Article for The Telegraph by Iain Duncan Smith - 6th April 2018
Suddenly the issue of gang-related violence is everywhere. While the latest tragic deaths have brought it into stark relief, too many people living in London know that this problem didn’t erupt this week; it has been a growing feature of their lives for years.
Not all violent attacks are directly linked to the gangs, but the reality is that the threat of gang violence is now so closely woven into many communities that young people carry knives in the mistaken belief they are protecting themselves.
When the Centre for Social Justice published its definitive report on the gang problem (Dying to Belong) nine years ago, 85 per cent of young people who reported carrying a knife claimed to have done so for protection and just 4 per cent used it to threaten and 1 per cent to injure someone.
The CSJ team visited cities which had a positive record of dealing with gang-related violence: Boston, Cincinnati, Strathclyde and Liverpool. The researchers discovered that these cities carried out very similar activities to tackle the gangs and that all had been successful at reducing the levels of violence. The first thing they said was that the authorities needed to understand the nature of the gangs.
The gang, for a significant number of young people growing up in our most deprived communities, has too often become a substitute family, with the gang leader as the “father” figure. As products of dysfunctional parenting, with no positive male role models, most gang members have experienced domestic violence. For young boys, the masculinity being modelled is that of a hyper-alpha male, violent and criminal.
As young as 10 or 11, they become drug dealers and drug takers. Far too many will not make it into adult life. Violence isn’t a last resort for most, instead it is a first resort when their reputations are threatened or other gangs encroach on their territory. This in turn impacts on young people who are not in gangs.
Most know that they run a serious risk of being attacked if they travel across gang boundaries. Their fear is that if for whatever reason they find themselves in another gang area, they will be attacked if discovered for the simple reason that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Social media has made that boundary even more immediate.
As the CSJ report showed, you cannot simply police your way out of this. Dealing with the gangs requires a coordinated approach, starting with a central authority working with the police. This authority should also coordinate local authorities, who in turn should organise local agencies – schools, the NHS and so on. At a community level, voluntary sector organisations work with the local authorities to get young gang members out of the gangs and into drugs rehabilitation/remedial education and even mental health treatment.
There are many such organisations; I think of the brilliant XLP in south London, which has been working with young people involved with gangs for some years successfully, and Gangs Unite, which uses sport to engage young gang members in Waltham Forest. It is imperative that young people are given support in exiting gang life. Effective intervention programmes should be running simultaneously with police enforcement tactics.
Sadly, in London, the situation has for too long been dysfunctional, with very poor coordination between agencies. While some boroughs have worked hard to resolve this problem, in others there has been a failure to take a long-term approach, with programmes implemented and then quickly discarded. Too often there has also been a failure to communicate with gang-impacted communities over a sustained period of time.
The problem is that, if one borough alone does this, gangs move their activity to other areas. All boroughs need to do the same in a coordinated approach.
The Mayor of London should cut out the political grandstanding and publicly take the lead on gang prevention and be held accountable for doing so. He should create strategic, tactical and operational teams and coordinate this activity with the Home Office and other government departments.
The key to success is combining police enforcement tactics with intervention and prevention programmes with a clear message that the violence must stop.
People now dominated by the gangs are tired of politicians playing politics. Too many young people have died unnecessarily because the right action has not been taken. We should bin the rhetoric and work together to end this scourge that is blighting London.
Mayor, after nearly two years of relative silence since you were elected, surely now is the time to step up to this challenge and take a lead...