- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 11, 2006

LONDON — British Prime Minister Tony Blair, introducing a key plank of his third and final term in office, has started a $140 million action plan dubbed “Respect” to attack anti-social problems ranging from street hooligans to “neighbors from hell” who could be thrown out of their homes.

In an address to social workers at his office at 10 Downing St., Mr. Blair said the nation has been fighting “21st-century crime with 19th-century methods” and called for a system of speedy “summary justice” to bypass traditional courts.

The judge and jury process, he claimed, is “too cumbersome, too remote from reality to be effective” in today’s world.

Mr. Blair has already announced that he intends to step down as prime minister after completing the third term to which he was elected in May, and the ambitious, 44-page “Respect Action Plan” was seen as a shot at gaining a major political — and popular — success as his trouble-plagued governance nears its end.

To promote the plan, Mr. Blair traveled to Swindon, about 60 miles west of London, to hose down graffiti on a red-brick wall — a public relations exercise that police said had among its spectators the youths suspected of spraying on the graffiti in the first place. They were not arrested.

Critics immediately attacked Mr. Blair’s plan, one dismissing it as “rubbish,” and another describing it as a package of “minor tweaks to existing measures and shock tactics.”

The program he announced yesterday envisions evicting out-of-control families from their homes, even if privately owned, for up to three months, and rehousing them in a network of residential centers, or “sin bins,” to teach them how to behave.

Mr. Blair, who admitted to the BBC on Tuesday to having disciplined his own children with an occasional “smack,” said the bill targets so-called “neighbors from hell” whose anti-social activities run the gamut from loud music at all hours to fighting and brawling, including yelling, screaming children and bullying others. Problem families also could find their government housing benefits, worth hundreds of dollars a month in many cases, cut off.

The “Respect” plan outlines on-the-spot fines of up to $175 for street hooligans and vandals caught attacking passers-by, damaging vehicles and scrawling graffiti on walls, buses and trains. It says stiffer penalties are in store for thugs who attack government workers, and there are instant fines for causing trouble in hospitals.

It gives police and other authorities increased powers to close and board up “nuisance” premises, including houses, pubs and other bars — a problem that some fear has already been worsened by the recent expansion of bar hours, in some cases to around the clock, for establishments selling alcohol.

A key element in the action plan centers on efforts to control unruly children and to help their beleaguered parents. Schools are given the go-ahead to take out parenting orders for children of any age who seriously misbehave, and a national parenting academy is to be set up to train health and social-service staff how to teach families “responsibility.”

But in a television appearance, Mr. Blair insisted the public would have to help if the action plan is to work.

“I can provide the power and resources,” he said, but “I cannot force everyone to implement these powers … [although] I can ask them to do it.”

The prime minister immediately came under fire.

“Respect?” One police officer gibed. “They [hooligans and vandals] can’t even spell the word. What they need is to be named and shamed.”

The officer targeted the government’s use of “anti-social banning orders” — “asbos” — aiming at halting youths from causing trouble in specific areas. “Even an ‘asbo’ is a badge of honor to some of these kids.”

The prime minister also faced accusations that some of the “initiatives” were, in fact, old policies that have been tried and found wanting. Parenting orders were introduced in 1998, during the first Blair administration, but political critic Edward Heathcoat Amory said only 1,425 have been used, “so their effect after eight years is vanishingly small.”

On-the-spot fines were ordered up a few years ago, but they were ridiculed by police, and few were ever paid. Attempts to punish misbehavior in schools have already seen teachers and education officials overruled by local government councils under pressure from parents.

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