PM's pledge on street crime based on plan to disable stolen mobiles

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Tony Blair's pledge to get street crime "under control" by September was attacked as a gimmick last night as it emerged that mobile-phone companies were already planning radical moves to combat the problem.

Tories attacked the Prime Minister after the Metropolitan Police revealed that phone firms had indicated they would have technology to disable handsets in place by this summer.

With mobile thefts accounting for much of the recent rise in street robberies, critics claimed Mr Blair knew that new technology would lead to a drop in the figures by September.

Similar measures in Amsterdam led to a 42 per cent fall in street crime in just six weeks.

The controversy came as Downing Street sought to water down the Prime Minister's commitment, made on Wednesday in the Commons, to tackle the problem within a set deadline.

Mr Blair had said the problem would be under control by the end of September. But his official spokesman said yesterday that the issue had "never been target-specific". Instead of cutting the actual number of crimes, the Government wanted to "stabilise" the situation by stemming the rise in thefts and robberies. "We want to address this, stop the upward trend and then to bring it down," he said.

Amid growing confusion, David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, said last night on Channel 4 News that he did not consider the target a "resigning matter" and suggested there was no "clear direction" he could follow.

Mike Todd, the Deputy Commissioner, told the Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA) yesterday that he had received indications from the phone firms that a technical solution to disabling handsets would be reached this summer. A spokeswoman for Vodafone confirmed that the company intended to introduce by July a new system for disabling mobile handsets and keeping a record of their unique identity numbers.

It would also have in place by the end of the summer an agreement with other networks to share blacklists of phone numbers that had been stolen.

Richard Barnes, the Tory crime spokesman and deputy chairman of the MPA, said: "I find it staggering that the Prime Minister was willing to take the credit for a change in technology that would have led to a cut in crime."