University of Newcastle Chaplaincy lecture, 2004
Fifteen years ago, when I was first elected to Parliament, my principal interest in the criminal justice system was prompted by the fact that we appeared to have locked up the wrong people for all the big terrorist bombings of the mid-1970s. I soon discovered, however, that the miscarriage of justice about which most of my constituents were concerned was that many people who in their eyes should be in jail were running around free.
The reasons for the loss of public confidence in the criminal justice system were not hard to discover. The preceding decade had seen the gradual collapse of work for the unskilled and semi-skilled male. This, unsurprisingly, had been accompanied by a huge increase in crime and yobbery - to such an extent that in some parts of my constituency ordinary life had become unbearable. To this day I can take you to streets where just about every house is boarded up, many of them fire-bombed by out-of-control youths who, until recently at least. preyed at will upon the law-abiding. Streets where all those capable of fleeing have fled, leaving behind a handful of residents living in fear of nightfall and the inevitable sound of breaking glass or, worse, arson. I am not talking only of public housing estates. I can take you, too, to terraced streets of owner occupied properties which are gradually being taken over by the worst types of landlord - who take no interest in either the condition of their property or the behaviour of their tenants, with the result that property values fall to the point where the houses that for many residents represent their life savings, are unsaleable, except at knock down prices to other rogue landlords.
People come to my office, breaking down in tears, begging to be evacuated, pleading for help, describing the mayhem going on around them, against which the police and the criminal justice system - until recently at least -- appeared to be wholly ineffective. Some years ago I was contacted by an elderly gentleman who had made the mistake of buying his council house in a once respectable area that had been destroyed by yobbery. As a result, he was trapped. His neighbours, all council tenants, had all been rehoused, but he was marooned in an unsaleable house, surrounded by dereliction. Four houses on either side of his were vandalised and boarded up. Behind him nine or ten consecutive houses had been abandoned and in some cases fire-bombed. He had put a net over his greenhouse to catch in-coming missiles and when his wife died even the cars of the mourners came under attack from stone-throwing youthsd. He sat at home at night in terror of the next brick coming through his window. It is easy for those of us who live in the leafier areas of our cities to underestimate the impact of chronic, low-level disorder on ordinary lives, but for many of our citizens - often elderly and poor - it is a daily reality which blights their existence. Is there any wonder that those who are on the receiving end of some of the behaviour I have described do not share our liberal sensibilities when it comes to matters of crime and punishment?
Other factors besides the collapse of work for the unskilled contributed to the epidemic of yobbery and the loss of confidence in the criminal justice system. In the early 1980s the police received large, above-inflation salary increases. Most of them acquired mortgages and moved up to the better end of town. A police inspector's wife once told me that there were thirteen police officers living in the rather short street in which she lived. By contrast there are few, if any, living in the vast 1950s housing estates in which so many of my constituents live. As a result, in the '80s and early '90s the police lost contact with some of our poorest, most crime-ridden communities. When they visited at all, they did so in large raiding parties where they sat glaring at the locals from the back of transit vans with re-enforced wind-shields.
Another factor was the absence of effective penalties for juveniles. The penalties available to the police and the courts consisted either of repeat cautions or detention with not a lot in between. And since very few juvenile detention places were available many young villains roamed the streets laughing at the law and indeed at anybody who challenged their misbehaviour. A culture of impunity grew up. One that was deeply demoralising for everyone concerned, especially the police who found themselves virtually powerless in the face of the chronic anti-social behaviour that was wreaking havoc in the lives of many local communities.
The breakdown of communities was compounded by the absence of decent male role-models from the lives of many young people. This remains a major issue. About 40 percent of children in Sunderland are born to single mothers, many of them little more than teenagers, unable to take responsibility for their own lives, never mind support a family. An increasing number of fathers acknowledge little or no responsibility for their children and where they do have influence it is often negative. We are now into second or third generation yob culture and with every year that passes it becomes more difficult to break the circle.
