Howard backs Yard chief in race row

Storm over Condon's 'black muggers' remark
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The Independent Online
Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, last night backed a controversial decision by Sir Paul Condon, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, to say publicly that most muggers in London are black.

Sir Paul's remarks appeared to have jeopardised a planned summer crackdown on mugging in the capital, which was intended to enlist community leaders' support to avoid damaging race relations.

The Commission for Racial Equality indicated that his comments had already made the backing of black community organisations less likely.

However, Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, said: "I fully support Sir Paul Condon's initiative. He must be free to air all the issues he sees fit in the fight against crime."

Sir Paul had planned for several months to say that most street attacks in London are carried out by black youths and that police need the help of black communities to catch them.

His decision to bring the issue of race into the open was linked to a Scotland Yard plan for a surveillance operation in areas of high street crime. A study of police statistics for the inner-city areas where most muggings take place has shown that eight out of ten identify their assailants as being black. In the worst-hit areas, such as Stoke Newington, Harlesden and Brixton, an even higher proportion are black.

But while Sir Paul's decision to publicise the racial breakdown of mugging statistics was immediately backed by the Government and the Police Federation, the Labour Party was critical. Jack Straw, home affairs spokesman, said: "One of the purposes of good policing should be to dilute racial tensions rather than potentially inflame them, as I'm sure Sir Paul would recognise. The statistics of the kind he quoted have been well known for many years. In an open society it is entirely right that there should be informed public debate about all aspects of crime. But the aim of the debate must be to reduce crime levels, not to exacerbate racial tensions."

Paul Boateng, Labour's legal affairs spokesman, said the figures ignored the social context of the areas: "You can produce the same facts that show that the overwhelming majority of city fraud is committed by white middle-aged upper class males."

Sir Paul wrote 40 letters to black leaders and groups such as the Commission for Racial Equality and local police consultative groups, inviting them to a meeting on 28 July to discuss his anti-mugging initiative. But he raised fears about the high number of black muggers in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, which interpreted his remarks as "breaking a taboo to reveal that most muggers are black".

The Commission for Racial Equality, one of the organisations invited by Sir Paul to the meeting, was annoyed at the publicity and the release of partial figures. A senior official said: "It is important that discussion does not stir up fear and suspicion. The tone of the debate around the involvement of young black men and street crime has been most unhelpful. The risk is that all black people could feel targeted as potential criminals."

Harry Fletcher, head of the National Association of Probation Officers, confirmed that muggers were always young, usually aged 15-20, but he challenged the proportion of black offenders identified by victims.

Police sources conceded yesterday they had not looked at figures for the whole city, or compared their findings with local unemployment, housing conditions or racial balance. They said the proportion of black muggers across London might be 80 per cent, but they had not checked the figures to find out.

Sir Paul said that he was seeking to "grasp the nettle" and deal with the problem of muggings in the capital, which have risen from 13,000 a year to almost 23,000 in the past five years.

"In the past there has been an understandable sensitivity about talking about these things. My fear is that sensitivity can lead to inertia. For us to be over-sensitive now would be negligent. It is a difficult course to steer, but we have to grasp the nettle and ask the rest of the community to help us and do their bit," Sir Paul said.

Polly Toynbee, page 3