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The liberal left is wrong on curfews, argues Geraldine Bedell defending Jack Straw's proposal
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The Independent Online
What would you do if, driving home at 11pm, you spotted a gang of 10-year-olds loitering on the pavement? Almost certainly nothing. You'd pass by on the other side, assume they were some other adult's responsibility. You wouldn't have the time or the confidence to ask them whether they shouldn't perhaps be somewhere else, such as in bed. It wasn't always like this: there was a time, not so long ago, when individuals weren't afraid of being told to mind their own business, when we were a society homogeneous enough to have standards, and were not embarrassed to try to live by them.

This is why the spectacle of the self-appointed gatekeepers of liberalism tying themselves in hysterical knots last week was so depressing. Jack Straw's suggestion of a curfew for children under the age of 11 prompted the Guardian to sneer that he was engaged in a Dutch auction with the Home Secretary and to hiss: "Why not go the whole hog and bring in the Rio de Janeiro police to dispose of the youngsters?" The paper's letters pages seethed with accusations that Straw was a "moral mugger"; with images of child-catchers rounding up the poor, and with descriptions of the scheme as an "obscene and repulsive attack on young people, and upon the civil liberties of us all".

This is mindless, knee-jerk liberalism, a discredit to the principles it pretends to uphold. Straw's language, with its echoes of tinpot totalitarianism, may have been a sop to the law'n'order brigade, but somewhere underneath it all he was making a serious point.

It is foolish to behave as if civil liberties are all of a piece, meshing happily into a seamless whole, and that if you pick at one, the whole fabric is liable to unravel. This is the slippery-slope defence of civil liberties: give children a bedtime, and before you know where you are we'll all be living in a police state. The truth is that in a complex, multicultural and individualistic society, liberties compete, and have to prove their relative urgency. It is widely accepted that a person's right to smoke should be constrained by other people's distaste for the fumes. Similarly, it does not seem unreasonable that my children should not maraud the streets with gangs of their friends at all hours if this terrifies my elderly and vulnerable neighbours.

Nor do children have exactly the same civil liberties as adults. Children are more vulnerable than us, and so entitled to our protection. You can, if you like, see this as a restriction though I prefer to think of it as an enhancement - of their freedom. Without supervision, young children are prey to all sorts of miseries, from bullying to recruitment into criminal gangs. The Labour Party has always been in the business of protecting people from those who would seek to exercise unrestricted power over them.

Those who are so outraged by Jack Straw's authoritarianism - and they are mostly men - would probably be horrified if their own small children were out after dark. (Women, who do most of the day-to-day work of setting limits for children, are noticeably less appalled by the notion that there should be wider, more practical support for keeping kids off the streets at night.) It is illegal to leave a child below the age of 14 unattended at home, so why should it be so dreadful to disapprove of children the same age being unsupervised on the streets? To go so far as to write, as correspondents to the Guardian did, that the curfew would penalise the working classes and black people, is to employ a moral relativism that is as damaging as it is patronising. It is like assuming that Afro- Caribbean children will do badly at school. Such assumptions, we should know by now, have a habit of turning into self-fulfilling prophesies.

Jack Straw (who is talking, let us not forget, about quite young children) has not transmogrified into some authoritarian monster, desperate to reinvent Back To Basics and have us all drinking warm beer and wearing 1950s cardigans. He is merely acknowledging that society is not just a random bunch of individual choices. If we live in desolate, fractured communities, we are impoverished, however many choices we may seem to have. And communities that don't watch over and worry about their children are quite desperately desolate and fractured; dilapidated to the point of self-destruction.

Reinventing a society which comprehends many and varied communities does not mean looking backwards, with everyone living in 1950s nuclear families. The contemporary society must include all the many different types of family (gay, single-parent, step-parent) flourishing in Britain today. It must take in sexual, ethnic and cultural diversity. And a Home Secretary who accepted all this could be staunch in defence of civil liberties that did not damage other people, from the decriminalisation of drugs to the right of sado-masochists to do whatever they want to each other.

