You get to be a little cynical about politicians and political agendas when you have been embattled in the London youth sector for as long as I have. Back in 2011 when the dust was settling from all the heavy handed anti-youth rhetoric the Government was using, it seemed there might finally be a wind change blowing in when the lights seemed to come on and the root causes of the disruption became clear. Our young people were fed up with lack of opportunity. Fed up with being over policed. Fed up with their youth clubs being closed. Fed up with being socially immobile.
It had taken a significant spark for things to kick off the way they did and then in the aftermath young people had to endure the accusation made by Government and media that they had been "youth riots" when this was not accurate. Young people had of course been involved and many arrested and dealt with very severely by the courts but there were many more involved that were over 25 so labeling them youth riots was unjust. With youth unemployment levels in London also heading towards an all- time high young people were getting a really rough deal all round. The wind change appeared to come when the Government started talking about investment and development in deprived urban areas. The kind of investment that had previously been mooted back in the 80's when Oliver Letwin was an ambitious young policy adviser to Margaret Thatchers Government.
So yes, you get to be cynical - We have seen very little investment in young people from deprived areas since 2011. The wind change was just hot air. More and more youth services have been cut while the negativity towards young people has intensified due the stereotyping of urban youth as gangsters or affiliated gang members. If you read certain newspapers you would believe that the only young people who are not active gang members are "reformed" gang members. The truth about the achievements of the vast majority of young people who are a credit to their communities is rarely, if ever mentioned
Politicians promised much too young people after the riots in 2011 but delivered little. The Mayor of London meanwhile invested in water cannons just in case the frustration boiled over again and then he installed a Gang Tsar in City Hall. What's a gang Tsar you ask? Good question!
On Thursday, March 3rd 2016 my cynicism subsided a little when a politician stood tall in the House of common's main chamber and staged a debate on the issues underpinning serious youth violence and gangs. Only a handful of politicians attended unfortunately but it still made giant strides forward in as much as the issue of serious youth violence and gang culture had never been debated in the main House of Commons chamber before. Chuka Umunna had been briefed by some of the most authentic young practitioners in the youth sector earlier in the day on issues such as the need to better understand exactly what a gang is. What the difference is between disengaged young people frustrated by lack of support and opportunity and actual criminally motivated gangsters. How kids that had got embroiled in criminal activity can be educated to use the skills they learn illicitly to reform and become entrepreneurs in mainstream society. How with investment they can become an asset not a burden to society.
There is little doubt that crime among young people both as victims and perpetrators is growing and also the evidence from young people and research organisations is that young people have never felt less safe on our streets. It is no use the Police and authority bodies claiming that crime is dropping when young people are saying they do not feel safe. It is a dereliction of duty and care not to better investigate the root causes of violence in young people's lives if they are feeling threatened. It is also an attack on the human rights of young people coming from certain areas and backgrounds to have them "labelled" as gang members simply because it ticks a box!
I was glad to have been able to play a role supporting the debate and was also happy to have supported the digital version a week earlier. It was apparently the most successful ever digital debate the House of Commons had staged. Further evidence that violence is an issue which truly does concern people. Young people especially.
Something I have found disturbing for a long time is the Constance reference to the term "Youth Violence". As a young person stated at an event I attended recently "The media make it appear that it is the word YOUTH that is the guilty word!"
Let us be clear, this is Society violence first and foremost. Society broadcasts violence into people's lives 24/7 in one format or another. Society promotes, glamorises and profits from violence then wags its finger at young people when they resort to using it. Yes of course I appreciate that not all young people feel the impulse to be violent and the vast majority would not dream of hurting another human being. The fact is though that in a lot of young lives especially where there is disadvantage and frustration, violence can all too easily become normalised through the social harm inflicted on them as victims themselves in one way or another.
It was refreshing to hear the House of Commons debating the issues and demonstrating empathy in wanting to better understand the root causes of how violence manifests in young lives. This was an all-party debate and the empathy was coming from all corners of the chamber.
David Lammy MP for Tottenham made a good point when he was brave enough to suggest that there are too many organisations and charities operating in the sector for them to be effective. He is absolutely right. With little funding available and a lack of cohesive strategy many of these organisations spend more time bid funding and competing against one another than they actually spend time helping and supporting young people. It is the nature of the way things have gone especially since austerity was introduced. It is also a fact that the bigger charities are able to employ highly paid professional bid writers who speak the same language as the funding agencies. Bid writing is now a degree course in university!
I can say with some certainty that the excessive overheads, staff salaries and expenses much maligned at Kids Company since its closure would not have been that different from many of the bigger charities in the sector. Then you have the "cash guzzlers" in the form of huge service provision corporations like G4S that operate in and around the fringes of selected services especially where the Justice system is concerned. With so little money being made available as it is to the sector by the time money filters down to the "coal face" grass roots organisations to say it is tough to make ends meet is the hugest of understatements. These smaller organisations tend to be run by young people who have experienced trauma themselves and as such understand much better than most what young people need. What works and what doesn't. The big corporations depriving them of resource is a huge social injustice all on its own!
The parliamentary debate was refreshing, perhaps a real wind change might now finally be on the horizon. Maybe the all- party commission Parliament has agreed to sanction might actually consider all the issues. Might look much more deeply at the social harm that underpins the violence. Might start to question the myth of so many young people being gangsters. Might start to understand the big responsibility that society itself has by creating bad role models for young people through reality TV shows for instance. Maybe look at how young people are targeted from the cradle by the big brands. How marketers use certain images and subliminal messaging to convince kids with low self- esteem in poor areas that if they wear their brands then their lives will be improved. The role these big brands and the media promoting them play in helping turn a percentage of disadvantaged children into drug dealers through the materialism they help instill in them. Society blurs the lines between want and need and the big brands and media play a big part in this
Can we reverse the trend of violence that is leading to teenagers running around stabbing each other so indiscriminately that only the skill of overworked Junior Doctors in A&E departments is keeping the death toll lower than it otherwise would be? I think that society needs to look long and hard at the role it plays in promoting and profiting from graphic violence first.
It has to own the problem before it can resolve it and then it has to invest in better, more cohesive strategies for supporting and helping the grass root organisations struggling at the coal face. These grass root companies in turn need to be better regulated and encouraged to align in partnership. There does not need to be less practitioners there just needs to be better resourced collaborative partnerships and far more cohesive strategies. David Lammy is right, less could indeed achieve more.
I am optimistic that solutions to the problems underpinning extreme violence can be found but for this too happen it is imperative to bring some stability to a sector that is far too competitive and over populated. There are some great small charities and Community Interest Companies out there whose authentic experience could be much better harnessed if the right support structures were in place. I think that in London the Greater London Authority and the elected London Assembly councilors could play a bigger role and that a cooperative style body from the charity sector could be created to work alongside them to help install the changes needed
Most importantly though we need to involve young people in the processes and give them the support they need to actually lead and play an active part in supporting themselves and laying foundations for their younger peers. This cannot be token it has to be a real and credible role and it cannot be politically controlled. As Chuka Umunna stated at the outset of the debate, "this is not a political issue and it must not be about scoring political points". It is however about giving disadvantaged young people the opportunity to realise their potential and play an active part in society and to do this we need to invest in them as a society, understand them as a society and most importantly of all, keep them protected as a society.
That wonderful old African saying "It takes a village to raise a Child" - How about we adopt the saying "It takes an entire society to keep its Children safe?"
Founder - The Spirit of London Awards