Sunday, July 02, 2006

David Cameron's new approach to social problems

David Cameron’s tactic for addressing some of the problems facing society by using persuasion is interesting, not least because can be used in opposition rather than just in government.

Over the past couple of decades, whenever it is suggested that there is a problem, we have far too often moved straight to proposing new laws about them.

Media panic about rottweilers and pit bull terriers - pass the dangerous dogs act. We observe some marginal health risk from beef on the bone – so the government bans it. Smoking is a filthy habit which damages people’s health – so more and more laws are brought in to restrict it, to such an extent that we are rapidly approaching the situation where smoking is more tightly restricted than many “soft” drugs.

It goes on. We pass laws designed to restrict terrorists – then find that they can be used to arrest an octogenarian refugee from nazi germany who shouts “nonsense” at the Foreign Secretary or convict a peace protester who turns out to be too near parliament to do so legally when she stands by the Cenotaph while reading out a list of the names of British soldiers killed in Iraq.

After hundreds of hours of debate in parliament a bill is passed which was supposed to make foxhunting illegal – except that it doesn’t.

A rare example where the House of Commons had an attack of common sense and toned down a restrictive new law was the religious hatred bill – no thanks to the MP for Copeland who said during the election that he didn’t agree with the proposed law, and then when safely elected made his maiden speech in parliament supporting it.

Perhaps the ultimate example of nanny state legislators who who want to use the law to micromanage our lives was the MP who went on the Today programme earlier this year to support a law controlling the temperature of bathwater.

Even in cases of the most serious offences, we need to check the merits of more laws against those of enforcing existing laws more effectively. I am the first to agree that when there are ghastly murders involving guns or knives, we should look at every option including new laws to make our country safer, but far too often it seems that bringing in new laws is the first resort, and asking whether we would have had a better chance of preventing the tragedy by enforcing existing laws properly is an afterthought if it is considered at all.

There is a great deal of debate at the moment about how best to protect children from sex offenders. Like every parent of small children I was horrified by the pictures on the front page of the News of the World showing two convicted sex offenders sitting in a park where young children were playing and apparently filming them. Like, I imagine, many parents in Cumbria I was shocked again to learn that one of these individuals lived in Egremont until he was sent to prison in 2001 after admitting nine charges of raping children. And relieved to hear that he is now back behind bars – having been sentenced to ten years in prison, reduced to eight on appeal, he was released on parole after serving only four years. However, his visit to the park breached the terms of his parole and he has been returned to jail.

We need to think very carefully about how best to protect children from men like this. Passing laws is no use unless the laws are effectively enforced. The same applies to registers of sex offenders – they will only be useful if we make sure everyone is on them who should be, that lists of who is allowed to work with children are properly cross-referenced, and effectively applied, and that dangerous offenders are properly supervised.

Anyway, back to D.C.

The interesting thing about David Cameron’s new approach is that he looks to change the culture rather than propose new laws. There is no suggestion that a Conservative government would pass laws to control what DJs can say on radio one, force fathers to attend their children’s birth, restrict shops on where they can display chocolate or ban them from selling t-shirts with captions like “porn star” to eight year olds. But what David does want to do, and is already starting to do even as leader of the opposition, is to use public debate to change the culture so that people are more likely to choose to act in socially responsible ways.

As someone who is fed up to the back teeth with bureaucracy and the constant creation of new laws and rules, but doesn’t want to move from that extreme to the other extreme and fail to give a damn about genuine problems, I think the Cameron approach is well worth a try.

“He would say that, wouldn’t he” you may ask.

Yes of course I would, but I still think it’s a good argument, and before you move on – do you think that literally dozens of Criminal Justice Bills passed by the present government have worked ? If like most of those who were questioned in recent opinion polls your answer is a resounding NO, perhaps you too should agree that instead of passing yet more laws it might just be time to try something else.

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