Election `97: Tea and sympathy for victims who live in Howard's backyard

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair took the fight over crime into Michael Howard's back yard yesterday as part of Labour's attempt to highlight fears over law and order.

The Labour leader met victims of crime in the Home Secretary's Kent constituency, Folkestone and Hythe, where recorded offences have increased by 167 per cent since the Tories came to power.

During a heavily stage-managed event, Mr Blair and his wife, Cherie, took tea with eight people whose lives had been touched by threats, violence, robbery or burglary. The victims, all Labour supporters, had been lined up in advance, but no one among the party's spin doctors took pleasure in learning that one of them, who had witnessed a robbery, was on the frightening end of a second violent crime just hours before meeting Mr Blair.

Michelle Milton, 25, had been invited to tell the Labour leader about a robbery last year at the Co-op shop in Cheriton where she works as assistant manager. However, on Thursday night, the shop's cashier was held up at knife point for a second time.

"I still feel a bit shaken," she said yesterday. "I've been working there since I was 16 and there never used to be any trouble. But now, there are kids stealing all the time, there are threats of violence and there have been these two robberies.

"Michael Howard talks tough, but things are getting worse. He promises to put more police on the beat and then closes down our local police station after 6pm every night. What kind of policing is that?"

They were sentiments repeated over and over again. Frank Williams, 81, and his wife, Maisie, 73, told how they were afraid to go out at night; Catherine Goodall, 82, described her two burglaries; butcher David Anderson told how youths had twice smashed his shop front; and store owner, Ejaz Mohammed, 63, described the two times he had fought off would-be robbers - one of whom was armed with a knife and a baseball bat and one who carried a gun.

It was an exercise that could have been played out in any constituency in the country and it is by no means certain that Labour's plans to halve the time taken to get young offenders to court would have prevented any of the crimes.

But one thing was undeniable: the fear of crime is high on the list of voters' concerns, particularly among the elderly. And in Mr Howard's constituency - where he sits with an unassailable majority of 8,910 over the Liberal Democrats and 21,000 over Labour - that fear is as real as anywhere else in the country.