Howard's 'yob' plan meets zero tolerance

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Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, was yesterday accused of stealing Labour ideas with proposals to tackle "yob culture" and petty crime.

The Home Office is understood to be drawing up plans to crackdown on anti-social activities, such as begging, vandalism, and under-age drinking. The thinking behind the proposals is to hit minor offenders before they turn to a full-time life of crime.

The scheme is expected to be trumpeted by Mr Howard as his latest law- and-order offensive in July. Labour is angry that he appears to be trying to seize the initiative on "yob culture", which Jack Straw, Labour's home affairs spokesman, has been pursuing recently with attacks against noisy neighbours, "squeegee merchants" - windscreen cleaners who prey on motorists - and young offenders. Yesterday's spat shows the importance both parties place on gaining an advantage in the law-and-order agenda in the run up to the general election.

As part of the Home Office review officials are examining a strategy called "zero tolerance" in New York - targeting drunks, prostitutes, vandals, drug dealers and beggars - which is credited with cutting crime by 27 per cent over two years. The New York authorities have used the "broken windows" theory - that if a window pane is mended the building is less likely to be burgled. Mr Howard visited the United States recently and is known to have been very impressed by the strategy.

Mr Straw yesterday accused ministers of systematically rubbishing a series of Labour policies that would have a near-identical effect in reducing incidents of anti-social activity.

"It is quite remarkable that it has taken this Government 17 years to wake up to the connection between 'quality of life' incidents and big- scale crime," he said.

"Labour has long understood that anti-social behaviour ... ruins many people's lives and heightens their fear of crime and lawlessness. We have brought forward a range of proposals to deal with neighbourhood nuisance, public disorder and juvenile crime. On each occasion the Government has unwisely sought to rubbish these proposals despite the backing they have received from police, local authorities and other organisations."

Mr Howard was unavailable for comment yesterday but Home Office officials said that the review had been going on for some time.

With a general election looming and a Crime Bill already planned for the autumn it is unlikely there will be time for any new legislation, so the proposals are expected to use existing laws. They are almost certain to involve the familiar phrase "partnership" in which schools and local authorities will be expected to take a greater role in stamping out anti- social behaviour.

A ministerial working group set up in January is already studying ways of turning youngsters involved in minor vandalism and other activities away from serious offending.