Simon Hughes – 1985 Speech on Young People and Violent Crime

Below is the text of the speech made by Simon Hughes, the then Liberal MP for Southwark and Bermondsey, in the House of Commons on 6 December 1985.

The opportunity to debate these matters arises because the hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith), who introduced the debate, believes that issues are involved that merit other than a knee-jerk response. When discussing violence by young people, it is often easy to use clichés that suggest that there is an instant remedy to the problem. The Home Office knows as well as any other Department of State that, in spite of the endeavours of British Governments and those of other countries, and of many agencies outside the Government, it remains necessary to explore the issues carefully and to be careful about suggesting that there can be instant solutions. Many Governments and many agencies have tried and are trying to deal with the enormously complex reasons and practices that make up the violence among our young generation.

I shall cite three examples from my personal experience, which are three microcosms of the problem. These experiences are based in London and they all relate to matters that have arisen over the past few years. The first is a common example. It is the complete despair of parents who have never committed offences and who have done all that they can to instil a code of morality in their children. They despair when they see their children being violent, often week after week. When their children leave junior school and enter senior school, they see them being violent at home, violent with friends and violent with neighbours and others, apart from being verbally violent and violent towards those for whom they have no affection and with whom they have no affinity. These parents wring their hands and fear that they must be to blame for their children’s behaviour.

In most such cases, it would be wrong to say that the parents are to blame. Parents in that position will have done all within their knowledge and power, and in the general parental upbringing that they have practised they will have done a good job by objective standards. A particular family that I have in mind could have been accused of over-indulging the children. However, there was no excuse or explanation in that over-indulgence for the way in which at least one of the children behaved regularly. As a youth worker, I would find myself standing between a carving knife held by the youngster and the parent, with the youngster wanting to lunge the knife into the parent because of something that the parent had done or said. I would find myself trying to disarm the youngster when, for example, he was holding, prior to throwing, a milk bottle to smash into others who were not very far away.

The second example is an occasion when, as a practising lawyer before being elected to this place, I was reading my newspaper on the train as I travelled to a court at Oxford. I read that a youngster whom I knew had been arrested for the alleged murder of a girl whom I knew. The incident had happened in Peckham. It came as a shock to me to read their names in a national daily newspaper.

When I returned that evening, I met the group of whom the lad was a member. I discussed with the members of the group what their view would be if it were proved, as eventually it was, that the young man, who was a member of the youth club of which I was a leader, had killed his girlfriend. I asked them what they thought would happen to him if he were convicted of the girl’s murder. His friends, who had been with him the week before, said that ​ if he had killed someone he should be hanged. They had no more sympathy for someone who overstepped the bounds that they regarded as sacrosanct because he was their friend than for anyone else, even though they were equally prone to violence and any one of them might have been the person who committed the violence. Indeed, one of them was much more likely, in my estimation, to behave in that way than the person who actually had.

Thirdly, there is a rather more general example of the way in which the prevalence of violence in many areas reflects upon people’s daily lives. On 19 December there will be a local authority by-election in Southwark. It will take place in the Peckham constituency, not in mine. It would be a by-election in the Liddle ward, comprising some of the estates that have been reported in the national press recently as being among the worst in London, such as Gloucester Grove, North Peckham, Camden and others.

The reality of life for political parties reflects the reality of life on these estates. Party supporters will not canvass at night. They are unwilling, however bold they may be, and however able they are to go out with others, to knock on people’s doors at night. They are afraid for their own physical safety. In other words, they are afraid of violence, primarily at the hands of young people. Secondly, they are afraid that they will be seeking to induce people to open their doors, which would be unfair on them. Those behind the doors do not normally open their doors after dark, because they expect violent things to happen. That is common, and not the exception. This third example confronts us with the seriousness of the issue with which we are seeking to deal.

Fortunately, the level of violent crime, as a proportion of all crimes perpetrated by young people, is very low. There is a mass of crime involving offences against property, and a lesser amount, thank God, involving offences against people. We must distinguish between the two groups of crime. In a way, one can regard offences involving property—for example, stealing a video or breaking in and taking money—as understandable. It is difficult to extend that understanding to crimes against the person. We can understand youngsters wanting to meet their daily needs by acquiring possessions that they do not have. That is much easier to understand than the feeling that they might have to attack an old person who may have little money or possessions on him. We must put into perspective the proportion of violent criminality, while recognising that it occupies the largest part of the public’s perception because it is more serious, more threatening and more menacing than crime involving property.

My second general proposition is that we must be careful not to generalise. The causes of violent crime are especially difficult to determine and often arise for different reasons, even when perpetrated successively by the same individual. The reason for a 16-year-old taking part in a violent assault on a police officer at a football match, or on the way to or from that match, might be very different from the reason for that person behaving violently in another social context a few days or weeks later. We must examine each event and try to diagnose the factors that go to explain it.

The hon. Member for Wealden was right to say that there are many factors, both near and remote, which are accumulating influences, not all of which are understood by the youngster at the receiving end. One primary influence is the family. There are many more small families nowadays. Families tend to live for much longer ​ in small units. We may often find one parent and one child, or one parent and two children, living together. Family units were much larger not all that long ago, and the influence of others, such as grandparents or other older relatives, used to be much greater. In many families there are fewer restraining and inhibiting factors than there used to be. There are fewer people to agree on and present a common code of morality.

