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Monday, June 09, 2008 

The real Broken Britain.

Another weekend in Broken Britain. Another teenager killed by a another teenager with a knife. Sorry? What's that? There wasn't this weekend? Oh. We'll go with the footballer charged with dangerous driving then. Or the grim milestone of 100 British servicemen dead in Afghanistan. Is there anything on childhood or teenagers this weekend? A dossier for the UN on how grim life is for many children in this country? Nah, depressing and too detailed to be worth bothering our readers with. Where can we make a single campaigning point from out of this? We can't. Let's just ignore it.

That, and it deals with some of those in society that the tabloids pretend don't exist except when to complain about them. Like the lone asylum seeking youths who the government want to attempt to age so that if they're older than they either say they are or think they are they can deport them. The thousands who are imprisoned and then routinely "restrained", involving a sharp punch to the nose or the bending back of a finger, at such rates that it seems to go far beyond the last resort gaining back of control which such techniques are meant to be restricted to. The 82% of those with learning disabilities that are bullied. The 3.8 million in relative poverty, and the 1 million in poor housing.

This is the real Broken Britain, the one that can't be fixed simply through soundbites, the ones which can't be solved either through the throwing about of money, through getting tough, zero tolerance, or any other cure-all solutions. At its heart is one of the most inherent contradictions of modern life: we love our own children and worry about them to such an extent that we are paranoid and concerned beyond reason at strangers, paedophiles and other monsters, either not letting them out to play until they are well beyond the age at which the parents themselves were allowed to do the same, or constantly keeping them under surveillance which would be more at home in 1984. Strangely, when it comes to other people's children, we seem to loathe them. As mentioned, we lock up a far greater proportion than anywhere else in Europe, and government platitudes that this is only 3% of those involved in the criminal justice system and that other countries imprison those with mental health problems or on other welfare concerns are simply not good enough. When they hang around on street corners, quite often because they have nowhere else to go, and amazingly, because that's what young people and teenagers tend to do, we're terrified of them and demand that they move on. Ministers refuse to condemn such indiscriminate "solutions" to this insoluble problem as the Mosquito, which affects not just teenagers but those up into their early twenties. When they drink alcohol in public, a cause for concern but not blind panic, the police confiscate it and move them on, something shortly to be made even easier. We've had those with personality disorders and mental health problems given anti-social behaviour orders, with ridiculous rules which they can't help that break, often leading to imprisonment. In the typical style of this government, they have been both illiberal and often ineffective, with them becoming badges of honour for some while indefensible for others.

The rot and our attitude towards children sets in when they enter the education system. Even away from the struggles of the middle classes to get their offspring into the "good" schools, buying houses in the catchment areas, thinking ahead as far as the family planning stage, as those with younger siblings usually automatically get a place in the same school while everyone else without the purchasing or personal power suffers, the testing regime which begins at 7 with the SATs. Back when I was 11, the SATs then were still just national indicators taken and then mainly used by the schools for setting when you moved onto secondary school. Since then our glorious Labour government has used the results to produce league tables, turning what had been something where there was no stress or pressure involved whatsoever into something where the children taking them do very much feel it and are drilled accordingly. This is then followed by the SATS at 14, then GCSEs, and if they don't decide they've had enough of been prodded and poked, AS levels at 17 and selected A level modules, then the whole A level shebang at 18, although with the diplomas coming in at the start of the next school year, and other qualifications such as GNVQs and NVQs, this will be changed still further. Again, this wouldn't be so potentially pernicious if for but two things. Firstly, the guidelines have been set so rigorously that schools have realised that they only have to teach what will be on the test and absolutely nothing else apart from the absolute basics, removing context almost entirely and with it the joy of learning, and secondly our infamous capacity for cynicism. Rather than celebrating that results keep getting better, we go in for the usual yearly routine of bemoaning the standards that are slipping away. Thing is, they're right to an extent due to the teaching to the test, but the putting down of the next generation just as they've worked their socks off as they've been asked to is little short of looking the proverbial gift horse in the mouth. As some have similarly sagely noted, you don't fatten a pig by weighing it all the time, while the league table system has only been to the benefit of those who have a choice, i.e. the ever complaining middle classes, than to anyone else, and that includes the teachers, students and society as a whole.

