It is almost a year since riots swept Britain's cities, and more than twelve months since the government issued a ‘Gangs Strategy' in recognition of a growing problem of gang membership and violence in London and elsewhere. Yet only last week police warned that riots could recur and that they would be ill-prepared to respond to them if they do. And whilst Westminster is far from being the most challenged local authority when it comes to gang activity, enough incidents have occurred this summer to counsel against a hint of complacency.
No-one believes that the riots, or the gang violence we are now struggling with, are morally justified, whether by social, economic or other factors. The fear, damage, injuries and, in extreme cases, deaths that accompany both of these criminal activities devastate lives and communities, and it is usually the poorest neighbourhoods and the people within them who suffer most. There was no ‘political' agenda to the riots, which, whilst also not being any excuse, would have at least helped with an understanding of why they occurred and how any recurrence can be prevented.
Yet equally, neither rioting nor gang violence exist in a vacuum. The riots were the worst of their kind for 30 years. Why? Gang membership and violence have been on the increase for several years? Why? We have a duty to answer these questions, and we would be failing in our duty if we then do not act on the information. For not only does this risk more victims, more violence, more criminal damage, it makes no economic sense. Early intervention costs money today, but a failure of early intervention, ending in a prison or young offenders institute tomorrow, costs twenty times more. We can fill our jails and add to jail capacity at a cost, but, whilst there will always be a case for detention within the criminal justice systems for some, we also have to recognise that jail is rarely an effective means of turning around a young life. And outwith the criminal justice dimension? The reality is that it is young people who have borne the brunt of the economic crisis that has engulfed the developed world since 2008. Youth unemployment has soared to 1 million, and the number of 16-24 year olds out of work has risen by 118,400 since the spring of 2011 alone. There has even been a fall in the proportion of 16-18 year olds in full-time education - for the first time since 2001. Disturbingly, unemployment amongst black and minority Britons has risen twice as fast as amongst white Britons, and in some areas half of young black people are out of work. The Educational Maintenance Allowance has been abolished, duties to provide face-to-face careers guidance removed, university tuition fees trebled and youth services have been decimated across the country. Not one of these factors is an excuse, but they all contribute to an explanation of our problems- and an explanation we ignore at our peril. As the Right Rev Peter Price, Bishop of Bath and Wells, says in a new church report into the riots " Where hope has been killed off, is it surprising that energies erupt in anti-social and violent actions?". So no excuses, but still an urgent need to understand, to prevent a repeat of the riots, to bear down on gangs and serious youth violence and to offer real hope and opportunities for those young people who need our care and not solely our condemnation.