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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 6 April 2010

[Mr. Mike Weir in the Chair]

Gang Crime (London)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Mr. Hanson.)

9.30 am

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on gang crime in London. This will be my last speech of the current Parliament, and I am fortunate indeed that it is on a subject on which I have worked in different ways all my political career. One of the first things I did as a young woman interested in wider society was help out at a youth club in Paddington, so the issues have always been close to my heart. It is an important subject also because it speaks to social cohesion, to our sense of community and to what is happening to our young people.

Gang crime is of great concern to all our constituents in London, but it would be wrong to move on and discuss my concerns without talking first about what my Government have done on the subject, not least because it will save the Minister from having to go over it. Gangs are part of the wider serious youth violence agenda, and my Government have spent more than £17 million on that agenda since September 2007. Through my Government's work, we have seen tougher enforcement and sentences and new legislation to tackle violent crime and gangs.

The Government have also introduced gang injunctions, which enable local authorities and the police to tackle over-18s involved in gang-related violence by banning them from meeting other gang members, wearing gang colours, hanging around in certain locations and owning dangerous dogs. We are looking to extend that tool to 14 to 17-year-olds. Under a Labour Government we have seen a tightening of the law on gun crime and the introduction of a minimum sentence of five years for possession of an illegal firearm. I have campaigned successfully for a ban on replica weapons, because much of the gun crime in London is perpetrated not with real weapons, but with replica guns that have been rebored for shooting.

The Metropolitan police have also put in place various operations to deal with gun, gang and knife crime, including Operation Blunt, which was set up after the murder of Robert Levy in Hackney in 2005, and I pay tribute to the work his father has done since then on gangs, guns and knives. We have consistently provided funding for local institutions best placed to work on measures that help young people to leave gangs. In April 2010 the Government are pledging a further £5 million to tackle knife crime and serious youth violence.

Having set out my Government's achievements on the issue, and not wishing to detract from what they have done, I will say that we all know that it is not just a question of money, and certainly not just a question of legislation. Some of the legislation to which I have
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referred has not been used very much so far. It is a multi-dimensional subject, and I want to touch on some of those dimensions in my remarks.

As a consequence of the work that the Government and the Metropolitan police have done, we have seen an overall drop in crime in London. Statistics from the Metropolitan Police Authority from the 12 months to February 2010, when compared with figures for the previous year, appear to show that knife crime in London has decreased, as has youth violence.

The position in my constituency is similar. In fact, the figures seem to demonstrate that crime in Hackney is at its lowest level for 10 years, and I would like to take the opportunity to praise publicly the police in my constituency, and particularly the borough commander, Steve Bending, for their hard work in achieving that milestone. The figures show that the borough has seen a 7 per cent. reduction in knife crime and an 8.6 per cent. reduction in serious youth violence.

However, as a former Home Office official, I know that it is possible to debate the figures. Such statistics are sometimes a matter of art, rather than science. Fear of gang crime-not just the fear of being the victim, but the fear that mothers have about how safe their children are on the streets-has never been higher in my constituency, despite the welcome drop shown by the statistics. When we read about gang crime in the papers, we read about the victims and the gang members are often demonised. None the less, for every gang member and every victim of a gang member there are mothers, parents, families and communities that have been traumatised, and that is what makes it such a widespread concern.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for securing the debate and for the work she has done on the matter, as I have had the privilege of doing some of that work with her. Does she agree that it would help hugely, particularly in relation to the fear of crime, if we could get the statistics agreed politically, as it were, and thereby avoid the alarmist reporting, sometimes by political parties and candidates, that makes the situation sound and feel worse than it is? If we could get that sort of agreement even in London between all the parties as a starting point in the next Parliament, we would at least reduce some of the alarmist material that is put through people's doors and read in the papers.

Ms Abbott: That is an interesting and constructive point. In my speech I will try to distinguish between the fear of crime and the actuality of crime, which is why I started by setting out the statistics. One of the things that whips up the public on gang crime is the reporting of it, partly by some of our colleagues-it is true of all parties-who sometimes slip into using the issue to whip up fear and detract attention from the welcome actual drop in crime. If we could move forward in the next Parliament, perhaps with the leadership of the Metropolitan Police Authority, to have agreed figures for crime in London, that would at least provide a sensible basis for debate.

