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Tuesday, August 28, 2007 

Scrabbling over the bodies for political gain.

If you wanted an example of just how polarised Britain is over crime, you need look no further than today's poll in the Grauniad. 49% now believe that prison doesn't work, an astounding figure when you take into account the overwhelming view of the media is directly the opposite. Accordingly, 51% think that building prisons is the wrong way to go, and that an alternative has to be found to punish criminals and deter crime. 46% believe that the answer is to build yet more. Even so, 77% still want judges to pass ever tougher sentences, a finding that only adds to the thinking that the public in general wants to have its cake and eat it.

Perhaps if the Guardian's poll had been published at the weekend, it might have given the Tories some pause for thought before outlining yet another package for tackling what they're calling "Britian's Crime Crisis" (PDF). More a hodge podge bringing together all their recent thinking on how crime has to be tackled than any radically new thinking, it's clear that the Tories have decided that there's the equivalent of political money to be made out of the blood recently spilt on Britain's streets.

That would be unpleasant enough on its own, but it's also apparent that this is Cameron's attempt to turn the death of Rhys Jones into his own "Bulger" moment. While James Bulger's murder was a horrifying anomaly, the death of Jones does at its root have much to say about modern life in Britain in 2007. Even so, it by no means proves that we're living in a broken society, no more than Bulger's death back in 1993 said that we were a sick society. His death was however though the excuse or cue needed for political opportunism on all sides, leading directly to Michael Howard's "prison works!" speech to his party's conference, Blair's "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime", which was actually Gordon Brown's soundbite, and Lib Dem David Alton's thankfully failed attempt to ban all films with a certificate higher than 12 from being released on video. Appropriately, you can find elements of all three knee-jerk reactions in Cameron's own knee-jerk response to Labour's knee-jerking over the last 10 years.

The document opens with an introduction by none other than David Cameron himself, which means we can directly accuse him of scrabbling over the dead for his own political gain. "Deaths by fists, knives and guns are becoming a regular feature of British news" - they haven't always been? "It is simply unacceptable -- a moral reproach to our country -- that someone should have the opportunity and inclination to kill an 11-year-old child with a handgun" - seeing as we don't know whether Jones was the target of the shooting yet or not, hadn't we ought to concentrate on the facts rather than start issuing blanket statements on the state of the nation before anyone has even been charged, yet alone tried? Next he tries to accuse Labour of failing to understand the problem, quoting Blair when he said that it was a "specific problem within a specific criminal culture", without bothering to mention the fact he was talking about gun crime and not violent crime in general, and most likely also trying to blame it all on black youths, as he subsequently did later in the year. Then comes the selective use of statistics that back up what the Tories are saying: that violent crime has doubled in ten years, without acknowledging that the British Crime Survey, regarded as more authoritative, says the opposite; that gun-violence has increased four-fold, dealt with by Unity here; and that knife crime has doubled in the last two years alone, without mentioning that this is robberies involving knives and that it's on disputed figures when the actual research hasn't even been released yet. Then we get the American "example" shoved down our throats yet again, also involving either some faulty quoting of statistics or a deliberate mistake: the murder rate did indeed fall between the years 1990 and 98, but it was from 2,246 to 924, not 2,245 to 633. The most recent figures recorded 874 murders in New York in 2005, which is still more than in both England and Wales as a whole. The least said about the ridiculous "Social Covenant" that Cameron's come up with, a patronising document more familiar to school children than responsible adults the better.

