MAINSTREAM POLITICIANS and media commentators have had a field day exploiting the tragedy of Damilola Taylor. Much of the coverage has been an excuse to parade pet prejudices and political gimmicks, and to generate a panic over crime. The Sun's bigoted columnist Richard Littlejohn tried to blame the failure of the police investigation into the death of the black ten year old on 'the stormtroopers of the race industry'.
Max Hastings in the Daily Mail and Bruce Anderson in the Daily Telegraph wrote of 'feral children', likening children of deprived families to wild animals. Anderson endorsed the incredible claim by home secretary David Blunkett that 'it is often possible to identify future troublemakers as early as the age of three'. New Labour ministers are encouraging this bilge.
In doing so they are playing into the hands of the Tories and forces to the right of them who believe their best way of regaining support is by creating a climate of fear over crime. And they offer no way of dealing with the crime that does take place. So at the weekend Tony Blair came out with the idea of docking child benefit from the parents of pupils who truant or break the law. That would cost a family with one child £15.75 a week.
A middle class family would not notice losing that amount. For a hard pressed working class couple it could mean an unpaid gas bill or going short of food. The government is also talking of docking housing benefit from what it calls 'anti-social' tenants. The strongest link with crime is poverty. Yet Blair is saying that making people poorer is a way to cut crime.
He is also proposing placing police in and around schools to round up truants. The rate of truancy has increased by 11.5 percent since New Labour was elected in 1997. School students face more and more tests, and a curriculum that has become narrower and more prescriptive. Two reports last year found record numbers of children suffering mental health problems associated with stress at school. The biggest reasons children skip school are that they are bored and see no prospect of a decent job when they leave.
The boys cleared of murdering Damilola Taylor missed much of school. They were not playing truant-they were excluded (expelled). The number of permanent exclusions rose to a peak of almost 12,000 three years ago. Measures introduced by education secretary Estelle Morris could see it return to that figure or higher, as the scope for appeals against exclusion is cut. Blair's 'initiatives' announced last weekend were such gimmicks that every paper treated them with derision.
But Blair and those papers all go along with the biggest myth of all-that what happened to Damilola Taylor is a regular occurrence, that council estates are 'urban jungles', and that crime is increasing.
Real figures show a fall
CRIME HAS fallen by 33 percent over the last five years. The figures come from the most comprehensive annual study of crime, The British Crime Survey. Yet the fact of falling crime is entirely missing from most political and press discussion. Violent crime fell by one fifth between 1999 and 2000, the last year for which full figures are available.
Overall recorded crime levels have fallen by 22 percent since 1997, according to official figures. Youth crime is also falling, not rising. Home Office statistics suggest the fall in youth crime has been sharp since 1990.
The official figures show, for instance, that the number of boys aged between ten and 14 found guilty of an offence or cautioned has tumbled. The number is down from 4,000 per 100,000 population in 1990 to 2,600 now. A study by the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NACRO) last month, Children Who Commit Grave Crimes, found:
'England and Wales lock up a higher proportion of their children than any other European country. That is in spite of research showing youth crime actually fell between 1993 and 2001.'
It went on to cite research that showed youth crime in England and Wales was lower than in other Western European countries. It found, 'Under certain circumstances a ten year old child convicted of handling stolen goods can now be tried in an adult crown court and sentenced to a lengthy period of custody.'
Locking up children does not reduce crime-it makes it more likely. Nine out of ten young people released from custody receive a further conviction within two years. But home secretary David Blunkett said last month that he wants to lock up more ten and 11 year olds.
Police methods to blame
THE POLICE investigation into Damilola Taylor's death fell apart because it used methods used to wrongfully convict people in the past. It had nothing to do with 'a culture of silence' among black people on the North Peckham estate. The police evidence rested on the word of a young woman who had been offered money to testify.
They also cited young inmates who had their sentences reduced when they said they had heard the accused confess to the crime while on remand. Evidence from an inmate, which he later retracted, was central to the miscarriage of justice in the Carl Bridgewater case. The police's failure also has nothing to do with them being hampered by supposed 'political correctness'.
Most police officers ignore the conclusions of the Macpherson report into the mishandling of the murder of Stephen Lawrence. The police force in London is 95 percent white, while whites are 67 percent of the population of the city.
Gimmicks won't tackle roots
MANY PAPERS paint a picture of the North Peckham estate and other working class communities as 'no-go areas'. They claim that large numbers of young people carry knives, and that gangs roam everywhere. There are violence and crime in society. But, as the figures show, they are not at record levels.
And that there is crime is hardly surprising. There have been two decades of cuts to social services, youth facilities and other things that made life tolerable. For 20 years under the Tories and New Labour people have been told the only thing that matters is monetary success, to win out as an individual and damn the rest. Thatcher famously said, 'There is no such thing as society.'
Young people have been told to look up to 'entrepreneurs' and other rich people whose lifestyles are completely out of reach. Alongside this went a growing gap between rich and poor-a gap which has widened over the last five years. One in three children still live in poverty today. No wonder a small minority of people react by grabbing what they can and treating others badly.
The answer is not to whip up scares and proclaim stupid initiatives that will make things worse, not better. It is to tackle the poverty, hopelessness and alienation that are the roots of crime.
Long history of scares
THERE HAVE been scares over crime before. The press in the Depression-hit 1930s tried to drive a wedge between the mass of workers and those who had been driven to crime. There were scare stories about 'razor gangs' in Glasgow. In the 1960s it was 'mods and rockers' who supposedly represented a new form of gang culture.
In the 1970s and 1980s we were told that the young unemployed lacked the morals of those who were out of work in the 1930s. Now the myth is that life is improving for everybody, but that a hard core of people are turning their backs on opportunity and choosing crime. The reality is that the majority of people are under greater pressure. At the extreme end this can lead to anti-social behaviour and violence.