Leading article: The problem with our wanton boys

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The Independent Online
SHAKESPEARE set the text for New Labour's social policy 400 years ago: "I wish there were no age between 10 and 23, because young men get wenches with child, upset the ancientry, stealing and fighting." That, precisely, is the problem identified by the Home Secretary last weekend. Boys and men of all classes are acting like the loutish heroes of the television comedy Men Behaving Badly, he said. "There's certainly something quite worrying about what is happening to a generation of men."

Many of the modern ills which so exercise Jack Straw and Tony Blair touch on the behaviour of males. Crime, petty vandalism, public disorder, lone parenthood, family breakdown, educational standards. In each case it is boys and men who are the focus of public policy. They are falling behind girls at school, more likely to play truant, lose interest, experiment with drugs and behave anti-socially. They are overwhelmingly responsible for the small acts of aggression which too often build up into a pattern of crime. They get wenches with child and disappear into a nether zone where the Child Support Agency cannot reach them. Or they stick around for a bit and then push off, losing contact with their children and depriving them of role models. It was ever thus, but it seems to be getting worse.

On cue, as if on a mission to prove Mr Straw right, Liam Gallagher was arrested and released on bail in Brisbane for allegedly breaking a fan's nose. For the benefit of any judges who might be reading, Mr Gallagher is the lead singer in a rock band, Oasis, renowned for their infantile and disrespectful behaviour - as well as their music. This week a Sydney woman claimed he had harassed her. He is deemed unsuitable when it comes to drawing up lists of invitations to Downing Street functions, but his marginally more respectable older brother Noel has shared champagne with Mr Blair.

(Mind you, it was Noel who last week offered reporters, trailing the band like seagulls following a ship, some tasteless words on the subject of the People's Princess.)

Mr Straw may be gratified to have his thesis vindicated in full Technicolor, like an X-rated soap opera entitled "The Problem With Boys", but the question is what he intends to do about it.

Shakespeare's shepherd in The Winter's Tale suggests the Government should simply abolish men between the ages of 10 and 23. This is the policy currently being enacted in the United States, where a large proportion of this age group are locked up in prison. Unfortunately, it does not seem to have worked there, and Mr Straw would no doubt want to extend the scope of the policy in both directions. Liam Gallagher is 25. And Mr Straw has already proposed a curfew on under-10s, combined with national homework norms and state-sponsored bedtime guidelines.

Perhaps the Government should consider other approaches. In his interview, the Home Secretary said: "Some men find it really very difficult to cope with the fact that women are now increasingly on an equal footing ... They try to cope with that by acting the goat, by being the fool." The implication of that is that the blame for Liam's antics lies with Patsy Kensit (notes for judges: she is Mrs Liam Gallagher). Well, perhaps on reflection and after a thorough and wide-ranging review Mr Straw will conclude that the Women (Second Class Citizens) (Restoration) Act would not be the ideal answer.

Equally, ministers should hesitate before blaming television. Mr Straw himself admitted he found Men Behaving Badly "entertaining". And cartoons, after decades of a very bad press, were exonerated by a study published this week. It concluded that boys tend to watch different kinds, preferring action dramas such as Street Sharks and Batman. But as anyone who had actually watched these morally didactic tales would know, they are pretty harmless.

No, when it comes to tackling the tangled undergrowth of causation linking anti-social male behaviour, poverty and exclusion, there is no alternative to the Home Secretary's patient and rather boring list of detailed initiatives. From the moment he inherited the home affairs brief from his fellow social moralist Mr Blair in 1994, Mr Straw has worked on the nitty gritty of what really matters on the ground. Problem families on problem estates; co-operation between police, courts, councils, schools, social workers, charities, churches; and a shift in the focus of public debate to how families work - boys, bedtimes and parenting, rights and responsibilities.

Much of this is earnest and unglamorous politics, but his grasp of these difficult issues explains why the Home Secretary has been one of the unexpected stars of the new Labour administration.