I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. The first thing to say is that gangs are not a new problem: many of the issues being debated today have been raised in the past. What has become frightening in recent decades, going back to the 1980s, is that inner-city gangs who once upon a time would have solved their disputes with their fists began to do so with knives and guns.
There is sometimes an assumption that gang culture, knives and guns are all a euphemism for young black criminality, but let me put it on record that there is not a racial issue with gangs. People are often surprised when I say that the knife crime capital of Britain is neither Hackney nor Tottenham, but Glasgow, which has had a knife crime problem since the 1950s. Gangs are about a toxic convergence of collapse of existing economic structures, a hyper-masculine culture, and increasing materialism, which we are seeing in the 21st century. I wanted to nail that because some of the debates that we hear in the media would have us believe that the problem is one for a particular ethnic group.
Although we in the House often talk about gangs as if they were all the same, gang culture is quite complex. For instance, an increasing number of girls are involved in gangs; there are even girl-only gangs. Some gangs are more on the classic Kray and Richardson model, which are relatively organised groups of men in their 20s or older involved in systematic crime. Often, however—this is one of the big issues in areas such as mine—much younger children in their early or mid-teens are involved in gangs, which are entirely chaotic, using firearms because of issues of respect, such as if someone steps on their shoe in a night club. Such gangs are harder to deal with and less amenable to control than the more stable and relatively sophisticated adult gangs. The police have told me that adult gang members despair of teenage gangs because they are so chaotic and cause so much uproar and upheaval.
As my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy said, gangs did not cause the London riots. Clearly, many gang members were involved in the riots and were on the streets of London, but the idea that the riots were a consequence of organised gang activity is almost too easy and stops us from looking at the complexities behind the issue.
My right hon. Friend also mentioned the problem of postcode gangs, which shows how hyper and how calcified gang culture has become in the past 20 years. I remember walking down my road—Middleton road in Dalston, Hackney—and a young man buttonholing me and saying, “What are you people going to do so that there are more facilities for me? Otherwise, there is nothing for me but crime.” I said, “What do you mean? We have just built a brand new swimming pool at the end of Middleton road in London Fields park.” He said, “You don’t understand. The park is in one gang’s territory, and I live at the other end of the road, in another gang’s territory.” That young man genuinely was not able to cross the boundary to go to the end of the road to use the facility. The postcode nature of gangs makes it difficult to work with young people and provide the leisure facilities and youth clubs that they want. We can pump a lot of money into a club, but a lot of young people will not set foot in it because it is in the wrong postcode.
We talk about gangs in an entirely judgmental and negative way, but we must consider what they offer our young people. Unless we understand that, we will not know how to contest the culture. For many young people, the gangs offer a family, a structure and people whom they can look up to. In a completely warped and criminal way, the gangs offer guidance on being a man. We must understand that and the breakdown in the family structure that has happened if we are seriously to engage with the issue of gang culture. Of course we need to spend money on law enforcement, but we must understand that the gangs offer many young people safety and a quasi-family structure, which they do not get anywhere else.
There is also a huge amount of peer group pressure on young men, particularly on young black men, to join gangs. I live in Hackney and have brought up a son in Hackney. It is very difficult for someone to walk down the streets in Hackney if they are not in a gang or do not know what streets to avoid. We cannot underestimate
the peer group pressure on perfectly decent young men from decent families to get involved in this semi-criminal activity.
The final incentive for being in a gang is economic. Someone who does not have a job and has no prospect of having one will view a little drug dealing, a little drug running and a little this and that as an economic model.
I want to talk about education, which is not the responsibility of the Minister but relates strongly to the issue of gangs. By and large, young men who are in college doing their AS-levels are not on the streets involved in gangs. There is a direct relationship between educational failure and criminal activity. Years ago, Martin Narey, who is now the head of Barnardo’s, said, “On the day you permanently exclude a child from school, you might as well give them a date and time to turn up at prison.” Until we engage with the long-term issue of educational failure, we will not properly deal with the roots of the gang culture, which is something that I have worked on for many years.
A few weeks ago, I went to my sixth annual awards ceremony for London’s top-achieving black children. Tom Brake was right when he said that for every one gang member there are thousands of young people in London who are trying hard, trying to get qualifications and trying to move forward. It is important that we do not see all our young people, particularly those in minority ethnic groups, through the prism of gang culture, because there is so much more going on; there are so many young people who are really trying.
Clearly, gangs are a law enforcement issue, and it is appropriate that we will hear from the Home Office Minister and his shadow, my hon. Friend Stella Creasy. None the less, gangs are complex. They cover issues of family, breakdown of employment and access to jobs. When I was a child, my father was a sheet metal worker—he left school at 14 in Jamaica. Every day that God sent, he went to work. On Friday, he would come home with a brown wage packet and give pocket money and a bar of Cadbury’s fruit and nut chocolate to my brother and me. We grew up believing that a real man goes out to work and looks after his family, but the children on my estates have never seen that. Very often, they are in households with no male, let alone a male who gets up every day and goes to work. In the absence of that family structure, the lure of the gang with the apparent easy money, the glamour and the girls is strong.
There are issues of family structure, education and educational failure. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham said, pupil referral units—I do not mean to disrespect the people who work in them—are often little training academies for gangs. There are also issues of law enforcement and of resources. However, we must remember that each and every gang member, however frightening they may be and however abhorrent and criminal the activity they engage in, is someone’s child. There would have been a point in their lives at which, with the right intervention and the right diversion, they could have been put on the right path.
The Minister will talk about the law enforcement issues, but we also need a holistic strategy if we are to save a generation of young men of all colours and all
ethnicities from a life of the street and the gangs. We all know that the life of a gang member is often very short. If these young men could see what awaits them, whether it is prison or dying in the road in a pool of blood, the immediate attraction of gangs would not be so apparent. It is for us as politicians and as members of the community to offer holistic strategies on the gang culture.