Politicians rely on propaganda to persuade the electorate that they know best. Prime minister Tony Blair has proved among the most adept at that. In speech after speech, he has painted a picture of Britain overrun, even in affluent middle class suburbia, by antisocial barbarians, feral youths and the underclass.
Given this alleged invasion, according to Blair, the state has no choice but to take tough action. It may undermine a raft of civil liberties in the process but, with his impaired logic, the prime minister argues that this is acceptable for the greater good.
Recently in The Observer, he wrote: “People mourn the loss of respect…they want it back.” He explained that the causes of antisocial behaviour were to do with “shifting communities, dysfunctional families, globalisation and myriad influences… to which our young people are subject.” He added: “The system intervenes once kids are off the rails. This is usually hopeless. We need intervention at an early age.”
Time was when we did have intervention at an early age in the form of youth clubs, playing fields and youth workers who operated free from the threat that their funding was likely to run out.
The inadequacy of many public services for young people has been acknowledged in Youth Matters: Next Steps. Local authoritieswill need to ensure young people have “places to go and things to do”.
Nine years into government, the effort is belated, the funding (so far) inadequate,while delivery on a scale large enough to matter is doubtful. Paradoxically, this is partly down to Labour’s demonisation of the young and its use of antisocial behaviour orders. How are councils going to justify spending taxpayers’ money on those drawn from the same suspect group who allegedly deserve only to be treated with mistrust, exile and public branding?
Professor Rod Morgan, the government’s chief adviser on youth crime who also chairs the Youth Justice Board, has now said that hysteria over teenage behaviour is creating a lost generation. Two thousand Asbos have been issued against children since 1999.
The level of youth offending has remained static over the past 10 years but a record number of children are being sent to court – often for trivial issues. Morgan says children should be reprimanded in the first place by parents, teachers and other professionals, avoiding Asbos and court.
For a reprimand to have an effect, however, a young person also has to want to please the person issuing it.
Social care professionals know that may not often be the case. What does work is established – distraction, absorption, an end to boredom and sustained support by involved and consistent adults. As well as effective policing on the ground to deter and channel potentially destructive behaviour into more constructive directions.
Dean, 15, is football mad. The police confiscated 12 balls from him in a fortnight because he was playing in the street and using the bus stop as a goal. Now, he has an Asbo forbidding him to play in the street or go within 100 yards of the local community college or damage property. Surely, the answer for Dean is to capitalise on his passion, not fuel his anger. Three hours of football practice five nights a week has to be preferable to an easily broken Asbo.
The YJB wants to reduce the number of children in custody by 10 per cent by 2008. Fat chance. Chris Wright, of youth support charity Rainer, says: “There is a thin line between adolescent mischief-making and low-level crime. We need to ask ourselves – what is adolescence and what is actual criminal activity?”
The fact that we need to ask ourselves the question shows the extent of Blair’s shameful success in persuading voters that it’s not what we have failed to do for our young that’s at fault, but the young themselves.
● See The march of the asbos