Serious Violence Strategy Debate

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Serious Violence Strategy

Lord Suri Excerpts
Monday 11th June 2018

(3 years, 1 month ago)

Lords Chamber

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Lord Balfe Portrait Lord Balfe (Con)
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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.

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.