Labour claims mantle of law and order

Jack Straw, the shadow Home Secretary, tells Heather Mills how his party plans to square up to crime
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The Independent Online
"We are now the party of law and order," claims Labour's new policy paper on crime. It promises "tough action", talking of the endless human suffering of victims of the breakdown of society, and of plans to reclaim the streets for the people.

This is the emotive language of new Labour and it represents a sea-change in the party's policy on crime and punishment. Critics argue that Labour'srhetoric would go down well at a Tory party conference, and they fear that sound policy might be sacrificed for populism.

But any allegation that there is now little to choose between the parties over criminal justice policy is firmly rejected by Jack Straw, shadow Home Secretary, who has cast aside Labour's "soft-on-crime" image: "I am not interested in whether policy sounds harsh or horrible. I am concerned about whether or not it will be effective and whether it will carry community support." He cited his proposals to tackle "neighbours from hell".

And he rattled off fundamental differences between the parties. Labour is against privately run jails, and it does not support child jails, tagging, or "ludicrous boot camps". Mr Straw wants an independent investigative force to inquire into police complaints, and into claims of miscarriages of justice.

But he admitted Labour has supported tough Tory legislation, which in the past it might have rejected. He said the party reached a difficult decision not to oppose last year's wide-ranging Criminal Justice and Public Order Act which was criticised for infringing civil rights, stigmatising minorities and giving the police unnecessary new powers. "The trouble was that Labour was concerned about law and order and the safety of the community, but the position adopted by the party was a parody of that concern. It had to change," he said.

In fact, the change started with Mr Straw's predecessor as shadow Home Secretary, Tony Blair. Suddenly, Labour was "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime". Mr Blair had fired the first salvo. He felt a genuine concern for victims and what the increase in crime was saying about society, but the party's new attitude was also a shrewd political calculation. Labour MPs were hearing a greater number of complaints from their constituents about crime than about benefits, housing and unemployment. "Labour had to act. There was a profound shift, not just in the numbers of victims, but in which members of the population were becoming the victims - they were most likely to be people in poorer areas," Mr Straw said. The effect of the change and the tough language, however, says the penal reform lobby, has been to fuel people's fear of crime, and to up the ante. It has enabled the Government to reverse its planned reforms, triggered by miscarriages of justice, the Woolf report into prison conditions, and a desire to reduce the prison population.

Not so, says Mr Straw, for Labour could no longer ignore the concerns of its voters. He cited a recent Nottingham survey where, although unemployment runs at 20 per cent, the biggest concern of 60 per cent of the residents is crime. That is not to say that Mr Straw is not concerned about the prison population. But his solution is twofold; first, to call for a radical shake-up of the courts and the trial process - about a quarter of the 51,700 jail population is awaiting trial - and second, to catch offenders young and take firm, quick action. No more of what he calls the "revolving door" to the magistrates' courts, where young people pass through, only to re-offend, and eventually gain a lengthy sentence. It is here where he is most at odds with the reform groups, who argue that research shows that intervention can backfire, sucking young offenders into the system.

"The gap between the reform lobby and the Labour Party is now wider than it has ever been," one reformer said. But Mr Straw argued: "It is only possible to maintain a humane approach to penal affairs if there is public confidence in the system." Labour aims to secure more employment and training, to tackle school truancy and expulsions, to teach parenting skills. But, "we do not have a magic wand", he said.

His document, however, does promise: "Labour will not fail the country on crime." Time will judge whether such a bold claim is just party conference rhetoric.