Election '97: Anti-crime measures recycled

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The Independent Online
An undertaking to cut crime by 10 per cent during the five years of any future Conservative government, announced yesterday by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, is a risky, possibly brave, but ultimately meaningless gesture.

In an attempt to seize the initiative on law and order - an issue which has been surprisingly low-key during the election so far - Mr Howard outlined a five-point plan to reducing crime.

However, as opposition parties and pressure groups where quick to point out, there is nothing new in any of the Home Secretary's "initiatives". All five schemes have been well publicised and one was announced as long ago as 1995.

What is new is the unprecedented decision to set a target to cut the number of offences - standing at about 5 million in England and Wales in 1996 - by 500,000.

Mr Howard is gambling on maintaining the current drop in recorded offences, which have fallen by 10 per cent during the past four years.

His optimism is not totally unfounded, although it is almost certainly based on the assumption that the less serious crimes of burglary and car theft will drop, rather than violent offences, which are rising.

By continuing to concentrate on property crime, such as stealing cars and house break-ins, which make up 92 per cent of all recorded offences, the police could bring the total down by 10 per cent. However, there is evidence that the initial success of initiatives such as the Metropolitan Police anti-burglary Operation Bumblebee is starting to fade.

There is also the question of how the police are going to reverse the rise in violent crime, which increased by 11 per cent last year. This included sharp rises in offences that endangered life, and sex crimes. It remains to be seen whether the introduction of a tougher sentencing policy against violent and sexual offenders will deter attackers.

Recent falls in crime have seen Labour turn its attack on the Tories' record, arguing that crime has doubled while convictions have fallen since 1979.

Paul Cavadino, chairman of the Penal Affairs Consortium, is also critical of setting a 10 per cent target. He argued: "Recorded crime figures do not always reflect real trends. For example, they can fall because demoralised victims no longer see any point in reporting offences to the police.

"The Home Office's British Crime Survey shows that such a fall in reporting by victims accounts for part of the recent drop in recorded crime."

The assertion by Mr Howard yesterday that his plan is "entirely new" does not stand close scrutiny. His plan includes:

6 Extra funding for 5,000 more police constables in the three years to 1999. This pledge was made by John Major at the Tory conference in 1995.

6 Computerised records of fingerprints and criminal files - which is already happening - and expansion of the DNA database - the police already plan to do this, but are hampered by lack of money.

6 Pledges to give an extra pounds 75m for more CCTV cameras, provide faster justice, action on juvenile crime and tough minimum prison sentences are all in the Tory manifesto.