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Society May Not Be Broken, But There

August 30, 2007

Society May Not Be Broken, But There

It is difficult not to be moved by the desolate images on our TV screens over the past week of the parents of Rhys Jones, the eleven year old schoolboy shot dead in suburban Liverpool.
The sheer randomness of his killing makes for a classic media narrative ? a chance event that could literally hav…

Society May Not Be Broken, But There

It is difficult not to be moved by the desolate images on our TV screens over the past week of the parents of Rhys Jones, the eleven year old schoolboy shot dead in suburban Liverpool.

The sheer randomness of his killing makes for a classic media narrative ? a chance event that could literally have happened to any one of the many millions of British children. Small wonder that so many of us have been transfixed by this event.

All too often when such tragedies occur, politicians contrive to strike the wrong note. We tend to look at these problems in a bureaucratic context and trot out predictable platitudes about new laws that need to be passed and justifying through the use of statistics how crime rates are not really as bad as the press are looking to portray.

I must confess I was encouraged by my own party leader, David Cameron, who was spot on in appreciating that the raising of aspirations and expectations for many of our nihilistic youth will take time. I believe he was correct to identify that in addition to legislation, it is important that police and other authorities properly enforce the existing laws we already have on the statute book to prevent such terrible incidents from happening again. He also correctly recognised the importance of building social responsibility amongst parents, neighbours and the police in all of our communities. This will be no small task ? the culture of charitable and voluntary work has diminished in recent decades, partly as a result of changing lifestyles and the economic necessity of both parents often being employed full time in the workplace. It is in the family, however, is where the long term programme of rebuilding of our communities and civic life must begin.

Inevitably to attract the media’s attention it is often necessary to use stark language. The Conservative Party have characterised the law and order problem on Britain’s streets today as ‘anarchy in the UK’ and outlined the need to rectify a ‘broken society’. Whilst I understand the need to make plain our concern about criminality, I am uneasy with the phrase ‘broken society’. To be frank I am not sure that this phrase is something many of my constituents would recognise as the state of play here in central London. Indeed one of the more comforting sights of this warm late summer bank holiday weekend was walking through St James’s Park and seeing countless young parents playing with their children. To see people from different walks of life, occupations and social backgrounds all happily interacting in a much cherished public green space warms my heart ? thankfully we still have many strong families and communities helping to bring up the next generation.

But of course we must not be complacent. London in particular has significant challenges, and we should start to look very seriously at how we can effectively tackle an emerging culture of gang violence, gun crime and anti-social behaviour. It is a daunting task, but in searching for an example of how seemingly intractable problems with criminality can be solved, one needs only look across the Atlantic to New York City.

As robberies in London doubled from 1991 to 2007 (22 000 rising to 46 000) they fell to less than a quarter in New York (99 000 to 24 000) in the same time period. So what has been New York’s secret?

In 1993 Rudi Giuliani was elected the city’s Mayor, and in just four years New York went from being the least safe to the safest of 200 major cities in the United States. He launched a crackdown on crime that produced results. Under his watch overall crime fell by 50% and murder by 67%, from 1,946 victims in 1993 to 642 in 2001. Police officer numbers shot up, so by 2001 New York City had more than 40,000 police officers.

By stamping out the seedbed where more serious crimes could be nurtured ? rowdy behaviour, graffiti, begging, urinating in the street ? Giuliani found that the overall number of felonies decreased. People caught jumping subway turnstiles, playing loud music or drinking on the street were ticketed immediately. No shrugged shoulders. No excuses. Once thought to be ‘victimless’ quality of life crimes, these incidents turned out to be the key to tackling serious offences.

Mayor Giuliani offended liberals but the policies worked. The transport department had its maintenance departments working around the clock cleaning trains and buildings as fast as the graffiti vandals struck. In 1994, the first year of new management at City Hall, summonses for quality of life infringements jumped from 175,000 to 500,000.

I do not believe that there is the same growing sense of anarchy in London as there was in New York in the 1990s but we are losing ground to a culture of incivility and apparent lawlessness. I do not want to see our city’s residents slip into an acceptance of fear and a sense of dread at leaving their houses.

This year the murders of our young people have come in all parts of London and gang names are being bandied about as acceptable parts of our new social culture. We might hate the idea of violent gangs on our streets, but little is being done to stop their development and halt the drug use and gun ownership that is fast rising.

In my view the people of our great city need to insist upon a change in the way public officials think about urban policy making. We need to make quality of life crimes the centrepiece of the approach, on the grounds that if you allow "victimless" crimes to flourish, it sends a signal that nobody is in charge. But most of all we need to fight the sense of hopelessness, the sense that nothing can be done. With the right political priorities and a proper focus on zero tolerance of antisocial minor examples of criminality, I believe we can get there.

Mark Field

August 2007