My Lords, I too welcome the Government’s Serious Violence Strategy and the opportunity to debate it. Importantly, the strategy commits to tackling the deeply troubling trends which the Minister and others have outlined, by establishing a new balance between prevention and law enforcement. However, it will be greatly hampered in its effectiveness by the lack of an equally—if not even more necessary—strategy to address the veritable tsunami of family breakdown that has engulfed many of our communities. This has direct links to the violence, as I will make clear.
As the Centre for Social Justice, which has helped me with data for this speech, has repeatedly emphasised, we have one of the highest rates of family breakdown in the OECD. Just two-thirds of all children aged between 0 and 14 years live with both their birth parents. According to the Office for National Statistics, a quarter of families in the UK are headed by a lone parent, and 86% of these are headed by mothers. Some 2.7 million children have no father figure at home; more than 1 million children have little or no contact with their birth father, and 15% of the UK’s children grow up without a resident father.
The Serious Violence Strategy does hint at an understanding of these issues by euphemistically referring to “disrupted family environments” and describing the need for parents of troubled young people to be taught,
“strategies for improving the quality of their interactions with their child, reducing negative child behaviour and increasing their efficacy and confidence in parenting”.
Yet there is no recognition that often the parents in question are women on their own raising violent and out-of-control sons, who have far superior physical strength, with the fathers long gone. We are so frightened of appearing to be critical of lone parents that we forget what a difficult and gruelling job it is to do single-handedly. Many did not choose it as a lifestyle, do not enjoy it and certainly do not want their children to repeat the cycle.
Moreover, although the strategy treats family socioeconomic status as a risk factor, it does not fully reflect the evidence linking fatherlessness with criminal and gang activity. Fatherlessness is a well-documented risk factor for offending, and the risk factors for gang involvement are similar to those for offending. While, of course, not all serious violence is perpetrated by gangs, it should not be forgotten that, for a significant group of young people growing up in our most deprived communities, the gang has become a substitute family, with the gang leader as the father: 17 year-old André, who used to be gang-involved, told the Centre for Social Justice, “You can go out and be in that crew and have a family”.
Let me outline some of the characteristics of many boys growing up with physically or emotionally absent fathers. The rejection and inadequacy they feel as a result of growing up in a fatherless household is often internalised, creating resentment and anger. The absence of positive role models of masculinity leaves them with little choice but to learn what it is to be a man from traditional alpha male imagery, and this makes them vulnerable to being groomed for violence and susceptible to exploitation.
In consequence, what might be termed our national father deficit is a driver for criminal and gang activity: 25% of young offenders are already fathers themselves; only 30% of young offenders come from intact families; and boys with little or no involvement with their fathers are twice as likely to become offenders compared to boys with highly involved fathers.
The UK National Survey of Health and Development found that 27% of boys who had experienced separation or divorce had been cautioned or convicted by age 21, compared to 14% of those who had not experienced family breakdown. The Newcastle Thousand Family Study showed that the likelihood of a male being convicted up to age 32 doubles if he had experienced divorce or separation before age five. Drilling down to an individual case which is by no means unusual, an Islington borough police evaluation of one particular London gang murder found that of the 13 young people initially suspected of involvement in the killing, 12 were from lone-parent homes.
My recent review on the importance of family ties to prevent reoffending and the transmission of intergenerational crime in prison has found that two thirds of prisoners’ sons go on to offend. It is obvious that not all fathers—and not all mothers—have a good influence on their children. This is partly to do with the fact that those who grow up without a present father experience other disadvantages that can lead to or increase the risks of criminal behaviour.
Compared to children in two-parent families, children in one-parent families are significantly more likely to smoke, drink and take drugs weekly. Children from low-income households who have an active father figure at home are 25% more likely to escape the poverty they grow up in. According to a 2017 Oxford University study, where there is an active father pre-teen, children are up to 28% less likely to suffer behavioural problems.
When the Serious Violence Strategy was debated recently in the other place, the right honourable Sir Desmond Swayne disagreed with higher police numbers being the solution, saying:
“We would have to swamp the streets with policemen; there would have to be policemen available at every violent incident for it to make that form of difference. We would be back to Cromwell saying, “If I arm one in 10 will that be enough?” Of much more significance in terms of the propensity to violence is the lack of attention to the question of young people—particularly very young people—and parenting. That is where the Government’s efforts must be directed”. —[Official Report, Commons, 22/5/18; col. 739.]
Across the Floor in the other place, the Labour Member, Vicky Foxcroft, stressed:
“We need to start far, far earlier, working with families from birth by providing support such as Sure Start, which works with a child and their family from a pre-school age”.—[Official Report, Commons, 22/5/18; col. 771.]
