A piece in today’s Times:
The toll from knife crime and gang violence continues its remorseless rise. At the weekend, a 16-year-old boy died in Coventry from stab wounds and a man in his twenties was fatally stabbed in north London.
Last week, a police officer put her helmet above the parapet on this issue. Jackie Sebire, assistant chief constable for Bedfordshire who leads on serious violence for the National Police Chiefs’ Council, said some young people who lacked the “protective factor” of a father figure looked up to drug dealers and gangsters instead.
“We don’t talk enough” about this, she said, because it is “too easy” to blame police cuts, social media and drugs instead.
She’s right on both counts. Of course, many factors contribute to crime; its causes are complex, and it would be wrong to blame it on one issue alone. And many lone parents do a heroic job in bringing up well-adjusted and law-abiding children.
Nevertheless, studies have shown time and again that the children most prone to crime, along with many other disorders, are fatherless boys.
Deprived of the self-affirmation or affection they need from their absent fathers, such boys may turn to gangs to fill the gap. A report by the Children’s Commissioner last year estimated that 27,000 kids in England aged between ten and 15 considered themselves to be in a gang.
This pattern includes white and black boys. However, although only 3 per cent of the population is black, 21 per cent of knife crime is committed by black males while 19 per cent of those killed are black too.
Some community leaders, horrified by this black-on-black violence, have bravely spoken out against the prevailing view that it is caused by poverty or racism.
Sheldon Thomas, a former gang member and founder of Gangsline, which provides support to young people at risk of gangs, says that among the biggest problems when tackling this are “bad parenting, absent fathers and bad male role models”. Tony Sewell, a former teacher, agrees that, with about half of black children growing up without a dad, the root cause of knife crime is absent fathers.
Yet at police and government level, this is all too frequently ignored. Partly this is because such comments are reflexively denounced as racist. The broader issue, however, is the unchallengeable orthodoxy of “lifestyle choice”.
For years, identifying lone parenthood as problematic in any way has led to claims of authoritarianism, absence of compassion and stigmatising the vulnerable. This dogma, promoted under the Blair/Brown Labour governments, has been passively accepted by successive Tory administrations.
One consequence has been the rise of cohabitation, which is three times more likely than a marriage to break down. That in turn has led to an increase in fatherlessness and the problems for children that it entails. These include depression, self-harm, drug or alcohol abuse — and boys in particular acting out their rage and grief in crime.
Nine years ago the charity Addaction, which deals with drug and alcohol problems among young people, warned of an epidemic of “father-hunger”. It said this was creating a social time bomb of sub-conscious anger and called for it to be treated as a public health issue.
Yet research showing the devastating impact of family fragmentation has been ignored for decades.
Back in 1965, the American politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan issued his famous warning that “a community that allows a large number of men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any set of rational expectations about the future — that community asks for and gets chaos”.
We have watched this chaos accelerate over the succeeding decades as the intellectual, legal and political establishment doubled down on the doctrine that no type of family was more or less desirable than any other.
At best, politicians paid lip service to protecting traditional values. In 2014, the Cameron government introduced a “family test” against which departments were supposed to assess whether policies would help keep families together. Not surprisingly, it was ignored. For all the signalling was pointing the other way. Ministers remained resolutely non-judgmental about family types.
Yet most of the public don’t seem to share this laissez-faire fixation of the political and chattering classes.
Surveys by the Centre for Social Justice have found that 75 per cent of British adults think more should be done to prevent families from breaking up, 82 per cent think it’s important for children to live with both parents, and 75 per cent think there should be a specific tax allowance for low- and middle-income married couples.
Such attitudes are standard among the “red wall” working-class voters who switched from Labour to Tory at the last election. Yet the prime minister who won them round is hardly a model of stable married life. Unless government acknowledges the role played by family upbringing in crime and develops appropriate policies, though, its hardline law and order stance will be empty words.
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