Leading article: Labour promised to cut crime. Now they must deliver

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The Independent Online
Of all contemporary crimes, the one that probably sticks most in the mind is the murder of two-year-old Jamie Bulger, killed by two 10-year-old boys in 1993. It was an extreme and unusual case, yet it seemed to catch a national tide of despair at the breaking of social cohesion, and particularly the growing lawlessness of young people. It struck, as the shadow home secretary said at the time, like a hammer blow against the sleeping conscience of the country. Tony Blair had only just started to register on the electorate's radar with a promise that the Labour Party would be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. Suddenly, here was a politician in tune with the national mood who had something important to say about family breakdown, indiscipline and crime. In a series of speeches, he set out an entirely new approach for a party long identified with middle-class do-gooders eager to ascribe crime to social deprivation. He talked of families as the foundations of community, of the personal responsibility of criminals, of the need for punishment. These new words for Labour helped secure him the leadership of the party, and May's defeat of the Conservatives.

Now it falls to Jack Straw to turn them into government action. And, predictably, this is the hard part. Yesterday's proposals for tackling youth crime reveal not so much a gap between the rhetoric of Blairism and the reality, but a gap between the powers of modern government and the multi-dimensional scale of the problem.

Many of the proposals have a slightly gimmicky feel. The plan to allow local councils to impose night curfews on children under the age of 10, for example, has its origins in one of Mr Straw's more authoritarian off-the-cuff statements. He thought aloud about letting the police pick up youths up to the age of 16 who were out on the streets at night. Now, that would be a truly radical response to a serious problem, that of gangs of alienated teenagers making people's lives a misery, on the slope from nuisance to petty crime. But it would also be oppressive, and was rightly back-pedalled as soon as it was said. So we are left with a curfew on nine-year-olds, who can be picked up by the police already, under existing laws, if they are out unsupervised after 9pm. Of course, a new law would send a signal, but we are some way here from the "causes of crime".

Much else in the consultation paper is sensible. The idea of "reparation orders", ranging from a simple letter of apology to some attempt to repair damage caused will give a welcome new emphasis to the youth justice system. Reform of the discredited practice of repeated police cautions is long overdue. Reinforcing parents' responsibility for children's behaviour with pounds 1,000 fines also sends the right signals, though they are unlikely to be picked up by parents who have already slipped into the zone marked "social exclusion". And it is high time the legal system recognised that there are no hard and fast age limits to moral responsibility. The idea that children suddenly become capable of committing a crime on their 14th birthday hardly helps the courts deal with youngsters' emerging sense of social responsibility.

But some important aspects of the problem have been omitted - indeed, a further two consultation papers will be published later. One will deal with the thorny question of how to fulfil Labour's manifesto pledge to halve the average four-and-a-half-month waiting-time between arrest and sentencing of young criminals. It is vital that the system is made to work faster and that its whole ethos is changed, so that, as the Home Secretary said yesterday, young thugs and their parents become less like "spectators" - and all too often jeering ones, he might have added.

There are other important issues on which even consultation papers are not yet promised. There is the question of resources. On the radio yesterday, a chief constable had a nice line in unconscious irony when he complained he had no money for a computer for a register of juvenile delinquents, and was being forced to "beg, borrow or steal - quite literally". This is not a plea for more bleeding-heart public spending. But if the youth justice system can be made to work better, then the Government has to show how resources can be transferred from areas where they are being wasted.

Another hole in government policy is that of the unplanned, largely unmonitored growth in the numbers of children expelled (or "excluded", in newspeak) from schools. Mr Straw is keenly aware of the problem, but it needs joint action with Mr Blunkett's department. As with the responsibility of the Lord Chancellor's department for sentencing, we need jaw, jaw rather than turf war. Mr Blair needs to prod harder if the unwieldy machinery of Whitehall is to deliver the promises that took him to power.