My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Harris for introducing this debate so effectively. He has long experience of local policing and crime issues, so he speaks with authority.
I have been struck by two recent headlines. One was in the Times, which described the stabbing to death of a 16 year-old boy on a Saturday night. The boy’s sister said that he was stabbed to death because of his postcode. The boy was from Wood End in Coventry, one of the most deprived areas of the Midlands. Knife crime happens most frequently, but not exclusively, in deprived areas. Tackling deprivation and improving deprived areas should be an aim if we are to combat crime of any kind, especially violent crime.
The second story was in the Telegraph on Tuesday of this week. It was about the police facing calls on mental health issues every two minutes. They have thus been distracted from increasing demands to tackle knife crime, child exploitation and other serious crimes. Again, this is significant. First, it shows the increase in mental health issues, long known to be a problem, and, secondly, it demonstrates forcefully that the police are stretched in all kinds of ways—fewer numbers with a greater number of issues to deal with.
Young people are at the centre of all this and they need attention. They must also be listened to, and I shall come on to that in a moment. In a debate that I introduced recently on life chances and social mobility, the noble Lord, Lord Baker, spoke of disenchantment among some pupils by the ages of 13 or 14. They feel that they are not listened to and are not learning anything, and they have high absentee rates and display bad behaviour. Some are expelled from school, as was touched on earlier. I quote the noble Lord, Lord Baker:
“The capacity of heads to expel has now grown out of all proportion ... an expelled child is on the road to a culture of gangland”.—[Official Report, 1/11/18; col. 1437.]
He is right, and I long for the report on expulsions that the Government have commissioned.
We are doing our young people a disservice by not educating them to enjoy learning of all kinds, including social skills and how to work with others. It is well known that our prisons are full of people who are illiterate and have poor mental health and social skills. One in 10 young people has a mental health disorder—three in every classroom. Seventy-five per cent of adults with mental health issues experienced symptoms by the age of 18. Black males are most likely to have mental health issues and are also most likely to be the people in prison. What happened to early intervention for them?
Acts of Parliament, policies and guidelines are welcome and can be the beginning of change but, as many have said, it is at the local level where the real change has to begin: better services for children, which are not just about safeguarding; schools which provide a holistic and respectful culture; help for struggling families and for parents who have difficulties with their children; and local facilities such as play areas, libraries and youth clubs. Sadly, between 2012 and 2016, around 600 youth centres closed and one children’s centre closed every week.
With this barrage of cuts to services affecting young people, we should perhaps not be surprised that there are social problems. Family poverty is increasing, with all the implications of that for depression, deprivation and subsequent trauma. The Government wish to make savings in many areas but these kinds of cuts are storing up trouble—costly trouble, with the long-term effects of crime, unemployment and truancy. Services such as mental health services are striving to deal with these issues, which could have been prevented or dealt with earlier. Do the Government understand that?
I want to turn to the importance of involving communities, and in particular young people, in solving problems. I have been working with groups of young people in seminars and round-table discussions for the last year. These are always chaired or co-chaired by the young people themselves. We have worked on two issues: child mental health and child-friendly justice. Right at the beginning of one seminar, one young woman said, “We are experts by experience; you should listen to us”. I agree with her.
Young people sometimes say that mental health issues frequently underlie disruptive or criminal behaviour. School exclusions are frequently described as unfair and counterproductive. Some children get used to multiple exclusions and constant changes of school or accommodation. Examples have been given of children excluded for trivial things such as having socks not at the right height or the wrong colour coat. This is ridiculous. There were many examples of missed opportunities to intervene and turn a life around. In particular, there was often no consistent adult support available to enable the child to tell their story.
Some young people reported going through up to 40 behaviour interventions without links being made between services and people, and having no single key person as advocate or support. They also said that multi-agency working was a priority. An example was given of a boy aged 9 who was in trouble for selling drugs because his mum needed the money to pay the rent. The underlying causes of youth crime need re-investigation.
There was a feeling among young people that they had no champion and no voice. They felt they could have been engaged in decisions to help them identify the problems. Young people recognised and could give examples of good practice. Some police forces are actively seeking to involve young people in discussions about drugs, gangs and knife crime. Many NGOs have young people’s consultation panels. Some local authorities seek the opinions of young people in matters that affect them. Are the Government also taking into account the views of young people?
My noble friend is right to ask for a cross-government approach to tackling policing, law enforcement and policies on gangs and drugs. We need agencies to work together, as he said. He is right to spotlight health services, youth provision and opportunities for young people. Young people do not come in bits. They are, like all of us, made up of different characteristics and needs in a single person. Health, education, the police and other local services for children and young people need support, encouragement and funding to work together in this way. Our young people deserve no less.