Serious Violence Strategy Debate

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Serious Violence Strategy

Lord Farmer Excerpts
Monday 11th June 2018

(3 years, 1 month ago)

Lords Chamber

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Baroness Massey of Darwen Portrait Baroness Massey of Darwen (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Manzoor, for introducing this debate. I shall begin by quoting some stark facts from Barnardo’s, which works directly with young people. Barnardo’s is increasingly concerned about the worrying trend of children and young people becoming victims of criminal exploitation. They can be controlled by criminal gangs and forced to carry weapons, carry and trade in drugs, go missing from home and be victims of sexual abuse and exploitation. In a recent survey, almost 60% of Barnardo’s children’s service managers said they believed that they had supported a young person involved in criminal activity over the past year. Approximately 75% of them said they thought the young person had been coerced, deceived or manipulated, and thought they were into criminal activity because of those reasons. We have to remember that most of these young people are already vulnerable. In her excellent speech the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, mentioned finding creative and positive solutions, and I entirely agree with her. The Barnardo’s figures are shocking and point to the need to examine locally and nationally how we are dealing with and supporting young people and their families, and what we can do better. Therefore the strategy is welcome, with its broad perspective on what might be done and what the solutions might be.

I feel that the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, with all her experience of local authorities, might agree with me on the next points that I make. We need to examine the functioning and funding of local safeguarding boards and to ask why schools are not involved in them. We need to look at why there are discrepancies in the quality of authorities’ activities nationally. We need to ensure that social services work well and positively with young people and their families. We need to look at why children are sometimes shunted between care homes, foster care and adoption agencies. We need to look at the influence of social media; this is perhaps a long way from the full force of the law, but I think it needs looking at.

Last November I was involved in a Council of Europe/UK Parliament seminar on child mental health and child-friendly justice with representatives from the police, academics, parents, European MPs and the voluntary sector. I declare an interest here as chair of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly sub-committee on children. Half the participants were young people aged up to 24. One young woman described children and young people as “experts by experience”. These young people have been involved in mental health initiatives and with the law. Their insights were extraordinary, and I hope that in considering any strategy affecting young people the Government will note the importance of involving those young people in proposed interventions. Their voices are important. The concern of the seminar was that mental health was a driver in motivations for many young people. Mental health is the key to self-esteem and resilience—the ability to reject negative influences.

I hope the Government are taking note of the implications of the Green Paper on mental health. I hope there will be genuine dialogue between government departments to tackle both mental health and crime. Such dialogue is of course mentioned in the strategy. I would be interested to know from the Minister if any evaluation of what works has been incorporated into the Serious Violence Strategy. A lot of money is being spent so we should know, eventually, what the outcomes are.

In the European seminar that has also been mentioned today, issues such as counselling in schools, the need for early intervention with children and families, safe houses for children and the training of those dealing with children and young people were considered vital. A report on the seminar has been launched in Strasbourg and will be launched in London in July. I am delighted that the Minister for Public Health and the Minister for Youth Justice will both be attending and speaking. The launch will be led by young people from NGOs committed to listening to young people’s views, and noble Lords are of course invited to attend. I am delighted to see that in the strategy the Government emphasised the importance of,

“partnerships across a number of sectors such as education, health, social services, housing, youth services, and victim services”,

and that,

“tackling serious violence is not a law enforcement issue alone”.

The Government have announced new initiatives such as an early intervention youth fund, a new county lines co-ordination centre and a new round of heroin and crack action areas. Of course any enthusiasm for reducing violent crime is welcome, but I wish that local authorities were not being weakened by a lack of funding and that police services were not being eroded. My brother was in the police force for 33 years, ending up as chief superintendent in Manchester. He always emphasised the importance of having police on the beat, of making local connections and of recruiting and enabling women and men from black and minority-ethnic communities to join the police force. I think he was right.

I wish there were more counsellors and programmes of personal, social and health education in schools. Such programmes encourage communication skills, self-esteem and teamwork among young people. I salute the Government for at last making such programmes mandatory, although there is a long way to go in implementing the initiative successfully. I wish there was not a threat to community services such as libraries. All community initiatives help people bind together and encourage concern about young people in communities. Youth services are desperately needed in communities.

I know that the strategy places drugs as central to serious crime. I ask the Government to look at this very carefully and perhaps do more analysis. Public Health England and the national drug treatment monitoring system have useful figures on this. My impression is that the use of hard drugs such as crack cocaine by young people is actually going down, with a rise in drugs such as cannabis. I should like a dialogue on this. It is very important. We need to know exactly what we are tackling. There are many splendid initiatives which help develop strong individuals and strong communities, such as those from the voluntary sector. Sports groups, such as the Chance to Shine and the Wicketz initiative, funded by the Lord’s Taverners, enable young people in disadvantaged areas to play sport, to work as teams and to develop communication and leadership skills. Sport is a great unifier and can develop self-esteem, involvement and co-operation. Present schemes deserve more attention and guaranteed funding. The police are encouraging groups of young people who have been in trouble with the law to set up initiatives of their own to engage young people in danger of becoming involved in crime and in gangs to think again. I have talked to lots of young people who are doing this good work. They all report excellent results. This is an example of creative thinking. I do not know if there is a list of such initiatives nationally. Is there? If so, there could be a survey of what works in engaging positively with young people.

