Friday, February 03, 2006

Show some respect, minister!

Earlier this week we learned of a Labour press release from Home Office minister Hazel Blears blaming Watford Borough Council for a recent outbreak of criminal and anti-social behaviour on the town’s Sherwoods estate. Youths have started congregating in a local subway and a few weeks ago they drove a car there and torched it! According to Ms Blears the local authority by not installing CCTV, rather than the young people themselves, is responsible.

It may surprise some that the minister is able to take time out from her busy job to comment on a relatively small issue in a small corner of our small town. Fortunately she didn't waste too much time - while she did manage to visit Watford, she made her comments from the comfort of the Labour Club near the railway station, rather than the Sherwoods estate itself, a couple of miles away.

The reason for her comments lies in Watford’s electoral politics. This May will see the town’s second election for a directly elected mayor. Four years ago Watfordians voted in a Liberal Democrat mayor and council, bringing to an end 30 years of Labour rule at the town hall. Last year Labour narrowly retained the parliamentary seat, against a strong Lib Dem challenge. Locally, there is no love lost between the two parties. So this is just a piece of electoral skirmishing.

The irony is that Watford Borough Council, under a Lib Dem mayor, has been singled out by the government for praise for its pioneering work against anti-social behaviour. Our local community safety partnership is a part of the Home Office’s TOGETHER campaign. We have our fair share of ABCs and ASBOs, although as good Liberals we make sure these are accompanied by measures to encourage changes in behaviour. Hazel Blears also takes us to task for not funding police community support officers (PCSOs) but (a) surely these are police personnel who should not be funded by district councils and (b) Watford already has one of the highest budgets of any district council for discretionary services that contribute towards tackling antisocial behaviour. And in this instance, along with partner organisations, we are funding CCTV to address the problem.

There are two worrying aspects to the minister’s intervention. In the first place, unless the government really believes that the entire public realm should be covered by CCTV, it stands to reason that young people intending to misbehave will simply avoid places where there are cameras to catch them. While cameras will help to make this particular spot safer, they are not a panacea.

More important, though, is the message about the behaviour itself. Hazel Blears comes very close to letting those who make others’ lives a misery though anti-social behaviour off the hook. It’s music to the ears of miscreant teenagers if the grown-ups start bickering over whose fault their bad behaviour is. The logical extension of Ms Blears' comments is that young people who terrorise a neighbourhood can’t really be to blame if the local authority has not installed CCTV and there are no PCSOs patrolling the area.

If the respect agenda is to mean anything it should be a closing of ranks by society against the terrorising of vulnerable by an anti-social minority. If it simply a matter of parties bickering over the installation of security cameras then that lets the perpetrators off the hook and renders the whole debate pretty worthless.

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