Iain Duncan Smith and Theresa May have begun very early work on their gangs strategy in the wake of the English riots, and will publish their findings in October. But we are already starting to get some idea of the solutions they are likely to look at it. Some of them are encouraging, some are definitely not.
On Sunday, IDS told the Sunday Times some of his preferred measures, which are heavily influenced by a 2009 report called Dying to Belong from the CSJ, the think tank he established. The report is thorough and exhaustively researched, and has a comprehensive set of proposals.
It is based on a twin-track method, whereby senior gang members are offered an amnesty to leave the gang and then harrassed by official government bodies if they refuse to do so. If the latter, youth workers turn up at their home, the police go through their entire history to find evidence of any misdemeanour, from unpaid parking fines to a missing TV license, and they are brought in front of the courts at the slightest sign of wrongdoing.
The major problem with this approach (euphemistically called “focused attention”) is obvious: it risks alienating even further the very people it is trying to get back onside. Dying to Report claims this is not true, pointing to evidence of three people in Boston who left gangs after coming under such attention. What the report does not say, is the response of the vast majority who did not decide to defect.
May’s answer, however, is not as well researched, and not especially coherent. Her idea to widen curfew powers to under-16s and whole areas, rather than just individuals, is a blunt tool to solve two complex problems.
If they are meant to prevent riots, area curfews are of limited effectiveness as it can be very difficult to predict where public disorder will break out, as last week showed. If applied once rioting has already begun, it is likely simply to have no effect on large groups of people who can simply face down the police.
If they are meant to tackle the wider problem of gang violence, curfews for under-16s are unlikely to prevent the worst of it, which research shows is committed by older teenagers and adults.
But the big problem with both approaches is that they ignore the most significant part of the government’s agenda: the cuts.
May has claimed that a real terms cut of 20 per cent over four years does not necessarily mean a reduction in frontline officers. But with central security budgets and PFI projects relatively well protected, it is likely most of the impact will be felt in local budgets, which is how police forces pay for bobbies on the beat.
It is possible, as many have suggested, that police forces could become much more efficient, but it is still inevitable that officers will be lost. Even if they are not “frontline” or “visible” cops whom the government has promised to protect, behind the scenes policing such as required by IDS’s “focused attention” model, is bound to suffer.