Friday, February 16, 2007

We can cut.........gun crime?

There are days when I wonder if I can be more upset or feel more is such a day. The spate of killings in South London, the horror of 15 year olds with their whole lives ahead of them gunned down in their homes beggars belief. I have spent most of my adult life working with young people, I believe in them absolutely and will defend them against the nonsense of ASBOs, the idea that having a hoodie makes you a prospective criminal (as my pal Tom Wylie says - I blame the Franciscans!) and the notion that at 16 they are old enough to defend the country, pay taxes and marry but not old enough to vote - but I will not and cannot defend cold blooded killing.

As a Christian I believe life is a gift of God, a gift sometimes squandered but something of infinite worth which should be protected and respected. Somewhere something has happened to these young people to turn their values on their head. My first emotion when hearing news of the killing yesterday of Billy Cox was that of a mother. That could have been my son. The tragedy is that those who carried out the killing have mothers too, whose lives will also be shattered at losing their sons. What is happening in our society when young people feel they have a right to carry guns and take the lives of other human beings?

I believe in our policies, I believe they can begin to make a difference but there are two elephants in the room we must start to try to address. Firstly, to understand that politics has its limitations. We can try to influence behaviour and in Labour's case, even maybe to control behaviour, but ultimately there are some things we cannot do and certainly cannot claim to do. We need to begin to understand the motivation of those young people who end up entrapped in a world where the reality is that many of them are very scared. Many have grown up without positive role models, possibly within violent homes, they feel they have little control over their lives. Gangs and guns can give them that sense of control, however abhorrent. The only thing politics can do is provide the resources to reduce the risk factors, protect children and to offer alternatives, it can't ensure those alternatives are taken up. One of those alternatives is youth provision. I absolutely believe in the value of youth work. The tragedy is that youth services have been decimated 1997 I, like many others, believed those cuts would end, but they didn't. Yes, the government has put in what is lovingly referred to as "funny money", but there has been very little in terms of sustainable development, youth clubs are still far more likely to close than to open.

We also need to address seriously the lack of resources available for other public services. Now, admittedly there would be a lot of efficiency savings if we weren't pouring so much money into the coffers of private contractors, in particular consultants, however, we have a deficit. We continually try to "make and mend". We are horrified that someone is burgled and the police advice is to "pop in in the morning"........this is not because our police officers are sitting around chatting sipping tea, it is because they have to prioritise, maybe the stabbing on the other side of town needs to take priority. We constantly criticise our social services, but how many departments ever have adequate resources to enable staff to do anything but firefight? And the iceberg which is the current state of our much valued NHS is likely to transmogrify into a timebomb. Even as Lib Dems we trumpet the fact that we have increased council tax by the absolute minimum, we frame our national policies within the current spending limits. Please, will someone get real? We have a choice, crap public services and low taxes, mediocre services and current taxes, or excellent public services, a better quality of life for all............and we may have to pay for it! Other countries, for example Finland, do pay higher taxes, but they get the services to go with them, my particular favourite - youth clubs in every district open 24/7! How I long for a day when our leaders will have the courage to be honest with the British people. If you want it, you will have to pay for it. All we promise is that we will be prudent and honest custodians of your hard earned cash.

And secondly.........maybe we need to take a long hard look at our education system. The metaphor I always use is this. We don't put lime loving plants into acid soil and then blame the plants if they don't thrive, but we are prepared to do that to our children! Yes, for most children school works, but for the few who are failed by the system, it doesn't. I can remember the despair of a mother who was being taken to court because of her daughter's truancy. She was putting her on the bus to school every morning, but she never arrived, she was so traumatised by school she was seriously self harming. In the end she deliberately got herself excluded. Sorry, what are we thinking of submitting some of our children to torture? And others, as I have witnessed, are constantly put down and criticised by the very people who are supposed to unlock their potential. Having trained as a teacher and having the notion of the danger of "self fulfilling prophecy" drummed into me........I sometimes wonder if for some teachers that has become a mantra.

We can't interfere in the lives of families, but we can and should do everything to ensure that child poverty is a thing of the past, that our children are properly protected and that our education system caters for the need of all our children.

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