Leading article: A welcome assault on 'flat earth' politics

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The Independent Online

It is natural for advisers to feel aggrieved when their advice is not followed by those in power. But the stinging attack on the Government from Simon Hallsworth and Rod Morgan in the latest Criminal Justice Matters, the journal of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, cannot be dismissed as sour grapes. Their critique of ministers' behaviour strikes too true a note for that.

Professor Hallsworth, who has advised the Government on tackling gang violence, accuses it of practising "flat earth crime science" and following "a soulless, technocratic programme for mapping and managing risks". Meanwhile, Professor Morgan, a former chairman of the Youth Justice Board and Chief Inspector of Probation, says he has witnessed ministers developing policies on anti-social behaviour with "little or no evidence base and no serious attempt to collect data".

This analysis explains much of the behaviour we have seen from the Government over the past decade. The British Crime Survey and the police's recorded figures have shown that the level of crime has been dropping steadily over the past decade yet, in that time, the Government has created more than 3,000 new offences.

This indiscriminate approach to law-making has come from the top. Tony Blair brought forward legislation to introduce identity cards, despite the absence of evidence they will do anything substantial to impede fraudsters or terrorists. His successor has been no better. The independent Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs argued earlier this year that cannabis should remain a class C drug. Yet Gordon Brown has ignored that advice and reclassified it as class B.

We are seeing this habit of ignoring evidence and expert advice again in the present frenzy over knife crime. It is quite true there is a growing problem with young people carrying knives in pockets of Britain's inner cities. The recent spate of murders of teenagers in London cannot be ignored. Yet instead of looking at the evidence to see what will have an impact on the problem, ministers have resorted to gimmicks and counter-productive crackdowns. Recent Home Office proposals have included issuing police with hand-held scanners to check young people for weapons and encouraging officers to step up their use of the blunt "stop and search" technique.

This is to deal only with the symptoms, rather than the causes of youth violence. A truly effective approach would address the underlying factors behind knife crime and gang activity, such as poor parenting, inadequate housing, failing schools and a chronic lack of facilities for the young. Instead, ministers have been content to criminalise young people at an ever earlier age. Unprecedented numbers of teenagers have been sent to jail under this Government, only for the majority of them to re-offend once released. Last month, the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies found that, although the Government's spending on youth justice reforms had increased in real terms by 45 per cent in the past eight years, this had had no discernible effect on the rate of re-offending.

Professors Morgan and Hallsworth hint at the root cause of the Government's failure but do not spell it out. Let us do it for them. For too long, the true priority of ministers has been to please the hysterical right-wing press on the issue of crime and anti-social behaviour, rather than engage in a serious attempt to curb these social problems. The Government has put the chase for favourable headlines first and the rigorous research and effort necessary to deal with crime a poor second. It is a wholly discredited approach – and one that the general public are now perfectly capable of seeing through.