Drunks, gang-members, arsonists, reoffenders, truants - it's all more complicated than you think

Places like the St Giles Trust shouldn't struggle for funding.

“Yet another article in the ongoing series ‘Violent criminals should not be blamed… It's all the fault of the authorities". 

Comment from “John2002” under an article I wrote about policing.

That’s not what I think, John. I just think it’s complicated. Look, there’s this story I’ve wanted to tell for ages, but I’ve been wondering if it was possible to do it and name names. Turns out it isn’t, because if you blow the whistle in the NHS the wrong people get got by the management, sooner or later – but that’s another tale. Anyway.

It goes like this. There’s a doctor – my friend – and he works on an A&E ward somewhere in the north of England. One night a man comes in - he’s psychotic, and he’s drunk.

My friend phones the hospital’s mental health team, and describes the patient to them. And here’s what they tell him to do. They tell him to dare the man to threaten someone in the street. That way, he’d most likely end up being the police’s responsibility rather than theirs. They couldn’t take any more patients and this guy was just your classic fuck up – mentally ill and self medicating with drink (or perhaps the other way round – there’s usually a chicken and egg thing) rather than a potential serial killer or whatever.

Now I didn’t believe this at first. But he swore it was true. Then I talked to a psychiatrist in another town, and she told me she totally believed it, and that she had a problem with the police bringing guys in to be sectioned even though they were just drunk and angry, because the cells were full.

The problem with us hacks, John, is that you give us an inch and we take a mile. This is just a thing that happened. It doesn’t necessarily indicate that there’s a cigarette paper between the criminal justice system and mental health services.

But there’s a man I want you to hear from. He’s called Rob Owen, and he’s a former investment banker who now runs the St Giles Trust in Camberwell. It’s a charity which aims to stop people who’ve been in prison from re-offending. I tell him this story, and he nods his head. He won’t confirm if he’s ever seen cases exactly like this before, but he says: “We see prolific offenders with mental health problems who are drunks; they can’t be mentally assessed until they sober up, which won’t happen till they’re in prison. So they go in there, come back out again, and the cycle of offending continues.”

The thing is, it gets more complicated. One of Owen’s employees is a sweet-natured, tattooed black lady in her 30s, called Antonia Ejoh-Steer. Antonia grew up in Battersea, and in her 20s she got in trouble.  She was romantically involved with a man who was a gang member (in those days there were fewer of them around, but they existed), and the short story is she got an eight-year prison sentence for the possession of drugs.

When she was coming to the end of her sentence, Owen’s charity got in touch with her, and asked her to work for them. She was let out on license, so she was obliged to have regular meetings with her probation worker. Pretty soon those meetings were less about how Antonia was coping and more about how she could help the probation worker, by referring his clients to St Giles Trust.

“Coming out of prison is very hard indeed,” she says. “I was lucky. Most people leave without a job, homeless or isolated from their families - with nothing but a travel warrant and a discharge grant of £50 or so. Probation services are there but they have so many cases to deal with – if they don’t have a local connection they’ll find it hard to access services. One of the most important jobs we do is actually just getting people in housing.”

This leads to a simple question – you have, say, a gang member, leaving prison with absolutely no support. Where do you think he’ll go for help? Predictably most of Antonia’s work is spent trying to get youths out of gangs. She operates in Croydon, where there are a number of big groups with names like Bloc Cartel and Squeeze Section. She’s very good at her job, because she’s seen and done all this stuff herself.

“If I talk about my life – about the things I’ve seen, the friends I’ve lost - the kids can see they’re not untouchable,” she says. “What I do with them, really, is give them options. They can carry on down the road they’re on, if they like. But they don’t. That’s what makes it work – the fact we empower them. That’s why the police, youth offending team, probation services – they’re always happy to turn to us.”

John, I could tell you all sorts of stories that show how good people like Antonia are at their jobs. But I’m just going to use one figure. St Giles Trust works with about 350 young offenders in total, and most of them live in poor areas of London. After the August 2011 riots, the proportion of their clients who were arrested or charged was three per cent.

You could say that Antonia’s a special case – us hacks do love to see a bigger picture where there isn’t one, as I said. But Rob Owen employs 132 staff, and just under half of them are ex-offenders. I’ve met Antonia’s line manager several times. He was a member of a South London gang. There’s no other institution which is this committed to the deployment of people who’ve been in prison.

“The thing about people who’ve been in gangs,” Owen says, “Is that they’re very entrepreneurial. It’s easy to use them in a positive way.” But historically, there’s always been a resistance to using them: “It goes back to that Henry Ford quote – ‘If I’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have said faster horses.’ Of course they make mistakes every so often. They’re maverick people - one of them just challenged me to a press up competition, which I don’t think would have happened at Schroders. Some days I feel like a football manager with a team of 11 Balotellis. But the point about Balotelli is he’s good.”   

