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Gang-associated Girls

Volume 681: debated on Tuesday 6 October 2020

Before we start this debate, may I remind Members that only those on the call list are able to participate? We have five right hon. and hon. Members in Westminster Hall at the moment, and that will be the maximum number who can participate in this debate. That means that even if the debate looks as though it is going short, others who are not on the call list will not be able to join us.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered gang-associated girls.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher, and to be back in Westminster Hall to debate such an important topic. Youth violence is a very serious issue across our four nations in the UK, and it has a devastating impact on families—mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers—as well as on the wider community in our towns and cities. Here in London, it has almost become a daily occurrence on news bulletins. In the last two months alone, I have had to speak to three inconsolable mothers who have lost their children as a result of knife crime. These children were murdered by their peers. As a mother of two young children myself, that is not something that I can live with, ignore or accept.

However, today I want to talk about something different—another aspect of youth violence, and one that is hidden and often under-reported. It is the role played by girls and young women, whose activities and exploits, both in and around gangs, so often fly below the radar. I will also touch on the emerging issues and evidence that gang members are using the uncertainty caused by covid-19 to recruit vulnerable girls, as they adapt their business to the models of the new normal following lockdown.

I am sure that we all want to see an end to violence, exploitation and abuse, but if we want to understand this whole complex picture, we must understand that gang violence and abuse is a gendered and intersectional issue that requires a different approach. Even the word “gang” can be problematic when discussing the risks faced by girls and women. A youth worker who I spoke to recently highlighted to me that the language used to identify this issue sometimes fails to communicate the impact suffered by girls and young women. As she put it to me:

“Girls running county lines are not in a gang. They are victims of gangs.”

Girls and young women face different risks from those faced by males. Girls and young women may experience rape and other forms of sexual abuse, physical abuse, online grooming in the form of job offers, and direct threats of violence to themselves or their families to make them move or store drugs, weapons or even cash.

Some of these girls start off as girlfriends and get emotionally drawn into a relationship with an exploiter, and they face the additional emotional obstacle of trying to escape from that relationship as well as other forms of exploitation. Young women often carry the emotional burden for gang members and their wider crew, because they are often relied on for emotional support and counsel. Unfortunately, some girls are forced into criminal activity, such as county lines—moving drugs between cities and rural areas. There have been press reports recently of young women dressing as key workers to avoid being stopped and searched while travelling during lockdown.

The perception that girls work only in low-key roles in county lines is now starting to be challenged, with professionals reporting that, increasingly, young women work in the same roles as young men. That highlights the full scale of the exploitation that is taking place. Also, because young women and girls often go under the radar, their associations are much harder to track than those of males, but that does not mean that we should not offer them support. These are some of the most vulnerable young women and girls.

In February, in my role as London Assembly member for Lambeth and Southwark, I released a report entitled “Gang Associated Girls: Supporting young women at risk”. One key issue that I identified was a lack of data. There was no reliable information about the number of girls associated with gangs. For example, here in London, the Metropolitan Police Service’s records as of last year highlighted on its gangs matrix only six females, in contrast to 2,492 males. However, also in February, the Children’s Commissioner estimated that about 2,290 girls were associated with gangs in England; that is about 34% of all gang-associated children. When I sent a freedom of information request to all London boroughs, I found that more than 1,000 young women and girls had gang associations identified as a factor in their assessments by children’s social services. Therefore, we know that the data is patchy at best.

The invisibility of gangs’ association with girls has dire consequences. Abianda, a social enterprise that works with young women, highlighted that and the problems that it causes. A report from the crisis support charity Hestia in July found that girls were being deployed in county lines operations specifically because they were less likely to be stopped and searched by the police, and that exploitative romantic relationships were being used to lure young girls and women into carrying out that dangerous activity. Therefore, while we as the policy makers fail to truly appreciate the role that girls are playing in gangs, the same gangs are deliberately using that exploitation—that gendered advantage—to pursue their criminal activities. They are evading the law and, because girls on the periphery of gang violence who may need support are not being identified, funding is being disproportionately channelled into supporting young men.

