Ashdown meets hardened criminal with a soft spot

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A self-confessed armed robber yesterday took a tough line on criminals and confessed a soft spot for Paddy Ashdown.

Speaking from behind bars at Colchester police station, Steven Tansey, who is in the third year of a six-year sentence, thought prisons were "too soft". There were curtains, carpets and, in some cells, electricity. Military-style boot camps were just the ticket as far as he was concerned.

He would have volunteered for the nearby camp, but he was too far into his sentence to qualify.

As Mr Ashdown toured the "custody suite" at the police station, Tansey, who was jailed for robbing a Post Office armed with a knife, volunteered that he would have voted Labour if he wasn't "inside", but that he didn't really trust Tony Blair.

"I think he might have something up his sleeve," said Tansey, who is due for release next year and was helping police with "other inquiries".

Despite his leanings towards Labour he thought Mr Ashdown was "a good bloke" who knew what he was talking about.

Alas, the Liberal Democrat leader, visiting a key constituency for his party, never got a chance to persuade the forlorn Tansey of the party's political virtues. Mr Ashdown was guided away by a custody officer as the prisoner told of his "smashing family" and how he had got into bad company.

Officers at the station failed to share the prisoner's enthusiasm for the efficacy of a "short, sharp, shock" at the local boot camp.

Chief Inspector Peter Sheldrake pointed out that the authorities there were failing to "attract" the inmates they were looking for.

There were 32 places at the camp, meant for 18 to 21-year-olds, but only 11 of them had been filled. "You've got be career-minded to get into the place," said Ch Insp Sheldrake. "They are struggling to find people who meet the criteria." He said that because it was an open regime serious offenders were not countenanced.

Emphasising the issue of law and order yesterday, Mr Ashdown commented that boot camps were "hugely expensive and tough-sounding gimmicks", and that the boot camp inmates were costing the taxpayer nearly pounds 1,935 a week each. "That is more expensive than a stay at the Savoy."

Of more concern to the police officers was their inability to keep persistent young offenders off the streets. One said: "They spend most of their time committing burglaries to feed their drug habit and then they are taken into care." Pointing down to the cells, he said: "It's a joke downstairs. They see care as an opportunity to have a dinner, a wash and a shave and then they are off again.

Earlier in the day, Mr Ashdown himself was at the scene of a crime. The Liberal Democrat leader was giving his considered opinions on the day's events to a posse of camera crews when suddenly a brace of ruffians came past in a lorry.

The bald, middle-aged "oik" in the passenger seat - who seemed strangely familiar - grinned humourously at Mr Ashdown and incited the driver to drown out the interviews by sounding his horn. On the back of the lorry was a large advertisement: "Britain's Booming. Don't Let Labour Blow It."

This was Dr Brian Mawhinney, the Conservative Party chairman, who was on a charm offensive round the streets of Westminster.

As confirmed by police at Colchester, Dr Mawhinney was guilty of an offence - sounding his horn without good reason. Said a constable: "On a bad day I would have nicked him for breach of the peace."