Five years ago I made a speech about what I call the “forgotten decents” which created a bit of a fuss. I was talking about people who live on poor housing estates, who have no money to escape and whose lives are made a living hell by unruly teenagers.
So when Sir Trevor McDonald suggested I go and live on two of these estates and let the television cameras follow me around I agreed. This resulted in ITVs Ann Widdecombe v the Hoodies, which filmed me talking to families and young people and trying to get to the heart of what’s going wrong on these problem estates. What I found was exactly as I expected, but it was no less shocking for that.
I suppose what took me aback was the sheer misery in which people were living. It was just taken for granted that you didn’t go out alone at night – and some people I met wouldn’t even venture out during daylight. What sort of a life is that?
There was hardly any colour around because anything at ground level would be immediately destroyed. I came across one disabled man who had acid poured over his garden – not because someone had a grudge against him but due to sheer wanton vandalism.
After I left the first estate, the mother and two daughters I lived with were given security protection by the television people, but they still had their door firebombed and the security man was stabbed.
It was the hoodies who were causing most of the problems and, contrary to what some might think, I do have some empathy for them. I understand how some of them end up like they do.
They get into the habit of truanting or they are excluded and they end up out of education. But it’s their home surroundings that really set them on course for ending up in prison.
In the long term we have to break up these estates so people grow up in mixed communities. In the short term we need much more early intervention – and this needs to start at home. But if the kids are out on the streets until all hours causing trouble and if the parents don’t care, or they are doing drugs, or mum is on the game, social workers going in and talking to them is not going to change anything unless there’s an accompanied threat that people could lose their children. Then they will wake up to their responsibilities. I think social workers can be over-cautious when it comes to whether a child has been harmed in this sort of situation.
We need a policy of zero tolerance and we need to take young offenders out of this environment. Yes, we will end up with more people in custody but we must face up to that – it’s the victims who are the main concern.
We need to hand out flexible sentences to juveniles – between six and 12 months. If they reach set education and behaviour objectives they will be released early and that is the incentive for them to co-operate.
Contrary to popular belief, the old short, sharp shock did work in some places. We tried it when I was prisons minister with high-intensity training units at Thorn Hill in Cheshire and also in Colchester, Essex. It was a tough regime from 6am to 10pm with a full programme of activities from physical jerks to use up some of their energy plus formal education and antidrugs work. When they came out they had developed some good habits and a sense of the benefits of order and routine.
I may be out of step with some others in my party – what’s new? – but I really believe that custody can work. But it must involve rehabilitation, not just warehousing as we have now.
We must stop tinkering with the problem and start intervening with these young people before they are too far gone. We owe it to the forgotten decents but we also owe it to the young people themselves.
Ann Widdecombe is the Conservative MP for Maidstone and The Weald
This article appeared in the 25 January issue of the magazine under the headline “Custody can work but warehousing doesn’t”