Sunday, July 13, 2008

Knife Crime - John Major nearly gets it right - Jacqui Smith doesn't get it at all

Andrew Marr interviewed John Major this morning, remember him? Inevitably following the chat about the economy the subject of the current moral panic about knife crime. What he said I found very interesting "....If you look at knife crime in the cities, if you go back to the time when I was a boy I, I lived in the middle of Brixton at a time of quite a lot of social turmoil, when there was relatively little to do. But there were gymnasiums, there were places where you could go and you could box, you could play indoor soccer, you could do things of that sort.

Now one of the reasons I set up the Lottery which the government have ransacked and taken a large part of the money sadly, was to set up things like that right the way through the big cities. We need to find things for our young people to do. In the early part of the century, the previous century when there was a lot of trouble with youngsters, er, youth clubs, the Scouts, things like that were established and became set up.

Maybe not the same prescription. But we certainly need the opportunity for sporting facilities and arts facilities inside the inner cities so that youngsters have something to do when they go out rather than stand on the street corner. Give them something to do. Give them the opportunity to do it. I think that would be expenditure well spent. It was the purpose of the Lottery. I very much hope and believe that a Conservative government will return the Lottery to its original intention.

.......We need to help them. Of course we condemn people who use knives. That is unacceptable by any measure. But let us give them something to do that will attract their interest. And if that isn't worthwhile expenditure I cannot myself imagine what is." (my emphasis)

Yes, this was John Major, the same John Major who was part of a government, later leading it, that presided over the wholesale decimation of the Youth Service! And does he really believe that a future Conservative Government would be any different?

Last week I had a coffee with a leading light in the youth policy world (who will remain nameless). We were talking about who the political champions for young people were in the different parties. For us the answer is simple, both within, but particularly without, our party, Simon Hughes is seen as the parliamentary champion par excellence for young people. Annette Brooke is someone else who has also been tireless in her advocacy for young people. In the Labour Party,when he was responsible for the Youth Service Ivan Lewis was highly regarded, also Phil Hope and John Denham. But, could we think of a champion for young people in the Tories...........???? Er, no.

Now, of course, John Major is right to say we need to prioritise spending on young people, but he got it wrong in thinking that the National Lottery was the answer with the government washing their hands of the problem. He has essentially admitted it was the Tory Government's fault. Ten years of a Labour Government hasn't seen much additional funding going to services, but it did arrest the trend. Sadly Andrew Marr didn't challenge him on this.

I am not suggesting youth facilities and services are all the answer, but there is enough evidence that youth crime falls when, for example, the local youth club is open. What is more of an indicator of risk is poverty and poor education - that surely has to be a starting point. One only has to look at Maslow's hierarchy of need to understand that for many young people whose needs are not being met in other ways, they will look elsewhere. So the gang becomes the surrogate family and support. Young people who are made to feel of little or no worth at home and I have to say in many cases, at school, gain the little self worth they possess from being someone in the gang. So, my argument is and always has been, this isn't just about providing so called "diversionary" activities for young people, it is providing safe places and safe relationships. It is about tackling poverty in the round and providing an education system that truly takes account of the needs of all pupils. I often argue that we wouldn't put an acid loving plant in lime soil and then blame the plant for not thriving, but we do it to our children every day of the week.

Getting back to the role of youth work and youth facilities. The best youth workers, in particular detached youth workers (working out on the streets) will offer both safe places and safe relationships for young people. Good Youth Workers don't see young people as problems but acknowledge the challenges and look for the good in every one of them. During my career one of my great senses of satisfaction was when young people I had worked with firstly aspired to be, and then became, youth workers. These youth workers are the best, they understand the streets, they understand what is going on, but all too often, given the lack of respect given to the field, they are not heard.

And so on to dear Jacqui. Something has to be done, so, like governments before she retreats to that old chestnut - shock tactics. Get young people into A&E to see the consequences. Remember Aids and the iceberg, beeping babies, various anti smoking, drink driving campaigns? These campaigns, whilst they may have an impact on a very few, rarely have much if any lasting impact. I always look at the example of the campaign to reduce teenage pregnancy. Young people can be taught how to put condoms on bananas, how and why pregnancy happens, given the skills to negotiate and an understanding of the choices they have and the consequences of those choices. However, how much has teenage pregnancy actually reduced? It seems to me that the important missing ingredient is an understanding of what motivates behaviour and as we all know, behaviour is the hardest to thing change.

Jacqui Smith's solution, whilst different in that it gets away from the lock 'em all up mantra, is a clear demonstration of the lack of connection between policy making and the reality of people's lives. It is a top down solution which is designed to be headline grabbing and get the good burghers of middle England nodding sagely and saying, yes this is what these reprobates need. These young people know the consequences of their actions, but the alternative is more unthinkable. Rather be remembered as a "fallen soldier" than appear to be soft.

The carnage on our streets, particularly in London, is deeply disturbing. There are no quick fixes, but until and unless we start talking to the young people who live with this reality we will never even begin to scratch the surface of a lasting solution.

No comments: