Hazel Blears: Blair's 'little ray of sunshine' keen to shed new light on the old cops-and-robbers story

The Monday Interview: Minister of state for crime reduction, policing and community safety
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The Independent Online

In the Working Class Movement Library in Salford, the walls are festooned with banners commemorating the class struggles of the past. Plates celebrating the battle of Cable Street, the miners' strike, the Tolpuddle martyrs and the matchgirls' strike of 1888 decorate the room.

In the Working Class Movement Library in Salford, the walls are festooned with banners commemorating the class struggles of the past. Plates celebrating the battle of Cable Street, the miners' strike, the Tolpuddle martyrs and the matchgirls' strike of 1888 decorate the room.

Against the backdrop of one enormous banner, made by the Manchester and Salford Women Trades and Labour Council, Hazel Blears, a Home Office minister, is having her photograph taken.

But Ms Blears, whose office is across the corridor, seems worried about standing too near to the banner. "It might look Old Labour," she says. For although Ms Blears, who grew up in Salford in a Coronation Street-style terrace, is proud of her working-class roots, she is less comfortable with the party's Old Labour leanings.

The most enthusiastic of the Prime Minister's loyalists, she has been called "Tony Blair's little ray of sunshine" not only for her sunny manner, but because she is brimming with "bold ideas" for Labour's third term.

In an article last month in the Blairite journal Progress, she hinted that Labour could be in power for decades and predicted that Labour's third term "would begin to fundamentally transform the underlying basis of British society". Communities in Control, her 2003 Fabian Society pamphlet on the superficially dry theme of "public services", was a surprise best seller.

"I came from a two-up-two-down terrace house with an outside toilet. I was brought up being told that if you worked hard and had ambition you could do whatever you wanted," she says.

Ms Blears, whose father was a fitter, defied convention to pursue a career as a solicitor. She became an MP in 1997 and swiftly entered the ministerial ranks where her career is very much on the ascendant. Her no-nonsense approach to policy-making and gift for coming up with workable new ideas has caught the eye of Downing Street and she is strongly tipped for the Cabinet in a future reshuffle.

Her puckish demeanour is reinforced by a certain steeliness; she is not afraid to confront thorny policy issues. She is critical of her party's historic failure to imbue a sense of ambition in children from working-class backgrounds. "We have had several generations now being told they can't do anything; they are rubbish," she says. "The Labour Party in years gone by thought that individual ambition was a dirty word, a Thatcherite word. Sometimes on the left we shy away from ambition."

Ms Blears, whose constituency had, until recently, the highest rate of school drop-outs in the country, is keen to instill a sense of purpose and optimism in her home town. Since being elected in 1997 she has seen unemployment go down dramatically in Salford, while the number of school-leavers has risen by 10 per cent. The minister is also a keen supporter of projects to help working-class children go to university.

But encouraging teenagers to expand their horizons is only part of her philosophy. On the other side is her view that "neighbours from hell" and young thugs who make people's lives a misery should not be endured. "If you don't confront it you allow the message to go out that that kind of behaviour will be tolerated," she says. "You have to say 'enough is enough.' "

From bullying at school to low-level youth crime, her message is that unless their behaviour changes the perpetrators will face the force of the law.

"I don't want an Ofsted assessment that says, 'Forgive this school because it is a jungle,' " she says. "If you have a problem with kids who are out of control, you have to tackle it."

Her hard line on tackling bullying and thuggery is borne out by reams of statistics showing that children who beat up their classmates are far more likely to turn to violence outside the school yard.

Studies can also predict with uncanny foresight which children are predisposed to a life of villainy. Sixty-five per cent of children with a father in prison end up following him to jail, while children in local authority care are more likely to have a criminal record than classmates brought up in a supportive home.

The minister responsible for policing believes that the Government's task now is to pre-empt vulnerable children's fates and end the filial tradition. She is in talks with education ministers about targeting the children from criminal homes to stop them in their tracks. "We can predict the risk factors that will lead a child into offending behaviour," she says. "About 125,000 kids have a dad in prison. That's a huge risk factor. We need to track the children who are most at risk. I don't think it is stigmatising those children by targeting them."

