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"Unacceptable"
The British Government Passes the Buck Again
By Shane Clarke
London Correspondent
The UK home secretary, Alan Johnson

The UK home secretary, Alan Johnson, has blamed police in Leicestershire for the deaths of Fiona Pilkington and her 18-year-old daughter, Francesca Hardwicke. Speaking publicly this week, he accused Leicestershire police of having an unacceptable “mindset” which caused the failure to tackle the anti-social behaviour which led to their deaths.

In October 2007, following years of abuse from a group of anti-social neighbours, Ms Pilkington drove to a secluded lay-by with her 18-year-old daughter Francecca, who had a mental age of three, and set fire to their car, killing them both.

In his statement, Mr Johnson went on to criticise the senior police officer in the Pilkington inquest for saying that low-level anti-social behaviour should be dealt with by local authorities and was no longer a police matter. “It is ludicrous and ridiculous,” he said. “It’s completely inexplicable how a police officer could say that, but it suggests there is a mindset there.”

Mr Johnson’s remarks have provoked criticism from the Police Federation, which represents officers on the front line. It’s Vice-Chairman, Simon Reed, said, “The Government cannot have its cake and eat it. They introduce initiative after initiative and expect the service to plough resources into it, without considering the negative impact it may have on other policing functions.

“They introduced neighbourhood policing teams, who in the main deal with low-level disorder including anti-social behaviour, but fill these teams with community support officers who have no powers and experience to effectively deal with the problems.

“Anti-social behaviour is not just a policing problem – all agencies, whether it’s the local authority, schools and parents, must play their part.”

Such an approach would be welcomed on the Hateley Heath housing estate in the West Midlands, where one resident said, “Kids were lighting fireworks and throwing them into people’s gardens just the other night while their parents sat in the garage with the door wide open, drinking and smoking and just watching them. I can’t believe they didn’t stop them.”

Simon Reed has said that a new “zero-tolerance” policy is needed to deal with the problem of anti-social behaviour, with sufficient police officers on the streets and a criminal justice system which “actually does something” about offenders when the police bring them to justice.

These are wise words from someone representing those in the firing line in these situations; the ones who have to deal with this every day as the Government makes their jobs ever more difficult. These police officers don’t sit behind desks in expensively furnished offices, with expense accounts that allow them to pay £1,000 for a chest of drawers, or to pay for gardeners. These police officers are not distanced from the problem because they live on plush private estates. These police officers are in the thick of it, every day, doing the best they can with increasing pressure upon them and a government that cries to them, “Do more! Do more! And do it with less money and fewer resources!”

Mr Johnson did have the grace to concede that the Government were at least partly responsible for the tragedy. Speaking at a Home Office briefing in London ahead of the launch of a new anti-social behaviour policy, he said the Government should accept responsibility for not being “focused” on the issue. “I think we have cruised a bit on this,” he said, “because we were tackling issues like counter-terrorism. We let the focus slip.”

Perhaps Mr Johnson might also concede that he is being somewhat hypocritical in his criticism of the police and his use of strong language such as “ludicrous and ridiculous”. His comments make clear that the Home Office is every bit as much to blame as Leicestershire police. He admits that they were “cruising”, that they had “let the focus slip” on the problem. Isn’t that what the police did? So why should they be singled out for such strong criticism? Surely the blame should lie with each of them? In fact, as an agency controlled by the Home Office, shouldn’t the Home Office accept full responsibility for the tragedy?

I fear that is a little too much to ask. Ours is a Government that firmly believes in the adage, “Where there’s blame, there’s a scapegoat.” Unfortunately, in such matters as these, that scapegoat is always our criminally undervalued and over-pressured police forces, who are already operating with one arm behind their backs. The way things are going, they’ll soon be operating with their legs broken too.

In the meantime, they will take this latest criticism on the chin and carry on trying to do the best job they can. I do not say they are blameless, and I know there are bad eggs within the police force, as there are in Government, the armed forces and just about any organisation you can mention. However, before Government ministers start leaping in and criticising the departments they are responsible for, they should remember what they say about people in glass houses ...



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Shane Clarke serves as London Correspondent for The Seoul Times. He has been involved in humanitarian work for numerous years. He’s also a freelance management consultant. Having completed an honors degree in Law at Wolverhampton University, he then moved on to an MBA at Warwick Business School. He’s heavily involved in the fight against international parental child abduction to Japan.

 

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