Drugs are a relatively new and growing feature of lawlessness. A very percentage of acquisitive crime - perhaps as high as 60 percent - is drug-related.
And last, but by no means least, we were - and still to some extent are - saddled with a chronically inefficient criminal justice system in which delays were endemic, where different agencies often worked against rather than with each other and where justice was a game of chance played by competing teams of lawyers rather than a serious attempt to determine the truth. The result was that, even where villains were apprehended, the case against them frequently fell apart to the dismay of all concerned - not least their victims.
All of these factors contributed to a growth of petty crime and a loss of public confidence in the criminal justice system, which by the mid-1990s had become acute.
So, this was the Labour Government's inheritance - or at least part of it - in 1997. Let me now set out how we have been coping with it.
1. Within 18 months of taking office we passed THE CRIME AND DISORDER ACT. The purpose of the Act was to provide the police, local authorities and the courts with a menu of options for dealing with youth disorder. It required the police, local authorities, probation service, health authorities to draw up a local strategy for dealing with crime and disorder and then to work together to implement it. I will list the highlights:
Sections 1-4 introduced the Anti-Social Behaviour Order, enabling the police or a local authority to apply to apply to a magistrates' court for an order for a minimum of two years restricting the liberty of an individuals who have been making the lives of their neighbours a misery; breach can result in imprisonment or detention.
Sections 8-10 provided the courts with the power to impose an order on the parents of out of control juveniles requiring them to work with the appropriate authorities to address their child's behaviour.
Sections 11-13 provided family courts with the power to impose a Child Safety Order on children aged 10 or less.
Sections 14 and 15 enabled local authorities to apply for child curfew orders requiring unsupervised children aged 10 and under to be off the streets in specified areas between 9pm and 6am.
The Act also gave the police the powers to apprehend truants - a power, which surprisingly you may think, they previously lacked.
The Act removed the assumption that children aged between 10 and 13 were incapable of telling the difference between naughtiness and serious wrong.
Sections 37-42 established a reorganised and hopefully more effective Youth Justice System.
Sections 47-54 introduced a range of measures to reduce delays in youth courts - with the result that the average time that no elapses between the arrest and trial of a persistent youth offender has halved from around 140 days to 70 - still too long.
Sections 61-64 introduced a new community penalty - a Drug Treatment and Testing Order whereby a defendant who might otherwise have been imprisoned was given the option of attending a course of treatment designed to wean him or her off their addiction.
The long discredited practice of repeat cautioning was abolished and replaced with a Final Warning Scheme, usually accompanied by other measures to reduce offending.
Sections 66-7 introduced Reparation Orders enabling a young offender to make reparation either to the community at large or his victim in particular. Reparation might involve writing a letter of apology, apologising to the victim in person (restorative justice), cleaning graffitti or repairing criminal damage.
Sections 69-70 provided for an Action Plan Order, a new community sentence specifically tailored to address the offending behaviour of a particular individual; sections 71-2 strengthened the already existing Supervision Orders for serious young offenders, stiffening the penalties for breach and inserting an element of reparation.
The Act also provided a single custodial sentence of up to two years for juveniles aged 10 to 17 years who have committed serious offences - although the Home Secretary has not implemented this provision in relation to 10 and 11 year olds.
Finally, the Act introduced a Home Detention Curfew, to be monitored electronically, as a way of reducing the period in custody for short term prisoners.
It will be apparent from this account that this was a major piece of legislation. Although implementation got off to a slow start, most police officers, magistrates and probation officers of my acquaintance believe that it has had a significant impact on helping them to cope with youth disorder. Two senior police officers in Sunderland both told me, separately and unprompted, that it was the most significant piece of criminal justice legislation of their careers. I make no great claims. The Crime and Disorder Act is not and was never intended to be a panacea. It was, however, a significant building block in the reconstruction of our shattered social fabric.
