Saturday, 13 August 2011

Grim lives but squalid characters - time for hard work

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Wanted: CCTV images released by Greater Manchester Police of people suspected of taking place in looting across the city and Salford
The faces of some alleged looters and rioters
I lived and worked in North London between 2007 and 2008. I cycled for two hours each day through the streets not far from the Tottenham riots and I caught a glimpse of both proud, happy members of society and the sulky, bitter and introverted lives of others.
I lived in Lea Valley and I used to cycle each day down to Islington. I was knocked off my bicycle twice by careless drivers cutting in front of me (once without any insurance or an up to date tax disc) and both times using bus lanes and when I once tried to stop off and leave my bicycle at Tottenham Hale tube station, my bike was inevitably stolen. There were times when I saw gangs roaming around the streets with little to do but I never felt threatened. In fact, the most worrying time was being caught up in a huge crowd of Arsenal fans on the way to the ground and me pushing my bike through the crowd down the streets and realising that dangling from my rucksack was my Liverpool Football Club scarf. I got a bit of stick that evening…
David Starkey last night on BBC Newsnight proclaimed that the violence was down to a ‘black culture’ that had pervaded black and white, boy and girl. His bizarre and less than helpful idea does nothing to explain the reasons for the looting and that kind of pompous, ignorant and ‘white’ perspective will hardly help rebuild those communities scarred by the riots.
'Shopping with violence' as one commentator said
There are grim lives in some communities and that includes not just the cities but the towns and even parts of more rural areas. I have seen the pockets of hard deprivation in Shrewsbury when I was an MP. They are places where educational achievement is generally low, unemployment very high and the worshipping of celebrities and bling has intoxicated young minds. They seek a laser quick exit to their grim lives and have little discipline or role models to make them understand that through hard work they can reach for the stars. It sounds easy and it isn’t, it is very hard. There are few attractive jobs but if these young people with little self-worth (they create an artificial self-worth through gangs and wearing branded trainers, sunglasses and jewellery) can appreciate that if they truly put their minds to work they can slowly build decent, honest lives. The first job may not be up to much but if you work hard and put in the hours, go to college at night and get extra qualifications, save the little money you earn and invest in a car or a computer then over time you can get a better job and earn more money.
I know it is difficult when there are temptations around through weak willed gang members offering a quick fix. When there is no money. When the police may seemingly harass you. But watching life past by feeling constantly angry is not going to change anything.
The answers? Well for what it is worth, here is my two penn’eth:-
  1. The respect agenda needs to start consistently in every nursery school and be maintained throughout schooling. Teachers have an impossible task trying to control some teenagers and by then it is almost too late. Tolerance for others and an appreciation of everyone’s contribution to society is needed to be taught. Teaching responsibility is crucial to making children understand how they have to follow rules and undertake activities as part of growing up.
  2. The media should be urged to focus less on the minutiae of celebrity lives and more on success stories from our communities. Given the spotlight to young people who have create a business or excelled at school. To hell, with flash in the pan, can barely sing pop stars given fame and fortune. What about the quiet youngsters who put in hundreds of hours of voluntary work in communities or transform a broken down playground or simply go from ‘loser’ status to passing their GCSE’s? Media space and time should reward young people and not those who are undeserving and artificial. With all due respect, Big Brother contestants are not heroes and the slavish coverage of their lives should end. Newspaper editors should be shook up and told to stop hacking phones of private citizens and start using their powerful and influential companies to help grow our communities.
  3.  Parents should be held to account and there should be zero tolerance of the smallest problems at a very young age. The rioters and looters weren’t born rioters and looters, they became them. Some parents can’t cope with parenting. Fair enough; it’s a damned tough job at times. Some don’t have the skills to know how to raise a child. They should be offered help and when the child at the age of five is out breaking up a bus shelter, then it should the parents made to attend parenting classes. The ‘system’ should be there to help but with an iron fist in a velvet glove. If the parents don’t attend, then they should face stiff penalties. If they don’t co-operate when they do attend, they should face stiff penalties. But conversely if they genuinely learn new skills and seek to change the behaviour of their child they should be offered incentives. That should not mean money or materials goods (no gimmicks like film tickets as one bright spark tried to suggest under Labour) but rather more assistance finding work or a place doing community work with a recommendation on their CV. The focus should be on pushing children towards educational achievement (vocational and academic) and parents towards work, lifelong learning and a career path. It is changing the values away from quick ‘bling’ fixes to learning and hard work.
