is good, but I am going to break a little with consensus by saying how much we are in danger of losing at the very point when we need to gain. I am deeply worried about the crisis in our youth offending institutes, which are ridden with extreme gang violence. The more the cost pressures bite in the youth justice sector, and the more the overcrowding in our prisons and youth offending institutes, the more dangerous the situation becomes. That is at a time when we are spending £138,000 a year in Medway to keep a young person in one of those units. In Feltham, we are spending £69,000 a year. That is kind of money we spend to lock up a young person—obviously not only for gang and serious youth violence—yet we are doing something dreadful: we are removing the investment that is necessary to prevent that behaviour.
I am horrified by my local council, which is not alone, because it is withdrawing all funding from its youth service. If we are talking about intervention and catching young people at a teachable moment, the youth service is critical. My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham made a point about youth workers and the continuity and expertise that they provide in the community. They are critical and we are losing them.
My hon. Friend is making a very important point. So many activities that are provided for young people are not statutory. A lot of youth provision is not statutory, so it is often first in line for cuts. I am desperately trying not to be party political, but the 56% cut in the local government grant from central Government to our local authorities will inevitably have an impact on the support that local authorities can give to third sector organisations working on this matter.
My hon. Friend is right. We are in a dangerous situation as the pressure on youth services bites, because early intervention is so important. We often think of early intervention as being for the under-fives, but it is as important in the teenage and adolescent years as it is for under-fives.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. When I was the Minister for young citizens and youth engagement, it was our hope that such provision would be made statutory and that youth services would be ring-fenced in each council. It is disappointing that the Government have scrapped that and that we do not invest in all the youth services that have done an excellent job in communities for many years.
I agree. However, it is not just youth services; there is also pressure on child and adolescent mental health services. For all the talk about giving mental health services parity, there has been an unprecedented squeeze in modern times on mental health services, particularly on CAMHS. My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham made a point about mental health and I want to spend a minute or two on that. Westminster council—again, I praise it when it does good things—commissioned a report on gangs and mental ill health, a vastly unexplored subject that is important in understanding serious youth violence.
The report said:
“Street gangs and associated serious violence have been a growing concern in the UK over the past decade and a specific concern in Westminster. They are concentrated in poor urban areas with high crime and multiple social problems. The mental health needs of young people in gangs have, until recently, been overlooked.”
The report demonstrated extremely high mental health need among those involved in gangs. Compared with non-violent men, gang members had increased rates of antisocial personality disorder—57 times higher than the average. Suicide attempts are 13 times higher, psychosis is four times higher, and anxiety disorder rates are twice the average. Gang members are significantly more likely than non-violent men to have used mental health services, with gang members eight times more likely to have consulted a psychiatrist, eight times more likely to have been admitted as a mental health in-patient and five times more likely to have used psychotropic medication.
We have a mental health crisis that affects the very people that we need to deal with, yet, at the same time, CAMHS are being reduced, and particularly some of the school-based services that can provide early referral. I am especially worried that the mental health intervention in my local authority is half what it was two years ago, and is funded only until next year. Of course, the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime—MOPAC—anti-gangs initiative is funded only until next year. There is therefore uncertainty about intervention.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. There have been 35 gang-flagged incidents in Greenwich and Woolwich in the few months since I was elected last May, including far too many tragic deaths in the Woolwich area. Given that, and the epidemic that hon. Members have described, does she agree that it makes no sense for the Government to pull front-line capacity, peer reviewers and national co-ordinators out of the ending gang and youth violence programme?
I totally agree. We understand a great deal about what is going on, even with a changing dynamic, yet we are in danger of doing all the wrong things. We are scrapping youth intervention in some places; we are closing down the youth service in some places; we are cutting CAMHS and so many other areas of early intervention; and we are—fatally in my view—ensuring that services that work for children and young people who are at risk of gang involvement are short term and end quickly.
I believe two things. First, it takes a village to raise a child. Those of us who live in the city, which is diverse, mobile and disconnected, know that we have to build and rebuild that village every single day. Voluntary endeavour alone cannot do it: our village must include neighbourhood police and the youth service, the national health service, CAMHS and schools, as well as churches, mosques, voluntary groups and individual families. Secondly, we should treat gangs and serious youth violence as a public health emergency as much as a criminal justice matter. Mental health services are on the frontline of that battle.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) for securing this important debate and for his excellent speech, which outlined the complexities and difficulties of the subject. It is a privilege to follow the powerful contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck).
I want to focus on the phenomenon of “county lines”, whereby urban, criminal gangs groom and coerce children and young people into selling class A drugs, particularly heroin and crack cocaine. Young people travel many miles from their home, often to quiet market and seaside towns where they are set up to deal drugs, sometimes from the home of a vulnerable person.
Last July, I attended the launch of the first major report on county lines, entitled “Running the risks: the links between gang involvement and young people going missing”, which was published jointly by Catch22 and Missing People. A month later, the National Crime Agency produced an intelligence assessment that said that county lines affect “most forces”, and almost always involve the exploitation of vulnerable people. It said that children are used
“as they are inexpensive, easily controlled and less likely to be detected by police”.
