Nick Paget-Brown is a Councillor in Kensington & Chelsea where he is Cabinet member for regeneration. He was previously constituency chairman and has also been a Parliamentary candidate. He runs a consultancy specialising in environmental policy.
So, the latest Queen’s Speech promises even more legislation designed to make an ever-wider range of activities illegal. Unfortunately, as we have come to see from each of these annual inventories of intentions, this Government has shown itself to be hooked on the magical properties of legislation whilst blind to the significance of the powerful cultural and moral values pulling in the opposite direction. Nowhere has this dichotomy been more obvious than in the failure effectively to deal with anti-social behaviour. For years, the Government has proved incapable of addressing the design of a range of effective and plausible sanctions targeted at lawbreakers. The notion of deterrence has withered. Who has stolen the culture of punishment?
It is well-documented that disruptive youths are responsible for many of the anti-social activities which wreck our town and city centres on most evenings and make life intolerable for law-abiding residents. And yet, the current criminal justice system veers between ineffectual hand-wringing and the threat of an eventual big stick in the form of imprisonment in totally unsuitable institutions. The latter succeeds mainly in fostering criminal mind-sets and, for many, will undoubtedly represent the beginning of a journey of “no return” into a life of crime. All the institutional support provided by the state is therefore designed to avoid the disaster of such a custodial sentence and, it is not surprising that the most disruptive young offenders are fully aware of this and seek to take advantage of it.
A terrible lack of imagination and willpower about enforcement and restitution lies at the heart of the problem. Many professionals have a problem – even with the word punishment – and prefer to get straight on to rehabilitation. The ASBO has done little to change things. For those young people who have crossed the line which separates relatively minor misdemeanours from a fully criminal lifestyle, it is a gambling certainty that no significant action will have been taken against them until they finally reach the stage where a custodial sentence is inevitable. It is this unchallenged escalation which is so damaging. What is needed is a series of milestones before extreme and often counter-productive punishments are ever reached. On this issue, the Government suffers from an extraordinary imagination deficit, where spin about community punishments has long out-stripped the prosaic reality that probation and restitution are not high priorities. The Queen’s Speech might have been a chance to make some progress on alternative and more effective sanctions, but yet again, an opportunity has been missed.