We hear much about knife crime in London and read about it in both the local and national papers, but the national press rarely mentions the fact that the knife crime capital of this country is Glasgow and has been for many years, because knives have traditionally been
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the way in which Glasgow criminals settle their disputes. The impression we might have, however, is that the knife crime capital of the country is Southwark, Hackney or Lambeth, so to be able to go forward on the basis of mutually agreed figures would be a real step forward.

I warn against alarmism and point to the welcome drops in crime shown in the official figures, but sadly the incidence of gun crime, rape and offences of violence against the person is on the rise in my constituency, as it is in the whole of London. Those are specific crimes, so to highlight them is not to say that crime as a whole is rising in London, because clearly it is not, but those specific crimes are rising. It is not unreasonable to suggest that gun crime, rape and offences of violence against the person are sometimes related to gangs.

It is not just a question of statistics. Recently we saw an extraordinary incident of alleged gang crime in Victoria station, just a few hundred yards from here. It appears that two gangs converged on the station and, in plain sight of hundreds of commuters, decided to take their feud and warfare to another level. Commuters in Victoria station witnessed a 15-year-old boy being stabbed in the chest in the ticket hall during the rush hour. Witnesses say that the culprits were wearing school uniform. As many as 12 young people could face charges in what is believed to have been a pre-arranged fight in which children turned up armed with knives.

I ask Members to pause and think about that. We all know about schoolboy and schoolgirl angst and tensions. We all know about schoolboys fighting and, perhaps, about gangs, but what in the culture of this city makes gangs of schoolboys and schoolgirls feel able to stab each other in plain sight during the rush hour? Does that not suggest that we have moved on from the situation 10 or 20 years ago to a very different and alarming situation in which people's loyalty to their gang, their determination to gain respect and their disdain for wider society overrides the caution that kept young people from having knife fights in plain sight, even a decade ago?

Sadly, even in Hackney, in my constituency, we have seen some unfortunate incidents of gang crime. I have with me the latest edition of the Hackney Gazette. The title on the front page is, "The Scourge of Teen Violence". Further on in the paper, an article states:

One of those people was Godwin Lawson, a 17-year-old promising footballer, who was stabbed to death in Amhurst Park, Stamford Hill, in my constituency, in the early hours of last Saturday. Another incident saw shots fired in broad daylight while parents collected their children from a nursery in Allen road, Stoke Newington. Witnesses reported seeing two young people, one carrying a gun and one brandishing a knife, chasing another youth who was forced to take sanctuary in a shop. Just the week before, a young Turkish mother was shot dead at close range after answering a knock on the door to her mother's flat.

Something about these incidents-not just the violence as such but the brazenness and the fact that young people feel no fear and, paradoxically, almost that they
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have nothing to live for-is chilling. It represents a step change from the kind of schoolboy fighting and incidents with which many of us will be familiar.

Gun crime is a particular issue in London, partly because we seem to have more gangs. However, we have to be careful about what we define as a gang. A group of young men is not a criminal gang just because they are hanging about on the street. Many of those young guys hang about on the street because they live in two-bedroom flats with half a dozen siblings. Hanging about on the street is what they know, and they make a practice of looking as frightening as possible when actually they are not about serious criminal business. None the less, there are real criminal gangs in the city.

In 2007, it was said that 169 separate gangs were operating in London, and that Hackney, in my borough, had the most gangs-a total of 22. Again, we need to be careful. Not all the groupings are criminal gangs. The London-wide figure of 169 in 2007 was down on the figure of 200 in 2005, but it is still alarming.

I live on Middleton road in Hackney. One end of the road is dominated by the Holly Street gang-it is the gang next door to me-and the other end is dominated by the London Fields gang. I remember on my way home one evening talking to a young boy who was complaining that there was nothing to do in Hackney. I asked him, "What do you mean there is nothing to do? The council has just built a brand new swimming pool in London Fields." He said, "But you don't understand. For me to walk from here"-we were at my end of the road-"up to the London Fields lido means going into the territory of the London Fields gang, and I just can't do that."

