It’s been a year. A year since the shooting of Mark Duggan, since tension escalated into country-wide rioting, since I sat shaking in my bedroom hoping various city-dwelling friends were OK, since Syrian news reported the start of an armed revolution in England (I kid you not.) Then the endless debates over causes, David Starky showing off his abhorrent prejudice, a glut of punitive prosecutions.
Nothing. There is still no news from a police inquest into the very questionable Duggan shooting. There have been no notable initiatives to understand or tackle the social situation that allowed serious criminal violence in multiple city centres over multiple days. Police reorganisation is underway, but without this specific problem in mind (and we know I think they played a part). Government focus has moved to education (Gove), Syria (understandably) and the Games (everyone and his aunt).
To counter the problems the allowed the 2011 summer riots, we need to understand the causes. I wearily hasten to point out that investigating and understanding the circumstances that allowed so many young people to join in the violence and theft does not excuse them, or shift the blame. Ultimately, they still made the choice to riot, where others in near-identical situations did not. Aggressive commentary, which blames youths as a-moral, opportunist, products of lout-culture etc is all potentially true of some, but gets us nowhere. We need to understand how so many young people are in the situation where they make the choice to riot. Likewise more sympathetic stances, arguing that the riots were a product of social discontent, anger at policing attitudes, political disenfranchisement. If those were the reasons, why widespread looting rather than petitions, voting or peaceful protest marches? Why no placards and chants?
Whether either side is right, the root causes seem to go far deeper. Blaming society does not allow the perpetrators to ‘get away with it’, but in itself, fails to address the problem. Thus, in the debate’s aftermath, we saw a secondary debate as to whose duty it was to teach morality and civic values to, restrain and, ultimately, discipline the nation’s yoof – parents or the state? Well, well. Who should do it, in an abstract moral sense, can and will be debated forever. Who should do it, in a pragmatic stop-this-happening-again sense, seems more straightforward. I accept this is anecdotal, but from the c.20 interviews I saw, from parents of kids convicted of looting, the overwhelming majority stated that it was the state’s problem. The kids had not been restrained in school, or provided with youth centres, or given an appropriate respect for property and order. This invites a question – is 4/5 (the English entry age to primary school) too late to teach basic civility?
Yes. Yes it is.
A whole host of academia suggests that the formative years are the most important for determining educational potential, future earnings, crime involvement and physical/psychological health. Levitt and Dubner, Freakonomics’ authors, indeed, think that social problems go even further back, looking at abortion availability dictating how many children will be born to families that want to have them, and have the resources to raise them (defended here).
Closer to home, and to my heart, this cross-party paper by Graham Allen MP (Nottingham North, Labour) and Ian Duncan Smith (Work & Pensions Sec., Conservative) identifies “early years” as absolutely vital to future quality of life, particularly focusing on nutrition, interpersonal interaction and basic language ability. These requirements, as identified by Chicago and Georgetown Universities’ study on USA’s “Head Start” programme, are first-order, and a frightening portion of our nation are missing out on them. This means that vulnerable children are ill-behaved and unable to learn or empathise when they reach school, are more likely to develop alcohol or drug problems in their teens, and more likely to commit crimes in early adulthood.
So, should we be focusing on early years intervention rather than punitive prosecution? Well, given the Ministry of Justice’s recent figures suggesting 26.7-76.6% of prison leavers reoffend, it doesn’t seem the best option. Prison is not acting as an effective deterrent, nor is it providing adequate reformative impetus.
Focusing on early years is difficult. It’s a very long-term policy bracket, and results take years to prove effectiveness. The benefits will not be reaped for over a decade. Yet, as you’ll see from Allen’s comprehensive paper, they will be reaped. He not only demonstrates that targeted early years supporting in parenting skills can dramatically improve a child’s live-chances in virtually all spheres , but also provide a net saving to the taxpaying citizen – a reduction in crime meaning safer cities and lower policing and legal costs, a reduction in drug dependency reducing health costs, a more productive and better-educated youth. It’s a silver bullet – sure, a slow one, but excellent. [For the fiscally-minded of you, rest assured that there is also a credible financial plan.] Essentially, this proactive, even pre-empitve approach is more effective and cheaper than waiting until a person is a late-teen criminal, and reacting. If you’re doubting, have a look at the Universities of Oxford and Wales’ report on Sure Start and this Shorthouse think tank article . It was working, and improving. And now it’s being cut.
Similar benefits are evident in local initiatives such as Positive About Young People. All of this leads me to decry the Coalition cuts in this particular segment (mostly affecting SureStart) and to urge all convinced readers to support Allen’s paper. See if it’s being trialled in your area. Shout about it. Talk about it to your right-wing uncle. Sell it. I genuinely think it’s one of the most important initiatives this century, and can revolutionise British society in terms of wealth, crime, quality of life and social equality.
Early Intervention – Woo!
[I’m not saying that schools, police and so on are unimportant. I’m saying that early years are more important, and that it behoves the state to give parents as much help as possible in these years. I’m aware that this might, but hope that it won’t, come across as classist. As ever, I’m dealing in broad brushstrokes. I happen to have made the acquaintance of a white middle-class Cambridge undergrad who claims to have looted a Playstation in the riots, which would totally undermine my argument, if it were true and widespread. But it isn’t, so I’m probably right.]
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