Blunkett risks sending out mixed messages in campaign to tackle crime

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In the time of the five-second soundbite, yesterday was another mystifying day for anyone interested in the Government's increasingly desperate attempts to cut crime.

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, announced in one breath that he was "putting victims at the heart of our reforms", and disclosed in the next that thousands of offenders were going to be released early from jail.

In PR terms, it was not, perhaps, the best time to be talking about opening the prison gates. Only the day before, Mr Blunkett had attended a Downing Street "crime summit" to address public fears over robbers and carjackers.

His attempts to highlight the summit in a television interview last Sunday had inspired headlines such as "Blunkett: It's Not Safe to Walk The Streets". And yet yesterday he was setting free thousands of prisoners.

In trying to maintain a high media profile – with new initiative after new announcement after new crackdown – Mr Blunkett is finding it increasingly difficult to convey a coherent message.

On immigration, he is trying to convince the public of the economy's need for more legal migrant workers while television pictures show asylum centres being burnt to the ground. While wanting to appear tough on crime he has supported relaxation of the cannabis laws, and yet the police officer responsible for the initiative has been moved from his post after newspaper allegations that he used the drug.

Mr Blunkett wants to be seen as a reforming Home Secretary. He wants to recruit more police officers, keep the courts open longer, build more prisons and expand the immigration and asylum estate.

His problem is that he lacks the financial resources for such an ambitious programme. Indeed, his repeated warnings of the growing problems of street crime are in part an attempt to convince the rest of the Cabinet, in particular the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, that he should be given more money.

But the alarming rise in street robberies, with concerns about other violent crimes such as carjacking, have coincided with an unexplained and possibly unrelated rise in the jail population.

The result is that Mr Blunkett has been forced into a position where he needs to crack down on criminals but also to start reducing the overcrowding in prisons.

While the public may be increasingly confused, the Home Secretary is furious at the suggestion of "mixed messages".

He said: "If any one thinks there's a contradiction between what I say today and what I said yesterday [after the Downing Street crime summit] they are living in Cloud-cuckoo-land."

And he is right that there need not be a contradiction. Mr Blunkett's desire is to tackle street crime by locking up the violent criminals while diverting the non-dangerous offenders towards community-based punishments and improving conditions in prisons.

He warned yesterday that the bulging prison population increased the chances of a repeat of the 1990 Strangeways jail riot. But the angry language he used in addressing criminal justice professionals at a conference in London showed that the Home Secretary himself is becoming baffled at the way Britain's crime debate is evolving.

"What a lot of garbage. It's time people grew up in the country and helped me," he said. "What I'm determined not to do in this job – whether people like me or like it or not – is walk through, in a metaphorical sense, with my eyes closed."