The Home Secretary made the comment at the launch of the Government's Crime Reduction Bill in Milton Keynes last Friday. As he outlined crime- cutting plans, he referred to his visit to Liverpool on Monday last week, when he viewed the Alley Gate Scheme in theEdge Hill area. The scheme involves erecting gates around houses to deter burglars.
Mr Straw told his audience: "I thought, `What the devil is this?' You know what Scousers are like, always up to something - please do not repeat that to anyone from Liverpool."
The comments provoked anger and condemnation when they became public yesterday.
The leader of Liverpool City Council, Mike Storey, accused Mr Straw of encouraging discrimination. "Mr Straw has just reinforced prejudiced, stereotypical views of Liverpool people. He should apologise," Mr Storey said.
Mr Straw sought to defuse the row last night, saying: "As an Essex man and a Blackburn supporter I often find myself the butt of jokes.
"My comments were meant to be light-hearted. I didn't intend to cause offence, but if anybody was offended by what I said then I offer my apologies."
The controversy comes at an embarrassing time, as Mr Straw is seeking to encourage a new concept of British citizenship which respects the differences in the population.
Mr Storey said: "Liverpool people can take a joke like everyone else, but this idea, this view of Liverpool people, like with the TV series Mersey Blues, that crime is a career option on Merseyside - the facts prove that wrong. It's a constant drip-drip of stereotypical views."
Liverpudlians have a strong sense of identity because their strong Irish and Welsh immigrant sub-cultures have given them both a unique accent and a sense of detachment from the rest of the country, social experts said yesterday.
The original stereotype of Scousers as irreverent and humorous - exemplified by The Beatles - has in the past three decades turned into something less appealing. They are now sometimes characterised as lazy, hard-drinking whingers whose principal income comes from theft. This change in perception is perhaps the result of the social and economic hardship endured by Liverpool since the mid-Seventies' decline of the shipping trade, according to one expert.
Michael Billig, professor of social sciences at Loughborough University of Technology, said: "When a community has a strong sense of its own identity, outsiders recognising this, also develop a strong stereotype of what those people are like which is not always true. I don't expect the people who think Liverpudlians steal things have looked at the crime figures and made a value judgement."
Liverpudlians' strong sense of community was shown in full force to the rest of the country after the Hillsborough disaster on 15 April, 1989 - and again last week with the tenth anniversary commemoration service for the 96 killed.
Anne Robinson, journalist (left): "I think we have such a huge sense of humour I cannot imagine that anyone could be offended. When I heard he had said that, I just wondered who was offended by it. We are intelligent, witty and self-confident and Scousers would only be offended if they thought he had said something incredibly funny before they thought of it. I have found it a huge plus coming from Liverpool and I am very proud to be a Scouser."
Stan Boardman, Liverpool comedian: "Once again, it's someone in power having a go at Liverpool. It's something you'd expect from a Tory not a Labour minister. In a league table of thieves, Liverpool wouldn't even qualify for Europe."
Alan Bleasdale, playwright (right): "The last time this man [Bleasdale himself] went down to London on the train, he had all his credit cards stolen at Milton Keynes and someone went around Milton Keynes robbing me soft. But that doesn't mean I think everyone from Milton Keynes is a thief. What Straw said is a patronising cliche and even if he meant it as a joke, it is still offensive."
Gerry Marsden, who popularised the Liverpool anthem, "You'll Never Walk Alone": "It's just a load of rubbish. Nobody in Liverpool gives a damn what Jack Straw thinks. It's water off a duck's back."
Carla Lane, scriptwriter: "I am sure he meant no harm by it and anyway I think he is right - we are always up to something and may we continue to be. I don't think he meant we are always up to crime; I think he was just trying to be funny and it is very foolish to get uptight about something that was not meant. You have to laugh and say we have got a little devil in us. We do get unfairly maligned but Liverpool has a lot to be proud of and Scousers need to stop being so quick to take offence."Reuse content