On the fifth anniversary of the five Ipswich murders
In the previous Newsletter, and in the wake of the August riots, I asked whether the "Big Society" shares the same status as the banks in being "too big to fail". A rhetorical question of course: for while such important but difficult questions should not be treated glibly, neither should we turn blind eyes to them. But readers will hopefully recognise a consistent theme linking many of my articles, around the question of how we make democratic and fair decisions on what we want, both as a national society and as a local community. How can we hope to reconcile widely varying and often diametrically opposed views on issues from town centre shopping and local transport provision, via the restructuring of local government, to national policy on planning and the environment, to international issues such as climate change, when our system of democracy emphasises adversity rather than mutual accommodation - or "win-lose" rather than "win-win"? Why should significant sections of the population be condemned to being on the "losing" side when there could be more balanced solutions which would include them?
It remains to be seen whether "Localism" will do anything to resolve this conundrum, or instead prove to be of similar substance to the "Big Society". But in the meantime there is a worrying trend that any discussion of local challenges is now seen as "talking Ipswich down", to be discouraged at all costs. A reader's recent comment in the local press describing Ipswich as "a cesspit" is plainly an exaggeration (as anyone who has been anywhere near one will surely testify) but such irrationality should not provide cause to suppress rational debate on how life in Ipswich might be improved.
So I hope to cast some light on the problem by discussing an issue whose inclusion in this Newsletter is perhaps unexpected, yet which surely represents an important influence on the life of the town in the recent past, from which some notable success has been distilled from tragedy. It must surely be an exemplar of aspiration for both the Big Society and Localism: dealing with street prostitution.
Prostitution is immediately an emotive issue, provoking arguments about morality on the one hand and women's rights on the other which, being both unchallengeable and irreconcilable, provide classic fodder for the media to exploit. And, in the process, the real plight of modem-day street prostitutes is obscured, namely that the vast majority are themselves victims of Class A drug abuse who would not willingly choose this "profession", rendering the foregoing arguments futile and irrelevant.
When the problem moved into our neighbourhood nearly ten years ago. we mostly regarded it as an intolerable intrusion that should be deterred, only to find that the law was inadequate for the purpose. Slowly, through an introduction via our councillors and MP to the Home Office and a nationwide consultation in 2004, we learnt the wider truth about the link with the drugs trade, and the need for support for the victims and protection for vulnerable young people, alongside deterrence against kerb crawlers. But even when a national Home Office strategy was published in January 2006, there were still deep ethical divisions between agencies which held up progress - until the five murders of the following December.
Even after those dreadful events, it took a further two years of concerted effort to engage with the sex workers and support their return to more conventional lives. But that has been the outcome, and one to be celebrated since it is "win-win", as the reformed addicts who have recovered their lives will testify, alongside our community which has reclaimed its neighbourhood. It is a tribute to a thoroughly researched and comprehensive multi-agency strategy implemented by dedicated professionals in close co-operation with the local community. This certainly would be my interpretation of the Big Society, and emphatically not one where the community had to fend for itself.
But if those five murders had not been committed, would this have been another example of an issue that many people in Ipswich would prefer to ignore, as is arguably the case in some quarters with the very similar issue of street drinking? Would vulnerable victims of substance misuse, and their unwilling host communities, be left to "help themselves"? With hindsight we might like to hope not, but five years of stalled progress before the murders might suggest otherwise, and the blame surely lies not with any culpable individuals but with the diversity of human nature.
The original five-year local strategy for prostitution has now been revised and extended to cover all forms of sexual exploitation across the county, seeking to support victims of trafficking and coercion in the same way that the original strategy recognised the hard realities of dealing with drug addiction.
Similarly there is a local strategy to address street drinking and to support the chaotic victims of alcohol dependency and misuse. Neither problem will simply "go away" or solve itself. Nor can the communities affected resolve the problems for themselves. Both require the concerted efforts of political leaders, dedicated professionals and ordinary residents if Ipswich and Suffolk and indeed the victims themselves are to be relieved of their burden. And Ipswich and Suffolk have the experience and wisdom of hindsight to lead the way - if we so choose, and can muster the resources.
Mike Brain is a Residents' Representative on two local multi-agency Strategy Implementation Groups addressing Sexual Exploitation and Street Drinking, and is a Neighbourhood Watch Scheme co-ordinator.