Mr Howard's methods of tackling crime are outdated, illiberal, and will not work

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The Independent Online

The Conservative Party's quest to reconnect with the British people continues. Yesterday, Michael Howard stepped on to what has traditionally been a happy hunting ground for his party: crime, or rather, the public's fear of crime.

The Conservative Party's quest to reconnect with the British people continues. Yesterday, Michael Howard stepped on to what has traditionally been a happy hunting ground for his party: crime, or rather, the public's fear of crime.

There was certainly a good deal on the subject of "fear" in the Tory leader's speech. He described Britain as a place where "women fear intimidation from hooded youths" and "parents are afraid to let their children walk to school". Yet the official crime figures contradict his nightmarish vision of modern Britain. The British Crime Survey revealed last month that crime has dropped 39 per cent over the past nine years. We are, in fact, less likely to have our cars stolen, to be burgled or be subject to violent assaults than a decade ago.

But the really scary part of the Tory leader's speech came when he outlined what he proposed to do in order to improve Britain. Mr Howard argued that the powers of the police to stop and search ought to be increased. Under a Conservative government the police will no longer have to keep a written record every time they stop someone, although Mr Howard does want them to continue making records when they search people. He thinks all this paperwork is putting the police off stopping people and, as a result, hampering their ability to catch criminals. He ought to look at the recent Home Office figures that show the number of people stopped and searched by the police has risen in the past two years from 8,550 to 21,577. There is too much stop and search, not too little. The 1999 Macpherson report recommended that the police record their reasons for stopping (and not just searching) people so they are forced to address their disproportionate targeting of black people. Mr Howard is in effect advocating a return to an era when the police could harass ethnic minorities with impunity.

The Tory leader also took the opportunity to air his antediluvian views on the prison service. He is still of the opinion that cramming ever more people into our jails "works". His solution to the chronic shortage of space in Britain's prisons is to build more of them. He neglected to say where the money would come from, given that his party is committed to freezing the Home Office budget. He also failed to explain the rationale . If Mr Howard wants to cut re-offending rates he should commit the Tories to increasing investment in re-education and employment programmes. He also had nothing to say about the scandalous state of the institutions for young offenders.

In fairness to the Tory leader, he does seem to have understood the need for more drug rehabilitation spaces for offenders. Drug addiction is responsible for a multitude of crimes. Get people off drugs and, in many cases, you will extract them from a criminal lifestyle. But this is a lonely article of sense in a wasteland of illiberal thinking. Mr Howard's noises in support of fathers who are deprived of access to their children are a little too opportunistic. His proposals to strengthen the powers of headteachers to expel disruptive children are not thought out. Removing the external appeals panel in such cases would open the door to law suits against schools.

The rhetoric of Labour and the Conservatives on crime is now almost indistinguishable. One of the Prime Minister's last acts before he went on holiday was to bemoan the 1960s liberal consensus and how it had destroyed civilised society. Yesterday Mr Howard tried to argue that this liberal consensus came to an end on his watch as Home Secretary in the mid-1990s. But this playground bidding war between the parties over who is the more illiberal is a side show. Although it rarely trumpets the fact, the Government has made a degree of progress in expanding drug rehabilitation schemes and is rightly experimenting with alternatives to custodial sentences. It has also succeeded in making the police more accountable. If the Tories really wanted to be radical on crime, they would commit themselves to pushing these policies further and faster.

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