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.