Shame on you

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The Independent Online
For many moons a cuddly, bibulous right-winger called Digby Anderson has been trying to reintroduce shame into our shameless society. Once every year, as regularly as the first cuckoo of summer, the director of the Social Affairs Unit (I am not sure that the unit has any other officers) writes an article in a middle-ranging tabloid arguing for stigma and ostracism to become weapons once more in the battle against social disintegration. But apart from the leader writer of the Daily Mail, few have been prepared to support Digby's crusade.

Dr Anderson's lack of success may have something to do with the nature of his targets. Homosexuals and illegitimate children are odd choices, given the murderous activities of many heterosexuals and boys born safely within the bounds of wedlock. There is nothing wrong with poofs and bastards, as long as they behave themselves.

So we must give a cautious welcome to Mrs Margaret Mervis, Tory chair of the London borough of Wandsworth's Housing Committee, who this week published a list of the names of anti-social council tenants, guilty of such crimes as allowing their dogs to foul the public footpath. The list was sent out to be published in local newspapers and you can get hold of a copy yourself (should you want to see if any friends or acquaintances are on it) by applying directly to the Town Hall.

There will, of course, be the usual bleating by civil liberties groups about victimisation and human rights (though, typically, they remain silent about the human right to walk free from the fear of stepping in something unpleasant), and we can also expect - human nature being what it is - that some innocent tenants will appear on the list by mistake. But, as Mrs Mervis (who has also advocated identity cards for tenants and a municipal police force) rightly says, "It's no good talking tough about crime and anti-social behaviour if you are not prepared to back this up with action." Quite so, Maggy! Let the villains tremble!

But before we get carried away by our admiration of the Magnificent Mervis, there are some harsh questions to be asked. The first is whether the simple publication of a name in a local, low circulation newspaper is enough. Is there not a significant danger that many citizens (who may not be readers of the local rag) will miss the list? What proportion of the offenders are likely to know what is in the papers anyway? It seems to me that this method is both too distant from the crime and the perpetrator, while - paradoxically - reaching too few people.

Let us take the example of a yobbo pensioner who repeatedly allows her Jack Russell to defecate on the pavement. She may suffer from arthritis, or poor sight, and thus be most unwilling to do her duty in terms of scooping. It is going to take a pretty powerful incentive to get her to behave in a less antisocial way. But just imagine that she were forced to stand next to the offending pile for a full day, wearing a placard with the words "All My Own Work" - a photograph appearing in the paper, and pictures carried on the regional television news. Most pensioners I know would rather have their dogs put down immediately, than run the risk of such humiliation.

My second point is similarly substantial: why limit this public shaming to council tenants? I am sure (as Mrs Mervis seems to imply) that such people are less law-abiding than the rest of us, otherwise why do they not own their own homes? But I know some pretty anti-social home-owners and private tenants too; they also fail to return library books, do not rewind rented video tapes, allow their hanging-baskets to die of thirst in August and park their Mercs on the pavement. Surely, for a shaming strategy to work and be effective it must be seen to apply to all, from the dregs of society to its cream. Remember the classless society, Margaret?