One rule for them

[This article was originally published by the New Statesman]

One summer evening, back in August 2005, Andrew Michael Southard was arrested because he swore at a police officer.

Southard and his brother were out cycling when two officers stopped them one evening in central Portsmouth. As the officers searched his brother, Andrew took pictures of the incident on his mobile phone saying, “Don’t fucking touch me, you can’t touch him.” This and telling the officer to “fuck off” led to his immediate arrest.

Southard was charged, and later convicted in the magistrates court, of using “threatening, insulting and abusive behaviour within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby, contrary to section 5(1) and (6) of the Public Order Act 1986”.

Southard’s case is not unusual. Swearing at a police officer is the common cause for many young people (as young as 12 in the case of a pint-sized offender arrested and convicted under the Public Order Act because he called an officer “a wanker”), ending up embroiled in the criminal justice system.

For many of the young people continuously stopped and searched by police where I live in East London there is a thin line between a routine stop and a hearing at the mags with a criminal record looming over your future. Irritated because this is the second time you have been stopped today? Stopped at a tube station, angry because everyone is staring and thinking you’re a criminal? Swear in frustration and they have you, a perfectly legitimate arrest under the Public Order Act.

The Sun newspaper reported today that Andrew Mitchell said to a police officer last week: “Best you learn your f***ing place. You don’t run this f***ing government. You’re f***ing plebs.” A kid in Hackney saying half as much to an officer last Wednesday would be in the magistrates court this morning fighting for bail.

So it is galling that Andrew Mitchell has not been arrested, charged, and made to put his defence to the courts, the way countless young people are obliged to every day.

And it is galling that the media and other politicians are chiding him only for being “discourteous” and “rude”.  Even worse, that left-leaning commentators and politicians are only aghast at the use of the word “pleb”*. Those class warriors wringing their hands over Tory snobbery are just as out of touch. Whether or not he said “plebs” is irrelevant if he is allowed to evade the rule of law applicable to the ordinary people.

It is precisely such rampant hypocrisy that fuels the sense of disenfranchisement that contributed to the rioting last year. Then commentators compared looters to MPs fiddling expenses, an odd comparison as the situations are very different. But here, in a rare instance where the experience of a politician mirrors life lived by ordinary people, there is a real analogy to be made. Here we have a politician breaking the law in the same way teenagers do every day, swearing in frustration at a public official. Yet he is not being hauled to court to defend or explain his actions; instead it is trial by Twitter and Radio 4, at worst he may have to resign. Where is the justice in that?

*pleb (Oxford English Dictionary definition)
noun. Informal, derogatory,
a lower class person.

Great expectations

[This article was published in the latest edition of Anticipations, the Young Fabians’ quarterly magazine]

There is no single definitive explanation for last summer’s riots across cities in England. But the fact that hundreds of children – 720 of those in court are aged 10 and 17-years-old-  took part should make us question why and how.

The riots did not occur in isolation to what is happening in wider society, where many communities are beginning to feel the effects of the 2008 recession. Young people from these communities face a bleak future, not helped by historically low levels of social mobility, meaning they are unlikely to escape the penury of their parents. It is striking that 73% of those charged with riot-related offences are under 25, according to justice ministry statistics published in February. And according to the Guardian newspaper’s data on the first 1,100 riot-related cases, 41% of suspects lived in the most deprived places in Britain, while 66% of all suspects live in areas that got poorer between 2007 and 2010.

Amid the chaos of burning cars, angry teenagers and riot police in Hackney last August, a local youth worker explained why he thought young people were rioting that night: “It’s a poor thing. This is young black [kids] who have had enough. The poor white working class kids are out there as well. They are not calling for a change in the government. It is the whole society they are against.”

Is there any justification for such a bleak response?

Just over a million under 25-year-olds are unemployed. Young people heading to university this autumn will pay around £27,000 for a three-year degree. On top of this some universities still struggle to attract poorer students; last year the Office for Fair Access found that a quarter of all universities missed targets to widen access.

For young people wanting to pursue a professional career, money is everything. Careers such as the law and even journalism, require postgraduate study which can cost anywhere between £7K and £16K. Many jobs demand the completion of unpaid internships, and where such work experience lasts longer than a few weeks, it is the poorest, already woefully underrepresented in many professions, who will suffer.

