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Jam, Jerusalem and the fight against organised crime

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Mark Easton | 15:37 UK time, Tuesday, 25 November 2008

To some, it will be seen as a busybodies' charter - thousands of WI members tutting over the small ads in the local paper before penning angry letters to the editor.

To others, it is a creative way to deal with the unacceptable face of the sex trade - mobilising the citizenry to help fight the evil criminal gangs which profit from people trafficking.

What strikes me as interesting is that this is a rare example of the state looking to civil society for solutions to social ills.

The Minister for Women, Harriet Harman, addressed the Women's Institute today and asked them for their help.

"Look at the adverts in your local newspaper," she exhorted the organisation's 200,000 members. "They advertise women for sale for sex. Many are young women tricked and trafficked into this country and forced into prostitution."

Ms Harman urged the institute's volunteers to write to local newspaper editors whose own trade organisation, the Newspaper Society, is committed to discouraging or banning such sleazy ads. The WI was only too happy to oblige.

It is not the first time that the organisation has been "recruited" by government. In 1938, the National Federation of Women's Institutes was asked to help with plans to evacuate children in the event of war.

jamAnd when conflict did come, the WI took on a wide range of responsibilities. Inevitably, they were asked to assist with the "fruit preservations scheme" (jam) but also to help with the "meat pie scheme", the "cod-liver oil scheme" and the "fruit juice scheme".

They lined coats with rabbit skins for use by troops in Russia and they also worked closely with the Board of Trade's "knitters scheme".

If they were good enough to take on the might of Hitler's Nazis, they are surely more than qualified to fight organised criminals in the sex industry.

However, the relationship between the state and its citizens changed markedly when the war ended. The creation of the welfare state meant that voters increasingly assumed that it was government's job to run the country and improve their lot.

The fight against crime, some would argue, is rightfully a job for police and the courts - not net-twitching do-gooders. Ministers may well be accused of passing the buck - abrogating their responsibility to deal with organised criminal gangs.

If a crime is committed, it might be suggested, the justice system should deal with it, not unelected, meddling amateurs.

neighbourhood watchA similar charge was laid at Douglas Hurd's door when he was home secretary in the early 1980s. Lord Hurd (as he is now) rolled out the Neighbourhood Watch scheme across Britain, having been impressed by the activities of the first project in Mollington in Cheshire. Today, more than 10 million people are said to be involved.

Central government is increasingly aware of its own limitations. Passing laws from the top often produces little or no effect on behaviour at ground level. The levers of power don't appear to be attached to anything.

Is harnessing the enthusiasm of the British people to improve their own neighbourhoods and communities the way to make a difference?

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