As politicians and those who gorge themselves on polls, leafletting and manifestos argue about getting Brexit done (or not), whether the President of the US really wants a stake in our NHS (or not) and whether any of the parties’ promises can be afforded (or not), one issue is markedly missing from TV debates, manifesto headlines and potential MPs’ hustings – when and how are we going to start to address the issue of rising gang-violence, knife crime and county lines?
So far this week:
- The media reported on the opening day of the trial of those accused of allegedly killing Jaden Moodie in a “frenzied attack” in Waltham Forest at the turn of this year. The prosecutor in the case said the images shown to the jury, showed the killers had “no qualms about playing out their petty gang rivalries using the blade of a knife”. Jaden was a 14-year-old.
- Three men have died and a further seven were injured in knife attacks across the capital last weekend. There was large scale reporting of the latest incidents in Ealing, Ilford, Isleworth and Whitechapel and one paper claims the deaths “laid bare the horrific knife crime epidemic plaguing the streets of the capital”. Others reported that the latest deaths were part of a “shocking weekend of knife violence across London”. While the random and barbaric nature of the attacks, the ages of the victims and the impact on lives across the capital is still shocking, it’s no longer such a shock or such a surprise to see these headlines in Monday morning’s newspapers.
- The Guardian newspaper has printed two insightful articles, among the pages of electoral infighting, on the rise of county lines activity across the country, trapping “scared kids” in the cycles of the kinds of violence which likely led to the tragic death of Jaden Moodie and those who died recently in Ealing, Whitechapel and Ilford. A second article reports on the thousands of girl gang members trapped in a cycle of violence and abuse, as the latest figures produced by the Children’s Commissioner suggest that up to 34% of children involved in gangs are girls who are at risk of both criminal and sexual exploitation.
And yet, the issue has yet to grip the 2019 election campaign.
Nationally, in the UK, we have seen an increase in serious youth violence and gang-related crime in the last five years. Across England and Wales, the number of deaths caused by knives, guns and violent assaults have increased by over a third. Knife offences have risen by over 70% to a nine-year high. The number of under-18s admitted to hospital with knife injuries rose by 33% between 2013/14 and 2017/18. London has seen similar trends to those nationally.
There are various reasons put forward for the rise in serious youth violence, ranging from cuts to youth services, policing budgets, and failure of youth and safeguarding agencies to evolve to deal with a twenty first century problem. It is undeniable however that the significant rise in serious youth violence and knife crime in England and Wales is due to an evolution in our home-grown gangs. These gangs have evolved in the vacuum left by cuts in youth services and policing budgets and a failure to keep track of their organised crime methods; also because of rapid marketing through social media.
This has not only had a profound impact on young people in our metropolitan cities, but also, via county lines activity, that impact is being felt in affected areas of the countryside (particularly deprived towns and seaside locations) which have previously not seen gang activity.
During the course of gang prevention work we have been doing with Waltham Forest Council’s public health approach to violence, we have heard parents, brothers and sisters of those sucked into gang life tell us they wished they’d known more about county lines so they could have better supported their child. They tell us that without understanding the signs of exploitation, they can’t act. That was the driver for launching our online advice pages for parents (https://ask-me.org/ask-me-faqs) and the linked service giving young people and their families the ability to ask us questions that concern them.
The key messages that need to be relayed to parents as part of a public health campaign are clear.
- The numbers of those involved in gang activity has grown, with young people joining gangs far earlier and staying locked into gang activity for longer. Recent studies show that children as young as 12 are becoming active in gangs, and rather that leaving gangs in their early twenties, gang elders are now trapped in gang life into their thirties. This means the pool of gang activists is now bigger than ever before and the competition is greater.
- Gangs have now developed their own gig-economy which can deliver drugs to the user by motorbike in London and other big cities, or else young people are groomed and coerced into acting as couriers for county lines activity. The drugs markets are themselves becoming saturated and overcompetitive, leading to more gang-related violence as gangs compete over post-codes and territory.
- Social media is being widely exploited by gangs to recruit new members, attract fans, broadcast and brag about achievements, market the gangs and advertise drug dealing. Social media can also be used to trap members within gangs; many face the threat of live-streaming humiliating videos or images as a means of coercion and control. It is a 24/7, 52 weeks-a-year tool which can lead to young people suffering high levels of anxiety and mental health problems.
- Far from providing the camaraderie and the element of a ‘missing family’ dynamic, gang activity is becoming ultra-violent, more competitive and more difficult to escape. A leading academic in this field, Professor Simon Harding, in his must-read book for any parent, “Street Casino” writes that gang members face “greater competition to get noticed, to get ahead of the gang or to build reputations. As a result, gang members engage in ultra-violence in order to maintain street capital”. Consequently, this “increasing cycle of violence has altered social norms for some groups of young people with ultra-violence now a part of everyday life”. It is this very activity, which is now being played out daily on television, on social media and in newspapers, driving the headlines in Monday morning papers of apparently random, senseless attacks on young people, in areas once unused to seeing violence of this kind.
The rise of county lines drugs gangs is a public health emergency. Its impact is being felt in urban and rural communities, not used to tackling violence and drug dealing and ill equipped to act. Many of the support services previously in place to deal with social and community care have withered on the vine or are struggling to compete for funding and without the level of strong joined up strategic leadership that is needed to bring those resources together. Much of the narrative being used to explain the rise in serious youth violence in England and Wales is out of date and needs updating. We are dealing with a fast evolving and dangerous 21st century problem, using 20th century rhetoric, agencies and approach.
September saw the launch of the country’s first National Centre for Gang Research, based at the University of Westminster. It’s the first such centre in Europe. It is the kind of initiative, much needed, that any new government will need to work collaboratively with, let alone fund, in order to improve understanding of the problem and contribute to solutions to fix it.
With a few weeks of the 2019 election campaign to go, we would like to see politicians on all sides acknowledge the scale and seriousness posed by the rise in gang activity, county lines and knife crime and find some debating time or manifesto space to agree:
- That a radical new way of tackling this public health emergency is needed now – backed by properly costed and affordable funding – working across political parties and allegiances.
- To tackle current policies, designed to help, but which are actually fuelling the growth of county lines – for example, reducing the rate of school exclusions (which is fuelling the recruitment pool of young people, for gang elders), reconsidering existing housing policies (which are helping to relocate county lines dealers outside our cities) and tackle the ability of gangs operating within our prisons to continue trading and recruiting.
- A commitment to listening to young people and the communities affected, to seek their views on the challenges and potential solutions – working ‘with them’, not ‘doing to them’.
- A commitment to working with the experts in the field, like the National Centre for Gang Research, and relying on 21st century data and intelligence, rather than continuing the siloed, piecemeal, dated and often ineffective approaches of the past.
- Reinvesting realistically in community services and better rewarding the army of volunteers who are currently tackling the issues on the ground and making a difference.
There is still time to make this big public health issue of our time, a big issue in Decembers election. Please forward this article to your prospective parliamentary candidates or concerned parents.
Read more about our part in the gang prevention programme in Waltham Forest at https://ask-me.org
Follow us on Twitter (@AskMe_LBWF) or like our pages on Facebook (fb.me/AskUsAboutGangs).
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Ask us a question here – https://ask-me.org/ask-us
Guardian articles – https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/nov/27/girls-gangs-sexual-criminal-exploitation-violence and https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/nov/25/violence-kids-county-lines-gangs
Street Casino, Professor Simon Harding – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Street-Casino-Survival-Violent-Gangs/dp/1447317181