It is always the bleak midwinter where crime is concerned. For decades, those professionally involved with the problem of crime have almost invariably shared one characteristic: a deeply rooted pessimism.
This also runs through a report produced in 10 Downing Street. Entitled "Crime, Justice and Cohesion", it brings nought for anyone's comfort. The authors believe crime is bound to rise, by up to a quarter. On the basis of present penal policy, this would require an extra 20,000 prison places; the prison population would reach 100,000.
The report is also critical of the police. A lot of new money has been spent on them - for what? Up to 90 per cent of all offences go undetected and unpunished. The authors are not afraid of intellectual honesty or, indeed, of controversy. They admit that there is a problem with young West Indian males and a growing problem with young Pakistani males. They acknowledge that illegal immigrants are exacerbating Britain's crime problems.
Their document will make uncomfortable Christmas reading for Labour ministers, because they seem to place much of the blame for crime on poverty and inequality. Both of these have increased since 1997, and further increases are in the pipeline.
This report is clearly a valuable contribution to public debate, which is why the Government is so upset that its contents have been leaked. Yet, for all the authors' diligence, it could be argued that their conclusions are too gloomy and insufficiently bold.
Although there is obviously a link between crime and inequality, this is a more complex matter than our authors are willing to acknowledge. In the 1930s, there was more inequality, much more poverty, and much less crime. The evidence would appear to suggest that inequality may not incite crime, as long as the poor feel that their circumstances are fore-ordained; in other words, as long as we are dealing in a society based on status, not on contract.
Traditionally, most people's destiny depended on their parents' circumstances, not on their own efforts. That is a status society. In modern societies, many people can improve their lot by negotiating a new contract with their social circumstances. For them, that will be a liberating experience. But it deprives those left behind of an alibi for their own lack of success.
Modern Britain is a contract society. It is also one in which the poor are bombarded by the relentless propaganda of consumerism. Throughout their day, they are constantly reminded about the goods which they would like to possess, but cannot attain.
This is clearly a contributory factor to a rise in the crime rate. It also inspired an interesting recent debate in the Conservative Party. Do the poor need ladders to help them climb upwards to affluence, a safety net to rescue them from absolute poverty - or a faster camel so that they do not lose sight of the main body of the desert caravan?
Ladders seem to be out of fashion, which is a pity. It is true that when Winston Churchill used the phrase, he was not aware of the cultural problems which would prevent the modern poor taking the first steps up the ladder. But that is not an argument for using the ladders as winter fuel.
Instead, we need smart ladders, carefully targeted to the poor's individual needs. An effective ladder strategy would offer both incentives and stimuli: the stimuli in the form of reduced welfare payments for the incorrigibly idle.
The authors of the Downing Street report would have a quick retort to that argument. Those so stimulated would merely take to crime. This is where their excessive gloom and their lack of boldness intersect. There is one key figure in this report, which does give grounds for cautious optimism. Until recently, criminologists claimed that half the crime in Britain was committed by 250,000 young males. According to these authors, 100,000 boys and young men are responsible for half the crime in England and Wales. If that is true, the rest of us have no excuse for failing to get a grip on the crime problem.
We know a great deal about those 100,000 youths. A disproportionate number of them will be from ethnic minorities. The vast majority of them will come from single-mother households, and will have no satisfactory relationship with their fathers. When they were not playing truant, they would have attended sink schools. They will have a marginal command of literacy, let alone the technological skills which could earn them good jobs.
In the speech in which he did not say "hug a hoodie'' - words he has never used - David Cameron referred to this problem. He pointed out that the average young criminal has never eaten the sort of meal which the rest of us are now becoming mildly fed up with: a properly structured family lunch around a dining table. These youths will never have known the stability of parental love, parental order or a well-regulated household. As a result, these youths will have low self-esteem. Convinced that nobody loves them, they are not predisposed to do much loving or liking themselves.
Conclusions follow from this. It may be necessary to build more prisons as a short-term measure. It is certainly necessary to make the police perform the duties for which they are well paid. But it is also necessary to start intervening in the lives of the hapless single mothers who are producing the next generation of criminals.
I have argued before that we need a new cadre of social workers drawn from the armed forces, from educated housewives who want to return to work after bringing up a family and from businessmen made redundant when they still have plenty of energy and plenty of desire for new achievements. After the minimum of training - because they will already possess a diploma in common sense - these new social workers should be given a caseload of underclass families. Where necessary, they should be able to make their clients attend interviews, while heaping petty inconveniences upon them, including the withdrawal of a small proportion of their benefit. But their real role will be to comfort, encourage and inspire: to be the friend and the rock which these poor young mothers have never known.
While this is happening, steps should be taken to ensure that the children's teachers are affective teachers. The Jesuits wanted a child up to the age of seven. Then, they claimed, he would be theirs for life. These new social workers should work towards a Britain in which all seven-year-old children have known love, order and stability, and in which they are receiving a decent educational grounding in a well-run classroom. If all that happens, the longer-term crime problem will be greatly reduced. The rest of us will also be discharging our moral duty to the underclass.
That is a suitable seasonal thought.Reuse content