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19 February 1999

We must end the “walk on by“ society

Would you step in if you saw a child vandalising a phone box? Jack Straw thinks you should

By Jack Straw

The phrase “law and order” has become such a familiar one that we sometimes treat it as a single word. Yet the maintenance of order is about much more than changes in the laws that parliament makes. If we want to live our lives free from crime, we must recognise that we all have a responsibility to help reduce it.

This is not to deny the importance of the legal framework. Safe and healthy communities need a strong, shared respect for the proper boundaries of the law and collective condemnation for those who break them. But any strategy to reduce crime must also take into account the fact that, as individuals and as communities, we all contribute both to the causes of crime and to its solutions.

Criminologists speak of how every crime needs not only a likely offender and a suitable target, but also “the absence of a capable guardian”.

It is in all our interests that we create more “capable guardians”. This is not just about giving communities back the confidence to take on the thieves and the drug-dealers. It is about all of us realising that we have a role to play, in our everyday lives, in confronting the low-level disorder and disrespect that leads on to more serious crime.

Let me give you one example. Somewhere along the line we, as a society, started to feel that what other people’s children got up to in public was none of our business – it was a job solely for their parents or teachers or police officers. Today, how many of us, seeing a group of 11 or 12 year olds vandalising a phone box or picking on a younger child, would actually intervene? Yet if we do not, who else will? And this is not just about young people as offenders – but as victims, too. If we ignore young people when they are causing trouble, we start to ignore them when they are in danger.

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A “walk on by” society betrays the interests of young people. And we all have an interest in children growing into responsible members of the community. That can only happen if we support parents in setting clear standards of how they should treat others.

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This mutual responsibility for the maintenance of order has a further dimension: the underlying ambiguity that far too many people have about crime itself. This is the moral fudge of those who condemn the burglar, but seem willing to buy the proceeds of his crimes. Official figures suggest that one in ten people have bought stolen goods – and they are most likely to do so in those areas where crime is highest.

The owner of the off-licence who buys boxes of cigarettes under the counter is likely to have his own lock-up burgled the next night; the driver tempted by the cheap car radio offered in the pub is likely to have his own car window smashed a week later.

As the saying goes, what goes around comes around. The person who knowingly buys a stolen video or CD player has to share the responsibility for local burglary rates with the thief who breaks into houses.

We have learnt that cutting off demand as well as supply is the way to tackle drug addiction. Perhaps this is a lesson that we all need to apply to crime more widely.

Crime can sometimes be a difficult thing to grasp for policy-makers and politicians. As the Audit Commission pointed out in a recent report, community safety is an outcome and neither a problem nor a “service”. Unlike health or education, where more should mean better, what we seek is less crime so that we can make more of all the other things in our lives.

Reducing crime is, however, not enough. We also need to reduce people’s fear of crime. Fear can cramp and curtail the quality of life. Indeed, it can actually lead to more real crimes, as law-abiding members of society withdraw from public spaces, leaving our parks, bus stations and streets to the criminals.

The reasons for people’s fear of crime are many and varied (including actual levels of crime). But it is undeniable that one factor is the picture of crime and punishment provided by popular entertainment. It is true that TV has raised public awareness of sensitive issues, such as domestic violence. But the cases that most interest the makers of film or television drama – typically murder or violent assaults by strangers – bear little resemblance to the actual crimes experienced by most people daily.

As a result, our perceptions of risk may bear little relation to reality. Almost 60 per cent of people, for example, think that at least half of all crime is violent. In reality, it is only one-fifth. Only one person in ten realises that crime has been heading down rather than up.

By taking the politics out of the presentation of crime statistics and providing accurate and non-sensational information, I hope that we can start to restore people’s sense of safety. But we need to do other things, too. Obvious symptoms of physical disorder – litter, graffiti, noisy neighbours – also feed the fear of crime and correlate with crime itself. Home Office research shows that people living in areas of “incivility” are twice as likely as the national average to say that they are greatly affected by fear of crime – and the most vulnerable groups are affected most of all.

There are no easy answers to such problems. They require joined-up solutions, nationally and locally. But if we can reduce crime and the fear of crime in every neighbourhood, we can add value to everything else, literally and metaphorically.

Small businesses will find they are making more money, and spending less on mending broken windows or replacing stolen stock. Bars and restaurants will find people are coming out after dark again. More people will start to use public transport and leave their cars at home. It is an ambitious aim, but I believe that we can make it happen.

This article is based on a speech given by the Home Secretary to the Social Market Foundation this week