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
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
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.