The Serious Violence Strategy mentions that police forces in Wales are giving attention to adverse childhood experiences, and the public health approach to serious violence in Scotland also aims to prevent these ACEs. England might have a little catching up to do here, although crime policy in the devolved Greater Manchester authority is also very ACE-aware. It should be noted that parental separation is also a recognised ACE—adverse childhood experience—but I have not heard about any policies north or west of the border to try to prevent this.
The Serious Violence Strategy did not agree that interventions aimed at pre-school children had the best results and said that some of the most successful programmes were aimed at slightly older children—those who had already offended or shown signs of anti-social behaviour. I passionately believe that every child needs the best possible start in life but the wheels can fall off the family wagon when children are older than five, the age at which much parenting support that is based in Sure Start ceases to be available.
That is why I have been pressing the Government to encourage the evolution of family hubs, often from—and continuing the early years work of—existing Sure Start children’s centres. Councils such as the Isle of Wight, Essex and Westminster are finding that they can reduce disadvantage and dysfunction for all their families by integrating a full range of help, including their troubled families programme, into these community settings. They are somewhere parents can go where someone will have the answers.
The need for family hubs is one of the recommendations of the manifesto to strengthen families that I have talked about before in your Lordships’ House. It also recommends that the Government bring into force Schedule 6 to the Welfare Reform Act 2010 which would make it mandatory for fathers to be named on birth certificates, with all sensible safeguards. There are over 247,000 children under seven in the UK who had no registered father at birth, and every year, one in 20 children is born with no registered father. The manifesto also recommended moving birth registration into children’s centres and family hubs, so that both mothers and fathers can see from the outset what kind of support would be there for them if they need it.
Finally, but most instrumentally, the manifesto calls for a Cabinet level family Minister in government. He or she would have the clout of a big department, such as the Home Office or even possibly defence, and would, like the Equalities Minister, have additional responsibility for driving policies to improve family stability and family functioning in every department of government. At the recent reshuffle, a Minister for Loneliness was appointed, yet various academics who have looked at statistics from studies going back to the 1940s, dispute claims that there is an epidemic of loneliness in contrast with the past. Professor Barreto, of Exeter University, quoted in the Times last week, said:
“Perhaps what we see is an epidemic of understanding, of interest in loneliness and an urge to try and understand what can be done about it. But we aren’t more lonely than before”.
Since studies began the prevalence of loneliness has hardly changed. The same thing simply cannot be said about the prevalence of family breakdown.
Can the Minister provide an update please on the progress in these three areas: holding men’s feet to the fire when they father a child, through mandatory birth registration; moving this process into places which could help put parents on to a good path from the outset; and giving a senior Cabinet Member overarching responsibility for developing and implementing a strategy to address the genuine epidemic of fractured and dysfunctional families? Support for family relationships, whether between parent and child or between parents themselves, cannot be rejected on the grounds that it is too intrusive for the state to be involved. The Government warn parents about the consequences of overconsumption of sugar, salt, screens, smoking and drinking. Warning them about the long-term personal and societal outcomes of poor parenting and fractured families and putting tools into their hands to enable them to be the good mothers and fathers who most long to be is not the nanny state, but the canny state.
My Lords, I welcome the strategy and the Minister’s introduction. I read through the strategy a couple of times and found it higher on analysis than on solutions. It had a pretty good analysis of where the problems are, but I am not sure that it really came to grips with the solutions.
First, we seem to be imagining that somehow crime is completely out of hand. In fact, Britain has become a safer place over the last 30 or 40 years. What we do have, however, is a problem over the last short period of time. I was struck, for instance, by the assertion in the report that, with respect to assaults with a sharp object,
“since 2012/13, the number of episodes involving individuals aged under 18 has increased by 51%”.
The numbers, however, are from 313 to 473. This is not 51% of many thousands to many more thousands. It is a problem, but we need to remember the numbers as well as the percentages. Similarly, homicide rates are up 20% for 18 to 24 year-olds and 26% for the 25 to 29 age group. Clearly, as you get older, you are more likely to murder people than stab them, according to the report. Again, we need to look at the numbers: the numbers are serious—particularly for those who are affected—but we are not living in Colombia. We are living in a society that clearly has problems. The report states on page 25, in respect of age and criminality:
“Underlying this pattern is strong evidence that crime trends tend to be driven by a small proportion of highly prolific individuals whose criminal career tends to decrease via a lengthy ‘ageing out’ process”.
I was entertained by the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Bird. I was educated to an extent, but as the product of a secondary modern school myself I cannot agree that everybody who went to a secondary modern school was necessarily disadvantaged at all. In fact, I cannot remember anyone in our class at school who went to the juvenile court or anywhere else. Perhaps it was an exceptional class. Sometimes, when I sit on this side of the House and wonder why I am here, I realise that it is because of reports like this—I am not much good as a liberal in terms of thoughts.
