Thursday, August 23, 2007 

Tory hell and failing to understand youth crime.

Whichever way you look at it, the Conservatives are having hell of a week. Dear old Dave returns from holiday on Monday, finds himself 10 points behind the polls, a Labour lead not seen since prior to the Iraq war, and quite understandably, panics. Cue a quick re-emphasis on one of the few areas where the Tories, much to the chagrin of Labour, had made some headway on: the NHS. Promising a "bare knuckle fight" over hospital closures, the Tories launch a list of what they claim is either going to be shut down, or at least reconstituted in some way. They might have expected that some of the hospital trusts would reply that their claims were nonsense; they didn't expect that one of their own MPs would, who was quickly brought in for some Cameroonian re-education in not making the leader look like an idiot.

Clearly thinking they were on to far more of a winner with the tabloid outrage over Chindamo's successful appeal against deportation, Team Cameron comes out and blames the Human Rights Act, demands that it be repealed and that common sense must prevail, hence we must have a "British" Bill or Rights. 24 hours later they have egg on their face again, as it turns out it was an EU directive and not the "hated" act itself which was to blame, but Cameron goes on demanding it must go nevertheless, despite numerous bloggers pointing out the HRA is as much a legacy of the Conservative party and Britain as it is anything to do with Europe, let alone the EU.

Finally then, Cameron makes a speech on the other pressing issue of the week, youth crime, yob culture, anti-social behaviour, whatever you want to call it. It's a little known fact that New Labour invented anti-social behaviour: before Blair came to power and started warbling on about it, little attention had been paid towards it. All that changed as the media latched onto the idea, and soon those unlucky enough to be young, dumb and bored while standing around on street corners became the enemy within. All this remember against a background where the chance of becoming a victim of crime is at the lowest point in a generation, when attacks involving knives peaked in 1995, but where the fear of it rather than the actuality has become ever present. Along with the fear of terrorism, Labour used this as a potent weapon to trim civil liberties down to size, introducing ASBOs, creating 3,000 new criminal offences, and filling the prisons to breaking point.

How then does the Tory party possibly react to some of the most draconian crime and punishment policies seen in decades? First, Cameron attempted to "hug a hoodie", as his speech on showing children more love will forever more be known. While it certainly had some merits, everyone just remembers the soundbite and not what he actually said. This time round it would all be different.

And so it proved. The motto of the day was "common sense", a phrase he used 3 times during the speech. Common sense, unfortunately, is subjective: according to Cameron, it's common sense to hit teenagers where it hurts, which doesn't mean that you punch hormonal youngsters in the region of their developing sexual organs, but that you give courts the power to delay them obtaining a driver's license. His examples for this perhaps weren't the best he could have come up with, as he suggested that a youngster caught buying alcohol twice could have it delayed, which seems like a recipe for embittering and further alienating those caught. In any case, most of the evidence suggests that few 15-year-olds are buying drink, rather getting others to buy it or stealing it from their parents. How many of those most likely to be the source of anti-social behaviour are even in a position to learn to drive and have a vehicle once they turn 17? Learning to drive and getting a car young tends to be a middle-class pursuit, especially due to the costs involved.

Cameron's other main criminal justice proposal was to give magistrates greater power over sentencing, extending the length they can hand down to 12 months, as well as scrapping the early release scheme. Tabloid pleasing gestures, but ones that will put further pressure on the prison system which is already bursting at the seams. The early release scheme has actually done nothing to bring down the population, with it hitting 80,000 again, and scrapping it would only make things worse. Cameron doesn't say whether he's going to build more prisons, but to keep his promise he would have to.