2. THE PROBATION SERVICE:
There is no doubt that over the years the public have lost confidence in the effectiveness of community penalties. This has been partly caused by the tendency of local newspapers to report that so-and-so "walked free from court" with "only" 200 hours of community service. But the public loss of confidence was also to some extent justified, at least in years gone by. Community penalties were not always rigorously enforced; action was not always taken against those who dropped out or failed to show up; and there was, on the part of some probation officers, a tendency to believe that the offender rather than the public was his client. Also, the overwhelming majority of community service projects had no measurable outcomes; although it was often asserted that re-offending rates for graduates of community service were lower than those graduating from prison there was very little evidence for that assertion. I recall that some years ago the Chief Inspector of Probation told the Home Affairs Select Committee that only a handful of the 230-or-so community schemes he had studied made any serious attempt to measure outcomes and most of those that did were hopelessly inadequate. With this background in mind the government has established a new National Probation Service whose statutory aims include the following:
We have established a strongly led, unified service working to common standards -- required to work more closely with police and local authorities; establishing beyond doubt that the public and not the offender is the client; and ensuring the supervision of rigorous community penalties in which the public can have confidence.
During their long term of office successive Conservative governments left no stone unturned in their effort to extract greater value for money from our public services. There was, however, one exception; the police. For reasons at which we can only guess the Tories turned a blind eye to the copious evidence of chronic inefficiency - and worse - in various parts of our police service. As a result the overtime scams, the sickness scams and chronic mismanagement went largely unchallenged. Towards the end of their long tenure, however, it began to dawn, even on the Tories - as it had long ago on many sensible policemen -- that effective policing is not just a question of pouring in more resources; what was required was a drastic change of policing priorities and proper accounting for the huge sums of public money already invested in our police. Speaking for myself, I have long taken the view that we do not need any more policemen in helicopters or whizzing around in cars with the latest American sirens; what we do need more of is policemen on bicycles; based so far as possible in the communities they serve. I am glad to say we are moving in that direction and Northumbria police have led the way. During the last ten years or so - it began under John Stevens - the quality of policing in Northumbria has improved dramatically. In Pennywell and Hendon, two of the most difficult areas of my constituency, we now have community based police task forces which have resulted in a considerable reduction in the incidence of car thefts and burglary. I have come across some very fine examples of community policemen - not long ago I spent three hours on a Friday evening out on bicycle patrol with PC Les Jordan, a most impressive man who knew many of the kids by name and had a established a rapport with them to such an extent that he was able to persuade them to pour their under-age alcohol down a drain without provoking a riot.
In addition to the regular police, the Government has introduced community beat policemen, specifically tasked with maintaining order in specific crime hot-spots. So far as I can see the experiment is working. There is still a long way to go, but the trend is in the right direction.
The Government has hugely increased the investment in drug rehabilitation services and attempted to integrate them into local plans for dealing with crime and social disintegration. It is not enough, of course. It never can be, but we have made a start. We are also, tentatively and in the teeth of bitter opposition, moving towards treating drug addicts as people who need to be helped rather than criminalised.
The received wisdom among liberal academics and good people from all walks of life is that prison doesn't work. Well, it does in one important respect - it gives the public a rest from the activities of prolific or violent criminals. Research by Northumbria police has demonstrated that a relative handful of persistent young offenders are responsible for a huge proportion of crime, vandalism and casual yobbery that is laying waste to some of our communities. It follows that, all else having failed, locking up such persistent offenders can have an impact on local crime, albeit temporary.
Juvenile detention or imprisonment can work - though it often doesn't - in one other important respect. It might -- just -- enable us to engage the attention of some persistent offenders for long enough to address the causes of their offending behaviour such as illiteracy - most prisoners are only semi-literate - low self-esteem, drug addiction and so on. For this to happen, of course, it is necessary to invest substantial sums in prison education and drug rehabilitation programmes. One also has to beware of overcrowding prisons - and I am well aware that our prison population is at record levels -- to the point where such programmes breakdown and they simply become warehouses for offenders.
The other point about prison, of course, is that it is a very expensive option, generates high rates of re-offending and should, therefore, only be used as a last resort.
