Features Directory
Becky Slack
Published 15 September 2011

Most of those who took part in the riots were young and poor. Now is

the time for charities to reach out to them.

Glass shatters as a news agent is looted. A car and numerous bins are set on fire. A young man riding a moped narrowly escapes serious injury after being set upon by a mob. As dusk fell on the evening of Monday 8 August, violence ruled throughout the Pembury Estate in Hackney, east London; the handful of officers sent to police the area were insignificant against the aggressors.

Source: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

A few miles up the road in Tottenham, the local community nursed its wounds after a weekend of trouble. Buses, shops and homes had been set on fire and looted after riots had broken out following a protest demanding justice for the family of a man shot by the police.

Elsewhere in London, and then around the country, copycat criminals seized the opportunity to loot more stores and fight the police for ownership of the streets. For five long days and nights at the beginning of August, towns and cities across England were under attack from their own people. But who were the culprits, why did they feel it necessary to destroy their communities, and what role can, and should, the voluntary sector play in response -- particularly in relation to young people and families who have faced the full glare of the media spotlight?

Nearly 3,000 people have been arrested since the riots, the majority -- 62.2 per cent -- for burglary, according to the Guardian data blog. Out of the 400 court appearances also monitored by the same source, 74.6 per cent were aged between 11 and 24 years; 12.3 per cent were over 30; and nearly all -- 90.8 per cent -- were male.

Politicians, once they had returned from holiday, were quick to point the finger of blame. David Cameron refused to believe that poverty played a role; it was the parents' fault: "This is about culture ... In too many cases the parents of those children -- if they are still around -- don't care where their children are or who they are with let alone what they are doing," he said.

The leader of the opposition, Ed Miliband, took a different tack. He emphasised the rioters' lack of social responsibility, and while parents must hold some of the blame, so too must the current and previous governments: "Children's ideas of right and wrong don't just come from their parents ... it's not the first time we've seen this kind of me-first, take-what-you can culture," he said, drawing reference to the scandals involving bankers, MPs' expenses and phone hacking.

Meanwhile, in the tabloids, moral panic ensued as editors filled their pages with stories of "feral savages" whose dependency on welfare has created a "something- for-nothing culture"; absentee fathers, gang culture and moral decline. Even the "evil wand of fashion", according to the Daily Mail, played its part. It was left to the think tanks and charities to provide a more measured response. While many in the voluntary sector refused to join those "armchair sociologists", instead enforcing the point that we must wait for the full facts before pontificating, several institutions provided sensible comment, which gave some context, if not an explanation, for the events.

Violence is nothing new
Research from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), for example, showed that many of the affected areas suffer from unemployment levels almost three times higher than the national average -- particularly when it comes to young people (more on them later). Similar trends were found in relation to low-educational attainment and child poverty levels.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), renowned for its research into poverty, published a number of a blogs providing background into civil unrest, opinion about the most damaging social issues and ideas for moving forward. For example, a JRF survey of 13 violent disturbances between 1991 and 1992 showed striking similarities to these latest riots: affected areas had low-income levels and longstanding social problems; high concentrations of young people; and active involvement from boys and young men aged from 10 to 30. The scenes the world witnessed early last month were, apparently, nothing new.

Julia Unwin, JRF's chief executive, wrote on the organisation's website that little is known about what triggered the unrest or what fuelled it, but a more "fundamental discussion about the nature of the 21st century social contract" is needed. "People in some places feel absolutely powerless ... they believe their aspirations are frustrated and that whatever their effort they will not be recognised," she wrote. "We know we live in a culture that has increasingly viewed material possessions as the definer of status and the accumulation of possessions as worthy in its own right. And we know many people feel little loyalty to or involvement in their communities."

The voluntary sector will have a key role to play in that discussion and a meeting, organised by National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), is scheduled for 14 September to do just that. The aim for Nick Hurd, the minister for civil society, and other charity representatives at the meeting will be to explore how the sector can help communities rebuild, how it can help policymakers reflect on the context and causes of the disturbances, and where and how it might be able to help address these issues.

The CharityInsight Essay

Source: Paul Ellis /AFP/Getty Images

But charities did not need to wait to be told how to respond. One common factor across the country that received little press coverage was that as soon as the violence started, teams of youth workers took to the streets to help prevent young people from getting involved.