All of which is not to say that there is nothing wrong at all with Jack Straw's suggestion, which came out sounding disconcertingly unformed, policy on the hoof. The problems are chiefly practical: 10-year-olds can look older, and 14-year-olds younger, than they really are. The scope for cheating, as well as for adolescent humiliation, is immense. Are the police (who in our area at least, only move threateningly, in squad cars and helicopters) to administer the scheme? Will that foster good community relations? And what are they supposed to do with these children when they find them? Supposing when they take them home there's no one there: what then - the cells? What should they do with repeat offenders? Punish the parents, who, if they can't even keep their children in, must surely need help?

As a political slogan, the brilliance of "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" is that it has things all ways. New Labour Britain, it implies, will be a place where only the highest standards are acceptable. But it will also be a compassionate place, furiously sweeping aside the obstacles to good citizenship. So dazzling a slogan is it, in fact, that for a long time it obviated the need for any actual policies. And inevitably, the policies, when they do come, lack the electrifying simplicity of the original premise. Jack Straw no sooner suggests one than he finds the Guardian accusing him of competing with Michael Howard for the title of most illiberal man in Britain.

No doubt an element in Straw's thinking was to wrongfoot the Tories, in which case he probably succeeded, though at the cost of much misunderstanding. When he got round to explaining himself, he made a couple of significant points that were overlooked by the Tories and the knee-jerk libertarians alike. One was that this could only work as a local scheme. He wasn't talking about the state interfering in parenting, but the community getting interested. "The very process by which sullen and frustrated complaints were turned into positive debate about basic standards of behaviour in an area might itself lead to much better agreement among parents, teachers and police about young people's behaviour and, for example, the time that children of a certain age should be home."

The debate, he seemed to be saying, was at least as important as any commitments that might come out of it. Parenting has been privatised, left to individuals, and devalued in the process. No one is very interested except the poor mugs who are going through it; no one is helping out. Which brings us back to the original question: what would you do if you saw those 10-year-olds out at 11pm? Shrug your shoulders in a laissez- faire kind of way and get on with your life? Someone else's kids, someone else's problem.

Adult attention is a scarce commodity for many children. Britain has the highest percentage of single-parent households of any country in the European Union, and the highest proportion of men who work more than 50 hours a week. In many public places, closed-circuit television has replaced grown-up watchfulness. Parks, once carefully tended by local authorities, are often now lost spaces, with boarded up buildings, litter and graffiti, the park-keeper long ago made redundant. The message children take away from all this is that adults don't care. It's a similar lesson when police forces write off low-grade crimes as offences to which they no longer respond, or when they turn a blind eye to underage offending on the grounds that they can't punish it anyway. The point is not to punish. It is to show that anti-social behaviour matters.

In business now, the most successful organisations are not authoritarian bureaucracies, but flattened structures in which authority constantly has to be justified. In order to do this, companies will formulate mission statements, describing their purposes and values. Communities are not so different. They won't respond to strong-arm tactics, only to values that seem to make sense to people on the ground. Of course, talking glibly about communities is difficult in a complex society, where many different types of community exist and overlap, not just local but of interest, some of them even virtual. But the point remains that if communities of whatever type are to have any coherence, they need standards, and foremost among those should be concern for their children.

Jack Straw could undoubtedly have made his point more elegantly, but what he seems to be stressing is that new Labour believes in the exercise of personal responsibility. Quite right, too: the liberal left has no future if it hopes to exist in a stew of moral relativism, in which to believe in bedtime for primary school children is to discriminate against black people. But he must know that parenthood at present is an onerous responsibility which brings with it few commensurate rights. The curfew is a great idea insofar as it is about getting people who are afraid of, and worried about children, involved in their upbringing. The biggest problem is that it's called a curfew. It sounds prescriptive and proscriptive, when what parents actually need is support.