The Times

April 28, 2002

Focus: Damning verdict for the savage society

No fathers, no morals, no future: is it any wonder that the four boys acquitted of Damilola Taylor's murder left a trail of fear and chaos in their wake? Richard Woods and David Leppard report on the rotten realities of underclass Britain

Richard Woods and David Leppard
The Times

On lawless estates where families fracture and boys run wild, where education is scorned and crime admired, where sex is casual and fathers absent, the underclass culture in which Damilola Taylor died still lives and thrives.

Though concrete jungles like those of the North Peckham estate in south London may be bulldozed, and the police presence may jump in the wake of public outcry, some things do not change. Even as the chance of justice for Damilola fades, the underclass at the margins of society and its offspring grows. This is how it begins, from generation to generation.

Some time before the summer of 2000 one of the brothers acquitted last week of the murder of Damilola went to stay with a cousin in south London. Boy B, as he is known, bumped into a young girl in the street and they fell into conversation.

“He was really nice to talk to,” she said later, “and easy to get on with.”

Like him, she was no more than 15 years old; both came from troubled family backgrounds.

“I didn’t see him for a while when he moved back to his mum’s,” said the girl, who also cannot be identified for legal reasons. But somewhere the adolescents found time for sex. “I was scared stiff when I got pregnant,” she recalled, “and didn’t tell anyone.”

Besides, the boy had other matters on his mind than the responsibilities of fatherhood. He and his brother already had criminal records for petty offences, and would soon be facing further charges for theft and assault.

If the pregnant girl knew this, it did not deter her. Shortly before she was to give birth, she let Boy B know of her condition, perhaps hoping he might “be there for her”. The adolescent father, however, was unable to be present when his child was born in the spring of 2001: he was on remand in Feltham young offenders’ institution.

When the youngsters did eventually get together, the girl recalled with a naive joy how the boy was “fantastic” with the baby.

“He would change her nappy, bathe her and feed her with the bottle,” she said. “He even knew how to bring her wind up. He took on the responsibility really well.”

The baby is now a year old, but domestic bliss has not lasted long. When Boy B walked free last week he was far from ecstatic at being reunited with his young family, let alone his parental obligations.

“I’m a father now, or at least I think I’m a father,” he said last Friday. “Basically, I had sex with her before I went inside. I don’t know if she’s a ‘ho’ (whore) like, but I was having a long-term relationship with her and I’ve come out now and seen the baby. She looks like me, so she’s my daughter.

“Of course I’m going to be there for my kid now,” said the boy who, during the Damilola trial, was said to have impregnated two other girls: a 12-year-old who had an abortion and another, now 16, who had a miscarriage.

“Other people in Peckham would think I’m not having that child, because I’m still young, but I’m not like that,” he added. Those doubting “other people” seem to include his mother, who said: “I don’t think he’s going to get back with that girl. But he’ll make sure the baby’s all right, he’ll provide for her.”

Provide what? A card at Christmas, toys at birthdays? The joys of prison visiting, perhaps. But not a father’s presence or care.

As he prowled around his mother’s neat house on Friday, he was told his 16-year-old girlfriend had called and wanted to bring the baby over.

“That ain’t my baby,” he replied, according to a Daily Mirror reporter who was in the house. “I got a new girl.” Then he seemed to change his mind. “Yeah, bring her here,” he said, “but I’ll lay her first.”

In the age of feckless males and single mothers, Boy B, whose father left when he was two, is set to perpetuate the cycle of broken families and childhood mothers that typifies the ghetto culture in which Damilola died.

The American sociologist Charles Murray was the first to identify the emergence of the underclass in Britain.

Analysing the margins of society in 1989, he studied the levels of young men dropping out of the labour force, violent crime and births to unmarried mothers.

He predicted the growth of an unsocialised, almost feral group that ignored the norms of civilised behaviour. For his trouble, he was roundly condemned by liberal critics.

A decade later, the year before Damilola bled to death on a dank stairwell in the North Peckham estate, Murray revisited his British study. What he found was shocking.

The percentage of males aged 18-24 not in employment had leapt by more than half, to 31%. Crimes of violence such as sexual offences and robbery had risen above American levels; property crime was twice as high as in the US.

He accepted there were difficulties in comparing statistics, and that people did not fall into neat categories. By no means all unemployed males or single parents, he said, were members of the underclass, but there was a trend. He pinpointed a key factor behind the statistics: the soaring rate of illegitimacy.

“Larger and larger numbers of British children have not been socialised to norms of self-control, consideration for others and the concept that actions have consequences,” he wrote. “One of the leading reasons is that larger and larger numbers of British children are not being raised by two mature, married adults.”

The figures were startling: in 1979 one out of nine children had been born outside marriage, in 1989 one in four, and by 1999 one in two. Divorces were rising, leaving yet more children in single-parent families.

Mainstream society could quietly ignore the problems, he argued, because the underclass was concentrated not in affluent suburbs but in dumping-ground estates. And one of those is in Peckham.

It is there that the mother of Boy B and his brother and fellow acquitted defendant Boy A has lived for many years. Now in her forties, she met their father, who is of Mediterranean origin, in Britain and they married when she was 16. He was a kebab shop assistant, she was a part-time waitress.

They had five children and when Boys A and B were born, 16 years ago, the North Peckham estate was a sprawling, soulless jungle of dimly lit walkways and crumbling council flats.

The family, however, was lucky enough not to live in the heart of the complex. Instead, they resided nearby in a four-bedroom garden flat that was, and is, far from squalid. Though they could never be called affluent, it was not deprivation that made them part of the underclass.

