England riots: Ministers focus on tackling gangs

Hooded youth during riots in Liverpool
Image caption Iain Duncan Smith says getting youths away from gang culture is key

As the dust settles on a week marred by rioting in England, ministers have turned their focus to tackling gangs.

Interviewed in the Sunday Telegraph, Prime Minister David Cameron said police must adopt a "zero tolerance" approach to street crime.

Meanwhile, the minister jointly heading a gangs taskforce, Iain Duncan Smith, told the Sunday Times youngsters can be "reprogrammed" to do good things.

And the US "supercop" advising the PM said the key is to "control behaviour".

But one former gang member argued that to succeed in drawing youngsters away from gangs, society must start nurturing a forgotten "underclass".

Mr Cameron said there is a danger of people seeking "very complicated" answers to why violence flared in cities including London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool.

'Troubled families'

"People who were nicking televisions were not complaining about the reform of the Education Maintenance Allowance or tuition fees," he says.

"They were nicking televisions because they wanted a television and they weren't prepared to save up and get it like normal people.

"The complicated bit is why are there so many... who are prepared to do this?"

He says the government must intervene in perhaps 100,000 "deeply broken and troubled families", where children have no role models.

Part of the strategy must be a harder line on petty crime, he says, adding: "We haven't talked the language of zero tolerance enough".

Mr Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, said society has for too long tolerated the existence of street gangs "so long as they didn't bother us".

"You have to get the policing in to stop the gangs dominating, and then you have to start stripping out the kids from the gangs so the gangs have no structure left," he said, mooting the creation of boot-camp style academies to reform youngsters.


"Below the age of about 16 you can change them, without any question. You can get people reprogrammed to do good things."

Mr Duncan Smith, who heads the taskforce alongside Home Secretary Theresa May, also advocated "harassing" gang leaders by putting them in court for any simple misdemeanour - such as littering - and persistently checking their TV or driving licences.

Meanwhile, writing in the Mail on Sunday, the government's new adviser on gangs, Bill Bratton, raised the prospect of using civil injunctions - which require a lesser burden of proof than in criminal courts - to hamper gang activity.

Image caption Mr Bratton says dealing with social disorder is the first priority

"For example, they can't congregate at certain times of day or in certain areas. They can't carry mobile phones if it is proved they are being used to further criminal activity," he wrote.

The former Los Angeles and New York police chief agreed that the government must be prepared to intervene to alter families.

"The principal cause of crime is always human behaviour. Our aim, therefore, is to control behaviour to such an extent you change it," he said.

He said the government's first priority must be to "deal with the tide of violence and social disorder".

Starting by dealing with "minor quality-of-life crime", as suggested by the prime minister, can reduce the incidence of serious crime, Mr Bratton said.

'Pulling the rug'

However, he did not like ministers' use of the phrase "zero tolerance".

"It's not achievable. You're not going to eliminate crime or social disorder... but you can reduce it significantly."

Sheldon Thomas, a former gang member who now runs an east London mentoring scheme, said youngsters "that society would prefer... simply did not exist" need help.

Writing for the Independent on Sunday, he said: "If you ask how we became a society where young people think it's OK to rob and loot, I respond how did we get to a society that cares more about shops and businesses than the lives of young people?"

He accused New Labour of "silencing" people through benefits and says current government cuts affecting charities, youth schemes and education "pull the rug away even further".

"David Cameron says this is all necessary for the country. But for the underclass, who were never part of it anyway, the message is clear: If you want to make it in my society, you have to do it yourself. So they do."

He concluded: "We need to show those who have lived off our radar for too long that they can be let in. That trainers and televisions are within their reach, with hard work, and without smashing shops."