In January, the Home Office published a report entitled “Ending gang violence and exploitation”, which highlighted the fact that gangs have wised up to police tactics and are operating more covertly, making it harder for the police to disrupt activity and safeguard vulnerable people. The reports also state that young girls are groomed for involvement in criminal behaviour and harmful sexual behaviour as part of the gang culture. Indeed, the recent Rotherham trial showed the connection between organised crime and drugs, and child sexual exploitation.
We do not yet know the scale of the county lines problem, and where it is discovered, agencies are not clear how to deal with it. I have been told about children from Greater Manchester who have been found selling drugs in flats in seaside and other provincial towns, including some as far away as Devon. Children are used to reduce the risk to older gang members, and they may go unnoticed by local police, particularly if they have no record of offending. The gang leaders are rather like modern-day Fagins or Bill Sikes—hard men who groom youngsters and then use them to do their dirty work. There is serious under-recognition of the county lines phenomenon, which I believe is the next big grooming scandal.
Just as with children groomed for child sexual exploitation, we must recognise that young people drawn into criminality and drug dealing have, in the first instance, been groomed and manipulated. Those young people end up being charged with criminal offences, which gives them the same relationship with the law as the adults who groomed them. That leaves them vulnerable to further exploitation, and they continue to be victims at the same time as offending. That must be seen in the context of organised crime and the systematic grooming of young people. Often, those at the centre are long-term hardened criminals.
The Catch22 report stressed the link between gang involvement and young people going missing, and said that too often the young people are criminalised rather than safeguarded. It said that, although missing incidents for children and young people are generally under-reported, that is particularly acute for those involved in gangs. It presented evidence of gang-involved children and young people being placed into care miles away from their home town, with little care planning or support, leaving them vulnerable to getting drawn back into gangs. An additional issue with county lines is that the young people involved may often be aged between 16 and 18. According to the Children’s Society, there is evidence of massive under-reporting of young people who go missing in that age group.
Understanding of county lines is developing at a national level, and the use of young vulnerable people to traffic drugs across county lines is flagged up as a major issue by practitioners. Organisations that work to turn young people away from gang crime—most notably the St Giles Trust, a charity in London that works with young people to break the cycle of offending—have been dealing with the issue for some time and have harrowing stories to share. I was told by the St Giles Trust that young people are using the plastic container from Kinder Egg toys to transport drugs inside their own bodies—a serious risk to their health. It is hard to imagine a more graphic metaphor for the perversion of childhood. The trust also told me about young girls dressed in school uniform who are being used to mule drugs because they are unlikely to be stopped and searched. The age at which young people get involved with gangs is concerning. There have been reports of cases in London involving children as young as nine, and the trust gave at least one example of a child aged 12 being involved in county lines.
Increasingly, there are stories about gangs setting up their own young members to be robbed en route. They are then told that they must work off the debt by trafficking and selling drugs for free, or by engaging in sex. That is nothing less than slavery. The threat of child sexual exploitation for girls involved in gangs is known, but the added factor of being trafficked to remote locations compounds their vulnerability. Those young people are at risk of physical violence, sexual exploitation, and emotional and physical abuse. That model of grooming arguably involves both trafficking and modern slavery.
These children are seen as “bad kids” who have chosen a criminal lifestyle. For example, a national newspaper recently reported a court case involving a 13-year-old Manchester boy who was sent to Barrow in Cumbria by a criminal gang and set up as a heroin and crack cocaine dealer. There was a quote saying that police said the boy “revelled” in his role as a “little gangster”. He was a child.
The recent Home Office report indicates that we still have some way to go in tackling county lines. Action is needed at national level to set out clearly where responsibility lies within law enforcement for detecting and disrupting county lines, and how information should be shared with local authorities and safeguarding boards so that when young people are found they are supported in an appropriate manner.
We need to know the scale of involvement of vulnerable young people in county lines. I asked a number of parliamentary questions to try to establish numbers. The Home Office Minister responded that, because the National Crime Agency does not conduct county lines operations, it does not hold that information. We also need to know how much use is being made of anti-trafficking legislation and modern slavery laws to charge older gang members with grooming younger members. Finally, we need to know how best to support those young people once they have been found.
The police should be using data on missing episodes, and cross-referencing that with information about possible gang involvement, not only to understand trends, but to take an early intervention approach, and to try to disrupt involvement early after missing incidents. I offer the Minister a practical suggestion that would help to disrupt the grooming of children and young people to sell drugs at that early stage. Currently, numerous civil orders are available to the police to combat grooming for child sexual exploitation, including sexual risk orders, sexual harm prevention orders, and child abduction warning notices. I would like similar orders to be created, to be used where children are being groomed by organised criminals and gangs to act as drug runners. Perhaps they could be called “Fagin orders”.
Many children who are initially groomed into criminal activity are often then groomed for sexual exploitation; alternatively, they are initially groomed for child sexual exploitation, and then for criminal purposes. The two forms of exploitation are often inextricably linked, and young people are reluctant and frightened to disclose either. Return interviews with children who have gone missing are an important source of establishing the risk to the young person, and of gathering information about their associates and intelligence about county lines. It is important that that information is used for safeguarding by police and children’s services.
When young people are found and arrested after involvement in county lines, the approach from agencies should be holistic. The St Giles Trust has suggested a pilot in which their caseworkers—who are ex-offenders—accompany police on targeted raids and immediately offer support to the young people, who are more likely to listen to those who have been in the same situation.
