Tackling UK gang culture must become a political priority

Tackling UK gang culture must become a political priority

12th January 2013

Below is the speech Christian Guy gave at Tackling Britain’s Gang Culture – a major conference hosted by the CSJ and urban youth charity XLP.

It was New Year’s Eve – just a few weeks ago – when Patrick Regan (CEO of XLP) sent me a text to let me know about another murder on one of XLP’s estates.

‘A teenager killed, the suspect is 15’ he wrote.  It stopped me in my tracks and I had to tell the people I was with.

They were shocked but, rather depressingly, they also seemed a bit numb to a story like that.

A few of them said it was a bit like that in their part of London too.  Another told me that very recently two young girls were stabbed in random attacks in their area.  No one caught yet.

‘That’s just what it’s like now’, they said.

Just think about that for a second.

This violence seems to have become a way of life for too many people living in this city, and around the UK.

It is now ‘just what happens’ for young people born in the wrong postcode, for hundreds of thousands of residents, for police officers, paramedics, prison officers, local journalists.

Patrick ended the text with these words: ‘just shows how important the 12th is’.  I agreed.

This conference is crucial and the Centre for Social Justice – the think tank I lead – is honoured to be co-hosting it with XLP.

XLP, Patrick and the young people they help prove that it doesn’t have to be this way.  That there is nothing inevitable about no go areas, knives, guns, and parents burying their children.

I assume everyone here feels the same.  And many of you will be involved in similar work in your own communities.

The policy and political perspective

I’m here to offer a policy perspective.

The political process really matters if we’re to break through our gangs crisis on a national level.

It’s excellent to have Labour MP David Lammy with us immediately after my session and Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats Simon Hughes later on.  I’m disappointed no Conservative was able to join us today – they were invited.

Let me make clear that there are MPs who care a great deal about these issues, who know a lot more about them than I do, and who dedicate vast amounts of their time to tackling Britain’s gang culture.

Those who are here fit that brief, and others too care deeply.  For instance the CSJ was established by one particular MP who has worked for the last decade on these issues: Iain Duncan Smith.

But when you spend time in Westminster departments, and then in our inner cities and on our estates, you see how sadly separate the two worlds often are.  You realise that there has been – with several notable exceptions – a catastrophic failure of political leadership or concern for decades.  From politicians of all political parties.

Back in 2007 the CSJ began some work on street gangs, to try to wake Westminster up and bring a touch of reality to the debate.

We travelled across the UK to learn from outstanding work others were doing – such as Karyn McCluskey at the Strathclyde Violence Reduction Unit – and abroad to look for lessons in the US and elsewhere.

At that time much was rightly being made of the number of young people murdered by young people in our capital.  High profile cases hit our front pages and news bulletins.

Plenty of crackdowns and quick political commitments emerged, but it was Iain Duncan Smith who wrote in the CSJ’s 2009 gangs report:

I have become concerned about the chaotic nature of the approach to what was often glibly referred to as gang violence. I and others at the CSJ felt that we needed to better understand what was really happening on our streets, otherwise we as a society stood in danger of losing yet another generation as they plunged through violence and criminality to hopelessness and despair. Britain’s gangs are the product of social breakdown and are found in our most deprived and marginalised communities…commonly found in areas of high family breakdown, addiction, unemployment and worklessness.

The modern gang is perhaps the best illustration of how broken Britain’s society is.  The rise in gang affiliation and violence over the past few years shows a need for immediate, effective action. I have been shocked at the lack of clarity around the problem…It is unthinkable that a full and proper study of such a devastating problem has not been undertaken prior to setting policy.

He went on to say he was embarrassed by the inadequacy of central and local government responses.

And the question for us today, even if some of you dispute things like the broken society language, is what’s changed?

The CSJ’s 2009 report Dying to Belong highlighted key policy failures.  The most concerning of those were:

  1. A lack of political commitment.  To put it simply, the gangs crisis didn’t seem to be anywhere near the top of local or central government to-do lists.  At a local level, too many councils wouldn’t even admit they had a problem.
  2. A definition vacuum and a flimsy evidence base.  Politicians and policy officials didn’t really seem to base action on a clear understanding about the nature of the problem, especially what a gang was.
  3. Short-termism.  Knife crime crackdowns.  Arrests without broader interventions.  Short sentences – warehousing rather than changing people’s lives.  Minimal fixed funding for projects.
  4. A narrow approach.  I think it’s Patrick who often says ‘we can’t arrest our way out of a gangs problem’.  But for too long tackling gangs has been left to police officers.  A multi-agency approach was required but often absent.
  5. Late intervention.  Far too regularly the 15-year-old knife carrier was overlooked during what Karyn McCluskey calls ‘teachable moments’ in life.  Getting to those we know are vulnerable to gang involvement – whether in 10 years time or next month – is fundamental to breaking the cycle of violence and damage.

