Chuka Umunna – 2016 Speech on Gangs and Serious Youth Violence

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Below is the text of the speech made by Chuka Umunna in the House of Commons on 3 March 2016.

Mr Chuka Umunna (Streatham) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House calls on the Government to establish an independent, all-party commission, involving a wide-ranging consultation, to identify the root causes, effect of, and solutions to, serious youth violence, including knife crime, its links to gang culture and the sale of illegal drugs.

At the outset, I wish to say how grateful I am to the Backbench Business Committee for granting this important debate, and I am also grateful to the 19 other Members of the House who supported this application. In particular, I have worked with my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) and for Westminster North (Ms Buck), my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed), among others, for several years on these issues.

The issues that we are discussing today are difficult. There is no single cause for the violence that we have seen, nor one single solution. What we are seeing on the streets of our country is leading to a senseless loss of lives. That perhaps explains why the digital debate organised on Twitter ahead of this debate by the House of Commons digital team was the House of Commons most successful such debate in terms of the number of Twitter accounts reached—more than 8 million. The hashtag for today’s debate is #stopyouthviolence. I recommend that anyone watching this debate uses it.

At the outset, it is important to acknowledge that our young people are among the very best in the world. Their creativity knows no bounds; their energy is infectious; and they put the great in Great Britain. They give us confidence that our future will be even better than our glorious past.

It is also important to note that the violence that we are talking about is committed by a minority—a significant minority—of young people. We should not draw the conclusion that all of Britain’s youth are engaged in serious youth violence. I say that because, too often, the youth of our country are demonised. They are demonised in our national media, and I do not want us to add to that today. It is important in this debate to recognise how wonderful our young people are and to celebrate them. It is because we care so much for them and because we do not want to see their talent and their futures wasted that we are holding this debate today.

In 2007, the violence in different communities—in urban city centres in particular—across our country was put into sharp relief by the shooting, in broad daylight, of a young man, Andre Smartt-Ford, at Streatham ice rink in my constituency. To this day, no one has been charged with Andre’s murder, but his mother continues to fight for justice and is now working through the JAGS Foundation to prevent other families from going through the same thing. Tracey Ford has voiced her strong support for this debate today. She is joined by many other parents, such as Richard Taylor, who also lost his young son, Damilola Taylor, to this violence. He set up the Damilola Taylor Trust, which established the Spirit of London Awards to celebrate our young people.

Representatives from SOLA are here today. We pay tribute to all those parents and to those who are working to better the lives of our young people.

What followed from Andre’s death in 2007 was a catalogue of tragedy, with 29 teenagers losing their lives in London alone in 2008. The number of fatalities has abated since that time, but, let us face it, the problem has never gone away. Following falls between 2009 and 2012, we have seen the number of serious youth violence offences in London increase by 13.4% and the number of offences the Metropolitan police tags with its gang violence indicator measure increasing by more than 25% since 2012. Much of this goes unreported. Members can go to any A&E in the kind of communities that I am talking about, and they will hear about all sorts of things that are not reported and that do not feature in the figures.

According to Citizens Report, which is a not-for-profit organisation that collects local data on this issue, 17 teenagers lost their lives to this violence last year, which is up from 11 in 2014. Just two weeks ago, I was notified by police of gunshots being fired on a Friday in a location in the north of my constituency. On the Saturday after, there was a multiple stabbing of a young man in the south of my constituency, and then on the Sunday, just outside my constituency, there was a drive-by shooting. On Monday this week at 5.30 in the afternoon, a teenager was stabbed in the north of my borough, in Oval, after a fight at a chicken shop, and so it goes on.

Catherine West (Hornsey and Wood Green) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I am so pleased we have been granted three hours to debate a crucial issue not just for young Londoners, but for all communities. Does he agree that there are far too many firearms in circulation in London, and that previously, where a fist or, dare I say it, a knife might have been used, now a very large gun and increasingly sophisticated firearms are being used in these terrible crimes, and that makes the situation even more difficult to manage?

Mr Umunna: I entirely agree. When I was a trustee of a youth charity in Brixton called the 409 Project, I wrote an article in 2007 about the availability of guns and knives, and I did a kind of focus group with some of the young people in our area. What shocked me was the level of detail that some of our young people in Lambeth were able to give me about a gun—they could tell me how many bullets a MAC-10 could spray in a second or in a minute. My hon. Friend is right to raise that issue, and she is right to say that this is not just a London problem. The situation is serious and it is getting worse. It is not confined to London. Last Sunday a teenager was stabbed in Bristol. We hear of this happening all over the UK.

Marcus Fysh (Yeovil) (Con): In my constituency I have recently seen the impact of large-city drug crime moving into the regional towns, and I am very concerned to make sure that Avon and Somerset police devote enough resources away from the big cities such as Bristol to be able to combat that. I do not want see that deteriorate into violent crime which, thankfully, we have not yet seen, but what the hon. Gentleman is saying about the increase in London and Bristol is a worry.

Mr Umunna: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which highlights the suite of issues, including the drug trade, which hang heavy over this debate and will come through as our dialogue progresses.

I want to say something about the title of this debate. I put in for it using the word “gang” deliberately, because we need to talk about the use of this term. We often refer to youth violence and gang or gang-related violence, but it is pertinent for us to question whether we should use the word “gang” at all, in spite of the title of the debate.

Ian Joseph of Middlesex University, who is watching this debate from the Strangers Gallery, has done some very interesting work in this area. He argues that the official definition of a gang distorts the focus of interventions and promotes an understanding of everyday behaviour that does little to permanently avert young people from the real causes of violence. He argues that to be effective, interventions must give greater account of how cultural norms and social processes impact on young people’s friendships and the local neighbourhood-based relationships that they have.

This is backed up by others. The Centre for Criminal Justice Studies has also questioned whether we should be using that term. I wonder whether, by using the term and labelling young people as gang members, we reinforce the notion that they are gangsters. What is a gangster? I wonder how helpful it is for us to use the term. Let us face the fact that using the term enables officialdom to put all these young people in a bracket—“Oh, they’re part of a gang. If they lose their lives, oh well, that doesn’t matter. They’re part of a gang.” I am not sure we should allow this to carry on.

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): I regret interrupting the fine speech that is being made. Is my hon. Friend familiar with the work of Harriet Sergeant, a rare journalist who has gone to great trouble to engage with members of this underclass? Perhaps “gang” is the wrong word. From reading her books and articles on the matter, one comes away with a profound feeling of regret at the gulf of misunderstanding between official bodies and those who are part of that underclass, and great sympathy for the problems involved and the depth of suffering of those gangs who, in my view and her view, have been badly neglected.

Mr Umunna: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for referring to Harriet Sergeant’s work. Hopefully, those using the hashtag for this debate can post a link on Twitter so that those watching can read more of her work.

Part of the reason why I am not sure how helpful it is to use the word “gang” any more is that things have changed a lot just in the borough I represent in London. Around the time I was first elected, in 2010, we had mass groups of young people who had labels for their groupings. Now the situation is more parochial: things are often confined more to a particular estate, and we have much smaller groups of young people. The situation is also far more fluid.

Whitney Iles, the chief executive officer of Project 507 —she, too, is watching the debate in the House—works to prevent young people from engaging in this kind of violence. She put things really well when she told me that we give young people this gang label, but we never give them a way to get rid of it. So let us consign it to the bin, and let us not refer to it again in the House after this debate, if we can possibly avoid doing so.

The reasons for serious youth violence are not new, and we know what so many of them are. Yes, some violence is carried out by young people from dysfunctional, often chaotic families with a history of, say, domestic violence in the background. However, very often, a lot of young people who get wrapped up in these things come from quite stable families. Sometimes there is an issue because two parents are struggling to make ends meet and holding down two jobs to pay the bills. There is a link there because, as I heard from some young people this morning, someone will often have a desire to help provide for their family—for their mum—and they get wrapped up in these activities as a way of making money to help mum pay the bills.

