Darren McGarvey: Evicting families of gang members shows Tories don't understand poverty

The UK Government is choosing to ignore how cuts to policing and youth services have played a role in rising gang violence in London, writes Darren McGarvey
Home Office minister Victoria Atkins said evicting gang members' families would help them understand the consequences of their actionsHome Office minister Victoria Atkins said evicting gang members' families would help them understand the consequences of their actions
Home Office minister Victoria Atkins said evicting gang members' families would help them understand the consequences of their actions

Families of gang members living in council housing should be evicted, according to Home Office minister Victoria Atkins. She recently gave the thumbs up to a roll-out of the pilot scheme currently being trialled in north London. It means whole families in council housing may face eviction if their troublesome sons, daughters or siblings do not curb their criminal behaviour.

Atkins, the privately educated daughter of former Conservative MP and MEP, Sir Robert Atkins, backed the initiative, claiming it would force gang members involved in violent crime to “understand the consequences” of their actions. She told a newspaper last week: “In the most serious cases, with these people who are exploiting young people, making the lives of local residents a misery, putting fear into people’s hearts when they’re picking children up from the school gates, I think absolutely they should understand the consequences of their criminal behaviour.”

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This is the sort of thing I am obligated to get utterly furious about. Not only the policy but the political party that dreamt it up. But I’m having a good day today, so I’m going to attempt to rein in the fury in a genuine attempt to persuade as many people as possible that this idea is, in every conceivable way, extremely unsound. Unlike many of my comrades on the left, I try to take Conservatives on their merits. Even more so since becoming a father, because I now have something to conserve. I make a lot of effort not to conflate the average Tory voter with the average Etonian politician or the average Tory policy and do my best to at least understand the logical trajectory of a Conservative opinion, even if I do not agree with it. I also recognise many people are currently voting Conservative because Labour, under Jeremy Corbyn, has lost much of its centrist appeal.

But every now and then, my tolerance is pushed to its absolute limit. Every now and then, I’ll read or hear of a Conservative policy that makes so little sense to me that I feel I have no choice but to summon my inner left-wing Hulk. So please, let me outline, in a brief way, the problems I have with a policy that would threaten whole families with eviction due to the behaviour of one member of that family.

Firstly, it’s wholly unjust. You cannot hold other people responsible for crimes committed by someone else. It’s an infringement on the most basic human rights, for a start. Secondly, this policy discriminates against people who live in social housing. If gang members happened to live with family in a mortgaged home, this policy would not impact them in any way. Lastly, local authorities have a statutory obligation to provide suitable accommodation to anyone presenting as homeless, meaning a family, once evicted, would simply be added to the lengthening list of people in crisis. This at a time when a social housing shortage, wage stagnation, a precarious labour market and an extremely hostile welfare system are pushing increasing numbers of UK households into poverty and destitution.

This deterrence strategy is part of an initiative that involves police working with councils, probation workers, psychologists and social workers to try to stop people getting involved with gangs. This holistic approach must be acknowledged as positive; gangs become attractive to many young people because they provide safety and security in communities where the threat of violence is acute and constant. Superintendent Nick Davies, the police commander spearheading the scheme in north London, told a newspaper that the power to threaten families with eviction “seems to be a particularly effective strategy in changing the behaviour” of the gang members – which gives me pause for thought. It appears the threat of eviction is a last resort that would only be invoked if the holistic approach failed to produce a behavioural change.

Still, on the surface, this policy looks and feels wrong. But should my reasoning on the issue be guided solely by my initial moral impulse? Like me, many have reacted instinctively, based on an understanding that gang violence is often a symptom of deeper social problems. It looks like an attack, launched by pampered Conservative politicians, on people living in deprived communities, many belonging to ethnic minorities. But let’s not lose sight of some vital context here. Moped robberies, murders, post-code wars and acid attacks are rife in London. In 2018, there were 1,296 stabbings up to the end of April, according to official statistics. In February, more than 250 knives and swords were seized in just one week. For the families of those affected by violent crime, it must be hard to hear people like me arguing that gang violence must be treated as a public health problem and not simply a criminal justice issue.

The government continues to pin the rise in violence on drug-related gang culture and social media, while under-playing the role that cuts to policing and youth services have had. I’d be inclined to grudgingly support this controversial scheme, of threatening families of gang members with eviction, if it had been demonstrated that every other approach had failed. But given the loss of thousands of police officers, it’s hard to view this policy as anything but cosmetic – an attempt to appear tough at a time when services are either being under-resourced or cut completely. As much as I’d like to say I understand the logic of this policy, even if I don’t agree, in truth, this idea can be added to the long list of social policies enacted by the current Conservative government that reveal a deep lack of understanding of the role stress plays in creating the conditions of insecurity that drive a lot of behaviour in deprived communities. In this context, it’s difficult to see how plunging families into residential instability, will achieve anything but more social dysfunction.

Darren McGarvey’s debut book, Poverty Safari, is the winner of the 2018 Orwell Prize for political writing