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Britons fear rise of the yob
A spate of assaults and killings has added to the mood of a society unravelling - and often alcohol is to blame. Jamie Doward reports
Andy Holland's mother didn't want her son to join the army. He was the youngest of her four children and awaiting his GCSE results this week. She didn't want to entrust her boy to a career that might see him harmed in any way.
He did not lose his life on a battlefield. Last Friday night, the 16-year-old was stabbed in the neck in his local takeaway. He died shortly afterwards in hospital, the latest statistic in a country increasingly uneasy about a culture of youth and horrific violence.
The friend with him that night remains in a serious condition.
Too shocked to speak, Andy's mother asked her brother Mark to describe last night the impact the death was having on the family. 'We are completely and utterly devastated he said from the family home in Farnworth, Greater Manchester. 'What has happened has come as a complete shock. Andy was the youngest of four children and she can't believe he is gone.
'Andy had just completed his GCSEs and was due to get his results next week,' he added. 'He was a bit of a cheeky monkey but he was a good kid at heart. He loved going fishing with his friends and was a lifelong fan of Bolton Wanderers.'
A murder inquiry has been launched and a 21-year-old man, arrested on suspicion of murder and assault, is being questioned by detectives.
Such incidents are increasingly damaging for a government battling to refute claims it is losing the fight on law and order. Some have demanded a national debate on the issue. Already some anecdotal evidence suggests the liberalisation of the drinking laws has seen a rise in violence in some inner cities.
'We have gone out of our way to create drinking zones in city centres,' said Professor Dick Hobbs, a criminologist at the London School of Economics. 'By focusing on the binge drinker, we blame the consumer, but it would be amazing if, once you group young people together and fill them with cheap booze, you did not have problems.'
In many countries strict planning laws disperse pubs and clubs around major cities. 'In Britain, we cram them together, creating price wars between pubs,' Hobbs said. 'People move from one venue to another, causing problems on the pavements.' In 2002 Hobbs co-authored a study showing a clear correlation between the proliferation of bars and an attendant increase in violence. It found that between 1998 and 2001, the capacity of licensed premises in Manchester city centre rose by 240 per cent. The number of assaults reported to the police over the same period rose by 225 per cent.
Supermarkets and off-licences are also under ferocious attack for selling cheap alcohol to under-age drinkers. Figures obtained by the Liberal Democrats show that in the 10 years to 2005, the most recent data available, only 38 retailers were prosecuted for selling alcohol to under-18s.
'The government is burying its head in the sand,' said the Liberal Democrats' culture spokesman, Don Foster. 'Since Labour came to power, ministers have systematically failed to enforce the law on shops selling alcohol to children.'
In a move that suggests the industry is nervous about a public backlash, the Portman Group, which represents drinks manufacturers, is to create an independent body to ensure alcohol sold in shops is not marketed to young drinkers.
'In the current climate of concern, we can't be complacent,' said David Poley, the group's chief executive. 'We will conduct proactive measures to identify irresponsible products and promotions.'
In the past fortnight, stories suggesting yob rule - often alcohol-fuelled - is sweeping the country have captured the headlines.
Garry Newlove, 47, died from a head injury after confronting youths outside his home in Warrington, Cheshire, a death made all the more tragic by his 12-year-old daughter Amy's valedictory tribute to 'the best dad in the world'.
On Friday three youths from Gateshead were convicted after Lee Harris, 29, was beaten into a month-long coma. He had endured a campaign of intimidation after he refused to buy a group of under-age youths alcohol.
Evren Anil, 23, died last week after slipping into a coma from which he never awoke. He was punched to the ground when he remonstrated with a gang of youths who threw litter into his sister's car in Crystal Palace, south London. The attack happened at midday, just 30 feet from the local police station.
Last week a feeling that the fabric of society was unravelling and that alcohol was to blame was propounded by Peter Fahy, the Chief Constable of Cheshire, who called for a crackdown on drinking in public, an increase in the price of alcohol and a rise in the legal age to buy drink to 21.
'We cannot have a society where adults feel scared to go out and challenge youngsters up to no good,' he said.
Graham Robb, interim chair of the Youth Justice Board, which oversees the youth justice system in England and Wales, agrees that alcohol has fuelled much of the rise in youth violence, but does not accept Fahy's belief that changing the drinking laws would help.
'Widespread access to alcohol is a factor in offending, but the biggest source of alcohol is the home,' Robb said. 'Where once they drank cider, now they drink vodka. Many mix alcohol with drugs. It's very worrying.' He wants Britain's schools to teach young people about the consequences of drunken behaviour.
The government's response has been to introduce measures to control behaviour as part of Tony Blair's 'respect agenda'. But Home Office statistics show 55 per cent of antisocial behaviour orders are breached. And research published by the Youth Justice Board has found some under-18s regard Asbos as a badge of honour.
Early signs suggest Blair's successors accept that the 'respect agenda' may not be a panacea. Ed Balls, the Children's Secretary, recently questioned the reliance on Asbos. 'It is a failure every time a young person gets an Asbo,' he said.
Instead, Balls believes there should be greater emphasis on parental responsibility and providing young people with more to do. Significantly, his department is to wrest oversight of the Youth Justice Board and the respect agenda from the Home Office, a sign the government is moving the issue of tackling youth offending away from a narrow debate about tougher punishments and into the realm of community-based solutions.
But several councils, exasperated by the government's apparent inaction, have sought their own solutions. In Westminster, the council employs some 90 'city guardians', highly visible in reflective jackets, to patrol the West End. In one ward the percentage of residents who said they felt safe at night doubled from 33 per cent in 2003 to 66 per cent last year.
Such a solution is not an option for many cash-strapped councils, so there will be more devastated mothers of teenage sons. And there will be more tributes to victims who will never get to read them.
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