Straw softens 'winos' attack with pledge on causes

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Jack Straw yesterday sought to soften and qualify his controversial attack on the "winos, addicts and squeegee merchants" that make up urban street life following the widespread criticism it provoked.

Instead, he blamed unemployment, especially among young under-skilled males, as being the "single most powerful factor in community breakdown", saying Labour's priority was first to tackle unemployment and the underlying social and economic inequalities which breed crime.

The shadow Home Secretary, speaking in Oxford at a Howard League conference, "The Penal System in Crisis", did not recant from his aim to "reclaim the streets for law-abiding citizens" or from his belief in the link between disorder and crime. However he said that tough police action "indiscriminately sweeping people off the street would be neither an effective nor a humane response".

If last week's speech was condemned for being long on "tough on crime" rhetoric and short on "tough on the causes" substance, yesterday's was designed to fill the gap.

Clearly designed to soothe ruffled feathers among traditional Labour supporters who saw the speech as an attack on the poorest and most vulnerable in society, Mr Straw promised a four-pronged attack on the causes of crime. Cutting unemployment and in particular youth unemployment would be at the heart of Labour's economic policy.

Mr Straw added that freeing local authorities to provide affordable public housing will be central to Labour's aims to tackle the homelessness. Labour would look to provide both "dry" and "wet" hostels - where addicts can continue to drink, to encourage them off the streets - as well as better treatment facilities. It would also overhaul community care provision for the mentally ill.

Only then did he resume last week's theme and language, saying the community has a right to expect more responsible and less anti-social behaviour from all of its citizens. "That means less intimidation, bullying and loutish behaviour on the streets," he said.

It is not surprising that Mr Straw chose his speech to pour oil on troubled waters. The reform lobby is among his biggest critics, suggesting that sensible policy is being sacrificed as he and Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, try to beseen as the "toughest" on crime.

He also attacked the Crown Prosecution Service over its handling of the Stephen Lawrence murder case. The Lawrence family brought their own prosecution after the CPS had decided not to proceed.