  4.  For those hard core, repeat offenders that are circulating through prison, the cycle must be broken and as a last resort, they need to be placed in a special facility which is a modified prison where there is very high staff ratios, high volumes of physical activities, a tough penalty system for misbehaviour and a reward system based on recommendations towards finding work after they leave. Instead of spending up to 23 hours locked in a prison cell, they should be spending 18 hours doing hard work. They should only be in a cell when they are sleeping. Some will call it a boot camp, but if it was run by ex-military staff these offenders would be placed in a tight disciplinary regime but one that recognises changed behaviour. It isn’t about scrubbing floors, breaking rocks or other boring, repetitive tasks. It is making sure that with a basic but decent diet and a huge amount of physical exercise they have no time to sit and lapse into routines of learned behaviour through gang culture. If they show an inclination to academic study they should face long hours of learning towards qualifications interspersed with the physical exercise. If they show an inclination towards vocational learning then they will be taught a trade; plumbing, painting, electrical, building and other useful skills. Doing nothing should not be an option. They should not leave without additional qualifications and an agreed plan of learning or work.
  5. For those with mental health problems in our communities, they should be under careful observation and support to identify their potential and find how they can still contribute to society whilst having intensive support and care to meet their needs. They need ‘buddies’ to help them day to day. They need counselling. They also need work. Whatever type of work that is, but still work. Studies repeatedly show that those with mental health problems function much better when they have something productive to do that builds self-confidence and self-worth and gives them a routine to enjoy each day.
  6.  We need to recognise youth workers who are paid a pittance and yet do fantastic leadership work in our communities. They live and breathe those streets and know who are the troublemakers and who have a great chance in life to move on up. They need to be given central roles in community projects and actual budgets to spend, to shake up the stale, frustrating routines in communities with innovative ways to involve young people and keep them busy. Close liaison with community leaders, teachers, probation officers, police officers and social workers should require weekly meetings to identify troublemakers, recognise the decent folk and give an impetus to being in control of those streets. Frankly it should be part of the Big Society agenda. They also should serve as an early warning system to trouble.
  7. Send those troublemakers who show improvement and are making progress, to places where there is genuine poverty (far worse than they face back home). I am not talking about free trips to sunny places to enjoy themselves but rather take them economy class to a country like Malawi and put them to work on building a clinic, classroom or planting crops. They should be sent to places a handful at a time and under supervision. Let them create something good. Let them sweat. Let them use their brain to figure out solutions to problems, where there is no builder’s merchant just around the corner. Where people are starving to death. Give them a shovel and tell them if they don’t dig a hole then that village of people will die of thirst. I’m certain that they will swallow their pride and start digging. They will receive a fantastic welcome and will receive great praise from wonderfully friendly people but there will be no hotel; they will live in the communities in mud huts and will work 16 hours a day. They will find out what it is really like to have little food and if you don’t plant crops or walk ten miles to the nearest water pump, you will die. It will leave an indelible impression on those young minds of how lucky they actually are. Two weeks sleeping on a mud hut floor, eating basic rice provisions and working hard to build a school may just puncture that swagger and arrogance.
Kanyopola in Malawi, 2002 during famine
For those that say, 'we shouldn’t be spending money on these troublemakers', well guess what, we already are spending money on them. We spend billions on welfare and placing them in prison. It costs up to £140,000 per year per young criminal.

It is time to spend a little on strengthening core values in society:
  • Zero tolerance of bad behaviour
  • Teach respect and responsibility throughout life
  • Invest in youth and community workers
  • Reward academic and vocational achievement
  • Put the media spotlight on youngster success stories
  • Focus energy, time and money on making people work, work and work
  • Push the troublemakers into seeing and feeling those starving to death
  • Introduce new facilities to make criminals work 18 hours a day and they don’t leave until they have shown real progress in attitude by learning a new trade or achieving academic qualifications
Malawi 2002 - hope with clean water

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