A lot of good work is going on to rehabilitate young men away from this criminality, but there is little support for young women and girls. The issue of gangs’ association with girls is largely absent from the public discourse about violent crime, with both media reporting and funding concentrating on young men who are involved with gangs. Unfortunately, that means that public agencies risk missing the signs of gang-associated girls and do not offer the right support services to help them. If we do not offer adequate support to young women and girls at risk of gang association, we miss a vital opportunity to tackle violent crime.

The Minister shares my passion to end the exploitation of county lines, so will she ensure that resources are put in to disrupt county lines, working on the principle of taking a gendered approach to ensure that those working to prevent county lines activity are always aware of the role of young women and girls in these operations? If we accept that the cause of gang-associated violence has a gender dimension, it follows that the solution should also adopt a gendered approach rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.

Young women and girls experience the trauma of gang-related violence in a different way and, as a result, they present differently in hospital settings. Redthread, a charity whose workers operate in hospitals across London and the midlands, has reported that when they talk to young women, they are less likely to present with a physical injury, such as knife wounds, and are more likely to present with psychological issues related to trauma, such as self-harm, suicidal ideation and overdoses. In response, that charity has placed a number of young female workers in accident and emergency departments specifically to support these young women and girls.

The St Giles Trust is another charity that helps young people who are caught up in gangs. It has found that when it works in a hospital and its staff are given flexible access to a range of departments, they can identify these females at risk of exploitation and criminal and sexual abuse. If staff can get to them earlier, it will save costs down the line and get better results for the young women and girls.

Gender-based support works, but we know that our local councils up and down the country are struggling to provide that tailored support because of severe budget cuts. Given the potentially life-changing benefits that will be produced by programmes such as these, run by charities, will the Minister lobby the Chancellor of the Exchequer to ensure that councils have the funding available to provide that bespoke care? The reality is that gang-associated girls are part of a bigger system that not only harms the young women and girls directly involved, but contributes to the wider criminal activities of gangs and their exploitation of children and vulnerable young adults.

We cannot address gang violence without taking a gendered and intersectional approach. We need a better understanding of the role that girls and young women face so that support services can be there for them. We need to look at targeted interventions to help the girls who are being exploited, groomed and abused. We need to continue to raise awareness with the authorities around the use of girls in county lines and other gang-related activities, and we need policy makers to change the language that they use in highlighting the issue. Most importantly, we need to continue to listen to what young women and girls tell us.

When we talk about youth violence, knife crime or gangs, young people are too often labelled as criminals and perpetrators, but evidence shows that the young people themselves have been victims of crimes. We need to remember that when we talk about them. We are all here today because we want an end to the criminal exploitation of all vulnerable young people. To do that, we need to recognise and understand the gender dimension of gang association and violence, and invest in solutions based on that reality. It is a difficult reality, but one that we need to face up to, otherwise we risk dealing with only part of the problem. If we do that, the girls and young women who we all care about, and will carry on advocating for, will continue to suffer and end up in prison, or, even worse, continue to lose their lives.

It is a pleasure to speak in my first ever Westminster Hall debate under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), my neighbour. A river splits us, but I know we are at one on this subject. I am pleased to speak in this debate because the subject has always been close to my heart.

Westminster, which I represent as part of the Cities of London and Westminster seat, has never really been considered a borough where there could be gang violence. In 2012, I became Westminster City Council’s cabinet member for community protection; up to that point, I had been the children’s services cabinet member. When the two posts were put together, we were able to understand, for the first time, the gang issue that Westminster was experiencing. We had gone from 19th in the Met’s serious youth violence table to third, and we were higher than Hackney. That focused my mind, because, as I said, Westminster is not a place that is associated with serious youth violence and gang activity.

I remember going to see the then deputy mayor for policing—he is now my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse)—and saying, “What do I do? How do I tackle this?” His advice was to tackle it straight away, to be firm and to put all our powers and services behind it, because it would only get worse. We did, and I established the first gangs unit in Westminster. We went and spoke to Hackney, because it had a brilliant gangs unit. We set one up, and it allowed us to understand the issues facing our young people.

