Last year we buried a local kid I knew, allegedly killed by a gang it is believed may have been chasing him for his mobile phone. His suspected attackers are of the same age. His family grieve not only for a son, but for all that he could have been. His picture in my office reminds me politics at its best is not about changing governments, but changing lives. When potential is lost at such a young age we all miss out. 22% of serious violence in the capital is committed by young people in gangs. For communities like mine these figures reflect the casual violence and fear that too frequently scars our streets, cuts across borough boundaries and is flaunted on YouTube and BBM. A code of indifference to the lives of others now eats away at too many of our young people.
For those of us living in affected areas, pledges to tackle these issues are welcome. For progressives our ambition shouldn’t be just to contain these problems, but overcome them. To do that funding matters. Projects inStrathclyde or Waltham Forest require £3-5m each, so the £10m reallocated to tackling gangs by the Home Office across the country will be a drop in the ocean, especially against a backdrop of cuts to community safety budgets, police numbers and an end to youth services in many areas. There is a danger this does not match the rhetoric.
And whilst money matters, leadership matters more. Strategies without real powers to enact behind them stall when they hit local, regional and national obstinacy about whose priorities matter most. That those charged with delivering this work admit they cannot compel other agencies to join in reinforces the need for a more radical approach. We need to give our police not only the task but the tools for the job.
To start we have to address the counterproductive relationship between the police and many of our young people. That means a community model for stop and search, as the Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper has said. Too many young people have their sole interaction with the law when they or their friends are in trouble. As the evidence shows, this undermines young people’s willingness to support or engage with the police. Since they were piloted in 2002, Safer Schools Partnerships have made a difference; building relationships that help tackle youth crime and improve youth safety. However, there is repetition of responsibility to engage with young people – whether through Youth Engagement Teams, Safer Neighbourhood Teams and Safer Transport Teams – which scatters resources and so limits what can be achieved. The same is true with other partners, be it youth services, youth offending teams or Children’s Mental Health Services. And within our communities many also work alongside each other trying to address youth offending or misbehaviour- whether knowingly or not. From housing landlords, to voluntary organisations or faith groups there are some young people and their parents who receive multiple contacts with all these partners to limited effects.
The answer is not just reduce duplication so more resources can be released for frontline services – whether to spend more time in schools, increase gang interventions or management of young offenders. It is to go further and bring together all those charged with securing these interlinked ambitions of reducing criminality and improving educational attainment under one roof for maximum impact. We know the benefits of joining up action through Family Intervention Projects. Now we need coordination not just in how we approach families but also how we work within communities.
Linking up provision of youth justice with action to prevent youth crime and promote youth achievement allows us to rethink not only how we address bad behaviour but also prevent it. Research consistently shows becoming a victim of crime increases the likelihood a young person will carry a knife. Too many of the young men I work with in Walthamstow tell me their rivals have blades and thus so too must they. We can also see the patterns underpinning gangs as childhood friends or younger brothers and sisters are recruited to their ranks. So too, when 30% of children in custody have been in care we have to take responsibility as corporate parents for challenging the pathways that make such a relationship far too frequent. A single body pulling resources and intelligence together could provide the mentoring that identifies and breaks these cycles, supporting educational attainment as the alternative.
Joining up services could also benefit schools. This could range from giving schools the ability to use removal of free travel cards as a sanction for persistent truancy, restoring the work done by behaviour and attendance partnerships abolished by the current Government or overcoming the impact of cuts to Educational Welfare officers which will leave only the police rounding up kids missing from schools. A pan London agency could also take responsibility for directing Government youth provision to support these objectives – perhaps putting the National Citizens Service funding to better use by securing places on programmes like CityYear or Outward Bounds. It could also support the delivery of peer mentoring and conflict resolution skills as part of school behaviour management plans.
Such coordination should not only involve public agencies. Community participation isn’t just about commissioning the voluntary sector to run outreach activities but interlinking their services and their voices throughout provision. We should be pro-active in seeking the added value they can bring, their feedback on results and promoting a culture of parental and social responsibility. The Extended Services programme started to open up top class sports and arts facilities in school buildings for extracurricular activities. We should expand this, and so the school day, to support provision of educational and personal development programmes after school and during holidays or weekends for all. Working in partnership with parents and community groups will ensure these programmes reach and bring into educational settings those beyond the influence of statutory agencies.
When we are losing 16,000 police officers across the country, asking for such radical shake up can seem unsettling. But to help frontline officers in post we have to not only make the case for how cuts are impacting on current policing but also our ability to improve services in the future too. Asking different partners – whether schools, police, probation teams or councils – to individually navigate these problems risks creating more meetings not progress. Championing action means putting our money – and our manpower – to best and combined effect.
The talented young people in my part of London – the same community that has produced some of Britain’s best filmmakers, inventors, dancers and sports people– need real leadership on this issue to give them the best start in life. And they are not the only ones. That’s why in the next eight weeks I’ll be meeting with young people and community representatives across the city to discuss how we can not only tackle youth crime but also improve youth attainment. Boris Johnson claimed this was a priority but has presided over year on year increases in knife crime. Our capital and our kids deserves better – if you want to help lead the call for action on youth crime in your area get in touch to discuss how we build a better future for all of young London.