Oasis of encouragement
One organisation that contributed to this effort was Oasis UK, a Christian group that helps with housing, healthcare, education and youth work in the UK and elsewhere. Its youth workers were out on the streets until the early hours of the morning, speaking to young people, answering questions and guiding them towards making the right choices.

This type of support was going on all over the country, and it did not always go unnoticed. Steve Mumby, a city councillor in Liverpool and its cabinet member for neighbourhoods, described how gratified he was to have witnessed efforts to bring order to the city: "I could not have been prouder of the response from the voluntary sector. Youth workers and volunteers were out on the streets encouraging people to go home," he said.

In the days following the riots, more and more charities sprang into action. The British Red Cross distributed vouchers that could be used in shops and in Tottenham, north London, a leisure centre became the focus for donations of clothes, food, baby products and other essential things for affected residents.

Alongside the voluntary sector, banks, local businesses and celebrities came together to provide financial, material and emotional support. In London, a £50m fund was opened by Boris Johnson, the city's mayor, which will be put into long-term projects to rejuvenate areas subjected to the worst violence, and through the Capital Community Foundation a We Love London Fund was set up to help those affected get back on their feet. Any remaining funds will be given to local groups that support community cohesion.

Local Community Service Volunteer (CSV) groups were also working hard in the background. Numerous meetings with councils and government officials took place, including one in Hackney with the Labour MP Diane Abbott and the Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband. Ideas for how to bring communities together, tackle problems around parenting and, crucially, involve young people were discussed. Again, more money was found -- this time from Hackney CSV to provide small grants to local groups.

Taking a more public role was RiotCleanUp, which in a matter of hours had rounded up thousands of volunteers to help clear up the streets. It aims to use the momentum gained in the riots' immediate aftermath -- to date it has more than 78,000 Twitter followers -- to mobilise sustained support for communities through RiotRemedy, a new group that will channel donations to eight charities, as well as co-ordinate other cleanup projects. Social media may have been used to co-ordinate much of the looting but it is proving to be a powerful force in the post-violence period.

The CharityInsight Essay

Source: Miguel Media/AFP/Getty Images

The National Council for Voluntary Youth Services (NCYVS), disappointed with the demonisation of young people by the media in the days following the riots, launched a counter-campaign online called Not in My Name. "We accept that young people were involved but we were disappointed to see the media showing young people in a very negative light, as if this behaviour was the norm," explained Faiza Chaudary, the organisation's deputy chief executive and director of policy and communications. "We wanted to remind the public that not all young people took part."

The campaign asked young people who did not participate in the riots to post a picture of themselves holding a sign on Facebook and Twitter reading "#notinmyname". About 150 photos have been posted so far, and the campaign has received widespread support, including from Boris Johnson.

The role of young people in the riots has been the focus of the debate, and not without some justification if the Guardian's figures are to be believed. However, Chaudary emphasised that it is important to retain perspective -- only a very small proportion of the youth population took part. One important role for the voluntary sector would be to help get this message out.

"Charities want to be, and can be, part of the solution," she said. "Many youth charities are conducting surveys with their youth users to find out if they participated and why. Others, such as the Prince's Trust, are focusing on how to prevent it from happening again. We also know that community-based youth work has a critical role to play."

It is not easy being young these days. Since the coalition government came to being, last year, youth unemployment is higher than it has ever been -- almost one million 18 to 24 year olds are out of work. Yet the Future Jobs Fund, which helped young people find work, has been scrapped and replaced by the Work Programme, which has yet to deliver; the Educational Maintenance Allowance has gone; university tuition fees are sky high; and even if a young person is able to graduate it is highly unlikely they will be able to walk into a job. Even those working to help young people find their way through this social and financial quagmire are struggling. Funding for voluntary youth services fell by about £110m last year - a loss of 23 per cent of this sector's income - according to The Young Foundation's recent report for the NCVYS. It is difficult to blame cuts for the riots, but many would say they have not helped.

Camila Batmanghelidjh, the founder of Kids Company and the Place2Be, told the sector's trade press that youth services were at "breaking point" even before the cuts, which has affected their ability to support young people. "Lots of the youth provisions had become very dangerous because they were too understaffed and the kids' destructive and savage behaviour set the agenda," she said.

People are trying to find ways around this. A meeting on 23 August between Tim Loughton, the minister for children and families, NCYVS and representatives from youth services considered options about how to build local leadership, to combat negative images of young people and how to build trust within communities.