The problem was drug-related, and there were pockets of it in Pimlico, in the south of my constituency, as well as in the Westminster North constituency. In Pimlico, it was more of a business, with young people using violence to secure their clients and their areas. It culminated in the horrific murder of a young man called Hani, who was hacked to death in Pimlico on a Sunday afternoon when people and families were going about their business. The boys who were eventually found guilty—and sentenced, rightly, to many years in prison—were from my own ward in Pimlico, which is considered a very safe and affluent part of Westminster. Citizens, local people, councillors and MPs have to recognise that this is going on all around us. We in this Chamber may live in very safe environments, but our young people walk very different streets.

I welcome this debate on girls in gangs. As part of my preparation, I spoke to the head of the gangs unit at Westminster, Matt Watson, about girls. His view—it is one that I share, given my experience—is that girls in gangs, or girls who are victims of gangs, are hidden. What the hon. Member for Vauxhall said about the data is absolutely right. If there is one thing that we want the police to do, it is this: when they stop groups of boys or young men and there are girls present, take the girls’ details. The girls are usually ignored.

From my experience with the Met, it absolutely wants to work with local authorities and charities that are involved in work on gangs. If we can ask the Met to introduce best practice in taking data from young girls, that will help. The sooner we know about the involvement of young women and girls in gangs—whether as perpetrators or victims—the better. They are often used as weapons or to send a message to members of an opposing gang. As the hon. Member for Vauxhall said, we often do not know about them until they are at the most traumatic time of their lives in hospital.

I would like us to consider some other issues as a country. I am sure the Home Office has already considered this, because there is some funding for it, but I think there should be more funding and encouragement for relationship programmes. It is not fair to keep burdening schools, which are often seen as the place for such things because we know—or hope—that children go to them every day, but there needs to be a lot more education about what healthy relationships are for girls as well as boys. I have two teenagers, a 14-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl, and I know it is equally important to teach them what a healthy relationship is.

In 2020, we cannot get away from the fact that boys, in particular, will access horrendous porn images on the internet from a very young age. Their first experience in a sexual relationship is often based on what they have seen on the internet. We need to build up more substantial programmes on healthy relationships, and we need to help parents. I have had too many experiences with victims’ families where the mum and dad never expected their child—their son, who is now dead—to be involved in a gang.

We all know that our teenagers live secret lives, and we did the same as teenagers. We often did not want our parents to know what we were involved in. That is part of growing up, but I think parents, grandparents, carers and young people need to understand what a healthy relationship is and have signposting when they know that something is not right. I am convinced that young women realise in the bottom of their stomach when something is not right, but they do not know where to go for help.

I also reiterate what the hon. Member for Vauxhall said about exploitation and abuse, which is very much gender related. I worry about the music industry. I do not want to be seen as a middle-aged woman telling young people that they should not be listening to drill music—that is not my position—but we need to explain to young people how we should view women and relationships and how men should see themselves. The music industry, and elements of it within drill and rap in particular, has questions to answer on what it allows to be published. I have been appalled by the misogyny and utter glorification of violence in some of the videos I have been shown, and it makes an awful lot of money on the back of that. We must take that on and hold the industry to account. I do not believe in censorship; this is about standards, and these are our young people.

I welcome the debate, which is on a cross-party concern. We need to take the politics out of it. Our young people, no matter what age they are, but particularly those aged under 18, whether boy or girl, must be considered victims if they are mixed up in a gang. No child of 15 should be peddling drugs. There will be a reason why they are doing so, and the story behind it is usually not a good one. I would love to see the Home Office take the great work it has already done to the next level.

I also welcome the debate brought by my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi). Vulnerable young people are coerced into county lines and gangs on a daily basis, attracted by the draw of money and a route out of poverty and deprivation. County lines offenders use sexual exploitation to recruit vulnerable women to their gangs, with male gang members grooming vulnerable women through sexual relationships. The National Crime Agency says that women may not acknowledge that they are victims due to the nature of their grooming—they will often believe that they are in relationships—and those exploited are subjected to sexual violence control as part of county lines offending.

