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Race and Youth Policy: working with young people
Race and Youth Policy: working with young people

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4 Government responses to the London riots 2011

Ex-Prime Minster David Cameron’s contrasting paragraphs below reproduce a well established dichotomous discourse of young people as angels or devils, citizens or troublemakers. The first group are presented as trainee members of the Big Society, caring and willing to take action but preferably on uncontroversial causes such as recycling and non-specific poverty. The second group are at first merely lost and directionless, but the word ‘so’ implies that this leads inevitably to gangs, vandalism, drinking and drugs (de St Croix, 2011, p. 49–50).

The young of this country are as passionate and idealistic as any before. Perhaps more passionate. They march against poverty, they set up online campaigns, they push their parents to recycle and they care deeply about climate change.

But too many of our young people appear lost. Their lives lack shape or any sense of direction. So they take out their frustrations and boredom on the world around them. They get involved with gangs. They smash up the neighbourhood. They turn to drink and drugs.

Conservative Party ( 2010, p. 1)

While race isn’t mentioned specifically above, gang discourses are rooted in racial discrimination and contentious stereotypes, so race is implicit rather than explicit in these comments. During this period it was also claimed that gangs were responsible for the bulk of the organisation and looting during the London riots in 2011. Prior to these events the media had increasingly presented sensational headlines about gun and knife crime which have been assumed to be gang-related, and the riots became a ‘watershed moment’ for the Cameron-Clegg administration’ (Gunter, 2017, p. 49). Cameron declared war against gangs, describing them as:

Territorial, hierarchical and incredibly violent…They earn money through crime, particularly drugs and are bound by an imposed loyalty to an authoritarian gang leader. They have blighted life on their estates with gang-on-gang murders and unprovoked attacks on innocent bystanders.

Cameron (2011)

This claim was challenged as false by the LSE (2011), thus illustrating how young people continue to be used as scapegoats by the state to overshadow wider societal problems. According to Jasbinder Nijjar:

The LSE and The Guardian, as part of a joint study, interviewed some of those involved in the unrest. Their research found that frustration towards the police, government spending cuts (most notably the scrapping of the education maintenance allowance) and the shooting of Mark Duggan were significant factors in motivating people to participate in the disorder.

Jasbinder Nijjar (2015, p. 7)

In response to the riots Cameron (2011) promised a ‘concerted, all-out war on gangs and gang culture’ for what has become a national priority to tackle the ‘major criminal disease that has infected streets and estates across our country’. The Daily Mail (2011) meanwhile reported after the riots that British youth were the ‘most unpleasant and violent in the world’. Pearson on the other hand has surmised the response to the London riots as a dead-end discourse:

While the riots of 2011 announced a new chapter in violent youth disorder. Britain was already in the thick of a moral panic concerning its young people…Indeed, when interviewed about youth behaviour during the riots, Kenneth Clarke, the Justice Secretary, said that Britain had cultivated a ‘lost generation’ of young people. But really this worry was nothing new.

Pearson (2012, p. 45)

Such blame tactics by the government indicate how, and why, the importance of gangs in youth policy continues to be over-estimated by the media and the police. On the back of the 2011 riots, the coalition government launched its Ending Gangs and Youth Violence (EGYV) policy inititative. The EYGV report (HM Government, 2011b, p. 5) claimed that the ‘government has already set in motion a number of far-reaching reforms to address the entrenched educational and social failures that can drive problems like gang and youth violence’. Further suggesting that ‘welfare reforms will give young people better opportunities to access work and overcome barriers to employment’.

However, coalition claims about addressing the needs of marginalised young people were quickly undermined by fiscal austerity. Since 2010, there have been a raft of cuts which have decimated youth services, according to the YMCA (2020) 760 youth centres and more than 4,500 youth workers have been lost in England and Wales. Kalbir Shukra (2011) predicted a decade ago that the youth service could be the ‘first public service to completely disappear’. In comparison, by mid-2015, the coalition government had spent around ten million pounds on its EGYV programme. Since 2016, the policy focus of the gang agenda has shifted to wider concerns about county lines, grooming and exploitation. County lines is defined by HM Government as follows:

…a major, cross-cutting issue involving drugs, violence, gangs, safeguarding, criminal and sexual exploitation, modern slavery, and missing persons; and the response to tackle it involves the police, the National Crime Agency, a wide range of Government departments, local government agencies and VCS (voluntary and community sector) organisations.

HM Government (2018, p. 2)

This new focus gives a much greater role to social workers and police to intervene in lives of young people in order to tackle these issues. According to Kristen Olver & Ella Cockbain (2021), the term ‘county lines’ may obscure the complexities and harms of criminal exploitation of children and vulnerable adults within a policy as well would likely support investigations and prosecutions.

Activity 4: Policy priorities

Timing: 40 minutes

First, identify a priority goal for your organisation.

Then write a paragraph about why you think this is a priority, using the following questions to structure your answer.

  • Which words would you use to justify this policy as a priority?
  • Which factors have led to this policy becoming a priority?
  • Which values lie behind this policy?
  • What are the expectations for the future to which this policy appeals?

You might want to discuss these questions with your co-workers or friends to see how they would answer them. Hearing other people’s experiences, thoughts and opinions will give you a sense of policy priorities in other organisations, perhaps ones quite different from yours.

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The aim of this activity is to encourage you to develop a critical approach towards policy statements. This means not taking them at face value, but looking behind the text to ask questions such as:

  • Why is this policy being prioritised at this time? What is the ‘back story’ here?
  • What is the ideological motivation for this policy? What is the vision of how society might be which drives this policy?
  • How is the persuasive power of this policy established? For example, does it appeal to people’s moral sense of how things should be, or to their self-interest in remaining safe and secure?