To conclude I will return to the point I made at the beginning of my remarks: we must learn from the child sexual exploitation scandals that have ruined so many lives, and we cannot afford to make the same mistakes again, blaming young people, saying that they have made their own bed, failing to ask the right questions, and failing to respond even when we know what is going on. Missing People has been working with a mother whose son started going missing aged 12 and was being groomed by a gang to sell drugs away from home in a county lines operation. The mother was desperate not to lose her son to that, and always reported it every time he went missing. It took her six months to receive any support from services. How can that be right? The boy repeatedly went missing for periods ranging from overnight to up to three months. He ended up being taken into care and had numerous distance placements.
We need a response to county lines that ensures that children are found, safeguarded and supported out of gangs, and that the adults who groom and manipulate them are punished to the full extent of the law. Until then, it will continue to be the young victims who are blamed and punished, as their abusers and puppet masters continue with a trade that nets them thousands of pounds a day.
As a new MP, nothing can prepare you for receiving the call from the police telling you that a teenager has been murdered in your constituency. Once was hard enough, but within weeks of each other, it happened twice on exactly the same estate. In fact, since becoming an MP last year, four young people from my constituency have lost their lives due to the needless violence on our streets: Shaquan, Naseem, Kabba and Jamar. I have sat down with many of the family and friends left behind. Many of them are here today. Losing loved ones is hard enough. For them to have been murdered, and to not be able to understand what has happened, is even harder.
I have been calling for a debate on this subject since October last year. I am therefore grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) for securing the debate, and to the Backbench Business Committee for granting it time.
There is so much we could talk about; there is so much that needs to be said—but we also need to listen. We can all stand here and give passionate speeches about gangs and youth violence, but the truth is that nothing will change. There is no speech that any one of us could give today that will stop our young people killing each other. That is the harsh reality, so what do we do? Do we accept that it happens and simply move on? No. Each one of us has an obligation to find solutions. I believe that they will come from building a stronger, more resilient community base for our country—one where we look out for each other.
Do we write another report, pull some words together and call it a policy? No. The Government need to realise that writing down 2,500 words, giving it the grand title of “Ending Gang Violence and Exploitation” and then calling it a policy simply will not work. There can be no more top-down solutions. Things have changed and we must listen and respond. There are some huge Departments looking at this: the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice and the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime in London. None of them can possibly understand the issues being faced by young people on a daily basis. They all engage with young people, but they do so in a tokenistic way. They do so to tick the box that says, “Must engage with young people.” They do not engage in a youth-led way; no, they do so in a “led youth” way. This whole approach needs to change.
Young people and our communities have the solutions, because they are the ones facing the problems. We need a far-reaching, youth-led consultation to really get to grips with the core issues that underpin the reasons for and the impact of the violence that is present in young people’s lives. This is not just about gangs. If we ask 10 people what a gang is, we will get 10 different answers. It is not just about youth violence, either. We need to drop the negative language. Young people are fed up with constantly being portrayed negatively by politicians and the media.
On the point about what is a gang, is my hon. Friend surprised that in the Government’s document they have not even sought to define what they interpret to be a gang? Does she not think that that would help the conversation?
I agree with everything my right hon. Friend says. As he said in his speech, the document is so brief that it barely defines anything or suggests what any of the solutions should be. We need to transform the debate fundamentally.
Further to the point made my friend, the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), as I understand it these groups often call themselves gangs. That is part of the problem. It is therefore quite difficult to define.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but we tag people in certain ways too. We define groups of people as gangs, when they could just be groups of young people hanging about together. That is why we need to transform how we talk about the subject.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. I belonged to a gang when I was younger. We had a uniform and a code—it was called the Girls’ Brigade. We have to be very clear when we are defining gangs. It is also our responsibility as MPs to work with everyone. I met my borough commander this week, and I do so every month so that we are all working together and, as my hon. Friend says, we are listening to young people to ensure that they are not criminalised or labelled from a very young age.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good and strong point. We need to talk about violence in our society. We need to forget age for a second. When someone—anyone—gets so angry they end up killing someone, we have failed as a society. We have failed the victim, failed the victim’s friends and failed the victim’s family. We have also failed the killer. What a life they must have led up to that moment when they pull out a knife and stick it into another human being.
What is our answer? What do we do to them? Police, court, prison—we lock them up for a minimum sentence of 25 years and then they are released. Then what? What kind of life have we provided for that person? We can picture the scene: dad out of work, mum an alcoholic; missed by social services, due to cuts; missed by youth workers, because they no longer exist; missed by the local police, because of cutbacks. We are creating a perfect storm. Youth work, cut; police, cut; social services, cut. What hope do we have while this Government are in power?
Shrinking the state—is that really the answer? Of course not. It is the very fabric of society that needs to be fixed in order to stop these events. I do not hold the Minister solely responsible. There is little that she can do on her own that would fix things. The problem is bigger than that. What do the Government do? They spend close to £1 billion on a citizenship scheme. They give it some clever branding and congratulate themselves on building a social movement. But what then? Once young people have completed the scheme, they are still in the same situation as before. The scheme is £1 billion of window dressing; £1 billion to change nothing. We do not need window dressing. We need to change fundamentally the way we approach society. We need to change the narrative. We need to talk about peace. We need to talk about community. We need to promote positive images of our young people. We need to give them a voice.