Liverpool is the most prolific county lines area outside of London, with drug dealers and gangsters exploiting children and young people to sell their drugs, using the rail network on Merseyside to run their county lines drug operations. Children and young people, including girls and young women, are manipulated and exploited to transport drugs around the country. Poverty and social and economic inequality have a disproportionate impact on black young girls and women, who are experiencing a widening of the educational attainment gap and affected by systemic and deeply entrenched institutional racism.

Social and criminal justice go hand in hand. Crime disproportionately affects poorer communities and those who commit crime are more likely to suffer from the causes of social breakdown. Gangs thrive when communities experience low employment, high family breakdown, addiction and poor educational attainment. We know that gang and youth violence has become a serious problem, which is witnessed with high numbers of lives lost as a result of these crimes.

Sadly, there is no reliable information about the number of girls associated with gangs. According to some data, the number of young women involved in gangs appears small. For example, on 2 July 2020, 0.2% of individuals on the Metropolitan police’s gangs matrix were females—six were listed on the matrix. However, estimates do vary. The Children’s Commissioner estimated in February 2019 that about 2,290 girls were associated with gangs in England—34% of all gang-associated children. The data on girls and young women associated with gangs are often marginalised in discussions about gang violence. Girls and young women often become involved as a result of relationships with male gang members. A lack of positive role models and low self-esteem can push girls into the arms of gang members, but there is still little empirical evidence about how many girls are involved in the gangs, the extent of the problems that they face, or how best to tackle the issues.

Gang life takes a toll on young girls’ lives. That includes the effect on their education, sexual exploitation, and an increase in criminal activity. London’s Rescue and Response county lines project has identified the fact that women face particular challenges in county lines. The Government say that they are targeting funding to support women and girls affected by gang activity, but more evidence should be collected about women and girls involved in gangs. More funding should be made available, so that gender-specific services can be provided to women and girls affected by gangs, and police officers should be trained to identify women and girls involved in gangs. That training should be developed in partnership with specialist organisations.

More funding should be made available for early intervention and preventive projects to support girls and young women, and to provide greater opportunities and more hope to disaffected and disenfranchised young women, encouraging them away from gangs and county lines.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) on securing this important debate. She made many profound points and was right to highlight the imbalanced focus on the harms experienced by boys in gangs, versus those experienced by gang-associated girls. That has led to disproportionate funding of support for girls to deal with that trauma.

The National Crime Agency believes that girls are under-represented in its data both as offenders and as victims of exploitation. A clear picture is not available, as there are intelligence gaps, but it is well known by the police and service providers that girls are used for county lines operations as they are less likely to get caught. That issue was highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) in describing her experience of what is happening in Liverpool. My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall referred to the example of young women being coerced into dressing as emergency workers to escape detection when carrying drugs through the national lockdown earlier this year. That shows the seriousness of the situation.

The NCA gives details of sexual violence being used to control those who are exploited, and of children and females being offered between county lines offenders for sexual activity. The UN Secretary-General António Guterres said:

“Sexual violence against women and girls is rooted in centuries of male domination. Let us not forget that the gender inequalities that fuel rape culture are essentially a question of power imbalances.”

It is important that we focus on that because, as other Members have said today, the exploitation of women and girls is greatly under-represented, as it is not easily identified. The imbalance is clear in gang culture. As we have learned from speeches today, young and vulnerable girls are routinely targeted for grooming and exploitation by gangs, and girls are often lost in the narrative around child criminal exploitation. That is another point eloquently highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside.

That violence and exploitation is a devastating human rights violation and it is largely under-reported because there is impunity, and because of the silence, stigma and shame surrounding it. We must redress that imbalance by raising awareness of the issue so that girls are no longer ignored, as the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) pointed out in her eloquent and passionate speech. The psychological, sexual and reproductive health consequences that the girls in question will experience at different stages of their lives must be prevented through early interventions.

