Wednesday, August 29, 2007

How do we cure our sick society?

How do we cure our sick society?

Events during the last couple of weeks have left me depressed as I have come to realise just how sick is the society in which we now live. Every day we are confronted by yet another example of the deplorable sub-culture of anti-social behaviour that is slowly pervading our lives.

Binge drinking, rampant drug taking, burglary, shop lifting, threatening behaviour, vandalism, swearing in public and the verbal abuse of anyone who has the audacity to upbraid the perpetrators, are simply different sides of the same coin; lawlessness, and the most worrying aspect of this disorder is the seemingly unstoppable increase in the incidence of unprovoked violent attacks on innocent people.

The ghastly murder of 11 year old Rhys Jones, allegedly shot by a 15 year old youth on a BMX bike, is the latest high profile crime to hit out national TV screens. But such crimes are not confined to Liverpool, Leeds or London; locally we have our seen more than our fair share of violence, indeed not a week goes by without yet another appalling story appearing in our local newspapers.

Who can ever forget the senseless killing last year of 16 year old Michael Chapman as he walked across a Sittingbourne playing field, or, the more recent vicious attack on a Sheppey pensioner, which left him battered, bruised and hospitalised?

At the weekend my depression deepened because of a very minor incident, but one that I believe is hugely significant because it epitomises the problem that is ripping the heart out of communities up and down the country. It is the lack of respect many youngsters have for authority, for older people, including their own parents, and for their fellow citizens.

The incident happened as I finished clearing all the litter out of our front garden; I looked up just as two teenage girls walked out of the alley opposite my house. As they made their way down the road one of them simply threw an empty crisp packet over her shoulder. I was incensed and shouted at her to pick it up. She looked at me as if I was mad, laughed and walked away.

Thirty years ago I would have chased after her, grabbed her by the scruff of the neck, marched her back to the crisp packet, made her pick it up and put it into the nearest litter bin. Today if I had taken such action I would have been arrested for physical, and, quite likely, sexual assault.

What can we do on such occasions? Call the police? Hardly! They are not going to be interested in a single crisp packet when they are so short of manpower that they cannot even respond to calls about a burglary if the culprit is not still on the property!

Contact the girl’s parents? Not possible, because I had no idea who the girl was and she was unlikely to tell me even if I had asked her name, anyway, if I had discovered her identity it is very unlikely I would have received a sympathetic hearing from her parents!

The truth is that in today’s Britain we can do nothing but fume about such insolence. No wonder decent citizens are becoming so frustrated and losing respect for the law and those who are charged with upholding it.

Now you might well ask what that crisp packet has to do with the shooting of an 11 year old in Liverpool or the murder of a 16 year old in Sittingbourne. There is a clear link.

The problem is that if people get away with dropping litter without fear of punishment, some of them will believe the same goes when they bend a car aerial, daub graffiti on a garage door, throw empty beer cans at somebody’s window, urinate in the street, or even “do a bit of shoplifting”. And, unfortunately, too often they are right, because even if they are caught, the police increasingly refuse to prosecute for such a “minor crime”.

But often those “minor crimes” lead the perpetrators to more serious crimes. The problem is that failing to punish people for the little things makes them feel they can do what they like, including attacking those to whom they take a dislike. And sadly, our current sentencing policy is such that they almost certainly will get away with little more than a slap on the wrist for even the most vicious assault. Just remember, young Michael Chapman’s killer was sentenced to a derisory four years in prison!

So what can we do to reverse this increase in lawlessness? In two words: Zero Tolerance. I know this is a concept that has been talked about on and off for years, ever since Mayor Juliano used it so successfully to bring crime under control in New York City a few years back, but we have never really embraced it in this country. I believe the time has arrived for us to practice Zero Tolerance.

If we crack down on the minor criminals such as litter droppers and graffiti writers then we might just discourage them from progressing to more serious crimes.

Of course, schools have a big role to play in teaching our children the right way to behave, but over the years we have slowly reduced the avenues of discipline open to schools and now teachers have to enforce rules and regulations with both arms tied behind their back!

Some schools do have good discipline, however, teachers in those schools would tell you that they only have pupils in their care for a relatively short time; the rest of the time they are at home, where very often all the good work of our schools is lost because of indiscipline or disinterest by parents. That is another problem. Some parents simply refuse to accept responsibility for their children. Those parents must be brought to book and should be prosecuted for the misdemeanours of their children.

In my opinion, the breakdown in social cohesion and the increase in anti social behaviour began the day that Parliament voted to abolish Capital Punishment. Doing away with the ultimate deterrent sent out entirely the wrong message and undermined the whole sentencing system. That particular decision was further exacerbated when corporal punishment was banned in schools. Of course, there are some who are now trying to have corporal punishment banned in the home. God help us!

I know there will be many who disagree with me on this, and I respect their right to differ. I hope they respect my right to hold an opinion different to their own, without trying to brand me as some hang and flog ‘em monster!

Indeed, I would simply say to my critics that it cannot be a coincidence that the increase in anti-social behaviour and violent crime has happened at exactly the same time that we have done away with capital and corporal punishment.

In Singapore anyone caught dropping litter is caned, which could have something to do with why it is one of the cleanest cities in the world! These days, schools cannot use the cane or the slipper; the maximum punishment that can be metered out is “exclusion”, but what sort of punishment is that to a teenager who doesn’t want to be in school anyway? It is hardly surprising that the current level of truancy in our secondary schools is quite scandalous, with one local school having an appalling 25% truancy rate. 25%! That means that on average one pupil in four is absent every day!

Perhaps the time has come to set up special “detention” schools to which pupils who are excluded from their current main stream school, or, who habitually play truant, are sent. Those schools could offer a robust secure disciplined environment, with a properly structured educational day, but a tough regime of physical recreation once the academic day was finished. I suspect that discipline levels in our secondary schools would soon improve and truancy rates would drop dramatically!

Now such a scheme might be impractical, or, politically impossible, but at least we should have the debate about how we are going to combat the current lack of discipline in schools. I know that many teachers are frustrated with the lack of support they are given when they try to solve this problem.

Similarly, the police are frustrated when they see criminals for whom they have spent a lot of man hours to obtain a conviction, being released early because the Government simply has not built sufficient prisons. And on the subject of police, so bogged down are they with the paper work needed to obtain that conviction, that they simply have no time to do what they should be doing, which is preventing crimes form happening. Which leads me to another problem; when was the last time that you saw a policeman on foot patrol in your area?

We are told repeatedly that foot patrols are not the best way of using police time and that car patrols are more efficient. I am not convinced because the facts simply do not support this argument. Once again, it cannot be a coincidence that incidence of anti-social behaviour has increased as the number of foot patrols has reduced. Certainly, residents would sleep better in their beds if they knew that their local streets were being patrolled regularly by a policeman.

I believe we have reached a watershed; unless the decent majority start to fight back with determination and firmness, our country will become an intolerable place in which to live. To succeed in that fight we need to increase the number of police on our streets and bring discipline back into our schools and homes. Such measures will cost a lot of money, but that is a small price to pay if it means saving Britain from the anarchy that David Cameron spoke about last week.

Gordon Henderson
Conservative Parliamentary Spokesman
Sittingbourne & Sheppey

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