There is such a thing as society - so don't let's lose it

`Establishing a country that's at ease with itself definitely requires the redistribution of wealth'

TWO YEARS ago last month, 17-year-old Jamie Robe was kicked to death on the streets of my London constituency - Southwark North and Bermondsey - by a gang of young people he did not know.

Another young Londoner, Stephen Lawrence, suffered the same fate some three years earlier. Still nobody has been convicted of Stephen Lawrence's murder, although yesterday three young men were found guilty of Jamie Robe's killing.

Just two recent local examples. But does our developed society have to go on accepting that racism, drugs, alcohol and just crude aggression can so often result in such horrible crime? Huge numbers of property crimes, such as burglary and robbery, are often motivated by the need for money for drugs habits, and criminal damage is often the first manifestation of racial harassment. Physical personal attacks, as on Jamie Robe and Stephen Lawrence, lead to injury, disability or death. And for every young person intimidated, injured or killed, there are vulnerable older people who are similarly attacked.

Unbridled misuse of energy by young people is far too frequent a feature in urban and suburban communities, where four out of five British people live. Smashed bus shelters, walls plastered in graffiti, trashed new estates, littered streets, intimidating gangs and neighbours from hell are too often everyday aspects of urban life.

For all young people, including the less academic, government-driven improvement of school performance is often at the expense of games, swimming or other physical activity. Our youth services have been largely destroyed. My Liberal Democrat leadership campaign tour of Britain earlier this year graphically persuaded me that if we don't commit ourselves to redistribution in five key areas throughout Britain we are asking for trouble.

First, we need to redistribute work - particularly from those overworked and stressed beyond coping, to those who would give anything to have the opportunity of a job.

We should use tax incentives - such as the reduction of, or exemption from, employers' National Insurance Contributions - so that we can encourage employers to take on more people. We should provide disincentives to discourage employers, such as the NHS, from abusing vital workers such as junior hospital doctors into working outrageous hours, rather than employing more of them. We could also provide more fiscal encouragement for job-sharing, apprenticeships and training.

Available suitable people could also be engaged in the community as new types of community support workers. Our estates, our parks and our streets are crying out for community wardens. Our buses and trains could do with more guards. Many people who have too little to do, either because they are out of work or because they have retired from work, could happily help.

Next we need to face up to the national desirability of achieving redistribution of people. Overheating in the economy of much of the South-east will best be halted by bold and imaginative regional economic intervention to give more incentives for people to live and work, and provide employment, in those areas that are currently economically stalled - or worse.

If more of our tax-collecting is devolved to regional government, then central government, like the European Union, could provide subsidies to regions or sub-regions so that in some cases taxes could be lower. Land- value-based taxation as a replacement for the uniform business rate would be a way of preventing overdevelopment in one area and encouraging it in another.

We should set income targets. For example, between 1979 and 1995 the wealthiest 10 per cent of people in Britain saw their income increase by 60 or 70 per cent, while the poorest 10 per cent had no increase at all. We could set objectives to achieve equality of increase.

More radically and necessarily, we could set targets for the reduction of the difference by a certain percentage by a set date. Once these targets had been established, changes in the tax rate could be decided against social policy and wealth redistribution objectives. We could include the reduction of the number of people in poverty as part of the same process.

Establishing a country that is at ease with itself definitely requires the redistribution of wealth. There is a "tale of two cities" almost everywhere in urban Britain. Socially responsible behaviour is bound to be more likely in a more just society.

By these three means we can much more effectively redistribute opportunities, too.

There is one other uncomfortable conclusion. If regular aggression and violence are unacceptable, then the widespread abuse of alcohol and other drugs that prompt people to be aggressive must be unacceptable too. Community tolerance of alcohol- or drug-induced violent crime must come to an end.

If European, national, regional and local government are to provide the framework for the redistribution of work, people, wealth and opportunity then a fifth and final redistribution is also needed. That is the redistribution of power.

All our people must have the opportunity for influence in all our communities. Local business and local residents must each take responsibility for helping in community management. Community politics is needed more now than ever.

Mrs Thatcher was wrong. There is such a thing as society. But in this country we are now in danger of losing it. Selfish insularity is taking over. If democratic politicians do not soon come up with braver policies for redistribution and for engaging everybody in their communities, then the liberty and equality of young white or black Britons, and all their older fellow citizens, to live their lives in peace, increasingly will be theory.

The writer is Liberal Democrat Health spokesman

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