One can exaggerate the issue of postcode gangs, but they are real, and they affect how young people, certainly in my borough, feel able to live their lives. They are real to women I know who are frightened that, if their son is waiting at a bus stop or walking down the street and is perceived by other young men to be someone from another postcode who should not be there, he will be at risk. They create all kinds of issues in organising youth provision, because one can put such provision in an area and think that it is well placed, but people from a particular postcode who might be physically near it will not come. Postcode gangs are a genuinely new phenomenon, and young people are terrified of crossing the street or riding a bus into another postcode for fear of stepping into another gang's territory.

Some of these gangs-this is certainly the case in Hackney-operate in areas next to houses worth £1 million. One of the glories of London is that it still has a diverse and mixed community, but, unlike some other parts of the world, it means that we cannot say that gang culture is something that operates at some remove, in some remote ghetto at the edge of the city, as it does in Paris, for instance. In inner London, one is never that far from a postcode where some gang is operating, so gangs and the related youth criminality are not something from which people in more prosperous parts of the city can turn away.

Why do young people join gangs? As ever, young people join gangs, even harmless social gangs, because they want a sense of belonging. They want mates, and they want to be able to function socially. Some of us will remember "Just William" and the outlaws. That little gang was perhaps the archetypal gang: young men
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gathered together, glorying in their sense of togetherness and keeping just this side of what grown-ups would like. Unfortunately, the "Just William" kind of gang has morphed into the gang problem that we see on the streets of London.

What is the source of the problem? I would say that the underlying issue is education. By and large, young men who are at school or college doing AS or A-levels are not taking part in gangs. However, those who have aspirations and are trying to study may get caught up on the fringes of gang culture. That has happened to the children of friends of mine. Friends have been shocked to discover that their sons, who are intelligent, and who are studying and working hard, are involved on the fringes of gang culture because if they did not appear to be willing to relate to the gang culture in their school or community, they would be outsiders. They would feel that they did not belong. Any hon. Member who is a parent will know that there is nothing more important to young boys than belonging.

There is the social thing, but there is also education, as I said. There is no question but that the continuing achievement gap between black boys and the wider school population has some bearing on the involvement of African-Caribbean boys in gangs. That is why, since the 1990s, I have worked on the issue. I have convened think-tanks and organised conferences. I set up a project, London schools and the black child, and for the past seven years have organised an awards ceremony here in Parliament for London's top-achieving black children in order to reward and try to highlight those young people, both male and female, who are bucking the trend, going to school and university, getting top grades and studying law, medicine and so on.

However, the stereotype of black young people and gangs is pernicious. I organised my last awards ceremony for October 2009. We had Christine Ohuruogu, the Olympic gold medallist, and several television celebrities handing out awards. When we tried to interest the Evening Standard in the event by saying that it was to be held at the House of Commons, that we would have celebrities and that we would give awards to children who had 11 A*s at A-level, we encountered great resistance. Finally, it rang and asked, "Are any of these young people ex-gang members?" We said, "No", and it said that it was not interested. In other words, young people are a story if they are a stereotype, but a young person working hard and trying to do well at school does not fit the story. If we are going to deal with gang culture, we have to continue to address the educational gap faced by young black men and, increasingly, young Turkish men at school. The surest way of keeping young people out of the gang culture is showing them a way forward through education and the wider society.

I would not want to leave this subject without saying what Hackney schools are doing on this issue. Last month I visited Tyssen primary school, which is targeting underachieving Afro-Caribbean students with an innovative programme that engages them by using Nintendo DS "Brain Training", which has been successfully driving up their results, particularly in maths. Other schools in the area, including Hackney's first academy, Mossbourne, under the inspired leadership of Sir Michael Wilshaw, are working with and driving our young people of all colours to get some of the best educational results in the country.


