Public Enemy Number One?

When enough hostels and council houses are ready, Straw (above) will happily stand up as Home Secretary and tell people to stop giving money to beggars
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The Independent Online
Jack Straw provoked outrage with his attack on winos and beggars. But he has a case.

JACK STRAW makes an unlikely hard man. Until last week he looked quiet and unthreatening: a bespectacled politician who spoke softly and carried a slight stammer. That image changed utterly last Monday. The mild-mannered MP for Blackburn managed to enrage virtually every liberal concerned with crime by metamorphosing into the Dirty Harry of the Labour front bench, directing his fire at some of the poorest and saddest people in Britain.

In a speech to councillors and senior police officers in Lewisham, south London, the shadow Home Secretary rounded on the ugliness and brutality of modern British city life and on the people who, he argued, were responsible for making it ugly and brutal.

The streets must be reclaimed for law-abiding citizens, he said. "Physically, the street scene in many areas has been brutalised ... Even where the graffiti is not comprehensible, not racialist in meaning, it is often violent and uncontrolled in its visual image, and correctly gives the impression of a lack of order on the streets.

"There are the obstacles faced by pedestrians and motorists in going about their daily business. The winos and addicts whose aggressive begging affronts and sometimes threatens decent, compassionate citizens. And the 'squeegee merchants' who wait at large road junctions to force on reticent motorists their windscreen cleaning services."

The language was shocking to many on the left. One is meant to talk these days of "substance abusers" or "people with an alcohol problem", not winos. Shocking, too, was the apparent triviality of his targets. The global market, the decline of deference and the European Union may have weakened the ability of politicians to deal with the great issues. But surely the power of a future Labour Home Secretary will not be so slight that the biggest threat he can contemplate fighting is the menace of the "squeegee merchants"?

Mr Straw did not talk about tackling crime by tackling poverty or inequality. He was tough on crime, as Tony Blair insists Labour must be, but he forgot about the causes of crime. He did not even blame the Tories for the state of the nation, as Labour has been doing for the past 16 years and can be confidently expected to continue doing well into the first term of the coming Labour government (and beyond). At the very moment when the honeymoon between Old Labour and New Labour is over and many members are wondering where on earth the revisionism is going to stop, he sounded as if he was pushing the party further to the right. Several long-standing members proclaimed Mr Straw had propelled them into tearing up their party cards.

THE Independent and the Liberal Democrats accused Mr Straw of aping Michael Howard; the Guardian claimed he was giving up on the welfare state; Shelter was critical; Alcohol Concern, concerned. Even the dead eyes of the Labour Party's spin doctors showed a brief flicker of emotion. "You can't just say you are tough on crime without talking about the causes of crime," said one. "The party won't put up with it. He's dropped a clanger and he knows it."

Mr Straw, however, gives no sign of knowing it. He emphasises with conviction and in detail that he is passionately committed to a string of measures which will help the homeless, the drug addicts and the poor. He mocks with equal passion the "woolly-minded and Guardian leader-writers who send their children to private schools and drive past beggars in the street without ever thinking how they can do anything which will bring change".

But he adds that when all the hostels are in place, when the council house building programme is under way, he will quite happily stand up and as a Labour Home Secretary announce that people "should not give money to beggars" and should expect the police and local authorities to clean up their neighbourhoods. Compassion can only go so far. If Britain is to return to being a country where it is surprising rather than commonplace to see beggars in the street there will have to be an element of compulsion.

More disturbing for Mr Straw's critics is evidence which suggests that he may be right. Small crimes matter, say many criminologists. Petty disorder leads to serious disorder. If Mr Straw is an opportunist who is stealing Mr Howard's clothes he is an opportunist who can call up some heavyweight backing.

Criminology, like economics, is a dismal and unsuccessful "science". Its ability to produce solutions has progressed in inverse proportion to the number of academics hired to study the problems of law and order: more experts; fewer answers. One of the few pieces of work that has lasted is a superficially dry study entitled Broken Windows, written by two American social scientists in 1982.

Mr Straw keeps a copy in his office and praises the authors. They have provided the intellectual support for his controversial plans to make it easier to prosecute noisy neighbours and to reclaim the streets. Whenever he is accused of populism or not-so-closet conservatism, their work can be thrown in his critics' faces.

James Q Wilson and George L Kelling wrote in the American journal Atlantic Monthly that the crimes that are barely crimes at all are the ones that have the most profound effects. There was a real risk in the United States of being a victim of violent crime, they said. But police, politicians and the media tended to "overlook or forget another source of fear - the fear of being bothered by disorderly people. Not violent people nor, necessarily, criminals, but disreputable or obstreperous or unpredictable people: panhandlers, drunks, addicts, rowdy teenagers, prostitutes, loiterers, the mentally disturbed."

When such people move in, the argument goes, ordinary citizens - particularly women and the elderly - stop using the streets and fear of crime grows. Their fears may be exaggerated but they are not irrational, and nor are they the product of sensational media reports of high-profile murders (something which a number of British commentators have suggested). They are based on the very real prospects of minor but none the less nasty confrontations with drunken teenagers at bus stops or with aggressive beggars in shop doorways.

Politicians, the two Americans wrote, had to intervene early to stop areas sliding and becoming the breeding grounds for more serious crime. If you leave one broken window in an empty house, "it is a signal that no-one cares" and soon all the windows will be broken.

