Thursday, 12 April 2018

Knife Crime and Young People in Croydon

Croydon Conservatives are trying to use knife crime as a reason why electors should vote for them in Croydon’s local elections. The most detailed discussion has been published on Croydon Citizen by their candidate Robert Ward -

Robert is usually a very thoughtful and balanced commentator, but this article fails to do so because of his emphasis on it being a party political issue.

He rightly asks the question: ‘Are we talking about the availability of knives, gang culture, economic deprivation, jobs, policing, education or what?’ and comments: ‘Stand too far back and you miss important details; stand too close, and you can’t see the wood for the trees.’

Let’s look at some context.

A study by Green Party Greater London Assembly member Sion Berry London’s lost youth services The dramatic disappearance of support and facilities for young people in London published in January last year found that since the 2011/12 financial year:

  1. ·      At least £22 million has been cut from council youth service budgets across     London
  2. ·      The average council has cut its youth service budget by nearly £1 million – an   average of 36 per cent
  3. ·       More than 30 youth centres have been closed
  4. ·       At least 12,700 places for young people have been lost
  5. ·       Council youth service employment has been reduced on average by 39 per      cent
  6. ·       Funding to voluntary sector youth work has also gone down – by an average      of 35 per cent in councils that were able to provide data
  7. ·       Half the councils who were able to tell me about future budgets were              planning to make more cuts in 2017/18.

 Department for Education statistics published in December show that total expenditure by local authorities on youth services in 2016/17 came to £447.5m, £41.99m less than the figure they told the DfE they were intending to spend and a 15.2 per cent cut on actual spending in 2015/16. Their planned spending in 2017/18 would be £415.8m.

Recent national debate suggests that cuts to policing budgets may be a contributing cause to the rise in violent crime.

Knife crime in Lambeth in the 1980s

I first became involved in the issue of knife crime when I was Secretary of the Community/Police Consultative Group for Lambeth (1984-9).The issue came forcibly to the Group's attention following the fatal stabbing of a Solicitor in the Kennington Division. The Kennington Police and the Group developed a campaign against knives involving posters, street awareness training and bins, some aspects of which went London wide. It had a lot of success. My suggestion that they ask the producers to include the issue in East Enders was negotiated, and it ran as a story across several weeks. The Group lobbied for a tightening of the law on knives and offensive weapons.

Key factors which emerged from seeking to understand knife crime in Lambeth in the 1980s and later was that there was a strong link between street robbery and truanting from school, and the contribution family tensions had on truancy.

The parental support work of the Brixton Against Robbery project in the 1990s  found that it was the first time that many parents had been able to share their anxieties about their seemingly uncontrollable children, and be helped to come to a better working relationship with them, These were not uncaring irresponsible parents, quite the reverse.

Later experience when I was working in Kennington and Vauxhall in the 2000s  suggested that there are young people who have a public life for their parents, and a private life their parents know nothing about, including gang membership.

Why is there such a high incidence in Croydon?

Are there things about the experience of Croydon which are unique to it, even though some of the components exist elsewhere?

Croydon has an underbelly of a whole range of anti-social and illegal activities by residents, developers and businesses, some of which get publicity when the Council is able to take action. e.g. fly-tipping, health & hygiene infringements, illegal smoking in premises, breaches of planning, slave labour,  breaches of minimum wage legislation.

Is it a continuing consequence of not have seriously dealt with the underlining causes of the elephant in the room: the 2011 riots?  Is it linked to the growth in social inequality especially in the North in recent years, to the neglect of neighbourhoods in favour of the demands of  the property developers in the Town Centre?

Is the behaviour of some young people influenced by the complex interaction of problems of living in the neglected neighbourhoods, including the physical look and feel due to vandalism, graffiti, litter and fly-tipping, environmental decay, and fear of personal attack?  Do many prefer life on the streets because their families live in cramped conditions and there is no privacy.

Understandably each murder shocks  local communities and  has been a traumatic experience for victims’ family and friends, but also of  those who carried out the murder.

While young murderers are not typical of the great majority of young people, their actions and their trials raise questions about society’s attitudes and provision for young people, especially those who experience difficulties.

Historical moral panics

Moral panics over episodes of youth violence have a long history. The TV series Peaky Blinders is based on a real gang in Birmingham in the late 1800s. They took part in  mass street brawls with other gangs, and ran protection rackets. Weapon-carrying members aged 12 and 13 were among those arrested.  Grahame Greene’s Brighton Rock (1938) centres on Pinkie, a 17 year old gang leader who kills people. There were the seaside battles between mods and rockers. In the second half of the 1980s there were attacks on Vietnamese refugee teenagers. Occasionally it has been attacks by pupils from one school against pupils from another. Among older groups of young people there was wide drink fuelled violence at weekends in town centres across the country. Without trying to minimise the seriousness of what happens, these episodes flare up and die down.

The complexity of the issue

For some a complex interplay of factors seems to underline the current wave of violence and knife murder including a lack of money, the need for excitement, and hyper masculinity. Do circumstances push some young people into gangs and violence as suggested by the Kenny Report ‘How do politics and economics affect gangs and serious youth violence across the UK’ (November 2012)? (  

Other influences may be the sense of belonging in a group, notoriety gained amongst peers and wider, the baiting by other ‘gangs’ particularly on social media, and through the lyrics of grime and drill put out on YouTube etc. How can the excitement of drugs, guns, knives and reputation be replaced, let alone the money that can be made through robbery and drug selling?

Carrying knives does not always mean membership of gangs. Over the years it has been clear that many young people carry knives as they fear being attacked and want to defend themselves.

Youth work

Youth work is supposed to be about building self-esteem and confidence, developing relationships and skills, and life-long learning. It is about helping young people cope more effectively with the transition through adolescence to adulthood and to understand and act on the personal, social and political issues which affect their lives, the lives of others and the communities of which they form a part. In the 2000s while there was an increasing understanding that youth services needed to more responsive to what young people and their parents wanted, resources were drastically cut back, and the role of youth work increasingly came to be seen as crime diversion, crime prevention and community safety. But how are disaffected young people to be reached?

Community and individual initiatives are welcome if they can reach those who might get caught up in the knife carrying and gang cultures. They may be able to engage with young people in a way that the police, schools and other agencies cannot.

Croydon community initiatives

The Croydon based Lives not Knives campaign was set up by Eliza Rebeiro in 2007 when she was still a teenager. Clearly its work has proved an uphill struggle in the light of the number of incidents. Others are seeking to develop special projects like the community peace cup football tournament set up by Raymond Robb, of Ray's Barbers in Whitehorse Lane, bringing together staff and customers from six barbershops in and around Croydon. The London Mayor has given £50,000 to Croydon BME Forum for work on youth and knife crime.

Turning the tide on youth violence and the use of knives is a highly complex process with no easy answers, and which simplistic and knee-jerk reactions could make worse.

Robert derides Sarah Jones’s initiative last year in establishing the All-Party Parliamentary Group on knife crime, following the murder of 15 year old Jermaine Goupall. Having helped set up one in the 1990s I am aware of the strengths and weaknesses of All-Party groups. One of their strengths is to recognise that not all issues can simply be brought down to party politics. Please take note Robert.

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