One reason why there is such under-representation of the issue in relation to girls and young women is that the damage is often hidden and psychological, whereas boys and young men present to hospitals with serious injuries, thus alerting various authorities. The Public Health England report, “The mental health needs of gang-affiliated young people” states:

“Girls involved with gangs can be particularly vulnerable to mental health problems resulting from sexual and intimate partner violence”.

The report also says:

“Trauma-based mental health services may be particularly important for female gang members, along with gender-sensitive responses that acknowledge the importance of positive relationships and improved self-esteem as an exit from crime and violence.”

Again, that point was made in all the speeches we have heard so far. It is something that we need to focus on.

More action needs to be taken by the Government to support services that can help girls get out of gangs through CAMHS and Public Health England, and by investing in local government. People in positions of power must understand the problem and work tirelessly to address it. Although we must ensure that gang-associated girls are given the support they need to recognise unhealthy and abusive relationships so that they can get away from exploitation and get the right care in order to recover, we must also empower such girls. Girls should not feel that they are at fault for not recognising abuse, or that it is their sole responsibility to prevent such crimes. They must know that it is always the perpetrator’s responsibility and that the abuse is not inevitable. Again, that is a point that has been made in the debate: girls and all young people involved in county lines and gang violence are victims. That is something that needs to be at the heart of any solution.

A number of organisations are doing exceptional work in these areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall has already mentioned Redthread and St Giles Trust, but I also want to highlight the work of two organisations from the north-east that are funded by Northumbria police and crime commissioner Kim McGuinness’s budget. One is called SCARPA. Through its work with vulnerable children, it has identified and worked with more than 30 girls who are at risk of harm and exploitation due to their association with gang members. Another organisation, Edge North East, mentors girls and young women involved in gangs. Young women have reported being victims of physical and sexual violence and being forced to do drug runs, to carry and store weapons, and to drive vehicles for drug deals. They have even allowed their bank accounts to be used to stash money.

Although I appreciate the complex nature of gangs and the many life experiences and events that can lead individuals down the wrong path, the best way that society and Government can support girls at risk of such crimes is to prevent crime and remove the threat. It is the responsibility of society to teach young boys and men that we have zero tolerance of abuse and exploitation of any kind, and that abuse and exploitation of gang-associated girls will no longer be ignored or hidden away.

I firmly believe that prevention is better than cure, but I note with concern that in a February 2019 report titled “Keeping kids safe: Improving safeguarding responses to gang violence and criminal exploitation”, Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner, said:

“Tackling gang exploitation needs a paradigm change in thinking, which stops treating these children as criminals responsible for their own situation and instead sets out to protect them.”

New local safeguarding arrangements with a focus on contextualising safeguarding have the potential to make that happen, yet there are few signs that any adequate plans are in place.

Public services have been slashed in recent years, and we urgently need reinvestment in order to protect young people from the risk of gang violence and exploitation. Again, I heard what the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster said about her experience when she was a councillor in Westminster, and about the joined-up services and setting up the gangs unit. That is something I would like to see mirrored in all our boroughs. Services should be improved and made secure.

We need to mention that until we catch people higher up the food chain—those who keep their hands clean while reaping the profits of drug dealing carried out by the unfortunate foot soldiers on the frontline, or on the county line—we will allow the constant repetition of the cycle of exploitation and abuse. That is an issue we seriously must address.

I want to ask the Minister four questions. Will she commit to raising greater awareness of the hidden experiences of gang-associated girls among the public servants who encounter them as well as the general public? Will she press for greater public sector funding for support for youth services, mental health services and early intervention work, including areas of healthy relationships and family support? Will she ensure that there is a targeted approach to deal with gang violence and exploitation against girls? Lastly, will she confirm that there is a robust strategy in place to go after the middlemen and those higher up, who are directly responsible for drug dealing, gang exploitation and violence but who act with impunity?

