London MPs discuss gang culture during teenage knife crime debate

June 11, 2009 at 3:55 pm 1 comment

The Shadow Home Secretary initiated a debate on teenage knife crime yesterday.

Chris Grayling began by welcoming Alan Johnson to his new role as Home Secretary.

“It is five years since I last did battle with the right hon. Gentleman over top-up fees, and it is a pleasure to shadow him again,” he said.

“I wondered whether he might prove to be the shortest-lived Home Secretary in the history of this country, but following last night’s meeting of the parliamentary Labour party it appears that he might have to wait a little longer before he gets the opportunity to move into No. 10.

“Seriously, however, I look forward to debating the issues facing us all over the months ahead.”

Mr Grayling said he wanted the debate to focus on finding solutions to knife crime among young people.

“No doubt we will argue intensively over the failures of Government policy, but today’s debate is intended to be different,” he said.

“I understand from the Clerks that it is customary for an Opposition day motion to be critical of the Government and their policies, but this motion is not intended to do that.

“Rather, it is intended to stimulate a serious discussion about an issue that has been of concern to all of us—knife crime, particularly among our young people.”

He praised last week’s Home Affairs Select Committee report on the subject as “thoughtful,” but pointed out that not all teenagers are armed.

“There is no arms race going on among all children in the United Kingdom, nor are all seven-year-olds carrying knives for their elders,” he told MPs.

“There is an acute gang problem in some parts of the country, particularly in inner-city areas and most significantly in parts of London, but the vast majority of young people are decent, law-abiding citizens, getting on with their lives, taking their exams, working on a Saturday morning and having fun on a Saturday night. We must not allow a serious and important debate to create the sense that young people are a problem today.”

Mr Grayling said the reality of the situation is “stark.”

“The level of fatal stabbings is the highest on record.

“There has been a 34 per cent. increase in the number of people killed by sharp instruments such as knives in recent years.

“The number of people stabbed to death in England and Wales increased from 201 a decade ago to 270 in 2007-08, the highest figure on record. That is a serious problem. A serious knife crime—although not a homicide—is committed every hour.”

He quoted a 2008 MORI youth survey indicated that 31 per cent. of 11 to 16-year-olds in mainstream education and 61 per cent. of excluded young people had carried a weapon at some point during the preceding year.

“We have to tackle the root causes of worklessness, educational failure and family breakdown, and we have to foster a revolution in what we have dubbed our broken society,” he told MPs.

“But we also need to deliver the direct, on-the-ground support that can steer those young people caught up in the knife culture away from it.”

Alan Johnson thanked Mr Grayling for “his remarks and his welcome to me as Home Secretary.”

“I do indeed remember the last time we faced each other over the Dispatch Box,” he said, to which Labour MP Rob Marris shouted: “You won!”

“I like to think that the nation won,” Mr Johnson replied.

“The tragic cases of youngsters killed because of knife crime in London and elsewhere have shocked and saddened the nation,” he told the House.

“Reducing knife crime and crime among young people more widely is of paramount importance, not only because of the need to deal with the very small minority of young people who are persistent offenders and who cause considerable anxiety and harm to their victims, families and communities, but because addressing the issues that can lead to criminality among young people is essential for a fairer, safer society.”

Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington, was one of several London MPs to speak in the debate.

“On the question of young people’s attitude to murder, is it not perhaps so much that they think that murder is acceptable but that they believe in their gangs and their communities that anything is acceptable when it comes to enforcing respect, to territorial defence of their gang or to demonstrating how much of a man they are?” she asked.

“It is such attitudes that we have to undermine.”

“From all my experience, I think that my hon. Friend is absolutely right,” Mr Johnson said.

“Incidentally, my press office had arranged for me to meet some police on Westminster’s Churchill Gardens estate yesterday and to walk around for my first on-camera shot as Home Secretary.

“By a real coincidence, that was where I was badly assaulted when I was 15.

“I came from the rough end of Notting Hill, and thought that this was a posh area of Pimlico, but the problem was a territorial thing because we were in an area that was not our territory.

“My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) is absolutely right to say that such attitudes are ingrained in people, but sometimes they can be reinforced by the things that they see and read.

“That is why I want to repeat that the Home Affairs Committee has done us a service by mentioning the fact that people feel that they have to go to that extra level to prove how hard and tough they are, and how much harder and tougher they are than the other gang.”

Mr Johnson said the youth crime action plan launched last summer of last year is providing more support to address the underlying causes of poor behaviour.

“It places a greater focus on prevention to tackle the low-level but serious problems such as truancy or exclusion that put young people at increased risk of becoming involved in crime or antisocial behaviour.”

He also praised family intervention projects, Operation Staysafe, which preventing vulnerable young people from being drawn into criminal activity and 5,300 Safer Schools partnerships “fostering better relationships between police and young people.”

“The advertising campaign, “It Doesn’t Have to Happen”, has been designed by young people, for young people, with that precise purpose,” he said.