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Educational underachievement is an underlying issue in respect of gang culture. Another issue is the lack of role models, which the Government have addressed with their REACH programme of role models. None the less, the best role models are those people see in their own family. Both my parents came here from Jamaica and both of them left school at 14. When my brother and I were children our father went out to work every day God sent and, on a Friday, brought home his wage packet to my mother. That was our model of a real black man-a man who went out to work and looked after his family. He may have been a bit harsh and strict, but he had an unbending notion of financial responsibility. Sadly, in the estates around me in Hackney there are communities of young people who do not have male-headed households and do not see men or women going out to work every day. A father or mother, or a relative, going out to work and taking their responsibilities seriously is the most important role model for many of our young people-not some remote celebrity.

I am not saying-I would be the last person to say-that single mothers are the basis of this problem. I am a single parent myself, as are many of my friends, and we are rightly proud of our children. None the less, there are whole estates where hardly anyone is going out to work regularly, and that is a problem. To be fair, the Government have sought to address this issue. However, the absence of male role models is a serious problem.

As well as the more general absence of male role models, it is important to get more men into primary schools. I have visited a number of primary schools in my constituency in recent months and, with some exceptions, there is an absence of men in the classroom. All the evidence suggests that young black men, particularly-and, I suspect, working-class young men more generally-need to see men in the classroom; men taking education seriously. Even if teachers cannot be recruited, men could come and read to them, making a marked difference to their aspirations and their notions of masculinity.

I remember working with some American academics in the 1990s who said that to make a difference in respect of black men underachieving one had to get them when they were under 11, get men in the classroom and tie that in with activities in the wider community. Lord Adonis was interested in that when he was Schools Minister. I attended meetings with him to discuss what we could do about getting more black male classroom teachers. Whoever wins the forthcoming election needs to address that issue, because it is a key component in giving our young men-both black young men and white working-class young men-the role models that they can aspire to.

Simon Hughes: I agree. There are some encouraging signs. I chair the governing body of a primary school in Bermondsey and the head told me that more men are willing to apply to be primary school teachers and to do other jobs, partly because lots of people who had high-flying jobs in the City are not able to do them any more and partly because people are discovering that a career chasing money is not fulfilling. Lots of people are looking for a career change. There is the beginning of a realisation that one of the most valuable jobs that can be done as a man in London is to teach or to work
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in schools. We should build on this new sense of responsibility. The hon. Lady is right. The next Government need to prioritise that. The local councils, all of which will be re-elected in May, need to make that a priority, too.

Ms Abbott: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding me of this. Just recently there has been an uptick in the numbers of men going into schools. That is important.

One underlying issue in relation to gang crime, which is obvious but not often stated, is the high levels of unemployment in the inner city. Unemployment rates in my constituency are higher than the average: there is 8.8 per cent. unemployment there, which is the equivalent of more than 5,000 people. I remind right hon. and hon. Members that the figures are almost certainly an underestimate: many people are not counted at all because they do not even bother to sign on. The unemployment rates in Hackney, and in London as a whole, are higher than in the rest of the country.

It needs to be stressed that it is not just about overall levels of unemployment. When I was a child growing up in Paddington, before the days of Hugh Grant and the "Notting Hill" film, all the men in my life worked, often in light engineering and factories. In the 1960s and '70s, there was still a considerable amount of light engineering and factory work-my father was a welder, for example-and blue collar employment. In other words employment suitable for males without formal qualifications was available. In the past 20 years manufacturing and blue collar employment for males in London has collapsed. Whereas my father became a welder and had apprentices, even though he left school at 14, and was proud of being able to support his family, increasingly young men, both black and white, look around and do not see employment opportunities for them unless they get formal qualifications. It is much easier now for women than for men in the workplace, which is why I focus on education. But let us not forget that the collapse of male employment in London has helped create the problem that we see. That is not to say that because people are unemployed they are a criminal or should be a gang member, but it is part of the context.

Another issue behind the rising gang crime is the rise in materialism in the past 20 years. People want the bling, the clothes, the jewellery and the designer labels, and they want it now. There is no notion of deferred gratification among many of our young people. They watch MTV and music videos. They want glamour, glitz and materialism now and society appears to teach them that they can have it.


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