Page last updated at 04:41 GMT, Wednesday, 2 July 2008 05:41 UK

Cherie's role reversal

Sketch
By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News

If things had turned out differently this could have been Cherie Blair's day job.

Cherie Blair appeared before MPs to give evidence on the causes of knife and gun crime

She always said she had no regrets about dropping her political ambitions to support her husband and focusing on a career in the law.

But there was more than a hint of what might have been as she made her belated debut on the Parliamentary stage on Tuesday morning.

It was only the Home Affairs Committee - the Wilson room in Portcullis House is a pleasant enough place but it somehow lacks the majesty and grandeur of the full Commons chamber.

And she may have been giving evidence to a mostly polite and respectful panel of MPs on a pet subject - rather than being grilled by hostile forces bent on tripping her up and making her look foolish.

But Tony Blair had sat in the same room on more than one occasion during his time in power, when he faced his regular liaison committee meetings.

And you could tell by the way she smiled and rubbed her hands in anticipation as she settled into her seat that Cherie was going to enjoy every minute of this.

Ticked off

Sat alongside her was Liam Black - Eric to her Ernie as she joked to aides afterwards - a fellow member of the Channel 4 commission charged with investigating the causes of gun and knife crime.

It is a subject she is passionate about - so passionate in fact that she received a ticking off from committee chairman Keith Vaz at one point for the length of her answers.

"Oh sorry," laughed Mrs Blair, squirming a little in embarrassment, "we could go on forever."

"Please don't. Not this morning," replied Mr Vaz.

There was also the slightly vexed question of how the members of the committee should address her.

Tory MP James Clappison kicked off his questions with a cheeky "Could I ask Cherie..."

"It's Ms Booth," said Mr Vaz, correcting him.

Blair's Britain

Ms Booth and her panel have interviewed more than 50 expert witnesses including lawyers, youth workers and the police, as well as talking informally to school children and police officers.

It seems her eyes have been opened to what life is like for many youngsters on the streets of what was, not so very long ago, Blair's Britain.

She said she was "quite shocked" to talk to 11-year-olds at one school who said they were scared to venture beyond their neighbourhoods for fear of being shot or stabbed.

Respect is a word that comes up a lot - but it's not the sort of respect that the government's respect agenda is talking about
Cherie Blair

She was concerned, as a parent, about "what is happening to my children on the streets", she said.

And she had little time for the government's crime statistics - routinely held up by ministers as evidence that things are not as bad as the media would like us to believe.

The government may say crime is falling but violent crime is on the increase, said Mrs Blair, and the statistics only gave half the picture as they do not include the under 16s.

Hospital admissions told a different story.

"Anecdotally it seems the perception is that it is much worse," Mrs Blair told the committee.

Another problem, she went on, is that under 16s do not have the "maturity" to handle guns so they were more likely to use them to solve petty disputes.

"Most of them don't know how to use a knife properly" either, she added - they were stabbing people in the leg because they thought it was not fatal when in fact it could be.

Although, confusingly, Mr Black said that if they did know how to use a knife properly the death toll would be much higher.

'Glamour'

Tory MP David Davies tried to lure Mrs Blair into criticising the Human Rights Act, asking if the police were scared to frisk suspects for fear of breaching it.

"Speaking as someone who is a warranted police officer," said Mr Davies, "can I put in a bid to change the human rights act?" Mrs Blair was not convinced it was relevant.

But it was Labour MP Martin Salter who got to the heart of the matter when he asked why youth crime was such a problem when the government had launched so many crackdowns.

It was a tough one, she conceded, but the answer was to take the "glamour" out of crime.

Too many young people equated respect with weapons - the idea that "the ones who get the girls and the flashy cars are the ones who carry knives and guns".

"Respect is a word that comes up a lot - but it's not the sort of respect that the government's respect agenda is talking about. It is almost a distortion of the word respect," she told Mr Salter.

She was not clear about how respect might be restored to its proper usage and the glamour taken out of crime.

Hackney

She spoke a bit about the need to cut red tape for charities and have more co-ordination between agencies and stressed that there was no "one-size fits-all" solution that would work in all parts of the country.

She had been impressed by what she had seen in Hackney, a borough of London she knew well, where the police targeted known troublemakers and knife crime hotspots.

In fact when asked by Mr Vaz, at the close of the session, what would be the one thing she would do about knife and gun crime if she were home secretary, this was her reply.

"I think this idea of taking the glamour out of crime and making a highly visible police presence which actually cracks down in the way we have seen in Hackney, and actually harries the criminals is actually a good approach," she said.

She would have gone on, but police minister Tony McNulty was pacing up and down outside, waiting for his turn in front of the committee.

I have a funny feeling she will be back.




SEE ALSO
Cherie's crime fears for children
01 Jul 08 |  UK Politics
I will not quit as judge - Cherie
15 May 08 |  UK Politics

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