Over the course of the last thirty odd years, I have lived and worked in some of the toughest areas of England. Priests are usually the only ‘professional’ people who do not leave the patch when they finish in the evening. Often, they also live next door to the church building-a building which, in tough places, is a magnet for young people, and children gather to while away the time. In my early years, such youngsters would be responsible for minor vandalism: the odd broken window, some graffiti or broken bottles smashed against graves. As time went on, the behaviour of some young people has worsened: in my last parish in Sheffield, I remember a group systematically demolishing the brick wall around the local school or the torturing to death of an unfortunate hedgehog with a pit bull terrier. Slowly, the crisp packets and pop bottles left after a gathering seemed to be replaced by syringes and condoms and I recall one occasion, after I had remonstrated with some youngsters about breaking church glass, being besieged in my Vicarage as the group went on to throw stone after stone at the house: the funny thing was that the policeman I had called to help out was besieged with me and,as helpless as I was, said ‘what do you feed them round here?’ before leaving. There is no doubt that the actions of some young people are making life a misery for some people who live in the Council estates or in the inner cities of our land-and you really don’t understand how awful it is unless you live (and are trapped) in those places and cannot escape it.
Two recent incidents have brought all this to mind: the case of David Askew, a man with learning difficulties living on a Hattersley estate just outside Manchester, who has seemingly been bullied by local youths for years and the case of Fiona Pilkington and Francecca Hardwick, a mother and daughter who burned themselves to death after reported bullying by a local gang. Imagine the depths of despair to which you need to have sunk to commit suicide in this horrific manner.
Now the question is, as a nation do we really have a significant problem with our young people, or is there something else we should be noticing?
The comedian Dara O’Briain is also a very bright man and an astute commentator on life: in his new book ‘Tickling the English’ he offers this…
If there is one part of English culture which looks truly inexplicable to an Irish person, it is an attitude to your own young. For some reason, you think they’re scum…the public perception of young people is so bad in this country that, if I meet a teenager who isn’t feral, I immediately run to the parent and grab them and go, ‘How do you do it? How?’
He goes on to quote, a length, a Barnado’s survey showing that over half British adults believe that children are beginning to behave like animals and that 4 out of 10 people believe that something needs to be done to protect society from children. MORI research has shown that 57% of stories in the media portray young people in a bad light. An official British Crime survey gives the lie to our perception that overwhelming amounts of crime are committed by the young: only 1 in 8 is. So disturbing is our ability to demonise our children that in October 2008, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child published a report showing concern at the general climate of intolerance and negative public attitudes towards children, especially adolescents, which appear to exist in the UK, including in the media. As I sit here writing this, the headline on my newspaper is: Scale of Youth Crime suppressed until after the election.
We may never know the truth, but what I do know is this: in my present work I go into countless schools and other institutions which educate or deal with young people and children. I find them unfailingly polite and good mannered, and a joy to be around. I have just conducted a Confirmation for ten teenagers of whom any parent would be proud: engaged, intelligent and searching. The difference is that the children of Lincolnshire are, generally speaking, not brought up or educated on a sink estate, and they have every chance and advantage in life to live a good one. Those, minority, of young people who gave me and others grief over 25 years in the urban areas where I worked were/are the symptom of a problem, not its cause: marginalised, deprived, often abused in some way or other, they know that the future means joblessness and failure because they can see this around them in their parents, their brothers and sisters and in the physical decline of the area in which they live. Some, not all, turn to harassment and crime: and they pick on the weak and defenceless who, themselves, are also victims of our deliberate creation and maintenance of an under-class. Whilst the killers of James Bulger are rightly taken to task for their heinous behaviour, we neglect to take to task the social conditions and ills which helped create them. I would also like to bet that a significant majority of members of the BNP are youngsters from poorer areas.
If my newspaper is right, and the youth crime figures are now being deliberately withheld because they are political dynamite it will be interesting to see if party policies at the election address the injustices that lie behind the figures. If we hear nothing, then is comfortable middle England bothered enough to want to do something or will the local Vicar, old lady or vulnerable adult continue to suffer as a result of society’s inequalities?