My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for emphasising, in her presentation of the Bill, that this is just one small part of a whole gamut of approaches that the Government are taking to this huge problem of violence in our society. Listening to this debate, I think of a recent visit to Feltham young offender institution. I heard from the director the huge problem it faced with gangs, with maybe 15 young men attacking two or three others. When I used to visit 15 or 17 years ago, it would be two or three young men attacking another boy. This is a sea-change in our society. It is a huge challenge.
Knife crime is perhaps the most important of the many important elements to this Bill. I know it has touched several Members of your Lordships’ House, and there was a terrible recent incident. It is terrible to think of loved ones being removed from this life prematurely in such an awful way. I think about 30 years ago when I worked with young people on housing estates in this country, in London. I thank heaven that at that time there was not this issue of knives or gangs; it was challenging enough as it was. I am grateful to the Minister for emphasising that this is just one part of a larger strategy.
Referring back to visiting prisons, which I do fairly often, I share the concern about criminalising more young people when that might be avoided and introducing short sentences, which are ineffective and put a greater burden on prisons. Our prisons are already vastly over- burdened. I am grateful for the new money injected into prisons. At the last prison I visited, an officer had been attacked during the night. It was very demoralising for the whole workforce, but more demoralising still was the sense that over several years their funding had been cut. The promise of new money gave them some hope. I will listen with great interest and I expect I will want to support those concerns about criminalisation and short sentences.
I will try, as several of your Lordships have done, to look at the Bill from the perspective of the welfare of young people. I will emphasise how crucial it is to secure a long-term and robust government commitment to youth work. Can measures in the Bill be extended to the age of 21? This seems much more developmentally appropriate than cutting them off at the age of 18. I declare my interest as a trustee of the Brent Centre for Young People, a mental health service for adolescents, and of the child welfare charity the Michael Sieff Foundation, both of which are in the register.
While the factors contributing to the use of dangerous weapons by young people are complicated, it is always useful to first consider the need for security in young people’s lives—security of relationships to people, places and institutions. Young people carrying knives because they are fearful was mentioned earlier. If you are fearful of walking to school because a gang of boys might attack you, it does not seem too far-fetched to think of carrying a knife—as unwise and risky as that is. It is no surprise that young people who have experienced local authority care are so overrepresented in the criminal justice system when one considers the multiple losses that many of them have experienced. Many will have had their relationship with their parents, their family home and their school broken. Within local authority care, they may face changes in foster carers, further changes in school and then early removal into independent living. It was very troubling to read this weekend of the increasing numbers of young people leaving care at the ages of 16 and 17 and being placed in bed and breakfast and hostel accommodation. Many years ago, I talked to a young woman who had been placed in hostel accommodation. She had no proper lock for her door and was the only woman among several men, some of whom were dealing with drug addiction.
I understand that local authorities do not have sufficient funding to deliver the services that they should, and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, for referring to that. It is particularly sad because there has been good progress in improving the quality of condition for care leavers. However, while thinking of young people who are frightened, we should remember that care leavers are the most isolated, and possibly the most frightened, young people.
The purpose of this Bill is to protect the public from dangerous weapons, but what goes on outwith the Bill is also important. I therefore welcome the Government’s serious violence strategy, the additional investment in youth support and the recruitment of the Redthread agency to intervene when young people are most likely to be amenable to change. However, I hope the Government recognise that, strategically, it is immensely important to secure a sound base for the future of youth work. The Minister will be aware of the sad history of youth work in this country. It is a story of boom and bust: investment is made and then removed. What parent would encourage their child to enter a profession that is guaranteed to have the plug pulled in the next financial downturn? Youth work is a challenging profession, as has been highlighted on the front page of newspapers for the past two years. Think of Damilola Taylor, the growth of youth gangs and the ever-growing availability of hard drugs. We have to give our firmest commitments to the profession of youth work.
Will the Minister therefore tell us what progress has been made in strengthening the duty on local authorities to provide youth services? Does she recognise that the weakness of this duty has contributed to the dearth of youth services and the impoverishment of youth work? What timetable is there for improvement in the regulation? Does she accept that the new duty must be fully funded by central government? The Minister has indicated in the past that some progress is being made in this area, so I would very much appreciate an update. High-quality youth work is just part of the response to the current crisis but it is, surely, a crucial part. After all the broken relationships that many of the young people who might choose to acquire dangerous weapons have experienced, it is vital to offer them a steady and long-term relationship with a caring, thoughtful and effective youth worker. My noble friend Lord Ramsbotham helpfully highlighted this when he spoke of Junior Smart, the youth worker.
I see that in Committee in the other place attempts were made to raise the age at which suppliers could be sanctioned for supplying young people with dangerous weapons from 18 to 21. Such a move would be wholly developmentally appropriate. The science points to adolescence drawing to a close at about 21. During adolescence, a young person can often be in turmoil; in particular, she or he may have great difficulty in managing their impulses. I hope the Minister and the House will support a raising of the age, and I was glad to hear it mentioned by noble Lords who spoke previously.
In implementing this Bill, we will of course want to think about stop and search, which will have to be made use of to make it work. However, there is a risk of alienating young people if it is done injudiciously, particularly those from a BAME background. I know that the police give very careful thought to how this is used, and clearly they need to be adequately resourced. It is crucial that we have enough community support officers and beat officers with relationships with these young people, so that they do not feel intimidated and so that, when stop and search has to be used, it is used sensitively.
I look forward to the Minister’s response and to working on the details of the Bill with her and your Lordships in Committee and on Report.