In my work at Action for Children Scotland, I hear about boys – some as young as eight – getting their “start” by delivering drugs on bikes for men on the scheme who have flashy cars and designer clothes. The boys are paid for what they do – small amounts, but to them it is a fortune. They are being groomed for more serious activity and before they know it, are embroiled in a dangerous world that is hard to escape.
Serious organised crime may seem like the stuff of gangster films, but it affects ordinary people in this country. These people are preyed on by criminals living amongst them; criminals who have made a career from loan sharking, drug dealing and prostitution. And in environments where money and opportunity are scarce, young people are easily seduced by what is perceived to be a glamorous, profitable lifestyle.
This week, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice addressed leaders from Police Scotland, local authorities and the third sector at the Divert Conference, a unique event which explored how we can reduce the probability of people becoming involved in organised crime when they are too young to understand the consequences.
Through Action for Children Scotland I have set up employability programmes for those who leave school with no qualifications, launched projects to reduce levels of youth offending and taken babies into classrooms to tackle bullying. My career has been defined by a belief that people who make a mistake – and sometimes several mistakes – deserve to be given another chance to succeed in life. Scotland has one of the most robust strategies for dealing with serious organised crime in the world, but there has never before been a focus on children and young people. So when I was asked to represent the third sector on the Scottish Government’s Serious Organised Crime Taskforce, I gave myself a clear goal: to prevent vulnerable young people from becoming the next generation of serious criminals.
I set about trying to understand how they became involved, what their motivations were, and how they could be prevented from choosing this lifestyle. Following conversations with colleagues in the police and the social work sector, as well as affected young people, I launched a new Action for Children Scotland service. This service is a first of its kind in Scotland and the UK. Our co-ordinator secures the buy-in of families, many of whom are pro-criminal and have raised their children not to trust the system, whilst our mentor works directly with the young people. Our mentor is in his early twenties and was involved in organised crime himself from the age of 13. He has received support and training from Action for Children Scotland, and is now using his experience to help others. This is vital. The young people we are working with already look up to dangerous criminals – we need to provide them with a credible alternative role model.
The service is already showing positive results. There has been a change in the offending patterns of the young people involved, with police reporting that some have completely turned their backs on criminal activity. We are pleased to be able to offer training opportunities and paid work placements to those who choose to engage, thanks to funding of £500,000 from CashBack for Communities. This money is seized from criminals using the Proceeds of Crime Act and put back into communities, and it feels apt that it is now being used by Action for Children Scotland to help young people build a future away from organised crime. These young people have been indoctrinated from an early age – we need to help them understand that they can have friends without getting into trouble, be safe without being part of a gang and earn money without breaking the law.
Serious organised crime is an issue that is largely hidden from mainstream society, having a disproportionate effect on the most marginalised communities. It is therefore right that the third sector should use its expertise to stop young people ruining their lives. When the Scottish Government invited Action for Children Scotland to sit on its taskforce, it sent a very clear message: disrupting and dismantling serious organised crime isn’t just a job for law enforcers, we all have an important role to play.
• Paul Carberry is director of service development at Action for Children Scotland and chair of the “divert” strategy on the Scottish Government’s Serious Organised Crime Taskforce