Whatever happened to being tough on the causes of crime?

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As it approaches its fifth anniversary, it is possible to see just how disappointing the performance of the Blair government has been in its failure to deal with the grim quality of life endured by those on Britain's "sink estates". This is especially true of the unacceptably high levels of crime that prevail in such neighbourhoods.

But, recalling Mr Blair's famous soundbite, there are disturbing signs that ministers are giving up on the task of dealing with the causes of crime and are instead contenting themselves with appearing tough on criminals. Mr Blunkett's latest announcement, that he is to lock up persistent young offenders, will, like his other tough-sounding initiatives, yield a quick political dividend in terms of approving headlines and comment in the more reactionary sections of the press. But his approach offers little hope of dealing with the dreadful conditions that turn children into criminals by the age of 8 or 12.

It was not always thus. One of Mr Blair's first acts on coming to power in May 1997 was to make a high-profile visit to a typical deprived inner city district, the Aylesbury estate in Peckham, London. It was characterised, as so many are, by drug abuse, graffiti, vandalism and high crime. Standing surrounded by its grey blocks, Mr Blair declared that, under him, there would be "no forgotten people and no no-hope areas", and promised to tackle the "dead weight of low expectations, the crushing belief that things cannot get better".

Mr Blair said then that "work is the best form of welfare". True enough; unemployment is the primary cause of poverty. Whether by accident or design, Mr Blair's government has enjoyed a relatively benign economic background. Employment and prosperity has increased. But despite the working families tax credit, the surestart scheme and all the the other paraphernalia of New Labour's reforms, some are still being left behind. Educational opportunities in the schools for the poorest remain, mostly, dismal. There are very few ladders out of the sink estate. Small wonder, then, that we have a problem with young offenders; given the quality of life that prevails in the worst corners of London, Leeds, Cardiff, Bristol, Newcastle and other cities, perhaps the surprise is that there are so few delinquents.

And yet, even as we ponder what can be done in the long run to eliminate the breeding grounds of crime – bad housing, failing schools, the culture of drug abuse – there are too many fellow citizens who are having their quality of life destroyed. Middle England would not put up with it, so why should those who live on these run-down estates have to put up with having their windows broken or watching their cars being burned out, or live in fear because of racial abuse?

In those circumstances it may be that a small number of persistent offenders do need to be placed in detention, at least in the short run, to protect the community. But prison, even the junior version represented by the secure unit, is not the answer. If we really want to turn a 12-year-old joyrider into a serious professional criminal then, yes, we can start his apprenticeship early and introduce him to 16-year-olds who will be able to teach him some new tricks.

There are other ways of dealing with persistent young offenders, although they require more patience than locking them up. There are anti-social behaviour orders, parenting orders and tagging; all could be pursued more effectively if, above all, there was much closer supervision by social workers and the police. The culture of neglect is still endemic; there are still too many forgotten people and no-hope areas.