The Home Secretary's attempts to restore flagging police confidence backfired yesterday when senior officers cast doubt on the effectiveness of his plans to deal with young muggers.
David Blunkett, already facing overwhelming opposition from rank and file officers over his proposed reforms of pay and conditions, was seeking backing for his idea of ordering more young offenders to be fitted with electronic tags.
The Home Secretary tried to win police support by announcing that persistent offenders aged 12 to 16 would face having to wear the tags if they were bailed. But within minutes of Mr Blunkett outlining his plans at a north London police station, senior officers said they doubted they would be effective.
As the Home Secretary left the police station to join an anti-robbery patrol, Commander Robert Quick, chief of the Metropolitan Police's Operation Safer Streets campaign, said: "Our confidence in tagging is limited. Tagging of itself will not stop a determined criminal breaching bail conditions. There is a culture within our hardened robbers to ignore bail conditions, tagged or not."
Chief Superintendent Anthony Brooks, police commander in the borough of Camden, agreed. "We are arresting a lot of people for breach of bail and find they continue to get bail from the courts," he said. "We have found instances where their bail conditions have actually been reduced after being arrested for breach of bail. There clearly will be some people that it will not impact."
The initiative – which is expected to involve the tagging of 1,800 young offenders in its first year – is also an attempt to restore confidence in the justice system. The tags are attached to arms or ankles and trigger an alarm in the offender's home, which alerts operators by phone if they break the curfew.
But magistrates believe the system is failing to deter persistent troublemakers.Mr Blunkett said: "My message is that there will be no untouchables in our criminal justice system. It is not acceptable for young criminals to carry on offending after they have been arrested and placed on bail. Bail tagging gives the courts an effective extra option to control offenders' behaviour and reduce repeat offending."
Harry Fletcher, assistant secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, warned that some young people already saw the tags as "designer accessories" to be worn at school or on the streets. "There is a real danger young people will see the tag as a trophy and something to show off to their friends, so it will have to be carefully targeted."
During his visit to Kentish Town police station yesterday, Mr Blunkett was given a breakdown of street crimes in the area over the previous 24 hours. In one case a couple in their fifties were pushed to the ground and robbed by two 16-year-old boys. Street crime in nine London boroughs increased by 44 per cent between April 2001 and January 2002.
At a bus stop near the police station, Mavis Sullivan, 66, told of the fear she and her friends felt about being robbed by gangs of young people. She said: "Fifteen years ago you never heard of this but today it's always on your mind. The ordinary person cannot fight these people; they are young and strong and vicious."