Oliver Letwin: Get tough on the real causes of crime: criminals

From the Keith Joseph Memorial Lecture given by the shadow Home Secretary at the Centre for Policy Studies, in London
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The Independent Online

" Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" – with these words, Tony Blair moved Labour ahead on the issue of law and order. It was, perhaps, the single most effective sound bite of recent times. And yet those nine words sum up much that is wrong with the established approach to crime.

What did the Prime Minister mean by the "causes" of crime? He meant the social circumstances of the criminal – as if a child born into a particular home, in a particular street, in a particular town is condemned to a life of crime. But there is nothing inevitable about crime. There is always a choice. Even after the first offence there is a choice. Even after a thousand offences there is choice.

What makes young people choose crime? What are the causes of crime? May these questions be misdirecting our thoughts? This is what Michael Novak intended to suggest when he said: "People often ask what causes crime. But they're asking the wrong question. Let me give a parallel from economics. If you ask 'What are the causes of poverty?' you are asking a really useless question. Suppose you discover the answer? Terrific! Now you know how to make poverty... The interesting question, the fruitful question, is quite different. And it didn't occur to anybody to ask this other question until late in the 18th century: 'What are the causes of the wealth of nations?' If you can figure that out, then you can begin to imagine a time of universal prosperity." We need to ask the "fruitful question" about crime, just as Adam Smith did about poverty.

More than a year has passed since the shocking murder of Damilola Taylor. The outcry that followed prompted a major government effort on the North Peckham Estate, where Damilola lived and died. In 12 months, 505 flats have been demolished and 133 homes built, the police presence has been increased and resources have been ploughed into local schools. But the testimony of local people is that they still live in fear.

Labour's crude economic determinism will not improve those lives made a daily hell by crime. The failure to deliver real change in North Peckham is not an accident. It arises from a failure of analysis cloaked in a tough rhetoric so far unaccompanied by effective action to restore security. Improvement of the housing stock and increased funding for schools is not a cure-all. We need a deeper understanding of what is really going on.

Since the war, trends toward greater wealth, better education, wider car ownership, new communications technologies and looser social ties have created entirely new forms of community. But not everyone shares in these new possibilities, especially the poor, the unemployed, the elderly, young people, the disabled and members of ghettoised ethnic groups. For many in these categories, it remains true that community – if anywhere – is where you live. That is why the poor are more vulnerable to crime.

We should break the vicious circle at its weakest point, the point at which signs of environmental degradation and low-level disorder are just emerging. At its simplest this means making neighbourhoods safe for children, towing away abandoned cars, removing rubbish, repairing playgrounds, pushing out drug-dealers.

None of this can work unless a combination of high-level policing and criminal intelligence with tough sentencing has removed from the midst of the affected community the drug barons and organised criminals whose interests are opposed to the recreation of the neighbourly society.

The task of restoring the neighbourly society where it has broken down is a task for a political party that understands that politics has its limits as well as its uses – a party that understands that, when freed from the suffocating menace of crime, communities are spontaneous, innovative and personal in a way that governments and bureaucracies are not and can never be.