Blunkett pledges harsh jail terms for 'carjackers' gangs

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The Independent Online

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, promised yesterday to introduce tougher punishments to "smash the gangs" behind a wave of "carjackings" in southern England in recent months.

Mr Blunkett said a forthcoming White Paper on sentencing would provide for harsher sentences for those responsible for violent crimes including stealing a motor vehicle with violence and robbery of mobile phones.

"Those who commit murder, violent offences and dangerous hijackings will get even tougher and longer jail sentences in more difficult conditions," Mr Blunkett told a Prison Service conference in Nottingham.

"Then we will be able to stamp on the outbreak of activity, particularly in south London, we have seen in recent weeks."

The most recent attack took place on Saturday, when two armed men stole a Rover from a petrol station in Camberwell Road, south London. The driver was paying for fuel while his girlfriend slept on the back seat when the men got in and drove away, police said. The woman, who had a gun held to her head, was forced out of the car 100 yards away.

Less than 24 hours earlier, Gloria Hamilton, a company director aged 41, was punched unconscious and robbed of her £50,000 Mercedes after a collision in New Charlton, south-east London. The previous weekend, Timothy Robinson, an estate agent aged 25, was stabbed to death in Battersea, south-west London after parking his car.

Yesterday, Scotland Yard said 90 "carjackings" had taken place in recent months in London and that a team of 50 detectives had been assigned to tracked down the gangs.

The favourite targets are BMWs, Porsches, Mercedes and Jaguars. Many are shipped abroad, either whole or in parts, and others are sold at auctions with false documents. The thieves will often be paid as little as £700 for each car. The crime has spread to Essex, Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire and West Yorkshire.

In his speech yesterday, Mr Blunkett also promised a crackdown on mobile phone thieves, who are responsible for more than 700,000 robberies a year.

He said: "If we can smash the gangs, not least by a major strike on the streets by police and getting the industry to play its part, which it singly needs to do in the same way the motor industry did, then we can make a very big difference."

The Home Secretary's tough talking was in part a response to the "soft on crime" reaction to his announcement at the weekend that he favoured the use of "weekend" prison sentences and the use of hostels to relieve the pressure on crowded jails.

Yesterday, Mr Blunkett said now was the time for "reform or bust" of the prison system.

He announced greater use of the scheme that sees prisoners with electronic tags released before the end of their sentence under curfew conditions.

Martin Narey, the director general of the Prison Service, spoke of the "insanity" of a prison population that had risen from 44,000 to 68,000 in a decade. He said there could soon come a time when he would have to tell the Home Secretary: "We cannot take more prisoners,"