Wanted: respect for the facts

13 Jan 06
JACKIE ASHLEY | I have the dubious honour of being the first journalist to be told of the current ‘respect’ initiative.

I have the dubious honour of being the first journalist to be told of the current ‘respect’ initiative.

Travelling with the prime minister during the closing stages of the last election, I asked him what had struck him most after three weeks touring the length and breadth of Britain.

He paused for a while, then said: ‘There’s a real sense out there that, whether it’s in relation to discipline in schools or Friday and Saturday night hooliganism outside pubs, people have a real desire for a society of respect and rules but without prejudice.’ He promised, that once re-elected, the ‘respect’ agenda would take top priority.

This has always been one of Tony Blair’s strengths — tapping into an issue of national concern, which the Left have traditionally been wary of tackling. On this, he is right. From the inner cities to the suburbs, street crime and yobbery are blights on daily life. Our household’s tally over the past year is one burglary, two muggings and one street attack, none of them devastating, but each one very unpleasant and unsettling.

Yet compared with many families, we have got off lightly. Had we been living on the sprawling estate of flats nearby, our experiences would have been much worse.

No-one in the real world disputes the problem. So why did I say I’d had the ‘dubious’ honour of learning about the new ‘respect’ agenda? Because so many earlier attempts have gone laughably wrong — from the ‘marching yobs to cashpoints’ headline to the countless failures in community punishment, starting in the Thatcher years and continuing right through to Blair’s. The latest notion of simply evicting troublesome families (to where?) seems ill-thought-out.

Cabinet ministers have also quietly questioned the budget for the agenda. Instead of the £90m promised earlier by Blair, the amount that will be spent on new measures is now nearer to £28m.

So, what will we get for the money? There’s to be a National Parenting Academy, more control orders, night-time curfews and a few carrots to go with the sticks in the form of better sports and youth services.

None of the ideas is objectionable; in fact most sound very sensible and surveys suggest they are popular. The real issue though, is how they are implemented. There is no point in ministers decreeing new laws if local authorities and police cannot or will not make them work. It’s not about Whitehall or national initiatives. It’s about the many million nooks and crannies where crimes are committed. If you don’t penetrate them, the rest is waffle.

The success rate so far has been partial, to say the least. Take Anti-Social Behaviour Orders — the government’s main weapon so far in tackling yobbery. Some 7,000 have been handed out since they were introduced in 1999, far fewer than expected. According to Home Office figures for 1999 to 2003, more than four out of ten of them, 42%, were breached at least once. With Asbos, as with curfews, there has to be a lot of policing. Unless local law enforcers have sufficient staff to enforce the new powers, they will be ineffective.

It might sound bold and determined to announce, as the prime minister did recently, that noisy neighbours will be evicted from their homes under new powers given to councils. It is undoubtedly impressive to say that teenage tearaways will be targeted with night-time curfews. But out there in the real world, few people expect that to happen. Why, it’s difficult enough to summon up the police after, or even during a burglary, let alone ask them to call round because Billy Rotten next door has turned up his hi-fi at three in the morning.

The real answers are old ones — money and genuine reform, in this case of the police. Admittedly, the number of community support officers, who do a valuable job, is to be raised from 6,000 to 24,000. They are getting more powers and training and that should just keep quietly increasing.

But, above all, real police officers are needed back on the streets — cycling, walking, talking, watching. As well as trying to reform the structure of the service, the government needs to look at how police officers spend their time, and give councils more authority there, too. Less chasing around in cars and less time filling in forms and catching motorists driving a couple of miles above the speed limit would mean more time to get to know who that gang of trouble-makers hanging around the corner of the street are and, hopefully, to nip crimes in the bud.

For the first time in many years, I saw a police officer cycling down our road the other day. It doesn’t need a Whitehall report or a government initiative to recognise that he’s more likely to prevent one of my family being relieved of their cash and possessions than any number of new directives. Headlines catch attention; they don’t collar muggers.

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