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Boys in hoods

Violence plagues our inner cities, but we chose to ignore it until now.

The eruption of the underbelly of Britain's cities should come as no surprise. I've seen it at first hand over the past two years, when I was embedded with front-line police units in inner-city London, Manchester and Glasgow. Ever younger children are being drawn in ever larger numbers into petty street crime and gang activity. Looting is just more of the same.

On one chronically deprived estate in Easterhouse, Glasgow, a 13-year-old was given a machete by his mother on his birthday to protect himself. In Southall, west London, I spent time with a 14-year-old "enforcer", a former child soldier from Somalia, who had arrived on an inner-city estate to find his experience with guns was sought after by the local "olders". He was recruited and exploited for money in London just as he had been in war-torn Mogadishu.

Other patterns emerged. I spoke to a 19-year-old gang member in Moss Side, south Manchester, who'd just headbutted a policeman, and a 15-year-old in the East End of Glasgow who was awaiting trial for disfiguring another teenager with a golf club. Both were fatherless, trying to be "the man of the house", in keeping with a warped, ultra-macho street code. The 15-year-old got off when no witnesses came forward.

I sat in the back of unmarked police cars with detectives who were underpaid, overworked, exhausted and frustrated by bureaucracy and form-filling. One 48-year-old policeman in Manchester had torn a hamstring pursuing a twentysomething gang member who was also a semi-professional footballer. Another cop had his leg run over by a gang member in a getaway car. I worked out that one detective working back-to-back 3am shifts was being paid £716,000 less than the 31-year-old drug baron he was pursuing. The trial that convicted his quarry went on for six months, viewed 8,000 pieces of evidence and cost £5m.

Two Britains

In the course of my research, I came to understand how drugs policy - which hasn't changed in 30 years - needs to be far more open to new and experimental ideas. That convicted dealer in Manchester was persuasive, charismatic, entrepreneurial. Would he have used these gifts differently if he had been born, like David Cameron, to three generations of stockbrokers, rather than in a cul-de-sac in a deprived part of Manchester?

It made me think that Britain has been two countries for some time now. There is the Britain that everyone knows, with its thriving, middle-class economy. But decades of failed policies have created inner cities that no one talks or reports about, like a third world country or a war zone. These deprived areas have experienced the growth of teenage gangs, a rise in knife crime and terrible youth violence.

There are two particularly alarming trends. First is the youth of those drawn into petty street crime and gang activity. Three-year-old toddlers in the Nottingham North constituency of the Labour MP Graham Allen turn up for nursery "incapable of resolving differences without violence", according to Ofsted inspectors quoted in a Centre for Social Justice report. From a very early age, kids are told that their lives will amount to nothing. They start to believe it, fall behind at school, truant, drift into delinquency and end up in a young offenders institution at the cost of £60,000 a year. And the cycle continues. A quarter of young offenders are already fathers. Patrick Regan of XLP, the inner-city charity, states that 63 per cent of violent fathers have sons who go on to offend.

The lack of jobs does not help. Last year, I went out with Strathclyde Police's B Division, based in Shettleston, Glasgow, one of the most deprived areas of the UK. Men's life expectancy here is 63, 14 years lower than the national average - closer to Iraq or the Palestinian territories than the UK. As the officers piled into the van, they passed a container of confiscated weapons: hatchets, swords, scaffolding poles. The Strathclyde force's Violence Reduction Unit now treats violence as an infectious disease, passed on by parents or friends. Funding to tackle it comes from the health budget.

The influx of drugs is another factor. Southall is one of the cheapest places in the UK to buy heroin, and the £4.5bn-a-year drug trade is the most dynamic, entrepreneurial business in the inner cities. In parts of inner London, olders loiter at the school gates, wearing their jail muscle and time inside like a badge of honour. They are intent on recruiting little men of steel into their crew. More efficient and persuasive than any careers service, they groom them, give them new trainers or £50 to draw them in. Given that the big players can earn £130,000 a year from drug-dealing, it's hard for working in Tesco, or plastering, to compete.

The drug trade runs on violence. On 7 August 2007, one boy on a south Acton estate who refused to deal was thrown in a lift naked with a pitbull and sent to the 15th floor of Blackmore Tower. The Somali olders in Southall would take other reluctant boys to the local park and lash their bare backs with whips, a detective sergeant told me in 2009. If you grow up in a war zone, you become a warrior.

My two years on the streets taught me that we need to take a long-term interest in young people in our inner cities. When no one cares about you, you are less likely to care about smashing a shop window. And in the end, street violence was always there; we just chose to ignore it.

Gavin Knight is the author of "Hood Rat" (Picador, £12.99)

Gavin Knight has written for the Guardian, Times, Newsweek, Prospect and Evening Standard. He also has appeared on CNN, Sky, BBC and ITN. He spent two years with frontline police units and dozens of gang members researching his non-fiction book on inner city crime, Hood Rat, published by Picador.
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.