Cracking the whip on youth crime
IS AUTHORITARIANISM the new black? First, No 10 floats the idea of blocking the payment of Child Benefit to fine the parents of misbehaving youngsters.
What is going on here? Are we over-run with a delinquent underclass of Rat Boys and Rat Girls, waging a war of criminal terror against ordinary, decent citizens? Or are we merely seeing further proof that the punitive social agenda of the Daily Mail is the most influential driver of political discourse? There’s no doubt that there is a nasty, populist tone about. A number of Labour ministers in Westminster are making no secret of the fact that they believe that a far-right party like the BNP does not prosper electorally in the UK because New Labour has shown voters that it understands their concerns about crime and immigration. If only poor Jospin had listened to us, they imply, things could have been so very different in France.
The reality is much more complicated. Giving a nod and a wink to racism by echoing Thatcher’s notorious language of swamping does not buy off extremism, it legitimates it. One of the most unnerving scenes in modern politics is to see the Tories fielding a classic Hampstead liberal as Shadow Home Secretary while Labour offers solace to saloon bar moralists.
This is admittedly a core part of the New Labour agenda - seizing an issue traditionally occupied by the Right and redefining it and rebranding it as an issue of the centre ground of politics. Blair’s most memorable political slogan - ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ - captured this brilliantly. The problem is that it sometimes seems to be a lot more fun to be tough on crime than to tackle the complex underlying causes. In trying to sell the famous five pledges many slogans were test-driven during the 1997 General Election. One which tested brilliantly but which was never used was ‘Young Thugs Must Be Caged’ - a relatively unsubtle way of describing reforms to the criminal justice system but one which takes us to the heart of recent Scottish and Westminster initiatives. Discussion of crime, and particularly youth crime, leads rapidly to tough no-nonsense talk but founders on specifics.
What evidence is there that fining parents for the behaviour of their children will make a difference to the upbringing or actions of the young people? None, because it is often the most inadequate of parenting that leads to the most delinquent of behaviours. Will losing money suddenly transform bewildered, weak and failing parents into the Mum and Dad from the Oxo ads? Or is there a far more savage undercurrent of thinking here - that if you can hurt the parents financially then they might hurt the misbehaving kids. That’ll teach them. We may have banned the birch but let’s see how tough parental sanctions might be. This is not about rational discussion - the power to fine parents and to deduct fines from benefits already exists but is rarely used - this is about symbolism, and when symbolism drives policy, policy often unravels.
There is a different way, and it has actually been pioneered here in Scotland. One of the intentions of the architects of the Scottish parliament was to develop a more deliberative form of policy-making. John Swinney tried to mock it in the parliament at First Minister’s Questions this week, but there has been a proper, well-developed, joined-up approach within the Scottish Executive to tackling youth crime. An expert review of the issue by the Executive’s policy unit was followed by a cabinet discussion, the establishment of an advisory group on youth crime, wide consultation, the publication of a report and a response by the Executive with a timetabled implementation of accepted recommendations. The Scottish Executive accepted all the report’s recommendations which included a commitment to early intervention, an expansion of programmes which diverted young people from custody and a range of programmes to tackle the behaviour of persistent offenders.
Yet, less than two years on, Labour sources are criticising the children’s hearing system as having too much of a ‘social work’ atmosphere and indicating that a new form of youth court system might be needed. Why? It can’t be a change in personnel because McConnell was a member of the Cabinet which accepted the advisory group’s recommendations and Jeane Freeman, then director of Apex Trust and now one of his two most senior special advisers, provided support to the group.
Nor is there any ground-breaking new research that sets at nought all the previous work of the Executive. In fact, disillusioned magistrates in London have been recently casting jealous glances northwards to the children’s hearing system. Trapped in the magistrates’ court system too many young people are playing the system with their lawyers arguing for deferral of hearings, picking away at technicalities and seeking to grind down witnesses. Since the one area where there seems to be consensus in criminal justice is that early intervention pays dividends, the Scottish system looks pretty good from London. Offending behaviour in Scotland leads to attention.
So the change of tone is driven by something else. As we will, I am sure, get sick of hearing - it’s the election, stupid. In yet another import from US politics our politicians take the view that you can never be too populist on crime. The problem is that populism is sloganised solutions to gritty long-term problems. In contrast, look at the proposals of the advisory group on youth crime: programmes of risk assessment; challenging offending behaviour; drug, solvent and alcohol abuse treatment; residential detoxification facilities; anger management; reparation and mediation; literacy, numeracy and communication skills; mentoring and buddying; building self-confidence/self-esteem. Not a soundbite to be found. And there’s the rub. Evidence and expertise points in one direction, knee-jerk politics in the other. No government can win this race to the lowest common denominator of criminal justice policy - because they have the task of running the system and not the luxury of shouting from the sidelines.
For all the rhetoric about ‘three strikes and you’re out’ what is the most successful anti-youth crime policy in the US? It is floodlit, night-time basketball courts. Honest, straightforward competitive diversion for teenage energy and aggression. For all the disputes about police numbers in Scotland, how much attention is being paid to the fact that there is the equivalent of a whole police force sitting in Scottish courts every day guarding witnesses or waiting to give evidence? Of course, it’s not easy to tackle persistent offending, but authoritarianism will never work - no matter how loud our politicians shout.
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