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Children: Gangs

Volume 791: debated on Thursday 10 May 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action are they taking to stop children being recruited into gangs.

My Lords, the Government’s Serious Violence Strategy was launched on 9 April. The strategy sets out our response to serious violence, including gangs, and focuses in particular on the importance of early intervention to provide young people with the skills and resilience to lead productive lives, away from crime and violence.

My Lords, the Serious Violence Taskforce has had its first meeting, and I am pleased to see that it focused on county lines activity. However, many people are concerned that the strategy section on county lines is quite limited, with few new commitments and very little on safeguarding. As we know, thousands of children, some as young as 12, are trafficked and enslaved by county lines gangs. They need safeguarding; moreover, their evidence is critical in securing convictions. Why does the Serious Violence Taskforce have no representation from the anti-trafficking sector, and why is the Children’s Commissioner on the task force but not the Anti-Slavery Commissioner? Can this oversight in membership be corrected, and can the Minister give the House assurances that the new national county lines centre will focus as much on safeguarding as it plans to do on law enforcement?

The noble Baroness asks several questions, but perhaps I can encompass them all into one answer and say that she gets to the nub of the problem: county lines are, as she rightly points out, all about exploiting vulnerability. We are undertaking a national awareness-raising communications exercise on the threat of county lines targeted at young and vulnerable people, and on how to avoid becoming involved in, and exploited by, gangs. We are also working closely with organisations such as Redthread and St Giles Trust, which work with children at the teachable moment—for example, if they arrive at A&E with violence-related injuries—to provide an alternative route out of a lifestyle of violence. Additionally, we are working across government departments, such as the Department for Education and the Department of Health and Social Care, to ensure that key partners in those professions are trained to spot and refer young people involved in county lines. The noble Baroness will appreciate that this is a multi-agency cross-government issue.

My Lords, are the Government looking at the status of youth work, and at a strategic plan to raise that status and ensure that in future there will be consistent funding for youth work, so that it is seen as a good career? Historically, youth work has suffered from booms and busts in funding, which, I would suggest, is very unhelpful.

The noble Earl is right to point out that youth work is a crucial part of tackling this area. The Government continue to back the growth of the National Citizen Service, which is delivered through a network of 300 local partners, more than 80% of which are in the public or voluntary community and social enterprise sectors. The Government recently published guidance for local authorities on how they can maximise the benefits of the NCS within local strategies. In addition, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Education, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Big Lottery Fund will make available £90 million of dormant accounts money to support disadvantaged and disengaged young people with their transition to work.

Central government is clearly not in control of the gang issue in this country. Ten years ago, the Centre for Social Justice produced an outstanding piece of work analysing in great detail the gang issue in this country, Dying to Belong, which I strongly recommend to any noble Lord interested in this field. It pointed up successful strategies such as call-ins, which are used in places such as Strathclyde. Why are we not rolling out these strategies across the country? The Centre for Social Justice is updating that work. It is probably the most comprehensive work ever done on gangs in this country. Will the Minister meet me and representatives of the CSJ to discuss this matter?

I pay tribute to my noble friend’s work over the years involving young people. I am certainly happy to meet him to learn from his expertise in this area. I think it is true to say that the true scale of exploitation, including the number of victims, remains an intelligence gap. The National Crime Agency pointed this out. I would be happy to meet my noble friend to discuss it.

My Lords, many young people are unaware of the realities of gang membership: discipline enforced by stabbings, the rape of women and girls, and street dealers whose lives are put at risk while those who supply them with illegal drugs take most of the profit. Is the Minister aware of the work of Growing Against Violence—GAV, a charity of which I am patron—which works in schools to destroy the myths around gang membership in order to dissuade young people from getting involved with gangs, knives and drug dealing? Is this not exactly the sort of work that the Government should be supporting?

The noble Lord is absolutely right that any work such as GAV’s is to be commended. We are not only developing some of the existing good practice but expanding our knowledge of the extent to which county lines are affecting our most vulnerable children. The noble Lord is right to point out that drugs market violence may be facilitated and spread by things such as social media—another area on which we need to clamp down.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the work done in Glasgow, where violence was dealt with as a disease? It was one of most violent cities in the world. The first thing to do was to stabilise the patient. Glasgow increased stop and search, and when knives and weapons were found the person carrying them was not simply released on bail but taken straight to the police station, detained and put before the court fairly quickly. The reduction in carrying weapons was quite dramatic. Can we learn something from the work done in Glasgow?

My Lords, I am sure we can work on some of the initiatives in Glasgow. The noble Lord described it as a disease. These issues are multifactorial and include sociological and psychological factors depending on people’s experiences, particularly their early life experience. Tackling this preventively from a very young age is part of the answer.

My Lords, first, I congratulate the Government on the work they are doing on county lines. Is the Minister aware that there is very patchy communication between the agencies and that all too many of the very young children—the 12 and 13 year-olds—are ending up in the local youth court instead of being treated as victims?

The noble and learned Baroness points to a very serious issue. County lines, as the phrase suggests, crosses different local authorities and different police forces, and therefore some sort of continuity of effort is needed here.