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 Thursday, 9 January, 2003, 16:32 GMT
Labour losing crime initiative
Police officers
The Tories were always seen as the law and order party

Before the creation of New Labour the Tories were the unchallenged champions of law and order.

Successive Conservative home secretaries offered a tough approach to offenders and prided themselves on their hardline reputation.

Labour was often seen as soft on crime and criminals and, in some extreme local councils, even anti-police.

Home Secretary David Blunkett
Blunkett accused of kneejerk
That all changed with the emergence of the Tony Blair-led New Labour party with its famous slogan "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime".

And each Labour home secretary has appeared determined to appear even harder than their Tory predecessors.

Three strikes

But with the public increasingly concerned about crime - particularly burglary and violence - Labour may be starting to lose its advantage.

Iain Duncan Smith has proved highly successful at pinning the prime minister down over his record on crime.

He has highlighted the increase in violent offences and regularly uses question time to ridicule initiatives, such as the "three strikes" rule for burglars, which have failed to be put into practice or produce results.

During Wednesday's question time, Mr Duncan Smith again put the prime minister on the spot over rising crimes.

"We have had tough on crime, three strikes and out, on-the-spot fines, night courts, drugs tsars, no less than 12 criminal justice bills and countless pieces of meaningless drivel.

"Isn't his real policy on law and order just a combination of gimmicks and hot air?"

Tory record

And, with the latest crime statistics proving some grim reading for the government, this is fertile territory for the opposition.

The prime minister usually hits back by claiming that crime levels are below levels in 1997.

Police retrieve guns
Huge increase in violent crime
But he will have difficulty deploying that argument after the latest figures which showed an increase in overall crime over the past year.

Mr Blair also loses no time in attacking the previous Tory governments' record, which saw crime escalating overall.

But probably most worrying for the prime minister is the fact that it also shows a lack of public trust that the criminal justice system is properly dealing with crime. And this lies at the core of this debate.

U turn

There can be little doubt that people, particularly city dwellers, feel more at risk from crime than probably ever before.

Research from the British Crime Survey, show that only 44% believe the criminal justice system is effective in bringing people to justice.

Only 39% said they believed the system was dealing with cases promptly and efficiently.

And just 36% said they were confident the criminal justice system was effective in reducing crime.

This is seriously bad news for the government and will add fuel to the claims that ministers respond to particular problems with kneejerk initiatives which are aimed at grabbing headlines rather than really tackling the issue.

Meanwhile, there have been the rows over David Blunkett's apparent U turn on mandatory sentences for firearms offences and the Lord Chancellor's support for non-custodial sentences for first time burglars.

Both have added to an impression that the government has no coherent or long-term strategy.

And the Tories now believe they have a real, traditional issue on which they can make serious ground.

Key stories


See also:

06 Jan 03 | Politics
08 Jan 03 | Politics
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