There's crime. And then there's HD Skycopter crime

What about the glassing, the beating, the robbery that doesn't happen in "riot week"?

It's natural, when you're a victim of crime, to wish horrible things on the people who did it. And I suppose we've been a collective victim of crime this week, seeing our country burn, shops looted, people attacked and rules broken.

It's a crime against all of us, what's happened. And those of us who've suffered at the hands of thieves, or attackers, or burglars, or whatever, will know the feeling: you wish for instance vengeance against the lowlifes who've done this; you want to see them suffer, and pay for what they've done. You want to crack their skulls and kick them in the face. You want to give them pain. It's a normal and understandable response.

The impact that crimes have on us, making us feel these horrible thoughts, is why people deserve to be punished for what they've done. But then, maybe a while later, the anger and the fear subsides, and you realise that, perhaps, it's probably best if the people who broke your window or nicked your telly weren't hung, drawn and quartered.

(It's no use telling me, by the way, that I'd think differently if I'd been a victim of crime, because I have been many times in the past, and I'm afraid to tell you that it hasn't turned me into a rabid watercannon-wielding Charles Bronson wannabe. If anything, it's made me more liberal about how to try and think about these things. Sorry if that offends you.)

It's right to punish those who've committed these crimes. But I wonder whether it's right to punish them more severely than the people who commit this kind of crime week in, week out.

There's a whole level of crime that we hardly get to hear about because it doesn't appear on the news, and probably doesn't even appear in the local rag either -- the police, concerned about "fear of crime", don't tell journalists about every single offence that takes place. Unless you've got someone in magistrates' courts 24/7, as we've seen this week, you won't find out about the low-level crimes and the kind of people who commit them.

But we are talking about it this week. A petition calling on rioters to "loose" their benefits has topped 100,000; a council says it is going to evict a parent for the alleged crimes of their child. We want revenge, it seems. It's completely understandable, while the anger is still raw. But what message does it send if we are giving disproportionate punishments to people who took part in last week's riots?

That ordinary crime doesn't count, perhaps, unless it's captured on the HD Skycopter or part of a big moral outrage, perhaps. You can chuck a broken bottle at someone, break a window or push a pint glass into someone's face at any other time and you might get a little ticking off or a community sentence, but do a bit of opportunistic nicking in a time of anarchy and you'll be sent away for a good few weeks.

Well, that's fine, if that's the message we want to send, I suppose. But what about those people who happened to be victims of crime in the wrong week? Do we just pat them on the head and tell them that, sorry, you just weren't the right time of victim, your crime didn't happen to take place during the riots?

I just wonder how people feel who were on the receiving end of violence and assaults, and who have seen their attackers walk free from court, and how they feel now about seeing people jailed for stealing a bottle of water instead. Sorry, your crime wasn't important. You being glassed, or beaten up, wasn't important enough, because it didn't happen during a riot.

In this week's riot panic, it's all been about the perpetrators. Maybe that's understandable, but maybe we should give more thought to the victims -- not just of these crimes, but the kind of crimes that happen week in, week out.

And whether we really are sending out the right message.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.