New Labour's ten-year crime programme, released on Monday, was full of 'get tough' policies. It centred on 2,500 new prison places, 9,000 more police, allowing juries to see details of a defendant's convictions during a trial, and an army of private security guards backing up the police.
Yet shovelling more people into prison simply does not work as a way to cut crime. Britain has the highest number of prisoners per head of the population in Western Europe. However, it also has one of the highest crime rates in the industrialised world.
Only 3 percent of crimes lead to conviction, so sentencing has hardly any effect. If you want to know the general level of crime in a society, look at the rate of unemployment. Even before 1997, under the Tories, crime fell for four years in a row because unemployment was falling. It has kept falling for most offences for the same reason.
Yet Labour continues to peddle its hard policies aimed at Daily Mail editorial writers. New Labour wants to cram more people into overcrowded jails that teach minor criminals to get worse. It is not even true that most people are bloodthirsty for harsher treatment.
The British Crime Survey found victims believe by two to one that non-custodial sentences are better than prison for offences such as burglary and street theft. It also found the thought of an offender being sent to prison deters some people from reporting crimes.
The real reason for crime is the alienation and poverty in society. During the 1980s Britain went through a fiercely cruel social experiment-Thatcherism. Everything that smacked of compassion and caring was derided and cut. Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher summed up the mood when she said, 'There is no such thing as society.'
Young people came under special pressure. They faced 25 to 50 percent unemployment in places, while the Tories took away their benefits and slashed social facilities. Some took to crime. Tony Blair's slogan of 'Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime' partly recognised that crime was a social product.
But Blair and Jack Straw have forgotten the second half of the slogan. Incredibly, the prison population is now 6,000 higher than under the Tories. If we want to cut crime, we need to cut poverty and alienation, and build a more compassionate society. Certainly we don't need to give any more power to the police.
A remarkable survey by the police-loving Sunday Telegraph revealed that police vehicles are involved in up to 1,000 crashes a month, despite claims that new safety controls have been introduced. Home Office records show 406 accidents in London alone between September and December last year.
Broadcaster Sheena McDonald, who is only just recovering from severe injuries she received after being run over by a police van two years ago, says, 'Despite all the talk of improved driver training, things have, if anything, got worse. It seems the police are not accountable to anyone on this issue.' A leaked extract of a report commissioned by the Association of Chief Police Officers last year concluded that policemen often ignore driving instructions. Joyriding? Life-threatening yobs? Start with the man in a vehicle with a flashing blue light.