Major's crime speech 'about style': Conservative supporters and opponents find battle cry on law and order is little more than a repeat of past pledges. Jason Bennetto reports

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The Independent Online
THE 'anti-yob' speech by John Major yesterday was all about style and rhetoric but had little to do with content, opponents and supporters of the Government's crime strategy said.

Critics claimed it revealed the Government's desperation to regain the initiative on law and order by reiterating a list of schemes that have already been trailed with a 'get tough' message. Others said the speech was designed to appeal to Conservative support prior to next month's Tory conference.

The speech, however, reveals the Government's determination to push its law and order package, with the emphasis on getting communities to help themselves and measures to combat drug abuse among children and prisoners.

The only new initiative was that special constables will be able to choose to work exclusively in their own neighbourhood.

Andrew Puddephatt, general secretary of Liberty, the civil rights group, said: 'This speech is the annual hot air rhetoric on law and order which is made before every Conservative conference. It's ludicrous to talk about the 'anti- yob' culture which has largely been created by the Government's policies of the last 15 years. It will remain empty words until they address the lack of training and education . . . and the cuts in community facilities and public services.'

The main thrust of the Government's strategy will be on drugs, community action and community sentencing. Next month Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, will unveil his widely leaked Partnership Initiative aimed at building on neighbourhood watch schemes. He wants more people to become special constables and help set up community-based projects and has stressed the police can operate more effectively if they get the help of the public.

Critics are concerned that this could lead to policing on the cheap which may put inexperienced people in dangerous situations. Mr Major urged everyone to join the crackdown. 'All of us can show by our attitude and example that we condemn and reject loutishness, vandalism and crime and that we resent the mindless graffiti artists who deface our public places.'

The emphasis on combating narcotics abuse reflects the growing evidence of a drugs epidemic. Mr Major said the Government was planning 'the most comprehensive strategy to tackle the drugs problem this country has ever seen'. Next month Tony Newton, the leader of the Commons, will reveal a three- year action plan. The anti-drugs campaign will be increased in schools and tougher action taken against dealers. Mr Major also talked about a 'major blitz on drugs in prisons' with more thorough searching of inmates and better supervision of visits - measures mentioned by Mr Howard at last year's Tory conference.

Mike Goodman, of Release, the national drugs and legal advice service, said Mr Major's speech appeared to be 'a disappointing recipe of tired old policies and repressive measures'. He added: 'Instead of a radical new approach we seem to be witnessing . . . an exercise in papering over the cracks of our present policy failures.'

A forthcoming Green Paper on community sentencing is expected to produce tougher national standards and make sure that sentences involve more 'punishment' and 'real work'. Ministers fear that community service is seen as a 'soft option'.

The Government also plans better treatment for victims including ensuring people know if and why a court case is dropped.

Sir John Smith, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said: 'There isn't anything new in this speech . . . We can only hope that this firm commitment to an attack on criminality will turn around a situation that arguably can otherwise only deteriorate.

'However, there is a generally held view that criminal activity may not be significantly impacted without a total understanding which causes people, especially younger people, to commit crime.'