Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Six days in August

It was six days in August. The summer of 2011 will forever be synonymous with some of the worst rioting the country has ever experienced. The shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham ignited riots across England, from London to Manchester and beyond.

Over 3,000 arrests, including some in my ward, Stonebridge where I am a local councillor. Members of the notorious ‘Thugs of Stonebridge’ gang were arrested as part of ‘operation Serpentine’, the Metropolitan police’s response against suspected gang members involved in the riots.

Three years have passed and although there have been no repeats of the riots as some had predicted, it seems some of the conditions that lent themselves to those fateful summer days still remain circulating in our communities.

There is still a lack of real employment opportunities; cuts to public services remain unabated (in Brent we are cutting another £100m over the next four years) and the gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ continue to increase. As ever, the issue of gangs is not just about youth violence, but it goes much further than that. It touches on some of the biggest issues we face as a community such as social exclusion, child poverty, mental health, housing, education, aspirations and improving the life chances of our young people.

Even today, gangs continue to have a hold in some of our most challenging neighbourhoods. The Metropolitan police estimate that gangs commit approximately 22 per cent of cases of serious violence, 17 per cent of robberies, 50 per cent of shootings and 14 per cent of rapes in London.

The prime minister’s war on ‘gang culture’ after the 2011 riots has been dubbed a failure by the Centre for Social Justice, an independent thinktank that was set up by David Cameron’s own cabinet minister, Iain Duncan Smith. However, Labour is clearly rising to the challenge of gangs. I recently cohosted the Labour Gangs Summit with shadow home office minister Steve Reed. Organised by Yvette Cooper and the Labour’s home affairs team, the conference built a solid platform to share experiences of proactively tackling gang violence rather than just ‘fire fighting’ against the problem. Also mentioned were new and emerging trends such as how current conflicts in places like Syria and Libya are only adding to the challenges of tackling gangs in London. Gary Kelly, detective superintendent in Southwark spoke about ‘the trauma of youngsters fleeing war-torn countries and coming here’. He cited youngsters aged between 13 and 16 as being most at risk of adopting violent gang culture and falling into criminal activity. Although they may not adopt traditional gang structures and behaviours, they tend to be much more chaotic and are regularly involved in numerous types of crime including violence, robbery and burglary.

There are a catalogue of some very good examples of work being done in our communities; projects being carried out by the youth services, the work of the Youth Offending Service and those of local partners from the voluntary sector and the police have not gone unnoticed – these are committed people, working with some of the most hard-to-reach young people. But the truth is that many of the responses have, at times, been uncoordinated and fragmented. An example of where this has been avoided is in Brent where on the Stonebridge estate the council combined with Hyde Housing Association and the police to target youngsters who were beginning to drift into gangs and antisocial behaviour. Those identified as being the main perpetrators were ‘called in’ with parent/guardian to a discussion with the housing association. The message was clear. Face eviction if you continue causing nuisance to others on the estate or change your behaviour and take on some of the facilities on offer from training to sport facilities in the area. It worked. Everyone who was ‘called in’ stopped. Such was the success of the initiative that other estates in the area are looking at adopting a similar approach.

It is important that Labour continues to take the lead on the issue and for first time a future Labour government will have a clear understanding of the extent of the problem including areas where little has previously been known, such as the makeup and extent of girl gangs and sexual exploitation of vulnerable young women by gang members. For the first time, there will be a strategy to deal with gangs and the capacity to ensure those who wish to exit the gang lifestyle are supported into more positive pathways. This must be underpinned with dedicated resources to ensure that the most effective prevention, intervention and exit programmes are employed, bringing the best results and providing value for money in the process. Central to any response must also be the communities most affected by gangs and gang violence. Their voices need to be heard as equal partners, opening a dialogue within our diverse communities about how we can best reach out to our young people.

Stopping gangs and gang violence is not something governments and councils can do on their own. It will require a huge joint effort between local stakeholders, partner agencies and the community to work together to tackle the issue. It will take longer than six days and there will be no rest on the seventh. Tackling gangs is going to be a long but worthwhile journey to change the lives of young people and our communities.

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Zaffar Van Kalwala is a Labour councillor in Brent

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Photo: George Rex

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Zaffar Van Kalwala

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