Judge and Jury: This contest over child crime cures is just so juvenile - Politicans have missed the point and ignored the needs of voters in their recent eagerness to score points on juvenile crime, says Neil Churchill, head of communications at the Poli

Politicians are behaving like pop stars these days. The current competition to be the toughest on crime brings to mind last summer’s battle between Blur and Oasis - each jostling for that all-important number one position.

Politicians are behaving like pop stars these days. The current

competition to be the toughest on crime brings to mind last summer’s

battle between Blur and Oasis - each jostling for that all-important

number one position.



The battle between Michael Howard and Jack Straw reached new heights

last week as their respective PR teams squared up over rival plans for

young offenders. In the latest twist, Howard in the blue corner shook

off his shenanigans with the press to produced more of the same: fines

for parents and registers for unruly families. Straw in the red corner

tried to outflank his opponent by promising to abolish an ancient law

that young children are incapable of evil. With the voluntary sector as

referee urging a clean fight, who would emerge victorious?



Labour were clear winners on timing. With Howard restricted by the slow

process of government, the Labour team was able to trump his Green Paper

by publishing its own plans a day earlier. The story was already running

out of steam when the Minister rose to speak and his headline ambitions

were thwarted by the collapse of the football match fixing trial. One up

to Jack.



Labour also won more endorsements from the press. Few would be surprised

by the Guardian’s qualified support for Straw or even the half-hearted

vote of the Times. But Labour also won the crucial approval of the Mail,

one of the coming election’s main battlefields which later denounced

Howard as ’a nanny in wolf’s clothing’. Only the Independent pronounced

the whole thing a charade. Not quite to script but still two nil to

Straw.



If both contenders were shadow boxing, it was up to the voluntary sector

to fend off the hype. NACRO targeted ITN and Radio 4 to provide young

people with a platform to air their views. Paul Cavadino of the Penal

Affairs Consortium, who was excellent throughout, got his messages

across in countless interviews, many of them hostile. Experts from the

Howard League and my own institute pinpointed the real issues of

juvenile crime: youth unemployment, growing inequality and the decline

in the influence of church, family and community. It was usually a

footnote but it made a difference. And yet with such vital questions

being asked about the very nature of childhood, why did we hear so

little from the children’s charities?



One final point. Green Papers are supposed to foster rational debate.

They are an essential tool of good legislation. With fear of crime

rising out of all proportion to the reality, the real loser was the

voter. We were entitled to expect more from this debate than

electioneering.



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