Capt. Jay Singh-Sohal works in Strategic Communications for M&C Saatchi and serves as a Captain in the Army Reserve. He is the Conservative candidate for West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner.
Crime has shockingly been on the rise in the West Midlands ever since Labour first won the Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) election in 2012. Since then, knife crime has increased by 85 per cent, and it’s affecting our young people the most. In 2018, nearly 700 schoolchildren were the victims of knife crime, including 41 of primary school age. Alongside, has been a general rise in weapons’ possession (up 36 per cent from last year) and violence against the person (up 32 per cent). I cannot accept this rise in violence, which shows no signs of abating under a Labour PCC who has politicised the role.
That is why I am running to be Commissioner, to work with the government and our regional Mayor, Andy Street, to tackle crime and improve the life chances of our young people. It’s an issue close to my heart because of where I was raised, in Birmingham Ladywood, one of the most deprived areas of the country.
For people like me growing up in a migrant family during the 1980s and 1990s, life could be made simple or complicated depending on which side of the law you found yourself on. If you worked hard and stayed out of trouble, there was an opportunity to be gained. But for some young people, the lack of options presented a temptation to take short cuts. It could mean becoming either victims of crime or entering a slippery slope to being perpetrators themselves.
I saw this at first hand, friends and peers who joined gangs for camaraderie and brotherhood, smoked cannabis outside the school gates to pass time, stole from corner shops and music stores, and, for those who caught buses from afar, got into fights in Birmingham city centre with lads from other schools. Years later, it does not surprise me to hear about the fate of some of those I grew up with in Handsworth.
I was fortunate to have been able to steer away from much of that because growing up I had a religious family and community of faith-principled Sikhs to keep me in check. From a young age, visits to the many Gurdwaras near my home in Birmingham, West Bromwich and Smethwick and school holidays spent at Sikh camps in Dudley and Wolverhampton learning about my faith and identity meant I knew the difference between right and wrong and had successful role models to look up to.
So it’s not an understatement to say being surrounded by my community kept me away from crime. It gave me purpose, to want to tell the stories of those around me and to now use the office of the PCC to introduce preventative activities that steer young people away from gangs and towards respecting others and developing themselves.
I know it can work because I’m proof: at the tender age of 16, with support from community youth workers, I successfully applied for funding from the Princes Trust Millennium Awards Scheme to create and publish a regular inner-city magazine. I was a teenager trusted with around £12,000 in my bank account to run the project. It could have gone so wrong. Instead, it was the beginning of my career in journalism.
Even then, boys will be boys and I’d be lying if I said the paths presented to me often split with a clear enough route to getting up to no good. The temptation was there and I don’t think I was too lazy not to. But perhaps the exposure to community values was too strong, the wearing of a Kara (Sikh iron bangle and one of five symbols of our faith which reminds oneself to do good) too powerful. Or maybe I was too much of a geek (I used to be teased at school for watching Star Trek) to warrant being included by the “cool kids”. I still found other ways to rebel, legally. Some in my traditionally Labour-voting community might even say joining the Conservatives was the ultimate form of rebellion.
So I understand the pressures and real life choices young people are presented with in life, and acknowledge that it is not easy growing up in inner-cities and within homes where social and familial cohesion might not be apparent. In a fast-paced world our young people are all too easily tempted into doing no good – it could be because of peer pressure, lack of positive role models or missing economic opportunity. From minor theft to recreational drugs to anti-social behaviour, the journey into gangs, violence and crime is too easily made. Particularly for those from poorer backgrounds who are disproportionately more likely to become involved in criminal activity. We must address those issues if we are to create the positive change we need to improve the lives of young people and the future hopes of our urban areas.
Creating opportunities for young people is the natural next stage of delivering upon a robust and dynamic domestic agenda that creates behaviour change to tackle the causes of criminal behaviour. It must follow on from the Prime Minister’s announcements of several much-needed measures including recruiting 20,000 more police officers, more prison spaces, and more money for the CPS to tackle violent crime.
Youth crime is a social justice issue that our government must now take seriously by investing in “diversionary opportunities” that ensure all our young people are presented with better options than activity that leads to breaking the law. Boris Johnson will understand this. As Mayor of London, he not only presided over more “stop and search” to tackle rising knife crime but balanced this with intervention schemes including sponsored mentoring, apprenticeships, and youth clubs that helped address the cause of youth crime. I am hopeful he will do so again on a national level.
My active and faith-principled community helped in my development, but for many, it requires government commitment at a national and local level to create investment into youth and community facilities that improve neighbourhoods and ensure young people have the opportunities to become empowered to make the right decisions in life.
I will be working hard to win the argument for the Tory blue approach across the region, and lobbying for more investment into our young people’s futures. Doing so will assure the less privileged and often overlooked sections in our society of our Conservative commitment to ensuring that anyone can succeed with the right opportunities.