Will this win back communities, or just voters?

It is risible that an addicted beggar has to be caught three times before treatment will be made available
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The Independent Online

The Government, in its White Paper Winning Back Our Communities, has certainly got one thing right. It is definitely, as the paper says, the "poorest and most disadvantaged people" who suffer most from antisocial behaviour. This is due, of course, to the close proximity in which the "poorest and most disadvantaged" are obliged to live to the small minority among their own number who indulge in such behaviour.

The Government, in its White Paper Winning Back Our Communities, has certainly got one thing right. It is definitely, as the paper says, the "poorest and most disadvantaged people" who suffer most from antisocial behaviour. This is due, of course, to the close proximity in which the "poorest and most disadvantaged" are obliged to live to the small minority among their own number who indulge in such behaviour.

Therefore, since no one in government, or indeed among the pundits who are busily passing comment upon the White Paper, can make any claim to be among the "poorest and most disadvantaged", accuracy might have been better served by the title "Winning Back Their Communities".

Does such a seemingly alienating distinction matter? I think it does. The cosy "our", for a start, suggests a communality of British experience that all concerned know to be a lie. Britain is an "us and them" society, as can be seen in so much of the debate around sociological issues. "They", be they immigrants, young men, teenage mothers, or bog-standard comp kids with ideas above their station, are always ruining things for "us".

When it comes to antisocial behaviour, the pretence that everyone is in it together simply makes people suspicious. When the title of a White Paper is so bogus, the assumption is that everything else must be bogus too. It has already been widely noted that not everyone's worries about antisocial behaviour centre on alleviating the problems faced by the "poorest and most disadvantaged" and "winning back our communities".

Westminster Council, it has been reported, is a great supporter, and perhaps even one of the originators, of the most controversial of the new measures for tackling street crime, and particularly what used to be known as vagrancy. It wants begging to be criminalised further than it is already, so that after three convictions for begging, a miscreant can be jailed.

The Government has gone along with Westminster's wish, but only so far. Beggars will get a criminal record after three offences, but their sentences are more likely to be community service or compulsory drug treatment than prison. This stance is preferable to Westminster's. It will further clog only the criminal justice system, and not the prisons as well. But the fact remains that the driving force behind it is not the desire to win back any communities, but the promotion of tourism.

Likewise, by the Government's own admission, the desire to tackle "deep-seated public perceptions that crime is increasing" is a clear motive behind the drafting of the paper and, say some, the timing of its publication in the run-up to May's local council elections. Again, the priority does not seem to be "winning back communities", but reassuring voters who feel threatened by the idea of lawless elements, even though they often encounter them more forcefully in their newspapers than in their daily lives.

Unhappily, therefore, some of the measures in this paper are more concerned with changing the way things look than changing the way things are. Much comparison has been made between the contents of this White Paper and Rudi Giuliani's "broken windows" policy, the then mayor of New York's campaign against low-level antisocial behaviour.

This "look after the pennies and the pounds look after themselves" philosophy appeared to work in the States, where there are many more police per head of population than here. The theory is fine, although it is doubtful whether fines and criminal records, rather than 24-hour glazing services, can bring results unless they are properly enforced. Even my five-year-old, I'm afraid, seems to have grasped that much of this posturing is fake. He has a shameful propensity to want to urinate whenever the mood takes him. The other day, when he announced that he desperately needed to wee as we strolled along the side of a quiet cemetery, I told him that such behaviour was so unacceptable that the police could arrest and fine people for weeing outside. "Ah," said my boy, who was born with an instinct for rebellion, "but you don't think a policeman will be able to see us here, do you, Mum?"

I testily explained to him that this was not the point, and that I was telling him that urinating in the streets was a criminal offence not to warn him against being caught by the police while doing it, but to try to get it through to him that sprinkling his liquid waste around the place was not a thing that nice or good people did.

I'd like to think that this gave him something to think about as he trotted along grasping his genitals and squealing piteously. After all, the sanctions of the law works for most of us. But actually, among those who do continue to behave in an antisocial way, it generally doesn't. Beggars, for example, already know that they are doing something illegal and shameful, but are too desperate for various reasons – addiction, alcoholism, and mental health problems chief among them – to resist. Frankly, if you're already lying around in the mucky streets asking strangers for change, the idea that a criminal record might be round the corner isn't going to feel that demeaning.

The usual liberal response to the conservative desire to see those who deviate from social norms punished rather than helped is, of course, to declare that they need to be helped rather than punished. A seemingly counterintuitive desire to combine these two opposite approaches is visible in some parts of the White Paper. It is somewhat risible that an addicted beggar has to be caught three times before drug treatment will be made available to him. But this is no doubt deemed necessary in a society in which an otherwise law-abiding person with a drug problem sometimes has to accept a place on a long waiting list before a suitable programme will be available to him.

But what lies beyond the conflicting demands of a political debate that on the one hand wants charitable understanding, and on the other resents such charitable understanding because it considers that, by definition, you have to be "undeserving" before you get it? Is there no possibility that this circle can be squared, and that people can be helped in ways that do not make them, to resentful eyes, the passive repositories of well-meaning initiatives and handouts, and that people can be punished in ways that can end up making them feel better rather than worse about themselves and others?

Again, in the White Paper, there is a hint that beyond the tourist-grabbing, vote-grabbing bluster, there is a hope that such things may be possible. Restorative justice, until now used mainly in dealing with juvenile offenders, is to be rolled out to attempt to deal with older offenders, confronting them physically and emotionally with the human and material cost of their misdemeanours.

Given that the divisive culture and economy that exacerbates so many of our social problems seems to be here to stay, such an approach appears our best and only hope of turning around lives that are self-destructive and destructive of the lives of others. It is an approach that has at least the potential to introduce a measure of shame and regret into the lives of the worst antisocial offenders, the sort of shame and regret that can herald a new understanding and positivity, rather than entrenched resentment and victimhood.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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