Mick Clarke says that he knows from experience how hard it is to save young men from gangs Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster recently wrote to Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, expressing his concern at the potential impact of new and planned welfare reform policies on some of the most vulnerable in our society. As CEO of the Passage, which runs the largest day centre for homeless people in Britain, as well as accommodation and community projects, I welcome the archbishop’s intervention.
There are many areas in which the Government has shown its willingness to engage on welfare issues that would affect homeless people negatively. With an eight per cent increase in rough sleeping on the streets of London alone compared to last year (the first rise in many years), the Government needs to go further by pausing for reflection and reconsidering how many of its policies, well-intentioned as they may be, will affect the poorest in our society as opposed to just challenging the “workshy”.
But one cannot have a debate now about welfare reform without it inevitably touching on the appalling violence London and other major cities witnessed last week. It is tempting to look for easy and quick solutions, such as: “The looters must all be on benefits so cut them and that will tackle the situation.” The problem is not that simple. While many involved in the violence were unemployed the roll-call of those in court showed that many had jobs. A primary school learning mentor, a graphic designer, a lifeguard... the litany of professions went on. This is not to say that unemployment and poverty are not profound issues in our society at the moment; they clearly are. Youth unemployment is at a record high, with one in five young people without a job, and youth homelessness is on the rise. Cuts to the Education Maintenance Allowance and to youth and community projects also have a deep and detrimental effect.
Reflecting on these recent events I am struck by how fragile we are as a society and how we are all affected when society breaks down. Our media, and indeed our wider culture, places so much value on independence, but the reality is that none of us is truly independent; we are all interdependent. We are dependent on good and positive role models in our youth, who go on to form our core values. We are dependent on support from work colleagues, the love of friends and family, and of course on the assistance of our faith and community. All of these were blatantly absent from those involved in the violence last week. What they seemed to lack above all is positive values.
Replying to Archbishop Nichols’s letter on Iain Duncan Smith’s behalf, Lord Freud said that “the Government is implementing the biggest single welfare-to-work programme this country has ever seen”. Ministers need to be implementing another programme as well: the biggest national values programme the country has ever seen. This would seek to address the loss of core values among so many of our young people.
On Channel 4 News last week the Labour MP Frank Field said that many parents were crying out for help to become more effective parents. But Field believes that such help is viewed as “fluffy” by Government. On the same programme, members of a fire crew in Eltham, southeast London, explained how they had established a boxing club for young people in their area to combat gang issues. Their message was: “Come and join this positive gang rather than the negative ones you are surrounded by.” Of course, such a values programme would require money. It is also not an immediate vote-winner in that the results take time to deliver. A government farsighted enough to introduce such an initiative would be long gone from office and unable to reap the political benefit by the time it is seen to make a difference. Initiatives have of course been launched in the past (mainly by the previous Government, it has to be said), with much money spent. This has had a positive effect, particularly in the area of early intervention. But Government needs to go much further, with a fundamental shift in focus back to core values.
It is easy to blame young people, but this is not a young person problem; it is a problem for the whole of society. In fact, last Friday the Prime Minister decided not to chair the Cobra crisis response committee meeting, but instead met a delegation of young people who had established Not in my Name, an online petition against the riots. Young people need guidance, especially those in tough environments. They need guidance from the top in relation to what society dictates is acceptable and moral. There can’t be one rule for big business dealings in regard to what is morally acceptable and another for young people in poor communities. Society needs to challenge the current “I want it and I want it now, whatever the cost” culture, whether it relates to those at the top or the bottom of the so-called social ladder. Guidance is also needed on the ground, in the heart of the community and of course in the home.
The Church has a pivotal role to play here. In Pope Benedict’s message for World Peace Day in 2008 he said: “Whoever, even unknowingly, circumvents the institution of the family undermines peace in the entire community, national and international, since he weakens what is in effect the primary agency of peace.” If there is a vacuum of family and values, of positive support, of positive role models, it will be filled – filled, as in the case of many gang members, with negative role models, where “family” is the gang they belong to. As a youth worker I will never forget the battle I had working with a young man in a hostel who was attending a training programme to help him get an education, a qualification and then a job. He had no family and had the courage to break out of gang culture and away from drug crime. But it was hard. His main and recurring question was: “Can I really stick with a path that will, I hope, lead to a better future when I could be getting the instant gratification of big money in my pocket now by going back to drug running?” He made it, but many don’t. What helped him was the “family” around him of hostel workers, a volunteer mentor and eventually new friends.
The Government must launch a public inquiry into the events of the last week. The Church can greatly inform that inquiry with a drive to re-establish core values. Caritas Social Action Network’s new research project on social action may be a useful vehicle for the Church’s response.
Even at a time of cuts this is an investment society must make. In many of our communities we have already lost a generation. We cannot afford to lose another.
Mick Clarke is chief executive of the Passage