Running programmes for teenagers—well, that is nice, but it is not going to change much, not fundamentally. We need to start much younger. It is only when we change the lives of the youngest in society that we will see real change take place. Any psychologist or educationalist will say that. The younger we start to effect change, the sooner we can start to make change. So let us change things. Let us change the record, change the narrative, change the future.
This debate calls for a wide-ranging consultation focusing on serious youth violence. I am sure we can all get behind this. Let us do this together, because it is by working together that we will prevent young people from disappearing from our streets.
I thank the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) for securing a debate on such an important subject, one that is rarely debated in this House.
The reality is that this problem is not specifically about gangs or young people. It is about violence and how we deal with that violence. Violence has a devastating impact on families, communities and young people. It does not affect young people exclusively, but it is their futures and their lives that hang in the balance and change absolutely while we debate this subject.
Despite the difficulty that comes with legislating to tackle the problem, it is through legislating and a variety of other measures that we can deal with this issue. Scotland recognised the need to tackle this issue and to take serious measures, in particular in areas of Glasgow where there were incidents of violence that were recurring, serious and in many cases severe.
The east end of Glasgow was once almost a byword for gang violence. Significant work, education and a cohesive approach has reduced violent crime, gang membership and weapons possession. I am sure my hon. Friend will join me in congratulating the Scottish Government and the Violence Reduction Unit, who have done sterling work to reduce gang violence in Glasgow. Does she agree that Members across the House could learn some valuable lessons from the work that has been done in Glasgow over the past decade?
I thank my hon. Friend for her point. I was intending to come on to Glasgow East later, but the project that took place there in 2008 was a response to the worst instance of gang violence that had ever occurred, which made Scotland, and particularly Glasgow, one of the worst places in western Europe for violence. The more than 600 gang members involved were presented with a choice—to use their experience to educate and train others, or face a zero-tolerance approach and possibly a prison sentence. Through this work and the ongoing commitment and support they received, remarkable results were witnessed. Violence was halved; weapon possession was down by 85%; and this group went on to establish a charity to create employment for other young people. So there are examples of where positive work can be done to reframe and re-approach the problem not just through legislation, but by working with young people to provide the support they require.
What was actually done to reduce the violence there? What happened on the streets to reduce it?
There are a number of projects, but this particular one focused on bringing the young people in, engaging them and providing them with opportunities to go on to further education or training. They continued to be supported throughout that process so that they could reach sustainable employment and other routes outwith the confines of the environment in which they had grown up and themselves experienced violence or been party to it.
This Government must recognise that where legislation is proving ineffective, they must consider changing course. Lessons must be learned from where we have been successful. I share the sentiments of the hon. Member for Streatham that young people have been given a bad name in this discussion and that more often than not we tarnish them with this reputation that makes them the perpetrators, without seeking to address the root causes of the problem, which many Members of all parties have addressed in their speeches.
I have listened to Members who have spoken of their constituents’ experience of violence and its impact on their lives, and of heart-breaking accounts from loved ones of lost years and lost lives. The hon. Member for Streatham spoke about the level of violence in London, but as has been repeated in the debate, the problem is not unique to one particular area or one particular city, so we must do more to address the problem as a matter of policy. Factors such as poverty, violence and drugs, and the rising incidence of violence against women in ghettos must be looked at in a far more holistic way to address some of those root problems.
Let me acknowledge that it was only 10 years ago, as I mentioned earlier, that Glasgow was named the murder capital of western Europe—something that the then Scottish Executive could not ignore. Despite the number of convictions, there remained a need to tackle the root of these serious problems. Scotland has been successful in reducing the number of incidents. The campaign “No Knives Better Lives” raises awareness and seeks to educate young people about the consequences of knife crime. This is one example of a measure that has contributed to success in reducing violence.
In my constituency in south Lanarkshire, a local community group established a drama workshop known as “The Street”, which has a real-life setting. It is produced by young people, many of whom have been involved in violence themselves, and it tackles issues of violence, knife crime and drug and alcohol abuse, as well as sexual violence. This message can be delivered by young people to young people in a hard-hitting way with a powerful impact, addressing the serious ramifications and consequences of actions occurring on a daily basis on the streets.
Under the stewardship of the former Scottish Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, we focused on early intervention, improving life chances and the integration of the police within the community, working with young people. This resulted in a significant reduction of crime and violence. Let me declare that the incidence of violence continues on a daily basis, but we must continue to tackle these issues, which I hope the Government will take into consideration.
Let me make it clear that I was not around for the mods and rockers, but heard about them from my mum and dad!
A couple of years ago, I was driving home when, around the corner from my home, I saw to my horror the body of a young man curled up on the pavement. Several police officers were with him, and I could hear the sirens of ambulances on their way. That young man was the victim of a stabbing and was clutching a stomach wound that thankfully proved not to be fatal. That incident shook me to the very core; it was so close to my house and it was not even late on a Friday night.
Some in my community live every day with the pain and worry that results from knife crime and gang violence. They worry about their children’s safety and they have been robbed of a basic sense of security. They want—they need—weapons off our streets and they want their children to be safe.
I am therefore disturbed by the recent rise in recorded knife crime—up 9% in England and Wales last year after a long downwards trend. If we look at the numbers in more detail, we find that rapes involving a knife are up by 26%; threats to kill by 20%; and attempted murder by 24%. Gun crime is up by 4%. Those numbers are absolutely chilling.
