Over the last week the media has been dominated by the terrible murder of 11 year old Rhys Jones in Liverpool. Rhys was shot as he returned home from playing football with his mates – a truly senseless waste of a young life.
Rhys’s murder is being painted as the culmination of a summer of “youth violence”.
During this year we seem to have regularly faced newspaper headlines about “teenage gang killings”, shootings and the problems created by groups of uncontrollable young people threatening our communities.
From the media and our politicians, the cause of all of this is placed on the failings of (especially) poor families.
These “failing families”, so the argument goes, need more controls and regulations placed on them to ensure they raise their children correctly.
Home secretary Jacqui Smith wants to add even more criminal offences to the statute book and suggested mandatory sentences for carrying a knife – even though Labour has already added 3,000 criminal offences since it was elected in 1997.
So what should we say in the present climate?
The first thing is to get some facts into the discussion – rather than the media hype. It is simply not true that there has been a huge increase in crime, or violent crime in Britain.
The most recent edition of the annual British Crime Survey suggests a relatively stable level of crime compared to last year.
This finding is confirmed by another measure, Police Recorded Crime, which shows a slight decrease in crime in 2006 compared to 2005.
But if we take a longer view then the picture is quite dramatic. From 1995 crime in Britain has fallen by 42 percent, and violent crime by 41 percent.
At the same time, however, “fear of crime” has increased. In other words the focus on crime by the media and politicians, amplifies people’s fear of being a victim of crime.
This produces situations where isolated older people report the greatest levels of fear of being a victim of violent crime when, in reality, they are the least likely victims of this kind of crime.
Perhaps not surprisingly, most violent crime is directed at young men in the vicinity of pubs and at taxi ranks on Friday and Saturday nights.
This suggests that some of the questions need to be addressed to the alcohol industry. This could be further helped by a plentiful supply of cheap buses to take people home after a night out.
But it is also important that we look at some of the changes that are affecting young people’s lives and create the social conditions and alienation which can produce violent outbursts.
The three London boroughs where there has been most gun crime this year, or inner city Manchester, or Croxteth and Norris Green in Liverpool are some of the most deprived areas in the country.
These are squashed next to much more affluent areas in our increasingly unequal society.
Youth services have also been decimated in recent years. In my ward in Preston there is nowhere for young people to go and meet each other – so of course they hang about on the streets.
Poor education, poverty, inequality, poor life prospects and decimation of local services – these are the conditions in which many of our young people are living and which create the conditions for some to turn to crime and violence.
Michael Lavalette is Respect councillor for Preston Town Centre ward and a senior lecturer in social policy at Liverpool University