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Indy Politics

Nearly six million crimes were reported to the police last year, while a case of vandalism, rowdiness or other form of anti-social behaviour is estimated to take place every two seconds.

Nearly six million crimes were reported to the police last year, while a case of vandalism, rowdiness or other form of anti-social behaviour is estimated to take place every two seconds.

With rapid social change, the loosening of community ties in many areas, deepening drug problems and a rise in violent crime across the developed world, law and order issues pose a daunting challenge for any Government.

Under Jack Straw and now David Blunkett, the Home Office has been a flurry of activity, with a series of Criminal Justice Bills, far-ranging reform of the police and prisons, preparation for a national identity card and repeated drives against antisocial behaviour.

According to the Tories, there have been 154 crime initiatives - one a week - since the last election. But yesterday's Home Office plan probably marks a watershed for the Government. It now has to start convincing voters it is getting a grip with crime and antisocial behaviour.

The results so far are mixed. Offences such as burglary and car theft have been falling steadily since 1997, producing a reduction in numbers of offences overall. But that has been offset by a remorseless increase in violence, notably muggings and gun-related crime. And crucially, fear of crime and disillusionment with the criminal justice system remain stubbornly high. Both Mr Blunkett, who represents an inner-city Sheffield constituency, and Tony Blair want to reduce those figures from the bottom up - by tackling the blight of petty crime.

For Mr Blair the problem of antisocial behaviour is almost an obsession, dating back to his days in the 1980s campaigning on the Holly Street estate in Hackney, where he found residents living in fear of gangs. Rescuing such communities became a theme that helped make his name as shadow home secretary in 1992, popularising the refrain "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime".

With the Tories regarded as the traditional protectors of law and order, his stance helped turn the issue in Labour's favour. But after seven years in power, the partyfears it could again become its Achilles' heel. The party's MPs, particularly those with urban constituents, say "quality of life" issues such as vandalism, rowdy teenage gangs and dumped cars are the top gripe among voters.

The danger was underlined at last week's by-election in Birmingham Hodge Hill, dominated by complaints about graffiti, drug-dealing and dereliction. In the face of accusations that years of Labour rule had failed to tackle the problems, the party's majority crashed.

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