WESTMINSTER GOVERNMENT seems increasingly to be based on the principle of ‘every man for himself’. Not surprisingly it’s those who are young and old who are put at particular risk by such fre-efor- all politics. But while older people can at least expect to generate some political sympathy, even if little practical help, young people are increasingly cast as a problem. Thus the endless media headlines about youth gangs, youth killings, youth crime, guns and stabbings. Youth clubs, youth services, youth spaces, youth sport and counselling advice and support services have all been whittled away from an inadequate base.
A few years ago the Guardian’s Steve Bell did a cartoon about the privatised care of children with the caption, “There’s quids in kids on the skids”. This amply sums up the position young people in Britain in 2018 find themselves in. Forty years of privatisation of public services and neo-liberal policies of Tory and New Labour governments have led us to a crisis where young people are abandoned to the market in every aspect of their lives and then blamed for the ensuing problems.
Meanwhile young people from working class and poor backgrounds are increasingly denied access to proper paid employment, training, youth services, further education, housing, benefits and now schooling - the list goes on. Higher education has been made a reservation for those whose families can afford it.
Where the state does intervene, it has resulted in a feeding frenzy for private companies to profiteer from the result of decades of Victorian levels of systemic privilege and inequality. The reversal of post-war meritocracy means that those young people who don’t comply become a ‘problem’ because of rising in-work and out of work poverty, or are abandoned or taken from families unable to cope in these harsh times and are then handed over to the private sector to ‘manage’. There are rich pickings in food bank Britain for the large and small businesses that have proliferated in the ‘management’ of young people.
The statistics show we have the largest prison population in Europe – and, within that, the highest number of young people incarcerated. This is of course in the face of evidence which shows that incarceration has far worse outcomes than community-based alternatives. The prison figure has remained around 85,000 for the last eight years. The gender breakdown is really significant.
According to government figures the total prison population in August 2018 was 83,064 with male prisoners being at 79,213 and female 3,839. The numbers of children and young people under 18 in custody was 883 in June this year.
The crisis of privatised prisons was recently highlighted when the government was forced to take over Birmingham prison because of the complete failure of G4S to manage it effectively. We have always been told by the market fundamentalists that the justification for privatisation was that risk was transferred to companies away from government and the public purse. However, the government has taken over the running of the prison to sort it out and then hand it back to a private company to manage. The litany of high profile private failures in formerly public services or nationalised industries includes National Express, Virgin and the East Coast line, Atos, Capita, Serco and Carillion - yet these companies have continually had their contracts rolled over, often without review, no matter how many times they fail.
In this era of austerity, the probation service has been cut to ribbons and privatised under the failing regime of former minister Grayling and this crisis is mirrored in community-based alternatives to custody. The state has all but walked away from community-based prevention. The mass closures of youth services and Sure Start centres demonstrate that the neo-liberals have abandoned ‘what works’ policies in favour of highly expensive and ideologically based incarceration in privatised settings.
So what about the finances and where the money goes?
“It is significantly more expensive to send a kid to prison than it is to send them to Eton”, wrote Akala on 23rd May 2018. According to Charlie Taylor’s review of youth custody for the then Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove, in 2016 it cost around £40,000 to be a boarder at Eton, without bursaries or scholarships, while it costs between £60,000 and £200,000 for custodial accommodation in England and Wales.
The increasingly privatised youth justice system draws in ever greater numbers of young people and young adults as conditions in the community become harsher and more insecure and it becomes harder to establish legitimate routes into adulthood and independence.
The corrosive effect of racism in all areas of society, and the criminal justice system specifically, result in vastly disproportionate numbers of black and ethnic minority youth locked up in and locked out of the system.
The Prison Reform Trust analyses that 26% of the prison population, 22,683 people, are from a minority ethnic group. If our prison population reflected the ethnic make-up of England and Wales, we would have over 9,000 fewer people in prison - the equivalent of 12 averagesized prisons. The economic cost of black, Asian and minority ethnic overrepresentation in our prison system is estimated to be £234 million a year.
Analysis conducted for the Lammy Review found a clear direct association between being a member of an ethnic group and the odds of receiving a custodial sentence. Black people (53%), Asians (55%), and other ethnic groups (81%) are more likely to be sent to prison for an indictable offence at the crown court, even when factoring in higher not-guilty plea rates. Black men are 26% more likely than white men to be remanded in custody. They are also nearly 60% more likely to plead not guilty.
There is a clear correlation between young people who experience being taken into care and custody. Research from the Prison Reform Trust and National Children’s Bureau indicates looked-after children are far more likely to be convicted of a crime and end up in custody than other children.
Fewer than 1% of all children in England were looked after in care on 31st March 2011.
The 2010-11 annual survey of 15-18 year olds in prison found that more than a quarter of boys (27%), and over half of girls (55%), had been in care at some point before being sentenced to custody.
The closure of youth services across the UK as a result of austerity cuts to local authority budgets has also had a huge impact. Councils have seen their budgets slashed by between 50 - 60% since 2010.
This has resulted in local authorities retreating to only funding the most narrowly interpreted statutory duties and cutting or closing non-statutory provision. This includes youth centres and services, holiday play schemes and Sure Start centres, libraries and open spaces. It also means schools have less money for extracurricular activities.
The result is that children and young people from poorer backgrounds are abandoned to the street or their bedrooms. The welfare cuts and reforms mean that working parents have to work longer hours and often can’t afford ‘luxuries’ like days out or holidays. The largest rise in food bank users are the working poor, and areas where Universal Credit has been introduced have seen massive rises in debt, rent arrears and food bank reliance. This means options for healthy and productive activities are extremely limited and the rise of gangs and gang culture, with all the violence and death that goes with it, is increasingly prevalent in many of our cities.
So, what is to be done?
Cat Smith’s announcement that a Labour government will restore and create statutory youth services in local authorities is to be welcomed. But a far more comprehensive and joined up youth strategy is required.
The first priority is to engage with the full diversity of children and young people to ensure their voices and views shape the policy response. Children’s and young people’s provision needs to be brought back in the public realm.
Plans for bringing schools back into local authority control will help the issues of exclusion. Restoring and rejuvenating further education and Educational Maintenance Allowance will provide additional vocational routes postschooling and make them within the reach of young people from poor families.
Plans to regenerate the economy and build a million homes need to include commitments to youth apprenticeships, training and employing young people on proper wages, contracts and pensions. We need to abolish the worst aspects and insecurities of the gig economy including zero-hours contracts and poverty wages. We need to boost community based preventive services in order to de-institutionalise and close residential and custodial provision - and we need a wide range of community-based alternatives to custody. As this is a crosscutting issue a cross government body needs to be charged with ensuring every department has an action plan which can be monitored to undo the effects of eight years of austerity and 40 years of privatisation.
A good starting point would be to appoint a minister for young people and establish a truly representative, diverse and non-tokenised youth council to co-produce policies and programmes.
Mark Harrison is director of Social Action Solutions, and Senior Research Fellow in Social Action at the University of Suffolk.
Peter Beresford is co-chair of Shaping Our Lives, the disabled people's and service users’ organisation and network, and Professor of Citizen Participation at the University of Essex.