This April flowers appeared, as they always do, by a low brick wall on the edge of the Mozart estate in Queen’s Park, W10. This year there were more than usual. They marked the tenth anniversary of the death of Amro El-Bedawi, just 14 years old, after he was stabbed.
2008 was a savage year on London’s streets, not least in my quarter of north west London. A young man called Omar Sharif has just won a Pride of Britain Young Achiever award. He has described how three of his friends from around the Church Street area did not survive their teens, motivating him to change his life. Not everyone is strong enough, or supported enough, to achieve what Omar achieved, and the costs – social and economic – of that failure are momentous.
During that period I spent a lot of time with the parents of murdered children and also with the parents of young people accused of horrific crimes of violence. These are things I’ll never forget. For a considerable time it seemed as if every advice surgery I held brought another frantic mother with a child at risk in one way or another. One described to me how she watched, powerless, from her window as her teenage special needs son was pursued up the street to the front door of their flats by 15 knife and bicycle chain wielding youngsters. He survived. We got the family moved. But the experience will have changed them both.
There are people who quite correctly point to the fact that in 2008 we had more police officers than we do now and a functioning youth service, amongst much else. Does this suggest that cuts to public services are irrelevant? I think it certainly suggests that the factors behind gang affiliation and serious youth violence (overlapping but different phenomena) are not new, have complex causes and shouldn’t be subject to over-simplified, reductionist explanations.
A decade ago “postcode” conflicts featured more than seems to be the case in 2018, but then, as now, most of those “on road” were still vulnerable young people with any of a number of characteristics putting them at risk – their own mental health issues, their exposure to domestic violence and parental addiction or mental ill-health amongst them. And, as now, once violence starts to rise, fear creates its own momentum and ripples out ever more widely. Every death and every injury sends shock waves of trauma through a community, a school, and impacts more deeply than we often appreciate. Many times over recent years I’ve talked to even very young children in local primary schools, asking them what they would like to happen to make the area they lived in better, and been staggered by how frequently gang violence and safety have featured.
The difference between then and now, however, is that in 2008 we did at least have the means to respond. Westminster Council, for all its faults, helped establish a Gangs Unit with the police, which focused intensely on those at risk. We all worked together, co-ordinating with schools and youth centres, improving information sharing, trying to ensure a wider community buy-in. Safer Neighbourhood police teams, at least six strong, were eyes and ears, providing information and reassurance as well as intervention. Neither gangs nor serious youth violence ever went away, but the tide did turn and the death toll abated. Now it has turned again. This time, we may have the “county lines” drugs trade as a driver, and the greater potential for social media to instantly escalate conflict. But all the underlying risk factors for the young people at the heart of the violence are the same.
Today, we are lucky if safer neighbourhood teams offer half the capacity they did a few years ago (my own borough has lost a third of its police strength since 2011). Youth services are disappearing despite the essential role they can play – and I have watched them play- in turning around troubled lives. One youth worker I know cradled a boy in her arms as he died, and drove another to hospital whilst covered with his blood (he survived), yet pays from her own pocket for the materials to be able to put on sewing and cookery classes in one of the most deprived areas of London.
And it’s not just activities that a good youth service provides. It’s also an irreplaceable source of information about what is happening on the streets. One of the newer initiatives in this area is Red Thread, which works with victims of violence in some of our major hospitals, capitalising on what they call “the teachable moment’” for some young people. They do extraordinary work – one young man I know survived being stabbed and shot, and has become a Red Thread ambassador – a credit to them and to himself. Yet Westminster Council pulled all funding from youth, after-school and holiday schemes in 2016, and they aren’t alone.
Children’s services are stretched to breaking point. Our Gangs Unit continues to exist, thankfully, but with only the equivalent of half a post for mental health intervention. The probation service and youth detention are both in crisis, to the point where last year the Chief Inspector of Prisons found “not a single establishment…safe to hold children and young people”. The network of connections with families built up through children’s centres has been stretched and broken.
Of course, policing is part of the response and intelligence-led stop and search has its role to play. But Sadiq Khan is absolutely right to learn from the Glasgow experience and address this as a public health crisis that needs a long term focus on prevention. However, the Mayor and the Met can’t do this alone. If health secretary Matt Hancock is serious about the NHS becoming a prevention service, where is the NHS – and especially the mental health service – top-level response to serious violence?
With funding for local councils cut in half, where is the capacity to provide non-statutory provision, like youth services? The Department for Education needs to lead an initiative in schools, and above all, put a relentless focus on children who are not in school and at massive risk of exploitation. Families and young people at risk often need to be moved urgently, yet the system scarcely exists to enable this to happen and the failures are more common than the successes.
Above all, we need now what we also needed a decade ago – consistency. Short term funding for stop/start initiatives won’t work. Many of these young people have no trusted, consistent adult figures they can engage with, yet anyone working in the area will be able to talk about how the barriers can come down even amongst the toughest when solid, trusting relationships can be built over time. I’ve always believed in the concept that it takes a village to raise a child. Families may be the bedrock of a child’s life, but no-one grows up in isolation from wider society. We all have a stake in the wellbeing of the next generation and perhaps especially we have an interest in helping to overcome the challenges that the most vulnerable children start off with.
Building “virtual villages” in the heart of the city is a tough call indeed, but it can be done if all the agencies with a role to play make this a priority and engage parents, communities and young people themselves. Yet it is those “soft services”, from youth provision, to safer neighbourhood policing, to children’s centres, that have unravelled furthest and fastest. A lot of public money has been saved. It has not been cost free.
Karen Buck MP is Labour MP for Westminster North.