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Monday, 17 July, 2000, 22:34 GMT 23:34 UK
Crime statistics deal new blow to Blair
Home Secretary Jack Straw
Jack Straw: accused of being too right wing
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder.

It was one of Tony Blair's great mantras - "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime".

And it worked, helping New Labour to steal the Tories' clothes as the party of law and order and to lay the foundation for its election victory.

Three years on, crime figures are rising and even Jack Straw has been forced to admit there has been a real increase in violence.

Just weeks after one US news programme declared Britain a more violent society than America, the latest statistics show a 16% increase in violent offences in England and Wales.

Young people 'blamed'

And the home secretary - whose critics believe has attempted to paint himself as more right-wing than his Tory predecessor Michael Howard - has been forced to admit things are getting worse.

He greeted the latest figures by declaring: "I am not in any doubt there has been an increase in violent crime full-stop, as there has been in robberies."

And he appeared to blame the problem on the fact that young people, particularly in London, have never had it so good and spend all their cash getting legless and looking for trouble.

He also insisted that he had taken numerous initiatives to tackle the problem which would start feeding through in the future.

Leaked memo

He has also admitted that police numbers have fallen during the New Labour reign and that he had never pledged "year-on-year declining crime".

His detractors point out that, as home secretary, he is not only responsible for law and order but also regulations covering the sale and consumption of alcohol.

They have also reminded him that one of the causes of crime identified by New Labour was poverty - not increased wealth.

The prime minister's leaked memo showed just how concerned the government is about its image on law and order.

Mr Blair specifically highlighted the area, claiming: "When the figures are published for the six months to April, they will show a small - 4% - rise in crime.

But this will almost certainly be due to the rise in levels of street crime - mobile phones, bags being snatched. This will be worst in London.

"The Met Police are putting in place measures to deal with it; but, as ever, we are lacking a tough public message along with the strategy.

"We should think now of an initiative, e.g. locking up street muggers. Something tough, with immediate bite which sends a message through the system."

Ducking bad news

That, of course, led to his ill-fated suggestion that drunks should be hauled off to the nearest cashpoint machine for on-the-spot fines.

But his memo also reveals a frustration with Mr Straw who will have to suffer the brunt of the criticism.

The release of the figures has also been surrounded by yet another row over spin, of the sort that has dogged the government virtually since it came to power.

Ministers are accused of timetabling the announcement on the same day that Chancellor Gordon Brown makes his statement on future government spending in an attempt to overshadow the bad news.

In the wake of the recent rows over the power and influence of spin doctors, that is certain to backfire and ministers have been insisting they had no control over the timing.

Meanwhile, the chancellor is expected to earmark significant extra cash to tackle law and order in his statement in an attempt to turn the tide.

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See also:

17 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Full text of Blair memo
03 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Blair backs down on fining 'louts'
17 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Big rise in violent crime
17 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Inquiry into leaked Blair memo
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