Silly soundbites about the Sixties ignore the reality of the fight against crime

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The Independent Online

Once upon a time, Tony Blair spoke passionately about the need for governments to be tough on crime and equally tough on the causes of crime. But having presided over countless crime-cutting initiatives, Mr Blair now seems to think simply sounding tough is enough. In his speech yesterday to launch yet another five-year plan, the Prime Minister did not even play lip service to the idea that the best way of reducing offending rates is to tackle the root causes of criminality. Instead we were subjected to a confused thesis on how the "1960s liberal consensus on law and order" has eroded the individual's sense of personal responsibility and resulted in an epidemic of antisocial behaviour and crime throughout Britain.

Once upon a time, Tony Blair spoke passionately about the need for governments to be tough on crime and equally tough on the causes of crime. But having presided over countless crime-cutting initiatives, Mr Blair now seems to think simply sounding tough is enough. In his speech yesterday to launch yet another five-year plan, the Prime Minister did not even play lip service to the idea that the best way of reducing offending rates is to tackle the root causes of criminality. Instead we were subjected to a confused thesis on how the "1960s liberal consensus on law and order" has eroded the individual's sense of personal responsibility and resulted in an epidemic of antisocial behaviour and crime throughout Britain.

Mr Blair is right about one thing at least: the low-level lawlessness in parts of the UK ought not to be tolerated. Small acts of vandalism, yobbery and intimidation add up to a very large problem. And it is those who live in the poorest areas who suffer the most. The lives of too many sink estate residents have been made a living hell by this sort of behaviour. But it is pathetic for the Prime Minister and his illiberal, Hampstead-hating Home Secretary David Blunkett to pin the blame on the 1960s (with a passing dig at the individualism of the 1980s as a sop to those on the left).

Far from creating a society where anything is acceptable, the 1960s laid the foundations of a civilised and tolerant nation. The decriminalisation of homosexuality, the liberalisation of the abortion and divorce laws, and the Race Relations Act have all helped to ease the suffocating influence of class divisions, hypocrisy, racial discrimination and sexism, which used to be so prominent in this country. There was, in fact, almost no tinkering with the criminal justice system in this decade. It may suit those who still hold such distasteful attitudes to denigrate the social legislation of the 1960s, but Mr Blair ought to know better.

Yesterday's approach sums up all that is so infuriating about this New Labour Government. By pandering to the half-baked theories of the illiberal right the Prime Minister hopes to nullify Tory attacks of Labour being "soft" on crime. Yet in doing so, he is not only betraying the achievements of past Labour administrations, but ignoring some of his own Government's successes in reforming the criminal justice system. Drug treatment has been made into a weapon in the fight against crime. Last week the Chancellor outlined plans to double the numbers of ex-offenders in rehabilitation. Education schemes in prisons are being improved. And despite its rhetoric, the Government seems to have accepted that cramming yet more people into our already bulging prisons is unsustainable; hence the experimentation with tagging, parenting orders and anti-social behaviour orders.

This is not a trite question of being soft, or hard, on crime. It is a question of determining what works best in reducing offending rates. The evidence indicates that a combination of drug treatment, non-custodial sentencing (for non-violent crimes) and education programmes - the so called "soft" approach - works better in the majority of cases than draconian punishments and imprisonment.

Most of the Cabinet, including the Prime Minister, know this to be true, But they are afraid of saying so. They live in fear that voicing their true beliefs will open up a soft underbelly that would be ripped into by the Conservatives, however unlikely this seems.

Instead of these desperate attempts to win sympathetic headlines in the right-wing press and to divert the public's attention from the Butler report, Mr Blair should demonstrate that he is worthy of the voters' trust. There are no quick fixes for reducing the crime rate, no simple means by which anti-social behaviour can be eradicated. It takes investment and patience - and the Government is surreptitiously moving in the right direction. Sadly, Mr Blair feels he must spout these silly soundbites that only serve to underline the cynical nature of his Government. Such contempt for the electorate is almost criminal.

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