Will Boris mentoring scheme at last succeed?

A new attempt is being made to improve the slow progress of the London mayor’s programme for guiding black boys away from crime

Contrition would be too generous a word, but at least those in charge of Boris Johnson’s mentoring programme for black boys deemed at risk of drifting into crime are admitting that the scheme itself is off the rails. Jeff Jacobs, the top brass City Hall officer overseeing it has acknowledged that “there’s no hiding” the slow progress towards the mayor’s target of matching 1,000 black male mentors with 1,000 boy mentees since the University of East London was chosen to deliver it following a controversial selection process.

Last autumn Munira Mirza, the mayoral adviser who at that time had just inherited responsibility for the project, told a BBC London investigation that she expected 350 pairings to be functioning by spring of this year – election time, of course. One year on, just 122 pairings are active. What’s gone wrong?

Last week Mirza told the London Assembly’s oversight committee that having UEL as a “bridge” between City Hall and the voluntary sector organisations delivering the pairings on the ground had “slowed things up,” and that the scheme has been “re-designed” to make everything go faster. But the whole saga has been marked by fishiness and inefficiency.

The £1.3m contract was awarded to UEL despite a rival bidder twice scoring higher when assessed by a three-person “decision panel” appointed to make a recommendation to the mayor. This superior candidate was a consortium of black organisations with long experience in mentoring, whose bid was backed by a major children’s charity, Barnardos.

Its rejection was justified on the grounds that it had failed a financial due diligence test, yet the possibility of securing some sort of guarantee from Barnardos was never explored. A sour irony ensued when one of UEL’s partners, whose trustees included two mayoral advisers, went bust just days after the deal was done. Suspicions remain that the black consortium was blocked for political reasons, with figures close to the mayor’s re-election campaign at the time fearing that someone involved with it had connections that might generate an embarrassing news story.

Mayor Johnson talked up the scheme in public several times, once boasting that 2,000 potential volunteers had come forward, though it later emerged that one third of those who’d expressed an interest were women.

A mayoral mentoring programme was first proposed in November 2008, a few months after Boris Johnson became mayor. Entitled Operation Titan, it was among a list of initiatives included in Johnson’s Time For Action programme, which was launched with a fanfare at a community centre in Edmonton. Johnson had come to power promising effective action on serious youth violence, but a senior GLA officer of the time has said that his administration’s commitment “seemed to end the day after the proposals were published,” and members of an advisory group the mayor personally set up described his strategy as a “shambles,” which was “sabotaged” by members of his own administration.

What next, then, for the mentoring scheme? The oversight committee intends to follow progress closely. One of its members, Labour’s Val Shawcross, told Mirza that in her view “disgracefully little has been achieved.” The “re-designed” scheme will see the pairings put together under UEL continue, but a contractor brought in to take over future delivery on the GLA’s behalf.

Thus far, 279 mentors have been trained. Mirza’s latest estimate is that 200 pairings will be active by the end of this year. There remains cross-party support for the programme and few question its potential virtues. Will that £1.3m eventually turn out to be well spent?

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