‘Decade of austerity has put more young people at risk’, says child protection expert

Hackney Town Hall.

A leading child protection expert has blamed government cuts for the challenging issues facing professionals working to safeguard youngsters in the borough.

Jim Gamble, independent chair of the Safeguarding Children Board for City of London and Hackney, put it to councillors last night that austerity policies saw a “change in climate”.

The former police officer outlined a culture of young people being drawn into gang activity with offers of money and “the gift of friendship”, and underlined the need to understand what makes a person vulnerable, be it age, geography, isolation or alienation.

Gamble said: “If I was a young black boy living here 10 years ago, what you can see is, as austerity kicks in, dysfunctional engagement and violent crime begins to rise, with money coming out of SureStart or the Troubled Families programme.

“The problems we’re dealing with here are more difficult than in other boroughs because they’re multilayered. We have people moving in with lots of money, displacing other people who have been here a long time, which creates a level of resentment.

“We have alienation, gangs looking to criminalise young people who the system then, if we’re not careful, repeat-criminalises. Hackney is not an easy place for our frontline staff to work.

“As young people become drawn into gang affiliation, or become vulnerable through neglect, what we’re seeing is some people expect or accept being treated in inappropriate ways, and that begins to set a course in people’s lives.”

The safeguarding boss went on to underline the need to come to terms with the “mechanism” by which young people are influenced, citing exploitation through social media, exposure to advertising, and “self-celebritising” culture.

Gamble added: “[Social media] is used as a mechanism to control by giving the predator real reach to control the young Hackney person who they send down to Southampton, to livestream what they are doing to ensure compliance.”

Hackney has one of the most serious problems with county lines exploitation in London, with the fifth highest number of referrals (28 in 2018/19) of all the city’s boroughs to the London Mayor’s Rescue and Response County Lines Project.

The borough’s own safeguarding board has seen 64 cases of county line exploitation in the past year, alongside 84 young people going missing from care on 467 occasions; in the same period, 60 went missing from home on 101 occasions.

The children and young people scrutiny committee was told by Gamble last night of the work being done to understand online patterns, not just in cases of child exploitation but of self-harm and suicide, with one indicator identified as a child suddenly beginning to delete all of their social media.

Gamble assured those listening that the strategic partnership under his purview was strong, but pledged to continue learning “critical” lessons, including looking at trauma in a child’s country of origin if they were not born in the UK.

The safeguarding boss said: .”I don’t want to be political about this, but we are conscious of that. I come from Northern Ireland, where we have a history of conflict.

“We have a number of gang-related issues at the minute that we’re keen to look at in a different way. If people come from an environment where violence is normal, it’s easy to default to that.”

Gamble said the recent Ofsted report saying the Town Hall’s children’s services need improvement was a “wake-up call”, and called for the inspection to be used to push for greater collaboration and to more closely measure the impact of neglect.