Leading article: Moral panic and a return to gesture politics

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The Independent Online

Will the smiling face of 11-year-old Rhys Jones replace that grainy image of two-year-old James Bulger as a cipher for all that is wrong with British childhood? Fourteen years separate the two deaths. But yesterday it was as though the greater part of Britain had been waiting for just such an atrocity to top off the latest bout of hand-wringing about our young people. The blamelessness of the victim, the innocence of his pursuit, the youth and seeming cold-blooded purpose of the inevitably hooded killer all added up to a picture of debased childhood, rooted in a degraded society.

By coincidence, Rhys's murder took place just hours before a planned Downing Street summit on youth crime. But the coincidence gave all concerned a chance to turn up the volume on the dominant social themes of the summer: gangs, guns and anti-social behaviour in all its guises. With the populist press in full panic mode, everyone was out to propose answers.

The Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, promised "additional resources and attention", a minimum sentence for knife-carriers, and more Acceptable Behaviour Contracts – agreements that commit offenders to mending their ways on pain of harsher punishment if they fail.

David Cameron, in new zero-tolerance mode, proposed harsher minimum sentences for juvenile offenders and a ban – or delay – on driving. Given that the lack of a licence deters few teenagers from driving and that custody often provides a crime school for young offenders, both solutions look sadly like our old friend, gesture politics. His actual words were still less convincing. "With young people," he said, "you need to hit them where it hurts, in their lifestyle and their aspirations." If there is one point of agreement, it is that poverty of lifestyle and aspiration underlies much offending.

Ms Smith was nearer the mark with her pledge of more resources and attention. But we remain to be convinced that ABCs will prove any more effective than the disgracefully overused Asbos. Anything that singles out a child as "bad" risks becoming a badge of honour in the very quarters where most orders are applied. Stigmatising is counterproductive. The problems we face with juvenile crime are not unique to Britain, but they do appear to be more acute here than in many other European countries. Whether this is because we are ahead or behind in our development, or just different, can be debated eternally. What cannot be denied is that attempts to tackle youth offending piecemeal and on the cheap do not, and will not, have the desired effect.

We work some of the longest hours in Europe; the school curriculum seems irrelevant to many less academically inclined pupils and we lock up proportionately many more young offenders than any of our neighbours. Our rate of family breakdown is among the highest in the developed world; parenting classes alone will not instil responsibility where none is felt.

Declining social mobility has left islands populated by an under-class, marooned in a sea of increasing affluence – islands of hopelessness that lack decent homes, decent schools, decent shops – and any accessible bridge out. We have neither the family structures of southern Europe nor the social provision of the north. Dependent on ever-shrinking voluntary provision, which is increasingly tied up in red-tape, too many young people fall back on their own, none-too-laudable, devices.

We can debate who or what is responsible for this state of affairs. What we must not do, though, is to succumb to the prevailing air of moral panic. Remedies will be expensive; they may require a fundamental change in our priorities. But in the long term they will cost less than doing nothing.