Editorial: The case of Ray Lewis shows you must choose your friends wisely

The allegations against Ray Lewis, appointed by Boris Johnson as one of the deputy mayors of London, are clearly a major embarrassment for the mayor and his party.

It appears that Lewis was barred for a period from being a Church of England priest. He also claims to have been a prison governor. He said he was a magistrate, but it turns out he was only an applicant. So it is hardly surprising that the Conservatives used the excuse of his resignation to abandon the inquiry they initially announced into his case. There was no knowing what such an inquiry might have turned up. So Lewis has had his day as the man to sort out youth policy and knife crime in the capital and Johnson, despite brave protestations that the whole thing was worth a try, has a certain amount of egg on his face.

The episode illustrates something about the Conservatives in relation to the voluntary sector. The Centre for Social Justice, run by the party's former leader Iain Duncan Smith, has often argued that big charities tend to be too close to government and that some of the best potential solutions to social problems come from small, local organisations. This is no doubt the case, but some of the examples championed by the CSJ have favoured approaches that have been found to be less effective by those with extensive professional experience in the areas concerned: abstinence rather than contraception among young people, for example, and cold turkey rather than detoxification programmes for drug users.

Ray Lewis's Eastside Young Leaders Academy is a case in point. There is something about it that many people would find rather odd. It has a strong emphasis on discipline, and its website shows photographs of ranks of embarrassed-looking teenage boys wearing yellow ties as if they were a uniform. David Cameron, taken by Duncan Smith to visit the academy soon after he became leader, made supportive remarks about the organisation, including the slightly bizarre suggestion that Lewis would make a good chief whip for Tory MPs. The bandwagon rolled on, and the academy also won a Guardian charity award at the end of last year. In the eagerness to back an enterprise such as this, which seems to offer a new and simpler way out of depressingly complex social problems, it seems that no one made the basic checks on the background of its apparently charismatic leader. It remains to be seen what will happen to the academy now and whether it will still be able to realise some of the high hopes placed in it.

In the process of drawing up their recent green paper for the voluntary sector, the Conservatives have relied to a significant extent on the work of the CSJ, but have tempered it with political realism and more mainstream thinking. The paper did not play up the CSJ's scepticism about big charities and blended the theme of fostering small voluntary organisations into the general Cameron mantra of empowering citizens to come up with solutions to social problems. A letter on the opposite page suggests that local initiatives of this kind could well be the way forward on knife crime; the case of Ray Lewis illustrates that there is also a potential downside to grass-roots projects and that you have to choose your friends very carefully. The episode has been what you might call a learning experience for all concerned.

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