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Tuesday, 16 May, 2000, 10:18 GMT 11:18 UK
Straw seeks Britain's hardest man title

Jack Straw: Proposing weekend jail sentences
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder

One of Tony Blair's great triumphs at the last general election was to steal the Tories' clothes on law and order.

He had already done it with the economy by stating that he would stick to the previous government's spending plans for two years.

And he went on to seize the law and order agenda with the much-lampooned phrase "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime." But it worked.

The Tories had forever been the party of law and order but suddenly the ground shifted and New Labour won the title.

This was all massively helped by the figure of Jack Straw, who appeared to be fighting Michael Howard for the title of the hardest man in politics.

Now, of course, the Tories are starting to shift the agenda and Mr Straw is trying to fight back.



Ann Widdecombe upped the ante on crime
What many on all sides of the Commons now fear is that the two parties are involved in a frantic battle to win popular support by out doing each other on the issue.

Ann Widdecombe or William Hague makes a tough-talking speech on crime, so Jack Straw has to come out with something even tougher.

Nine to five

The latest salvo has come from the Home Secretary as he promises to "get tough" on persistent offenders by locking them up at weekends or sending them to prison from nine to five.

Critics claim this smacks of the Tories' failed "short sharp shock" experiment with young offenders which was quickly abandoned after proving ineffective in preventing reoffending.



Prison works to prevent people from offending while they are in prison

Jack Straw
Mr Straw has even come close to repeating Mr Howard's much-criticised claim that "prison works" by declaring: "what is unquestionably the case is that prison works to prevent people from offending while they are in prison."

This scramble for popular support was all started when Mr Hague called for changes in the laws on self-defence after farmer Tony Martin was jailed for killing a 16-year-old who broke into his home.

It later emerged the gang of burglars who raided his Norfolk farmhouse had more than 100 previous convictions between them.

This caused a huge public backlash and Mr Hague's demands won him massive popular support.

He followed it through with calls for a new crackdown on asylum seekers with the creation of special detention camps.

And, most recently, he has urged the government to change the rule of double jeopardy which currently prevents people who have been found innocent of a particular crime ever being tried again for the same offence.

Knee-jerk populism

Demands for changes in the rule have persisted since the case of murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence saw three suspects acquitted of his murder in 1996. The police are continuing the investigation to find the killers.

Mr Straw has dismissed much of the opposition leader's demands as knee-jerk populism, but they appear to have struck a chord with voters and now it seems to be his turn to play the hard man.

It is no coincidence, of course, that a lot of this rhetoric comes in the same week that probation officers and the police federation hold their annual meetings and are certain to attack the government.

Probation officers fear rocketing prison populations, which Mr Straw has admitted is likely.

And the police are warning of a crisis in the service sparked by lack of resources.

For the first time, the Home Secretary's grip on the law and order agenda seems to be slipping.

What many now fear is that the tit-for-tat political battle will run right through until the next election and will escalate, with increasingly draconian measures being suggested to deal with Britain's increasing crime problem.

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See also:

16 May 00 | UK Politics
'Day prison' plan for delinquents
14 May 00 | UK Politics
Labour attacks 'knee-jerk' policies
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