The issues surrounding youth crime

Who is best qualified to tackle this problem?

 

We all love the idea of local solutions when it comes to dealing with crime. The left love it: only this weekend the increasingly admirable Stella Creasy’s Mayoral Youth Crime Pledge got an excited response from community leaders. The right love it: this morning Nick Herbert performed a volte-face of relatively shocking proportions – or more likely felt now was the time to announce what he’d been thinking all along – writing an immaculately-balanced and impressively vague piece in the Guardian on the need for “programmes that are locally delivered, free from central micro-management, and specifically targeted.” Rather verbiose from the same man who has never before had much to say on the management of crime other than that it needs to be “cut”.
 
This morning I was in a youth centre talking to one of its workers – a lovely lady who’s lived in the area for over twenty years – when one of the kids started to kick up hell. There were two blokes there trying to calm him down, but he wasn’t listening to them. So she got up, walked over to him, and had a few quiet words. He sat down and started to do some work. I switched my recorder off and asked her to tell me his story.
 
He’s been kicked out of school because he’s a naughty boy. He has a girlfriend who keeps him in check, but he lives on an estate where kids are at war (described in the press as a gang feud – the reality, as so often, is far less exciting), so he keeps getting into fights. She began to find out some stuff about his family – she was able to, because she knows everyone who lives nearby – and realised that his dad was one of the biggest dealers in the local area. After spending a lot of time with the boy, he revealed that most nights he would beat him. That’s why he’s not scared of stern words from the guys in the community centre. So our youth worker talks to the mum about it – mother to mother. And the mother puts faith in her, and the child begins to trust her, and now she sees him at weekends, and sees him in the street, and even (bad practice, this) at home sometimes.
 
On the whole it’s working. He’s looking set to get ‘A’s and ‘B’s in his GCSEs. That’s what grassroots work does: it converts next week’s murderers – or victims – into this week’s respectable citizens.
 
Now the key thing about this work is that it’s usually this effective when the voluntary sector does it – because it requires a (horrendous phrase) holistic approach. And this is what Nick Herbert’s really complaining about in his Guardian piece – the drug outreach workers and youth offending services and all the other professionals that are employed by town halls all do good work, but there is a box ticking culture that addresses problems rather than people and that usually restricts them.
 
He says Labour invested too much faith in the state. He’s probably right – I remember voluntary workers complaining to me back in 2008 about the fact that they were operating at the beck and call of professionals in suits who would try to engage with people involved in crime, find that they lacked the credibility, and then call for help because they were getting nowhere and frankly weren’t prepared to work on this stuff after 5pm. But to a large extent it depended on the councils – some seemed to have a great bead on how to deploy the voluntary sector, others just chucked money at crime and hoped it went away.
 
There’s plenty of work for state and voluntary sectors. The problem is organising it effectively; it’s a muddle at a national level. Whose job are gangs? The answer is everyone’s: the Home Office (policing), CLG (town halls), DWP (who now appear to be taking the lead), Education, Health and probably several more. This shared responsibility is mirrored at a local level. And Labour tried to establish some kind of organisation through the Crime Reduction Programme, which flopped due to a lack of funding and lethargy among local partners who didn’t want to spend all their time recording data to justify their work to everyone else.
 
The biggest damage it caused was at a sentimental level – police and local authorities work together without central funding through MAPPAs and Community Safety Partnerships, but there is a diminished appetite. Boring things like information protocols – I’m a probation worker who knows about X, should I tell this boy’s school/doctor/housing authority about it – are an obstacle. Likewise, there’s a fear of buck passing which makes budget sharing difficult – e.g. this boy isn’t a youth offender, he’s disturbed, so mental health services can deal with him. The elected Police Commissioners are Herbert’s answer to these difficulties. The pros and cons of this scheme are another article entirely – but as this little survey shows, the issues run rather too deep for the policy to solve on its own.
Photo: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle