Youth Crime

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I congratulate my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), on obtaining this valuable debate. As she has rightly pointed out, it comes 24 hours after a debate in the main Chamber on knife crime specifically. I should make a confession: I could not contribute to that debate, not least because I was in the hon. Lady’s constituency. When I tell her that I am a member of the all-party group on cricket, she will perhaps understand which particular part of the NW8 posse I was involving myself with yesterday afternoon.

The hon. Lady has made an important point. It is sad that a debate on youth crime should involve, from the Back-Bench perspective, only Members from London, as though youth crime were only an urban phenomenon. The issue is obviously close to the hearts of all of us who represent London seats, but it applies across the country. She did not quite say this, but youth crime and problems between the generations have been with us for as long as there has been history.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to stress that when we talk about youth crime, too much emphasis is placed on the idea of young people as perpetrators rather than as victims, too. Of course, throughout the generations, the victims have also included a lot of older people. Older people are fearful, perhaps with some cause, although she is also right to point out that the media make a lot of some problems and perhaps exaggerate.

The hon. Lady quoted an interesting statistic, which I had not heard before, from her experience on the Select Committee, namely that only 12 per cent. of crimes are perpetrated by young people. However, it is fair to say that some young people are more guilty than other people within our society of antisocial behaviour and a lack of civility. Those things obviously do not appear on crime statistics, but they none the less play a role in cheapening and coarsening the areas where we live.

I had not intended to do more than intervene, but I think that I shall have the Floor to myself for at least a little while longer. I both agree and disagree with the hon. Lady’s concluding comments about rolling back the state. There is a difficulty. My party has rightly said that it believes in the idea of society, but society and the state are not one and the same thing. One need only look, on a related note, at the dreadful events in New Cross that came to court last week. There was the idea of a multi-agency solution, as though somehow everything could be solved through various parts of the state. All too often, those elements of the state are only as strong as their weakest link, which was one of the contributing factors in the terrible events involving the killing of two young French students who were studying in my constituency at Imperial college.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right—this is a fair criticism of elements of Conservative policy—to suggest that the answer does not lie in voluntary and charitable groups alone. Again, there are too many gaps. We are living in a very different society—maybe regrettably, maybe not—from the society of 30 or 40 years ago, when young, educated women who had started families were the leading lights of many voluntary and charitable organisations. Those days are gone, and the notion that we can return to them is, I am afraid, not borne out in practical reality.

The hon. Lady is right to discuss gang attachment as a replacement for family structures. That applies just as much in my constituency, although not to the same extent. As she well knows, there are pockets in both my constituency and the area that she hopes will become her constituency, the Bayswater and Lancaster gate area, where there are problems. Things are often clouded by many of the issues occurring cheek by jowl with some of the wealthiest real estate in our country. Many issues occur literally 50 or 100 yards away from fabulously wealthy properties, which are often part of gated communities.

I am concerned that so many incidents receive enormous media coverage simply because of the sheer randomness of what has happened. Like the hon. Lady, I speak to young people in central London, so I know that there are real fears. I hear a lot of people say that they carry a knife for their own protection rather than with any sense of aggressive intent, and on one level one can understand that concern. People are concerned not just by the media perception of knife and other crime, but by their own experience of precisely what she has described. They may have experienced incidents that were not terribly serious but that rightly made them quite fearful, such as being bullied or going off the main track near where they live and finding themselves under intense physical threat. An element of the pessimism to which she has referred may simply be because people are getting slightly older and wiser in certain ways, but that should not necessarily make us complacent going forward.

I want to touch on a few of the local issues that the hon. Lady mentioned. In our part of central London, we have had great success in working together with the community, the police and local authorities, and it is only right and fair to say, as I said before last year’s mayoral election, that it is one of Mayor Livingstone’s great successes, in his eight years as Mayor, that he was able to bring much of that together with the safer neighbourhoods initiative. I am glad that our Conservative Mayor, Boris Johnson, is working on that seriously. There seems to have been a smooth, almost seamless, transition between the mayoralties in that regard.

The single most important element of much of the safer neighbourhoods initiative in London has been the work of local authorities. To be fair, the hon. Lady rightly pointed out that Westminster council has had great success in that area with many initiatives such as the one city initiative and the civic renewal initiative. Looking into the future, I hope those initiatives will mean that, insofar as there are to be budgetary cuts, this area will have a strong priority, even if it is not entirely ring-fenced. She is absolutely right to say that policing needs must be localised, particularly given the controversy surrounding stop-and-search. I think that stop-and-search is justifiable in many ways, but she is right that a localised sense of trust needs to be built up, so that any flash points can be sorted out relatively quickly.

I accept what the hon. Lady has said about overcrowding, but there are no easy solutions to that problem, not least when one looks at the situation with social housing organisations and associations. Many of them say that any additional private flats that come on to the market—the property market has gone through some travails in the past couple of years—are sub-standard, in relation to overcrowding, for their purposes. That is a major issue, which I hope that all the parties understand. There is no doubt that living in flats or apartments may contribute to a stressful cocktail, particularly for young men who have a lot of surplus energy that needs to be got rid of.

For the past two years, I have been the president of the St. Andrew’s club, which is a quarter of a mile—literally a stone’s throw—away from here, in Old Pye street, which is part of the Abbey Orchard estate. I am glad that the new lord mayor of Westminster, Councillor Duncan Sandys, who happens to represent that ward, has made it his big charity of the year. It is the oldest youth club—it was a boys club when it was set up in the 1870s, but it now takes girls as well. It does a tremendous amount of work with art, dance and various acting shows, and it has a significant number of football teams and other activities.

That club is a beacon, and I hope that the fact that the lord mayor has made it his specific charity will provide the foundation for its financial wherewithal for some time. I have been lobbying Westminster city council at a time of great constraint, and it has been able to provide a certain amount of money, but the club has effectively been losing money year on year and has had to dig into its reserves. On a positive note, it has an initiative with the private Westminster school, which is in the vicinity, and tries to gain income from allowing the school to use its facilities during the day. I suspect, for the reasons that I have set out, that the club is rather luckier than many such clubs throughout the capital and the country, which are under increasing financial constraint.

These issues are important, and I look forward to hearing the contributions from Front-Benchers. It is easy to be glib about this issue, but youth crime is important. It is not just an inner-city problem and it is not just a problem for young people, as it affects all of us in society. We have to get things right. There have been some positive developments. I speak largely from an inner-London perspective, but I hope that there is little dispute between all of us in politics on this issue. We understand the importance of this issue and that there is much work to do. The statistics might be moving in the right direction, but that is no cause for complacency.

In the latter part of 2007 and in the beginning of 2008 there seemed to be headlines in the national press, and certainly in the Evening Standard, every week about the death of yet another young person in London, but that is no longer the case. That may not mean that those incidents have stopped altogether—it is partly that the media bandwagon has moved on—but there have been improvements, which is one reason why it is less of a high-profile issue. However, there should be no complacency. I am pleased to have been able to say a few words, and I thank the hon. Lady for introducing the debate.