I know that we need to treat recorded crime numbers with caution. The police should not be discouraged from improving the reporting or the recording of crime, which can explain such fluctuations, but sadly there is evidence that the increase in recorded knife crime simply reflects an increase in criminal activity using knives. For example, data from the London Ambulance Service shows a 9% rise in incidents resulting from assaults involving a knife.
There is some evidence to show that the rise in knife crime is related to an increase in the number of gangs. Recent Home Office research suggests a sharp rise in the number of gangs in the capital, and the number of offences that the Metropolitan police associates with gang activity has increased by 25% in the last three years. There are 225 recognised gangs in London, with around 3,600 gang members. In a large city, that is a relatively small number people, but they still account for 17% of serious violence in the capital.
Given those numbers, my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) is quite right to draw this issue to our attention and to call for a debate this afternoon. There have been some stonkingly good speeches, and I want to pay tribute to all colleagues who have contributed to such a good debate.
I am aware that a number of police services have chosen to focus significant resources and activity on dealing with the scourge of knife crime. Last week, I visited Bedfordshire police to discover how they had managed to cut knife crime by 21%. Officers from Bedfordshire’s Operation Boson told me that they had adopted best practice from across the country, and tried to attack knife crime relentlessly from every angle. They believe that they have reduced the number of knives on their streets through “secret shopper” inspections and by carefully deployed “surrender bins”, unannounced “knife arches” and the judicious use of stop and search powers. They have also supported diversion schemes in partnership with the likes of Luton Town football club, which are aimed at offering alternative ways in which young people can deploy their abundance of skills and energy.
Bedfordshire’s magnificent performance has been done on a shoestring. The excellent police and crime commissioner Olly Martins told me that balancing all the demands of the service with ever-decreasing funding and resources was like trying to balance spinning plates, always worried that something would come unstuck. It is clearly a testament to his skill and determination and to the commitment and professionalism of serving police officers in Bedfordshire, particularly those in Operation Boson, that Bedfordshire police have been so successful in their assault on knife crime.
However, in the case of much crime, prevention is always better than cure, and I know that some first-class work is already being done throughout the country to try to prevent crimes of this nature from happening. If the House will forgive me, I shall give a parochial plug to the “Carry A Basketball Not A Blade” initiative, which is run by Newham All Star Sports Academy. That charity was started in tragic circumstances by Anthony Okereafor after two of his friends were lost through knife crime. Anthony helps young people by harnessing the power of sport to provide a counter-narrative to the poisonous idea that gang life is in some way glamorous. It is the sort of “peer-to-peer prevention service” that I think works incredibly well, and the Home Affairs Committee thinks that it should be “expanded” and “commissioned more consistently” across the country.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. In the context of prevention, may I thank the Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin, who is in the Chamber today, for all the work she has done in Hackney, where she has comforted so many families who have experienced violent crime?
Absolutely. People of that kind, with commitment of that kind and programmes of that kind, require our support. They require staff who have expertise and the trust of their communities, but they are also seriously in need of investment. Last month, however, we discovered that the Home Office was pulling the plug on funding for the ending gang and youth violence peer review network, a practical programme that brings together academics, local government officials and the police to develop and share knowledge and best practice with the aim of reducing gang violence. The Government’s last annual report on the network described it as “successful” and
“low cost and high impact”,
so why is its funding being cut?
Two weeks after news of the cut was leaked to The Guardian, we were told by the Minister that the network would be replaced by a new “forum”. The network had the resources that were necessary to establish and share best practice; will the new “forum” be equally well resourced, or will its funding be reduced?
I should be very grateful if the Minister answered some of those questions. I can tell her that Deborah and George Kinsella, the parents of the murdered teenager Ben Kinsella, said:
“We are extremely disappointed to hear that the government is making further cuts to funding to tackle serious youth violence when there are so many of us trying to make things better for others after losing our own children.”
June Addai, the grandmother of 17-year-old Marcel, who was murdered by a gang on a Hoxton housing estate, said:
“The government seem to be cutting everything. Children have nowhere to go, they need clubs to go to rather than hanging out on the streets where they can get into trouble. They get left behind.”
Knife crime is beginning to creep up, and it is an undeniable truth that that is happening after five years of deep cuts in spending on youth clubs and crime prevention. There will be naysayers who will claim that the increase in knife crime has nothing to do with the cuts, and that is why I fully support my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham’s call for an all-party commission. We need to get to the bottom of why youth violence is on the increase, so that we can begin to turn the tide. I ask the Minister, who is not a bad woman, “Can we have an all-party commission—please?
Goodness me! I do not think that the shadow Minister has ever been quite so nice to me across the Dispatch Box, although I am sure that that will not be repeated. I am speechless, but the hon. Lady will be glad to know that I will not be speechless for long.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) on securing this important debate. It could not take place on a previous occasion owing to time restrictions—a number of urgent questions were granted, which ate into the time—and the fact that the hon. Gentleman has initiated it again today demonstrates his perseverance and his determination to draw attention to this issue. His long-standing interest in tackling gangs and youth violence is well known, and I congratulate him.
I also congratulate the other Members who took part in the debate: we have heard some powerful contributions, which featured the in-depth local knowledge that is key to tackling the issue.
Let me begin by assuring the House that tackling gangs and serious youth violence is a priority for the Government. I have met and spent time with victims of such violence, and I am aware of the devastating impact that it can have on families, communities, and young people whose lives were ahead of them, but may not be so any longer. We must all remember that that is the case.
