Tackling the loneliness epidemic

Loneliness, insofar as it is regarded as a social problem, has typically been understood as something that increasingly affects older people. Indeed, Age UK estimates that in England alone, there are around 1.4million lonely older people. As Frank Furedi has written on spiked, there is a disturbing ‘generational ghettoisation’ in the UK that impacts both on the lives of the aged and others.

But now, young people are staking their claim to being lonely, too. In a survey conducted for Bupa Care Homes, a third of all adults interviewed said they felt lonely at Christmas. The Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness claims that nine million of us are always or often lonely.

Little wonder loneliness today is said to be of ‘epidemic’ proportions. Its impact on our health is alleged to be comparable with smoking or obesity. And it is implicated in anything from anxiety, depression and heart attacks to strokes, suicide and dementia. Loneliness, we are told, is a killer.

However, there is little consensus on what loneliness is or what causes it. Such has been the lack of clarity that an international team of researchers published a letter in the Lancet this month calling for a ‘unified approach to loneliness’. It seems we do need to better understand why so many people, from all walks of life, are feeling lonely.

In some cases, the reasons are obvious. Take the case of convicted paedophile and former nursery worker Vanessa George, who, according to the Sun, is being provided with ‘fake friends’ following her release from prison. They will be there for her to call on 24 hours a day, or to ‘just go for a coffee with if she’s feeling low’. While few will have much sympathy for the vile George, it is at least understandable why she might not have many friends.

But what of the case of Mark Gaisford? Despite a high-flying career as a recruitment CEO, Gaisford says, in a much viewed video, that he has no friends. He says he knows lots of people through networking, but he doesn’t ‘do stuff with them that friends do’. He concludes that there are a lot of men out there like him. Men, who are, as he puts it, too busy ‘being manly’ to make any friends.

Perhaps, surprisingly, one of the more insightful commentators on our loneliness problem is Matt Goss. Formerly of Bros, the late 1980s pop band, he has been supporting ITV show Good Morning Britain’s 1 Million Minutes loneliness campaign. And he does a much better job than most at identifying what is really causing today’s so-called loneliness epidemic.

‘We need interaction’, he says, but ‘everyone is terrified of each other at the moment’. Political correctness has made social interaction more difficult, he says. ‘We wonder why so many people are lonely but we are becoming detached from each other.’

But, like Gaisford, Goss also blames loneliness on what he regards as unhealthy traditional notions of masculinity. He even credits After the Screaming Stops, the film he and his brother made about life after fame, with showing that it is okay for blokes to ‘let out a tear or 20’.

Most of us have felt lonely at some point in our lives, and it can obviously be upsetting. But today’s assaults on masculinity, and the relentless medicalisation of loneliness, aren’t going to make anybody any friends – least of all with those who would rather find ways to meet people than have a cry or be lectured to about prevailing gender norms.

Nevertheless Goss, almost instinctively, understands something that researchers and campaigners don’t. We do live in a society characterised by ever greater individuation and a weakening of social bonds. And this is compounded, as Goss suggests, by generational divisions and cultural anxieties about the way we relate to each other. Whether it is watching one’s pronouns or obsessing over alleged microaggressions, engaging with others has never felt more fraught and risky. It is only by questioning the claims and codes which keep us apart, and appealing to a shared sense of community, that the isolation many of us feel will be addressed.

First published in spiked

The homelessness crisis demands radical solutions

The prime minister Boris Johnson has promised more funding to tackle homelessness. ‘It cannot be right in the 21st century that people are homeless or having to sleep on our streets’, he said.

The figures on homelessness are notoriously unreliable – not least because nobody can agree on what counts as homelessness in the first place – but they nevertheless paint a depressing picture. According to homelessness charity Crisis, sofa-surfing is the most common type of homelessness. In England in 2017, there were over 71,400 sofa-surfers who relied on friends and families to put them up. The number of households in England considered ‘officially’ homeless or at risk of being made homeless was 68,170 in 2019 – an increase of 11 per cent on 2018. The numbers in temporary accommodation – such as B&Bs or hostels – increased to 86,130, a rise of 4.5 per cent.

