Serious Violence Strategy Debate

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Serious Violence Strategy

Earl of Listowel Excerpts
Monday 11th June 2018

(3 years, 1 month ago)

Lords Chamber

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Lord Suri Portrait Lord Suri (Con)
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My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Manzoor for bringing this important debate to the House today, and those who contributed to the strategy in its formative stages.

Living in London as I do, it seems to me that violent crime is steadily on the rise. Every day we read new stories about violent muggings, assaults and even murders in the capital. For a time some months ago, the murder rate in London exceeded that in New York—a day I never thought I would see. This is not to be churlish. As the report notes, violence with injury in the year ending September 2017 was 40% lower than in the year ending June 2010 and 76% lower than its peak in 1995.

But we must always strive for the most peaceful and harmonious society we can, and it is worrying to note that some types of violent crime have recorded increases since late 2014. These concerning trends ought not to be viewed in isolation. As with all breakdowns in social behaviour, context matters and violent crime is no exception. I therefore welcome the approach set out by the previous Home Secretary and her successor, to work in partnership with other bodies in the public, private and voluntary spheres.

I have often called for government strategies and task forces to take a joined-up approach across departments, and I think this is one such policy area. I welcome the idea of setting up a serious violence task force to oversee delivery, with delegates from a wide array of stakeholders, but I fear that it may just become something of a talking shop. It will have no statutory duties and little power to hold Ministers to account, being chaired by the Home Office and reporting to a ministerial committee.

An additional layer of accountability would be useful for a strategy like this, but it is a Home Office strategy being scrutinised by a Home Office-chaired panel. In effect, the department will be marking its own homework, which I do not think is appropriate for a problem of this magnitude. Will the Minister commit to reviewing the proposed chairing arrangements for the task force? It would be far better if the chair were some sort of retired judicial figure or an impartial technocrat.

My second point has to do with the roots of the issue. Nobody wishes to see hard and damaging drugs such as heroin or crack cocaine being sold on our streets, but the evidence is strongly in favour of the legalisation of cannabis for sale. I am a fiscal conservative and believe in sound money. For me, one of the biggest draws of legalisation would be the vast sums of additional tax revenue that we would receive—a point made in a recent report by HPA, which estimates that between £1 billion and £3.5 billion could be raised. Legalisation would also take away an enormous incentive from criminal gangs to continue their violent business.

The fact that cannabis cannot be legitimately bought or sold pushes it beyond the realm of open trade, meaning that its sale is untaxed, unmonitored and uncontrolled. Teenagers out in the street could be buying anything, with no quality checks or fair trading practices to protect them. Fundamentally, cannabis will be purchased by Brits for recreational use, and it is up to the Government to choose how they react to that reality. The new Home Secretary has signalled that he is more liberal than maybe some of his predecessors were. I hope that he can live up to that promise in office. This would be an excellent place to start.

Earl of Listowel Portrait The Earl of Listowel (CB)
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My Lords, I declare my interest as a trustee of the Brent Centre for Young People, a mental health service for adolescents which works in the youth justice system and in various other services. I am also involved in the Michael Sieff Foundation, a child welfare organisation with a long history of working around the youth and criminal justice system.

I join your Lordships in thanking the noble Baroness for introducing this strategy and for giving us the opportunity to debate it today. It seems to me that the strategy is a complex answer to a complex problem, and we really need to avoid seeing it as a simple problem with a simple solution. That is what I most welcome about the strategy.

I listened with the greatest interest to the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove. She has great personal experience and is a champion and campaigner in this area. It is tragic to think of the lives that have been lost to these crimes. While listening to her, I particularly remembered Damilola Taylor, the young boy in Peckham who seemed to have a life of promise in front of him. He was wounded in the leg and lost his life as a result, and I remember the grief of his family. The risk is that you become so emotional about these things that you do not think in making a response but, rather, have an emotional reaction, and I welcome the thoughtfulness of the Government’s response.

In listening to the debate, I have been thinking about the complexity and the various experiences of your Lordships, and I see what I think is a general reflection on our politics. I might be quite wrong about this and am probably overstretching myself, but my reflection is that somehow politics in this country does not rise to the challenges posed by an increasingly complex country; instead—laying no responsibility with any particular party—it tends to produce rather simple answers to complex questions.

In March last year I visited Germany, for the first time in many years, with a parliamentary group and I was impressed by what was going on in the Bundestag. I was most impressed by the fact that on Sundays shops still do not open and that businesses are not allowed to send emails to their employees after 8 o’clock at night. It is still the custom that you stop working at six and if you are working after six you are being inefficient. The Germans have balance in their lives. They can spend time with their families, children and friends, if they wish to, or do other things. We somehow have lost our way and have become unbalanced.

I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, for the wonderful work he is doing in championing and supporting families. The statistics in the OECD report of 2011 on family formation showed that at that time 15% of German children were growing up without a father in the home; we were 20% or 21%, and the United States 25%. The troubling prediction in that thorough report was that we were set to outstrip the United States in terms of children growing up without a father in the home by a significant degree over the next two decades.