Which brings us neatly onto the remaining aspect of the real Broken Britain as alluded to at the beginning: the media itself. Research by MORI in 2004 found that 71% of stories about the young in one week painted them in a negative light, with only 14% positive, with 15% neutral. It also found that in stories about the young they themselves didn't have a voice, with just 8% containing a direct quote, and those were doubtless the positive ones. This kind of attitude towards the young doesn't just affect stories about youth crime, it infects stories that should be positive too. When George Sampson won Britian's Got Talent last week, the Sun used his example as how the youth of today could do anything with their lives and avoid crime, as if that was all they aspired to in the first place, while also only pointing out its thinking towards meritocracy: as long as you breakdance badly, as Sampson can, while having the confidence to appear on national television, you too can reach the dizzy heights of not becoming involved in crime. That Sampson, performing on the street to make money for the trips to the auditions was moved on numerous times by the police, was only worth mentioning in passing. It's in fact really worth thinking about: when is there a positive news story about the young that isn't around exam results time with the papers full of the ubiquitous leaping young ladies showing off their midriffs? Our images of the young aren't of those getting on with it and enjoying their lives, they're of those that have either been killed or have killed themselves. While you could say the same about the media and their attitude to almost everything else, it's especially damaging towards some of the most vulnerable. The recent, somewhat merited obsession with knives doesn't just make children themselves more fearful of their own peer group, it also influences their decision to carry such a weapon themselves. The survey that accompanies the UN dossier found that 12% had carried either a knife or a gun in the last 12 months, not separating them as it perhaps should have done, or defining whether this was a penknife or not. 87.1% had not carried any weapons, while 86.6% had never been in trouble with the police, and considering that most will have a scrape at some point that might lead to a warning or at most a caution, that's hardly an alarming statistic either.

The irony of this dossier being drawn up by the children's commissioners while those that appointed them are those that are directly breaching the UN's rights of a child will doubtless not be lost on those who ultimately review it. We've seen it all over the last few months, responses without thinking and purely being out of panic to what is being brewed in the press. Last week Gordon Brown directly answered a demand in the Sun for all those carrying knives for whatever reason to be prosecuted, although he lowered it to those older than 16 rather than to the age of 10. Considering that the heaviest sanction for carrying a knife without due cause in public is a 4-year prison sentence, we could be shortly seeing another rise in the detention of the young, while hardly anyone seems to see such a move as being anything like an answer to the problem. Then we had Jacqui Smith lauding the most alarming of police innovations in "tackling" anti-social behaviour, reported vividly by the Guardian under the headline "harass a hoodie", with police repeatedly taking photographs and video not just of those that are being targeted for repeated offences, but also their friends as well. They're meant to be given an choice as to whether they can be filmed or not, but unsurprisingly this was never offered to them. The scheme was justified while the reported was there under the pretext of two of those filmed subsequently being seen on a school roof, but as they were also filmed whilst playing football, it's not beyond the realms of thought that they were retrieving one. The problems with such schemes are obvious: they make all those filmed suspicious and hostile towards authority, especially when they feel they're doing nothing wrong; they continue to treat those that have committed offences in the past but who might have modified their behaviour as criminals; and it just moves them on from one place to another, where if the problem hasn't been sorted, it just inflicts it there rather than somewhere else. Again, this isn't just being done in one place, as the stop and search powers which are also being prepared to be expanded are also now being used to film those stopped and searched for weapons, regardless of whether they had committed any crime or not, for as the police state, "evidence and intelligence" purposes. This might be less illiberal than the keeping of the fingerprints and DNA of those who have never been found guilty of any offence, but it certainly seems to also be for the ultimate reason of creating a database with similar sort of material.

I myself am guilty here of exaggerating. I don't think this shows this country as broken in any shape or form, and I think the report which found Britain as the worst place in the industrialised West to grow up was probably on the inflammatory side too. The problems we do have though seem to be over emphasised, while those which are under-reported are far more serious. Those in relative poverty will have the lives shaped, not by what they experience by the time they start getting in trouble with the police, but by the younger years, and the care they receive then from their parents and the standards they receive from the state in health, nursery/pre-school then school itself. Those with learning difficulties and those that are themselves carers when they're not yet old enough to properly care from themselves are fenced off from experiencing what their peers do. The biggest problem of all however is how we ourselves think either about them or for them: when our overwhelming emotion is either to be scared of them or to be scared for them, something has gone wrong. It requires a lot more than the responses we've had so far, and will have in response to this dossier, than to get to the bottom of how to alter it.

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Regarding the Mosquito, the Noise Abatement Act 1960 states:

"Subject to the provisions of this section, a loudspeaker in a street shall not be operated—

a) between the hours of nine in the evening and eight in the following morning, for any purpose"

The provisions grant an exemption for emergency vehicles and ice-cream vans, but oddly enough, not for people to punish local children who may or may not have done anything wrong. Noise from a Mosquito would almost certainly also be actionable as a civil common law nuisance.

The government says it has 'no plans to ban the device', but such a ban would be superfluous anyway as they are already illegal.

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