Spot the scapegoat

Has there ever been a more testosterone-fuelled run-up to a
general election? With the major parties tussling for the most
macho position on issues such as crime, immigration and travellers’
camps, all traces of rational debate have been jettisoned while
politicians bellow at each other like rutting stags. This even
prompted the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, to pen an
open letter to the party leaders in a plea for more tolerance and

Meanwhile, social care professionals can but look on in despair
as their work is undermined and their opinions ignored.

In recent weeks the Conservatives’ “Are you thinking what we’re
thinking” campaign has embraced plans to build more prisons, limit
immigration, crack down on travellers’ camps and get tough on
asylum seekers.

Labour is trumpeting similarly strong-arm policies. It has
encouraged councils to name and shame recipients of antisocial
behaviour orders, detain more failed asylum seekers and bring in a
skills-based points system for all immigrants.

The Liberal Democrats have called for a more positive approach
to electioneering, although this seems about as effective as
shouting “leave ’em Tony, they’re not worth it” at a pair of
drunken brawlers.

The increasingly draconian policies and the language used to
promote them have alarmed many working in the fields of law, race
relations and immigration.

The Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) is so concerned at the
provocative tone of some pre-election pronouncements that it has
called on the public to report to the police any election materials
which it thinks could incite racial hatred.

“Those who try to stir up fear, prejudice and hatred should not
be allowed to divide our communities,” says a CRE statement.

“Where it appears that election debates in local communities may
be influenced by exaggerated, false or misleading statements – such
as the supposed arrival of overwhelming numbers of asylum seekers
or immigrants – then public authorities should act quickly to rebut
the claims and make the facts clear to the public.”

Refugee support groups have become so alarmed by the negative
campaigning that they have launched a pocket guide for
parliamentary candidates and their party workers. Produced by
Refugee Action, the Refugee Council, the Scottish Refugee Council,
the Welsh Refugee Council and Star (Student Action for

Tell It Like It Is aims to counter many of the more widespread
myths about asylum. Perhaps naively, the groups hope the book will
be carried by parliamentary candidates as they campaign door to

“We would encourage anyone involved in this campaign to carry a
copy of the handbook so that they have easy access to accurate
information,” says Sandy Buchan, chief executive of Refugee

“Asylum applications have fallen dramatically in recent years
and we would like parliamentary candidates to concentrate on
improving the current system and challenging the myths and

Of concern to many of those working with young offenders or
asylum seekers is that so many of the “get tough” statements fly in
the face of professional opinion.

For instance, recent guidance from the government for councils
to routinely “name and shame” the recipients of antisocial
behaviour orders has been widely condemned by crime reduction

“Name and shame campaigns infringe a child’s right to privacy
under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and do not
address the issues underlying youth offending,” says Chris Stanley,
head of youth crime at rehabilitation agency Nacro.

“They not only reinforce an unrealistic perception and fear of
crime, but irresponsibly stigmatise children, making it harder for
them to eventually play a positive role in their communities and
putting them in danger of possible vigilante action.”

John Coughlan, chair of the Association of Directors of Social
Services’ children and families’ committee, is concerned at the
risks of naming “children who are vulnerable and out of control”.
Youth Justice Board chair Rod Morgan is also unimpressed. And
Howard League for Penal Reform director Frances Crook has condemned
the guidance as “a cheap piece of electioneering”.

Front-line professionals criticise the political debate for
focusing too much on punishing young offenders rather than tackling
the causes of their offending.

Even the police have become bemused at some of the political
parties’ negative campaigning. When the Conservatives recently
placed an advert in the North Wales press highlighting what they
claimed to be a huge rise in violent crime under Labour, the area’s
chief constable, Richard Brunstom, was so incensed that he
immediately released a statement condemning it. He claimed the
advert was misleading because it compared figures collected both
before and after the introduction of the national recording
standards two years ago.

He said it “quite improperly seeks to stir up fear of rising
crime when it is a well established fact that crime has been
falling for years both locally and nationally. I’m disappointed in
the extreme that it has appeared in the press in a marginal
constituency in the run-up to a general election.”

Similar adverts have appeared in marginal constituencies
throughout the country, prompting the Association of Chief Police
Officers to issue a statement calling on all political parties to
use crime statistics more responsibly. It says: “If we want to
increase the fear of crime, the selective use of statistics can
help in doing that. We feel it is important that all crime
statistics should be put into context and communicated in a
responsible way to the public.”

Crook agrees. “Of course it’s perfectly legitimate for the
political parties to have a discussion about law and order,” she
says. “But the discussion should be based on facts not fiction.
It’s important that the parties do not deliberately set out to
deceive the electorate by distorting the debate and encouraging a
lynch mob mentality.”

Crook emphasises that politicians who warp statistics and ignore
the views of crime reduction professionals do so at their peril.
Tough stances and hard-line policies on crime may play well with
the electorate before the election. But after the votes have been
counted, the public will expect the new government to deliver on
its promises.

“If you keep telling people that crime is getting worse and we
need more prisons then that’s what people will expect,” she says.
“But we know those policies don’t work. So you end up with a system
that is less effective and crime gets worse. Politicians who play
that game are making a noose to hang themselves with.”

Politicians and their parties would do well to take heed, and
leave their testosterone free for more personal activities.

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