What then are then Cameron's great new ideas to solve our crime crisis? The actions with supposed immediate effect are thus: firstly, he wants to abolish the police stop form, which has to be filled out whenever a police officer stops someone, although one gets the feeling that this is hardly followed to the letter. More controversially is the extending of stop and search, even though some police officers have already raised concerns that the powers they already have are being abused. This would give ordinary constables the power to seal off any area where they believed that someone was carrying or hiding firearms for up to 48 hours. Seeing as black and Asian men are already those most likely stopped under stop and search, you can imagine where this will most end up getting used. The Tories want a review that would examine what restrictions would be necessary to prevent excessive use or abuse of such power, but one hardly expects that it would come up with much. Next up is "permanent police visibility", which as we know is no panacea and can increase the fear of crime rather than necessarily reassure, but it's a simple and popular measure. They also want to reform the police, but don't exactly overburden us with details on either how or why. Penultimately they bring up last week's suggestion that magistrates remove or suspend the right to a driving license, which is unlikely to affect the average gang-member who doesn't have the money to either learn or own a car, and besides, if they're really that involved in such low-level crime, why should they care either about bothering to get a license or getting their own car when there's others out there to steal? Last is the idiotic scrapping of the early release scheme, even though there's no extra prison places which can be used or brought on stream quickly. The suggestion that prison ships or camps should be used is an example of the Tories stealing John Reid's most Sun-pleasing and ridiculous policies, which he realised he couldn't actually achieve once they were looked into. Still, what does that matter to a Tory party that's still in opposition and doesn't actually have to be good to its word? Cameron's speech on the matter also showed his own personal ignorance: he suggested that cells should be used by two inmates rather than one, even though that's exactly what is happening right now. The very reason the early release scheme was brought in was because the prisons chief executive rejected the idea of putting three inmates into a cell meant for one, knowing it was a recipe for riots and even more violence and suicides.

The actions with medium-term effect aren't much better. Enforcing school discipline is easier said than done, and naturally, the Tories' suggest making home-school contracts enforceable. Us lucky adults get a social covenant, the kids get a junior version which if disobeyed can lead directly to their exclusion. Lastly, the ever popular voluntary and independent sector has to have a hand in helping those expelled. Next to come under fire is alcohol licensing, even though the real effect of the introduction of the changes in November 2005 has yet to be properly established in any real fashion. The problem with alcohol isn't when or how it's available, it's down to how the people themselves consume it, which is predictably forgotten because that is something that will take a lot longer to tackle. Local control over policing might be the only worthwhile suggestion out of this whole sorry lot, although local people really want yet another election for a local "Crime Commissioner" (which is an Orwellian term if there ever was one), who would hold the local chief constable to public account is another matter. The Tories claim they'll restore honesty to sentencing, which seems to amount to ordering judges to hand down both a minimum and a maximum sentence, just to confuse things even further, with no one released on parole before the end of the minimum. Considering the way the tabloids etc responded to the minimum sentences handed down to Learco Chindamo, Craig Sweeney et al, this might not be the cure all the Tories think it will be. Magistrates will be given the power to send someone down for a year, also announced last week. They also promise to build more prison places, while also "ensuring appropriate provision for the mentally ill and offenders with drug problems", something that Labour has been promising for years and has spectacularly failed to follow up on. There's no reason to think the Tories will fare any better. Finally, the Tories will introduce that wonderful border police force we're all crying out for, and rip up the "hated" Human Rights Act, for no other reason than it'll please the Daily Mail and Sun while destroying some of Churchill's legacy. How times change.

The long-term actions are just as underwhelming. The Tories will discriminate in favour of families, bribing the middle classes while sticking one up to the single mother in standard fashion, while also introducing flexible working for those with children, which should please the CBI no end. Cameron's favoured bugbear, hip hop and rap music, will apparently be tackled by the party having a "regular process of consultation" with music producers. Considering that most of the music he's so disgusted by is American in origin, no doubt there'll be regular trips across the Atlantic, presumably on a boat so as not to affect his carbon footprint. Also coming under fire, in a direct parallel to Bulger's death are films and video games, even though the BBFC is still one of the strictest censorship bodies in the western world, as the banning of Manhunt 2 has shown. The problem isn't with films/games getting more violent, it's with the parents that are buying them for their darling children despite the certificates they've been given. As ever, children are used as a justification to stop adults from making their own decisions about what they want to watch or play. Lastly, the Tories will reform welfare by, you've guessed it, handing it over to the independent, voluntary and commercial organisations to sort out the feckless jobless. Nothing about tackling inequality or poverty, but just what did you expect?

Just then as the public comes to the realisation that prison really doesn't work, that the endless crackdowns and knee-jerk responses have failed, the Tories outline their own detailed, badly thought out and highly discriminatory reflex to end all reflexes. Our society is broken, but don't worry, the Tories have come up with the quickest sticking plaster "solution" of all time. Whether the families of those killed will be receptive to the Tories' use of their dead relatives for their own political benefit remains to be seen.

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Ian

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