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Saving moths from the flame

Who are the teenagers spending their evenings under street lights? Are they the "yobs" who fuel John Major's rhetoric or simply kids with nowhere else to go? Wendy Wallace reports and below, tells one mother's. Some of the adults call them "moths", for the way they hang about under street lights. John Major calls them "yobs". Ruth Shand, youth worker, calls them by their names.

In Kingshurst, a pocket of high-rise housing and unemployment set in the midst of comfortable Solihull suburbia, local people were bothered by the youngsters who hung about the windblown shopping mall after school and into the evening. Older residents disliked the graffiti, resented the noise of footballs and raised voices bouncing off the rain-stained concrete, were afraid of walking to the shops when there was a crowd of 10 or 15 young men and women horsing around on the corner, hormones pumping.

In Kingshurst, they seem to have found a compromise. The community centre, from which most of the liveliest young people used to be barred, is now open to local teenagers between 6 and 7 every evening. It's meant to open at 6, but when Ruth Shand parks her car outside the Chinese chippy just after 5pm the lads are round her in a moment, wanting to know if they can come in now. They used to be round her when she left too, sitting on the bonnet of her car to try and stop her going. "They were very possessive," she says, matter of factly. But they're calmer now, they know she'll be back tomorrow.

This is not a youth club. Most of these young people are what Ruth Shand calls "not clubbable". They haven't necessarily got 40p to spend on getting in, they're not particularly interested in table tennis and they have extremely short attention spans.

This facility - a large strip-lit room with two snooker tables, an old cassette player with two huge speakers on which they can play the music of their choice, at top volume, and a few scruffy armchairs - appears to suit them perfectly. If they spot a friend or foe out of the window, they leap back out into the street. Then they come back.

In the five months the room has been open to them, more than 80 young people have dropped in. Many have taken advantage of the adventure weekends and workshops Ruth Shand and her colleagues put on for them. But the kids of particular interest to the workers are the ones who haunt the place, who have made it into a home of sorts.

Funded by GEST money from the Department for Education and Solihull council, this Youth Action project is one of four in the district, targetting 13 to 17-year-olds "at risk of drifting into crime". And indeed most of the regulars are already in various sorts of trouble.

Kevin, 15, is a large lumbering lad with an air of bewilderment about him. Currently excluded from school - after a fight which he says he was only watching - he has already notched up five driving offences. Four resulted in cautions but the fifth landed him in an adult prison on remand, for a week. Kevin's court appearance is pending. He doesn't seem too sure why he is so irresistibly drawn to driving cars. He doesn't seem sure of much, least of all himself. Sitting down to talk for five minutes makes him sweat.

Thirteen-year-old Gavin has also hit trouble at a young age; he is suspended from school and is facing police charges of assault. He comes from a large extended family, well-known, in the Kingshurst area for being tough and clannish. His parents are unemployed.

"We were messing about, and I stabbed a kid with a paper clip. I've been suspended loads of times, for fighting. People make me annoyed. They call me a prick or want to fight me. They give it me all the time. My favourite subject is PE. I'm not that bad at French. But I don't like any of my teachers. All they say is 'keep out of trouble'. They don't like me, or my whole family. They've kicked most of the rest of them out and I think they want me out as well."

Although the Kingshurst project is aimed at teenagers who have brushed with the law or are likely to, none is referred by social services or probation officers. "We could have targeted people who were at risk, say from school attendance records," says Ruth Shand, herself an experienced former secondary teacher. "But I think that stigmatises young people. What I wanted to do was not label. As far as I'm concerned, I'm working with young people who are out on the streets, who feel resentful, angry, shut out. It's about helping to give them the skills so they can say 'I'm not a dead loss. I can still achieve something'."

In Kingshurst the specific problem of nuisance to local residents - including what a Crime Concern report rather quaintly calls "incivility" - appears to have been significantly reduced. The freshly-painted walls of the shopping centre have little new graffiti on them and what there is is modest, more doodle than tag.

Replaced windows have not been re-smashed. And some contacts have been made between young and older people, reducing fear and prejudice on both sides. Inside the centre, the kids even stopped absentmindedly punching holes in the polystyrene ceiling tiles with their billiard cues, when Ruth Shand and fellow youth worker Handel Jarrett pointed out that they had to answer to the committee for any damage caused.

In its own terms, the drop-in centre has been successful. But when the Prime Minister called in September for "a real national effort to build an anti-yob culture", this was not the kind he had in mind. His call for a tougher and more punitive approach to juvenile crime has put pressure on youth workers to prove that money spent and tolerance extended can pay dividends in the form of reduced juvenile crime. And although many including the Commissioner of Police and the probation service but excluding the Home Secretary are convinced it can, it is difficult to prove.

While young people who are off the streets playing snooker cannot be at the same time stealing cars or mugging pensioners, there is nothing to stop them doing it after the club shuts. Occupying young people's time, though worthwhile, can be seen as a displacement technique not dissimilar to closed-circuit video surveillance or anti-climb paint. The bigger challenge for the youth service is to promote the increased confidence and sense of direction which will enable young people at risk of offending to do something constructive instead.

When she has locked up the drop-in centre, Ruth Shand walks around the local streets, looking for the young people who don't come to the community centre, even now. Sitting on a wall in the dark with some teenage girls, her easy manner engages them effortlessly, and she soon has them planning a disco at the centre.

Like John Major, Ruth Shand thinks that people - even in the most difficult circumstances - can take responsibility for their actions. But she believes they need help to arrive at that. "I start from where they are," she says. "I talk to them. Ask what their interests are, what they think they're good at. Many of them have never been successful at anything. But they have a dream and a fantasy and I put some realistic touches to it." She does that in terms of training they might need or experience they could get - "often, nobody has ever found the time to sit down and listen to them before."

The Kingshurst project, like many others, had its budget reduced last year. Youth service spending grew during the 80s but suffered severe cuts in the early 90s. A National Youth Agency survey found that in 1991 more than 60 per cent of local authorities had cut their youth work spending, and a further 12 per cent had frozen it.

Ian Tresadern, project manager of NACRO's youth activities group in Coventry, is bitter about the low level of spending on youth crime prevention. Three years ago, he set up a motorbike project which gave young people the chance to experience the thrill of riding motorbikes, or just to tinker with them in a workshop, without breaking the law. Of more than 350 young people "at risk" who took part in the activities, only two, he says, re-offended. But when start-up grants ran out, the local authority wouldn't take on the project and it closed for lack of funds. "I do feel angry about the lack of resources," he says. "There's no real support from central government. And it's not as if we expected constant hand-outs. We were charging outside groups for the use of the facilities."

Sir Paul Condon, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, stated recently that crime prevention must begin with primary children. PC Dean Morley, one of seven home beat officers based at Rotherhithe police station in Bermondsey, south London, agrees. He is greeted by name by scores of children as he makes his way round his regular four-mile beat, a result of his frequent visits to the two local primaries.

Home beat officer in Bermondsey for the past three years, he comes from Doncaster. "It could be argued that there's not much for kids to do in the area. There's one or two youth clubs but they don't want to walk half a mile - you've got these little segregated estates and the youth are very territorial. The next estate might as well be 15 miles away," he says.

"Children grow up fast here. A 9 or 10-year-old has got to be as streetwise as a 16 or 17-year-old out in the provinces.

"The kids look up to older ones who are in trouble. There's one youth who assaulted an old chap who died. He's now in prison but I do dread the day he comes out because he'll be hero worshipped. The younger kids seem to be a bit against us. You can go into schools and teach kids about anti-bullying. Then you may have to go round to the house and arrest the older brother. It doesn't look good, two or three officers coming through the door in uniform, even if there are no problems. The kids get alienated. It's a sadness. But there's nothing you can do."

Rotherhithe is what the police call a "busy" area, and they're not referring to the traffic which streams incessantly through the borough. When Dean Morley calls in to Pilgrim's Way primary school, the week has yielded its usual crop of incidents. A weekend break-in, intruders in the car park and today a group of youths at a window saying they were going to abduct a child.

Despite the school's location - in the shadow of a ring of tower blocks with a bird's eye view of its low-rise buildings - no one ever admits to seeing anything during the incidents. Local culture is anti-police, and people are afraid of retribution. Headteacher David Boalch finds it wearing.

"We talk a lot in school," he says, "about helping others, not stealing, not making distinctions on grounds of race or colour. We try to educate children not to retaliate. But unless it's backed up at home, who is the child going to believe?" Despite some disillusionment, Mr Boalch has a measure of sympathy with the youths who repeatedly vandalise and rob the school.

"There's boredom on the estate," he says. "And if everyone in society seems to have more than you, and there is nothing in the future to look forward to, and everyone from the Prime Minister downwards is telling you you're terrible, you might as well be terrible. The kids need intervention before they get to that bad point." Last year, a new youth club on the estate was burgled, smashed up and staff working there intimidated by young people involved in gang warfare. "You reach a point," says Mr Boalch, "where it's too late."

While few would dispute that prevention is better than cure, many believe that punishment too has its place. Those at the sharp end of youth crime seem particularly likely to take this view. Jackie (see page 3) is a committed and intelligent parent. Three of her four children are "doing brilliantly " at school and one of the girls, aged 13, wants to be a teacher but David is, at the moment, the kind of young man who makes headlines as a one-person crime wave.

"If he turned up on this doorstep now," says Jackie, "I wouldn't let him in. He'd be looking for something to nick."

Jackie believes her son is beyond the kind of intervention which could have helped him when he was younger. "The only way you'll stand a chance with a kid like David now is in a secure unit," she says. "He's got to be locked away and he needs counselling, with someone stronger-willed than he is. Half these social workers are frightened of him."

Jackie has a stomach ulcer and has shrunk from 13 to 8 stone over the past few years. She's frightened of her son too, as are her younger children. Most of all, she's frightened for him. "I'm wondering all the time what's happening to him," she says. "Am I going to get a phone call saying he's dead out there?" With youth crime accounting for almost half of all crime, and often leaving a destructive legacy for both perpetrators and victims, solutions are sorely needed. Out in the shires Suffolk has been the first to appoint a "county youth co-ordinator" - Jean Connelly, a former probation officer - to tackle cutting crime among the under-21s, and other local authorities are following suit. "It's easy to blame the family, blame the school, blame the television, " she says. "Many of our young people feel they're facing a bleak future, often without support. It's easy to drift into offending if you can't see an alternative. We need to empower young people and give them strategies to get on with their lives."

Ultimately, most young people do just that. The peak age for male offending is 15 to 18 and the great majority, whether they're John Major's "yobs" or Hooray Henrys like the son of a Tory MP who smashed a station clock because he'd missed the train - leave loutish behaviour behind. Those least likely to grow out of crime, statistics show time and time again, are the ones who get locked up for it.

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