None of these figures include the 4,677 rough sleepers (over a quarter of them living on the streets of London) counted across the country on just one night last year – more than double the count in 2010. The annual figure is likely closer to 24,000 (around 9,000 of them in London), according to Crisis. Shelter put the total homelessness figure at 280,000 – the equivalent of one in every 200 people in England, and nearly one in 50 Londoners.

At this time of year there are many charitable initiatives to help those on the streets. Some have raised funds by taking to their rain-sodden tents in London, Edinburgh and Cardiff as part of the World’s Big Sleep Out, a celebrity-endorsed campaign of solidarity with the world’s homeless and displaced. A handful of volunteers in Wales have, on a smaller, more practical scale, converted a double-decker bus into a mobile night shelter complete with beds, showers and a kitchen.

The cultural set has also joined in. A video viewed over three million times on social media shows a homeless man asleep on a Birmingham bench being carried away by reindeer in a Banksy graffiti-piece. Gilbert and George are selling their artwork on dinner plates with proceeds going to East London shelters.

While these gestures in this season of goodwill are welcome, much needed and undeniably heart-warming, they are also depressingly inadequate. If it really is the case, as the prime minister says, that no family should be forced out of their home, and that nobody should have to live on the streets, then charity really shouldn’t be necessary. A long line of his predecessors – both in No10 and at City Hall – broke their promises to solve the problem. The current mayor, Sadiq Khan, invited 100 homeless people (or ‘vulnerable Londoners’, as he calls them) to City Hall on Christmas Eve. There was plenty of stuffing as they ate well and watched Elf, but not much meat on the bone: afterwards they all went back ‘home’ to their respective hostels.

As Shelter CEO Polly Neate puts it, ‘Our new government must confront and do something radical to change [the situation]’. So far the government has provided an additional £3million for this winter’s Cold Weather Fund. It will also make £63million of grant funding available for local authorities to support and accommodate rough sleepers. But while the money is needed – indeed, much more is needed – it is a rethink that is needed most. Labour leadership hopeful Keir Starmer has warned that homelessness is a ‘moral emergency’, citing projections that there could be 10,000 people sleeping on the streets by 2024 – ironically the date by which the Conservatives have pledged to end it altogether – unless there is a ‘cultural shift’ in the way the problem is understood. He is right.

Government needs to take homelessness much more seriously. In its narrowest sense, homelessness – as in literally having no roof over one’s head – could be ended almost overnight. People who are sleeping rough should be offered the money they need to find somewhere to live, to keep themselves clothed and fed, and to begin rebuilding their lives. We could do this by offering rough sleepers a personal budget, just as we already do for people assessed as having a social-care need. (Indeed, many people living rough or in shelters already have such needs, whether this is down to poor health, a disability, alcohol or drug problems, or being in an abusive relationship.) If the prime minister really does believe in people ‘taking control’ of their lives, he should give rough sleepers the opportunity to do so.

The causes of homelessness in its broadest sense are multiple and longstanding. But they are also avoidable. An undersupply of housing and stagnating living standards have caused rents and prices to spiral out of reach for many. An underfunded and mismanaged welfare system has failed to act as an effective safety net for those at risk of losing their homes. And mental-health services are unable to cope with the demands put upon them (not least thanks to today’s vogue for therapeutic solutions to social problems). Ultimately, homelessness is a product of the everyday instability that derives from our failure to tackle the UK’s structural economic problems.

But there could be cause for optimism. Tackling each and all of these issues requires the kind of 2020 vision you might expect of a new government with a large majority and an ambitious leader eager to get things (and not just Brexit) done.

First published in spiked

Stop-and-search is working

‘Knife crime hits new record high’, scream the headlines. The latest figures, released by the Office for National Statistics, show that 44,000 crimes involving a knife or other sharp instrument were committed in England and Wales in the past year (up to June). That’s an increase of seven per cent on the previous year. However, the statistics also show the number of homicides involving a knife or a sharp instrument has fallen by 14 per cent. The number of incidents in London has remained steady, with a rise of just 0.1 per cent.

