ANOTHER VIEW: Streets free of fear

Begging on the streets has become the defining symbol of the 16- year Conservative experiment to establish that there is no such thing as society. There never was a golden age, but for 35 post-war years there were virtually no beggars on the streets, and few people sleeping rough. Today the sight is commonplace. Aggressive begging, along with graffiti and, in some cities, "squeegee merchants" all heighten people's fear of crime on the streets. One woman in two fears driving alone at night and 70 per cent of parents consider their neighbourhoods unsafe, according to two recent surveys. Racial harassment on the streets is a terrible hazard for many black and Asian people.

The result is a vicious circle in which people use the streets less, society becomes atomised, and community life breaks down. It is homeless people themselves, most of whom do not beg anyway, who often become the victims of the crime that this breakdown generates.

We do have to "reclaim the streets". We need a compassionate and firm answer for those who beg. That must include proper housing for the homeless, the provision of "wet" as well as dry hostels for alcoholics, similar provision for drug addicts and better care for the mentally ill. We must also make a reality of the "guarantee" of education and training for every 16- to 18-year-old.

Having done that, then the community has a right to expect that there will be less intimidation and bullying on the streets. Widespread police action against beggars is no part of my answer. It would be inhuman and would not work anyway - nor have I ever suggested or implied that it should happen.

But we need more effective action against those who spray walls with graffiti (often violent and racist in character), and against those who harass motorists, especially women, offering services they have not asked for and do not want. Many of those involved are truanting from school. Do we serve their interests by turning a blind eye to what they are doing?

My critics' argument that dealing with these offences will only divert the same people into more serious crime is palpable nonsense. If we can stop young people when they are involved in apparently trivial crime they will not graduate to more serious crime.

Tories from Kenneth Clarke and Michael Howard to Norman Tebbit have now been forced to admit that unemployment, social deprivation and the loss of hope have all been powerful factors in the record increase in crime since 1979 - worse in England and Wales than in any comparable country. But while poverty causes crime, crime can greatly add to poverty. I want a Britain where people can again feel free from fear on the streets and where there is effective care of the homeless.

The writer is Shadow Home Secretary.