Could you hug a hoodie? David Cameron, Conservative leader, has been ridiculed for suggesting young people in hoodies aren’t all demonic. What they need is love.
In truth, that’s a media parody. What he actually said was a thoughtful, if hesitant, analysis of how “bad” teenagers often lack emotional nurturing. Cameron’s words could signal a major break from the “hang ’em, flog ’em” Tory tradition. What is of concern is how he proposes to improve the situation.
Cameron was speaking at the Centre for Social Justice, a think-tank set up by Iain Duncan Smith, (or “do” tank as the former Tory leader terms it). Its remit is to think the previously Tory unthinkable on social reform. Cameron added that these were children living “in circumstances none of us would want to grow up in. Their reaction to those circumstances is not good. But it is natural”.
He went on to describe a housing estate with an adjoining park where ball games and skateboarding are prohibited and offers nothing but an empty space. Going to the cinema or a football game or the seaside costs money. So, the young people hang around the streets, Cameron said. (He might have added, if their Asbo permits.) The hoodie, he added, is often worn by a young person to stay anonymous and out of trouble – not as a badge of delinquency.
All of which is sweet music. Particularly when it chimes so well with the launch of a year-long policy review of youth by the charity 4Children.
We spend only 17p a day on youth services. Youth clubs may not provide the whole answer – but they are in danger of becoming an extinct species because so many have closed. It is self-evident that young people who have enjoyable constructive ways of spending their time stay out of trouble.
Yet according to 4Children’s statistics, while youth crime costs up to £13bn, we invest peanuts in providing distractions from boredom. Filling leisure time is only a piece of the puzzle, of course. Mental ill-health among young people, drug and alcohol abuse and the lack of provision for those in care are also urgent areas for action, as is the provision of proper jobs.
So what does Cameron propose? He criticises Labour for its obsession with targets. “If we are serious about this issue,” he says, “we should be measuring quality as well as quantity.”
Well, quality is a prime concern for almost everyone on the front line of social care. But Cameron is anti-state. He sees a greatly enlarged role for the voluntary sector and charities. Nothing wrong in that, except that the vision appears to be driven by the belief that they will deliver on the cheap, powered largely by goodwill.
It’s as if Cameron has failed to understand that the voluntary sector employs thousands of people. Government cash is still needed, as is monitoring, not least to ensure that the recipients of support receive what they deserve and duplication of services is avoided.
Hilary Armstrong, the social exclusion minister, is now, allegedly, considering targeting hoodies in nappies, those under-twos identified as likely to behave badly in future. This is dangerous. Research shows half those so marked out grow up to be no problem at all – apart from the label they have tied around their big toe.
A new dialogue is opening up about the negative results for children when issues to do with attachment, empathy and nurturing are terribly neglected.
Cameron shouldn’t be mocked for saying what many in his party have no desire to hear. However, the biggest challenge lies in persuading him, before he comes to power, that real solutions require the state to take a strong and influential lead. A fact, he has no desire to accept, as yet.
Yvonne Roberts is a journalist