Leading Article: The Tories' disingenuous policy on crime

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The Independent Online
ANOTHER WEEK, another outpouring of populist nonsense from the Tory party. This time, Michael Howard's chosen theme is crime. The Conservative leader proclaimed yesterday in a newspaper advertisement that, like Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado, he believes "the punishment should fit the crime". Mr Howard will outline his plans in detail today, but we have heard it many times before.

In Mr Howard's view, the way to cut crime is obvious: "Put more police on the street and they'll catch more criminals." But studies have repeatedly shown the chances of a police officer on the beat witnessing a crime are extremely low. Increasing the number of officers may make the public feel safer, but to claim that it will have a substantial impact on crime levels is simply disingenuous.

The other main plank of the Tory proposals is to "build more prisons". The rationale used here dictates that the more people you lock up, the fewer criminals there are in society to commit crimes. But Mr Howard ignores the fact that we already have the highest prison population and the most overcrowded jails in Europe.

The Tory leader concedes that prison should not simply be about punishment. He argues that inmates ought to be taught how to read and write. He also believes they should be given help to get off drugs. These are laudable goals, but how could Mr Howard improve drug rehabilitation and adult educational facilities while at the same time cramming ever more people into our jails?

A party that wanted to adopt a sensible policy on crime would call for an increase in the use of community punishments, except in the case of violent crime, to bring down our prison population. And rather than demanding that inmates serve their sentences in full, as Mr Howard proposes, early release schemes should be widened in scope.

But the truth is that the Tories are not interested in sensible policies at the moment. The Tory party, in its desperation, is grasping at anything that it believes will win it votes in the forthcoming general election. It is a cynical tactic, and one that does not deserve to be rewarded at the ballot box.