This is an important issue. It is not about blaming families but about supporting couples and families to stay together in every way we can. We have heard about many of the ways in which we can support families to stay together. In my own family experience, when I wonder what is the right thing to do next, I often think about what my father would do, and that gives me the direction in which to go. Often when I do wrong it is because I do not remember the good example set by my father. My sister was absolutely besotted with my father; he was hugely important to her. We have spoken a great deal about boys growing up without fathers but it is important that many girls are growing up without fathers. Part of the reason for the sexual exploitation of vulnerable teenagers is that many of these young women have not grown up with a positive man in their lives, and that big gap may be filled by unpleasant characters who wish to exploit them.

The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, referred to the training of social workers. I was pleased to see in the welcome report on children’s homes by Martin Neary, the former chief executive of Barnardo’s, a recommendation that social workers should have a mandatory placement in a children’s home as part of their training. Children’s homes are wonderful places to learn about working with troubled and troubling adolescents. I could not agree more with him and I hope that that particular recommendation of his report is implemented.

I welcome the fact that the Government have talked about a criminal justice response and the many other responses that need to be made. There needs to be a criminal justice response. About 18 years ago there was an outcry about the level of mobile phone thefts. Something had to be done and sanctions were toughened. One of the victims of this was a troubled young man called Joseph Scholes, who was a self-harmer. On his first day at a children’s home he was drawn into a crowd of young people, one of whom perpetrated mobile phone thefts and Joseph Scholes was drawn into this. We have to be tough on these people but, in the course of the trial, the prosecutor said that at no time was Joseph Scholes a physical threat to anyone. However, he was imprisoned. There was a shortage of suitable places so he was placed in an inappropriate setting—and he took his life at the age of 16. In an article in the Daily Telegraph in 2012, his mother described him as being in a strip cell. I think he had been self-harming. He was considered a suicide risk so was placed in a strip cell in a horse blanket. He was not properly supervised and he took his own life.

If we overreact, we draw in children and young people who are not a risk and should not end up in the criminal justice system. We can act effectively and pre-emptively to take young people who well might end up in the criminal justice system avoid that route. Once they arrive in it, two-thirds of them will offend again. They are just likely to learn to be better criminals. Thankfully the number of children in custody has been very much reduced over the last period, from 3,000 to below 1,000 currently. There are very tough and challenging young people there, so I welcome the fact that there is a criminal justice response but there are other areas to cover.

I do not wish to speak for too long. I welcome the fact that the Government have talked about youth work in their reaction. Redthread is catching young people when they are in hospital with an injury relating to knife crime and getting a youth worker to speak to them. Again, my reflection on this, going back to what I was saying at the beginning, is that there is a need for a more strategic and stable culture of politics. Youth work has alternately had great resources pumped into it, then been starved of resources, then been pumped with resources, then been starved of resources. This does not create a great profession which can consistently do the outstanding work that is necessary for young people.

I am not blaming any party. I am just saying, “Is this system working for us? Is this system working for the nation?” If you look at Germany, perhaps you can see a system which is more stable and has more continuity. If you look at Angela Merkel or previous Chancellors, they have been in their posts for a long while. Look at the way they make compromises; I know that coalition is unpopular. Negotiation and compromise are unpopular, but they seem to give better outcomes. The last coalition, between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, was very unpopular, but it seemed to give some very good results—on mental health, for instance. Of course, in Germany coalition is the norm. Again, it is deeply unpopular, but the proof of the pudding seems to be in Germany’s economy and a social system where the social contract is still strong.

I do not want to stray too much, but there is a statutory duty on local authorities to provide youth work services. It is a very weak duty so, when they are starved of funds, as they have been, they will tend to invest in other areas. I would appreciate the Minister’s looking at the statutory duty on local authorities to provide youth services and thinking whether that might be strengthened so that we can have consistently high-quality intervention from youth services. Perhaps she has time to meet me to discuss youth work and what we can do to ensure that in the future it grows more professional and more effective. As fathers are not as involved in their children’s lives as they were, youth workers become more important.

As I said earlier, I am a trustee of the Brent Centre for Young People. I shall give an example of the really effective interventions that can be made. I visited its Sport and Thought intervention in a local primary school and watched the boys playing football, supervised by a child and adolescent psychotherapist. He is a very highly qualified expert in child development. Sport and Thought—these boys do not think. They act, on any impulse that comes to them. You can use football to enable them to say, if they are getting into a scuffle, “Stop. What is going on here? Think about what you are doing”.

The subject is much more complex than that, but what struck me is hearing the teacher, who is the main beneficiary of this. She was struggling to manage with these boys, and I heard the gratitude coming from her at this intervention that made them manageable, that helped them to learn and helped the rest of the class to learn. We can invest in such interventions. For instance, I welcome the money that government has put into the troubled families initiative. It would be good to hear from the Minister that that will continue to be funded past 2020. I am afraid that cuts in funding to local authorities in recent years have been so extreme that, despite such welcome initiatives, children’s centres and other early interventions that could help struggling families and help parents stay together have been removed.

