Youth Violence (london)

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Olner, for allowing me to make a brief contribution to this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) on obtaining this debate; his contribution on his own inner-London borough was very thoughtful. It is a tribute to the importance of this debate that so many hon. Members have turned out today. We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) and from the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling). This is a major issue about which we all feel very strongly.

To be brutally honest, I fear that we will not necessarily be able to find an enormous number of solutions out of hon. Member’s speeches, and I confess that much of what I shall say will be to put on the record some of the concerns in the city of Westminster. In the past six months there have been some 303 recorded youth violence incidents in Westminster?a 6 per cent. drop from the previous year. We can all be pleased with that reduction, although I take on board a number of the concerns about the reliability of certain statistics, particularly in relation to the more serious aspects, such as knife crime.

The very great majority of youngsters in London constitute a positive and valued part of London’s population, but find themselves tarred with a particular brush and considered a problem in their youth?that probably happened in all our youths, but it seems to be an even more prevalent media story today. I am not complaining about the media, and one fully understands that some of these terrible crimes need to be covered, but the fact remains that the great majority of London’s youngsters are extremely hardworking and thoughtful. We have all visited schools. It never ceases to surprise us how well genned up are many of our youngsters on matters political and how in many other ways they are able to make a great contribution.

It must be extremely difficult to be brought up in the very busy parts of London, particularly of inner London, where there are relatively few things for teenagers to do.

Simon Hughes: To reinforce that point, one of the most exciting things that I have done in the past few weeks was to visit the City of London academy in Bermondsey where, last Friday, it held a school election for its head girl and boy. The turnout at all the assemblies was huge. There were six candidates?three girls and three boys?which was a sign of real, mature interest, excitement, enjoyment and fun. This morning, I had the privilege of being able to ring up the winners and say, “Good luck, guys; I hope you live up to your promises.” The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that there is much good energy and talent, and that we need to pick up on those examples, rather than look elsewhere.

Mr. Field: I could mischievously suggest that the hon. Gentleman should also speak to those who came third. That would be a very typical thing for a Liberal Democrat to do.

Simon Hughes: In Bermondsey, it is always the Conservatives who come third.

Mr. Field: I guess I stepped into that one. As is the case with a lot of crime, the perception and fear of crime are often at the heart of the problem. The significant coverage given to all the recent knife and gun crime fatalities has meant that young people naturally feel scared. I have heard of pupils from Westminster City school articulating their concerns about feeling intimidated by gangs of youths in the street and on buses. It is important that young people believe that youth crime is taken seriously, that reported incidents are dealt with swiftly and effectively and that there is a police presence on our streets and transport systems to make people feel safer.

Ms Buck: There is a problem with perception in some schools, which, I suspect, goes across the board. Schools that are seen to be addressing and debating issues of youth violence, including those in which police officers have been stationed, often report parental concern, particularly at the time of application, about the very fact that there is a police officer linked to the school or that there is a high-profile debate about youth violence. Other parental concerns include schools’ work with community organisations such as the excellent Uncut, which works in my area. Those concerns put parents off and are perceived to demonstrate that those schools are in trouble. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to urge all schools, in London and elsewhere, to recognise that this issue is a fact of life that we have to debate and address? Does he agree that if a school does so, it is not a sign that it is a sink school?

Mr. Field: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. She has made her point extremely well, and I do not need to add to it.

Concern about youth crime extends to older constituents, because youth violence spills out into busy public areas. Many hon. Members will know that one of the most high-profile knife killings occurred in my constituency on 13 May last year, when a 22-year-old man had his throat slit in a McDonald’s on Oxford street. That happened in front of horrified shoppers, while rival groups hurled drinks and fought on the pavement outside. That sort of youth crime is not somehow ring-fenced; it affects the population at large.

I recently met one of Britain’s top trauma surgeons, who operates at the Royal London hospital. He confirmed that there are significant problems with the collection of evidence and reporting of knife violence to the police, and recommends a more joined-up approach between all the authorities concerned, including the police, the Home Office, hospitals, the Mayor of London and local authorities. I am pleased that the Mayor intends to emphasise the need for joined-up thinking in the strategic framework for London that he will launch next month. Similarly, Westminster city council is keen to develop information-sharing protocols and codes of practice with neighbouring authorities in order to work together on addressing the serious youth crime and violence that transcends boundaries. As the hon. Lady has rightly pointed out, in many of our schools in Westminster, the majority of children and parents are from outside the borough, which makes such joined-up thinking all the more important.

We have discussed the complex factors that interact to increase the probability of a young person turning to violence. They include a lack of discipline and of role models, fractured families, personality type, lack of support and the influence of peers and siblings. I am afraid that the glamorisation of gang violence is another factor, which will be very difficult for us to counter fully.

My final point is about the initiatives that are taking place in Westminster city council. Today is probably an appropriate day on which to mention this, because the leader of the council has just come out with a detailed plan to address what he regards to be the 3 per cent. of problem families who produce 97 per cent. of the work load in a whole range of Government Departments. One initiative in particular is worth serious consideration. Offenders who are sentenced to do community service are often required to do hundreds of hours of unpaid work, and the council would like to incorporate that work locally as part of suitable youth diversionary projects. That would also help to introduce a sense of responsibility and purpose, and would, I hope, do its bit to reduce reoffending.