“My kids never wanted for anything,” their mother said. “If they wanted some extra cash they would help my brother-in-law at his burger restaurant or their cousins in their ice-cream vans. They have got manners. They even wash the bath out.

“I tried to bring my kids up the way my parents brought me up because we are Muslims,” she said. “They read the Koran, they fast, they pray, they believe in God.”

But two years after the boys were born, the marriage broke down and the father moved away. He now lives in Dorset. Their mother struggled alone to control her younger sons as they grew up.

To her their waywardness and criminality were little more than pranks. “They did steal,” she admitted. “It’s a phase that young kids go through. I am not saying my sons are little angels. They are just little boys who can do bad things sometimes.”

That phase has led to numerous court appearances by each boy since 2000. Though many of the charges, ranging from driving offences to assault, were dismissed, the boys were notorious on the estate — so much so that people are scared to talk openly about them.

One of the ugliest incidents involved an alleged sexual assault against two 12-year-old girls in November 1999. They had been grabbed in a park, pinned to the ground by a group of boys and assaulted.

It was too serious a case, the prosecution believed, for a lower court and in May 2000 the case went before a judge at the Old Bailey. Despite the gravity of the charges, the judge dismissed the case on the grounds that the young boys would not be capable of understanding the proceedings. The boys remain unconcerned about the incident.

“I gave her a cuddle and felt her arse, and that’s it,” Boy A said last Friday. “For a young lad like me that’s common. She probably thought that it got out of hand, and basically it was her word against mine. On the first day in court, they threw the case out.

“If I had ripped her clothes, they would have had forensic evidence. They had nothing.”

The mother of one of the girls, who had intervened to stop the assault, does not see it quite like that. She said last week she found the girls “kicking and screaming, trying to fight the boys off”. One of the victims was so traumatised she did not go to school for two years; the other moved to Ireland with her mother.

THE third defendant in the trial, Boy C, lived with the brothers because he was homeless at the time. The fourth, Boy D, lived not far away in a modern house, built as part of the £280m regeneration of Peckham that began in 1997. Again, it was not material needs he lacked but a father or any other restraining guide.

He was brought up by his mother, who had a drink problem and five children, each by a different man. She, too, struggled to control her son, as neighbours knew all too well.

“He (Boy D) was always threatening and bullying other children. Him and his friends set fire to cars and bikes,” said a middle-aged woman who declined to be identified.

“They used to hang around here a lot. There were eight to nine of them and they were all as bad as one another. They would congregate outside his house nearly every night. He would shout abuse at my eight-year-old granddaughter and he hit my 10-year-old grandson.”

She could count herself lucky. Boy D was expelled from school for throwing a chair at a teacher; he seemed to have no education after that, say neighbours. He later faced charges of assault, affray and wounding and was sentenced to 12 hours at an attendance centre for assault; the other charges were dropped.

Another neighbour, who also did not wish to be identified, said: “I saw him carrying a knife last year, and I asked him why he needed to carry one. He said ‘self-defence’.”

Violence is so much part of the culture that when rumours spread that Boy D might “turn Queen’s evidence” in the Damilola trial, his family had to move from the area to escape revenge attacks. The police even regarded Boys A and B like adolescent versions-in-the-making of the Krays, the notorious East End gangsters of the 1960s.

As well as the four eventual defendants in the trial, the police arrested seven other youths. They were part of the “crew” that hung around on the estate and were suspected of being involved in the death of Damilola, either as participants or witnesses.

All came from broken families; none had fathers living at home. They were rootless kids adrift in a twilight world. Boy C, as his lawyer admitted, “was never going to win any choral scholarships” and had arrived in Britain as a refugee.

“For the first year he received no education. By 15 he had ended up in a B&B, having been placed there by social services.” And this despite the fact that his family were in Britain. “He had no allocated social worker and was fending for himself. He was allowed to collect £20 every few days.”

When he was charged with Damilola’s murder, he was sent away to secure accommodation that even his lawyer admits was good for him.

“It is perverse, but I have to confess it had many benefits for my client,” said Greg Stewart, who represented the boy. “Not least the fact that he was again receiving full-time education, which he enjoyed, and was being looked after by staff who were caring and professional. Most importantly, he had a routine for the first time.”

A ROUTINE, social parameters, examples to guide them. For many boys in places such as North Peckham these are alien concepts, as illustrated by another youth (unconnected with the Damilola case) who was arrested for street robbery. When he was ordered to attend a community project called Boyhood to Manhood in North Peckham, it opened his eyes to a whole new world.

“I was meant to come here for six weeks, but I’ve stayed for a year. For the first time I met positive black role models,” said Edmond Dule. “I have been able to do core subjects at GCSE, whereas before I had no time for school. I hope to do A-levels now and become a commercial pilot.”

Why could he not do any of that before? Among his underclass peers a life of crime seemed utterly normal. He said simply: “I would never have known that I was bad.”

What will happen to the Damilola boys now? On Friday Boys A and B were staying with an uncle; they said they would leave Peckham but did not know where they would try to rebuild their lives.

Their father, who has a new family, rejected the idea that his absence had contributed to their troubles. “I didn’t run away,” he said. “I was there for their birthdays and all the important times. If I wasn’t there I would send them cards and money. They have had a very nice childhood. I am so proud of my boys.”

Additional reporting: Mark Christy and Ben Gelblum

Copyright 2002, Times Newspapers Ltd.