Ganging up on ‘Yoof’

First published in Huffington Post

While they are, if claims coming out of last week’s summit are to be believed, to blame for the rise of al-Shabab in Somalia, the role of gangs in last summer’s riots was, at the very least, negligible. That much is acknowledged by pretty much everybody. It has even been reported that gang leaders called a truceduring hostilities. Bless ’em. But still the government’s anti-gangs taskforce has work to do apparently, and will not be diverted by the reality on the ground. There is too much at stake for that.

According to the children’s commissioner, as many as 10,000 young girls are being exploited by these no-show gangs. Admittedly, he said this ahead of atwo-year inquiry presumably charged with finding out whether such dubious claims have any basis in fact. But there is clearly an appetite for this sort of thing in government. Lynne Featherstone, minister for equality, for instance, has already made her mind up. She recently claimed that “people would be shocked if they could see the level of violence and abuse against girls in gangs”. She didn’t elaborate.

But an absence of evidence that we have a gang problem in the UK, or that they are engaged in systematic abuse of young girls, is not about to hinder those on a an anti-gangs/anti-abuse mission. Local bodies – from health and social care to housing authorities and schools – will put together their own multi-agency, ‘early intervention’ strategies to deal with whatever it is they have convinced themselves is happening. Whether its ‘working with toddlers’ as Theresa May puts it, youth workers stationed in A&E departments waiting for victims of gang violence to turn up, or GPs reporting those hoping to get some medical attention for their gun and knife wounds to the authorities.

It is hard to know where to start with the wholly objectionable extended state apparatus being put in place for a problem that has yet to even be established. The official obsession with gangs – and a particularly unhealthy obsession with ‘girls and gangs’ – threatens to make things worse. Where are the opposition you might ask? Are they up in arms – if you’ll excuse the pun – about these unwarranted intrusions into the lives of young people ‘at risk’ of getting involved with gangs. At the very least, at a time when public services are under threat, you might expect this to be singled out as a waste of public money? Not a bit of it. They complain, for fear of looking soft on crime and to show their concern for the ‘vulnerable’, that yet more resources need to be pumped into community safety and policing.

Which reminds me. In an inspired piece of casting sure to endear young people still further, it turns out that Trident (the Metropolitan Police’s black/gun crime unit) is to head-up the joint gangs taskforce. This is the same Trident that was behind the operation that led to the shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham last August. You know? The incident that didn’t cause but certainly triggered – there I go again – those self-same riots that gangs are being framed for.

Do rioters just need a good smack?

First published in Huffington Post

For those of you who are still wondering what was really behind those riots that shocked the nation last summer, we now have a new explanation. It’s nothing to do with the gaping ‘social deficit’ described by David Cameron, or a “feral underclass” of state dependents, described by Kenneth Clarke, secretary of state for justice. No, it was smacking, or rather the absence of smacking that caused it all.

So says David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, where it all started. Well, at least that is what he was initially reported as saying. To be fair he makes some very important points that have been conspicuous by their absence until now. People “no longer feel sovereign in their own homes” he argues, as the state invites itself in. The Children Act of 2004 removed the right of parents to impose “reasonable chastisement” on their children, instead barring them from inflicting anything that might result in a “reddening of the skin”. For many of his constituents, he says with an eye for the racial-bias in this formulation, “this isn’t really an issue”.

The anti-smacking lobby have been out in force, chastising those who dare to suggest that a smack is just a smack. While a spokesman for the NSPCC thinks Lammy’s comments “misleading and unhelpful” and argues for a ban just to clear up any ambiguity; according to Professor Terence Stephenson of the Royal College of Paediatrics “all too often today’s smack becomes tomorrow’s punch.” Why? Because he says so. Nevertheless, the more thoughtful of Lammy’s critics at least understand what lurks behind the smacking debate. Dreda Say Mitchell, in the Guardian‘s Comment is Free, argues “it’s the shying away from adult responsibilities that’s one of the real causes of antisocial behaviour in children.”

“Corporal punishment has been bubbling under the parenting debate for a while” says Zoe Williams“and, as it bursts out, it has taken the liberal left by surprise.” As one of its number, she goes on to ask where should the line be drawn then, “Significant bruising? Hairline fractures?” Which rather misses the point. It’s not where the line is drawn so much as who draws it.

While Lammy’s comments are a welcome challenge to a prevailing orthodoxy that seeks to deny parents their autonomy vis-à-vis the state, pointing to the very different experiences of working class families subject to its interventions; there is something profoundly unsatisfactory about the terms of the debate. It’s hard to know who to despair of the most, the meddling medics and so-called liberals who presume to know better than parents how to raise their children; or the politicians and commentariat who can’t seem to get beyond such mundane matters. Yes, adult authority is in crisis and the anti-smackers could do with a well deserved slap for doing their bit to undermine it. But, in itself, whether or not parents smack their children tells us precisely nothing about the riots.

No justice for yoof?

The Youth Justice Board (YJB), under recent threat of abolition, was saved like the NHS and the benefits system before it, by the politically appointed of the Lords and the self-appointed of the commentariat. But, putting that to one side, the threat has brought to the surface an ongoing conflict in youth offending circles: should they be concerned most with criminal justice or with the ‘rights’ and welfare of children?

Rod Morgan, a former chairman of the YJB, has expressed his hopes that the reprieve will embolden it in its ‘progressive’ mission. But what does this mean? Particularly now, after the riots. Is it true that the fundamental problem facing society today is a lack of concern for the ‘rights’ of children and a neglect of their welfare? We are surrounded by such concerns. And yet, while critics are right to condemn the knee-jerk incarceration of young rioters – apparently increasing the already shockingly high number of children in detention by 8% – this has less to do with hostility to children’s welfare than with an absence of adult authority.

Regardless of whether or not we are in breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – the legitimacy of which should be in question – what is of greater concern is the lashing out by a society, and its institutions, as they lose their grip on the morals and the behaviour of the young. Mark Johnson, a ‘rehabilitated offender and former drug user’ now heading up the charity User Voice, argues ‘there is no other way to access the lives and minds of the marginalised than by utilising the skills of those who have been there too’. Similarly, an advocate of ex-offenders going into schools says: ‘The corridors are intellectually bankrupt on this issue but the cells have more than enough wisdom to confront it’.

While I’m no fan of the punitive and regard myself as a progressive, is it really the case that the youth justice system and society at large have so lost faith in their ability to hold the line, that only ex-cons have any authority over young people these days? What’s progressive about that?