There is no doubt that last week’s Unicef report has started a debate. Unfortunately, much of the debate quickly descended into pedantry, missing the bigger picture. On the day it was launched I woke to hear two speakers on my radio: one criticising the methodology and the language of the report and the second querying the data, and particularly the fact that much of it was six years old and failed to take account of more recent anti-poverty initiatives and child welfare reforms. Both of these speakers, though right in what they were saying, were entirely wrong in what they chose to say.
No one looking at the massive level of inequality in the UK (which has hardly changed at all over the past six years and, if anything, got worse) and at the fear that surrounds so much of our attitudes to youth, can doubt that the report is highlighting a much bigger issue in our society.
Many young people have simply become pariahs in our communities – listed alongside dog mess and rubbish as social concerns. Meanwhile the services intended to support our most vulnerable young people are far from what they should be.
The care system has been in need of reform almost since it was founded. And while current proposals have finally shifted attention to seriously attempting to act as a good “corporate” parent, there is still an enormous distance to travel.
Our youth custody system has hovered around crisis point over the past few months and is set to come under increasing pressure, even though we already lock up more juveniles than any other country in western Europe. We are also one of the few countries that fails to provide specific legal protection to young adults. What limited provision there is in the form of detention in a young offender institution is being stripped away – this as 18- to 21-year-olds experience higher rates of reoffending and a higher risk of self-harm and suicide than adult prisoners. Put simply, our approach to this group is a national disgrace.
Whoever replaces Rod Morgan as chair of the Youth Justice Board needs to marry the intellectual rigour and clarity of vision that Morgan possessed with a deft political touch and the ability to engage with the youth justice and wider workforce. This is one of the single most important appointments for how we respond to the issues highlighted by the Unicef report. Whoever takes the helm will have to counterbalance the media and political pressures, not reinforce them.
From youth opportunities through the care system and into youth justice there is also more than a hint of the workhouse mentality of “less eligibility” among politicians and the media. Any hint that “troublesome” young people get an easy ride is jumped on by the tabloids. The old call to “condemn a little more and understand a little less” is, unfortunately, alive and well.
There is a glimmer of hope in the recent warmer words from David Cameron. I hope that these are backed up with action as policies are announced and that they are shared more widely in his party. It is only if we can stop the “tough on youth crime” arms race that we’ve seen in the past that we can hope to make inroads into these issues.
And that attitude needs to start at the community level. It is true that fear of crime bears no relation to crime levels. Part of the reason why people are so afraid of young people is because they are told to be by the media. Worse, young people themselves are now becoming more afraid of other young people. One reason young people give for carrying a knife is fear – and so the whole cycle continues.
The Unicef report is telling us something important about our attitude to young people and the climate in which they are growing up. So disagree with the methodology all you like. Just don’t ignore the message.
Lord Victor Adebowale is chief executive of Turning Point, a learning difficulties, mental health and substance misuse charity