We have heard many references to the Government’s approach. If the House will allow me, I shall spend a few minutes talking about what we have done, and what the future holds.
The Government published their refreshed approach to tackling gangs in a paper—it was only a paper; I shall return to that point shortly—entitled “Ending gang violence and exploitation”. It explains that the Government’s approach is focused on both reducing violence, including knife crime, and preventing the exploitation of vulnerable individuals by gangs. It builds on the ending gang and youth violence programme that we established in 2012, at a time when many people were only just starting to understand the problems caused by gangs in their areas. The EGYV programme dealt with the need to understand those problems, and to build local resilience. It was due to end in March last year, but because we were beginning to see gangs operating in new ways, and, in particular, the exploitation of vulnerable young people, we extended it for a further 12 months so that we could identify where gangs were operating, and could help local areas to build that resilience.
I am not sure whether this tallies with what the Minister has just said, but the Government announced in January that they would extend the programme to nine new areas, including Great Grimsby. That came as a surprise to me, because I had not known that our area contained gangs of the nature that has been described by my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna). A subsequent conversation with my local police and crime commissioner indicated that the programme might be along the lines of what the hon. Member for Yeovil (Marcus Fysh) mentioned earlier, and might be more concerned with serious organised crime. What criteria were used to decide on the towns that were included in the programme?
The hon. Lady makes some important points. The original programme’s work, which included the peer review network, is now complete. Local resilience has been built, and local areas have had that peer review. We have now passed the stage of understanding, and need to proceed to delivery, which is the reason for the new programme. The new areas are areas where, as part of the peer review, we identified possible problems. We spoke to local authorities and local police chiefs to find out whether they wanted to be part of the new programme, which is intended to help local areas to understand the problems and the way in which best practice might work, and to give them the support that they need.
Several hon. Members rose—
I will give way first to the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), who is my Member of Parliament in London.
I am happy to oblige with any casework.
The Minister mentions the partnerships that are being built. Does she think that the local authorities that have withdrawn all the resources for the youth service will be able to enter into such partnerships?
It is for local areas to determine what works best for them, but the Home Office can help them with resources and best practice from the centre.
It is good to see the Minister responding on behalf of the Government. May I make two points?
I do not accept that the work of the peer review network is done, because the nature of what is going on is changing. The programme started in 2012, since when the extent to which social media are used by, for example, the groups of young people who are perpetrating these acts has become much greater, and, as I said in my speech, the nature of the groups has changed. My second point is that the peer review network appears to have been replaced by two civil servants manning a mailbox. I really hope that that is not the case, but that is what I have been told by insiders. This is why I am so concerned about its being disbanded.
I want to assure the hon. Gentleman that that is not the case. I spoke at an event earlier this week to try to get more involvement in the forum that we are establishing, and I will say more about that in a moment. I would like to extend an invitation to him to meet me, because there are many things that we need to discuss and we simply do not have time to do that today.
On the important point about liaison with local police forces and local authorities, may I thank the Minister for the work that she and her officials have done in relation to the horrific knife crimes in Chelmsford over the past 18 months, and for the way in which her Department, led by her, has been willing to liaise with Essex police to see what more can be done to overcome this problem in our community?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. I know that he wanted to take part in this debate, but he has been involved in an important Bill Committee. I thank him for being here now and for the work that he does in Chelmsford. He is right to suggest that the work of Essex police, supported by the Home Office, has played an important part in tackling the issue of “county lines”, which my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) also raised. [Interruption.] I see the shadow Minister bobbing.
Seeing as I have been so nice to the Minister today, I would be very grateful if she would extend that courtesy and invite me to the meetings that she is going to have on these issues.
I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady and—I am probably going to regret this; my officials will certainly regret it—I extend that offer to any Member who wants to come and talk about what is happening in their local area. I am more than happy to spend time with Members to help them build local resilience. As the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) said, this is about local solutions. This is not top-down; it is not about the Government imposing anything.
I thank the Minister for agreeing with me, but part of the problem is about having the funding to enable us to deliver those local solutions.
I will come on to funding shortly. I am trying to be non-party political, but I might have to make some comments shortly if I am not allowed to continue in that vein. However, I am trying to be non-partisan and I want to work with hon. Members from across the House. I know that they are facing this problem in their communities and I want to ensure that the Home Office extends whatever support we can in order to get a local solution that is right for their area. That will not be a top-down solution, however, and it will not be one size fits all.
If we have had the peer review stage and we know what works, will the Minister tell us more about what works and where that information is published? Why does she think that the figures are getting worse across the country?
I will address that point briefly, but I must make some progress because I am conscious that this debate is to be followed by an extremely important debate on Welsh affairs in which many Members want to take part. On the figures, on which the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) commented, we want to see these crimes recorded. We want the police to know about them and we want to understand what is happening. I recently visited the A&E department at King’s College hospital in the constituency of the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes). It is absolutely tragic that the first opportunity we get to have a teachable moment with these young people is when they turn up at A&E. They are turning up not in an ambulance—the gangs do not phone an ambulance or any other blue light service—but in private cars and being dumped at A&E, and that is the first opportunity that any agency has to make contact with them.
