Parliament: The Sketch: New Labour's tough new crackdown on hypothetical crime

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The Independent Online
WE SHOULD all be getting used to targets by now, a useful tool of government which allows you to take out a mortgage on a castle in the air, in order to raise immediate political capital. What generally happens is that a minister faced with some intractable social ill - drug-taking or benefit fraud - will get up and pledge the Government to reduce said ill by a fixed percentage in a set number of years.

Precise figures are crucial - since it must sound as if the initiative is in some way connected to a world of measurable progress. Little is said about what is actually happening at present, even less about the measures that might bridge the gap between now and then. But, if you are lucky, a resolute tone will persuade most people to accept this political version of the post-dated cheque.

Yesterday, though, Jack Straw revealed a new refinement of the technique, one that represents a step-change (to use his favourite phrase) in Government actuality management. Mr Straw explained that since the early nineties Home Office economists had been attempting to model the connections between social changes - employment levels, numbers of young men in the population, mobile phone ownership etc, etc - and the statistics for recorded crimes. They then made a projection predicting levels of recorded property crime, "assuming no positive intervention by the police, local authorities or Government".

Mr Straw was at pains to make it very clear that this wasn't another New Labour target.

"The projections are not forecasts of what we as a government believe will, or should happen," he explained, just in case some young tearaway might feel impelled to help the Home Office economists maintain their reputation for accurate forecasting.

On the contrary, the point was that the figures were wrong. The model predicted that theft would be almost 40 per cent higher by 2001 but, Mr Straw announced with cautious pride, "halfway through this period there is good evidence that we are in fact bucking the projected trend". In other words, compared to a hypothetical situation in which the authorities did bugger all, New Labour is making some headway.

Obviously this technique can be rolled out to other departments, once this pilot version has been thoroughly tested by Mr Straw. I look forward to Alan Milburn responding to Tory complaints about hospital waiting lists with the revelation that, compared to a Department of Health statistical model in which people were treated only by being poked with sharp sticks, NHS cure rates were looking very encouraging. Mr Prescott will be able to come to the dispatch box, brandishing the results of a computer model which shows the effect on the economy of closing every motorway in Britain - and point out how much better things are under Labour. You may think that the traffic is bad but you've got to look at these things in their proper perspective.

Mr Straw had other good news too: Mr Blair had given a DNA sample only that morning and a computer search had revealed that it didn't match any of the suspects currently on file. This must have come as a relief to Mr Blair - even though I am sure he could rustle up an alibi as quickly as the next man, should the need arise - but it obviously did nothing to boost the police clear-up rates.

Mr Straw offered them an alternative prospect after a question from the Labour backbenches. Would the Home Secretary be taking steps to reduce "wild, vexatious and unfounded criminal accusations" he was asked, referring to Conservative claims that their bank account had been illegally hacked into. No, said Mr Straw, the strategy was designed to deal with real incidents of crime, not with "wild allegations". But, he added meaningfully, "there are offences of wasting police time". Michael Ancram should perhaps pack an overnight bag, just in case.

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