Gangs and Youth Violence (2011 Riots)

Mark made the following contribution to a Westminster Hall debate tabled by Westminster North MP, Karen Buck, on gang and youth violence. 

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster, Conservative)

I congratulate my constituency neighbour, Ms Buck on securing this important debate. Although I have some sympathy with her view that it is a shame that these issues are not being debated in the main Chamber, it seems that this is an appropriate place to debate matters that have a strong constituency aspect. I hope that the Minister will take on board the issues that she has raised.

I very much agree with the hon. Lady that there should be an absolute rejection of the culture of despair, which was part and parcel of the immediate response by the press and commentators to what happened—particularly, though not exclusively—on the streets of the capital city during August 2011. That issue of despair touches on a point made by Mr Thomas, and today’s Evening Standard talks about Croydon no longer being a place that middle-class people wish to live in, which is having an impact on a number of big employers in the east Croydon area. Allianz is one such employer, but Allders department store has also closed down and Nestlé has moved out of Croydon to Crawley. There is a sense that the almost totemic aspect of the burning down of the long-standing department store in Croydon in August 2011 has had a very negative impact on Croydon as a place to live and work in. The idea of the culture of despair is to be questioned fundamentally.

The hon. Gentleman was right to say that this is not simply an issue for the inner cities, or for high-profile places such as perhaps Tottenham or parts of Hackney, which have traditionally been regarded as problem areas as far as gang culture is concerned. It is now permeating into what were once regarded as leafy suburbs—I appreciate that Harrow West does not necessarily comply with that stereotype, and the same can be said of Croydon.

I want to restrict my comments to something that is local to my constituency and say something about Westminster city council’s innovative approach to gangs and tackling youth violence, which has been touched on. The Your Choice programme was launched by the council alongside the Metropolitan police in the aftermath of the riots, starting as soon as November 2011. It was in response to an escalation in gang-related violence in the borough, and although there were lessons to be learnt from August 2011, it was part of a general process that had been happening for some years.

Your Choice is an evidence-based, multi-agency programme that involves the neighbourhood crime reduction service, the children and families services, the Metropolitan police, the probation service, and a range of other voluntary sector organisations, all trying to work together. The scheme tackles gang and youth violence through preventative measures such as early intervention in schools, gang outreach work and effective exit programmes, in order to ensure that a real difference is made to the young people who are in or at risk of joining gangs.

Fundamentally, it has two crucial aims. First and foremost, Westminster’s approach to gangs gives young people a real choice: they can engage and receive support, but if they do not, they must recognise that they face enforcement and sanctions. Secondly, the key to understanding the issue is that the local community must remain the absolute focus for the efforts, and the council provides a number of opportunities throughout the programme to capture community feedback and ensure that they are part of the solution.

To give a brief overview of how the programme operates, Your Choice currently works with more than 150 young people who are either actively involved in youth crime and gang activity, or are regarded as being at top risk of getting involved in gang violence. It has eight programmes that have been developed to tackle the complex and often multiple issues experienced by young people who are involved in or at risk of becoming

involved in gangs. Those programmes include an outreach programme and an employment programme that gets young people into education, training or work. There is a gang-exit programme, as well as a school awareness programme and a housing scheme that quickly moves victims or perpetrators where gang violence has occurred. One scheme also focuses specifically on girls, helping to improve their self-esteem and prevent sexual exploitation. I know that that issue is very close to the heart of the hon. Member for Westminster North and I will address it in more detail later. What is absolutely central to the idea of all the Your Choice programmes, as co-ordinated by Westminster city council, is the concept and notion of personal responsibility, choices and consequences.

There have been some local successes. It is important for all of us as Members of Parliament in London to note that, as well as rightly highlighting particular problems to the Home Office. Where there are successes, there are opportunities not only to praise local workers, but hopefully to find a route forward that can affect the capital and other parts of the country where gang culture is becoming sadly more prevalent. The Your Choice approach has been peer-reviewed by the Home Office and it has received commendation not only for its strategic vision and leadership, but for challenging the commissioning approach and its overall ambition.

The notable outcomes have been here on the ground. As recently as October this year, gang workers have been conducting mediation on a number of estates in the borough between parents and young people in order to try and reduce tension. The intensive outreach workers have been getting pretty good results with complex families who have never before engaged with council services.

Since the end of August, regular positive outcomes have been achieved with the Fresh Start employment scheme. I would not be naive enough to say that I did not have a lot of sympathy with what the hon. Member for Westminster North said in her contribution. Of course, there is a massive problem with youth unemployment not just in this country, but in much of the western world. Broadly, the unemployment figures in this country are less negative than might have been assumed, given the broad state of an economy in which there is no growth, but there is a particular problem for under-25s. As I said, that applies not just in the UK, but in other parts of Europe, so we should not in any way suggest that a silver bullet has been produced by Westminster city council. None the less, its Fresh Start employment scheme has made some difference, even if not quite as much of a difference and not quite as quickly as we would all have hoped. One referral has secured an apprenticeship; another has obtained an interview; and two have secured permanent positions. All these men have been very difficult to engage in the past, but the council’s new approach has proven a success.

Karen Buck (Westminster North, Labour)

I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman is saying, and he may be coming on to this, but does he accept that the larger part of the funding that has gone into developing the Your Choice programme—and the positive outcomes that he has been talking about—is from the Home Office and the Mayor’s fund that I am so concerned about in terms of its continuation and reductions?