I look forward to the Minister’s reply and to the rest of the debate, and in particular to comments on the involvement of young people, and on gathering information on what works to enable learning and the sharing of good practice in this important area of addressing serious violence.

Lord Farmer Portrait Lord Farmer (Con)
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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.

Lord Bird Portrait Lord Bird (CB)
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My Lords, I am pleased to be speaking on the important and inclusive report and discussion from the noble Baroness, Lady Manzoor. She has got everything in there, absolutely everything. The noble Baroness has even included the roots, so we have to go to the roots; we have to solve the problems. We cannot just keep dealing in arithmetic or with the manifestation or effects; we have to get to the cause.

I commend the Government for saying such wonderful things, but I would like to know where the word “austerity” comes in, because I think that is the only term left out. We cut the youth offending team bill by 50% since 2010, and you think whether that brings us any nearer the solution. Is it necessary to cut money and take 20,000 policemen off our streets? Is that a strategy for improving the chances of us not having so many of our children murdered? Does cutting the YOTs add to our chances of getting nearer to Valhalla, when we will have the chance of enjoying our children knowing they are all out there, doing very well, prospering and having an incredibly long life?

That is the problem with this discussion, because we always leave out money, when it should be brought forward and talked about—the arithmetic of the capital that you put in and the returns from that capital, the social capital of investing. For instance, there is the bizarre situation where we fail 38% of our children at school and yet wonder why a decisive amount of those who fall into crime come from this failed group of people. According to some of the organisations that work there, 80% of the people who fill our prisons come from a failure at school. If you were to ask those children who were carrying and running drugs, and sticking their knives into other people, how they did at school, I bet you a pound to a penny they would say, “Not very well at all”.

It is interesting that we talk about wanting to sort out the tree by getting down to the roots. The roots all go back to poverty, unfortunately. There is no other major reason why we have crime on our streets, murders, gangs and young people who are prepared to move drugs around the country than this shortage of resources way down the line.

I will talk about who this person is. Imagine there is one person who ends up sticking a knife in somebody, dealing in drugs or even becoming a victim. If you look at that person, you will see that it is someone who comes from need and, often, as the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, has pointed out to us, comes from a broken home—but that person will come from a family which was probably uneducated after the Second World War. In 1948, we had that wonderful thing called the welfare state, invented in a very strange sort of way, as well as a pretty good way. They creamed off the 11% so that they could run the system and become the managers, and then they created the secondary modern school system, which actually created a curriculum or pedagogy to produce people who did unskilled and semi-skilled work. If you look at those children who are now involved in crime, I bet that their fathers or grandfathers come from that cohort of undereducated people, where the state educated people for jobs that were seriously disappearing.

As Margaret Thatcher proved, when she broke the link with government support and removed all the subsidies for the major industries, what you need to do is to move forward with the times and close down the old industries. What happened was that an enormous number of unskilled and semi-skilled jobs disappeared, and we started to grow an underclass of people who moved from one generation to another generation and who themselves were blasted in the kind of culture that they were given.

I know many of those people—I come from them—and there was a person whose family I grew up with who imported the largest amount of cocaine into this country. I know why he did it—he was a criminal—but I also know that he was dyslexic and a person who, when he went to the North Thames Gas Board to get a job, was not given one because he could not read the meters. I know that there were precious few forms of skills that he could tap into, because he had been to a comprehensive school that did not recognise him as someone with enormous organisational skills who should be given the job of running the Bank of England.

I know all sorts of other things. If you actually look at the culture and social profile of most of these young children who are being murdered or are murdering people and running drugs, I am sorry to say that very rarely do they come from the comfortable classes; they come from the discomforted classes, the people who have been short-changed on the kind of education that they desperately need. Until this Government, the next Government or the Government after that really get behind the idea of skilling up the neediest among us, we will be talking about crime, inventing YOTs and JOPs and ROPs and all sorts of other things. We will be talking about cutting police officer numbers or putting on more—we will be doing all those sorts of things, but we will not be addressing the major thing until we hit poverty. That may mean that this or the next Government have to step back and ask what this ecosystem of failure is that we keep repeating and talking about; we keep coming up with solutions, but they never configure.

It is interesting what the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, said—that you can go to the marketplace and buy cocaine quicker than you can buy a pizza. There is another element, is there not? What is happening is the commercialisation of all the sensations that you can pick up, and this is a lot to do with how we train and educate our children. We have to break people from that kind of stimulus and that kind of world where they take any kind of placebo to hide the fact that their lives are ill formed, unadventurous and unexciting.