I am sorry to have spoken so long. I welcome this government strategy. The problem is complex and the answer needs to be complex. I am grateful for the Government’s approach. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Lord Cormack Portrait Lord Cormack (Con)
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The noble Earl has ranged far and wide. He talked fondly of his late father, whom I remember well. He was a member of Attlee’s Government, one of the seminal Governments of this country. Indeed, I believe that I am right in saying that he was the last Secretary of State for India—but I must not be tempted.

One thing to have come through in this debate has been the reiteration—it began with an intervention from my noble friend Lord Framlingham, who is not in his place now—of the importance of the family. This was brought home to me last week. Many of your Lordships may have heard in a news item anxiety being expressed at the number of young children in primary schools who knew nothing about basic hygiene. I intervened on a Question last week to urge my noble friend who has the education brief in your Lordships’ House to do more about the education of parents and for parenthood. It is clear that most of the problems which lie at the root of today’s debate occur because children have not been brought up in a stable home with parents devoted to their welfare, anxious to teach them the difference between right and wrong, cleanliness and filth, and all the things that we used to take for granted.

As my noble friend Lord Balfe mentioned, the strategy to which my noble friend the Minister spoke is a little turgid. It is long on analysis and a little short on solutions.

We can solve the problems troubling your Lordships’ House in this debate and on many other occasions only in schools and in prisons. We have to realise that many young people who are sentenced, often quite rightly, to terms in prison and young offender institutions have the most appalling backgrounds. I had such an institution in my former constituency in South Staffordshire, a place called Brinsford. I remember going there one day after there had been a fairly monumental riot; the place had been smashed up. Incidentally, a brilliant report on that prison was delivered by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, when he was the Chief Inspector of Prisons—and what a brilliant inspector he was. That report had a very salutary effect and the institution improved considerably. Going round and talking to those young men was a distressing experience. I could not honestly look at myself in the mirror and not say, if I had had their background, there but for the grace of God. It applies to all of us.

We must try to ensure that we do not stint on the resources going into the prison system, because prison must be the place where people are rehabilitated, and that applies most of all to young people. We must be able to give them a sense of self-worth, aspiration and hope. If we cannot do that we just create a sink generation. There is not enough emphasis on that in the strategy document we are talking about.

Of course, we should do everything possible to keep people out of prison. When I was chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in the other place, I saw the dramatic effect of community restorative justice. If you can keep people out of prison and make them atone for their crimes and shortcomings without risking the contamination that frequently occurs in a prison, you are doing a great deal. I would like to see emphasis on that.

My final point is about schools. I hope noble Lords who have heard me refer to this before will forgive me if I refer to it again. I believe that we need to educate our young people as proper citizens of this country. I want to see an emphasis on citizenship. That does not just mean teaching young people about the way Parliament and local government works; it means trying to make them realise that no society can work unless they play a constructive and, indeed, aspirational part in it. I had the privilege a couple of years or so ago of going to the Terrace in your Lordships’ House when there was a citizenship ceremony for those who were receiving British citizenship. The sense of pride among those people of all ages, backgrounds, nationalities and ethnicities was palpable. They were dressed in their best; they had their wives, husbands or companions with them; they were going to celebrate afterwards; it was a moving ceremony.

I would like every young person in this country leaving school to go through a citizenship ceremony. They should be prepared for it. They should all do some community service. Whether that is reading to the blind, visiting the old, helping the sick or going on a National Trust conservation programme does not matter, but it should be community service of a sort that is worth while, challenging and through which they can actually achieve something. They should also be taught properly about our country’s history and its system—the preciousness of democracy—and at the end of the day they should receive a certificate.

I have suggested, when I have mentioned this before, that to take this out of the realm of party politics this should not be done by the local authority but through the lieutenancy. I think we all respect the lieutenancy. The lord-lieutenant, the deputy, the vice lord-lieutenant and the deputies, all of them—I speak as a DL myself, although now on the retired list—could play a part in this. If young people aspired to it and were taught how important it was to aspire to it, it would help. It might just persuade some of those who are now seduced into joining gangs or tempted by the false romanticism of weapons; it might just help a bit. We must make our prisons clean, rehabilitative places with no drugs, no violence. It is not a punishment while you are there; the punishment is being sent there and you are rehabilitated while you are there.

If we can try to inculcate a sense of pride in nation and community in our schools, fewer people will go to prison. That is the way we should seek to tackle this and I hope that any developed strategy for dealing with violent crime will bear in mind some of these things, but also bear in mind that there is no substitute in human life for the family unit. I was deeply disturbed last week when I read that a very senior judge had said that the day of the nuclear family was over—what an utterly irresponsible, reprehensible and silly thing to say.