Youth professionals welcome Cameron's taskforce to tackle gang culture
In the wake of the riots that shook the country last month, Prime Minister David Cameron has made a pledge to put gangs at the top of his agenda.
The taskforce he set up, co-led by Home Secretary Theresa May and Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, is due to report on ways to tackle the British gang culture in October. Charity leaders have warned that to make effective and meaningful long-term changes, policy must move beyond knee-jerk solutions.
While many recognise that Cameron’s initial "security fight back", which consisted of record police presence and tough justice, was necessary to take back control of the streets, children’s services leaders have warned that police and prisons are not long-term solutions.
"We can’t arrest our way out of this," said Christian Guy, director of policy at the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ). "The police can only pick up the symptoms, but we have to be more innovative than that." He pointed out that some of the young people who rioted were raised in unstable, violent or abusive families and suggested the government look at their social backgrounds to come up with relevant solutions.
The response of courts also came under fire from both charities and the Prison Governors Association, which accused magistrates of applying severe punishments for minor offences committed during the riots.
Paul Fletcher, director of youth engagement for Rathbone, stressed the danger of reactionary sentences. "For people to have confidence in the justice system, we need proportionality between charges and sentences," he said. "There is a danger in bringing the justice system into disrepute."
Guy added that it was important not to write off offenders for the rest of their lives. "What they did needs to be condemned, but we must not rule out the idea of a second chance," he said.
In a speech delivered on 11 August, Cameron praised Strathclyde police for reducing gang violence using a strategy first observed in Boston in 1995. Operation Ceasefire consists of calling young gang members into a neutral building and offering them extensive support in exchange for leaving the gang.
Guy believes this is a more positive approach. "A lot of gang members are reluctant," he said. "They are just looking for a sense of belonging, family and safety. If they could find that elsewhere, they wouldn’t join gangs."
He said he welcomed the appointment of Duncan Smith, founder of the CSJ, as the head of the gang taskforce and hoped he would take into account the Dying to Belong report, published by the centre in 2009. "We went out for 18 months and listened to communities damaged by street gangs, asking them what should be done to help them," Guy said of the report. "We don’t care who gets the credit, as long as the government uses it."
Fletcher agrees that intervention is needed to help young people exit gangs and thinks hard-core gang leaders should be handled by the police. But he also stressed the importance of early intervention. "We need an educational awareness campaign in school to de-glamorise gangs," he said.
Charity Family Action has been running an educational project in Waltham Forest, north-east London, to highlight the dangers of gangs. Working with parents and carers, the programme aims to empower children to make a positive contribution at school and in the local community.
Project co-ordinator Max Tobias said: "It is a sensitive topic, much like sex education. Initially, parents are usually suspicious, but once they commence casework with us they are unanimous in their opinion that our support with parenting strategies is a big help."
According to Tobias, children appreciate being informed on gang issues, with 98 per cent giving positive feedback after each session. "Young people at risk need to be targeted as soon as possible to give them the emotional intelligence, confidence and investment to take up alternatives," he added.
Fletcher also insisted on the need for role models, something raised in Cameron’s speech. While Fletcher deplored the cuts being made to youth centre provision, he pointed out that a lot of young people do not frequent these facilities. He said: "Role models need to be from local communities, where it all happened. We need to go out on street level to train kids. It needs funding, organisation and training."
Family role models
While he acknowledged the role played by youth workers, Guy believes parenting should be the government’s biggest priority. "Families are the foundation. You can do what you want at a youth centre for two hours a week, but it’s the family that needs to provide role models, values and aspirations. We have to ensure that young people live in strong communities where they see role models at home, in school and on their estates."
Among the proposals made by the government after the riots was cutting benefits for families involved, an idea that attracted controversy. "Cutting family benefits can only be a knee-jerk reaction, which I personally find very worrying," Tobias said. "Poverty is part of the problem, as it has been proven to have a huge implication for educational attainment. Without mainstream prospects for the young, there is no perceived hope in a secure future," he added.
Guy recognised that recent events questioned the unconditional character of state benefits, but expressed caution on the proposal. "You don’t want to punish entire families because of the behaviour of one of their children," he said. However, he voiced favour for reform of the welfare system in general and added: "Young people feel like they have no future. If you get paid more on benefits than on a job, why would you look for work?"
Fletcher thinks cutting benefits will not solve the problems, but suggested making people work for them. "You need to force them into constructive activities and a work programme," he said.
No matter what action the government takes following the taskforce report in October, charities widely agree that it will need to be funded consistently. Fletcher said: "If we are serious about tackling this issue, we need to be serious on how much money we are going to spend. Financing social programmes for six months at a time is not going to solve the gang problem."
31 August 2011