John Major has rushed to condemn the 'fashionable theories' of this most thoughtful member of the judiciary, but I'm full square with Justice Woolf on this one - especially in the area of property offences. The critics are fundamentally misunderstanding his central message.
Lord Woolf was trying to force us to think more carefully about the crucial issues: how to introduce and enforce crime prevention policies throughout the country, how to drive home the message that individuals must bear a heavy responsibility for looking after themselves and the things they value, and how to alter behaviour so that no one provides easy pickings for would-be criminals.
In an ideal world people should be free to enjoy what is theirs without external threat: houses should not be burgled, cars not be broken into or stolen. Women and small children should be able to walk freely throughout the land whatever the time of day (a British dream which dates back to the writings of the Venerable Bede in the Dark Ages). Women expressing their sexuality with short skirts and plunging necklines should be treated with respect, not wolf whistles and worse. And babies should never cry . . . .
But as the 20th century draws to a close, it is patently obvious that modern life is just not like that. Nor is it clear that any police force in the world could bring about such an age of innocence in the absence of any over-
arching sense of society, or of public morality, to keep individual behaviour in check. We are not closely observed, as was the norm in a 17th-
century Puritan village: whether you live in the inner city or in rural isolation, you will be a potential victim of burglary, or worse.
We have become used to the notion of caveat emptor when we attempt to shop or conduct a financial transaction. Now, with crime rampant, it seems entirely sensible to try to reinforce individual wariness and responsibility with modest fines. It costs the community huge amounts of police time and resources to clear up after, say, a car theft. And should we not recognise the basic truth that there are two sides to certain crimes?
Most burglaries and robberies are opportunistic, carried out by relatively unsophisticated petty thieves who often give up at the first hint of alarms, bars and fierce dogs. This means there is a huge and underplayed role for basic prevention. Penalties would reinforce the message, and underline the need for careful behaviour. Manufacturers could also play their part: fitting cars with good locks that cannot be easily picked, and alarms that immobilise them. Housebuilders should also continually review their designs.
I remember, with shame, looking out of my bedroom window early one morning and watching, through half- opened eyes, a man open the unlocked boot of my car and walk off with the spare tyre before I even registered what was going on. I was a victim of theft, but I was equally guilty of foolishly providing a passer-by with an opportunity for easy pickings. (The family vehicle now has an alarm.) My friend recently had her bag stolen through the smashed window of her car when she left it for two minutes to deliver her son at school: she should have carried it with her to the door.
We should also remember everyday examples of how behaviour can be shaped for the benefit of society. Obligatory seat belts, backed up with penalties, have created far safer driving conditions, with a consequently reduced burden on the public and emergency services. Within my lifetime there have also been huge changes in the way cars and motorists are treated. Once you could drive into the centre of large cities and park almost anywhere, without restrictions. I can dimly remember when parking meters and traffic wardens were first introduced to my home city of Bristol.
There will be those who say, along with the Prime Minister, that by fining the victim of crime you are hitting the innocent victim not once, but twice. But someone who fails to use car locks or install precautions is also in the wrong, an accomplice of sorts. It is a lesser evil than actually committing a crime, but it is an irresponsible action, a dereliction of one's duty to protect oneself. This is actually one area of modern life that is within everyone's power to alter. Justice Woolf's suggestion should most certainly not be laughed out of court.Reuse content