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The awkward squad

Mary Wakefield goes with Iain Duncan Smith to meet the social entrepreneurs who have devoted their lives to the most vulnerable sections of society

17 December 2005

12:00 AM

17 December 2005

12:00 AM

An excited twitter filled the assembly room of the Eastside Young Leaders Academy (EYCA) in Plaistow, east London. ‘David Cameron’s arrived! He’s in the corridor! He’s nearly here!’ Day three of his leadership, and just the thought of Dave’s presence has the same effect on Tories as Will Young has on teenage girls. Middle-aged charity workers patted their hair, Dave’s female handlers began to herd hacks into ever smaller spaces; across the room our host, Iain Duncan Smith, sat up straighter. A silence, then David Cameron bounced in, his left hand clenched in its trademark fist, his face the usual pink. Bulbs flashed, women clapped, pens scratched. ‘I’m here,’ said Cameron, ‘to announce the creation of a new Social Justice Policy Group, to investigate social breakdown. And I’m delighted,’ he swung an arm out left to indicate Iain, ‘that my old friend and colleague Iain Duncan Smith has agreed to chair the group.’

Everybody cheered. Iain beamed, his transformation complete. Four years ago, as leader, he was uninspiring, a touch defensive. Now, bathed in reflected light from the EYLA’s daffodil-coloured walls, IDS looked relaxed and purposeful. It’s not that the job is anything new — Iain’s own think-tank, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), was set up to help and learn from the same failing parts of society — but it means approval, an official mandate to continue, and the assurance that the leader will listen to his suggestions.

Iain’s new mission became clear to him in 2002 on a visit to the Easterhouse estate in Glasgow. Easterhouse is one of the grisliest, most drug-addled places in Britain, but the horror, for Iain, was redeemed by the resolve of local volunteers. ‘In contrast to some of the public sector schemes that come and go, the leaders of these projects knew the people they helped,’ he said. ‘They themselves had often struggled with — and conquered — the same issues of illiteracy, desertion or addiction.’

Every man needs a ruling passion, said Alexander Pope, and this, since Easterhouse, is Iain’s — not just to bore on about a Conservative social policy, the voluntary sector and little platoons, but actually to hunt down the charities and groups that have set up workable solutions, and help them. The government is reluctant to give money to one-off, local, independent charities, so the CSJ comes to their rescue.

Ray Lewis, the founder of the Eastside Young Leaders Academy, is a textbook example of one of Iain’s social entrepreneurs. A former governor of a young offenders’ institution, Ray grew sick of dealing with unreformable young black criminals and decided to straighten kids out before they ended up inside. Violent young black boys are one of London’s biggest problems, but you couldn’t dream up Ray’s academy from behind a desk in Westminster.

In fact, when I first visited the EYLA, a week or so before Cameron’s visit, it scared me. Thirty or so black boys stood in the same daffodil-coloured assembly room while a bald black man in a tracksuit shouted orders. ‘Turn to the right! Turn to the left! About turn!’ Children in ties and blazers swivelled and stomped in time. No talking allowed without permission, I was told. Kids must walk in straight lines, sit up straight, shoulders back, look everybody in the eye. I knew these were bad boys, boys who attacked teachers, smashed up classrooms, but still. Boot camp, I thought; brainwashing. Then Ray appeared and glared at a tiny boy with sly, sparky eyes and long plaits tight against his head. ‘How did you let your hair get like that? Come here, son. Are you new?’ Tiny nodded, ‘Well, you’ll soon learn to smarten up. Isn’t that right, boys?’

‘Yes, sir!’

After the drill, Ray sent me into a back room with eight kids, for an informal chat. Bit strict, eh? I said, hoping for a deluge of hard-luck stories, beatings. Eight pairs of black eyes looked solemnly at me, with a touch of disapproval. Do you actually like coming here? I asked. ‘Yes, miss,’ said a handsome, straight-backed boy called Teddy. Why? ‘It helps me concentrate, miss. I do my homework now. Everything is easier. I felt angry before I came here, and now I don’t.’ So, what do you want to be when you grow up? ‘A lawyer,’ said Teddy.

Ten minutes later Ray appeared and explained, ‘I know it looks tough, but when they come here, they’re headed straight for prison. We show them how to respect others, give them discipline and drive. We show these boys how to aim for what other people have, to think of themselves as leaders…. I love the boys. They’re like my sons, but I can never let my guard down. I can’t afford to want to be liked.’

A few days later I met Iain at another, different project: the Kids Company, founded and run by a flamboyant Iranian, Camilla Batmanghelidjh. Again, to my shame, I at first felt sceptical. There was Iain in an odd-looking café, surrounded by Indian drapes, talking to a large woman in a turban with enormous dangling earrings. All around her sloped dangerous-looking teenagers, reformed, claimed Camilla, by the power of love. Yeah, right. ‘Meet my favourite lady,’ said Iain, beaming and putting an arm around Camilla. ‘A member of the alliance of welfare entrepreneurs! Or, as I call them, the awkward squad!’ I took a croissant for comfort and listened to Camilla’s story. She went to Sherborne — ‘But I was never like the other girls, I used to paint my shoes pink!’ — trained as a psychotherapist and then, because she wanted to help vulnerable children, she simply took to the street and told them she was offering support and advice. She started out based under a bridge; now, ten years later, there’s a café, a computer room, painting, counselling. Where Ray offers discipline, Camilla’s solution is love. ‘They’re not unredeemable, these kids,’ she said. ‘Their parents are often addicts or prostitutes, they think their lives are worthless and so survive the only way they can. The social services often ignore kids like these because they’re such difficult cases. They’ve got targets to meet, so of course it’s not in their interests.’

Iain nodded sadly. ‘That’s why we can’t expect the state to do everything,’ he said. ‘That’s why the CSJ tries to help. It’s why we find them sponsorship, put them in touch with businesses who can pledge money.’ And the kids, the hard nuts, they can be cracked? I looked around at the hoodies. ‘Oh, yes,’ said Camilla. ‘I haven’t failed with one yet.’

A little later on, a tough-looking black 30-year-old, Anthony, took me for a walk. ‘Before I met Camilla, I was dealing drugs, on crack, I was baaaad,’ he said, and laughed, showing off a gold tooth. ‘I shot a man and was shot myself three times. Then I heard about this woman who helped kids and went to see what was up. It was weird. There was this fat woman sitting on a park bench with this queue of kids in front of her! What she want? I thought. What she getting out of this? But I joined the queue anyway. Now I work here, because if the kids know that someone as bad as me can change, they can hope.’

As I said goodbye to Iain on the street outside the Kids Company, I felt like Scrooge, shown the error of his ways by the spirit of Christmas. I still found it hard to believe that there are, as Iain and his gang claim, hundreds of people with the drive and dedication of Ray and Camilla, but I was hopeful.

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