On 20th June 2019 the Bishop of St Albans, Rt Revd Alan Smith, asked a question he had tabled to Government on serious youth violence:
The Lord Bishop of St Alban: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to address youth violence.
Baroness Barran (Con): My Lords, with the leave of the House, before I respond to the right reverend Prelate I am sure that the Chamber will join me in feeling profound regret at the recent tragic events and note that our thoughts are with the families of those who have been affected on our streets. The Government are taking steps to address all aspects of youth violence, from prevention to enforcement. Diverting young people away from crime is at the heart of our approach, which is why we are investing more than £220 million in early intervention schemes to steer children and young people away from serious violence.
The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, last weekend at least four people were killed through serious violence on the streets of the capital, and on Tuesday a young person in Luton, in my own diocese, was stabbed more than 20 times. Among all those who are trying to work on this problem, the churches have been involved, and indeed one church has produced a public statue of a phoenix made from 500 knives that had been reclaimed through a knife amnesty—a question of turning swords into ploughshares. Can the Minister tell us whether Her Majesty’s Government have made an assessment of the effectiveness of weapons amnesties in reducing the number of weapons on the streets, and whether more such initiatives are being planned?
Baroness Barran: The right reverend Prelate paints a powerful image of the phoenix made from knives. On amnesty initiatives, individual police forces can use amnesties and surrender bins whenever they want; those are operational decisions that can be taken at a local level. Such initiatives are a key component of Operation Sceptre, and the most recent week of co-ordinated national action took place in March, during which time more than 10,000 knives were surrendered, including in surrender bins. We are expecting another week of action in the autumn. However, we cannot look at any of these initiatives in isolation; it is a combination that will make the difference.
Lord Rosser (Lab): My Lords, I share the Minister’s words on the recent tragic events. In 2010, there were 3,600 Sure Start centres offering childcare and play sessions, parenting advice and employment coaching. Up to 1,000 centres have closed since then, with a cut of some 62% in council early years service spending since 2010, and the trend is continuing. Over just the four years to 2017-18, the number of children using Sure Start in the 30 most deprived authorities was down by 22%, and by 12% in the 30 least deprived councils. What is the Government’s analysis of the impact that the austerity-driven reduction over nearly 10 years in the number of Sure Start centres, and the level of service that they can continue to provide, is already having and will continue to have on the level of youth violence?
Baroness Barran: The Government response to the question put by the noble Lord is again to say, as was set out in the report of the Children’s Commissioner published in February this year, that many factors influence youth violence. We do not help young people if we try to pin it exclusively on one. The noble Lord makes a fair point about changes in provision for early years, but significant changes have also occurred in the drugs market which have had a significant influence. The Government’s focus is to move away from a purely criminal justice response towards a public health response and a long-term commitment in this area.
Baroness Manzoor (Con): My Lords, the violence and the deaths of young people on our streets are nothing short of a national emergency on a national scale. Can my noble friend the Minister say exactly what the Government are doing now to address this issue, particularly in relation to police visibility on our streets, youth funding and school exclusions?
Baroness Barran: Well, I have with me a copy of Hansard from Monday, when my honourable friend the Minister in the other place gave a list of what we are doing. I fear that time does permit me to read it, but it runs to more than half a column. So this really is an area where the Government are doing a great deal.
In response to my noble friend’s specific questions, police funding is increasing by over £1 billion this year, as your Lordships are aware, and we are aware of plans to recruit of a further 3,500 police officers and staff. With youth services, we are particularly proud of the Youth Endowment Fund that the Government have announced, which will be delivered over 10 years. Those of us who have worked in the charity sector know how valuable 10-year funding is. The figures on school exclusions are not entirely clear about the impact of exclusions, but 21% of young people convicted of possession of a knife were excluded from school, 50% of them after the event.
Lord Paddick (LD): My Lords, I appreciate that the noble Baroness said that the Government were doing a lot, but their so-called Serious Violence Strategy is actually an underfunded collection of unconnected existing initiatives and various piecemeal pots of money that have been indiscriminately thrown at the problem over recent years. When will the Government take youth violence seriously by setting specific goals based on a coherent and comprehensive strategy to address both the symptoms and causes of youth violence?
Baroness Barran: I think the noble Lord is a little harsh. The Government absolutely recognise that a huge culture change is required and that for too long the police have been the service of last resort in addressing youth violence. That will never get to the root of the problem unless we are able to engage other services—education, health and so forth. So just two days ago, as the noble Lord may be aware, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary announced funding for the initial establishment of 18 violence reduction units, which I hope will produce exactly the results the noble Lord aspires to.