Ms Blears wants to identify children from criminal families and intervene early, from before the children go to school, right through the teen years. The scheme would build on Labour's Sure Start campaign for the under-fives in deprived areas. Mothers would be offered "parenting classes" to teach them how to prevent their children running riot. Older children would be helped to get involved in arts, sports and drama, "to give them something to succeed at."

"With Sure Start, we have got the zero to fours. We need to start saying, 'Let's keep our eyes on these youngsters'," she says. "So if you can tackle the 125,000 kids with dads in jail by providing extra support and help, there's a chance. Children who have been in local authority care are, again, low-achievers more likely than others to end up offending, so let's track them from early on as well."

Ms Blears is not afraid to tackle the consensus about crime if it helps victims and reduces violence and burglaries. Her vocabulary is also refreshingly direct and peppered with terms such as "villains" "robbers" and "cops" rather than politically correct euphemisms such as "clients" and "offenders".

She has a Gatling-gun style delivery, and says criminals who will not accept help to change their way of life will find themselves meeting a hostile reception when they get out of jail.

"We are now trying to get to a position where the Prison Service will notify us the day prisoners are out and [police will] turn up at the door and walk them home. That's quite scary," she says.

Ms Blears is a big fan of a successful Salford scheme where the police pay early-morning visits to recidivist criminals and even text them on their mobile phones to warn them they are being watched.

"Our superintendent has got his officers knocking on the doors of the people we know, the frequent offenders, every day," she says.

"He [the superintendent] has got letters sent out to all the prolific offenders saying, 'We are on your case.' And text messages sent out to them on their mobile phones."

The scheme, which has dramatically reduced burglaries and robberies, is a powerful deterrent, and a cost-effective one. She wants to see it rolled out across the country.

"It's all about creating an atmosphere in which it is hostile to you as a criminal," she says.

But today's police must act not only as firm enforcers but as figures that the local community can trust. The modern constable must be sensitive as well as savvy: a latter-day Dixon of Dock Green who can not only handle a gun but chat politely to old ladies at their garden gates. "It has been described to me by some police officers as Dixon with Attitude, which I think is quite a nice phrase," she says.

Ms Blears, a gold-medal winning tap dancer who rides a vintage Italian motorbike in black leather trousers, is about to make an impromptu visit to the local training college.

She is adamant that it is important in police training to teach new recruits not only forensic skills and arms training but also community values.

"In this new world of being close to communities sometimes you need a different set of skills," she says. "[It's] about listening, about being sensitive, about knowing when to use information and how to feed back to people."

Ms Blears is also clear that training should knock racist ideas out of would-be police officers. She was shocked by last year's Bafta-winning BBC documentary The Secret Policeman, which showed recruits using overtly racist language, and says "there is no place for them in the police service".

But Ms Blears is aware that police forces often find themselves overstretched because of the demands of special events, football matches and city centre pubs and clubs at closing time. She has recently launched a consultation looking at whether pubs and football clubs should be charged for the extra police presence on busy evenings. In talks with pubs and clubs, she has made it clear that unless they agree to contribute voluntarily, the law could be changed to make payment compulsory. But the idea of charging football clubs has alarmed some of her cabinet colleagues, who envisage their local teams going broke to pay for extra patrols outside their grounds.

"There's a lot of cabinet colleagues that go to the football," she admits. But with a mischievous grin, she adds: "I'm a Rugby League fan. You don't have any cops in Rugby League because the fans don't misbehave."

THE CV

Born: 1956

Education: Trent Polytechnic; Chester College of Law

1981: Solicitor for Rossendale Council

1984: Salford city councillor

1992: Chairwoman of Salford Community Health Council

1997: MP for Salford

1998: Parliamentary private secretary to Alan Milburn

2001: Parliamentary under-secretary of state for Health

2002: Parliamentary under-secretary of state for Public Health

2003: Minister of state at the Home Office

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