Two teenagers died in London last week after being attacked with knives. Two young men who will never again enjoy music, have a laugh with their mates or bring up a family. Those incidents came two weeks after much-loved teacher Ann Maguire was stabbed to death in front of her class, shortly before she was due to retire after a distinguished career. What a shameful waste.
Although politicians claim their policies are working and that we are living in a safer society, knife crime in England and Wales dropped by only a small amount last year (5 per cent), and more than 16,000 people were stopped while carrying knives.
Knives contributed to 400 deaths in 2013. That sounds like an awful lot to me, and there is no real evidence young people in inner cities feel any safer or are any less inclined to carry some form of protection. Even though the crime figures seem superficially encouraging, many teenagers are too frightened to venture outside their immediate neighbourhood for fear of straying into someone else’s territory. In 2012, Scotland Yard estimated that 5,000 young people were members of 435 gangs in London, and a British Crime Survey estimated that young men aged 16 to 24 are more than four times as likely to be victims of violent crime as the general population.
Fifty years ago, I grew up in central London and it was easy to explore from one end of the Tube line to the other. As a teenager, I visited council estates without any worries, and walked home from the Underground without looking over my shoulder. Now, thousands of young people live in self-imposed open prisons, with clear boundaries they dare not cross.
This situation cannot continue, but how to break the cycle of fear and intimidation? How to challenge the belief that you need to carry a weapon to look after yourself, “just in case”? How to stop the bullying that results in innocent young people carrying weapons for older gang members?
London Mayor Boris Johnson, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service want the penalties for carrying a knife to be increased. At present, those aged between 10 to 15 normally receive a warning for a first-time offence, and the Lord Chief Justice says that this is not enough of a deterrent. Tories, and some Labour MPs, want anyone caught carrying a knife or an offensive weapon for a second time to receive a mandatory six-month jail sentence, but Nick Clegg has opposed this. Is he being a feeble liberal?
Talking to Barry Mizen was humbling. His son, Jimmy, died six years ago yesterday, when a shard of glass from a bowl thrown at him by an attacker pierced his neck. Barry does not think increased sentences are the answer. He says judges should always be able to take circumstances into account, and have flexibility when punishing young offenders.
Barry has every right to demand a toughening of the law, and yet he firmly believes that education is the way to change attitudes. He says we need to look at why young people get involved in violence in the first place. “Do we need any more laws?” Barry asked. “I don’t think so. I don’t want a politician announcing a new law and then that’s it, problem solved.”
Barry is organising a conference in the autumn to try to find a way forward, to identify those at risk, to target those youths who spend a long time not in work, education or training and work with them. The Jimmy Mizen Foundation is one of many reactions to knife crime, but anyone who has met Barry cannot fail to be impressed by his thoughtfulness, by his determination not to dwell on blame and punishment but to move forward positively. He is an inspiration, in a way our grandstanding politicians are not.
Jail sentences for 14-year-olds are nothing more than a knee-jerk reaction to a problem that requires a long-term solution. Primary-school kids need to be taught about the consequences of violence. For many with chaotic home lives, school is their only refuge. Schools, not prisons, are where the groundwork has to be done that will turn around our gang culture, and show young people how much we value them.
The BBC Trust needs an overhaul – but count me out
Years ago, I applied to be a governor of the BBC. I was interviewed, but didn’t get very far. I was too outspoken; my private life was too colourful and I don’t sit on enough committees and quangos. I had the necessary experience, having worked in the TV business since 1975.
Now the BBC Trust’s chairman Lord Patten has bowed out for health reasons, so should I apply? The list of frontrunners is deeply unappealing. From Lord Smith (moving on from his hapless handling of the West Country floods) to Caroline Thompson, the BBC’s former chief operating officer who took a massive pay-off.
I’d rule out anyone who’s worked at the BBC for more than five years. Their minds will have silted up, and prolonged exposure to corporation values and internecine warfare ensures that you are incapable of making unpopular decisions quickly or communicating in normal English.
The Government says it could take up to six months to find a replacement. I can’t imagine why. The BBC’s charter is up for renewal in 2017, so why not make a short-term appointment – an outsider who will wind up the trust, and come up with a realistic operating plan? Someone who will ensure that more real cuts are made, particularly in news production. For example, can someone explain to me why BBC Radios 3 and 4 have different news readers and bulletins on the hour? Or why front-line staff are so poorly paid and hard pressed?
The BBC is irreplaceable, but like the NHS is overburdened by a top-heavy management. By too many people who have never made a single programme. Actually, my life’s too short. Paxo is welcome to this thankless task.
The scandal of poorly paid care home staff
My column last week about care homes brought a huge response. Thanks for your comments. Sarah Warner was incensed that I mentioned that care assistants earned just £7.71 an hour. She thought I was implying that higher pay ensures better standards.
I apologise, because that’s not what I meant. But I do believe that nursing assistants and carers are badly paid. It’s as if the professionals running the NHS and care homes don’t rate the job as very important, when it is these carers on the frontline who spend the most time with patients.
A few years ago, I spent a few weeks working as a nursing assistant in a hospital outside Barnsley (for a television series), and I witnessed at first hand the hard work and kindness shown by the vast majority of staff. But nursing and care assistants are over-stretched and woefully underpaid.
Monica Lewinsky – a victim or not such a clever girl?
Why has Monica Lewinsky finally decided to speak out about her affair with Bill Clinton? In Vanity Fair, she portrays herself as a victim whose life has been blighted by a youthful miscalculation. It’s not that simple.
I had a long chat with Monica at Ian McKellen’s 60th birthday party – their friendship started after meeting at an Oscar party in Hollywood. She was making knitted handbags, and studying for a master’s at the LSE. Most of our conversation took the form of careers advice. Monica wanted me to tell her how to get on in the media.
She seemed a clever girl, but if she had real talent she’d be working today. In the age of reality television, her CV, complete with the ultimate power liaison, should have guaranteed her a job. Maybe Monica just isn’t that smart after all.