This fall in fatalities follows a marked increase in the use of stop-and-search in the capital. And something similar seems to be happening in Manchester. Greater Manchester Police say increased use of stop-and-search in known ‘hot spots’ has reduced the incidence of knife violence by 23 per cent over the three months between April and July this year, compared with the same period last year.

So where are the celebrations for what are, on the face of it, strikingly successful interventions over a remarkably short period? Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said it would take a decade to address the problem of knife crime. Of course, there is so much further to go. But surely he should now be pleased that so many lives have been spared in the past year. Why isn’t he recommending that this tougher approach be taken up by other forces across the country?

Critics of stop-and-search like Khan are reluctant to endorse an approach they regard as intrinsically racist. They say it risks inflaming victimised communities. Indeed, when she was home secretary, Theresa May imposed restrictions on stop-and-search in an attempt to counter accusations of police racism. These have since been relaxed, allowing forces to use their powers more easily.

We certainly shouldn’t be complacent about the police’s use of these beefed-up powers. They effectively allow forces to stop whoever they like within the worst affected areas. But nor should we allow the wrongs of the police’s racism of the past to undermine what is a fittingly robust enforcement response to an upsurge in violence today.

It is not the 1980s anymore. The Met is far more likely to tell us off for hateful tweets or keep an eye on our use of gendered pronouns than it is to visit racist brutality on our inner cities.

Today, we are faced with a violent nihilism. Young people are turning on each other and their own communities. This has been particularly pronounced since the 2011 riots. In this context, public confidence in the police is threatened less by perceptions of racism than by the perception that oversensitivity to identity issues is contributing to a failure to keep the streets safe for all.

The alternative put forward by the critics of stop-and-search is often referred to as the ‘public-health approach’. But in practice, this also leads to the surveillance of young people and their families. It is currently being applied in tandem with stop-and-search. Teachers and other public-sector workers will soon be expected to follow a ‘public-health duty’ to ‘work together to address serious violence’, according to government proposals. But social workers are already over-intervening and hospitals are overstretched. Teachers could contribute so much more by instilling in young people a love of learning and putting them in touch with ideas and experiences that lie beyond themselves – something that yet another state duty will get in the way of.

Others suggest that an end to austerity could reverse the rise in knife crime. The Labour Party argues that cuts of 73 per cent to youth services since 2010, and the closure of 750 youth centres since 2012, are one of the main reasons why life for young people is ‘worse in many ways than it was for previous generations’. This is echoed by the children’s charity Barnardo’s, with its oft-repeated and pessimistic line that young people today endure a ‘poverty of hope’. More resources and better local services would certainly be welcome. But this is a distraction from the deeper causes of knife crime.

We need to understand better why young people are still being drawn in increasing numbers into violent crime. And we need to look beyond the usual suspects of austerity, social media, drill music and the mental-health crisis. We need to have serious discussions about what is actually going on in our communities.

One thing is clear, however. The failure of the authorities to hold the line has contributed enormously to the recent deadly rise in crime.

First published on spiked

Who’s afraid of stop and search?

It was outgoing prime minister Theresa May who, as home secretary in 2014, made the decision to reduce the use of stop-and-search. ‘It is unfair, especially to young, black men’, she said. ‘It is bad for public confidence in the police.’ A new code of practice with the threat of disciplinary proceedings was introduced, ‘unconscious-bias awareness’ training insisted upon, and there was a limiting of so-called ‘no suspicion’ powers. ‘If the numbers do not come down’, she warned the nation’s police forces, ‘the government will return with primary legislation’.

The numbers did come down. There were 1.5million searches across England and Wales in 2008/09. By 2016/17 this had fallen to 304,000, the lowest since records began. But knife crime, which was dipping in the first half of the decade, went up. It began to rise sharply from 2015 on. There were 285 homicides with a knife or sharp instrument in 2017/18 – the highest since records began. Public concern about crime has also risen, competing only with concern about the health service and the economy for second place after Brexit in the national consciousness.