Not that little things like that get in the way of Cameron's rhetoric. He says that violent crime has doubled over the last ten years: the British Crime Survey (PDF) says it has fallen over 41% since 1995, and that 49% of violent incidents reported to the survey do not involve any injury, while the police figures over the year showed no statistical difference. He quotes the Centre for Crime and Justice Study figures on knife crime which the Home Office disputed, and which the centre itself still hasn't put online (nor have they replied to my email) (Update: Richard Garside writes to the Grauniad saying the review is based on the best information the HO has available and that the report will be released next month). He mentions New York as an example of how crime can be tackled, through zero tolerance: when the Sun raised that earlier in the year, I pointed out New York is in fact more dangerous than the whole of Britain combined:

A quick look at the crime statistics, especially the number of murders, shows there were 889 in New York in 2004. By comparison, London had 221. Even taking into account the population difference, with New York having 19 million and London having around 13 million, that's a huge difference. The 889 figure is in fact higher than the number for the whole of Britain in 2004 - the British Crime Survey reporting there were 820.

Much of Cameron's speech rests on familiar arguments, such as cutting down on police red-tape and paperwork and even on the statistic collecting mentioned by Peter Fahy: perhaps because the statistics tell the story that things aren't as bad as either the media or politicians are making out. This isn't to suggest that they're worthless suggestions, as sometimes the most common response does hold a well-known truth, but why should we expect the Tories would be any better than Labour at sorting it out?

Finally, he rounds on the social aspect, bringing up the old new proposals on tax benefits for getting married, designed to soak the middle classes, attacking single mums by saying it's work rather than benefits that's the best path, as if they didn't know, and lastly lauding all those independent organisations that are really making a difference. The Labour response? To accuse them of lurching to the right, which is just about as pot and kettle as you can get, then promoting and extending the ABC behaviour contracts program, which it has to be said is a better suggestion than increasing sentencing.

Unsurprisingly, there's little to no mention in any of this of the actual reasons behind either anti-social behaviour, youth crime, or even gang culture. We've forgotten the causes. Anyone who saw the feature on Newsnight on the "Niets", the 16-24 year-olds not in education, training or work saw the desperation, alienation, humiliation and pessimism that came from their helplessness as a result of their educational failures, family background and endemic poverty that had blighted their lives. They didn't want to be on benefits, they just didn't see any way off of them. Tackling this is just as important as deciding what the latest punishment has to be. Iain Duncan Smith came close to realising this in his report but relied upon the same old solutions which have failed before. It's come to something when it's a man in his 60s, Ming Campbell, who's come the closest to actually getting it.

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Monday, August 20, 2007 

Anarchy in the UK?

How then was your weekend? Did you go anywhere, or just stay in and reminisce on how your life's slowly slipping away while watching box sets of the X-Files like I did? If you went out, was anything unusual, out of place or just seem different? Was there more vomit than usual in the gutter, had the police been strung up from the nearest lamppost, were gangs of marauding youngsters engaged in bloody battles for survival and who had control of the conch? Or was everything pretty much as well, normal?

For satire and parody to work best, there has to be an incredibly fine line between the truth and the embellishment of it. Sometimes, even the best of us slip into self-parody, often without realising it. Does this occur because we're dubious of our own pretensions and doubtful about what it is we're talking about? Or is it completely subconscious, happening for reasons beyond our own control that we might not recognise for a time to come?

I ask all of this because of today's Sun front page, which claims that Britain is now a country under siege, anarchy finally emerging in the UK, as yobs rule the streets and knife crime soars. The Mirror also joins in, with its own survey which finds that 42% don't feel safe in the streets of their neighbourhood at night. Is it true? Has the inevitable really happened?

Rather, Britain seems to have had a pretty typical weekend. The Sun bases its anarchy claim on the fact that a police station was besieged by a mob, that a man and a teenage boy were murdered in separate incidents, and that paramedics were attacked while providing aid to a man and a boy. Actually, the Sun didn't put it anywhere near as calmly as that. Here, dear reader, is a trip in to the world of Sun journalism, which even by its standards seems to have descended into the realms of unreasonable hysteria or even self-parody:

BRITAIN is on the brink of ANARCHY after a weekend of yob violence, campaigners said last night.

