Michael White, political editor
Friday May 13, 2005
Tony Blair yesterday underlined the cabinet's eagerness to address voters' campaign concerns about petty hooliganism and loutishness in neighbourhoods and city centres when he promised to help restore "respect" for other people.
Mr Blair coupled a personal endorsement of a shopping centre's decision to ban the wearing of threatening hoods by teenage boys with a renewed willingness to blame voters' own shortcomings as parents.
Musing on the "deep-seated causes" of children growing up without proper discipline, the prime minister told reporters at his monthly press conference: "I can start a debate on this and I can legislate but what I can't do is, I can't raise someone's children for them."
He said he backed the decision of the Bluewater shopping centre near Dartford in Kent to ban the current teen fashion for the wearing of hoods over heads in the centre.
"People are rightly fed-up with street corner and shopping centre thugs, yobbish behaviour - sometimes from children as young as 10 or 11 whose parents should be looking after them - Friday and Saturday night binge-drinking which makes our town centres no-go areas for respectable citizens, of the low-level graffiti, vandalism and disorder that is the work of a very small minority that makes the law-abiding majority afraid and angry," the prime minister said.
People his own age - in their 50s - are reluctant to go into their local town centre on weekend nights for fear of abuse. That must stop and parliament must send a "very clear signal" that it will not be tolerated.
The deputy prime minister, John Prescott, recalled how he had been approached by a gang of youths in a motorway cafe a year ago. He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that the gang had come up to him carrying a video camera, intending to film the confrontation. His security minders had scared them off.
Mr Prescott said he had found the encounter alarming. "I think the fact you go around with these hats and these covers ... I mean, it is a uniform, in a sense. It is intimidating and I rather welcome what they have done there at Bluewater."
Mr Blair was speaking after his first reshuffled cabinet agreed a "bold programme" to implement Labour's manifesto pledges "and address head-on the priorities of the British people in the NHS, schools, welfare reform, childcare and support for working families, crime, disorder, respect on our streets, asylum and immigration".
Next month there will be a green paper on David Blunkett's new agenda, incapacity benefit - and the need to cut claimant numbers - and health and education white papers in the autumn to promote a more personalised public service.
Mr Blair was repeatedly drawn back to the issue of antisocial behaviour which, he admitted, troubled many voters he had met during the election.
"People like a society that is less deferential. They want a society free from old prejudices. But a loss of deference is very different from a loss of respect for other people. Society without prejudice should not be one without rules," Mr Blair explained.
As a politician who made his first big national speech on this topic after the murder of the toddler, James Bulger, Mr Blair has long extolled the "rights and responsibilities" formula.
Yesterday he was again forced to defend the rights of the law-abiding majority - including their right to 24/7 licensing laws - against the antisocial minority.
"A few years ago when I be gan the debate on antisocial behaviour, there were some who thought it gimmicky, even eccentric," he said, recalling that legislation had been resisted on the left and right, in part because it laid less emphasis on the rights of offenders.
Ministers currently plan no new legislation because they believe that such programmes as the Together Campaign - aimed at police and local coun cils - along with schemes to encourage the public to become more pro-active and less tolerant of miscreant behaviour require time to settle down and become widely accepted.
In relaxed post-election mood yesterday Mr Blair became animated when recalling recent exchanges with voters. "During the election campaign I heard too often people talk about a loss of respect in the classroom, on the street corner, in the way our hard-working public servants are treated as they perform their tasks," he said. Other issues for the government, he signalled, were pensions and council tax reform and new ways of funding the transport network.