Last week the House of Commons witnessed an important debate about youth crime and gangs, initiated by the Labour MP for Streatham, Chuka Umunna. It was the House at its best, debating a serious issue in a non-partisan manner, drawing on constituency information and open to fresh thinking.
Although the overall crime statistics fell by 7% in 2014/15, those for youth violence increased. There were 26,370 knife crimes in the year and a 23% increase in youth gang offences, though Mayor Johnson says knife-crime in London fell. The statistics mirror the regular news stories of apparently innocent young people murdered on our streets. Government policies in 2010-15 achieved some progress in tackling this crime but have not prevented many pointless deaths.
Mr Umunna said “The violence is committed by a minority – a significant minority – of young people” but praised the energy and creativity of other young people who are “Among the very best in the world”. He was wary of giving young people the gang label without giving them a way to get rid of it and he called for an independent cross-party commission, including young people, to get to the heart of the issues and recommend long term policies for stopping youth violence.
The debate recognised there are many causes of this violence and no single solution. Some youngsters joined delinquent groups out of fear that if they did not they could be vulnerable to violence and being inside the group would be safer. Some carry weapons because they are status symbols in the group. Violence is glamourized in films and pop culture. Others come from dysfunctional families with a history of domestic violence and sexual exploitation and the group becomes a surrogate family for them.
They may underachieve at school and leave with insufficient legitimate skills to obtain employment and earn an honest income. That adds to their marginalisation in a consumerist society, so crime offers an alternative means of funding their pleasures. A growing number of these delinquent groups use drugs and are exploited by older suppliers to sell them. There may be a dearth of out of school youth services to expand their horizons, so they become trapped in a destructive lifestyle; especially if they have mental health problems.
As Patrick Regan and XLP have shown, it is possible to liberate youngsters from this sort of lifestyle. He works with ex-gang members to warn youngsters why it is dangerous to be involved with delinquent groups and offer them alternative role models. Chuka Umunna called for the standard of youth work to be raised alongside that of school teaching. Schools may be able to do more in helping the youngsters acquire sufficient skills to find legitimate employment and also help them to develop personal responsibility for their choices and behaviour.
Local authorities can work with churches that employ a large percentage of youth workers. In London the youth charity Redthread works with the Mayor’s team to place specialist youth workers in four major hospitals to connect with victims of ‘gang crime’ (who are being treated there). They have already helped more than 600 young people; two thirds of whom had been stabbed. Offering them a way out of a delinquent lifestyle is what they and society needs.
The prayer prompts include the victims and perpetrators of youth violence, youngsters and their families, teachers and youth workers, policy makers, the police and how the media portrays violence.