I really do not care if the usual suspects in the media start saying, “Oh, you’re excusing all this.” We are not providing excuses today, but unless we look at why these things happen, we will not be able to prevent them. I can see the headlines: “MP says children are trying to pay the bills so they go and knife people”. That is not what I am saying; what I am saying is that we must understand the underlying causes if we want to prevent this violence from happening again.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): I thank the hon. Gentleman for making a very good speech. Is not fear the real reason why people join these groups? A young person who lives on an estate in an area where these groups operate and who is not a member of any group will be fearful that a group will set upon them and do them great damage. In my limited understanding of this problem, it seems that fear is the spur for young people joining such groups.

Mr Umunna: The hon. Gentleman makes a very important intervention. I agree with him: fear is definitely a major factor, and I will come to it shortly. Trauma also plays a role, and I will come to that too.

There is another common theme, which I have talked about with my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham and my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North. Time and again, at every community meeting on this issue, we hear that there are simply not enough things for our young people to do. I get fed up of hearing that every week and every time we discuss this issue in the House, because nothing ever seems to get done about it. We have to ensure that there are more meaningful things for our young people to do outside school hours, and I am not talking about some windy church hall with a table tennis table. We need decent, proper activities that will expand our young people’s horizons and give them things they will enjoy doing in their local areas. Otherwise, we have the problem of collectives of their peers becoming their surrogate family. That relates to the issue that the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) talked about, but I will come on to that in a moment because I want to go through some of the other factors.

In relation to popular culture, it is too easy to blame rap music or whatever, but it is a society thing. We live in a society that promotes and glamorises violence. It is too easy to say that it is the fault of the creative industries. We increasingly have a society where our young people are encouraged to engage in these kinds of violent activities. This is promoted among us and we have to deal with it.

We live in a society that not only promotes violence and too often glamorises it, but promotes an ideal whereby our young people define themselves by reference to what they have as opposed to who they are. There is a consumerism element. Helping one’s family to get on is definitely an issue.

Matthew Pennycook (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend acknowledge that this is about not just young people providing for their family but about their desire to have things, and the role of criminal gangs in offering them a quick buck, so that they are able to earn money to buy things, which because of their low income they are otherwise unable to have?

Mr Umunna: There are so many big elephants in this room of issues, but one is poverty and deprivation. We cannot ignore the part that that plays. My hon. Friend is right to raise that issue. Young people who do not have anything are often robbing from other young people who do not have anything, then there is revenge, and we end up with a cycle of violence. That is definitely part of what we see happening.

Part of the reason that too many of our young people do not have enough money is the unemployment rates among them. Our education system is producing a whole generation who do not always have the skills that our employers need, particularly the technical and vocational skills. Let us face it, this has happened under Governments of all persuasions. I do not see this as a party political issue; I am not interested in scoring any points. We have to deal with the problems in a skills eco-system that is not giving our young people the skills that they need to offer employers to get a job. Let us not forget that hanging over this is the fact that youth unemployment is double the main rate.

The things I have spoken about are fairly obvious—the more talked-about factors—but we need to delve far deeper into the causes than we generally have. The hon. Member for Beckenham referred to the belief of many young people that they are safer in a group than they are on their own. As academics have argued, the perceived need for safety and protection tends to validate behaviour and levels of violence in ways that can obscure the boundary between right and wrong. There is also the issue of being bullied and how that interrelates with carrying or using a weapon. We do not like to talk about that, but we should. There is a semi-formal, often unsupervised daily routine outside school, but sometimes inside school too, that can incubate the production of behaviour and values that lead to a life of this kind of violence, and the expected norms of school and wider mainstream society are juxtaposed against that.

In addition to the fear that the hon. Gentleman talked about, the other big issue is trauma—the sheer trauma that many of our young people experience in their daily lives, which requires much greater consideration than we see reported in our media.

To return to the work of Whitney Iles, this issue needs to be seen as one not just of violence prevention, but of health, particularly mental health. Our young people are being traumatised by some of their experiences, but they are being given no support to deal with it. Unless we start engaging with them, not only on the obvious level, but at a deeper level, we will not be able to resolve the violence on our streets.

What should be done? First, the Labour Government introduced Every Child Matters, which had a strategic aim to provide wraparound care for young people from long before they went to school to long after they left. That did bring in teenagers, but I think we need to adopt an “every teenager matters” approach, with much more targeted schemes and versions of the previous initiative, in order to address problems experienced by teenagers. It must be said, however, that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham has said, the problems are impacting on younger and younger children, not just teenagers.