A lot of people have to be responsible for their own actions. Many years ago, I was the research director for the Committee on One Parent Families, known as the Finer committee. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, has already alluded to the importance of family, particularly a structured family and a two-parent family. We have become almost shy mentioning it; it is almost as though we are worried that we should not mention anything that might offend anyone at all. The fact of the matter is that the statistics show that a stable, two-parent family is a very good indicator of a stable life and a useful future.
My daughter has mild dyslexia. She is now working, and has worked every day since she left university. She got to university thanks to very good teaching. She is one of those people who had an exceptionally good teacher who taught her to cope, and now she is doing a valuable job. Many people overcome disadvantage. I do not intend to delay the House with personal sob stories, but I grew up in a children’s home. That is also seen in many ways as a disadvantage, but it is not necessarily a disadvantage. You can get over things and you can fight your way forward.
One of the things we saw in the Finer committee report, which is now many years out of date, was how many one-parent families actually won through. The great majority of them won through—not only the fatherless families but the motherless ones: the number of men who managed to bring up children, do a job and get through. I am not saying that people do not need help. Indeed, one of the things that report showed was the need for financial assistance and one-parent family benefits. However, that is part of the package, not the whole package.
I move on to social media. I point out that when the noble Lord, Lord Howard, who is not in his place, advocated a tough approach with those who were caught being given tough sentences, he was not necessarily that far out. Look at the quote about,
“via a lengthy ‘ageing out’ process”;
people who are doing their lengthy ageing out behind bars are not causing as much trouble as those who are, let us say, running around.
I want to look at the social media quotes in the report. On page 31 it says:
“There is strong evidence that rival gangs are using social media to promote gang culture, taunt each other and incite violence. Some gang members have thousands of followers … Social media also offers a method for promoting drug selling activity and recruiting others into the lifestyle … One of the most common things for drug-related groups to do on social media is to post pictures of themselves surrounded by money purportedly made from selling drugs”.
That is not poverty, is it?
On the online sale of knives, test purchases in 2008 and 2009,
“showed that 80% of the retailers sampled … would sell to a person under 18”.
By 2014, it was still 70%, and in 2016 it was 72%. Another quote is:
“Every time an online test purchase operation is undertaken, the large majority of online retailers tested break the law on sales of knives”.
But what do the Government say about it? They say:
“We are planning to introduce new legislation to take additional steps to prevent online retailers selling knives to young people under 18 years old”.
Why not just ban the sale of knives online? Surely that is the answer. It is not about saying, “Take new powers”, which almost certainly will not work. You can ban them. We can take the online adverts under control. We should look at stopping selling knives in shops where there is a problem. We should at least make it as difficult as buying alcohol, and not only have test purchases but make it obligatory for people to check the age of people buying knives. I would not be averse to putting the age limit up to 25, let alone 18, before people can buy a knife. In other words, we need to be a bit tougher.
On page 80, the report says:
“The Home Office will provide a fund for two years to support targeted prosecution activity against online and in store retailers in breach of the laws in relation to the underage sales of knives”.
Why does not the Home Office set up its own dedicated unit to do the job? Why is it setting up a fund that, presumably, people will have to apply for, and which presumably will be a big bureaucracy? It is online—it is not impinging on anyone’s territory. The Home Office itself could set up a dedicated unit and do this job.
Finally, I will say one or two things about the police—I was interested in the speech given by the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe. In the preamble, written by the former Home Secretary, she says that the,
“Police and Crime Commissioners have a pivotal role to play”.
Nothing the Government and their predecessor have done has been more of a disappointment than the introduction of police and crime commissioners. One only has to look at Wiltshire to see how totally useless they are, and to put them into the foreword is an abuse of the foreword itself. I would like to see the police going back to doing a bit more policing.
I saw in one of my weekend newspapers that the police are looking at the possibility of setting up a unit to look at the Jeremy Thorpe case. Jeremy Thorpe has died, sadly. I do not think he was quite the rogue that his current reputation gives him. If he was, he was a fairly loveable rogue. But he has died and he was found not guilty by a jury. That really should be the end of the matter. If we have enough police to set up dedicated teams, it is a waste of police resources. I am afraid, in my view, the police are just a little too fond of undertaking fishing expeditions, and it is about time they got down to doing the job they are paid for.
As a starting point, I wonder whether it would be a good idea to recruit a full-time security service for this building. That would free up dozens of policemen to go back on to the beat to do their job, and a dedicated security force for this building would be much more able to be integrated with the other functions in this building. I do not know about other noble Lords, but the number of times that the front desk downstairs with our attendants on has failed to get a message registered in the police box, which is about 20 yards away, is a little too many. So I would like to see a few more of them on the beat and not doing an easily replaceable job around this House.
In conclusion, I thank the Minister for allowing us to air our views in this debate, but I think we have to remember the central role of families and society in tackling violence.