My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Harris of Haringey for initiating this important debate. I believe that the Government do support a multidisciplinary approach to violent crime, but they are not providing the means to achieve success. The serious violence strategy has received widespread support, but £40 million to support initiatives to tackle serious violence is, as the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, said,
“a drop in the ocean given the scale of the problem we have to tackle”.—[
The Home Secretary announced at his party conference that the Government would,
“introduce a statutory duty for all agencies to tackle this problem together”.
He referred to,
“those in health, education, social services, local government, housing—the whole lot”.
My response is that the Government are failing in their statutory duty to fund those agencies adequately. Announcing a £200 million endowment fund to target young people at risk is a publicity sop. Government by weekly funding announcement is a sign of failure. I accept that that is not just a failing of this Government.
It is simply impossible to provide a service with increasing demand and diminishing resources. Local government is a shadow of its former self. Funding to police forces reduced by 25% between 2010 and 2016. We have lost 25% of police community support officers. A&E departments, schools and social workers are all struggling to cope, and preventive strategies are a pipe dream without long-term sustainable funding.
Talking of health in schools reminds me of the consultant surgeon at King’s College Hospital who specialises in knife wounds. TJ Lasoye is an inspiration, and if sainthoods are being handed out, he should definitely be considered. Not only does he save lives; he travels around schools in the area, showing graphic X-rays and explaining the consequences of knife wounds. He told me that one X-ray showed a knife buried four inches into a skull. One pupil put forward the view that it probably did not hurt. Many others thought that a stab wound just needed a few stitches or an Elastoplast. TJ uses his considerable skills to persuade youngsters of the real consequences of knife wounds. They listen and laugh when he says that he hopes he does not see them again.
Trading standards officers are apparently going to be supported by the Government to undertake prosecutions of retailers who sell knives to under 18s, through developing a specific prosecution fund to support that activity. Here we go again: a specific prosecution fund. Can the Minister tell us precisely what that support for trading standards officers is and how it is expected to work?
I turn to social workers, who are an important part of this work. I thank my former union UNISON and BASW—the British Association of Social Workers—for their briefings. There was a debate on the crisis in social work this May, led by my noble friend Lord Kennedy of Southwark. The Government then passed the buck to local authorities. Both UNISON and BASW conducted surveys of their members about the impact of local government cuts and the threat to their ability to carry out their work. The results are remarkably similar and, to my mind, heartbreaking.
I have always been a supporter of social workers, because of the difficult and thankless work they do. It is thankless because they cannot do right for doing wrong. Do too little, they are neglectful; do too much, they are interfering. Without exception, they suffer from high caseloads and administration loads and come up against lack of resources for service users. Cuts in the number of social workers and other budget cuts mean that cases are assessed on budget grounds rather than need. Crisis cases are the easiest to justify, and preventive work is diminishing.
Social workers work an average of 11 hours per week unpaid overtime to keep up with their workload. That is probably an underestimate. This leads to stress, burnout and a high proportion of people considering leaving the profession. One social worker was so stressed that they were considering a career change. They said, “I cannot be the face of a failing service any more”. Another said, “My working life has never been so crisis driven”.
Eighty per cent of social workers think that local residents are not receiving the help and support they need at the right time. Social workers see the wider impact of poverty: housing departments which are too stretched to offer families realistic housing opportunities, forcing more families into private rental accommodation or homelessness. One social worker said, “We struggle to deliver vital services to young children and families because of the cuts—the list is endless in my job”. Another said, “I have seen people sanctioned with no food and no money to feed their children … more frequently in the last three years than I have ever done in my lengthy social work career and” it “feels like it is getting worse”.
Another said, “I work in the substance misuse service, and we are no longer able to give individuals the chance of residential rehabilitation”, which has a higher success rate. One final direct comment: “The most fundamental issue is a lack of social workers due to a lack of funding for local authorities. All my colleagues work unpaid overtime and are still unable to complete 100% of the workload. No amount of restructuring or policy change will resolve this”.
The Local Government Association is quite correct that its role in protecting children and young people from involvement in, and the impact of, youth violence makes it uniquely placed. However, it accepts that,
“an increase in demand for acute services has forced many authorities to divert spending away from preventative and early help work into services to protect children who are at immediate risk of harm”.
The LGA calls for a strong emphasis on,
“and investment towards early intervention and prevention work”.
Does the Minister agree that the multiagency approach to this problem also requires guaranteed sustainable funding commitments to all those agencies?