Any Government’s first responsibility is to keep their citizens safe. The fact that girls in this country are not safe in their own communities means that the Government have much more work to do to fulfil their first duty. I know the Minister will take this issue very seriously.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate and thank the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) for bringing this debate to the House. It is an incredibly important and emotive subject and one that I do not think is discussed often enough: indeed, we all agreed this during the debate today. All Members who have contributed today have referred to the hidden aspect of these crimes. Much of what happens in gangs is hidden from view by definition—it is the modus operandi of gang leaders—but this is a particularly hidden and pernicious aspect of gangs’ ways of operating, as we have all acknowledged, so I am grateful to hon. Members for raising the subject today.

I note also, with some regret, that although there are only five of us in the Chamber, two of the three largest exporting areas for county lines are represented—London and Merseyside—so hon. Members have brought their own personal constituency experience and expertise to the debate. I want to reassure colleagues that tackling serious violence and the exploitation of girls and women is an absolute priority for the Government. I do not use these words lightly. Hon. Members have been kind enough to indicate the interest and the attention that I have paid to it personally, but this goes across Government. I hope that, in a moment, I will be able to lay out some of the steps we are taking to tackle serious violence, but particularly the victimisation of girls and young women in gangs.

By way of demonstration, we have invested £119 million this year alone to provide extra police resources to drive down the scale of violent crime that we are seeing on our streets, to fund violence reduction units in the 18 force areas most affected by crime and violence, and to fund specialist county line operations. We have also spent over £200 million on early intervention to ensure that those most at risk are given the opportunity to turn away from violence and lead positive, safe lives. But it is, of course, critical that the investment works for girls and young women. We are, after all, half the population.

When hon. Members refer to the different experiences of girls and young women in gangs, I could not agree more. We know that girls and young women are subject to serious and appalling harms, ranging from threats to themselves and their families to sexual exploitation and abuse. Their experiences are often different from those of boys and young men in the very same gangs. The hon. Member for Vauxhall referred to evidence from Redthread, an organisation that the Government are pleased to support and work with. Girls present with different injuries when they come into hospital from those with which boys tend to present, which shows the nature of the harms faced by girls and young women in gangs.

There is evidence that girls and young women are playing a more active role in the drug markets, mirroring the operations of their male counterparts not just in London but across the country. We are hearing reports of that, and it has been referred to during the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) used a line that sums up the experiences of these young people on our streets: these young people in gangs “walk different streets” from us. As a Minister but also as a Government, we are keen to try to get the message across to our constituents that it is a matter for all of us to have open eyes, to watch and listen, and to see if the young people we live next to in our communities are safe and well, or if in fact they are being groomed in the ways described this morning.

On 3 June, I held a virtual meeting with a number of charities and organisations that provide vital support to young people affected by county lines exploitation. That is part of our day-to-day business. Frontline workers at the meeting, including those from Abianda, reflected on the specific challenges faced by girls and young women who are drawn into county lines activity. One very powerful advocate told me that young women were being used not just for their physical capabilities in terms of moving drugs around, but also to launder the proceeds of those crimes. Those young women’s bank accounts are being used by gang leaders and that has huge repercussions, not just in the short, immediate term, but also in the longer term. Once those women have escaped the gangs, their credit ratings, for example, may well still be affected by the activities. We know that those young people face terrible harms, but we must understand that there are long-term implications for their experiences as well. I wish to assure the House that those insights and those of all the organisations we work with—St Giles Trust and Redthread, to name just two—inform our policy response to those issues.

Rightly, there has been attention on Government investment. We have invested some £176 million through the serious violence fund to address the drivers of serious violence at local level. That includes the vital investment in violence reduction units. The point of those units is to provide a localised understanding to reduce and prevent serious violence within local communities and to tackle its root causes. We have been very keen to ensure that the units have the freedom to develop policies that work in their local areas. As such, what may work in a particular part of London—not even across London—such as Westminster may not be appropriate for Vauxhall and similarly, may not be appropriate for Liverpool, Riverside, so we are keen that the units have freedom and flexibility. However, the objective of those units is to drive down serious violence. The role of the violence reduction unit, as pointed out by the hon. Member for Vauxhall in her report, for which I thank her, is critical in identifying the local risks and drivers of that violence, as well as the local response to those drivers.

