Police had to be called to a potentially inflammatory incident on London Road yesterday afternoon, when members of a youth work gang organised by Croydon Central Conservative MP Gavin Barwell were accused of racially abusing a local resident and threatening to stab him.
The incident occurred close to Lidl at West Croydon, near the scene of one of Croydon’s more notorious, recent knife-crime murders.
Eye-witnesses say that yesterday’s incident was attended by several police cars and officers. After searching a group of youths involved with the Barwell-organised Change: Croydon project, no weapons were found and no arrests were made.
Last night, Barwell claimed that he had placated the “gentleman from the mosque” after a long conversation.
At the time of publication of this report, both Barwell and one of the other leaders of the Change: Croydon project, Selsdon Tory councillor Sara Bashford, had failed to reply to Inside Croydon’s questions about the incident and their organisation.
Earlier yesterday, Barwell had worked hard on the hype around his latest scheme, happily doing photo calls as well as being interviewed by local television and reporters from national newspapers, most of whom had left before the racial abuse incident occurred.
He has been somewhat less frank and forthcoming, though, about the project’s funding or how it is being organised, beyond denying that it is a front for the local Conservative party. Barwell maintains that Change: Croydon is “apolitical”.
This is despite the project’s website stating clearly that it is organised by “Gavin Barwell MP”; despite the project being run from Barwell’s state-funded constituency office; that address has only been used recently, because the scheme’s original address had been 36 Brighton Road, the Croydon Conservatives’ HQ; it was despite applicants receiving emails from Barwell’s parliamentary email account; despite two state-funded parliamentary assistants, including Bashford, being prominent in yesterday’s activities; and all this was “apolitical” despite a well-known local Conservative party cheerleader also being among the few adults present to supervise the work gang.
Barwell, the man who believes that a loaf of bread costs just nine bob, appears to be having more problems with numbers this week.
At a public event on Friday, Barwell had claimed that 140 young people were to attend Saturday’s work gang. By yesterday, his public pronouncements had been scaled back to say “100+”.
But eye-witness and photographic evidence suggests fewer than 50 youngsters showed up, all on the offer of a free T-shirt. The group’s own Facebook page for the event had fewer than 30 confirmed attendees, from a total of just 143 invitees. Actual figures may be difficult to define, unless the organisers conducted some form of registration process – none was seen to be done.
The event page on Facebook, which is believed to be run by a local Tory party activist, even made the extravagant promise that, “The MP for the area is also offering to write references for people who take part, great for when you look for jobs”.
Before the event, applicants commented on a lack of detail and information about the planned work gang. Children as young as 11 were among those to respond to Barwell’s recruitment drive, but there was little, or no, information to their parents about any Criminal Record Bureau checks on the adults co-ordinating the activities.
People aged over 21 years old who enquired about helping were politely refused, on the grounds that the only adults involved in the activities would be parents, guardians or teachers. Or Tory councillors and local Conservative party activists, and any pliant media who had received Barwell’s press invite.
Some adults did attend Barwell’s press photo-op on London Road, including the Croydon North Labour MP, Malcolm Wicks.
Yet even with the smaller than predicted turn-out, eye-witnesses suggest that the day’s activities were poorly organised and ill-equipped.
While the charity group UnderCroydon oversaw the painting of hoardings along the old Croydon General Hospital site, there were no overalls for the youngsters (organisers say that they had been advised to wear “old clothes”), there too few paint brushes to go round, and those clearing litter on the old hospital site had to make do with “half” a pair of industrial gloves each, wearing a thin surgical glove on the other hand as protection against any health hazards such as broken glass, syringes or needles that they might have the misfortune to encounter.
Such work in the past might have been expected normally to be conducted under strict conditions by professional council employees and contractors, but some degree of the run-down nature of the long-abandoned site could be ascribed to council spending cuts imposed by Bashford’s Town Hall administration, as a result of funding cuts from Barwell’s ConDem government.
The lack of available, appropriate equipment for yesterday’s young volunteers, and the absence of adequate supervision and tasks, meant that some youngsters began to hang around aimlessly on the opposite side of the road from the work site.
Some wandered off, others became bored, and it was then that a resident, wearing Arabic clothing, was subjected to abuse from some in the group about his attire. Threats were made against him, with some youths aggressively making stabbing gestures towards him.
When the man called the police, one of the adult helpers with the work gang, wearing a hi-vis jacket, was seen to remonstrate with him, complaining that he had reported the threat of a serious crime.
Croydon police today confirmed that an incident took place on London Road early yesterday afternoon. No arrests were made.
Change: Croydon says that it wants to meet once a month, and on its to-do list is to put youngsters in touch with some of the borough’s elderly residents, to provide regular meetings or to do shopping trips.
One local councillor whose ward borders the area where Change: Croydon worked yesterday, is worried by such a prospect. “It may be with the best of intentions,” the councillor told Inside Croydon, “but without proper and careful checks and supervision, that sort of work could turn out to offer muggers easy access to vulnerable old people’s homes.
“Has anyone really thought this all through properly? It does not seem so. It is irresponsible if they have not.”
Yesterday, Inside Croydon sent to public servants Barwell and Bashford (who receives up to £70,000 a year in council allowances and a state-funded salary as a parliamentary assistant) a set of questions about Change: Croydon. These included:
- Did you make any requirement on participants that they should attend the event not carrying knives or other weapons?
- What provision was made for CRB checks on the group supervisors?
- What notification and information was given to the parents of any minors participating in the scheme?
- How do you justify organising an event which requires a police squad car to attend to conduct a search?
- How do you respond to the charge that some of your group racially abused a local resident at London Road?
- Please explain how this scheme is being funded.
Neither Barwell nor Bashford replied to these questions.
If Barwell and Bashford and their eager Tory activist helper are to be believed from their public statements elsewhere, the entire Change: Croydon project is supposed to be organised by local young people, rather than adults. Yesterday, Barwell was telling some that if successful, he hoped to roll the scheme out across other boroughs.
The scheme’s brief and information-lite literature in any case suggests that it is all based on a false premise, blaming “the media” for the “feral youth” tag which hard-working, respectful and blameless youngsters rightly resent.
What Barwell appears to have overlooked (conveniently) is that the “feral youth” description was widely used by Tory politicians, somewhat like himself, who rushed into television and radio studios across the country last August to condemn the rioting and looting, seeking to place the blame on particular sections of society.
Yesterday’s incident serves to illustrate that, well-intentioned as Barwell’s latest Big Society exercise may be – and that’s only if you accept that the Conservative MP’s motivation is entirely altruistic – it cannot replace the established youth services infrastructure that his former colleagues in control at Croydon Town Hall have managed to strip away.
Indeed, without those previous structures in place and the help of experienced, CRB-checked professional youth workers, a potentially tragic incident might have occurred yesterday.
- Inside Croydon: brought to you from the heart of the borough, free of charge, an independent voice standing for freedom of speech for the people of Croydon
- Croydon’s Gavin Barwell: our champion of democracy (insidecroydon.com)
- MP Gavin Barwell, statistics and a convenient oversight (insidecroydon.com)
- Use your loaf, Gav: Barwell’s “Let Them Eat Cake” moment (insidecroydon.com)
- Croydon’s a bit rubbish III: Big Brother’s watching (not) (insidecroydon.com)