Before even reaching this stage, many young people experience the lottery of state education. Those who draw the short straw face not only years of poor teaching, but a serious lack of guidance and support about life after the age of 16.  This manifests itself in numerous ways. Last year, in a Confederation of British Industry survey, 44% of employers said they had had to invest in remedial training for school leavers, 35% said young people lacked basic numeracy skills and 55% complained about poor self-management skills. Students who want to attend university are also short-changed. Following last year’s A-level results, comprehensive schools were criticised for encouraging students to study less traditional subjects. This would not matter so much if alternative courses led to more employment opportunities, but in the current climate this is unlikely.

The dearth of proper guidance for young people will get worse now the government has scrapped the ring-fence for teen services such as Connexions. Last winter, I met up with staff and young people at the Crib, a much-needed youth centre in east London, where rioting was particularly violent. The Crib tries to offer extra tuition and careers guidance for disadvantaged children in the local area, but has been forced to sack 12 members of staff since the council dramatically scaled back funding.

In the wake of the rioting last summer, I spent hours chatting to Yohanes Scarlett, a bright and engaged 20-year-old student from Ladbrook Grove, about possible solutions to the problems affecting young people in Britain, and why some of his friends felt they had to riot. You can my read more of my interview with him here: http://www.newint.org/features/web-exclusive/2011/09/13/riots-uk-police-politics/

On the issue of employment, Yohanes says there should be a working class equivalent to the middle-class networks that enable privileged young people to excel. “Youth clubs need to become more of an opportunity – not just there to pass time and keep young people off the streets,” he says. “There is only so much table tennis and snooker you can play.

“[Why not] have entrepreneurs coming in and saying, ‘OK I will take some people from this area because I grew up here and I will teach them something.’ People would be more likely to pay attention there and in schools if they felt there was actually light at the end of the tunnel.”

But even if young people get the right training and skills to equip them for either university or post-16 employment, where are the jobs to apply for?

While there are many exemplary apprenticeships on offer, these are oversubscribed. Just 35% of all young people choose to go to university, yet the emphasis in schools is still too focused on academic options. Those who do not want to go to university need more options for long-term quality employment. There is a desperate need for new and innovative career choices.

I met 18-year-old Lakshmi while researching my pamphlet on eco-activists in London. Lakshmi has a qualification in beekeeping and helps run the Golden Company, a social enterprise offering advice and training to urban beekeepers. She says: “The majority of graduates that have just come out of university can’t find jobs. It is really difficult. The best option now for young people is to simply to do stuff like apprenticeships, training programmes and work your way up.”

In many ways, Lakshmi is right. There should certainly be better and more targeted support for academically bright children from poorer backgrounds to obtain places at the best universities; but there must also be alternative opportunities for the rest. To avoid a lost generation the government must provide more than just free schools. “Education, education, education” alone failed to keep children from looting last summer. With youth unemployment rocketing, new policy must combine good education, training and quality employment opportunities.

Children: the deserving poor?

‘If there’s anything extra to buy such as a pair of boots for one of the children … me and the children goes without dinner.’ So says a working class woman from York interviewed for Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree’s painstaking study of poverty in late nineteenth century Britain. When conducting his research between 1898 and 1901, Rowntree was alarmed at what he found:

This suffering may be all but voiceless, and we may long remain ignorant of its extent and severity, but when once we realise it we see that social questions of profound importance await solution.

Yet, over a century later, 1.6 million British children live in severe poverty, defined as £134 a week for a lone parent with one child and £240 a week for a couple with two children, according to the charity Save the Children.

Like the Yorkshire housewife before her, Jacqueline Robinson, a mother of two from Wales, goes without food to get by. ‘There is always one week in every month when things are bad and I wonder how I will manage. I will go without when things are tight, sometimes going without food for a day to keep my children fed and properly dressed.’

It is not just parents who worry about being poor; children are acutely aware of their poverty. In recent BBC documentary ‘Poor Kids’ four children describe in their own words what it is like to be poor. ‘We’re like a kind of poor family, we’re different cause we can’t do that much in our house,’ says eight-year-old Courtney.

‘When people haven’t got nowt to do and they’re bored outside they can go in and do puzzles and colour … and we can’t do that. When we’re bored outside, we’ve got to go inside and watch TV.’

Twelve-year-old Sam gets bullied because of his second-hand clothes and is always hungry. He lives with his dad and older sister. His mum left the family when he was two. ‘I think I’m poor because we only get £420 a month. That goes on what we need and not what we want. We have to spend it on food and electric and gas.’

