Crime and our Broken Society
I read with dismay recently about a mindless act of vandalism in Bovey Tracey – the smashing of windows in an unoccupied building. It is thought the perpetrators might have used full cans of beer as projectiles which I guess at least spared us the results of their future consumption. Sadly, this kind of behaviour does not surprise me. I spend a great deal of my time canvassing and listening to people throughout the new parliamentary constituency of Central Devon (a vast area of 700 square miles which includes Bovey but also towns such as Okehampton, Crediton, Exminster, Chudleigh, Ashburton and Buckfastleigh). I get a pretty good overview of what is bothering people and all too frequently what is known as ‘low level anti social behaviour’ tops the list. I’ve always been bemused by the term ‘low level anti social behaviour’ covering, as it does, everything from noise nuisance, graffiti and intimidation to drunken brawling, assault, criminal damage and theft. For those whose lives are blighted by this kind of activity there is little that is ‘low level’ about it. Certainly the lady I canvassed recently in Copplestone, a village between Crediton and Lapford, who has had her and her partner’s car repeatedly vandalised and who was recently assaulted in broad daylight on her own doorstep would probably have another term for it.
I believe that the incidence of this kind of behaviour is becoming greater through time. This is a purely qualitative view, based on my own experience and I can not back it up with figures as the vast majority of this type of crime unfortunately goes unreported. I am not saying that we have the kind of problems here in Devon that inflict our inner cities but equally I think it is important that we acknowledge that there is a strong and, I believe, growing undercurrent of low level crime which is on an upward trend. We are not like the inner cities yet but we are heading in their direction. Those who pooh pooh this notion as ‘Daily Telegraph talk’ run riot should ask themselves why Bovey has recently felt it necessary to apply for the town centre to become an Alcohol Exclusion Zone to supplement the CCTV system which has already been installed. Why Ashburton has just such a zone and why around 700 residents of Exminster who are fed up with local anti social behaviour and who feel the need for a greater local police presence have signed a petition that I have just presented to 10 Downing Street. Low level crime is a real problem and it deserves more attention than it gets.
In addition to the immediate victims there are other good reasons why we should worry about low level crime:-
Firstly, there are several studies (including the experience of Rudi Giuliani in New York) pointing to the fact that serious crime typically follows on from less serious crime. The argument here is that a community that tolerates and leaves the single broken windowpane unattended will, in time, see the others smashed followed by the building vandalised and then quite possibly torched. In short, the tolerance and acceptance of low level crime creates the breeding ground for worse. The early signs of this in my patch of Devon are conversations I have had with residents in two of my major towns expressing concern about local dealing in hard drugs,
Secondly, and following on from the point above, some of those whose low level criminality is tolerated today become tomorrow’s higher level criminals and the occupants of our overstretched prisons. Most serious criminals have graduated from petty crime and there is a strong argument for stopping people earlier in the cycle. There is a kind of crime escalator at work with those committing the low level stuff learning the entirely negative lesson that there are few boundaries for unacceptable behaviour.
Crime is one of the most complicated areas of social behaviour to deconstruct but my thoughts are that we need to take at least three broad approaches to it.
1. The short term: Law and Order. Police and the Criminal Justice system. In essence we need more police in rural areas. Police who are visible and out on the beat (not tied up doing onerous paperwork at the police station). We need a proactive and zero tolerance approach to policing especially in respect of so called ‘low level anti social behaviour’. We also need a criminal justice system that is more efficient at processing cases so that justice is timely and not delayed,
2. The Medium Term: Rehabilitation. Locking people up is not the solution to Britain’s crime problem. We have one of the highest levels of prison occupancy of any western nation (141 per 100,000). The prison population is now
at an all time high of 81,500 and yet we still have major crime issues. The stats on prisoners are not encouraging with over 60% of those released going on to re-offend within 2 years. Prisons keep people off the streets for a while but there is evidence that they also act as places where minor criminals learn from others and commit worse offences post release. Iain Duncan Smith’s Social Justice Commission (a body on which I have served) is looking at the issue of rehabilitation within and after prison and there are some interesting case studies to draw upon, most notably in New Zealand and parts of the United States. It will be interesting to learn his conclusions when he reports back to David Cameron,
3. The Long Term: Mending Society. This is the big one – the most taxing and worthy endeavour of them all. There are undoubtedly numerous factors underpinning our ‘broken society’ (the term used by the Social Justice Commission to describe a society in which too many have become marginalised within it, caught up in relative poverty, or unemployment, or addiction, or debt, or family breakdown and so on). One of the big questions is how did our society fracture in the first place? There is no single answer. Some point to the benefits system sucking in and holding down some who could and should do more with their lives (2.6 million people on Incapacity Benefit is often sighted by welfare reformers such as Frank Field (a Labour MP) as a particularly depressing statistic). Others point to communities becoming more transient and less able to police themselves as a result, still others sight Hollywood and the violence and morale ambiguity of modern cinema (it is hard to deny some difference between the moral imperatives of say ‘A Brief Encounter’ on the one hand and ‘Pulp Fiction’ and ‘Reservoir Dogs’ on the other), others say violent video and computer games are culprits, others that ‘nanny statism’ has sapped our willingness to look to ourselves for solutions to local problems (it’s always some agency we turn to and they usually let us down), others that our greater affluence has simply opened up the time and the wherewithal to indulge in destructive behaviour that simple economy used to render impossible (when my parents were young adults I doubt they could have afforded to get drunk, certainly not regularly and there was no real market for drugs as no one could have afforded them), that literature (including children’s books) has lost its morale voice, that the permissive society and the consumer culture of the 1960s gave birth to a selfish and destructive quest for instant self gratification and consequent disillusionment. That the near epidemic level of divorce has destroyed the most potent and precious building block of a stable and decent society – the nuclear family. A few more? Then how about a slip in educational standards that has created a school system that OFSTED says fails a million children a year. A system in which a secondary school teacher is being assaulted in the classroom every 6 minutes. Generations of children, too many of whom are unable to read or write or add up properly. An adult population in which around one in seven is functionally illiterate and would be unable, for example, to find a plumber in the Yellow Pages or locate their train on an announcement board at a railway station. So roll up and take your pick – there’s plenty to choose from.
I suspect most of the above have played a part in taking us to where we are now. Some of these factors have a causal link to others. Some can be tackled. Some can not. Some are perhaps fundamentally desirable and should be left alone even though they come with unfortunate side-effects. Others are of debatable significance. Collectively they represent the tip of a vast iceberg of interrelated and complex issues. So how on earth are we to unravel them and work out a clear way forward? Well I don’t have the space here to write the book but there are two issues that must be addressed if we are to stand half a chance of pursuing the right path. Firstly, we need to view the big, interconnected picture and attack the problem intelligently and from several angles. This is one of the over-arching messages of Iain Duncan Smith’s work. Secondly, we need to recognise that there are no quick fixes, we are going to have to dig in for the long term and this fact ushers in one of the biggest challenges of all. Governments don’t tend to think long term. The reason for this is purely Darwinistic. In a democratic system in which you live or die on a 4 to 5 year electoral cycle Governments tend not to invest valuable energy and resource into long term projects that will consume political capital now but not produce political fruit until well after the next general election by which time your political opponents have continuously tried to shoot you down for a lack of short term results. Large scale infrastructure schemes suffer from this problem and so will mending our broken society.
After the next General Election my hope is that I can play my part in ensuring that the next Conservative Government has the courage to tackle these issues with vigour and with a long term perspective.
Crime and our Broken Society
Crime and our Broken Society