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Last Updated: Sunday, 25 June 2006, 07:12 GMT 08:12 UK
West: Crime, crime, crime
Paul Barltrop
Paul Barltrop
The Politics Show
BBC West

Police Officers
The Prime Minister was well protected

"If we had half this number of police up here any other day, then we would have no crime at all," the onlooker complained.

In front of her were dozens of officers; as the Prime Minister's convoy pulled up, armed plainclothes agents jumped out.

This was the Southmead estate. It has a grim reputation for crime and drugs, so was Tony Blair's first stop on his two-day crusade in Bristol to turn round the criminal justice system.

In the community hall he was at his best: for half an hour he listened earnestly and sympathised with the plight of ordinary folk whose lives have been blighted by antisocial behaviour.

Contra opinion

But even as inside all talk was of the city's awful problems, outside there was an alternative view, from one who should know.

Gary Hopkins is the senior councillor who deals with this every day - and the facts read rather differently.

Burglary, vehicle crime and robbery are at their lowest levels since 1998.

"Overall, crime has fallen in the Avon and Somerset force area," he says, "while the fear of crime is below the national average."

Prepared speech

Day two and another hall, another audience - this time the grandeur of Bristol University, and 300 invited guests from the city's great and good.

Also very different was the Prime Minister's performance. He spoke for 30 minutes, but to a prepared script, with more detail and less emotion.

"We are the first post-war British Government that has seen crime fall during its term of office," he said, and outlined some of the things they now planned.

New laws, that are clear and tough. Ensuring the courts can properly enforce them. A greater focus on sorting out offenders' problems, such as drugs.

Prisons overflowing?

And there was a clear warning: "The blunt reality is that, at least in the short and medium term, the measures proposed will mean an increase in prison places."

The Prime Minister left; he had seen a lot during his two days in the city. But there was one place he was doubtless glad he drove straight past.

Bristol prison is already 142% full - it holds scores more inmates than it should.

With more people than ever before locked up in our jails, the overcrowding can only increase.

Critics say imprisonment turns minor offenders into hardened criminals.

Others reckon locking more people up is the reason that crime rates are falling.

But politicians are sure of one thing: there are few votes in being soft on crime.

Join the debate on the Politics Show West on Sunday 25 June.

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