Britain hit by youth crime wave

A NEW report has revealed that, in Britain, one in four teenage boys, aged between 14 and 17, is a serious or repeat offender. Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, has described the figures as “appalling” and has called for a “crackdown”.

Ask a group of expatriates in Portugal why they left Britain and crime and hooliganism will always top the list. Some commentators still maintain that poverty and social deprivation are the reasons for the crimewave. In fact, recent findings reveal that British teenagers enjoy the highest average annual income in Europe, ‘earning’ 775 pounds sterling a year, more than double that of Spanish or Italian youngsters.

If poverty was the reason for the youth crimewave, then you would expect the streets of the Portuguese capital to be filled with marauding thugs. In fact, most young people in Lisbon are scrupulously polite and respectful. By contrast, my most recent trip to London was a nightmare. Returning on the underground late at night was like an obstacle course from hell, weaving past drunks urinating and vomiting on the station plaform. A meal out with a friend was ruined when fellow diners began screaming at each other.

British governments, past and present, have always called for a “crackdown” on crime and “anti-social behaviour” and have always failed. Part of the problem is the lack of a coherent strategy at the Home Office. There have been nine Home Secretaries in the last 20 years, compared to just five Chancellors in the same period. The Home Office has invariably proved to be a poisoned chalice for its occupant.

Let’s take a quick scroll through the roll of honour during the Thatcher years. William Whitelaw promised a “short sharp shock” for young offenders, a policy deemed to have failed. He and his successor, Leon Brittan, presided over some of the worst inner city riots Britain had ever seen. The latter ended up in Brussels (always a sign of failure). Douglas Hurd was viewed as too “wet” to be effective.

His successor, David Waddington, was elevated to the House of Lords after just one year and then disappeared overseas to become Governor of Bermuda (even greater failure). His replacement, Kenneth Baker, never held high office again after his stint at the Home Office.

More recent Conservative Home Secretaries seem to have viewed their position as a chance to win brownie points with the party faithful. When Michael Howard addressed the conference, he kept smiling throughout his speeches, so betraying the fact that this was a self-serving exercise for internal consumption.

There seems to be more concern with news management and massaging the crime statistics rather than addressing the issue of crime itself. I worked at the Home Office for four years during the late 90s. I formed the impression that Jack Straw, then Home Secretary, was more concerned to appease the tabloid press than do what he thought was right. When politicians are so cynical, is it any surprise that they are held in such low regard by the public?

So, what of the crimewave?

We should not find excuses for it, but neither should we delude ourselves that we can return to a cosy ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ Britain, where a stern look from the local ‘bobby on the beat’ would deter vandals. There are more consumer items to steal and family and church bonds have weakened.

Above all, respect for authority has diminished. Instead, ‘respect’ has taken on a more sinister connotation among British ‘yoof’, implying street cred and fear. We need to restore the original meaning of ‘respect’. And, in a country like Britain, where money has become the sole yardstick of success, that means hitting the ‘disrespectful’ hard in the pocket.

Why should we tolerate neighbours who play loud music through the night? Why should drunken teenagers be allowed to congregate on street corners and abuse passers-by? We need a little of the zero tolerance that has turned cities like New York around. But first, we need politicians with the commitment to enforce the will of the people. I look around but see none.

Mr. Blair said on television recently that he thought Britain was “a fantastic country”. Perhaps we should dump the Prime Minister in a city centre late one Friday night so he can experience, first-hand, just how “fantastic” it is…