CWO Forum - Disarming Gang Culture

Notes from the Forum

The CWO Forum Panel on 'Disarming Gang Culture' took place at CCHQ on Tuesday 16thSeptember.

Our speakers for the evening were Philippa Stroud (Executive Director, Centre for Social Justice & PPC for Sutton and Cheam) and Simon Marcus (Social Entrepreneur – London Boxing Academy). We were fortunate to be joined by Shaun Bailey (PPC for Hammersmith).

Pauline Lucas, Chairman of the CWO, welcomed everyone to the evening on behalf of the CWO and explained to those attending, that the Forums were established to give women the opportunity to debate topical subjects and challenging issues that affect women and their families every day. Pauline noted in her opening remarks that in 2007, 26 young people were killed by guns or knives in London. That number has already been surpassed in September 2008. She reported that many people are putting the blame on gang culture, but questioned why so many young people are interested in joining gangs. It is important to recognise that not all gangs are bad, but can be a type of family for youngsters in an environment where families are often dysfunctional.

Philippa Stroud described how anxious she feels letting her three teenage children, all of whom use public transport to school, go out into the city each day. She has become aware, through talking with parents, of a sense of a rising gang culture in our society and in our community. The importance of this problem for Londoners was highlighted by the fact that Boris Johnson's successful mayoral campaign was run on the back of an anti-crime and fighting gang culture agenda.

As a parliamentary candidate, Philippa has spent time trying to think through the policy implications, influenced by her work at the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ). There they have a youth group and gang group in operation, which is now addressing youth and gang crime. She noted some frightening statistics –
  • The majority of young people are doing well and thriving, but for some, alarmingly an increasingly large number, this is not the case;
  • A conservative estimate puts the number at 20 000 young people involved in gang activity. But when asked to self-report on violence, young people report 6% of 10-19 years report being involved in gang activity;
  • Four in every 10 muggings are committed by young people under the age of 16 years. Knives are most likely to be carried by a boy aged between 14 and 19 years. Manchester Police have stated that young people who get involved with gun crime, should not expect to live beyond 24 years old;
  • Every year an estimated 70 000 school aged offenders enter the youth justice system.
The statistics facing parents in Britain and in fact for all of us living in major cities, the figures are quite overwhelming. Philippa believes that we need to understand where this problem has come from before we can look for solutions and evidence points to the emergence of semi-organised criminal gangs, born out of acute deprivation. Over the last 10 years the gap between rich and poor has been increasing, which she feels is astounding under a Labour government.

In the report Breakthrough Britain the identified drivers of poverty were found to be family breakdown, failed education, addiction, debt, generational unemployment. Many people involved in gang culture have come from broken families, they don't have hope of qualifications and drugs are pervasive. This leads to a sense that there is no hope through normal routes. Despite this evidence, few policies recognise the volume of damage that family breakdown can do and how it contributes to the crime currently recorded on our streets:
  • Nearly 1 in 2 co-habiting parents spilt up before their child's fifth birthday; compared with 1 in 12 married parents.
  • If you have experienced family breakdown you are 75% more likely to fail at school; 70% more likely to become a drug-user and 505 more likely to have alcohol problems.
For decades governments have languished under the belief that there is nothing that can be done about these problems, while a generation had emerged which according to UNICEF is the unhappiest of all nations surveyed.

Philippa does not believe that it has to be this way – reversal is possible. Some argue that a harder crackdown is required, more powers for police to lock up a greater number of young people. The way gangs work communicates that prison does not take away the desire to belong to a gang. It is important to address the causes. Leadership is needed from our political leaders, to take responsibility these issues and attending to them.

Police and the voluntary sector need to be given the support to operate a two wave system – crackdown, followed by an 'exit strategy' with support for young people, their families. Boston had a 63% reduction in crime following this model. Under key leadership, police cracked down and then worked hand in hand with voluntary sector to support growth and development of opportunities of these young people. Philippa believes that this sort of approach is needed in London, Glasgow, Manchester, Bradford, Leeds and Nottingham we would begin to see a reversal of this gang culture

,b>Simon Marcus agreed with many of the possible solutions outlined in Philippa's talk, based on his experience of running the London Boxing Academy (LBA), which was started in 2005 to work with local schools, the police, youth offending team to help kids that are destroying their school and not getting the education they need because they need one to one care. LBA appears to be offering alternatives that these young people can access. He feels that knife crime is an incredibly complex problem, with many contributing factors – family breakdown; gangsta rap and bling culture; drugs; not enough male role models. He believes that people in poverty stand their best chance of maintaining faith in a future, if they can be shown models of people working hard, with discipline and respect for authority. It's about setting up a new cycle – leadership feeding in new ideas. He also believes that we need to prioritise families and address 'father-absent' families. We have a whole generation of young boys, without male role-models. Many aren't allowed to be children – they are the alpha-male in their house from when they are 12 years old. Authority is a massive part of this problem.

Shaun Bailey wanted to draw attention to girls and their role in gangs. He feels that what the girls need are role models - other women to inspire them, so that they do not just copy boys. Poor communities need women to survive and boy's behaviour is regulated by women. Our macho society is changing the way girls view themselves, looking at men's magazines what they say as women is encouraging men to collect women like key rings and trophies.

He reported that when he goes to schools to talk, he speaks to the girls and tells them if a boy gets them pregnant, they will raise that child – 'Boys don't raise children. Men do. And if you are pregnant at 15, 16 or 17 it was by a boy because no man would do that to you'.

He believes that it is important for successful women to connect with and communicate with girls. Crime is as much a moral decision as a financial decision. He also believes that when women accept more violence, it is an indication that the level of violence is going up in a society. Men will always be involved in violence, but when women are involved in violence, when a high level of domestic violence is accepted by women, something very wrong is happening. The repair starts with girls, because if you could get girls to accept less of men's rubbish then men would have to change because ultimately men are after a girl. Men's behaviour is affected by what he feels it is to be a man and what he feels will impress a girl!

In Shaun's opinion, the situation in schools is the result of teachers unions connected to the government, who asked for something and now it hasn't turned out to be right. In his experience, firm clear boundaries are important, not turning the police into social workers. Policy has meant that we have become scared of our own children - the kind of policy that treats all adults like paedophiles and separates adults from children.

Questions and comments from the floor explored liberal politics, race and the culture of blame; the failure of working class white boys to access and succeed at education and links with the value placed on education by parents; the need for media and music companies to take responsibility for the influence that they have over children and young people. The role of parents and parenting was stressed by all the speakers. Shaun noted that particular kind of kids that have been killed are called canaries on the street, they were the kids with talent who were about to do something with their lives. Philippa described an initiative called Early Intervention, a joint project to establish policies for early intervention, recognising that if we are going to turn kids lives around there has to be a cross-party approach.

Pauline noted that it had been a stimulating discussion and thanked everyone for participating. She described going and see West Side Story the previous week which had reminded her very poignantly that the story is not dated, it is just different groups that are being swept up. She stressed that we need to change policy and hopes that we win that argument and get to change policy.

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