Secondly, we have to elevate the standing of youth work in our country. It is about time that we put it on the same pedestal as teaching. Often, youth workers spend as much time as teachers with our young people, but we do not talk about their profession in the same way. We have to do so and put it on a pedestal; we cannot just look at it as an add-on. Too often, youth work is left to people who have other jobs and who may, through their tenants or residents association, be providing youth work on top of their daily job. It needs proper funding so that people can do youth work full time and so that we regard our youth workers in the same way as we regard our teachers.

Thirdly, I really do think that the Government have done some good things, and that is why I want them to reverse their decision to disband the very important ending gang violence and exploitation peer review network, which spreads best practice to local authorities and others. It is due to end in April—next month—but I really hope the Government will reverse that decision, because it is a good network and I have heard very good feedback about it from all over the country, including Lambeth. I want it to continue.

Fourthly, we have to ensure that our young people are properly taught in school about the consequences of what they do, and that they are provided with support to deal with their experiences outside school as well. I want to see more role models who have been members of groups and who have been victims, or even perpetrators, of acts of violence and suffered the consequences. I want more of them to go into schools and tell their story so that future generations do not take the same wrong turn as they did. There is nothing like having somebody who has lived that life telling young people what will happen if they carry on down that avenue. We need to provide much more support to our schools.

This is controversial, but I do not care and am going to say it anyway: a lot of the young people who get wrapped up in all this ultimately have quite commercial and entrepreneurial instincts. Their energy, however, is simply not channelled in the right way and the result is that they turn to criminality and highly illegitimate, terrible ways of doing things. If many of our young people received enterprise teaching in our schools, and if they were provided with inspiration and more access to opportunities to set up their own business, do their own thing and work for themselves in a way that delivers the goods and some money, perhaps we would be able to stop them taking a wrong turn. I can just see the write-ups saying, “MP says terrible gangsters should start businesses”, but, frankly, I do not care. If they have that kind of instinct, I want to make sure that they do not end up taking a wrong turn and doing illegitimate business, but that they set up a business and become the next Branson. I would like to see many of the kids from the Tulse Hill estate in my constituency going on to be the next Richard Branson.

Ms Karen Buck (Westminster North) (Lab): My hon. Friend is making a very important point. Does he agree that the Evening Standard should be congratulated on its campaign? He is recommending precisely the sort of work that it has been doing in support of people turning away from gang violence. It is turning young people’s skills and expertise towards business and entrepreneurship, and ensuring that they are able to make something of their lives.

Mr Umunna: I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The Evening Standard has done excellent work in its “Frontline London” campaign, which it has plastered on the front page frequently. I would like to see other publications and media outlets following its example.

None of us is excusing wrongdoing; none of us is excusing the violence that we see; and none of us would argue that for people who commit such offences, there should not be sanctions. Of course there should be sanctions. I suppose the point that everybody will make today is that, if we can prevent people from doing such things in the first place, we will not have to apply those sanctions. Too often, the debate is about clamping down, zero tolerance and banging people up. It is harder to focus on how we prevent them from doing those things in the first place.

That is, ultimately, why I would like the Government to set up an independent cross-party commission on these issues, involving a wide-ranging consultation that, importantly, includes young people. Too often, we talk about young people but they are not at the table when we do so. I would like the commission to identify the root causes and effects of, and the solutions to, youth violence so that we do not see more death on our streets.

To wrap up, I think we should be absolutely honest, up-front and frank about the fact that, if we were talking predominantly about middle-class children from comfortable, middle-income families and wealthy neighbourhoods, the issue would be much higher up the national agenda. The murder of young people by other young people who fit that middle-income demographic profile would command many more column inches. It is a disgrace and a damning indictment of our society that, increasingly, it is becoming immune to what is happening on our doorsteps. Our society is ignoring the issue, putting a whole generation of young people into a corner and saying, “That is what happens with those kinds of young people from those kinds of areas.” I want to make it very clear in this debate that the House of Commons recognises that no matter what their background—whether they grow up on an estate or in a comfortable neighbourhood—every single young life matters. We will not stand by while violence and fatalities continue to hit the next generation, because it is our future.