Socialise, not criminalise youth

Carey Davies examines state proscription and media demonising

The recent period has seen the rights and freedoms of young people further threatened under the auspices of combating ‘youth drinking’.

Last week a new plan to tackle the supposed problem was unveiled by the government. Predictably this struck a chord with the media, which went into scaremongering mode, sparking an animated public discussion over the issue. This was accompanied by much brow-furrowing generally over related matters like the rights and responsibilities of parents, the problem of tearaway youth and the rise of the urban underclass.

The hotchpotch of measures comprising this ‘youth alcohol action plan’ include cracking down on off-licences which sell alcohol to under-18s, forcing people to attend parenting courses if they refuse to curb their children’s drinking, making teenagers sign ‘acceptable behaviour’ contracts and granting the police more powers to break up groups of young people. The laws will also criminalise under-18s who are found with alcohol on the street through a new offence of ‘persistent drinking in public’. In other words, a host of non-solutions ranging from the pointless to the oppressive.

After its crushing defeats in local elections and the outcome of the Crewe and Nantwich by-election, it is hardly surprising to see Labour resorting to ‘throw enough shit at a wall’ tactics when it comes to policy. The current frenzy surrounding public drinking, particularly among youth, is partially the product of some extremely effective Tory election propaganda, and ministers are fumbling about trying to respond.

Labour may well have taken inspiration from Boris Johnson’s banning of alcohol on the London underground. This was a similarly senseless gesture by the new mayor - the idea that it will make the slightest bit of difference to violent crime ignores several points. Namely, that people can still be drunk on the tube - there is nothing stopping anyone determined enough to get into a pissed-up fight on the network drinking themselves silly before they board. Some flimsy notion is often advanced about people finding drinkers on the tube ‘threatening’, but even so (and the vast majority of drinking on the tube is harmless), the fact that some people find a perfectly legitimate activity objectionable is simply not enough to justify banning it.

Most bourgeois commentators, if not always agreeing with the specific proposals on youth drinking, are pretty much unanimous on the type of measures that should be adopted: the extension of police powers, or at least more frequent use of current ones; increased taxation on alcohol, which should also be made more difficult to buy; greater control by parents over their offspring. Time to reassert the ‘traditional values’ of family, marriage and home.

Ministers and policy-makers argue that the problem is now qualitatively different from those caused by alcohol in previous decades. In fact, the current fuss over underage drinking closely resembles previous alcohol-related health scares. The 20th century saw periodic fits of irrational panic over drink. In many respects this one is just the same, with appropriately sensational press coverage. Such reporting does not come out of concern for young people. Often, a puritan agenda lurks - statistics for alcohol consumption are frequently wheeled out as if drinking in itself is an evil: the idea that young people could actually be enjoying themselves is beside the point.

Of course, alcohol-related problems can nevertheless be a real source of misery. Drinking too much can result in violence, damage to health and, of course, inadvisable behaviour, such as casual, unprotected sex leading to sexually transmitted disease. The people who typically suffer most from these offshoots of youth drinking are young people themselves. The last thing an impoverished teenager needs is a criminal conviction and chlamydia. The question that should be asked, however, is this - what in young people’s lives causes them to seek oblivion through drink? Without identifying this, there can be no real solutions.

Before this, however, let us look at the government’s proposals. Apart from anything else, most of the new measures will plainly make no difference and will probably prove to be impracticable. Anyone who has ever been a teenager will appreciate the beautiful pointlessness of making them sign contracts. And besides the fact that parenting classes can be easily ducked, the focus on parents diverts attention away from systemic causes.

Where the measures are not obviously useless they are oppressive. The new police powers give officers the ability to break up groups of youth irrespective of whether they are actually drinking. All previous experience of the average plod’s sensibilities in this matter does not suggest they will employ much discretion in the use of these powers. To them one group of young people is often much the same as another. The result will no doubt be harassment of innocuous gatherings and people who are just hanging around - often because they have nothing more constructive to do.

Victimisation and criminalisation of young people in this country is already widespread, a fact highlighted by a report published on June 9 by the four children’s commissioners for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It condemned the punitive youth justice system and the vilification of teenagers, and said thousands were needlessly criminalised. It also pointed to a growing gap between the education and health of the rich and poor.

The number of crimes committed by children has fallen between 2002 and 2006, but convictions have risen by 26%. Britain detains more children than any other country in western Europe, with 2,900 under-18s locked up in the past year. Thirty children have died in custody since 1990, but there has never been a public inquiry into conditions in youth detention centres. Children who receive anti-social behaviour orders can have their names and photographs published, which the report said was a breach of their right to privacy under the European Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The report also drew attention to the low health standards of poor children, which have not seen any significant improvement during Labour’s reign. Nor has access to healthcare for poor children improved. One in 10 children aged between five and 16 has a mental disorder. And, while the media lambasts young people for drinking, it is worth bearing in mind the fact that 1.3 million children live with parents who have a drink problem.

The report also criticised the media for its constant portrayal of young people as thugs or yobs. Research found that in 2005 71% of all media stories about young people were negative and that one third of articles mentioning young people related to crime (The Times June 9).

This is the social context in which youth drinking must be seen - one of criminalisation, victimisation, poor health and poor education, condescension, abuse, negative stereotyping and a future for many that looks bleak. Further criminalising young people will only perpetuate the alienation and miserable conditions that cause them to drink to excess in the first place.

The communist position takes the rights and liberties of young people as its starting point. They should be free to enjoy themselves, to socialise. It should be society’s responsibility to provide the means for them to do this.

The phenomenon of ‘street corner’ drinking stems from the total absence of anything else for young people to do. To solve this a broad range of cultural and sports centres, clubs and projects should be provided and placed under the democratic control of young people themselves. There should also be extensive provision of education and counselling facilities on all sexual matters, free from moralistic judgement. Young people should have the opportunity to develop themselves artistically, creatively and socially.

This includes the use of alcohol. If a particular substance is banned, prohibited or stigmatised, the result will be unhealthy patterns of use - obsession, addiction, binging, etc. Instead, alcohol should - like all drugs - be socialised and thereby integrated into people’s lives in a healthy manner. If young people’s introduction to booze is safe and positive then the likelihood they will drink destructively is hugely reduced.

Print this page