We are beginning to see violence reduction units taking important steps to commission the support and interventions that people at risk need, including girls and women. For example, the West Midlands violence reduction unit is working with the St Giles Trust to embed a senior youth violence and exploitation worker in Birmingham women’s and children’s hospital to provide guidance and support to girls and young women who have experienced violent crime or potential gang exploitation. Violence reduction units are also delivering interventions to support healthy relationships and to prevent domestic abuse.

In my work on the Domestic Abuse Bill, I hope I have made it clear that, if we can tackle domestic abuse, that will have many ramifications outside the home, including for violence on the streets. For example, the Northumbria violence reduction unit is delivering interventions targeted at women and children experiencing domestic abuse during the covid-19 pandemic. The South Yorkshire violence reduction unit is using cutting-edge technology to role-play challenging scenarios to assist frontline practitioners in their response to domestic abuse. I think that line means that we are trying to help frontline practitioners get a practical grasp on how they deal with situations in cases as they arise.

In addition to local action, my Department is funding gender-specific, tailored services to support girls and young women experiencing exploitation related to gangs and county lines. Young people’s advocates in London, Manchester and the west midlands provide dedicated, one-to-one support directly to gang-affected women and girls, especially those who have been victims of, or are at risk of, sexual violence. With Home Office investment of up to £860,000 this year, the St Giles Trust will be delivering one-to-one support in London, Merseyside and the west midlands—the three largest county lines-exporting areas—which will help over 200 vulnerable children and young people who are criminally exploited by county lines gangs, including with specialist support for girls. We continue to fund Missing People’s SafeCall service, which is a specialist helpline providing advice and support to children, young people and families who are concerned about county lines, criminal exploitation and gangs. In addition, we are investing more in rape and sexual abuse support services, with £24 million being made available over the next three years to provide advice, support and counselling.

The hon. Members for Vauxhall, for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson), and for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) all referred to the grooming of girls and young women, particularly the classic grooming example—if I may call it that—of the boyfriend-girlfriend model, whereby the boy or young man draws the girl or young woman into his world by forming a relationship, and she is then much more vulnerable to him when he suggests that she does things that she feels utterly uncomfortable with, or indeed scared by. My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster called for relationship education for girls and boys, which is really important: we want young women and girls to be resilient and to have the confidence to say no, but we must also ensure that boys and young men have a good understanding of what a healthy relationship is. I remember meeting a harmful sexual behaviours youth worker—just having to have someone with that job title is incredibly depressing, but that very good youth worker recounted to me that a young man he was working with at the time thought that it was normal for girls and young women to cry during sex. We need to take a step back and think about what has gone wrong, not just in that young man’s life but in the lives of those girls, and why some of our young people believe that that is an acceptable way in which to conduct themselves.

We are very conscious of the importance for girls and boys, young women and young men, of understanding and building healthy relationships. That is why we have made relationship education compulsory for all primary-school pupils, and relationship and sex education compulsory for secondary school pupils. Health education has been compulsory in all schools since last month, September 2020. These subjects will ensure that children understand that violence and abuse is never acceptable, and know what positive, healthy and respectful relationships should look like, which in turn will help to prevent abuse. We want girls to know that it is important to report abuse and share concerns that they have about themselves or others, both online and offline. To help them do so, we have provided £6 million to develop a programme of support for schools, which will include tools to help schools improve their teaching practice, training support and high-quality resources. That programme will also include information on parents’ rights and involvement in the curriculum.

However, we can do more, and we are doing more. We have introduced new knife crime prevention orders as an additional tool to help the police to steer young people and adults away from knife crime and serious violence, and we have launched an eight-week public consultation on the design of new serious violence reduction orders, which will make it easier for the police to stop and search those previously convicted of knife-crime offences, but we also need longer-term action to prevent vulnerable young people from being drawn into crime. That is why, as I said at the beginning of my speech, we have invested £200 million in the 10-year Youth Endowment Fund to ensure that those most at risk are given the opportunity to turn away from violence and to lead positive lives. Importantly, that helps in evaluating schemes across the country to see what works and what does not, so that we can help local commissioners understand where their money is best invested.