In recent days, there has been a protest in Islington in Londonfollowing a stabbing. Teachers at a Birmingham school are on strike following knife threats from pupils and lack of support from bosses in confronting poor behaviour. Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show increasing numbers of people leaving London, reported a little excitedly as an ‘exodus’. According to Christopher Snowdon, head of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs (and spiked contributor), people are leaving partly ‘to get away from the stabbings’.

So what has been the response of the authorities to this apparent upswing in violent crime? They have adopted what is called a public-health approach. The London mayor’s Violence Reduction Unit, launched last year, brings together ‘specialists in health, police and local government’ with the aim of ‘supporting the vulnerable at an early stage and giving young Londoners better life opportunities’. The government, too, in its Serious Violence Strategy, describes early intervention and prevention as being ‘at the heart of [the] approach to tackling serious violence’.

Advocated by the World Health Organisation and popularised by its claimed success in Glasgow, public-health advocates boast about how they are tackling the ‘root causes’ of knife crime. But the wholesale adoption of this off-the-shelf policy is indicative only of the cluelessness in government and in City Hall. London mayor Sadiq Khan has been criticised for his handling of knife crime by everyone from President Trump to Liam Gallagher, who bluntly suggests the only thing London is ‘open’ for is knife crime. Khan vaguely cites ‘poverty, social alienation, mental ill-health and a lack of opportunity’ as having something to do with the outbreak of serious violence in his city. What he doesn’t explain is why any of these things should provoke one young person to stick a lethal object into another.

The proposed public-health duty on teachers, nurses, social workers and others, to have ‘due regard to the prevention and tackling of serious violence’, is objectionable. Quite apart from the serious consequences for the liberties of those on the receiving end, imposing such a duty on public servants with respect to knife crime or anything else can only distract them from fulfilling their actual roles, thereby undermining their relationships with the communities they are supposed to serve. And yet the illiberalism implicit in the public-health approach of policing people’s behaviour is in stark contrast to the marked reluctance of the authorities (for want of a better word) to police the streets.

At a youth-violence summit in Downing Street, the prime minister explained that ‘we cannot simply arrest ourselves out of this problem’. Indeed, the causes of knife crime are likely deep-rooted in our society, our culture and in affected communities – with commentators blaming everything from austerity and materialism to family dysfunction and community breakdown. But it is police officers, not youth workers, GPs or civil servants, who are ultimately responsible for tackling the growing incidence of knife crime.

Stop-and-search, used correctly – not politically correctly – is surely more effective than any of the initiatives currently being touted as part of the government’s or the mayor’s public-health strategies. The ramping up of these powers in the worst-affected areas has resulted in searches in the capital going up from 1,836 in 2017/18 to 9,599 in 2018/19. Figures released last month show the numbers killed have fallen by a quarter, and stabbings of under-25s resulting in injury by 15 per cent. Commissioner Cressida Dick puts this down at least partly to a 30 per cent increase in stop-and-search, although other violent crimes, including acid attacks and moped-enabled crimes, have also fallen.

So for all the cod-sociology of commentators, and medical modelling of policymakers, the recent spike in knife crime may, as a consequence of a more old-fashioned approach to policing, have already peaked. Time will tell.

The signs are promising. But if the violence is an expression of the same nihilism that was a feature of the English riots of 2011, then it is unlikely to go away anytime soon. One resident asked to comment following a recent stabbing in Stratford, east London, told the Guardian: ‘I see the police and they’re doing all they can, but they can’t control the young people.’

Has there been a breakdown of authority in society? Certainly the state, not least in its therapeutic interventions in so-called troubled families, and in its public-health response to violent crime, risks undermining parents’ authority. And parents have come in for criticism – not least from the mayor insisting that they stop their children leaving the house with a knife. This accusation – not in itself unreasonable – was angrily rejected as another example of the mayor offloading officialdom’s responsibilities on to affected communities.