I have in mind a wonderful family, the members of which are my friends. There are 13 children; it goes almost without saying that the parents are Irish and Roman Catholics. The members of the family act as the best possible check upon one another. Although they suffered from great deprivation in a general sense, in terms of income, finance and housing when they were young, they had enormous family solidarity. They can provide support for one another; they can entertain one another; they can go out with one another; they can occupy one another and discipline one another; they can take on responsibility for one another when the mother or father are at work or when the older children are not present. They have a general interest which sustains them. That is often to be found in large families, although there is often an odd person out in a large family who feels that he or she must react adversely to the family’s general interest.

In general terms, the different general pattern of present family life explains why the mechanisms that families produce are much less effective. The fewer the people who comprise the family, the greater the pressure will be. In a single-parent family—let us assume that the lone parent remains at home and is physically unable to deal with a growing adolescent—the parent may well find it impossibly wearing to keep on seeking to exercise control, and eventually will give in. The youngster will find it unappealing to stay all the time in the company of the single parent. He will go out and become more and more removed from the parent’s control.

A second factor is that, by virtue of society’s development, previously commonly held values have become less commonly held for all sorts of reasons—hinges in demography, more people moving around, changes in community life, the breakdown of communities and the mixing of different national and racial groups. It means that young people find it more difficult to establish the key values, search though they may, and be taught as well as they might. That makes the judgment of values difficult. One of the things that saddens me about Britain is that we do not have clear definitions of values. It has something to do with not having a written constitution, but it is not completely explained by that. Because our fundamental principles have always been unwritten, it is much harder to discover what they are. I have asked youngsters in this country what they regard as the fundamental values and principles. It is more difficult to obtain clear answers from our youngsters than from those in France, Sweden, the United States or even the Soviet Union. Elsewhere they have clearer statements of the principles of civic duty and responsibility.

The third general factor which I suggest often has an influence on young people is the lack of opportunity arid the feeling of alienation that can build up. The best example of that that I can cite is the failure of people to behave rationally if they have inadequate verbal skills. If one is able adequately to express oneself verbally, one needs less recourse to physical methods of expression. If someone is frustrated because he or she cannot win an ​ argument and compete on the same terms as the other person, such a person resorts, as people do in even the best educated circles, to other methods.
Marriages often start on the road to breakdown when someone ceases to argue verbally and starts to argue physically. The man often exerts his strength over the woman. A pattern of violence is much easier to establish once the threshold into violence is first crossed.

A youngster, who is not a fool, was arrested near to where I live. I know him. He can usually express himself quite well. He was taken to Tower Bridge magistrates court. He came near to being given a custodial sentence for an assault on a policeman. The youngster had been stopped and questioning began. It developed by him reacting when the policeman sought to arrest him. That lad, who is now in his 20s and settled with a good job, regularly went around carrying a knife. He felt that when he came into conflict with authority he would be less able to cope verbally than other people. That was vividly exemplified in the magistrates court.

I remember thinking, as that lad stood in the dock wearing a leather jacket, looking like he always looked—in some ways surly and anti-authoritarian—that a similarly aged youngster who had had the benefit of an Eton education—to take a trite example, but I hope a helpful one—might have been able to explain how he had lapsed from normal behaviour. He would probably have got off with a much lighter sentence because of his ability to explain his behaviour and relate in a way understood by the person in authority. We can blame a great deal on television, which, although it teaches verbal skills in the sense that it exposes people to a range of views, does not allow the same communication because it feeds in always without giving anyone the chance to feed back. Whereas in past generations matters of dispute were a dialogue, they are now often a monologue to which people are not trained to respond other than simplistically. Many offences of violence are spontaneous. We should be aware that people become caught up in a series of events and react quickly and unthinkingly.

Many offences are induced by other factors. Alcohol is clearly one factor. I applaud the Minister and his colleagues for a little belatedly but none the less honestly seeking to deal with the drugs problem. It sometimes causes us to pay less attention to the alcohol problem, which is responsible for more violent crime than drugs. The Sporting Events (Control of Alcohol etc.) Act, enacted last Session, and possibly the drugs Bill proposed for this Session, will deal with these factors, but we must be aware that these pressures have been most harmful.

Another factor is the peer pressure, which suddenly induces someone who may never have committed an offence to behave like his peers when that appears to be the thing to do. The difference between a youngster and an older person is that normally youngsters do not think things through in the same way as older people. They do not have the skill to see where behaviour will lead them. The natural checks and balances that may, for example, inhibit us more than others from drinking and driving—the consequences for us are greater and include public vilification and greater inconvenience—do not work in the same way for someone who does not have a driving licence and who does not think through the social disadvantages of behaving in such a way.

There is a danger that youngsters seeking to be violent are seeking instant gratification. We all do it, and it is nearly always illusory. Stealing, robbing and acquiring other people’s property is instant gratification. It is soon spent, passed on or no longer exists. The simple excitement of behaving energetically when life is boring and when often no energy is consumed by someone hanging around all the time explains why someone can get carried away by the excitement of the moment. Those are often single episodes.
A friend of mine is a senior worker at an assessment centre for young people in south London. I was seeking his advice and general comments this morning.

He told me that he has someone in the centre who has been sentenced to three years’ youth custody for an attack on an old man. It was an attack that went wrong and became a robbery. Someone with a clean record fell to the unjustifiable temptation of wanting to steal. He then behaved much more violently. There may have been a reaction or he may not have anticipated that the old man would not immediately give up the money. The offence became much more serious. He now regrets it, but it is too late.

Some violent crime can be explained by child abuse. Child abuse is reflected when the child becomes an adult. There was a debate in the House on the subject last week. Happily, our society is becoming more aware of the massive problem of child abuse. It is normally committed, not by strangers, but by family and close friends. This may be a topical week to say that we must alert the agencies of protection, such as social services, to ensure that they do the best job—in difficult circumstances, as we all accept. There is a great danger that the abused child will become the abusing parent. That is increasingly becoming the case. The child who is not given adequate parental care and teaching becomes an even more inadequate parent. I have seen that happen regularly as will many other hon. Members. It is depressing, because most children of inadequate parents end up in care and have a greater prospect of becoming inadequate parents themselves.

Some violent behaviour stems from genetic disorders and psychiatric illness, but that applies only to the minority of cases, and so we have to grapple with the social reasons for the majority of acts of violence and their consequences.
I have been driven to three general conclusions. First, in our education we must seek to deal with most comprehensively with the need to establish that violence, particularly against others, is the most objectionable form of activity.

We are right to criticise massive frauds in the City, automobile crime and theft from property. But there is a fundamental difference between those crimes and crimes of violence which affect the dignity and integrity of human beings. Those who commit crimes of violence—in particular, young people—must be shown that violence is an unacceptable form of behaviour in any circumstances. Once they are permitted to be violent in the classroom or at home, violence becomes the norm, and that is very dangerous for society.

Therefore, the education process must establish that violence is unacceptable, and youth workers, teachers and others must involve themselves in that process.

Teaching is very hard work in the difficult areas in our society, and teachers’ efforts must be backed with ​ additional social tuition facilities, so that good patterns of behaviour can be established, enabling people to renounce violence in their personal life.

There are three hon. Members in the Chamber this morning who, only a week ago, had personal experience of the second phenomenon that I am about to describe. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley), the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) and I were present at an International Youth Year parliament at the premises of the International Maritime Organisation on the other side of the river. I shall not go into the merits of the afternoon’s controversial events, but they demonstrated that it is very difficult to establish in young people the principle of tolerant debate and understanding of others.

There is no easy explanation of the phenomenon of intolerance. We have to teach respect for other people’s views, otherwise we shall find that we have lost the conventional ways of engaging in the normal social processes. When the norms are broken, violence of language leads to violent behaviour and intolerance of the individual, which is unacceptable however loathsome his views may be. Intolerance is now increasingly common, and we must learn to teach young people how to deal with it and how to renounce it.

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

I agree with what the hon. Gentleman is saying and I remember well the incident that he describes. However, I ask him to recall that this sort of violence is nothing new in society. It was taking place when I was young and long before that, and it is not unusual. The important question is how we cope with it.

Mr. Hughes

That is right.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith

Many of us have noticed that intolerance of other points of view in our universities seems to have grown in recent years.

Mr. Hughes

I am afraid that it is a problem that goes well beyond the category of young people. We have a duty, above all in this place, to teach by example. Many people cite this very building as a bad example to young people. It may be in part an excuse, but none the less we must be conscious of it, as must all people in public life. We cannot make the case that we would like to make if we do not subscribe to good standards in our own practice. As the hon. Member for Hammersmith said, there has always been intolerance in society in varying degrees.

My third conclusion is that violence often arises from the feeling that the other side does not understand. The tragedy of Britain today is that we are increasingly a society in which there appear to be two nations. There are places in Britain which in general terms can be defined as the more deprived areas, where people believe—often rightly, although not always—that they are not understood and valued equally.

If black youngsters know that statistically they are less likely than white youngsters to get employment, and have the feeling that they are not understood and that not enough is being done for them, they may think that the only way to be noticed is to assert their point of view, whatever the consequences for themselves. They are willing to challenge authority because that brings attention to them. All youngsters want attention. That is very important for them in establishing their identity. We must not allow them to feel discounted and discarded.

At a time of high unemployment, and when public sector expenditure is being restrained, we have a duty to ​ ensure that our resources are directed towards overcoming the feeling of alienation and powerlessness which sometimes, when added to all the other adverse factors, prompts people, often in groups, to react violently. There will be other debates about how best to deal with the problem of violence, but the Government should always be seeking ways of giving youngsters less cause to feel that they are not being noticed and that the only way to he noticed is to be violent. We must also help them, as I have said, through the education process and other agencies in society, so that we can begin to resolve some of the problems, although ultimately they can be resolved only individually by every young person coming to the conclusion that he or she must renounce violence because it is fundamentally wrong.