Young people are at risk of becoming unemployable and turning to crime amid partial school closures and rising joblessness, in a spiral that could lead to social unrest, the crime commissioner for England’s second biggest force has warned.
Covid was “oiling the wheels of violence”, David Jamieson, the police and crime commissioner (PCC) for the West Midlands, said in an interview with the Guardian.
“I think we’ve got a tsunami, which we’re holding back at the moment. If we don’t address the issues of people coming off furlough and then just having nothing they can see as their future, we are in trouble. I think it will eventually result in some sort of social unrest.”
Jamieson added: “We’ve virtually gone now a year that some children have not really experienced schooling. Some may not want to go back to school after this, and that group of people are going to go through life probably unemployable … And that group of people is going to lose it.”
He said that without the stability of school, some young people would turn to crime, including within gangs: “Those children out of school, particularly young boys, are looking for places where they can belong, places they can identify. They identify through music and friends, and they can identify through violence, sadly.”
“Since the schools have closed again, we are seeing more young people on the streets and getting involved in antisocial behaviour. My concern is that the level of crime a minority of those young people are getting involved in has become increasingly serious.”
A report from West Midlands police in July found violence in public places, especially involving under 25s, was increasing week on week and was likely to continue through the summer with young people out of education.
Crime as a whole has fallen over the course of the pandemic, but the National Police Chiefs’ Council estimated that reports of antisocial behaviour were up 12% last year, when excluding breaches of Covid guidelines.
Jamieson also raised concerns that rising unemployment could push more people into crime. Data showed unemployment in the UK reached its highest level for more than four years in the three months to the end of November, while the government’s furlough scheme, due to expire at the end of April, is still subsiding the wages of millions of jobs.
With unemployment in the West Midlands rising by 17,000 between September and November and an estimated 8% of the workforce furloughed, Jamieson said there was a high risk of people – young men particularly – turning to “petty crime, antisocial behaviour and drugs” when facing long periods out of work.
But Desmond Jaddoo, a community activist in Birmingham, said politicians should not be too quick to blame the coronavirus crisis for rising levels of violence in the region.
“Since May last year, we have seen an escalation of violence and it’s far too simplistic to say it’s just because of lockdown, because of the schools closing and youth centres closing. There are more holistic issues surrounding why we have this type of violence,” said Jaddoo. “Covid has exacerbated a pre-existing issue, that’s all it’s done.”
He said intervention was desperately needed to improve neighbourhoods with high crime rates, by tackling poverty and lifting people’s aspirations. “There is a societal issue of mass disaffection; there are many people who don’t believe in the role of government or the role of the police,” he said.
The National Youth Agency, the national body for youth work in England , has found that gang activity and exploitation continue to be rife during lockdown, and that youth services are now working with more young people not previously known to the police or other services to be involved with gangs.
The NYA found an estimated 2 million young people have emerging needs – such as mental health problems or unsafe home environments – triggered or caused by the coronavirus crisis, on top of the 1 million young people with known vulnerabilities before the pandemic.
Iryna Pona, the policy manager at the Children’s Society, said Covid had created a “perfect storm” leaving many young people at risk of criminal exploitation.
“Under lockdown, children have been less visible to professionals who can spot signs they are at risk and get them vital help,” she said. “Criminal groups have adapted their methods since the pandemic began to continue to groom children and young people and take advantage of vulnerabilities like poverty and worries about the future.”
Vicky Foxcroft, the Labour MP for Lewisham, Deptford, chaired the Youth Violence commission last year that found clear links between young people disengaging or being excluded from school, and an increase in the likelihood of them being victims or perpetrators of serious violence.
“Schools are currently doing a fantastic job of providing remote education and reaching out to vulnerable families, but inevitably some pupils will fall through the cracks,” she said.
“It is clear that the pandemic is having a huge impact on our young people and the consequences – both long and short-term – must not be overlooked.”