I want to pay tribute to Redthread, which provides young people’s advocates at A&E departments across London. Those advocates are important in making contact not only with the young person who has been the victim of an attack but with their family when they come to visit. They play an important part in keeping that young person in hospital and getting them to speak to someone they trust. That might be the first opportunity we have to speak to them, and we need to find a way of making that happen sooner. This is about education, about working with schools and about working in vulnerable locations. When I talk about the revised programme, I will mention some of the approaches that we are using in that regard. I want all those hidden crimes that are not being recorded at the moment to be reported and recorded so that we can understand what the problem is. [Interruption.] I sense that the hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) might want to intervene on me, but this must be the final intervention as I need to make some progress.
I am not sure that I entirely understand the Minister’s response, because there are plenty of opportunities to intervene on these young people. Lots of people and organisations in Brent and elsewhere are intervening at an early stage. Poverty is key, but education and early years provision are also key in providing opportunities to intervene. Perhaps she will get to that point later in her speech.
I agree that there are many opportunities for intervention. My frustration is that those opportunities are not taken until the young person is found in A&E. I hope the hon. Lady shares that frustration. I pay tribute to her council in Brent. I met her council leader recently and learned about the partnership working that the council is doing to understand the problem. It was a peer review that assisted in understanding the problem, but now this is about local delivery.
The hon. Lady is right to say that this is about poverty. People in Brent talked to me about the housing estates and the work that they are doing in South Kilburn, which neighbours the Paddington recreation ground, with whose football pitches I have to say I am familiar. They are doing incredibly important work on the South Kilburn estate to transform it into a place to live where gangs will not be allowed to flourish. I pay tribute to Brent and to the many other local authorities around the country that are working hard in this regard. I hope that many others will be able to take advantage of this programme through the support that the Home Office provides.
I want to make some progress now, so that we can get on to the important Welsh affairs debate. First, however, I will just mention that although I understand that the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) is concerned about an eight-page Government document, this might be the first time that anyone has ever told me that a Government document is too short. We are usually accused of producing too much with too little substance underneath it. The “Ending gang violence and exploitation” document has been widely welcomed. We worked with many organisations and stakeholders to develop this approach. The paper sets out the high-level approach, but incredible amounts of work have gone on underneath that. It has been welcomed by many organisations including Safer London, the Met police and the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime.
The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) asked why certain areas were involved in the programme. The answer is that those areas have said that they want to be part of it. They want to know what learning is available and to understand the partnership working. For example, they want to learn about working and sharing information with A&E departments. It is vital that we get that information as quickly as possible and share it with different agencies. I also take the point about the definition of a gang. The definition for gang injunction purposes is set out in the Serious Crime Act 2015. That is why there is no separate definition; it is a known definition that has already been set out in legislation.
So, what does our new programme involve? There are six priorities, based on the fact that gangs are operating in different, more covert ways. That is why our first priority is “county lines”, which was mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Yeovil (Marcus Fysh) and for Colchester. The hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey)—I think I shall refer to her as my hon. Friend, if she does not mind—also referred to that in her speech. It is important that we help the most vulnerable people in our society who are being exploited by urban street gangs to run drugs and to do many other things, and I am enormously supportive of the missing persons charities and of her work on the all-party parliamentary group on runaway and missing children and adults. That work is vital in helping to find those young people and getting information about what happens to them when they go missing and who is influencing them. She was right to talk about trafficking and modern slavery; this is very much modern slavery and these are trafficking offences. I hope the prosecution services and others will use those modern slavery offences, where appropriate, to get convictions, because I want us to get convictions and stop this happening. If the best and most likely way to get the conviction is by using modern slavery offences, I am all for that and it is what we should do.
The second priority in the programme is protecting vulnerable locations, which again links to the point about missing people and “county lines”. We need to get to the places where vulnerable young people are being targeted—pupil referral units and residential children’s care homes. These are places where young people who are very vulnerable to exploitation find themselves. On the point about young offenders institutes, these are vulnerable locations and, as hon. Members will know, the Ministry of Justice has asked Charlie Taylor to lead a review of this matter. I want to see the results of that review. I also want to make sure that we understand and that those young offenders institutions understand that those vulnerable young people are being exploited, and that they take action to stop that happening.
The third priority is reducing violence, including knife crime. I have listened to many of the contributions about knife crime and I agree that we do not want to see knives on our streets. There are many offences and measures that police, trading standards and local authorities can use, but we are looking carefully at what else we can do to make sure the authorities have all the weapons they need to take knives off our streets. I was at a conference last week hosted by the Metropolitan police at New Scotland Yard with retailers, making sure that they understand their role in a responsible society in ensuring that knives do not hit our streets.
The fourth priority is safeguarding gang-associated women and girls, which has been mentioned by many Members, including the hon. Members for Dulwich and West Norwood and for Streatham, and the right hon. Member for Tottenham. The very idea that girls think that it is acceptable to be exploited in a line-up by various gang members and that this is something they should do is absolutely wrong. I am pleased that the Government—I hope that hon. Members noticed this announcement earlier this week—have committed £400,000 to young people’s advocates to work with all young people, but specifically targeting girls and young women, to try to get that teachable moment. The aim is to get to the young women, educate them and give them the experience and knowledge they need to say no.
Our fifth priority is to promote early intervention, a point raised by many Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester talked about how we have to get in early and educate young people. Finally, our sixth priority is providing meaningful alternatives, and the hon. Member for Streatham made the point on that clearly. We need to show young people alternatives, and he rightly says that that does not just mean a windy church hall. These have to be meaningful alternatives to gangs, so that young people do not feel that gangs are the only place they can go.