Miliband, after his discussions with Hackney CSV, is looking at whether there is any justification for mandatory youth service provision.

And in Liverpool, the council, which has to contend with at least £91m in current cuts, and needs to find a further £50m in savings this year, is looking for other ways to support youth groups. "I am trying to shift more resources to the voluntary sector, but it's difficult," said Mumby. "We want to reduce management costs and prioritise frontline services so are moving towards a commissioning model where councillors define broad priorities and then sit down with voluntary groups and commissioners to work out how to achieve them."

But the response to the riots must not focus just on young people. Parents, as identified by Cameron and Miliband, are another key group of people who need support. Again, while the cuts are not solely responsible for bad parenting, it is not out of the question to consider the impact of reductions in funding on charities and families. Family Action, for example, reckons it will reach 4,000 fewer families due to the cuts, while Shelter says 54,000 children live in households left with less than £100 a week to survive on due to changes to the benefits system.

The CharityInsight Essay

Source: Ben Stansall/ AFP/Getty Images

This point about household poverty is highlighted by several commentators writing about the breakdown of family, parenting and the riots in the 22 August issue of NewStatesman. Ruth Lister, the Labour peer and emeritus professor of social policy at Loughborough University, referred to "Parents and Children in the Inner City", the 1978 study by Harriet Wilson and G W Herbert, which, she said, "demonstrated how the stress associated with poverty and the survival strategies adopted by parents to cope can undermine parental capacity".

It did not take the government long to announce measures aimed at solving problems in the home.

Hurd announced, on 26 August, the coalition's trial of Social Impact Bonds to fund work that helps "families blighted by anti-social behaviour, crime, addiction and poor education". Philanthropists are to be invited to invest a total of £40m in projects in four local authority areas: Hammersmith and Fulham, Westminster, Birmingham and Leicestershire. If successful, they will be paid a return by the public sector. But if there are no improvements, the investment will not be recovered. "We want to restore a stronger sense of responsibility across our society and to give people working on the front line the power and resource they need to do their jobs properly," explained Hurd. "Social Impact Bonds could be one of the many big society innovations that will build new partnerships between the state, communities, businesses and charities."

This financial model was advocated by the Labour MP Graham Allen in his report on early intervention. Allen's review for the government, delivered in January, called early intervention "an approach which offers our country a real opportunity to make lasting improvements in the lives of our children, to forestall many persistent social problems and end their transmission from one generation to the next, and to make long-term savings in public spending". Precisely the kind of approach that may help deter future violent activity.

His views have powerful supporters. Dame Claire Tickle, chief executive of Action for Children, Labour MP and former welfare minister Frank Field and Eileen Munro, professor of social policy at LSE who submitted her review of child protection in May, all cite the growing evidence for the effectiveness of early intervention.

The main issue holding back progress is money, again. Allen states in his report: "The provision of successful evidence-based early intervention programmes remains persistently patchy and dogged by institutional and financial obstacles." Despite research from the Department of Health showing that £7.89 would be saved for every £1 spent on parenting interventions, local authorities, struggling with 11 per cent in cuts to their own funding, are unable to find money for these initiatives.

But all around the sector there are positive examples of the impact this type of work can have. The Safer Children's Project, from Family Action, is working with four primary schools in Waltham Forest, London, to educate parents and pupils -- before secondary school age -- about gang culture. The aim being that if Family Action can get to parents and children early, it can help reduce the chance of a child either being recruited by a gang or becoming a gang's victim. "Feedback has been very positive," said Rhian Beynon, head of policy and campaigns at the charity. "All the parents agreed the project helped them understand how street gangs posed a threat, while 99 per cent of children said it helped them think about their safety."

If evidence suggests that early intervention programmes are key to helping tackle society's ills, Cameron may want to reconsider previous decisions about funding allocations.

More research, opinions and opportunities will surface over the next weeks and months. As well as addressing problems for families and young people, the country will be looking for ways to eradicate gangs and the gang culture, help rehabilitate young people who have been locked up for their role in the riots, and for ways to tackle the spiritual poverty that leads people to destroy their own communities.

Such events are likely to happen again -- history demonstrates that. The long-term role of the voluntary sector will be to find ways to minimise the impact on the innocent; but in the short-term, charities need to overcome funding challenges so they can help affected communities rebuild their lives and livelihoods.

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