As figures revealed knife crime had DOUBLED in two years, a string of incidents left law-abiding citizens living in terror.

A mob BESIEGED a police station.

A man and a teenage boy were MURDERED in separate incidents and paramedics were ATTACKED as they tended a father and son.

In one county, 999 callers were told there were only THREE police on duty in a town of 22,000 people.

If we first consider the murders from a statistical basis, 2 in a weekend is actually lower than the average. The official police figures recorded 755 homicides last year. Do the math: that's 14 a week and 2 every day, which when you consider there's a population of around 60 million is low, and is by the standards of most other countries.

The knife crime statistics, produced by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies do on the face of it look rather shocking. The figures both Sun and Guardian articles refer to aren't available online yet, so I can't see how they were reached (I've emailed them asking for a copy), but is it really possible there are 175 robberies every day involving a knife, meaning that the number of muggings involving a blade have doubled from 25,500 to 64,000 within 2 years? According to the British Crime Survey
(PDF), the risk of being a victim of violent crime is 3.6%, although this rises to 13.8% if you're male and between the age of 16 and 24. The police recorded robbery statistics increased by three percent over the last year, but this was still 16% down on the last real peak in robbery which was in 2001/02. The Mirror article also dabbles in suggesting its YouGuv poll says something it doesn't: the opening paragraph says 42% are too scared to leave their homes at night, but the poll only suggests 42% don't feel safe in their neighbourhood at night, not that they don't leave their house because of it. How many people honestly do feel safe walking around anywhere on their own at night? I sure I'm not alone in suggesting it makes me apprehensive at the very least.

Naturally, spouting statistics does nothing to bring back those who have died or others who have had their mobile phones or mp3 players unceremoniously stolen, and it's certainly no match to such articles which attempt to set out what some do indeed see as the reality on the streets. The question has to be though on just how much influence such constant scaremongering, both in the press and on the TV has on the public mood and perception of how safe they feel and how safe their town or local area is.

Perhaps it just happens to be a coincidence that this latest crisis of lawlessness has apparently happened during the silly season, where over the weekend news was increasingly difficult to come by, what with the Heathrow protesters deciding not to storm the runways after all, after the press informing everyone they were going to be leaving hoax suspect packages everywhere. As the old maxim goes, no news is a great excuse to make it up. This isn't to deny that these are indeed genuine fears felt by a large number of people, especially in the inner cities, but is this really anywhere near anarchy?

Even if we accept the scale of the problem is near what the tabloids are suggesting, what's the solution? Ever since the murder of James Bulger the rhetoric has gotten tougher, the punishments harsher and according to both the police and the BCS the chance of being a victim of crime is at its lowest in a generation, but still we have the same never relenting demands for even more draconian action. Peter Fahy, after making some daft comments about taking children into care for being drunk at the weekend, was more thoughtful in comments recorded by the Grauniad: suggesting a rebalancing of the criminal justice system, not in favour of the victim as Blair and co preached, but in favour of rehabilitation and then sanctions rather than punishment. The most obvious problem with this though is manifest: despite the early release scheme, which the Sun and the Tories predicted would result in 25,000 prisoners getting out early, the prison population is actually back at the 80,000 level, meaning police cells are having to be used yet again. Rehabilitation in overcrowded jails is made much more difficult, if not nigh on impossible. The Sun's simplistic solution, to put ever more police officers on the streets, even though we have the highest number of police ever, can also have the opposite effect: it increases the fear that crime is more rampant than it actually is, and the actual deterrent effect it's meant to have has never actually been demonstrated.

Whether this latest panic dies down again once some other news comes along or not, the resulting underlying mood doesn't go away. Some are scared, and the news they read and see only increases their worries. Perhaps the best way to illustrate how some of this journalism influences the public is in one of the comments on the Sun's website itself:

this is how dirty,disgusting Britain is nowadays, i absolutely hate the country with all its yobs,paedophiles,rapists,murderers,criminals, WAGS, cheap girls,shallow girls. there is absolutely NOTHING good about this country...even the food chain is contaminated on every advice is to get out of this disgusting low level country with its politicians with mental issues and the so called "Lords" who makes the most outrageous laws in the world.