THE BIG PICTURE
I turn now to the wider picture. So far I have talked only about addressing symptoms. The greatest challenge, of course, is to address the causes of crime and anti-social behaviour in the hope that future generations of young people will not disappear down the same plug-hole as their elder bretheren. There is no big-bang solution. Only a long, inglorious road - with many pitfalls along the way - LITERACY, NUMERACY, TRAINING, WORK.
That is why we have invested so much energy and resources in tackling the huge benefit culture which, I often think, was our greatest inheritance from the Tories. Another of life's little ironies, given that successive Conservative governments made much of their intention to clamp down on so-called benefit scroungers.
One of our first big challenges was to create a gap between the world of work and the world of benefit. It used to be the case - and to some extent still is - that in the world of low paid, insecure employment there was very little incentive to move from benefit to work and since, if it didn't work out, it was often difficult to get back onto benefit. We were, therefore, asking people with few resources to take a larger risk than most of us would take. In order to increase the incentive to move from benefit to work work, one of the Government's first actions was the creation of a National Minimum Wage. This was followed by the Working Families Tax Credit and now by the Child Tax Credit designed to put significant extra money in the pockets of parents in low paid employment.
We have also invested in nursery education - now available to all four year olds and many three years olds -- on the basis that it is the earliest interventions that are often the most effective.
We have established Surestart - a series of children's centres in some of the most deprived areas offering childcare, health and family support as well as advice on local employment opportunities.
We established the New Deal programme, funded by a tax on the excess profis of the prviatised utilities (who says New Labour doesn't believe in redistributing wealth?) to help get the long term unemployed - starting with the under 25s -- off benefit and into education, training and work. As a result, youth unemployment is now lower than it has been in a generation - so is unemployment as a whole.
We are investing a hugely in education - in Sunderland alone a dozen schools are in the process of being rebuilt to much higher standards than those they replaced; increasingly the trend is towards community schools where the facilities are available to be used out of school hours and in school holidays to keep youngsters off the streets and engaged in constructive activity.
We have put extra resources into literacy and numeracy, enabling schools to employ learning mentors to focus on children who might otherwise slip through the net into a life of truanting, exclusion and crime.
We are in the process of refocussing secondary education to provide more vocational courses for youngsters who are less academically inclined in order to encourage them to stay within the education system and acquire the skills necessary for them to lead useful lives in a world that it increasingly competititive. (Only last night, I saw a report on television, saying that the construction industry in the North East was having to import tradesmen because they were not available locally. An extraordinary state of affairs).
I am conscious that I have strayed a little wide of my original brief: crime and punishment. I make no apology for doing so. Punishment has it's place, but it is by no means the whole answer when it comes to dealing with the epidemic of yobbery that engulfed us during the eighties and early nineties. We promised to be tough on crime and tough on its causes. And so we have been. I have tried during the course of these remarks to give you a flavour of the effort that has been underway for the past seven years which, I believe, is beginning to make an impact. When one hears, as one does increasingly, that all politicians are the same; that everything is bad and getting worse, I do urge you to spend a moment or two reflecting on what has been achieved in the areas of social justice, education and restoring the rule of law to communities where it had entirely broken down. The effort I have outlined is not small. It is huge. Nor is it a series of disconnected, unrelated initiatives. As I hope I have demonstrated, there is a common threat running through all of them which addresses both crime and the causes of crime. I do not mean to suggest that everything that can be done has been done, or that what has been achieved so far is a panacea for all our social ills. On the contrary, my colleagues and I - many of whom represent constituencies in the front line -- understand all too well the immensity of the task we have undertaken and how vulnerable it is to being destabilised by, for example, a sudden down-turn in the international economy. I do believe, however, that the trend is remorselessly in the right direction and that it impossible even for the most world weary and cynical to deny that the achievements so far have been considerable. Thank you for listening.
Chris Mullin is the MP for Sunderland South and a Foreign Office minister. He was for four years chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee.