Serious Violence Strategy DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Earl of ListowelMain Page: Earl of Listowel (Crossbench - Excepted Hereditary)
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.
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.