A tale of two legacies – rioters and Olympians

We need to invest in the future of this marginalised generation.

Each morning on the start of my commute to work , I pass the burnt out shell of buildings that were torched in last summer’s riots in Peckham. A year on, nothing has been done to fill the gap left behind and local residents have become used to the sorry sight of these boarded up shops on our high street. This is in stark contrast to the experience at the other end of my journey to Barnardo’s headquarters near Stratford, where famously billions of pounds of investment have transformed the area into a glittering Olympic Park. 

The anniversary of the riots gives us cause to question what difference a year has made, especially to young people growing in communities like ours across the country today. Of course, sport and the bad weather has dominated news coverage this summer, a marked difference from last August when it was all about whether young people were to blame for widespread rioting. Barnardo’s emphasised at the time that the vast majority of children in the UK are well behaved and credit to themselves and their families.  We now know that only around a fifth of those arrested for participating in the riots were aged 10 to 17. 

Ministry of Justice figures subsequently revealed that many of those children who appeared in court for their involvement were from impoverished backgrounds. Nationally, 64% of juveniles appearing before the courts lived in one of 20% most deprived areas in the UK, and in London 40% were in receipt of free school meals compared to 26% of all London pupils in secondary schools. A report by the Cabinet Office found that feeling like a "lost cause" within their communities was also a factor for young people who rioted.  A further report by the Riots, Communities and Victims Panel talked about “500,000” forgotten families in the England and argued that a lack of support and opportunity for young people contributed to the outbreak of riots. 

With such strong indications that poverty and social exclusion loomed large in the backgrounds of those who rioted, one would have expected that efforts would have been focused in turning around their life chances. Indeed, the rhetoric from government around this has been strong.  The Prime Minister pledged to turn around the 120,000 most troubled families by 2015 and the Deputy Prime Minister’s £1bn youth contract aims to provide subsidised work and training placements for young people. This is encouraging.  However, the continued recession and austerity measures mean the reality is that this a tough time to be a young person. 

Deprivation remains a perennial problem, with a shocking 3.8 million children currently growing up in poverty in the UK.  And it’s not just workless households that are affected - sixty per cent of children living below the breadline live in households where at least one parent goes to work. Unintended consequences of reforms to the benefits system, such as introducing charges to child maintenance payments and changes to the Working Tax credit risk penalising the poorest, hard working families at a time when they are least equipped to handle it.  No decent society should allow children to go without to the extent that it affects their future life chances.

Education has the power to transform lives, so it was disastrous news when recent Department for Education statistics showed that for the first time in a decade the proportion of 16-year-olds in full-time education has dropped. Barnardo’s research has found that since the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance some of the most disadvantaged students were being forced to skip meals just to afford the bus to college. With the number of young people unemployed at its highest for twenty years, we need fast action to prevent even more young people from becoming an unemployment statistic.  That means investing more money so that students from the poorest backgrounds can actually afford to stay on in education and training, and taking seriously the provision and delivery of high quality, tailored support to help the most vulnerable who are furthest from the labour market.

All of which made David Cameron’s outrageous proposals earlier this summer to remove housing benefit from the under 25s particularly shocking.  This would risk leaving many vulnerable young people stranded and discounted the fact that their personal circumstances often mean that they cannot turn to their families for help. It is easy to slip back into the same tired anti-youth rhetoric as we heard last summer.  But we need to mind the message that we are sending to young people by failing to support them out of poverty, or failing to regenerate their communities after the events of last summer. 

Rather than taking the easy option and blaming young people we need persistent and concerted action by government, employers and the voluntary sector.  It means investing in the future of this marginalised generation to raise them up and create a legacy of which we can all be proud.

man looks at notes posted on a 'Peace Wall' on a boarded up window of a discount store in Peckham. Photograph: Getty Images.

Zoe Abrams is a Deputy Director at Barnardo’s.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

I'll vote against bombing Isis - but my conscience is far from clear

Chi Onwurah lays out why she'll be voting against British airstrikes in Syria.

I have spent much of the weekend considering how I will vote on the question of whether the UK should extend airstrikes against Daesh/Isis from Iraq to Syria, seeking out and weighing the evidence and the risks.

My constituents have written, emailed, tweeted, facebooked or stopped me in the street to share their thoughts. Most recognised what a difficult and complex decision it is. When I was selected to be the Labour candidate for Newcastle Central I was asked what I thought would be the hardest part of being an MP.

I said it would be this.

I am not a pacifist, I believe our country is worth defending and our values worth fighting for. But the decision to send British Armed Forces into action is, rightly, a heavy responsibility.

For me it comes down to two key questions. The security of British citizens, and the avoidance of civilian casualties. These are separate operational and moral questions but they are linked in that it is civilian casualties which help fuel the Daesh ideology that we cannot respect and value the lives of those who do not believe as we do. There is also the important question of solidarity with the French in the wake of their grievous and devastating loss; I shall come to that later.

I listened very carefully to the Prime Minister as he set out the case for airstrikes on Thursday and I share his view that Daesh represents a real threat to UK citizens. However he did not convince me that UK airstrikes at this time would materially reduce that threat. The Prime Minister was clear that Daesh cannot be defeated from the air. The situation in Syria is complex and factionalised, with many state and non-state actors who may be enemies of our enemy and yet not our friend. The Prime Minister claimed there were 70,000 ground troops in the moderate Free Syrian Army but many experts dispute that number and the evidence does not convince me that they are in a position to lead an effective ground campaign. Bombs alone will not prevent Daesh obtaining money, arms and more recruits or launching attacks on the UK. The Prime Minister did not set out how we would do that, his was not a plan for security and peace in Syria with airstrikes a necessary support to it, but a plan to bomb Syria, with peace and security cited in support of it. That is not good enough for me.

Daesh are using civilian population as human shields. Syrians in exile speak of the impossibility of targeting the terrorists without hitting innocent bystanders. I fear that bombing Raqqa to eliminate Daesh may be like bombing Gaza to eliminate Hamas – hugely costly in terms of the civilian population and ultimately ineffectual.

Yet the evil that Daesh perpetrate demands a response. President Hollande has called on us to join with French forces. I lived in Paris for three years, I spent time in just about every location that was attacked two weeks ago, I have many friends living in Paris now, I believe the French are our friends and allies and we should stand and act in solidarity with them, and all those who have suffered in Mali, Kenya, Nigeria, Lebanon, Tunisia and around the world.

But there are other ways to act as well as airstrikes. Britain is the only G7 country to meet its international development commitments, we are already one of the biggest humanitarian contributors to stemming the Syrian crisis, we can do more not only in terms of supporting refugees but helping those still in Syria, whether living in fear of Daesh or Assad. We can show the world that our response is to build rather than bomb. The Prime Minister argues that without taking part in the bombing we will not have a place at the table for the reconstruction. I would think our allies would be reluctant to overlook our financial commitment.

We can also do more to cut off Daesh funding, targeting their oil wells, their revenues, their customers and their suppliers. This may not be as immediately satisfying as bombing the terrorists but it is a more effective means of strangling them.

The vast majority of the constituents who contacted me were against airstrikes. I agree with them for the reasons I set out above. I should say that I have had no experience of bullying or attempts at intimidation in reaching this decision, Newcastle Central is too friendly, frank, comradely and Geordie a constituency for that. But some have suggested that I should vote against airstrikes to ensure a “clear conscience” ’. This is not the case. There will be more killings and innocent deaths whether there are UK airstrikes or not, and we will all bear a portion of responsibility for them.

A version of this article was originally sent to Chi Onwurah's constituents, and can be read here