Bishop of St Albans says community-led approach is crucial in tackling serious youth crime

On 27th June 2019 the House of Lords debated a motion from Lord Paddick, “That this House takes note of the impact of government policy on knife crime”. The Bishop of St Albans, Rt Revd Alan Smith, spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, for obtaining this debate and for his excellent analysis of some of the causes and, indeed, the work that has been done on how we might address them, which is a holistic approach. I am also delighted that a number of experts in policing are speaking in this debate. I come to this with little knowledge of that, but I have knowledge through the 136 schools in my diocese—I have been to two this week—and in many of the urban areas across Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, which seek to bring together groups of young people to reflect on how this can be addressed.

This debate looks at the impact of government policies on serious youth violence. As the causes are many and varied, we need to look at a wide range of different issues. We are all aware that access to lethal weapons has escalated and intensified conflict. Demonstrably, when the year to March 2018 represented the highest number of knife homicides in England and Wales since 1946, it is all too clear to us that it is too easy to obtain weapons, notwithstanding the Offensive Weapons Act 2019. Indeed, from previous problems, for example acid attacks, we are aware that simply removing one way of attacking other people does not necessarily immediately solve a problem. I am therefore delighted that government action in reducing weapon accessibility has had some success, with Operation Sceptre taking some 10,000 knives off the streets. Yet piecemeal approaches will never be enough.

Other speakers have raised our approach to the stop and search policy. We need to hear, and I hope the Minister will be able to comment on, the latest evidence on how this policy is being implemented and where it is achieving the aims we want it to. Assessing government policy’s impact requires an appreciation of the complex and interlinked factors that drive young people into violence. As Centrepoint has said, there are many factors driving youth violence, whether poverty, exclusion, disadvantage or other situations. It is nevertheless significant that 21% of young people convicted of possessing a knife had been excluded from school. The lack of children’s support generally, whether due to the cut of 62% in council early years services spending since 2010, the loss of more than 1,000 Sure Start centres or the rise in school exclusions are all contributing factors to serious youth violence.

If we do not provide children with support in their lives, whether in their communities or schools, we risk alienating them from participation in wider society. I therefore welcome the Home Office working with Ofsted and the Department for Education in focusing on the risks surrounding crime and exclusions. All children deserve education, opportunities and support, as they will have the potential to contribute to the good of society. If young people are to play a full part, it certainly means that they must have access to employment. That is why we must consider the impact of government policies on tackling unemployment. I am shocked, like, I am sure, many other Members of this House, that young people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds are almost twice as likely to be unemployed as their white counterparts. Can the Minister explain to the House what impact government policy is having on addressing this specific issue?

Communities have a significant influence on the people in them. I note the views of the Children’s Society, which produced one of these briefing papers:

“Children carrying weapons should be seen as a child protection issue which needs a safeguarding response. A whole-system approach must include all government departments. Young people thrive best when their lives are given validity through positive community affirmation, yet when young people feel they have fallen short of being worthy of affirmation, the power of society as a redemptive force is crucial”.

With a presence in every community, we in the Churches and on these Benches want to play our part in combating serious youth violence. In a couple of weeks’ time, the General Synod of the Church of England will hold a debate on this subject during which the Reverend Canon Dr Rosemarie Mallett, a prominent campaigner and a parish priest in an area that has seen a great deal of serious youth violence, will call on parishes to open the doors of our churches after school hours to make safe places.

This type of community-led action is about providing safe spaces for the young, who can sometimes view the church or other religious premises as a neutral group. Perhaps this is why the capital city’s busiest knife amnesty bin is in the church in St John’s, Hoxton. We want to explore how we can play our part to help with that. We are not blind to violence: we see its impact on our streets in our parishes in many urban areas. It has been widely reported in the press in the past week that some churches in the centre of Luton in my diocese, inspired by the words of the prophet Isaiah—

“they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks”—

have been reclaiming knives delivered through a knife amnesty and made a striking sculpture of a phoenix rising from the ashes. Just like the phoenix, communities can rise together. This is much bigger than just unemployment or policing. We need to engage everyone we possibly can at the grass roots for a much wider debate and much wider ownership by society if we are to address this problem, which is causing devastation to so many individuals and families across our nation.

Lord Cormack (Con): My Lords, I am delighted to add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, on introducing this debate and the manner in which he introduced it, but I intend to pick up many of the points made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans in a thoughtful and interesting speech.

Over the past week, I have been reflecting on the years that I have been in Parliament. Last week marked the 49th anniversary of my election in June 1970. In thinking about this debate, I have been reflecting on some of the great changes that have taken place in our society during that time. Three in particular stand out. I am not making value judgments; I am merely stating facts. The family has changed very much in that period. What was then the norm is no longer the norm. The drug culture which has grown up over the past years, to which the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, referred in his opening remarks, was unknown in 1970. Another enormous change is the advent and prevalence of social media. Without social media, the county lines to which he referred could hardly exist. We are having to cope with a very different sort of society than existed when I was first elected to Parliament.

Of course, it is right that we should talk of proactive policing and community policing, as we have today, but although he did not use these exact words, the right reverend Prelate was in effect saying to us—and I believe very strongly in this—that prevention is better than cure. We must try to develop a culture in which the use of a knife in violence is just not contemplated. It will take time, but I believe that it must begin in the home and in the school…

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