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.