The last government made ending child poverty a key policy; yet in recent years the number of children living in relative income poverty, defined as a household with an equivalised income that is less than 60% of the median income, has reached an astounding 2.8 million (22%). Labour managed to cut rates from 26% to 21% by 2004/05, but despite spending £134bn over 10 years on child benefits and working tax credits, from then onwards child poverty worsened.

Can a new government turn this depressing trend around? Poverty campaigners have already attacked the Coalition’s three-year strategy, published in April, as ‘empty’ and below standard. The strategy forms part of a long-term plan to cut the rate of child poverty to less than 10% by 2020, a legal requirement under the Child Poverty Act 2010. Much of it is based on the recommendations made by Labour MP Frank Field who wants child poverty policy to focus on the first years of a child’s life. This is no bad thing. Mr Field argues that the government should prioritise things like improving parental education, quality nursery education and early childhood cognitive attainment.

This work has already begun in many Sure Start centres around the country, but is under threat because of the government’s refusal to ring fence funding for the centres. Councils under pressure to make savings are under no obligation to spend a set amount on Sure Start – as they were under the previous government. In Tower Hamlets, for example, where one in four children lives in severe poverty, the council has promised not to close any of its Sure Start centres, but budgets will be reduced. At one centre in a working class area of Bow, a member of staff said he and colleagues were seriously concerned about job losses.

The government insists that the Early Intervention Grant, funding diverted from several existing programmes including Sure Start, will provide ‘intervention and preventative services’ for young children. There is also £625m pupil premium fund for schools that provide extra help for poor children and annual increases in the child element of tax credits until 2013. However, the child poverty strategy contains few other concrete policies; instead, there are a lot of references to aspiration, worklessness and responsibility. In one section it says: ‘…we create a system which rewards people who do the right thing and work themselves out of poverty.’

This chimes with simplistic rhetoric used elsewhere – from both the government and the opposition – about encouraging a better work ethic among people dependent on welfare. It is a rhetoric that fails to take into account the miserable reality of living on benefits and the fact that 55% of children living in relative poverty – that’s 1.5 million children – come from households where at least one adult works.

The strategy also indicates that the government won’t rely on working tax credits and benefits to reduce poverty. Instead, it government expects the success of its reforms to public services to create the right circumstances for families to lift themselves out of poverty. The Big Society, reforms to housing allowance and welfare, changes to employment support allowance, enlisting the private sector to deliver public services and localism are all cited as policies that will help improve the life chances of the most disadvantaged children and eventually end child poverty. There is little detail on how long this will take and how it will be measured. The report also ignores criticism from groups who argue that these same policies will deepen poverty. The Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts that the coalition’s austerity measures will mean nearly 300,000 children more will be pushed into poverty over the next three years.

The decision to review the statutory duty on local authorities to address child poverty also seems at odds with the end goal of the Act. The report says government wants ‘to make sure… they strike the right balance between giving local authorities the freedom … to get things done, whilst protecting the most vulnerable’.

Another flaw in the strategy is the failure to properly address issues around existing poverty measurements. Many poverty campaigners argue that the current measures aren’t properly reflective and need reforming. The government’s strategy mentions the importance of measuring severe poverty and including life chance indicators, but fails to develop the idea.

Kristian Niemietz, from the Institute of Economic Affairs, argues that policies shaped around the existing measurement, households with an equivalised income less than 60% of the median income, do not work. In a recession, for example, if average incomes fall, then poverty falls, even though living standards among the poor might have gotten worse.

Instead we should update Rowntree’s method and create a consensual poverty line based on necessities needed to subsist, pegged to the cost of purchasing these items. Niemietz argues that this would enable the government to use supply-side policies to stimulate competition in industries such as utilities creating cheaper, more affordable goods and services, in turn reducing material deprivation.

Of course it will take more than markets to reduce the number of poor children in Britain; better education, flexible employment opportunities and more skills-based jobs training are just some ways the state can stop poor children becoming poor adults.

The government would do well to take seriously its commitment to child poverty; children should not be condemned to penury in today’s Britain. Rowntree was right to conclude that, ‘however difficult the path of social progress may be, a way of advance will open out before patient and penetrating thought if inspired by a true human sympathy.’

This article first appeared on hackeryblog