All hon. Members raised the point about data—it is a fair point. I spoke at the beginning of my speech about the hidden nature of girls and young women’s involvement in gangs. Following today’s debate, I will engage further with the violence reduction unit network to ensure that all VRUs are actively considering gang-affected girls and young women when identifying the drivers of serious violence acting in their local area and ensuring an effective response. We are already working on that, but I will very much take that point forward. VRUs are doing really good work in bringing together local partners to tackle violence and the drivers of violence together. We will very much use our learning from the progress to date, including those units that are already delivering support to girls and young women in their areas, to make sure that no young people affected by violence are forgotten.

I thank the hon. Member for Vauxhall for raising the issues in this debate, and all hon. Members for their contributions. As always, I pass on my sincere thanks to those who are working right now to protect and support victims of serious violence. We know that serious violence is evolving and there is a threat from county lines activities and from sexual exploitation and abuse—much of that leads to serious violence. That evolution requires us to be flexible and to keep looking for new responses to the changing dynamics. We are absolutely doing all we can to support victims of serious violence and abuse, including young women and girls, but we understand that, although we have made some progress in setting up VRUs and so on, we are absolutely committed to a truly comprehensive response to protect our young people from these horrific crimes and to help end the harm that they cause.

I thank all hon. Members for their attendance this morning. I thank the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) for highlighting her experience of dealing with this issue on the frontline as a councillor. Dealing with some of the things that have come across her desk in children’s social services in an inner-London borough such as Westminster will have been very difficult and challenging. I thank her for her work highlighting these issues with the police, and for touching on the important role of relationships with our young people, both boys and girls. I remember my relationship discussions in school, when it was something that only girls had to talk about. It is important that we are now making sure that our young boys and men understand what it is to be in a healthy relationship, and that we are teaching our girls about saying no and why it is okay to say no. Teaching our girls and boys to respect their bodies is something really important that parents, teachers and youth workers should be working on.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) for highlighting the fact that this is not just an issue in London, but across the country; we must make sure that we have solutions to address that. What is happening in Vauxhall will be different from what is happening in Liverpool, Riverside. My hon. Friend also highlighted the fact that the basis of the issue is poverty and deprivation. We need to look at how we make sure some of our most vulnerable citizens in society have opportunities and access to jobs, housing, employment, training—all things that have now been made a lot harder on the back of the pandemic. It is important that we think about next steps, once we have helped these young women and girls, into a life that is better for themselves and their families.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) for raising the important role that CAMHS plays through early intervention. Funding for the service, which is often overstretched, is important. We know that the case loads of some of our social workers continue to grow. Again, it is about making sure that they get funding and support, putting aside party politics and working across the country to make sure that that happens.

I thank the Minister for highlighting some of the initiatives and funding that have already gone in. It is important to ensure that VRUs across the country have a localised approach and that funding is targeted at a local level to address local issues. We must continue to acknowledge that this issue will not disappear overnight. The issue cannot be resolved just with funding. It requires a different approach.

I am happy that the Minister said that she will take away the idea of looking at the data. We cannot deal with something unless we understand the data behind it. We could be throwing money at a problem when we do not know its real cause. The commitment to VRUs looking at the data specifically on girls associated with gangs is really important.

Lastly, politics aside, all of us want to see our young people flourish. No child is born with the intention of holding a knife, carrying drugs or carrying guns. We have to let children be children. Our young children are being forced to grow up too early. We have to ensure there are positive activities for our young children to engage with, and that they have schooling opportunities and access to safe homes. I hope the Government will continue to invest in those things, continue to work with local councils who know their local areas, and, when we are talking about criminality, continue to remember that these are young children.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered gang-associated girls.

Sitting suspended.