Leading article: A life claimed by nihilistic violence and malign neglect

The killing of Rhys Jones points to social breakdown in parts of Britain

Like the murder of Baby P and the kidnap of Shannon Matthews, the killing of Rhys Jones has shone an unforgiving spotlight on parts of modern Britain. And what it reveals is not pretty.

The shooting of 11-year-old Rhys, as he cycled home from football practice near his home in Liverpool, in 2007, seemed to come out of a clear blue sky. Like the killing of the toddler, James Bulger, in the same part of the country in 1993, the death provoked national shock, as Rhys was named the youngest victim of gang violence in Britain. But the truth was that, unlike the Bulger killing, such a tragedy was long on the cards.

Violence on the sprawling housing estates of Croxteth and Norris Green had been growing for years before Rhys got caught in the cross-fire. Police had recorded 80 incidents of vandalism and violence linked to two rival gangs in the area. There had even been two killings, in 2004 and 2006. These shootings made little impact on the national consciousness because the victims were gang members and older.

Sean Mercer, who was sentenced yesterday to life imprisonment for Rhys's killing, was well known to the police too. He had been stopped on scores of occasions by the authorities and given an anti-social behaviour order for harassing staff at Croxteth Sports Centre. Mercer was also only 16 years old when he set out from his home with a gun to kill a rival.

Yet Mercer was no exception in his youth. Several of his fellow gang members, found guilty this week of helping him to evade arrest, were all teenagers. So we have here a picture of rampant criminality in which the gang members are young enough to be in school, and yet have easy access to firearms. This was the lethal milieu from which this murderer sprang.

But there are deeper social problems here too. It is true that many local Croxteth residents rushed to pass on Mercer's name to the police when Rhys' death hit the headlines. But the manner in which the immediate estate on which Mercer lived closed ranks to help him evade justice, despite the horrendous crime that had been committed, was disturbing. Friends of Mercer helped him destroy physical evidence linking him to the killing. He was given an alibi. It took eight months of police surveillance and the testimony of a disaffected gang member to build the case necessary to put Mercer on trial.

For several residents of this estate, defending one of their own was apparently regarded as more important than bringing the killer of an 11-year-old boy to justice. Why? One of the police officers who worked on the case has noted that "many gang members are the third generation of families who have never worked. Crime is all they know and so have no normality to be rehabilitated into." This small community appears to have turned in on itself.

This gives us some indication of the scale of social breakdown fuelling the sort of nihilistic violence that led to Rhys's death. This is by no means a problem exclusive to poor districts of Liverpool. All around the country there are estates blighted by a culture of chronic welfare dependency, antisocial behaviour and crushing poverty of aspiration. And for decades they have suffered from the malign neglect of the political establishment. Putting this right needs to be a priority for any party with aspirations for power.

We must not treat the terrible death of Rhys Jones as an inexplicable bolt from the blue. It should be a wake-up call.