Sunday 24 March 2013

What 'the hoods' taught me

I was on Start the Week a couple of weeks ago together with Ken Loach, but one of the other panellists - I think the one intended to balance Loach's socialism, with her mildly Thatcherite hair-style  - was a fascinating researcher from the thinktank the Centre for Policy Studies, called Harriet Sergeant.

Harriet is not your average revolutionary.  She is from a deeply Conservative think-tank.  But I've just finished her book about south London gangs, Among the Hoods, and it is explosive and extremely challenging.

It has taken me so long to read partly because it was so fascinating, and so honest.  Loach questioned on air whether the quotes from the gang members were recorded, but they have the ring of truth about them - especially the moment when they meet Harriet in Victoria and are amazed by the buildings.  I've worked in Brixton myself and was astonished how little some people there travel around London - they go by taxi to Heathrow, and to Ghana and back, but often no further than Stockwell in their own city.

Harriet never seems to have quite meant to befriend a gang leader, and he ends up in prison at the end of the book.  But his irrepressible personality, and her own determination to get him a job, drives their relationship on.

It is the kind of book that everyone who has thought a bit about our future as a nation needs to read, partly because of the picture it paints of just how tough it is to be a young black man growing up in inner city Britain - the danger, the temptations, and the sheer intractability of the system that is supposed to be there to help them.

But partly also because of the picture it paints of the target-driven charities, and the hopeless state institutions, that are supposed to help but which manifestly don't.

This is the real challenge of the book, and it fascinated me because of what I wrote in The Human Element about how our institutions have been hollowed out, especially under the previous government with their targets - but the damage has continued since.

Job Centres, youth charities and the welfare system alike get Harriet's lashing, as we see how they trap young people in debt and do almost nothing to lift them out of it - especially when the education system has already failed to teach them to read and write.

For me, these are central issues - way beyond the comparative advantage of state versus private sector.  It is that our institutions exist primarily to meet targets, or to get their grants renewed, and their most desperate clients are - at best - fuel to help them achieve this.

Harriet Sergeant didn't say this, but her book has convinced me that it is so: the real social crisis in the UK is that our welfare systems don't work.  They never did work that well, but now they have been hollowed out - by IT and targets.

That is why they are so expensive.  Because they fail, their workload rises, and so does the demand and the desperation, and they fail over and over again.  It convinces me again that they only way to increase the efficiency of the public sector is not to cut it indiscriminately, but to make it effective.

I agree that has been the objective of the public sector reforms since 1997, but no objective has so backfired.  Being effective means finding professionals capable of making relationships, and giving them the power to act - precisely the opposite of the direction of travel over the past generation.

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