Last week, at long last, Damilola Taylor’s teenage killers were convicted of manslaughter after years of incompetence in the criminal justice system. Also last week, at long last, after years of incompetence — not to mention wilful blindness and dishonesty — the government admitted that the immigration system wasn’t working. The home secretary confessed as much in a speech on Wednesday. Even Polly Toynbee, La Pasionaria of The Guardian, at long last has agreed.
This coincidence isn’t just striking; it is shameful. For although Damilola was killed by the two Preddie brothers, a large part of the responsibility for his death lies with the sanctimonious irresponsibility at the heart of Britain’s immigration policy.
The estate where he died in Peckham, south London, was, and is, a disgraceful monument to it and to the dishonest thinking behind it. The government has been either unwilling or unable to control, or to admit to, or even to estimate the vast numbers of new arrivals. Only now is it beginning to wonder whether this influx was an entirely good thing.
At the time of Damilola’s death the ethnic composition of north Peckham in Southwark, where the estate lies, was 43.4% white, 15.9% black Caribbean, 26.6% black African, 4.1% black other, 7.9% Asian and 2.2% other. Today, in the borough of Southwark as a whole, about a third of the entire population comes from a black or ethnic minority “community”, as official figures so tendentiously put it, when the problem is precisely the lack of community. “More than 100 languages are spoken in our schools and 43% of our pupils speak English as an additional language,” says the council.
This shows, as the council says, a rich diversity and for many years in this country we have been required by the progressive establishment to celebrate this diversity. Yet such extreme diversity is quite obviously at odds with community. It is at odds with the development of shared culture and shared purpose, of shared language in shared school rooms and the creation of the ties that bind a community together.
To throw together such a hugely various collection of people from all over the world, in such numbers, from all kinds of different cultures speaking different languages, is to create a miserable, murderous Tower of Babel. So it has proved in Southwark and in other places like it. The result is racial tension of all kinds, bullying, crime and fear.
If you wanted to invent a way of demoralising people and setting them against each other in their deprivation, you could hardly have come up with anything better, short of bombing them. The ties of community are fragile; they are hard to weave but easy to break; they can’t be drawn together by wishful thinking.
Community needs a critical mass of familiarity, shared language, shared tradition and shared moral attitudes. A strong community can accept outsiders and is often enriched by them, as ours has been, but it also needs a high degree of common purpose and common culture. That might seem blindingly obvious, yet immigration policy has been based on a determined refusal to admit the obvious.
Southwark today is still considered a high crime area by the Home Office and a high youth crime area. Its crime rate has been rising since Damilola’s death, largely because crimes of violence against the person committed by the young and very young are rising. Violent crime there has risen from 10,000 incidents in 2000-01 to 12,500 in 2005-06, even though huge sums of money have been thrown at the problem.
The council’s Safer Southwark Partnership report describes well established youth gangs shamelessly in place, detailing their ethnic make-up and precise territory. These gangs are made up of the most wretched children, rather like Damilola’s feral killers — uncared for, uneducated, unremembered and directionless in a Dickensian urban wilderness. To call such lost boys “the scum of the earth”, as the Preddies were denounced last week, is to be wilfully ignorant of what has been done to them — of how they have been failed by society at every level, by their own cultures and by irresponsible political policies.
Meanwhile, it seems that Southwark’s educational attainments are “low”, by this country’s already low standards. That is hardly surprising. It is difficult to teach children of different ability in one class, let alone children who speak little English but many other languages. That’s another obvious fact that is rarely discussed.
It must also be difficult to teach (or protect) children who have been uprooted from elsewhere, to try to cope in a new and harsh environment, like Damilola, a recent arrival himself. One of the problems faced by inner-city schoolchildren, many of them migrants or from minorities, is constant movement. They hardly settle in one school when for various reasons they move to another, full of new strangers. This is another serious problem in the education system that is hardly discussed.
It may be that large sums of money cannot solve these intractable, government-made problems, but certainly money is a part of any solution. Last week, for instance, it emerged that the Youth Justice Board has told prison governors to try to identify young offenders in prison who might be suitable for early release, because we are about to run out of prison cells. So boys like Damilola’s killers, at an earlier stage of their criminal careers perhaps, could be set free. It defies belief.
Also last week Lord Bruce-Lockhart, chairman of the Local Government Association, wrote to the home secretary saying that council tax might have to rise because of Labour’s inability to work out how many immigrants were coming here. The government has seriously underestimated the numbers. As a result there is extreme pressure on some schools and social services. The same is true of hospitals.
John Reid has, at long last, begun to talk of “optimum levels” of immigration. This sounds faintly encouraging but he will have to be courageous if he means to do anything. The optimum number, for some time to come, is not far from zero — impossible though that would be. Damilola’s fate, and the fate of his killers, ought to remind us forcibly that we are not really able to look after the immigrants who are here already.