But hold on. Should we really believe anything Americans tell us about crime? The US record in this field is so much worse than ours that going to America for a crime strategy is surely akin to going to Serbia for a race relations policy. Violence is so far out of control, US law and order policies have so obviously failed that there seems little to learn. But Broken Windows is different: even Americans who normally advise Britain against copying American ideas and practices say that the approach set out by Wilson and Kelling may be worth studying.

Lynn Curtis, president of the Washington-based Eisenhower Foundation, promotes the theory that early intervention can stop crime. It organises "police booths" in US cities - mini police stations from where a handful of officers operate, visiting potential delinquents, organising basketball teams and even providing lessons out of school. "It can work," says Lynn Curtis. "But you have to do a lot of work and provide employment and education. It's not a simple or cheap solution."

The Americans think that what they are doing is transporting British- style community policing across the Atlantic. But the irony is that just at the moment when the Americans are copying British tactics, traditional British policing is dying out. The Conservatives have turned the British police forces into what Robert Reiner, Professor of Law at the London School of Economics, calls "British Police plc".

For the first time since Sir Robert Peel established the Metropolitan Police in 1829, Prof Reiner explains, forces have been told that their main job is catching criminals and not preventing crime or reassuring and helping the public. Senior officers will soon lose their independence and be put on short-term contracts, like chief executives of private corporations. The success of the new, "business-like" forces will be measured by their crime clear-up rate - their share prices - rather than their success in promoting the far less measurable benefit of making the public feel secure.

Prof Reiner believes that if Jack Straw is serious about tackling disorder before it gets out of hand, he will have to be far more radical than his Lewisham speech suggested and tear up the Conservatives' police reforms. For what Mr Straw seems to be talking about is restoring the old British police priority of preventing crime and disorder. The question is: how serious is he?

FOR the past 10 days a grim battle has been fought in the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. On one side are squads of police on horseback and motorcycles. On the other, the criminals they were chasing: a tattered band of homeless squatters. The city's mayor, Frank Jordan, claims to have built enough shelters to house the homeless and is determined to sweep the down-and-outs into the hostels. "We've given them all the time, all the warnings," he told reporters in the park, "and now we're telling people it's time to move. There is litter and garbage and human faeces and broken bottles and all kinds of rags and rugs here. We're cleaning it up. People want to feel safe and bring their children out here."

There have been dozens of arrests, protests outside the mayor's mansion and accusations that politicians have sanctioned violent police tactics to win support in an election year. The shelters to house the homeless are not there, claim the critics. "My biggest fear," said Paul Boden, a campaigner for the homeless, "is we have become totally desensitised to what a 'sweep' is because we use the language so often. Unless you witness it, you forget it's a really nasty campaign."

Mr Straw claims that if a future Labour government orders "sweeps" - round-ups of beggars - it will not merely be for the benefit of the media and angry middle-class voters. He proposes an aggressive programme of state intervention which is very different from anything Britain has seen in the past 16 years. Hostels will be built for beggars and there will be special "wet" shelters for those alcoholics who refuse to get off the streets unless they can carry on drinking indoors. Local authorities will be told to build new council homes.

Where will the money come from? The cash for the council house building programme will come from ending the present government's restrictions on the spending of the receipts from council house sales. Clinics and hostels will be funded by ending expensive delays in the courts "which mean that by the time cases come to trial everyone has forgotten about the crime except the victim". The ability of both the prosecution and the defence to drag a case out will be severely restricted - a change that will prove unpopular with lawyers.

Mr Straw sounds sincere. At times it seems as though he is talking to himself, banging into his own head by force of repetition what the priorities of the next Labour government should be. "We must do something about young unemployed men," he repeats.

But he makes no apology for roughing up liberal sensibilities. "What some people on the left don't realise is that crime hurts the poor the most. We cannot allow people to fall into a demi monde and then say, 'Oh, it doesn't matter'."

For Mr Straw, the need to combat disorder was summed up by a single, tiny incident. He met the 13-year-old daughter of a friend who was getting ready go out for the evening. She was thinking about putting on a skirt, but then said: "I can't. It's dangerous to go out in a skirt."

And behind all the democratic socialist (or social democratic) proposals lies the hint of force. He is not proposing any new laws, but then he does not need to: if a Home Secretary says the streets should be cleaned up then the police will follow that lead. There was a striking example of this two years ago, when Michael Howard reversed government crime policy by proclaiming that "prison works". Magistrates responded by sending thousands more criminals to jail even though not one statute had been altered. The criminal justice system is not as independent from political pressure as judges like to believe. It obeys orders.

It all sounds firm but fair. But even some of Mr Straw's supporters wonder if he can make an impact on crime and poverty on the streets when Labour has made the control of inflation, rather than full employment, its main priority.

Prof Reiner likes Jack Straw and was one of the few left-leaning commentators who did not condemn him last week. But he warns that without radical social policies, the only option left to Labour is to get the police to sweep beggars from the streets. The "winos" and the "squeegee merchants" will then simply move on and become broken windows in another neighbourhood.

By way of a warning to the Opposition, the professor quotes with approval from Raymond Chandler's hero, Philip Marlowe (a private detective so tough he could get a place on the Labour front bench). "Using the cops to crack crime," says Marlowe in The Long Goodbye, "is like taking aspirin for a brain tumour."