Blair takes initiative over juvenile crime: Cross-party support for crackdown

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The Independent Online
The Government will be challenged by Labour today to introduce emergency measures to combat juvenile crime in response to the public outrage over recent horrific cases.

Amid evidence of a growing cross-party consensus on law and order, Tony Blair, the Labour spokesman on home affairs, will demand urgent action to put more persistent young offenders in secure accommodation, tackle truancy, cut offending on bail, and crack down at an earlier age on youth crime - particularly car crime and burglary.

Seizing the initiative on law and order from the Tories, Mr Blair will protest that delays in bringing cases to court are giving youngsters the impression they can 'get away with it'. He will call for the victims of crime to be consulted before the police are allowed to drop inquiries into cases such as assault, and burglary.

The Labour policy document, Getting a grip on Youth Crime, which the Independent has obtained, criticises the Home Office for failing to provide places it had promised for holding 65 young offenders and for the fact that many of the secure places that do exist are in the wrong areas.

Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, confirmed yesterday that he was preparing a package of measures, including a change in the law to allow those aged 15 and under to be held in secure accommodation. But Home Office sources said it would be a 'very green White Paper' which would require lengthy consultation and could take years to implement.

Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for Health, and a former justice of the peace, has urged caution on Mr Clarke in a Cabinet committee, warning that creating a new generation of borstals could be counter-productive.

Mr Blair and Mr Clarke in weekend interviews on BBC radio showed that, behind the rhetoric, Labour and the Tories are closer than they ever were during the Thatcher years in their response to crime and its causes: both acknowledged the role of society and the need for individuals to accept responsibilities.

Mr Clarke said there was a gap in the present law, because youth courts could not sentence children aged 15 and below to secure accommodation. 'We do have a hard core of people who ought to be at school who are truanting continually and committing a very great deal of crime,' he said.

Promising an announcement 'soon', Mr Clarke cast doubt on Labour's willingness to drop its opposition to Tory law and order measures in the Commons.

'It requires worked-up proposals; proper sentencing proposals; clear criteria about which children you are going to send away; a clear regime of education and affection and support which most of these juvenile delinquents need as well.

'It also requires parliamentary time. When we get to that parliamentary time, we will see whether the new Clintonesque Labour politics actually feeds its way through to support for the measures we are proposing,' Mr Clarke said.

'He is coming along in the right direction, which is a welcome change for the Labour Party. We have run crime prevention measures against a background of derision. Successive Conservative Home Office ministers have been quite heavily criticised.

'We had a Criminal Justice Act only last year and before that a Public Order Act which have been consistently opposed. If now we are going to address the combination of the causes within society of this rising criminality and better protection against it, the acid test remains: are you going to back education reform, are you going to back employment training measures, are you going to back heavier penalties for . . . nasty pieces of work?'

In an interview with the Mail on Sunday, which Mr Blair described as 'a spectacularly lame piece of the old thinking'. John Major underlined his determination to act, with a call for a 'crusade against crime'. Describing crime as a 'sleeping giant of worries for most people,' the Prime Minister said: 'I feel strongly . . . that society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less.'

While Mr Blair carefully avoided offering a blank cheque to the Government, his call in a watershed speech on Friday for Labour to abandon the nostrums of 'old socialism' on law and

order could pave the way for more cross-party support on measures to combat crime.

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