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Wednesday, 10 January, 2001, 13:45 GMT
Jack talks tough but voters want Bobby
Police officer
Voters want more bobbies on the beat
By BBC News Online political correspondent Nick Assinder

It was once the great Tory boast that it was the party of law and order.

For years, Labour was seen as being soft on criminals and showing little concern for the victims of crime.

It was a caricature of Labour's policies but the mud always stuck and, traditionally, the party was not viewed as being strong on law and order.

Tony Blair set about changing that in the run-up to the 1997 general election by coining the phrase "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime".

And by appointing Jack Straw as home secretary, he appeared ready to follow through.

Mr Straw has a reputation as a tough operator and he made all the right pronouncements on tackling criminals.

His refusal to accept any relaxation of Britain's drugs laws - despite mounting calls for change, especially over possession of cannabis - is seen as evidence of his tough line.

Home Secretary Jack Straw
Straw to target phone thefts
But as the latest Audit Commission report shows, there is still deep dissatisfaction with policing among the general public.

The report, which came on the same day as Mr Straw launched his latest crime crackdown, showed that the biggest concern is about the perceived lack of bobbies on the beat.

Powerful argument

That reflects people's fears over street crime and violence - the issue that Mr Straw is trying to tackle with his latest initiatives.

Mr Straw has a powerful argument when he states that much street crime is fuelled by drugs and, as a result, he is not prepared to relax controls.

His critics, however, insist that by relaxing penalties on cannabis possession - or even decriminalising it altogether - he could stop that particular form of street crime.

But even if that is the case, the whole issue is far too sensitive for any government to tackle and it seems highly unlikely there will be any changes under Tony Blair's administration.

Mr Straw is much more concerned with tackling the problem with tough-looking new crackdowns.

While he has presided over a 10% fall in all crimes between 1997 and 1999, the number of robberies went up by 14%, with a 26% increase in the 12 months to last March. Thefts of mobile phones are responsible for a large proportion of them.

At the same time there was a reduction in police numbers, which has only just been reversed.

Bobbies on the beat

The upshot of all this is that ordinary voters are beginning to question whether the government really is as tough on crime as it pretends.

And it is that fear which has led Mr Straw to announce his new package.

There is little doubt that street crime is now top of his agenda but what many fear is that, without an increase in the number of police walking the streets, all the initiatives will prove worthless.

His deal with the car manufacturers to make vehicle thefts more difficult has certainly paid dividends and there may well be room for mobile phone operators to take equivalent measures to prevent theft.

And there is no doubt Mr Straw is working to boost recruitment into the police force.

But the danger is that many voters will only judge his plans on the basis of how many bobbies they see pounding the beat.

And that is a far more difficult problem to address.

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See also:

08 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Straw pledges record police numbers
01 Apr 00 | UK Politics
MPs 'want drug law changes'
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