Don't waste all this money putting bobbies on the beat, Mr Straw

One day, we must hope, the Government will finally move away from its obsession with spin and presentation at the expense of substance. Underspinning (as Gordon Brown might put it) has much to recommend it. And yet, even with the latest in the series of Great Memo Disasters, there is still no sign that spin is on the way out.

One day, we must hope, the Government will finally move away from its obsession with spin and presentation at the expense of substance. Underspinning (as Gordon Brown might put it) has much to recommend it. And yet, even with the latest in the series of Great Memo Disasters, there is still no sign that spin is on the way out.

Yesterday, Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, announced the details of the latest package for the police, with £1.3bn of new funding over three years. Above all, we are intended to applaud the fact that there will be a large number of new uniformed police - 4,000 new officers, on top of the 5,000 already pledged. That kind of news triggers the approving tabloid headlines for which Tony Blair and friends go weak at the knees.

The truth is, however, that the number of bobbies on the beat has little effect on crime levels. It is reckoned that a policeman engaged only in pacing the streets would come face to face with a criminal once in five years. There are much better ways of spending money.

Even in terms of increased numbers, the statistics are misleading. So many disillusioned policemen are leaving the force, and there is such a log-jam in the training colleges, that the number of police at the time of the next election will barely match the numbers when the Labour Party came to power. So much for expansion.

But the main question must be how best to spend the available resources. People may feel safer if they think that uniformed policemen are around every corner. But there are more effective ways to bring down the crime levels. Thus, DNA checks, which can be valuable in modern crime detection, are also expensive. At the moment, such checks are strictly rationed out. More money spent on DNA policework would pay dividends in helping to solve more crimes. The surveillance of known criminals and the use of "hotspotting" - targeting critical areas, to eradicate a local problem - can be useful. It is not, however, the conspicuous and cuddly Dixons of Dock Green who make such operations work.

Chief constables across the country know that a sea of uniformed policemen on every street is not what is needed; that is not what they are asking for. Both the Government and the Tories understand that the talk about bobbies on the beat is mere tokenism. And yet Mr Straw and his opposite number, Ann Widdecombe, still feel obliged to prattle on as though it were the thing that really mattered.

The Government's declaration about being "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" was not just an empty boast. Money has been well spent on drug-prevention programmes, which can help to reduce a whole host of crimes. Literacy work with prisoners and ex-prisoners offers a way out of the poverty and jail trap, a path out of social exclusion.

Sadly, however - as so often before - the Government does not have the courage of its own liberal convictions. It should show much greater commitment to dealing with the causes of crime, instead of what Simon Hughes, Liberal Democrat spokesman on Home Affairs, rightly calls the "eye-catching gimmicks" to which it remains so committed. Given real change, people will be ready to believe. Until that happens, all the spin doctors in the world will not find a cure for the cynicism that they themselves have created.

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