Almost half a million youngsters belong to teenage gangs that regularly break the law and intimidate their communities. Many take illegal drugs, carry weapons and have been involved in serious violence, as well as vandalising property and frightening passers-by.
A Home Office study of gang culture - the first official report into the phenomenon - paints a bleak picture of the lure of youth gangs, with children as young as 10 becoming members. It calculates that 6 per cent of youngsters between 10 and 19 - equivalent to 480,000 people - are regular members and dispels the romantic image of gangs as groups of teenagers having a bit of harmless fun.
The fear is that some youngsters could graduate to the adult criminal gangs involved in drug-dealing and serious theft found in most major British cities.
Members of teenage gangs were far more likely than other youths to have been expelled or suspended from school, to have friends who have been in trouble with the police and to be regularly drunk.
More than one-third had committed at least one serious offence - including assault, burglary, mugging, stealing a car or selling hard drugs - over the previous year. Nearly two-thirds had committed a criminal offence of some sort and more than a quarter had committed a series of crimes. One in eight had carried a knife, underlining fears over increasing numbers of stabbings on Britain's streets, but only one in 100 had carried a gun. Forty-five per cent had taken an illegal drug, while 11 per cent had used a class A substance such as heroin, crack or cocaine. Four in 10 gang members said they had threatened or frightened other people, 29 per cent had used force or violence, 36 per cent had written graffiti and 31 per cent vandalised property.
The average gang was found to have about 15 members. Similar numbers of girls and boys are involved in gangs, with 14 and 15 being the prime ages for membership. About half were all or mainly male, 40 per cent mixed between the sexes and 10 per cent all or mainly female. Six in 10 were all white, 31 per cent racially mixed, 5 per cent Asian-only and 3 per cent black-only. A third said their group had a name, almost four in 10 had a leader and 15 per cent had rules for members. Almost 90 per cent had a specific place - such as a park, street corner or square - where they gathered.
The Home Office, which prefers the term "delinquent youth group" to "gang", said its report "provides the first robust information on the extent of the problem among young people in England and Wales".
A recent study by Edinburgh University found gang membership was more common in children from less affluent families and, to a lesser degree, among those not living with both parents. It also discovered that youngsters were often prompted to join gangs after they became victims of crime themselves.
One of its authors, Paul Bradshaw, said teenagers mainly joined gangs for their own protection. He said: "They feel safer when walking around, not just from other gangs, but intimidation from officials such as the police." He added: "Young people from deprived neighbourhoods were more likely to say they were members of gangs. There may be less for them to do, but there are also indications that such areas have a long history of gangs, or youth groups, with identifiable names."
Richard Garside, acting director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies think-tank, said: "A serious approach to the problem of youth delinquency and criminality starts with adult society taking responsibility for protecting and nurturing children and young people, rather than demonising and coercing them.
"From worrying about getting a good education and paying off tuition fees, to the anxiety of growing up in families where job and housing security can be ever-present problems, today's children and young people are subject to levels of stress that previous generations did not necessarily face."
A Home Office spokesman said: "The Government has invested significant money in preventing young people from getting involved in crime and anti-social behaviour.
"The Home Office works in partnership with other organisations, including the Youth Justice Board and Department for Education and Skills, to prevent children and young people starting to offend."
Hassan, gang member, 21: 'They treat you like you're the Krays'
"They treat you like you're the Krays," says Hassan quietly, always avoiding eye contact. "A gang means something. You matter if you got a gang, you're important. You look after each other."
Gang life provided Hassan (not his real name) with the drama and status his life otherwise lacked. He was the ringleader of a locally notorious group that ran amok through the mazes of shabby estates in south London. They progressed from vandalism, bullying and petty theft to muggings and knife attacks in the space of four years. They smoked a lot of dope and he got a teenage girl pregnant.
Gang life came to an end for Hassan five years ago, however, when he was placed in a young offenders' institution and tried for murder. He was acquitted. Now 21 and jobless, he lives in his mother's high-rise council flat.
Looking back, does he wish he had never joined the gang? "You don't get it," he says, angrily pacing around her kitchen. "There was nothing else. It was fun. You know, you do some bad stuff, like. But it doesn't mean you're evil."
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