Either that, or even online newspapers continue to attract those who used to write in green ink.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007 

The kids aren't alright.

Death, outraged reaction, draconian solution suggested, draconian solution rejected/forgotten, cycle repeats. It's all too familiar, too rehearsed, too tedious. Add in the factor that it's the silly season and the whole thing is taken up another couple of notches, resulting in editorials claiming that every street is full to the brim with drunken teenagers while the police are handcuffed to their desks filling in paperwork. It's beyond silly and inaccurate, it's exacerbating the already out of control stereotype that the youth of today spend all their time drinking cheap strong booze while smashing up the local playground equipment, and it does absolutely nothing to even begin to sort out the existing problem that there actually is.

Peter Fahy's suggestions on what has to be done to tackle the "yob culture" and youth binge drinking are discriminatory, downright daft and completely wrongheaded. The tragic death of Garry Newlove, the inquiry into which Fahy is meant to be heading, which occurred when he tackled a group of teenagers alleged to have vandalised a small digger he had hired, has not been linked in any way to whether the group had been drinking or not, but that doesn't seem to have gotten in the way of Fahy's arguments on what must be done.

How raising the legal age to purchasing alcohol to 21 will help such avoidable and pointless deaths from happening is not explained, most likely because it will most likely only make the existing situation worse. Nearly all supermarkets and off-licences, which are currently erroneously getting it in the neck for selling to those who are underage, have almost all instituted schemes across the board which require staff to request ID from anyone who looks under 21 before selling them any age restricted product. This already means that those above the legal age but unfortunately don't look it are required to carry around ID lest they decided they'd like to buy a beer. The same is true in pubs and clubs; there may be the odd store which doesn't care, but the fines are now so heavy and strict that it isn't worth the risk. This points towards the fact the most alcohol is being bought by adults, either at the request of teenagers who congregate outside shops and ask them to buy it for them, or by their parents, who either don't care or have it stolen from under their noses. Raising the price of alcohol will also only do so much: it completely ignores why both children and adults are increasingly turning to mass booze binges, while penalising them for wanting to escape from their own humdrum lives for a few hours.

Banning public drinking might remove the odd clusters of youths that do in some places get together, drink and start getting rowdy and harassing people, but again it will only take the problem off the streets, making it more likely that the same will just occur either in private houses or in other places not considered "public". It takes it out of public sight without changing the practice itself. That's all well and good for the police, who aren't called out to deal with it, and for the residents of places where groups have previously suffered, but it just moves it on to somewhere else.

The lessons that the Unicef report on wellbeing ought to have taught have similarly been completely forgotten. It showed that the relationships that are vital in cultivating happiness are just not there - whether it's with their own peers, or with their "elders" themselves, who are by turns either disconnected from their children and young adults, or as the case seems to be with those outside of a family circle, completely uninterested or even hostile towards other children. This is down not to a broken society, as the Tories claim, but to an erosion of empathy, the cult of the self and the mantra of false individualism. When such relationships are missing or stilted, it's little surprise that the things that do bring people together - booze, drugs and sex - are all being increasingly abused by those younger and younger.

What's needed is a complete reapprasial of what it means to both be a child and a teenager in Britain today. Rather than it all being the fault of political correctness and a failure to intervene as the tabloids preach, we've become so scared of our children because of how beastly and violent they're meant to be that we've forgotten that they are us - just even more confused, apprehensive and frightened than we are. Cameron was mocked for suggesting that teenagers needed a lot more love, dubbed by the press and Labour as "hug a hoodie", but he more or less had it right. Despite all the obstacles, we need to both talk and listen. At the moment, the Victorian cliche of being seen and not heard is half right - we see them all too often, but we ignore them.

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