There have been 20 occasions since 2004 on which gang members have fired guns in the Croxteth and Norris Green areas where Rhys Jones was killed. The gang members start as early as 12. They come from broken, workless homes and start out as couriers or look-outs for the older members. Then they progress up the pecking order, their rising status measured by the viciousness of the crimes they have committed.
Sean Mercer, the youth who killed Rhys Jones, has been stopped by police on an astonishing 80 occasions by the police. He scorned them and their lack of ability to arrest him and other gang members.
It is surely impossible to deny the association between the social breakdown – the unmarried parenting and the worklessness in Norris Green and Croxteth – and the development of these gangs.
In Norris Green, more than half the people are in social housing and the workless rate is 35 per cent – far above the national average. A worrying number of council house and housing association estates have turned into ghettoes of hopelessness, vandalism, crime and fear. A poll by YouGov on behalf of the Centre for Social Justice found that a third of social tenants nationwide feel that where they live is not ‘reasonably safe’. Nearly half won’t say that they trust their neighbours and 40 per cent don’t believe that the local schools provide a good education.
The underclass has grown and become concentrated in many council estates. What are we going to do about it?
Yes, of course we can start by tightening up the weaknesses in the policing, prosecuting and sentencing. These communities have a crisis on their hands and it is offensive that police time is taken up with so much paperwork. It is absurd that the police should have had such knowledge or the wrongdoings of Sean Mercer yet been somehow unable to send him to a corrective institution. The weakness of our justice system – and those who made it so weak – bears a responsibility for the death of Rhys Jones.
So, yes, it would help if Labour finally fulfilled its long-ago promise to be ‘tough on crime’. But we need to go much deeper. One of the major causes of crime is the way many estates have become centres of unemployment and unmarried parenting. There is plenty of evidence that unmarried parenting leads to a greater likelihood of children becoming delinquents. Add that to a concentration of unemployment on a council estate and the result can be extremely toxic.
Council housing has been around for well over a century. Originally it was allocated to the respectable and even prosperous working class. It was a reward and a privilege for people considered worthy of it. It was also for those who had been compulsorily or otherwise moved out of housing areas designated as slums.
But then in 1949, the allocation of council housing began to change. It began to be granted to people on the basis of need rather than worth. In 1977, this way of doing things became compulsory. And so began the downward spiral of Britain’s council estates. Sir Robin Wales, the Mayor of Newham described it like this last year: “If you walk in and say ‘I’m homeless’ you get a greater priority than if you walk in and say ‘I’ve managed to do something for myself but I’m still looking for a council property’”. I could add that if you walk in and say, “I’m homeless and I’ve got a baby” then you jump ahead as if you were playing snakes and ladders.
So the system now makes the life-choice of being unmarried and workless easier to fall into. Not actually attractive, but less obviously awful. Worse still, it makes it almost impossible to get out the trap. Once you have council or social housing and are in receipt of housing benefit and council tax benefit you will find it difficult to discover a job which would bring in much more money after you are obliged to give up these benefits.
Housing benefit is the dark secret of the whole benefits system. People often say the Jobseekers’ Allowance and Income Support are tiny. They say no one would be discouraged from working because they get one of these benefits. Perhaps. But once you add on housing benefit and council tax relief and other so-called ‘passport’ benefits, the maths change substantially. The council estates have become quagmires from which few escape. Would you like to guess how many people move out of council estates each year? It is mere four per cent. Once you are in, it is practically for life. A large minority of people are living in these estates, subsidized by everyone else and living low-quality lives.
Reform is desperately needed. But even after 11 years in power, Labour is still in the position where it is only promising a green paper next year. In other words, it has not thought the unthinkable. It has buried its head in the sand.
What should be done? First, one must surely allow those of retirement age to live out their lives in peace in the council homes they have known for years. But after that, we should no longer be content to let this disastrous social experiment continue as it is. Those of working age should be required to seek work if they get subsidised rents or housing benefit. The tenancies should not be for life but for limited periods – an idea that is being taken on in the Netherlands. Tenants should be given every encouragement to become the owners or partial owners of their properties. Unmarried parents should no longer jump up the housing lists compared to those who have worked and planned for their futures.
Such a programme – allied with a more purposeful justice system – could make a dramatic difference. Some may say the government would need a lot of political courage to do such things. But many of us – especially those in council estates – will need a lot of courage to face the future of increased unemployment, crime and fear that will result if we do nothing.
The above is the original draft of an article which appears in today’s Daily Express.
Thwe full report on housing by the Centre for Social Justice is here.
"Flat rate of subsistence benefit; flat rate of contribution."
The Beveridge Report, 1942.
"A splendid book. It's a devastating critique of the welfare state. A page-turner, yet also extensively sourced. Demonstrates how attempts to achieve good intentions have led to horrible results -- increasing crime and violence, worsened conditions of the very poor, an extraordinary deterioration in the quality and character of British life.
Milton Friedman, Nobel Prize-winner.
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