“Aimed at 10 to 16-year-olds, the adverts portray unflinchingly the physical effects of knife wounds and have been viewed more than 13 million times. Of those youngsters surveyed, 73 per cent. said that they were less likely to carry a knife as a result of seeing the advert.”

The Home Secretary said that through the Be Safe programme, 1 million young people will be able to attend workshops over the next five years on the dangers of knives and other weapons.

Emily Thornberry, MP for Islington South and Finsbury, commended stop and search.

“My area is one in which the action programme has been introduced because of the problems that we have had with knife crime, resulting in a number of deaths, ending, unfortunately, with Ben Kinsella’s murder last summer,” she said.

“Youngsters were afraid to go out on the street because they thought other people were carrying knives, so they carried them themselves. The introduction of random stop and search among all young people was extremely helpful in putting a cap on the carrying of knives.”

Karen Buck, MP for Regents Park and Kensington North drew attention to research that confirmed the apparent correlation between certain types of violent crime and inequality.

“It is not just a question of deprivation equalling violence; the sharp impact of inequalities in society unfortunately also has an influence on how some people behave,” she said.

Andrew Love, MP for Edmonton said he was concerned about gang activity in his constituency.

“We wanted to set up a youth facility in a school that crossed a geographical boundary, but many young people in my community—both those who did belong to gangs and those who did not—were not prepared to cross it,” he said.

“We have to understand more about gang dynamics if we are to make an impact on this problem.”

Justine Greening, MP for Putney, praised Operation Blunt 2 in London.

“In the past year, more than 2 million people have been stopped, 10,000 arrests have been made—a rate of one every 51 minutes—and 25,500 knives have been seized,” she said.

“There has been a 30 per cent. fall in serious stabbings, and 90 per cent. of those caught in possession of a knife have been charged.”

Later in the debate Diane Abbott spoke at length about how Hackney teenagers become gang members.

“It is important in such a debate first to stress that the majority of our young people are not caught up in knife crime, gun crime or gang culture,” she told the House.

“It is easy to get carried away and criminalise young people as a class, inner-city young people as a class and, even, young people of a certain skin shade as a class.

“I might shock the House to say that one might walk through Hackney and see a group of gangling boys lurking under their hoods and think that they are plotting murder and mayhem, but they might just as well be on their way to play basketball.

“They will be quite pleased that people are frightened of them, but they will be trotting behind their mother to church on a Sunday.

“The media encourage us to jump to conclusions about young people, but we should not, so I want to put on record that, although we have our issues in Hackney, the majority of our young people are not in that criminal sub-culture.

“I do not know of many young inner-city men who when shopping up the west end have not been descended on by store detectives, or who have not walked down a street and had women clutch their bags closer to their bodies because they have just assumed that such men are criminals.

“We have to beware of criminalising our young people in that way.

“None the less, as a Member for an inner-city area and as a parent, I know that knife crime and the related issues of guns and gangs are very frightening to parents and communities, not least because one can say goodbye to one’s child as they go off in the morning to school, college or their first job, and by the evening receive a phone call saying that they have been caught up in an incident—sometimes quite innocently.

“That is a frightening thing for parents in an inner-city area to live with, because when the gun, gang and knife cultures erupt, they often touch and harm young people who are simply going about their business.

“Where does the young man, swaggering around an estate with a knife up his sleeve, thinking that he can demand respect with the point of a blade or a gun, come from?

“I do not believe that he is the result of listening to music or watching video games. I do not believe that the culture produces criminal behaviour; I believe that the criminal sub-culture produces the music and the games.

“Where do such young men come from?

“They come from families, many thousands of them on estates that I represent in Hackney, where young boys are growing up not just in female-headed households—I would be the last person to say that a single parent cannot be a good parent—but in households where they have never seen men getting up and going out to work, and meeting their responsibilities as men; nor have their friends seen that.

“When they go to school, most of their teachers are women. As they grow up, their notion of manhood is a vacuum.

“I was fortunate; my family are working-class Jamaicans, but every day that God sent, my father went out to work, and on a Friday he brought home his wage packet. That was my notion, and my brother’s notion, of what being a man was all about.

“There are too many young children on estates in Hackney who do not have a notion of manhood. They do not see people—men or women—going out to work and meeting their responsibilities.

“As they grow up, their minds are filled with a notion of manhood that is informed partly by popular culture, yes, but partly also by the guys they see on the street with the big cars and the gold chains.

“They do not know that those guys will have a very short “working” life. They do not know about the downside.

“All that they see is the swagger, the big car, the gold chains, and the notion that that guy is the one whom all the girls are after.

“Into those boys’ imagination comes a notion of manhood that I do not recognise, that people in the House do not recognise, and that my father would not have recognised.

“That is the notion of manhood to which those boys aspire.”


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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Sarah  |  June 13, 2009 at 10:47 am

    Hi I think this is a fantastic blog, keep up the good work…


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