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster, Conservative)

Yes, I do accept that. I am always wary of doing too much special pleading for my own constituents or even people in London more generally, but the hon. Lady is right to say that specific problems were identified and tackled. As she rightly points out, a relatively small amount of money spent now may have such positive outcomes in terms of reduced public expenditure for years to come that that small investment should be made. We all appreciate, however, that these are incredibly difficult financial times. I have always made it a self-denying ordinance that where there are Government plans to make cuts, I will not stand up against those, because it is an amazingly difficult financial situation that we have to deal with. As a country, we are still borrowing one in every five pounds that we spend. The deficit reduction programme is, I am afraid, very much in the early stages of its achievement. We have many years of that ahead. We must get our public finances in order, but equally there are some fundamental issues that hon. Members in this debate rightly want to address.

I want to touch on the future of what is proposed with the Your Choice programme specifically as it affects Westminster city council. From the new year onwards, the following issues will arise. First and foremost is the issue of sustainable funding. We all appreciate that so much of the work that has been done in the past 15 or 16 months has relied heavily on short-term, ring-fenced, specific aspects of funding that take a significant amount of officer resource to agree and manage. The council and others are working hard, as are the Metropolitan police, to enable local authorities to submit business cases that can attract funding over a three to four-year period, but I still think that Westminster council and other local authorities in the capital require Home Office funding and support as part of the upcoming financial settlement in order to make that a reality.

There is increasing consensus that the problem of youth violence, and violence more generally, must be seen through the lens of public health. With responsibility for this area passing to local authorities, there is more scope than ever to take that slightly longer term perspective, but the varying faces of health continue to be relatively minor players in the partnership to tackle elements of youth violence. Support from both national and regional NHS commissioning bodies is still required to enable that partnership to improve. The hope is that with the health reforms bedding down, we will see, in the months and years to come, the element of stability that we all seek.

On the Home Office peer reviews, the Ending Gang and Youth Violence team are in the process of completing their reviews of the 29 priority areas for tackling gang and youth violence and have identified some 500 improvement actions. Across the country, there are areas of best practice for particular issues. The continued support and leadership from the Home Office, as well as the resources where necessary, will be crucial to ensure that we have a long-term spreading of that expertise to raise standards across the country. We do not want to get lulled into complacency and have to reinvent the wheel the next time there are riots.

I want to touch on the issue of girls and gangs, which other hon. Members may want to touch on as well. We are only just beginning to understand the extent to which young women are affected by gang culture. This culture has been regarded very much as a male thing.

People think of young men being in gangs, with all the violence that is part and parcel of that. However, there is no doubt that there has been a significant problem, which is only just being uncovered, with the victimisation of young teenage girls through sexual exploitation and violence such as that exposed in the recent Children’s Commissioner report. There is also the issue of girls acting more as perpetrators as a result of the power and control exerted by gangs. It is crucial that the Home Office funding over the next three years is used to employ young persons’ advocates. That is an important step towards addressing those concerns, but it has to be part of a wider safeguarding response, and local areas need support and guidance to embed the right approaches.

Let me make some comments about elements slightly closer to home, which were alluded to by the hon. Member for Westminster North. We all appreciate that Westminster, right in the centre of London, is pioneering the approach that we are talking about, but there is growing concern among residents of the Churchill Gardens estate in the Pimlico area of my constituency about gang members, many of whom—not all—are coming from other boroughs to Westminster to engage in criminal activity and intimidation. A petition was delivered to me only yesterday by two especially dedicated local constituents, which demonstrates just how anxious residents on estates such as Churchill Gardens feel when a core group of offenders comes from outside to cause trouble.

It is perhaps a slightly depressing thought that often things need to happen in the constituency that I represent, or in that of the hon. Member for Westminster North, in order for many opinion formers to take a little more notice than they otherwise would. When things happen within the curtilage of the parliamentary buildings that we are sitting in, they inevitably get far more coverage in the national papers and perhaps more extensive coverage in papers such as the Evening Standard. That allows the profile of the issue to become more prevalent, but gang culture is clearly a major issue that we face not only here in central London, but in many of the suburbs and the other seats whose representatives will make contributions later in the debate.

I shall conclude by asking this of the Minister. I hope that he will feel that his Department has a role in disseminating and sharing information on best practice when there have been especially successful programmes, such as Your Choice, in order to prevent instances in which one borough’s difficult gang members are not being dealt with as effectively and therefore cause trouble in neighbouring areas and beyond.

I am sorry that I am the only Back Bench Member from the governing parties to be present at the debate. Obviously, other important debates and other important parliamentary business are going on today, but I hope that the Minister will recognise that gang and youth violence is a concern that is close to the hearts of all hon. Members representing inner-city seats or London seats generally. These are very important issues that are affecting many millions of the constituents whom we represent. Perhaps it is a different culture from the culture that is prevalent in the relatively leafy market towns of Somerset. I am not being in any way disrespectful to the area that the Minister represents. However, these problems affect and have an impact on the constituencies of all Members of Parliament who represent the inner cities and, in particular, the capital city. These are

Members from all political parties. I hope that the Minister will be able to address some of the very real concerns that he will hear about in the course of this debate.