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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 April, 2005, 11:04 GMT 12:04 UK
Election issues: Law and order
ANALYSIS
By Neil Bennett
BBC News crime correspondent

Police on the  beat
More police on the beat - but has it cut crime?
Crime always ranks high on the list of priorities for voters.

The overall law and order climate in this Parliament has been very heavily influenced by the terrorist attacks on the United States in September 2001.

Security and the fear of terrorism has dominated the government's agenda.

But for ordinary people what matters most is what is happening to them, their friends and families in their local areas.

QUICK GUIDE

Labour made very few manifesto commitments on law and order in 2001.

One that it did make was to increase the number of bobbies on the beat.

Policing

In December 2001 David Blunkett pledged to recruit 130,000 officers by March 2003.

IS IT DEVOLVED?
Scotland: Devolved
Wales: Not Devolved
NI: Not Devolved
Devolved issues are the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, or NI Assembly

This has been achieved and by September 2004 there were a record 140,000 police in England and Wales.

In addition, there were 4,127 Community Support Officers, a rise of 101.7% since September 2003. The undoubted claim that Labour will make during the election campaign is that it has provided a record number of police officers, as opposed to the failing numbers that occurred when Michael Howard was Home Secretary.

The Conservatives say they will recruit 5,000 new police officers each year for the next eight years providing an additional 40,000 officers.

The Liberal Democrats have pledged an extra 10,000 police, which will in part be funded by not introducing ID cards.

And similar promises are being made by the parties in Scotland, where there is devolved responsibility for criminal justice.

But how much difference does numbers of police make?

Fewer that one in four of all crimes are detected and the detection rate for rape, for example, has fallen to an all-time low.

Crime levels

The official crime figures are confusing, incomplete and do not tell the whole story about how much crime is being committed..

That is not the fault of the police or the government; it is just the way the figures are compiled.

And it is also why political parties would be wise not to claim credit for falling crime figures or accept too much blame for them going up.

There are also two different measures: the official police recorded crime statistics and the annual British Crime Survey (BCS) which is intended to measure peoples' actual experience of crime.

The BCS figures show that crime declined from 12,899,000 in 2000/2001 to 11,716,000 in 2003/2004 in England and Wales.

Meanwhile police recorded 5,170,843 crimes in 2000/2001 and 5,934,600 in 2003/2004 in England and Wales.

(In contrast, recorded crime fell in Scotland, although the new recording system - which contributed to the rise in recorded crime in England and Wales - is just being introduced north of the border.)

Within the overall figures across Britain there is a rising trend for crimes of violence, including gun crime, while knife crime is a particular concern in Scotland.

However, it is questionable whether the figures really influence peoples' own perceptions about crime rates.

Anti-social behaviour

This is where the government has produced a blizzard of new penalties and initiatives, most importantly the Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs).

Labour say that the measures they have introduced will give greater protection to witnesses and victims in the civil cases used to impose ASBOs.

They want to ensure faster justice by tripling the number of special courts which fast-track ASBO cases and expand the range of offences for which fixed penalty notices can be used.

And they want to produce a renewal in community policing by establishing a dedicated policing team for every neighbourhood that needs it.

The Conservatives say that the constant re-announcements and renewed initiatives in connection with anti-social behaviour are just a gimmick that the Government use to hide the fact that their law and order approach is not working. They want more realistic penalties for people who breach ASBOs.

They say that the fact that it has taken the government six years to reach just over half of its target of issuing 5,000 ASBOs a year, of which 36% of the orders were broken, is just one example of failure.

The Liberal Democrats have been in much conflict with Labour about the issue of anti-social behaviour, and they have opposed key elements of legislation.

They felt that while there were some good measures in the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill they could not vote for it, and have recently put more emphasis on restorative justice in the community.

There are marked differences between regions and nations in the use of ASBOs.

Wales does not use them very much, while Scotland has pioneered the use of curfews in town centres to curb what is called the "ned" culture.

Scotland has a separate legal system and its police forces answer to the Scottish Executive, which has emphasised the importance of tackling anti-social behaviour.

ID cards

After much speculation, the Home Office finally revealed its plans for the introduction of ID cards in April 2004 in a draft bill and followed this up with legislation in February 2005.

The Bill sets out the proposed legal framework for the scheme and makes it clear that the Government intends the cards to cover everyone aged 16 or over who is legally resident in the United Kingdom for 3 months or more.

Officially the Conservative Party supports the introduction of identity cards, after the Shadow Cabinet agreed in principle to give its backing to the legislation.

However, it was reportedly a tough battle for Michael Howard to persuade his senior colleagues that the cards usefulness in tackling terrorism, rising crime, and illegal immigration outweighed the threat to civil liberties.

The Liberal Democrats are opposed to the introduction of identity cards. They say that it is an expensive and flawed piece of plastic that will do little to tackle terrorism.

They are also opposed by the Scottish Nationalists, Plaid Cymru, and the Greens.

Terrorism

Despite repeated warnings that an attack by international terrorists is inevitable, it has not happened.

Armed police on terror alert
The terrorist threat has prompted new approaches

Hundreds of people have been arrested, some convicted and other cases are going through the courts.

Just before the election, the government rushed through legislation to give the Home Secretary, after consulting a judge, the right to keep suspected terrorists who have not been convicted in a court of law under house arrest despite opposition from other parties.

The Conservatives have made repeated calls for the Government to appoint a high-powered minister to take charge of protecting the UK from the threatened terrorist attack.

The Conservatives are also concerned about what they term "ancient British liberties" such as the presumption of innocence, the right to trial by jury and habeas corpus, which they say might be undermined by the new prevention of terrorism act.

They say that the Government should not erode these unless they have exhausted every other possibility.

Charles Kennedy has claimed that the Government is capitalising on a climate of fear over terrorism and crime to force through changes that threaten people's civil liberties.

He says that extraordinary threats, like international terrorism, may require the country to find a different balance between liberties and security.

These concerns are shared by the SNP, the Greens and Plaid Cymru.

Conclusion

Overall, effect that any government policies have on crime is difficult to measure.

Parties would be well advised not to take too much credit for falling crime levels. Nor should they take all the blame for crime going up.





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