`Scumbag' Straw's unglamorous job may just bring in the voters

Few ministers believe, even in their wildest fantasies, that their party's high poll ratings tell the truth
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The Independent Culture
ON A grey, drizzly morning in Salford police station Jack Straw is listening intently as police tell the story of Mick, a local drug- user with a string of convictions for theft.

The figures could hardly be starker. The police calculate that Mick spent pounds 700 a week to fund his heroin habit - well above the average pounds 200 a week but by no means exceptional. His mother, driven to desperation, had taken five part-time jobs to help keep him in heroin. Since his habit cost pounds 36,400 a year, he needed to steal three times that value - some pounds 109,000 - to get that sum from his fence. For five years he was clean, but a descent into drink and the breakdown of a relationship sent him back to drugs. Between the ages of 13, when he started smoking cannabis, and 17, by which time he had started smoking heroin, nobody in a drug treatment service had any contact with him. Now the police have no idea where he is - or even whether he is still alive.

This bleak tale has a purpose: it exposes with brutal clarity the relationship between drug use and other crime. Pilot projects already show that if drug-using offenders are referred for treatment under the arrest referral scheme, crime, especially theft and burglary, falls dramatically. On three such schemes, the offences committed by 80 addicted offenders dropped by 80 per cent in seven months.

Not surprisingly, Straw yesterday announced another pounds 20m for such schemes, as part of a programme to cover every local police station by 2002. Peter Polese, the co-ordinator of the Salford referral programme, is delighted by Mr Straw's interest, though he warns that it may take 10 years for the programme to make a substantial impact.

This is the grinding, unglamorous business of government in mid-term. The Balkan war, and the glaring spotlight on Northern Ireland, seem far away. The Michael Ashcrofts may come and go in a blaze of excitement and publicity, but the Micks and the devastating impact their problems have on their families and communities are rather less ephemeral. In an important speech in Manchester yesterday, intended to resonate beyond the immediate audience of chief constables to which it was delivered, Mr Straw sought to focus attention on an issue on which, far more than most of those which fill the front pages, the Government will really be judged: the fight against crime.

Mr Straw, by adding freedom from fear to Beveridge's three celebrated freedoms - from ill-health, ignorance and want - elegantly advanced the process of reclaiming law and order as legitimate Labour territory. It is hard now to remember how recently this process was begun by Straw's predecessor in the Home Affairs portfolio, Tony Blair. In the 1992 election, Labour hardly had a crime policy worthy of the name. Fencing off wasteland was one of its more eyecatching elements.

By contrast, the Crime and Disorder Bill introduced by Mr Straw - requiring, besides much else, the kind of local inter-agency cooperation that characterises the Salford drugs project - may in time lay claim to be one of the most important criminal justice measures of the past 20 years.

But Bills and speeches, as Mr Straw well knows, do not themselves change human behaviour. The Government is now in its most difficult phase yet, and if Labour's dismal European election performance means anything it surely means that the voters know it. Few front-rank ministers believe, even in their wildest fantasies, that their party's stubbornly high opinion- poll ratings tell the truth. Almost imperceptibly, but irreversibly, the Government has slipped out of that charmed time-zone in which the ills of the country could be blamed on its Tory predecessors. The electorate has all but forgotten that there ever was a Tory government.

When, for somewhat mysterious reasons, a solitary demonstrator greeted the Home Secretary's arrival at the central Manchester magistrates' courts yesterday with a placard inscribed "Scumbag Straw Enemy of the People", he was really doing no more than testifying that, having shed the glamour of newness, Mr Blair's most senior ministers are now an embedded fact of life.

This happens to all governments, and should not cause undue alarm to the present incumbents. It was as apparent after two years of the Thatcher administration as it is now. And it is something that no amount of spin, or presentationial initiatives, or policy gimmicks, can reverse. Which is why all the talk in Whitehall is now about delivery.

And this is what Mr Straw's speech yesterday was largely about. True, he gave a glimpse of an emerging second-term agenda when he hinted at an assault on the deficiencies of the probation service, by complaining pointedly that only a third of offenders who miss a third appointment with their probation officer are penalised. But most of it was directed at the imperative of ensuring that the Government delivers, and is seen to deliver, on the policies it already has.

This is a task for which Mr Straw, as it happens, is eminently well suited. The police can be confident that, whatever else, Mr Straw is not some wishy-washy liberal when it comes to penal policy. But part of his task is to coax the police towards modernisation. And this, so far, he has been able to do without the head-on confrontations Ken Clarke provoked when he attempted it as Home Secretary, or the appeasement that Michael Howard offered as an alternative.

Unobtrusively, Mr Straw has done quite a lot to reform the police service, not least by daring to do what his Tory predecessors failed to do - making it a great deal easier to sack errant officers. There was not a hint in his speech of Mr Blair's outburst about the resistance of the public service to reform. But Mr Straw reminded the chief constables that the old equation of police numbers with effective policing is no longer the unchallenged assumption behind crime policy.

In Milton Keynes, where, as he pointed out yesterday, all crime has fallen by 21 per cent in the last two years - thanks in large part to Thames Valley's progressive chief constable Charles Pollard - that figure was achieved despite a rising new town population and a 2 per cent reduction in police numbers. By applying some of the disciplines that have long prevailed in education policy - including the measurement of results - Straw is beginning to expose policing to realities with which other parts of the public sector have long had to contend.

It is not the stuff of big headlines. But, in the long term, it is this on which voters will judge the Blair Government. Reducing crime is the long haul, just as it will be in education and health, and just as it was for the Thatcher administration which, two years after taking office, had hardly embarked on the most important aspects of its programme. Welcome, at last, to the real, headline-free, and sometimes unrewarding business of elected government.