He continues: “I remember one of my case workers overjoyed, shouting, ‘I’ve got a triple arsonist to house!’ This is a guy who’s been banned from every service, who’s a very troubled man, a really complicated case - and my case worker is happy! You know why? Because ex-offenders are the people who’ll know best how much damage a serious criminal can do to a community.”

Owen feels the tide is changing: “Post riots – and post the worst recession in 50 years - I think there’s been a step change. There’s now a commitment and an understanding to how much the people with whom we work could end up costing. The average prolific offender has 4.3 children by 4.3 women. That can only create a growing inter-generational cycle of offending, of chaotic families and, sad to say, more Baby Peters.”

Owen backs up the point Antonia made about her work: “We provide people, not programmes.” This, I offer, is what differentiates St Giles Trust from a lot of projects run by local councils. “Yes, but often the funding schemes we get tie us into being set up rather like a statutory body. Actually 93 per cent of my funding is restricted – it’s like giving the RNLI a load of cash and saying ‘You can only spend it on a yellow lifeboat. And only use it every Wednesday.’”

Well then, I suggest – perhaps you shouldn’t rely so much on state funding. “We’re an offender charity – that’s what we do and we’re proud of it. But I can hardly go out in the street with my begging tin saying ‘Give a burglar a leg up.’ I can tell you all about the value we create, but it’s a tough sell.”

The figures on value, by the way, are startling. A review of the St Giles Peer Advice Project for the government found it cost £3m, and the evaluation concluded that the total benefits were £16.3m, driven by improvements in employment, education and training and housing and health outcomes. “I know there are charities out there that see winning government contracts as a way of delivering services cheaply, but we’re not one of them,” says Owen.

Despite all this – last year even Sir Gus O’Donnell asked why it wasn’t getting more money - the St Giles Trust continues to struggle for funding. It was recently running a programme in a poor town (it wouldn’t do it any favours to name it, but Owen knows of research that shows The Jeremy Kyle Show takes 12 per cent of its guests from there), working to get mums into work, stopping school truanting, getting families to go to GPs, when the funding was abruptly stopped. “When the councils face cuts, voluntary sector funding is pretty much the first thing to go,” says Owen.

Anyway John, let’s wrap this up. I reckon you should go and visit the place, hang around in their offices, and go out on the street with the scores of ex-offenders working with them and with whom they work. What you’ll see is that they’re just people. And yes, they all made mistakes. It’s just that it’s more complicated than that.

 

The police attempting to regain control during last summer's riots: Photograph: 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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Is our obsession with class propping up the powerful?

Lynsey Hanley’s memoir Respectable: the Experience of Class attacks the sharp-elbowed bourgeoisie – but society will only be transformed by building coalitions between the middle and working classes.

Class is no longer banished from mainstream discussion, but it remains an uncomfortable topic for most mainstream media. The background to this is straightforward. The media all too often discriminate on the basis of parental wealth rather than talent: from unpaid internships to expensive postgraduate journalism qualifications, the routes into the industry are difficult to traverse without parents able to offer financial support. But most of us want to believe that our successes are personal achievements: that if we do well, it is because of our own ability, intelligence and determination. To realise that actually, you have queue-jumped, in effect, because of your parents’ bank balance: well, that would provoke insecurity and defensiveness. And so journalists and columnists are often disinclined to understand why society is stacked in the interests of some, but not others. Even raising the issue of class is felt as a personal attack.

That is one reason Lynsey Hanley is such a crucial voice. When she writes about class, she is writing about lived experience. Her new book, Respectable – the belated follow-up to her seminal Estates, published in 2007 – is a powerful investigation into the psychological impact, and cost, of shifting from class to class. She compares it to “emigrating from one side of the world, where you have to rescind your old passport, learn a new language and make gargantuan efforts if you are not to lose touch completely with the people and habits of your old life”. The case study? Hanley herself. The Personal Is Political would be as appropriate a subtitle for this book as any other.

Respectable compellingly (if sometimes erratically) weaves autobiography with academic research. Hanley grew up on a council estate in Chelmsley Wood, a 1960s ­new-build area of Solihull, in the West Midlands, a few miles from Birmingham. Her childhood, she says, would once have been labelled “respectable working class”: far removed from middle class but not “quite classically working class either” – rather, “foreman class” or “skilled tradesman class”. It feels wrong to infringe on Hanley’s right to self-define, but she does seem to have a very restrictive view of what being working class entails, so much so, that she isn’t entirely convinced she belongs. There has long been a clash between those who define class as a cultural identity and those who believe it has more to do with economic relationships (and those who think it is a combination of the two).