Sadly the CSJ published that Dying to Belong report into a vacuum – there was nothing else like it in the mainstream policy process.

We pushed and pushed and pushed.  Positive conversations with those in power, and those planning for power, took place.  There was interest and lots of talk.

But for some reason it was always much harder to secure a second meeting than a first meeting.

Although it shouldn’t take a crisis to spark good government, those looking for that excuse had plenty to choose from.

Tragic and harrowing incidents would career across the national horizon periodically … the country would be shocked … the media would rally … but little seemed to change.

Until, it seems, the summer of 2011.  The riots.

With streets under siege and a stunned political class rummaging for answers, finally they understood the sense of urgency.  On the steps of Downing Street the Prime Minister committed to an ‘all out war on gangs and gang culture’.

Whatever your view about the language he used, or whether gangs played a significant part in those riots, finally it seemed gangs were at the top of the to do list.

Encouragingly, there was also recognition that tackling gangs had to be the responsibility of many in Government, not just the Home Secretary.  Policing and law enforcement were fundamentally important, but it was pleasing that Iain Duncan Smith was also given responsibility for this – meaning the social justice programmes and wider life interventions were also on the agenda.

Three months later some very positive commitments emerged on paper.

The resulting Ending Gang and Youth Violence report was broadly welcomed. It built on much of the work in our CSJ review.

It promised partnerships, prevention, early intervention, resources, support for the voluntary sector, recognition that gangs presented a public health problem, not just a policing problem.

A potential game-changer on paper.

And there has been some clear improvement in places.  I’ve spent time with the JobCentre Plus network for London and the Home Counties – they are doing some outstanding work to provide interventions and employment opportunities.  The results are encouraging.

This reflects better co-ordination of local teams in some parts of the country.

We’ve seen new law enforcement approaches.  I think police teams are more willing than ever to work with local partners to break the gangs culture.

And very often the day-to-day progress made in local neighbourhoods isn’t fully noticed.

But just over a year on from that strategy, the CSJ published our latest gangs reportTime to Wake Up.

It presented some worrying findings and demonstrated how in several key areas, little was changing.

Some of the best prevention charities told us they haven’t been able to access funds because they work with children who are too young.  These are prevention charities!

Others haven’t even heard about local budgets they could utilise.

Many of those who have been able to find funding for gangs work under the new strategy have to spend everything by April this year.  No news on whether they’ll be any more support.

A wave of arrests hasn’t been followed up with broader interventions or work with those more junior gang members left in a vacuum.  According to some, this has created more chaos.

In Westminster, ministers send officials to meetings they once would have attended.  The riots are a distant memory of a crisis controlled.  Croydon and Clapham high streets are orderly once again, it’s almost job done.

So I would argue that despite more policy progress on gangs in the last two years than perhaps for several decades before, it is still a bleak picture from that perspective.

And where now?

The CSJ will continue to apply as much pressure as we can.

The work of the ‘hope-bringers’ like XLP, Chance UK, Regenerate and countless others will continue – because their commitment means they’ll always find a way.

But unless we start making it easier for them, by becoming their battering ram not their barrier, they will struggle.

How perverse is it that the best people, the solution to the problem, are forced to struggle while those running riot and ruining lives increasingly become free.

Unless we back those who tackle the root causes of gang violence – like broken families, poor education, worklessness and addiction – and until we liberate the potential of those who can get people out with a better hope and approaches that work – we will continue to fall short.

We will continue to bury far too many children.

So as I think about the charities I’ve visited and the people here today, some of the most courageous leaders who stand in the gap when others will not, I can’t help concluding the political community falls far short.

Where are the men and women of courage in Government?

Where are the parliamentarians who will stop at nothing until this tragic crisis is confronted?

People are tired of the superficial visits, photo calls, roundtables and dare I say it conference speeches.

The nation is looking to them to stand up and lead.  That’s about action.

Those who have lost loved ones deserve every ounce of energy exerted.

And people living under the dark clouds of gang violence need every one playing their part.

Of course politicians, policy-makers and others in Government can only do so much.  But they have a critical role.

And frankly, from a policy perspective, politicians and the people around them need to take a long hard look at themselves and ask whether they can say they’re giving their all.