I want to touch on some of the specific points that were raised. I am looking forward to discussing the independent commission with the hon. Gentleman. I am not convinced at this stage that a national independent all-party commission is the best way to approach this. We need to get into delivery and make sure that the programme is allowed to deliver. I know that local commissions are being set up. I met the West Midlands police and crime commissioner yesterday, and he is setting up his own local commission. I encourage hon. Members to do that work locally. I hesitate to establish a national commission because, as we have all said, there are different considerations to take into account and different things are going on. The hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford made the point that local young people and local communities need to be part of this. I would encourage local work and local commissions, where appropriate, but I am not convinced that this is the right time for a national commission. I am, however, looking forward to meeting the hon. Gentleman. May I also ask to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport to discuss her interesting suggestion about Fagin orders? Civil orders have been successful. They are used when we do not have enough evidence for a criminal procedure, and I would be very interested in talking to her about that.
There are many more things I could say and many more points I could make, but I am conscious of the time so I will conclude by repeating my thanks and congratulations to the hon. Member for Streatham on securing the debate. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed to it. I wish to finish by assuring everyone that the Government and I regard this issue as incredibly important. It is a continuing priority, and we will continue to work with national and local partners to address these issues.
With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker, I shall speak for a couple of minutes to reflect on the debate. First, I wish to thank all hon. Members who have participated in a fantastic debate, which has done great credit to our House. It sends a message to those watching that the House of Commons takes this matter seriously. Secondly, what has been so interesting in the debate is that a lot of the points made have been ones that have not been made before. For example, I am thinking of the point made by the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince) about data collection. I could also mention the good points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), and my hon. Friends the Members for Westminster North (Ms Buck), for Stockport (Ann Coffey), for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) and for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook), among others.
I heard the Minister say that she was not convinced at the moment of the need for a national commission, but I am pleased that she has not ruled it out. I agree with her that it would be useful if localities set up their own commissions, and we have already done that in Lambeth. I think it would be useful to have a national commission, because we could share best practice and see what is happening as the situation changes on the ground. That was one thing we tried to do through the London gangs forum, when it was operating—as I said, however, we should not use the term “gang” any more. Not only does having a national commission say that we take this seriously, just as we have commissions in respect of other issues, but it would be very useful in sharing best practice from around the country.
As I said, this has been a wonderful debate and I think that we will all want to reassure those watching that this is not the end of the matter. It is very much the start of this campaign by this Parliament, and we will not rest until we see an end to the violence on our streets, and the opportunities and horizons widened for our young people, who are, as I said, our future.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House calls on the Government to establish an independent, all-party commission, involving a wide-ranging consultation, to identify the root causes, effect of, and solutions to, serious youth violence, including knife crime, its links to gang culture and the sale of illegal drugs.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am amazed to see that the Secretary of State for Wales is not in his place to respond to our next debate today, despite the fact that he made an extremely important announcement about fundamental changes to the draft Wales Bill on Monday, to journalists and not to this House, with the Wales Office tweeting at the time that hon. Members could wait until today to debate these changes. Have you been made aware that the Secretary of State plans to attend today’s debate to answer the important questions that Members have for him?
As the hon. Lady knows well, Mr Speaker, or the occupant of the Chair, has no authority to require Ministers to be here for a debate such as this. Mr Speaker has said on many occasions, and I agree with him, that it is very important that this House of Commons is the body that holds Ministers to account and that speeches and announcements ought to be made here. I am not aware of what the Secretary of State said on Monday or of what he is doing today, but I am aware that a very capable Minister is here at the Dispatch Box. On behalf of the House, I trust that he will answer the questions that the hon. Lady and other colleagues will undoubtedly put to him and will draw to the attention of the Secretary of State anything that ought to be drawn to his attention, which will indeed be the whole debate. Mr Speaker has made it very clear, and I reiterate this, that Ministers making announcements should make them in this House and not anywhere else.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am concerned about not only the Secretary of State’s absence from this important debate, but the fact that he was absent at a St David’s day reception hosted in Lancaster House earlier today. Perhaps he has died or perhaps he has resigned and not told the House. Perhaps you could shed some light on this.
The Chair definitely has no responsibility whatsoever for receptions held outside this House.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I can advise the House that the Secretary of State has parliamentary business elsewhere and I understand that he has spoken to the promoter of the debate to explain that that is the case. I should also say that the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State hosted a very successful St David’s day reception on St David’s day at No. 10 earlier this week.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. We will have no further discussion of this matter, as it is not my responsibility to explain where the Secretary of State is. The Minister has given an explanation and that is the end to the matter.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Is it a different point of order?
It specifically concerns a communication from the Wales Office. On Monday, when the Secretary of State made a closed announcement to journalists, I tweeted that I was surprised that the matter was not being made in a statement to the House of Commons. In response to that tweet, I received from the Wales Office a communication saying that I would be able to raise such matters with the Secretary of State in this debate today. It seems that it is entirely inappropriate for the Wales Office to communicate in that way—
Order. That is the same point of order. If the Secretary of State decides that the Minister should answer these questions today and respond to the points, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman will in due course make, then that is up to the Secretary of State and the Minister. Now we will continue with the debate.