Saturday, August 13, 2011

Keep the home fires burning

I flew out from wartorn London on Monday to spend a week in Atlanta, Georgia, which as far as I can make out has not been set on fire since Gone with the Wind. It's strange watching riots in your homeland while you are five timezones away. Strange and quite disturbing; you feel so helpless.

My wife reported helicopters circling overhead in Eltham, southeast London, for much of Tuesday night. Apparently, supporters of Millwall and Charlton football clubs had come out to defend the High Street from looters, which could be taken as a heartening sign of unity if there wasn't the slight suspicion that they were looking for a fight.

Eltham is, after all, where Stephen Lawrence was killed in 1993 and while the area is being gentrified by those of us priced out of Greenwich and Blackheath, there remains racial tensions. I walked past a pub on the High St on Saturday where a large group of pissed white louts were shouting "death to the Taleban" at an event to honour a soldier returning from Afghanistan.

(Not that being anti-Taleban is a bad thing, of course, but I fear that some of them would regard anyone with olive skin and non-western clothing as Taleban).

The most depressing thing about the riots as I see it from the other side of the Atlantic is the way in which people have sought to make political capital out of it without trying to look at the real causes. The hard right have gone for the string 'em up and bring-back-conscription policy, while the left have blamed it on cuts and a lack of compassion from the Tories.

Both are wrong. You cannot solve all the problems of deprivation by throwing money at it, nor can you keep the underclass in check through hard discipline and neglect. It is a myth to claim, as some on the Left do, that all people need is encouragement and opportunity and they will soon be shopping in Marks and Spencer and discussing The Hour with the rest of us. But it is also a myth to claim, as some on the Right do, that these people are worthless ratbags who cannot be saved and they would be better off in jail or the Army.

The fact that deprivation is cyclical is depressing and society has failed by allowing it to happen. Damaged people produce damaged children; ill equiped to raise them, inevitably it just means more lives are destroyed.

It is of huge concern that something like an eighth of children leave school with no qualifications and hardly any literacy and numeracy skills, let alone the social skills that will enable them to mix with others and hold down a job. The only interviews these kids are ever given are held under caution in a police cell. Yet how many of them come from backgrounds where education is valued or respected?

They turn to crime as much out of needing something to be good at as for any material reward. I imagine those swept up in the looting last week must have experienced an exhilarating rush of power. It is such a waste that such energy cannot be channelled into self-improvement.

Ultimately, for all the good intentions of the state, there is a bedrock where some people through lack of intelligence, ambition or family history of prosperity are unable and unwilling to be given a leg up. You can create a job for everyone and some will still not want to work. I'm not sure whether there is much we can do for such damaged adults, not if it means we are taking resources away from those who do want to be helped, but we can try to save their children.

Last week, my cricket team played in their fifth annual charity match at Audley End House in northwest Essex. We formed five years ago because a friend of mine wanted to raise money for Kids Company, the charity set up by Camila Batmanghelidjh in South London to support vulnerable children whose parents are unable to care for them properly through what the charity euphemistically calls "their own practical and emotional challenges".

These are the abused children of alcoholics, drug addicts and the violent. No wonder they grow up angry at the world. Many will have been among the rioting hordes last week.

Yet Kids Company tries to save them not with money (not just with money, anyway) but with love and patience. They give them a sanctuary where they can play, learn social skills and gradually, ever so slowly, start to respect themselves, each other and the world. The more work Kids Company does with them, the less chance there is that the cycle of deprivation will roll on in that family.

Kids Company is not state-run, although like other charities it receives government funding (a fairly small grant in the scheme of things of about £4 million a year), but it succeeds because it offers a hand up rather than a hand-out.

Unlike increasing state benefits, the money is targeted at those who can be helped. Unlike raising the education budget, the money goes to those who want to learn. The trick is identifying those who can be saved and getting them away from the deadbeats holding them back.

If money can be found to fund charities like Kids Company - and if the state can resist in meddling by setting them targets and quotas - a few lives can change for the better. It is not the full answer, but it may be as far as we can get. The Left need to acknowledge that not everyone can be saved; the Right need to acknowledge that some should.