Word on the street: Government has abandoned young people who join gangs fuelled by ‘toxic’ social media


- Credit: Archant

Since the 1980s, central government has made it inevitable that there will be gang fights and homeless families.

I was instrumental in setting up a workshop in Stevenage in 1975 for a young gang after they returned home from a youth detention centre, then known as borstal. They had been involved in a fight defending their territory from an invading gang and it had resulted in a murder.

I met them all daily for about a year. We had a deal with the Job Centre that they kept their benefits if they remained involved with the workshop and they received a reference from me for employment outside the scheme if they worked well. Some of them did indeed get jobs.

I used to ask them what they liked doing. One said cooking, so we sent him on a chef’s day-release course and he got work at a bakery.

There was no social media back then. I can understand how the combination of gangs and social media now is so toxic. There are, however, many other things that have changed as well. Those young men could actually live on single adult unemployment benefit in 1976, but it has been losing value since 1979 and been frozen since 2011. They could not live now, and work at the workshop, on the current £73.10 per week Jobseeker’s Allowance which equates to £317 a month Universal Credit, let alone the youth benefit for those aged 16 to 24 of £57.90 per week. These benefits are effectively worthless. The blunt instrument of benefit sanctions also takes its toll. Some who are eligible do not “sign on” at all because it is so much hassle.

There’s a sense that our youth have been abandoned by the state. The gangs are a secure underground family for them, with all the benefits but also all the perils of peer pressure. Until there are major structural changes to the benefit system by central government, the great work done by the churches, charities and police will not stop the violence. The single adult unemployment benefit must be increased to support the minimum needed for a healthy diet, fuel, clothes, transport and some participation in the community, and zero-hours contracts must be abolished.

When resources are desperately short, and good money is easily made by selling or couriering illegal drugs, young people will organise to defend their territory to get and keep their slice of the market. Some will come from families who have been put through the humiliating experience of eviction and homelessness, and have been parked in temporary accommodation for the entire 10 years of their offspring’s compulsory education. Haringey, for example, now has 4,400 families in temporary accommodation, and London has 54,540 who are unlikely to receive a permanent home soon, if ever. This insecurity profoundly affects the upbringing of children.

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