Who thinks this fine-tuning will work?
CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor Another blast on the Prime Minister’s respect’ trumpet. But the typical yob is unlikely to take any notice. And a disillusioned and frustrated public may be equally unimpressed. Political editor Chris Fisher has his own views.
CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor
The Prime Minister's 'respect' agenda has been polished, supposedly beefed up and put back in front of the cameras. But will it actually deserve any more respect from voters than previous incarnations?
There were complaints yesterday from the Tory leadership that Tony Blair's plans were rooted in pessimism. I am much more struck, however, by the pessimism of the law-abiding majority as it contemplates the defiant anti-social behaviour of a small but seemingly growing part of the population, and the apparent inability of the authorities to get on top of it.
Is that gloominess justified? I think so. I feel deeply pessimistic about this issue myself, and I shall be very surprised if the latest initiative from 10 Downing Street makes more than a marginal difference.
We must all have tales to tell about anti-social behaviour - from serious threats of violence to the casual dropping of litter in the street. It is very much part of British society today. It is very much part of Blair's Britain - and the Prime Minister is acutely aware that it threatens deeply to stain his legacy.
In less than a week recently the three cars owned by my two sons and my daughter were vandalised in separate attacks in different locations, and my younger son's vehicle was attacked twice in four days. Over the past year or so, moreover, my daughter and her partner have had to find more than £1000 to replace tyres repeatedly slashed. And the latter attacks occurred in a pleasant street on the Surrey/Berkshire border, not in a run-down area.
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This is no doubt trifling stuff compared with the indignities routinely suffered by many decent people living on 'sink' estates patrolled by nasty, bullying, hoodie-wearing little thugs. Or by people living next to noisy neighbours who appear resolved to turn their own residence and everything around them into a rubbish tip.
I do not see why I or anyone else should be expected to put up with it. And it is enough to make my blood boil and generate thoughts (resorting to baseball bats, and so on) that I am not proud of.
All the cases affecting my family were reported to the police. Nothing happened, no one was caught, and that is exactly what I expected.
The general public's pessimism also strongly reflects a belief, in my view, that there is no point in reporting acts of vandalism or anti-social behaviour because it is extremely unlikely any action will be taken.
The Prime Minister clearly alluded to this yesterday in what for me was the most interesting part of his speech.
Anti-social behaviour such as "spitting at an old lady on her way to the shops" had always been a crime and could have resulted in a prosecution, he said.
"Except that, in practice, it's not what happens. In practice, the person who spits at the old lady is not prosecuted because to do so takes many police hours, much resource, and if all that is overcome, the outcome is a fine."
Well, why should such an incident take many hours of police time? Who is responsible, furthermore, for all the form-filling obligations? Why can't the great bulk of them be removed?
Part of Mr Blair's latest answer is to put more emphasis on what he termed "pre-court" powers. Fixed penalty notice fines for disorder will be raised from £80 to £100. More offenders will receive conditional cautions and could be made to do unpaid community work. There will be more help for problem families. And there are proposals to close down properties that become centres of anti-social behaviour.
Does anyone outside the Government seriously suppose that any of this is going to make the typical yob think twice before throwing his weight about in the street?
How long will it be before this initiative joins all the other well-intentioned but essentially ineffective forerunners? Isn't it all a bit cosmetic? Doesn't it smack of bodging things for another year (if that long)? Doesn't it reinforce the view that the Government is running round in circles getting nowhere on this issue?
One thing that should be welcomed is the recognition, in the commitment to deal with problem families, that a small number of people can cause a hugely disproportionate amount of annoyance and that deeply anti-social values are being passed down from parents to offspring. In some cases, there are three generations or more who don't have a clue - and who couldn't care less - about what constitutes acceptable behaviour in public. This cycle needs to be broken.
But the Prime Minister surely needs to dig much deeper to have any chance of starting to conquer this problem. A comprehensive and radical solution is required, not a little fine-tuning.
Is it not possible that the anti-social behaviour phenomenon is seriously aggravated by the great quantities of junk food consumed by some people, particularly at the bottom of the social pile? Can kids who are full of food additives be reasonably expected to be models of good behaviour in school or on the street?
What about the impact of TV? Aren't some programmes deeply anti-social in sending out bad messages about what is, and what isn't, proper behaviour? Celebrity Big Brother, for example?
Why is it, moreover, that some pupils arrive at school before they are even five with a strong idea of what teachers cannot do to them and what their own rights are? Why has it got into many not very bright heads that individual rights count for everything and society's rights don't mean a thing?
I would suggest it has been put there by some supposedly very bright people in the legal profession and the human rights industry. Many of them consider themselves to be of the left, which has traditionally had a preference for collectivism over individualism, but will apparently back any oik who thinks he should be able to do whatever he likes.
Some of these people get paid big sums of money for banging on about individual liberties. And one of them is Cherie Booth/Blair, the Prime Minister's wife. Should we be surprised that Mr Blair has struggled to make any real impact with his 'respect' strategy?