08/08/2011 – Supporting our young people in difficult times
This weekend has seen some shocking scenes of violence and looting breaking out across a number of areas of London. There was a largely peaceful protest in Tottenham on Saturday evening, when family and friends of Mark Duggan went along to Tottenham Police Station asking questions about Mr Duggan's death on Thursday. It seems that trouble flared as dusk fell, with allegations of a 16 year-old girl being beaten by policemen.
What followed was a night of mayhem and disorder, as police cars and a bus were set alight, as well as a number of shops, businesses and most distressingly, people's homes being burnt to the ground. The looting spread out to Wood Green and Tottenham Hale, and Sunday saw further disturbances in Enfield and Brixton. Commentators were quick to condemn and criticise the use of social media as an organising tool. Questions were also asked about the response of the police and about the presence, or otherwise, of the Prime Minister, the Mayor and other senior officials. The post mortem will inevitably rumble on as people want answers to difficult questions, particularly why the young people involved acted as they did.
The Guardian published a video clip only the week before, where local children talked about the impact of Haringey youth club closures due to funding cuts. Chillingly, they talk about having nothing to do, about having their roots and links cut off, about losing activities that keep them off the street, the lack of opportunities and employment, leading one young man to predict that "there will be riots". Reports such as the TUC's False Economy and LVSC's Big Squeeze show that children and young people's services are facing disproportionate cuts in funding compared to other services.
Clearly, the impetus behind much of the violence over the weekend had far wider and deeper roots than simply pointing to the closure of local youth clubs. However, it is necessary to ask questions as to why so many of the youths acted as they did. Tottenham is in Haringey, one of the most deprived boroughs in England, let alone London, with high levels of child poverty, unemployment and NEETs (children not in employment, education or training). A Haringey needs assessment from the local authority recently noted:
"The data...illustrates how some groups of children and young people in Haringey face an accumulation of difficulties as a result of their personal circumstances. For example, any given young person living in Haringey today may be overweight, bullied, smoke, have a mental disorder or be living in temporary accommodation or have all or any combination of these issues in their lives at any one time.... There is a wider point to make here that is about valuing children and young people, listening to them and giving them opportunities to have their voice heard."
Youth Access, in their Easing the Strain briefing, show how young people's information, advice and counselling services (YIACS) help by effectively and efficiently dealing with the complex mixture of social welfare problems and mental health problems that, in turn, can lead to alienation and isolation of young people. Indeed, YIACS have been recognised as a key part of successful strategies for reducing NEET numbers by MP's, Ofsted, the CBI and the Audit Commission. Further, links between mental health problems and offending are well established. Over 90% of imprisoned young offenders have at least one, or a combination of, personality disorder, psychosis, neurotic disorder, or substance misuse, according to the Prison Reform Trust.
Yet, over the coming year, it is estimated that at least 45,000 young people will be left without support, despite facing acute recession-related problems, such as debt, mental ill health and homelessness. They will not have access to the specialist support they need to turn their lives around. Youth advice and counselling agencies currently help over a million young people a year, but 42% of agencies are at risk of closure, and 7% already certain to close as a result of funding cuts. A majority of the specialist youth services will be forced either to cease operating this year or to continue at a reduced level.
Additionally, Just Rights, a campaign for access to legal services for children and young people, state that proposals to reduce the scope of legal aid "will inevitably damage the life chances of many children and young people and lead to substantial increased costs for the public exchequer in areas such as criminal legal aid, the wider criminal justice system and the NHS."
At a time of economic austerity, there are bound to be tough choices about where to target precious financial resources. However, one must question whether the current approach to our children and young people, and the services that work with them, is costing us all more socially and economically, both now and in years to come. Children and young people are our future, we need to help them integrate and feel included - if we fail, the results could be tragic.
Posted by Terry Stokes