At Hanley’s school, “people didn’t do A-levels”. The high achievers ended up at the gas board or the Rover works and the word “university” evoked “something as distant as Mars”. Her school had 600 unfilled places, “effectively . . . abandoned by the community as much as by the local authority and by central government”. Hanley has always felt like an outsider: she struggled to make friends, found the limits of what was expected of someone from her background suffocating, and when – against the odds – she made it to sixth form, it seemed “one minute I was struggling for air, the next I felt as though I’d entered a large bubble of pure oxygen”. She looks to academics to help explain experiences she found difficult to navigate at the time. Her sense of isolation, for instance, can be illuminated by the sociologist Angela McRobbie’s exploration of “the ‘hermetically sealed’ nature of working-class culture in Birmingham”. The Uses of Literacy, Richard Hoggart’s 1957 classic, is her Bible; she feels he “could have been writing about my own childhood”.

Aged 17, Hanley was juggling five ­A-levels with four jobs: working at Greggs, selling Avon products, delivering newspapers and “making cakes and chocolates and selling them door to door”. But she became a professional journalist. When she was a teenager she visited Aldi to buy margarine and glacé cherries; now she comes back with “cold-pressed rapeseed oil and Pinot Noir”. She says “lunch” where she used to say “dinner”.

This is a well-crafted book full of insights. Hanley is determined to challenge the assumptions of left and right. She refers to socio-linguists such as Basil Bernstein, who examined how middle-class forms of communication were given preference over working-class expression but not because they were innately superior. Those who made the leap from working class to middle class found themselves assimilated by the new world. Many found it increasingly difficult to relate to the world they grew up in, and the people they grew up with.

Hanley thinks the approaches of both left and right to social mobility are problematic. Whereas the right uncritically worships the idea of “social mobility” – of parachuting the “lucky few” into the middle class without challenging the structure of society – the left, she says, believes that “social justice and social mobility are mutually exclusive”. In other words, she is questioning that old socialist maxim: “Rise with your class, not above it.”

Hanley assails those – including me – who place support for populist anti-immigration movements in a broader social context. She believes that we are downplaying the extent of racism in working-class communities, reducing it to fears over housing and jobs. We are robbing people of agency by letting individuals off the hook for their prejudices, she argues, stressing the casual racism she encountered on a daily basis. Disturbingly, she found that racism was often seen as a “sign of respectability”. She remembers sentiments along the lines of “Only common people hang out with darkies” and so on. My parents met through the Trotskyist movement; my father eventually became a white-collar local authority worker, my mother an IT lecturer at Salford University, and I was always by far the most middle-class of my friends. I’m not going to wish away the casual racism I encountered growing up in Stockport (and I’m white), but I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced by Hanley’s argument. Why is there an anti-immigration party with mass support now, yet there wasn’t one in the 1950s, when bigotry was far more open and widespread? Surely something has changed, and rising job, housing and general economic insecurity have had a role to play? And will a strategy of criticising people for voting Ukip – or even for the far right – win them over?

My main problem with Hanley’s book is this. Those of us who want to transform society so that it is not run as a racket for a tiny elite need to build a broad coalition. I’m a political activist who writes; Hanley is someone writing about reality as she has lived it. But her book surely challenges attempts to build unity between the working and middle classes. She writes of how middle-class people both hog and deny their “social and cultural capital”, and believes that those who argue in favour of a “99 Per Cent” under attack by an elite help entrench middle-class privilege. The middle classes pretend they have the same interests as the working class, while using their sharp elbows to keep them down.

I wonder if there is a third way. Abolish unpaid internships; introduce scholarships; invest in education at an early age; automatically enrol the brightest working-class young people into top universities; deal with social crises, such as the lack of affordable housing, which help destroy opportunity for the less privileged; have a proper living wage. And so on. But if those who believe in social justice fail to build a coalition of supermarket worker and schoolteacher, cleaner and junior doctor, factory worker and university lecturer . . . well, we will fail. From the low-paid against the unemployed, to private-sector against public-sector worker, to indigene against immigrant, there are enough divisions exploited by the powerful as it is.

Nonetheless, Respectable is of vital importance: a searing indictment of a chronically unjust society in which our opportunities are granted or denied from the earliest of ages. The book may not offer clear prescriptions, but it is incumbent on all of us to fight for a just and equal society – one that currently does not exist. 

Owen Jones’s Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class is newly republished in paperback by Verso

Respectable: The Experience of Class by Lynsey Hanley is published by Allen Lane (240pp, £16.99)

Owen Jones is a left-wing columnist, author and commentator. He is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He has published two books, Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class and The Establishment and How They Get Away With It.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism