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Government was warned prisons could not cope with gangs

By Oliver Wright

Britain's prisons and young offenders' institutions do not have the policies in place to deal with the influx of young gang members who will be locked up in the coming months, according to a damning report given to ministers a year ago.

The joint study by the inspectors of prisons, probation and constabulary was presented to the Coalition Government in June last year. But yesterday neither the Home Office nor the Ministry of Justice could say how many of the report's 12 recommendations had been acted upon. Government sources confirmed it would now be looked at again "in detail" in the light of last week's rioting.

The report warns that gang culture in Britain has not been tackled in a joined up way by government agencies and singled out the prison service for not taking the issue seriously enough.

It highlighted one young offenders' institution that refused to identify gang affiliation because it "didn't want to create a monster that doesn't exist" and criticised others for being aware of the problem but dealing with it solely as a security issue.

The findings will concern ministers because of fears that gang associations could be strengthened as a result of the significant number of prison sentences which will be handed down by the courts in the coming months.

"Responses from all three inspected services were patchy and at times counter-productive," the report concluded. "Prisons often had the least well-developed approach. One young offenders' institution refused to identify gang affiliation in the belief that it did not exist.

"Others, which were well aware of the problem, dealt with it solely as a security issue within the prison, developing mechanisms to 'keep apart' known gangs. This approach risked reinforcing and even extending gang identity, and replicating the 'postcode boundaries' characteristic of gangs in the community."

One manager told the report's authors: "There are few life belts [for young people] outside and even less in here."

The inspectors also spoke to young people in prison who had been members of gangs. One told them: "I got stabbed by a member of a rival gang when I was out. When I came [here] people were bragging about it. The person who did it is here.

"I don't go to education much as I was concerned about all the threats I was getting. My youth worker knows there are big gang issues here. I don't understand why they sent me here.... They didn't do everything in my best interests."

The report singled out the police for praise at tackling gang violence but said they tended to focus on the criminal aspect of gangs rather than the underlying causes of them. "Their policies tended to focus on enforcement – 'catch and convict'," it said.

"This work was not in general located within an overall safeguarding agenda, recognising that young people who are a risk to others are also at considerable risk themselves."

The report called for a specific strategy for tackling gang culture among under-18s to be drawn up. This should include a dedicated co-ordinator in every prison and young offenders' institute to deal with gang-related issues.

Yesterday the Home Office said it had already announced more than £18m of funding to tackle knife, gun and gang crime. This includes nearly £4m to target gang activity and serious youth violence in the geographical areas where knife crime is high. It also includes £4m for local voluntary and community organisations to target young people who are vulnerable to becoming gang members.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: "We have enhanced our offending behaviour programmes in prisons to address issues of gang violence and knife crime. We are also piloting a new one-to-one intervention for those whose violence and offending is linked to their sense of identity and affiliation."

Measures that the Government may take

Gang injunctions

Similar to Asbos, these can be used by the courts to prevent gang members from visiting certain areas, being out in public with a dog or communicating with named individuals.

Will it work? Much will depend on how the courts interpret and use the new powers. Injunctions have the advantage that they need only a civil burden of proof. But judges may be wary of restricting individuals' civil liberties.

Will it happen? Yes. Such injunctions are already available for adults and David Cameron has now announced that they will be extended to teenagers as well.

Zero tolerance approach to gang leaders

This will involve using not just the police but all public bodies to harass known gang leaders. It could include sending the DVLA round to check on vehicle licences and the TV licensing authorities to check on TV licences.

Will it work? Such measures have proved effective in other countries – particularly in relation to tough policing.

Will it happen? In some places, yes, but all public sector bodies are under financial pressure and they may not have the resources to make it work effectively.

Sweeping the streets of children out late a night

Iain Duncan Smith proposes rounding up children who are out and potentially involved in gangs and calling their parents to pick them up.

Will it work? In some cases, perhaps – but much depends on the parents. If they are unaware of what their children are up to, it could have an effect, but many will already know and have turned a blind eye.

Will it happen? It would be very resource-intensive, involving not just police but social workers as well. It might happen sporadically.

New academies for children excluded from mainstream schools

The Education Secretary is in talks with Lord Harris, the Carpetright boss who sponsors academies in London, over this proposal.

Will it work? Hard to say. It could be very effective, bringing together professionals with the skills to turn around the most troubled teenagers. But it could just create new "sink schools" where those most likely to get involved in gangs get to know each other better.

Will it happen? It needs money, but new academies are being rolled out anyway and Lord Harris has been prepared to spend significant amounts on issues that he cares about.

Evicting the families of convicted rioters from council houses

A power local authorities already have. The Government is urging them to use it.

Will it work? Local authorities are still obliged to house families with children, so it would most likely just result in difficult families being housed elsewhere.

Will it happen? It will certainly happen in a piecemeal way and the Government may change the law to allow the eviction of those who cause problems outside a set geographical area.

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