No excuses, some remedies
by Matt Grist
Make no mistake - the riots around London over the last few days were inexcusable acts of violence based on what a minority of young people think they can get away with. This isn't the time, as Ken Livingstone seems to think it is, to make direct connections between cuts in public spending and youth anger. Rubbish. In Tottenham it was anger at police actions mixed with opportunism. Last night in Hackney it was about robbery and teaching the police a lesson. Full stop. Any other explanation is just the worst kind of mealy-mouthed apology.
But although there are no excuses for the riots and looting we’ve seen, there are a few underlying factors that indirectly and over a long period help swell the ranks of youth-without-conscience. These are not necessarily the primary causes of the moral vacuum within which the rioting has taken place. They are simply things policy makers can do something about.
The first is that riots in the UK always happen in August. Is this the heat? It is certainly easier to be on the streets in warm weather but 21 degrees celsius with sunny periods is hardly boiling point. The major factor here is that the school holidays are already three weeks in, and some young people have now had three weeks of completely empty days. They are going off the deep-end as a result.
So one thing that could be done is to end the six-week summer break from school beloved of teachers and the middle classes. It doesn’t suit some young people, whose attainment in school falls afterwards, and for some, whose nutrition levels drop dramatically away from free school meals and breakfast clubs. Distribute the holidays more evenly throughout the year and even extend the school year by two weeks.
A second thing that could be done is realise that work does not exist for 16 and 17-year-olds anymore, and not very much exists for 18 and 19-year-olds either. In our service economy, employers want rounded and mature adults who can deal with customers deftly, organise their own time, communicate subtly and so on. The dramatic fall in youth employment is often painted as a failure on young people’s part – yet in fact, the world has changed and doesn’t want young people in work at all, whose only crime is often simply to be young.
In response we need far more creativity about structured education, training and volunteering for young people. There need to be a variety of long-duration courses on offer that suit all skill levels – some of these should be very practical and physical and run by organisations like Skill Force and Catch-22; others should be more creative. But all should have the continued study of maths and English at their core. While EBacc and A-levels are a great route to success we need to stop fantasising that all young people, from where we are now, can take this route and start providing a variety of alternatives.
The third thing we need is government subsidy on job creation for young people as Demos has been recommending for a long time now. The Government needs to get active in the labour market where it can.
But to finish on a different note. I agree with both Cameron and Miliband, that the deepest problem in our society, and the problem which the disgusting acts of violence of the last few days have highlighted, is the derogation of responsibility by so many. These rioters are all someone’s children, brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces. If they won’t take responsibility for themselves, someone else close to them should. No excuses.