The mayor’s knife-crime strategy is all about building resilience, providing ‘positive alternatives’, addressing mental-health issues, exploitation, and the adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that those affected by knife crime are said to experience. It is striking that among the traumatised and exploited, little, if any, distinction is made between offenders and victims. Do policymakers’ assumptions about the supposed vulnerability even of those carrying out murderous knife attacks on their peers effectively absolve young people of responsibility for their actions? By adopting the neutral, judgement-free, even scientific-sounding language of the new public-health outlook, policymakers implicitly reject the making of moral judgements.

Whatever the complex of factors behind the recent rise in knife crime, is it any wonder that some young people are so apparently adrift?

First published in spiked

In defence of Christopher Chope

The now notorious Christopher Chope, Conservative MP for Christchurch, blocked a private members’ bill (PMB) last Friday that would have created new powers to tackle female genital mutilation (FGM). By shouting ‘object’ he stopped it from progressing to a second reading in the House of Commons. And for this, he was described as ‘appalling’ by the bill’s co-author, Zac Goldsmith MP.

Chope, in his own defence, has said that he blocks PMBs as a matter of principle, because he does not think they should be allowed to proceed without debate. This is what routinely happens at the end of business on Friday, where such bills are waved through unless an MP objects.

But this did little to quell the outrage, with calls for him to have the whip withdrawn ringing out from both sides of the chamber. Many MPs are still fuming at his blocking of another PMB last year that would have criminalised so-called ‘upskirting’ (it has since been passed into law anyway).

Dawn Butler, shadow equalities minister, described Chope as a ‘dinosaur’. Nimco Ali, founder of anti-FGM charity Daughters of Eve, accused him of ‘making it hard for people like us to protect some of the most vulnerable children in our society’. Sajid Javid, the home secretary, said he is ‘very disappointed’ and ‘determined to stamp out’ FGM.

But what is it that MPs are really objecting to here? What is wrong with parliamentary scrutiny? The outrage at Chope from the likes of Anna Soubry and David Lammy rings particularly hollow, given their fondness for parliamentary scrutiny when it suits their cause of scuppering Brexit.

Karren Brady, writing in the Sun, asked ‘what is there to debate about whether the horrendous torture of young women should be allowed or not?’. But Chope did not say the crime of FGM itself should be debated. FGM was made a specific criminal offence more than 30 years ago. What he was objecting to was the rushing through of specific new powers, which should warrant more scrutiny.

‘The very worst legislation is that which sails through parliament unopposed because all right-thinking people support it’, argues Tim Worstall, in one of the few pieces to defend Chope. Indeed if Chope hadn’t stood in the bill’s way, and it had become law, the notoriously secretive family courts would have been granted the power to issue interim protection orders. This would have allowed local authorities to assume shared parental responsibility and potentially take children into care in suspected FGM cases.

In a letter to the GuardianDr Brenda Kelly, a doctor who runs a specialist FGM clinical service, defended Chope, arguing that there are already sufficient powers in law to protect children at risk of FGM. ‘We do not need new laws that are disproportionate and potentially stigmatising when existing ones work well’, she wrote.

We also need to debate some of the claims of the anti-FGM movement. The UN estimates that as many as 200million girls and women are living with the consequences of FGM worldwide. But in the 30 years since FGM was criminalised in the UK, there has only been one conviction, which was earlier this month. (And as Bríd Hehir writes on spiked, there are questions to be raised about that conviction.)

The incredible pressure that has been placed on the authorities to find and prosecute FGM cases in Britain has, arguably, created an unjust and suspicious climate for certain communities. Despite the efforts of campaigners to find more victims in the UK, only three other cases have been brought to trial – and they all ended in acquittal.

Girls suspected of being victims of FGM are already subject to intrusive examination, and entire communities understandably feel victimised by association. It would have been wrong to just nod this bill through.

First published on spiked