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Gang Culture in the UK

(Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash)

Gangs are back on the agenda … but what is the real state of gang culture in the UK today?

This article seeks to give a balanced overview of this problem. For more in-depth exploration, please take a look at our face-to-face training on the subject. Our e-learning module on Grooming is also very relevant.

A Gang has become a catch-all word, ranging from “gangs” in a murky underworld, populated by gangland bosses, family-run crime syndicates and mafias who specialise in the trafficking of people, drugs and other forms of high-level organised crime, to a “gang” of teenagers involved in petty crime, selling drugs, stealing phones or even stabbing young people from rival postcodes.

The Home Office cannot define what a gang is. In this white paper, we use the following definition of gang culture in the uk:

  • Street-based young people who see themselves as a group
  • Engages in criminal activity and violence
  • Lays claim over a territory
  • Has an identifying feature
  • Usually in conflict with other gangs

(Source: Definition used by the Centre for Social Justice)

Of course, the UK has a long history of these style of gangs, from the Scuttlers in Manchester in Victorian times to the Teddy Boy gangs of the 1950s.

“Gangs have been around for centuries; they’re a part of youth culture. You’re not going to eradicate them.”, says Gwenton Sloley, a former gang member who now works with young people in the London borough of Hackney. So, it would seem that gangs are here to stay in the UK…

One major obstacle standing in the way of tackling gangs is an extraordinary lack of information.

  • There are official statistics on murder rates and people admitted to hospital with knife wounds, but the gang element does not have to be recorded.
  • A significant proportion of gang-related crime and violence is never reported.
  • Young criminals do not identify themselves as gang members when they appear in court.

Although the available data is patchy, it can be used alongside localised studies, academic research and anecdotal evidence to provide some insight into the extent and makeup of Britain’s gangs.

What is the profile of a gang member?

One study for the Home Office found that up to 6% of 10-19-year-olds belonged to a gang in England and Wales:

  • Aged between 12-25
  • 98% are male
  • Concentrated in large cities
  • In Glasgow and Liverpool, they are “predominantly white.”
  • In Manchester and London, they are “predominantly black.”
  • The majority are truants or have been excluded from school
  • Gang members tend to be engaged in a wide range of criminal activities
  • The highest prevalence of gangs found in areas with high levels of deprivation, unemployment and lone parent families
  • It also saw the nature and composition of the gang have shifted – members are getting younger, the geographical territory is transcending drug territory and violence is increasingly chaotic.

(Source: Centre for Social Justice report “Dying to Belong”)

So, is the problem of gang culture getting worse in the UK?

  • In 2017 Strathclyde Police estimated there were 170 gangs in Glasgow, with 3,500 gang members aged from 11 to 23. The previous year, the Metropolitan Police said there were 171 gangs in London.
  • Gang expert Prof John Pitts estimates some 600 to 700 young people are part of gangs in the London borough of Waltham Forest alone.
  • At least half of the 100 murders of teenagers in London so far this year were gang-related, according to the Metropolitan Police.
  • Officers in Liverpool and Manchester have said in the past that 60% of shootings are linked to gangs.

Generally, though, the risk of becoming a crime victim in Britain today is at a 30-year low. There has been a long-term downward trend in crime, including violent offences, since the mid-1990s. So although we have a seven-year high in knife crime, this is still lower than it was in the mid-nineties.

Heale says the high levels of crime are happening specifically within opposing groups in certain areas of our cities. Gangs and knife crimes are genuine problems, as they contribute to the death of almost four teenagers a day in London. However, only a small minority of young people are involved. For example, in Lambeth, South London, while there are approximately 23,000 young people aged 10-17, in the year 2007-8, only 2.6% of them were involved in any crime.

What about females and gangs?

Executive director Gavin Poole says it is clear that Britain faces a “serious problem”, citing extreme cases of young girls being subjected to “appalling gang initiation ceremonies” and boys taking part in violent attacks to prove themselves.

Official statistics do show, however, that although women are still statistically far less likely to be involved in crime than men, that gap is narrowing. The latest Home Office figures from 2017 reveal that over 160,000 teenage girls or women were arrested. Almost one in three of those arrests were for violent attacks. Over the past decade, this has risen from one in five.

In recent years, girls and young women are even forming breakaway girl-only gangs.

“Increasingly, girls have witnessed the status and power given to men in their gangs and decided they could run their own. Girls form their gangs to be in charge, to create their own identity,” says Dr Funke Baffour, a clinical psychologist.

In what can only be described as the dark side of female empowerment, Dr Baffour compares women’s thirst for ‘making it’ on the streets to women’s desire to climb their way up the career ladder in a corporate boardroom. “For the bulk of these kids, it’s not actually about wanting to violate another human being, it’s about acquiring a reputation for great harm so that you can be safe. The primary driver for most children – boys and girls – in joining gangs, is seeking safety.”

Who is at risk?

Research shows links between vulnerability and being exposed to offending, either as the victim or perpetrator. Looked after children in England are five times more likely to be cautioned or convicted than children who are not looked after, and 37% of children in young offender institutions have a history of being looked after. Children that are missing have an increased risk of becoming involved in or affected by crime (including violence). All of this means that in every area of the country we have vulnerable children who are at risk of being recruited into criminal gangs – “county lines” in some form.

It is vital that we support our young people through therapeutic care to minimise their vulnerability. Grooming tactics are explored thoroughly in our e-learning module.

County Lines

Children are lured into becoming mules with promises of money, drugs, designer clothes, status, protection or perceived friendship or affection. Others get involved to stop someone from carrying out a threat to harm their family.

The Home Office has published updated guidelines highlighting the problems of youngsters being exploited by gangs to run Class A narcotics and money around Britain. The campaign focuses on the ‘county lines’ networks, where criminals use boys and girls as ‘couriers’ to flood small market towns and seaside resorts with heroin and crack cocaine. The guidance says the majority of children recruited by county lines networks are aged 15 or 16. White British children of both sexes are often targeted because gangs believe they are more likely to evade police detection.

  • In response to this growing issue, we have created a new course on county lines – HERE

Social Care Training Solutions are here to support your teams to safeguard your young people and vulnerable adults against being recruited by Gangs in the UK.

You can browse or download our full prospectuses here. Or contact us on to discuss your needs.

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