Fresh Blow to Reid as Violent Crime Rises

John Reid’s efforts to turn around the embattled Home Office will be dealt a major blow this week by figures revealing a surge in muggings and other robberies over the last year, suggesting police forces are struggling to control street crime. Violent crime has also risen significantly in many areas, according to an Observer survey of police forces across the country. Robberies are expected to have risen by almost 10 per cent according to official Home Office figures to be published this week. The figures come just as the government attempts to take charge of the crime agenda, with Reid due to unveil long-awaited criminal justice reforms this week, making it harder for prisoners to get parole and refocusing the work of immigration services.

His cabinet colleague Hilary Armstrong will also announce proposals to target babies and toddlers under two in the war on antisocial behaviour, identifying children in problem families who could grow up to get into trouble.

While the official figures will show that crime is down overall, the rise in violence continues. In London, robberies are up 8 per cent year-on-year, while violent crime has risen by 2 per cent, according to the Metropolitan Police.

In West Yorkshire, violent crime is up nearly 10 per cent and robberies more than 15 per cent; in the West Midlands recorded violent crime is up almost 3 per cent, while Gloucestershire police will show robberies are up by 24 per cent.

In the Greater Manchester area, there were 2,852 more victims of violent crime in the 12 months up to May 2006 than the previous year. The changes follow the end of funding for a street crime initiative to tackle muggings.

‘We recognise street crime is on the rise again,’ said Alfred Hitchcock, acting deputy assistant commissioner at the Met. ‘We are introducing a number of responses to address that trend.’

The figures follow a difficult month for Reid, with the continuing fiasco over the release of foreign prisoners, criticism of the Prison Service following an official report into the jail suicide of teenager Zahid Mubarek and the decision to shelve forced mergers of police forces.

He has pledged to get to grips with his department by mid-August after saying he wanted to make tackling fear of crime a priority. The Home Secretary will this week unveil plans to make it harder for parole boards to release prisoners by insisting their decisions must be unanimous rather than reached by a simple majority, and give victims more say over the process.

He is also expected to scrap, in the case of dangerous offenders, the automatic right for those who plead guilty to have their sentence reduced by a third and will pledge to build more prisons. The beleaguered Immigration and Nationality Directorate could also be hived off from the Home Office as an arm’s length agency as Reid tries to focus the department on its core priorities.

Armstrong will also launch her proposals to reach people on the fringes of society on a visit on Tuesday to a residential centre for antisocial families. She is studying a project which involves parents being visited regularly by nurses throughout the first two years of a child’s life and coached on child rearing, as part of attempts to reach dysfunctional families who do not ask for help.

Nurses and health visitors will be asked to identify parents who are not coping or whose older children’s behaviour raises concern and direct them to parenting classes, social services intervention or help with drink and drug problems. Research suggests that preschool development is crucial to children’s later life chances.

Critics will argue the move is a dramatic extension of the state into the parent’s home that will cause nurses to be seen as snooping, while stigmatising families who are singled out for such attention. There are also concerns over whether already overstretched health visitors have the time to participate in extra services.

However Armstrong’s team have been struck by research showing that the social skills and ability to empathise that prevent children becoming violent start to develop under the age of three.

A study carried out in New Zealand shows that in the 5 per cent of families considered most dysfunctional when their children were under five, those children were by age 15 at almost 100 times greater risk of problem behaviour such as being known to police or taking drugs than children in the most advantaged families.

A more detailed plan to tackle social exclusion, including teenage pregnancy, will follow in September.

The moves come as Martin Narey, former head of the prison service, accused the government of lacking the ‘guts’ to admit that thousands of children, mentally ill people and petty offenders did not belong in prison.

Narey, who left last October, said prisoner numbers should be cut by up to 10,000 from their present level of 78,443.

‘It takes guts for politicians to recognise that for some people, prison isn’t the appropriate place,’ he told The Observer. ‘The only Home Secretary brave enough to point out the reality that prison is an ineffective way of dealing with petty offenders was Douglas Hurd when he was working for Margaret Thatcher, for God’s sake!’