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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.

New Statesman
The police attempting to regain control during last summer's riots: Photograph: Getty Images

“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.