HL Deb 13 July 1995 vol 565 cc1836-9

3.22 p.m.

Earl Russell asked Her Majesty's Government:

What percentage of those convicted of mugging in London are young, black and unemployed, and what percentage of those so convicted are 16 or 17 years old without visible legal means of support.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, this information is not available at present. We are, however, extending ethnic monitoring to cover arrests in all police forces from April 1996. Once that is in place, it should be possible to extend it to convictions in the courts.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, but perhaps she will also reply to the second part of my Question regarding 16 or 17 year-olds with no visible means of support. Is the Minister aware that Youth Aid believes that the number of such young people is in the region of 80,000? If the noble Baroness does not like that figure, perhaps she can supply a better one. Before the Minister says that it is irrelevant, would she not be wiser to know what the figure is?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I shall address the context of the Question. There is no single cause of crime. Many people who have problems with disadvantage do not commit crime. However, I can say that income support is available to 16 and 17-year-olds in a number of circumstances. It is available to those who cannot be available for work, for example, through possible disability; it is available to those waiting for a youth training place during the child benefit extension if they have to live independently; and it is available for severe hardship cases. Indeed 84 per cent. of applications under that measure were successful. Higher income support rates are paid to young people of 16 and 17 years of age who are forced to live away from home. They are rated just as 18 to 25 year-olds. Housing benefit is also available to help with the rent of those who meet the criteria. Again, 16 to 17 year-olds are assessed at the same rate.

I have to say that there is no excuse for street crime. It is absurd to suggest that the replacement of genuine entitlement to income support with the more positive offer of youth training leads to criminal behaviour. Our aim is to help young people make the most of their potential instead of sinking into benefit dependency.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, as far as I am aware, there is no such offence known to the law as mugging. Can the Minister say which offences are covered by the inquiry to which she referred earlier?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I was referring to street crime where people are damaged in the streets; where purses and handbags are snatched; and where people are robbed in the street. It is general street crime to which Sir Paul Condon has addressed himself. Perhaps I may point out that the job of Sir Paul Condon is to fight crime. He is courageously and imaginatively trying to tackle that problem. Further, he is sensibly looking to the local community and the community leaders for support. How sad it would be if we were not able to give him that support.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, while there is absolutely no excuse for street crime, does the Minister agree that governments also have some responsibility to provide constructive alternatives to young people? Is the Minister aware that nearly half of all the young men and women between the ages of 16 and 18 who participate in training for work schemes are still unemployed six months after completing such schemes? Is the Minister also aware of just how incredibly difficult it is today—whatever the figures may say and after many changes of definition—for young people to get even very low paid jobs? Will the Minister look again to see whether the structure of the benefits which she described (for which Youth Aid and other respected organisations say it is very difficult to qualify under any of those headings) adequately meets the needs of those decent young people who do not want to be driven towards crime but who have no legal source of support?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I have given many examples regarding 16 to 17 year-olds where I believe that the gap addressed by the Question is met. Hardship is met. Whether young people live away from home deliberately or because they are forced to do so, those needs are met. It would take me too long to go through the list of initiatives which were put in place by the Department of Employment (but which now come under the Department for Education and Employment) and, indeed, by the training and enterprise councils. Indeed, there is so much going on. I have to keep repeating: committing crime is wrong. Just because someone is out of work, it does not mean that that is a licence to commit crime.

Lord Monson

My Lords, does the Minister agree that surveys indicate that the vast majority of those who mug do so not to obtain money for necessities, but to obtain money for luxuries—for example, trainers costing up to £100 a pair, hi-fi equipment, drugs (whether hard or soft), and so on? It is hardly ever a question of having to rob in order to eat.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a most important point. I have heard it said that it is sometimes just done for kicks; sometimes it is done for status in a community; and sometimes it is just done because it seems to be a good thing to do at the time. Therefore, we have to address the problem.

However, I should like to make a more serious point. The British Crime Survey figures tell us that the fear of that kind of crime is having a disproportionate effect on communities. Therefore, we should do anything that we can to support Sir Paul Condon. He is making a very real attempt to reduce crime on our streets and to reduce the fear of crime which is almost more damaging sometimes than the crime itself. As we all know, the crime figures are being reduced. We should give every support possible in that respect.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, while not condoning any form of crime, is there not a danger that the comments made by Sir Paul Condon may actually have led to an increase in the fear of crime among people in our inner cities? Despite the many measures to tackle youth unemployment to which the Minister referred, does the noble Baroness agree that for young people in this country aged 16, 18, 20, and so on, the prospects of getting a job have never been so bleak? Even if we do not condone it, surely young people facing a depressing future are more likely to commit crime? Is not the real problem the fact that, unless young people have opportunities to get jobs, crime will continue to increase?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I simply do not agree with the premise underlying the noble Lord's question. I have already referred to a number of initiatives which have been put in place by the Department for Education and Employment. Perhaps the noble Lord has been missing from this Chamber but we have noted that the unemployment figures have been falling week after week after week for something like two years. I believe that the future is rosy for our young people seeking work, both as regards training prospects and job prospects.

I must take seriously another point which the noble Lord made. Let us consider what the commissioner actually said rather than what the newspapers allege he said. In his letter to community leaders, Sir Paul wrote, It is a fact that very many of the perpetrators of muggings are very young black people who have been excluded from school and/or are unemployed. Evidence from the British crime survey supports that statement, so does the day-to-day experience of operational police officers". What Sir Paul wants to do is to engage the community in partnership to do something about that. He has our support and I hope that he has the support of the whole House.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, there can he no doubt that Sir Paul certainly has the support of my noble friends in his efforts. There is no doubt that we condemn utterly street crime as we condemn all other crime. But surely we have to he concerned about the effects of what Sir Paul has said because the effect has been to create a general impression that 80 per cent. of young black men are muggers or capable of being muggers, whereas in any analysis of the statistics the figure cannot possibly be higher than 1 or 2 per cent. of the total. It would be helpful if the Minister could confirm that.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, Sir Paul did not say that. The noble Lord is putting two entirely different statements of Sir Paul together; in other words, he is putting two and two together and making 95. Perhaps I should explain what happened. Back in February—this passed without comment from any member of the public—Sir Paul took part in a round robin discussion on crime in general on a programme broadcast by Carlton Television. He mentioned pockets within London where crime was high and where young black males constituted the majority of the perpetrators. That was the context of that statement and it was quite divorced from his letter to leaders in the community inviting them to discuss with him ways in which they can act in partnership to reduce crime in their communities. There is no correlation between those two events. As I said, in February that comment passed totally without notice. Sir Paul has not used the figure of 80 per cent. in the context of this question.