The Government's attempt to reassure the public over knife crime backfired when it was forced to retreat over a controversial plan for offenders to meet victims in hospitals.
Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, who floated the idea on Sunday, was accused of making a hasty U-turn yesterday. She said she was talking about criminals who had used knives meeting doctors and other health staff – not patients who were victims of knife attacks.
Her initial remarks provoked a backlash, with doctors warning that victims could be forced to relive their trauma while recovering in hospital. Donald MacKechnie, clinical vice-president of the College of Emergency Medicine, said: "I don't think it is a good idea for ... perpetrators of knife crime to be marched through to see these patients who are extremely vulnerable. It's tantamount to secondary victimisation."
On Sunday, Ms Smith was asked on Sky News whether one of her proposals was "that people caught carrying knives should be taken to see people in hospital who have been stabbed or to meet the families of victims. Is that correct?" She replied: "It is."
Yesterday, she insisted that it was never the intention for young people to be taken to accident and emergency wards to meet victims, but said that doctors might explain the "gruesome injuries" knives can cause.
The Home Secretary said "knife referral schemes" would ensure young people caught in possession of knives faced the consequences of their actions. They would have to attend "weapons awareness workshops", where they would be given graphic and detailed information about what happens when someone is stabbed and about the impact on victims and their families.
"It could include visits to hospitals or doctors visiting them, to talk to healthcare professionals to hear about the graphic impact of knife wounds and to better understand what happens when somebody is actually stabbed," she said.
David Cameron, the Tory leader, said: "I'm completely baffled. Over the weekend we were told by the Government that knife criminals [would] be taken to accident and emergency departments. It sounded like a gimmick. Now they [ministers] are in wholesale retreat."
Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrats' home affairs spokesman, said: "Thank heavens the Home Secretary has seen sense. This idea is not just bonkers, but has been tried, tested and failed in the United States. She's on her way to a perfectly executed U-turn, and a couple more days should do it."
The confusion overshadowed a drive by Gordon Brown to take the initiative following a spate of killings with knives in recent months. At his monthly press conference, he trailed a £100m "youth justice action plan" to be launched by ministers today. The centrepiece is early intervention to prevent disruptive children in 110,000 problem families turning into criminals, thereby reducing the number of young people in custody. Some 20,000 of these families will be given intensive parenting advice over the next three years – and could lose their council homes if they refuse to stick to their "contracts". A pilot programme managed to cut sharply the levels of antisocial behaviour by children.
Today's action plan will also include proposals to send hundreds of "street-based youth workers" into the country's most crime-ridden areas to make contact with teenagers most likely to offend. Police will be urged to pick up under-16s wandering alone at night and hold them until their parents collect them. More police will be based in schools.
Mr Brown rejected Tory calls for a presumption that anyone carrying a knife should go to jail. He said people using knives should go to prison, and those carrying them should either be given a jail sentence or a tough "community payback" punishment such as 300 hours of community service – including on Friday and Saturday nights.
The Prime Minister said the measures would focus on "prevention, enforcement and punishment". He urged councils to impose night-time curfews for teenagers "where there is a problem". In all cases, there would be a presumption to prosecute, and police stop- -and-search powers would be increased.
Today, the Tories will argue that Britain's "broken society" and its "struggling economy" are inextricably linked. Mr Cameron will call for special measures to help businesses avoid going bust, modelled on America's Chapter 11 system to give companies a breathing space to rescue or restructure during the credit crunch. "This change will ensure that fewer good companies end up in liquidation – and less people lose their jobs," he will say. "But of course, we cannot – save all companies that fail."
George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, will say: "Fixing our broken society is integral to building a strong economy. The crucial insight for modern Conservatives is that in the new global economy you cannot have economic success without social success."
Mr Osborne will argue: "Those who say that the Conservatives spend too much time talking about society and not enough time talking about the economy don't understand that this is a false choice. Reducing educational failure, tackling worklessness and poverty ... are progressive social goals we have put at the very centre of our agenda. But they are also essential economic goals."
The main points
*Anyone caught with a knife will be prosecuted
*Up to 300 hours' community service to be done on Friday and Saturday nights
*110,000 "problem" families with disruptive children to get parenting supervision