Deborah Orr: A plea to politicians, the police and other public servants - show us a bit of respect

It is disrespectful of Blair to say there is not a strong link between poverty and antisocial behaviour
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The Independent Online

The saddest thing about the latest manifestation of Tony Blair's "respect agenda" is its lack of any underpinning philosophy which might suggest a deep engagement with the nature of British society today. Instead, this new tranche of measures is a consolidation of previous ones, which themselves were a mish-mash of rough justice (a reaction to the complaints of voters at the sharp end) and tender patronisation (an attempt to implement progressive social policy ideas, but without incurring the necessary expense).

As such, the proposals are familiarly Blairite. Over the years, the frustrating sight of Blair drowning any measures that are broadly sympathetic to the troubled, in a toxic soup of punitive headline-grabbers, has become no less distressing. Now, the Prime Minister says he wants this renewed attempt to bludgeon the socially excluded into model citizenship to be one of the things he is remembered for. Why wouldn't it be? It is typical of him.

Needless to say, there are some initiatives of merit among the blunt instruments. The Liberal Democrats may have been rather too quick, for example, to denounce parenting classes as an indication of "the worst kind of nanny state". In fact, such classes are oversubscribed more or less wherever they are offered, and even among those who are coerced into attending them, they have won their converts.

The idea that good parenting skills are instinctive is true only to a limited extent. The pressures brought about by such societal shifts as consumerism and cultural permissiveness affect parents profoundly. Ideas about parenting can be controversial, as repeated media discussion about the contrasting approaches of parenting gurus like Penelope Leech and Gina Ford attests. Persuading parents that they may benefit from some education about their role, rather than fining or imprisoning them, is practical and positive. It is this sort of initiative that Blair should be promoting aggressively, because it is the only option he has that could really make an impact. He has always shied away from it, though, as it's just too disgustingly close to the sort of rhetoric one might expect from a Labour prime minister for Blair to go too near it.

Of course, supportive educational intervention is not going to be the answer for all families. Among younger children, anti-social behaviour is often a sign of a serious problem at home, such as neglect, mental illness, parental alcohol or drug misuse, or worse. That is why the news that antisocial behaviour orders have been extended to apply to those under 10 is so disturbing. Very small children with deeply ingrained antisocial behavioural traits are frightening creatures indeed, because they offend against all our cherished ideas of what the ideal child ought to be. But to slap what is already being called a baby Asbo on them is the nearest a government can get to simply ordering a sound thrashing.

It is easy to see the genesis of this measure, as it is so many of the other crude measures that Blair wants to introduce. Most of the population experiences the consequences of antisocial behaviour only peripherally. We see graffiti, we step in dog excrement, we hear voices raised outside in the night, we see crime boards, or read about awful things in the local newspapers. Occasionally we may be the victim of a crime. But we have no more than a vague impression of who might be causing the trouble, and where they might be from. But in areas where social deprivation is highly concentrated, troublemakers are well-known. It is out of local frustration that the same children or the same families or the same organisations are again and again at the heart of trouble that the criminal justice system seems unable to challenge, that some of the most illiberal and brutal of Blair's new policies are born.

It seems unlikely to me that the Government is actually going to achieve its goal of being able to put households under 24-hour surveillance, seal them up for three months if they prove to be the source of repeated disruption, and force families to move into "residential sin-bins" while they are psychologically rebuilt from top to bottom.

Who, after all, is going to conduct this surveillance in the first place? These measures are supposed to be a response to Labour's frustration with the failure of the police to tackle low-level crime. Are low-paid community support officers going to be set out to "tail" disruptive and presumably aggressive families? Or are rather more expensive private detectives going to start specialising in such work?

If these unlikely scenarios, or others like them, are going to come into play, then do we have to start asking what the police are for on many more levels? Every citizen who has had contact with the police over low-level disorder knows that it is the police themselves who don't like to be bothered with such puny stuff. These days, if you attempt to hand a piece of lost property in at a police station you are treated as if you have, with unforgivable naivety, patronised busy people who have more important things to think about than serving the community.

And, of course, that is an aspect of the "respect agenda" that Blair never, ever addresses. It may be true that extreme anti-social behaviour is limited to a small number of families wreaking havoc on their local communities (as the Blairite mantra always says). But it is also true that such public services as the police, local council services, welfare services and even to an extent the NHS, increasingly expose the public to their own version of disrespectful behaviour.

The growing tendency - and some of it stems straight from policy level - is to treat every approach as an imposition. A call to one's GP is rebuffed as if one was insane to imagine such an illustrious person might be available in the next 10 days. A call to the council housing office is fielded by a person who makes it plain that they have a low opinion of your sanity. This attitude from public servants surely mirrors such attitudes as Blair's own seeming belief that more or less everybody on incapacity benefit is a malingerer. The signature position that this Government adopts in the face of human need is distrust. There is not much respect there.

Likewise, it is disrespectful of Mr Blair to claim, as he did yesterday, that there is not a strong link between antisocial behaviour and poverty, when studies by eminent experts, and sometimes those commissioned by his own Government, make it plain that there is. Those who manage well on low incomes deserve our respect, it is true, even if we no longer insist on calling them "the respectable working classes". But it is respectful to no one to use the coping poor as an excuse to sever human sympathy with those less able to rise to poverty's challenge, and offer them no more respect than we accuse them of giving.