Blair Underestimated Prolific Offenders

The number of criminals classed by the Government as prolific has more than doubled on the estimate given two years ago by Tony Blair when he personally launched a crackdown against them.

Some 11,000 offenders in England and Wales are now included in the Prolific and Other Priority Offenders (PPO) strategy, and only 4,000 – fewer than half – are behind bars. They include many drug-addicted burglars, thieves and robbers, and experts believe that the 7,000 who are at liberty commit 200 crimes a year on average.

This disclosure comes as the Government claims that crime is falling and as prisons reach their capacity and offenders are detained in police stations.

In March 2004, Mr Blair said the strategy would lead to a “concerted national effort by the police and criminal justice agencies to target, catch and convict the most prolific, harmful and anti-social offenders”. He made clear it would target the hard core of the most persistent criminals – “just 5,000”.

However, figures released in Parliament last week in response to a question by David Davis, the shadow home secretary, show that in June the number of PPOs identified by police and other agencies under the scheme was 10,871. This was a leap of more than eight per cent on the total in June last year of 10,016.

The Government has focused on a hard core from a wider group of around 100,000 who, it is believed, commit half of the five million recorded crimes each year.

Mr Davis said: “These figures demonstrate why it is so vital that our prisons actually have a purpose. These offenders cannot simply be allowed to drift on to the carousel of crime.

“We need to ensure that when these individuals enter prison there are sufficient places so that they can stay there long enough to be punished. Adequate places will also ensure they can settle and receive sustained and effective rehabilitation to prepare them for a life free from crime.”

The definition of a persistent offender was “someone who has been convicted of six or more offences in the last year”.

The Home Office material which accompanied Mr Blair’s comments did suggest that if local crime and disorder reduction partnerships identified 15 to 20 prolific criminals in their areas, the scheme would cover up to 7,500.

But David Blunkett, the former home secretary, continued to refer in late 2004 to the figure of 5,000.

The Home Office said yesterday that subsequent material on its website had spoken of 9,000 or more. However, this figure has never been used by politicians and is significantly short of the nearly 11,000 given to Mr Davis.

The figures also suggest that the number of persistent offenders is growing, despite the scheme.

The Home Office added: “Public protection is at the heart of the work of the Home Office and we are committed to giving agencies the tools they need to keep the public safe.

“The prolific and priority offender scheme enables local partners to work together and focus their efforts on those individuals that cause the most harm. Each crime and disorder reduction partnership identifies the individuals who are responsible for the most crime and pose the greatest threat to the safety of their local communities.”