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Leading Article: Politicians must stop and think before joining this reactionary bidding war

A week ago, we learned that there has been a sharp drop in the number of offences reported to the police in England and Wales. Domestic burglaries are down by 8 per cent on last year. Criminal damage is 11 per cent lower. There has even been an 8 per cent fall in violent attacks and a 9 per cent reduction in sexual offences. The risk of becoming a victim of crime is now, apparently, at its lowest for more than a quarter of a century.

But much of the media and our politicians have ignored this statistical evidence and reacted instead as if crime rates have reached an all-time high. In an illiberal stampede, all three parties have come out in favour of increasing the police powers of "stop and search". An unseemly bidding war has broken out between the Government and the Conservatives. And, shamefully, even the Liberal Democrats have joined the fray.

The Conservative leader, David Cameron, has specifically attacked the bureaucracy involved, singling out the "foot long" form that police officers are required to fill in when they stop someone. But there is a good reason why these forms exist. The 1999 Macpherson report into the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence identified "institutional racism" in the police and saw the disproportionate targeting of ethnic minorities by officers in stop and search as one of the expressions of this. Macpherson specifically recommended that the police should make a record of each stop to force them to justify their behaviour and act as a curb on racist policing.

Of course, these safeguards have already been undermined. The 2000 Terrorism Act allows unrecorded stop and search in areas deemed at particular risk of attack. The number of Asians stopped and searched has risen threefold since the 11 September terror attacks. And a report by the Metropolitan Police Authority in 2004 found that black people are still four times more likely to be stopped than white people. If anything, the Government should be reigning in the police on stop and search. Instead, ministers seem determined to resurrect the old "sus" laws, which were blamed by Lord Scarman, in his 1981 report, for helping to spark the Brixton riots.

The tactic cannot even be defended as an effective tool for preventing crime and terrorism. There is no evidence that it does anything but damage community relations. There have been no reports of a terrorism plot being foiled by stop-and-search tactics. Nor is there any correlation between crime rates and police use of the technique.

It is not just stop and search. There is a growing reactionary tendency in Westminster. A report by the chief inspector of prisons, Anne Owers, this week re-emphasised that our prisons are grossly overcrowded. Ms Owers also slammed poorly thought-through criminal justice legislation pushed through by ministers. New prisons, she stressed, are not the answer. But the Government is not listening. The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, announced this week that the building of several new "Titan" prisons will go ahead. Mr Straw also spoke of "launching a competition" to provide a new prison ship. Despite the Home Secretary's promises to improve education in prisons, the mentality is still to lock as many people up as possible. It is an attitude shared by the Conservative Party.

Fear of crime in Britain has reached fever pitch, stoked by irresponsible cheerleaders in the media and cowardly politicians, afraid to articulate the real picture on crime and too timid to propose progressive solutions to the problems that do exist in our society. As always, the victims of this reactionary spasm will be those least able to defend themselves.