The great crime panic

David Blunkett is the most intelligent Home Secretary in more than a decade. So why does he charge a

"What a lot of garbage!" cried David Blunkett at criminologists who had asked him what he thought he was doing. "It's time people grew up in [this] country and helped me. What I'm determined not to do in this job - whether people like me or like it or not - is walk through, in a metaphorical sense, with my eyes closed."

The course of his journey is as confused as his syntax. The route that the rest of the criminal justice system is lurching along is no clearer. With their eyes, in a metaphorical sense, wide open, the Home Secretary and the Lord Chief Justice warned in March that the prison service was at the end of its tether. All courts must know that imprisonment should be used "only when necessary and for no longer than necessary", said Lord Woolf. Blunkett, who has to stuff Europe's largest prison population into jails on the edge of riot, embraced the Lord Chief Justice as if he were the love of his life. "Crime is falling but the prison population is rocketing," he said. "Programmes of training, adult literacy and preparation for work on release are being completely disrupted."

His mention of adult literacy was telling. The most revealing statistic the Home Office has produced in years is that two-thirds of prisoners have been brought up in such deprivation that their reading age is seven. They are incapable of filling 96 per cent of all vacancies in job centres. If you are serious about cutting crime, you must believe that prisons should try to make inmates lawfully employable.

Crime is also prevented when prisoners are kept close to girlfriends and family, who offer an incentive to go straight. A record jail population of 71,000 (and rising) means that thousands of men are shunted hundreds of miles around the country into the few spaces available. Most end up far away from stabilising influences.

Lord Woolf was famous for recommending, in his inquiry into the 1990 Strangeways prison riot, that inmates must be kept within visiting distance of their families. He clung to this principle until January, when Britain's demented political culture finally drove him mad.

Mobile phone thieves should be sent down, he ruled, regardless of their age or previous convictions or, "except in exceptional circumstances", the nature of their offence. Whether the victim was beaten up or merely inconvenienced did not worry His Lordship. He proposed filling the cells with recipients of mandatory sentences. The punishment need no longer fit the crime. A man who snatched a phone and hurt no one must go down, while a man who snatched a wallet and hurt no one may be put on probation.

At least Woolf's skidding from sense to raving and back again was the work of months. Blunkett stood on his head within hours. The day after he ordered that prison overcrowding should be contained by tagging and releasing minor offenders, his heels went up and he promised a crackdown on carjackers at a Downing Street "crime summit". Blunkett's critics said he was all over the place. This was the "garbage" he railed against; carjackers were invariably serious villains, not the petty offenders he was proposing to let out early. "If anyone thinks there is a contradiction between what I say today and what I said yesterday they are living in cloud-cuckoo-land."

The Home Secretary is mistaken. His critics are not living in cloud-cuckoo-land. We are in Blairland, a fantastical world in which only perceptions matter. A map of Blairland was found in July 2000 when a private memo from the PM was leaked. Blair was in agonies about his appearance. "We are perceived as weak," he spluttered, "we are seen as insufficiently assertive . . . we are lacking a tough public message ." The perceptions were the perceptions of the Tory press. They were, in Blair's view, false. Nevertheless, something must be done. His luckless aides were ordered to produce "eye-catching initiatives".

"We should think now of an initiative, eg, locking up street muggers. Something tough, with immediate bite, which sends a message through the system . . . this should be done soon, and I, personally, should be associated with it."

The memo was a useful insight into a prime ministerial mind that somehow manages to be rambling and calculating at the same time. It explained a lot about the man.

Responsible pundits began to talk of Blair as a credible candidate for Downing Street in 1993. He achieved the required gravitas by using the horrible murder of Jamie Bulger as a policy prod to shift the perception that Labour (as it then was) was soft on crime. Blair implied that the rarest of crimes - the killing of one child by two others - illustrated the state of the nation under the Tories. The boy's death was "a hammer blow against the sleeping conscience of the country", he said, as if there had been a hitherto unnoticed epidemic of ten-year-olds murdering toddlers.

Michael Howard was, contrary to leftish demonology, a moderate home secretary until Blair came along. But Howard was not going to allow the Conservatives to be outflanked on the right, and a penal arms race began. Howard tried to outgesture the master gesticulator. If burglars were convicted of three offences, he said, they should automatically receive a three-year sentence.

At the beginning of 1999, when the new Labour government was being battered by Peter Mandelson's (first) resignation, Downing Street told ministers to divert public attention. The Home Office resurrected Howard's policy and gave it the force of law. Blair was so impressed, he wrote in his 2000 memo that "the extra number of burglars jailed under the three strikes and you're out" was a "tough measure" that could "send a message". Unfortunately for him, it couldn't. The courts had refused at the time, and have refused since, to impose a single mandatory sentence for burglary.

In 1998, new Labour gave local councils the power to impose curfews on children out after dark. This "eye-catching initiative" met the same fate as the anti-burglary drive. Not one council applied for the power. Emboldened by failure, the government raised the upper-age limit for curfews from ten to 15. Last month, the Northamptonshire constabulary made a tentative offer to save new Labour's face. It said it was considering applying for powers to place a curfew on under-16s in Corby. If Northamptonshire goes ahead, law-abiding citizens will be able to decide for themselves if police time is best spent checking the ages of teenagers leaving the cinema or responding to 999 calls.

New Labour has continued the Conservative policy of building jails for 12- to 14-year-olds. They are perceived as tough. They are tough. Unfortunately, when you put Britain's most disturbed children together, they run riot. The Medway Secure Training Centre in Kent and the Hassockfield centre in County Durham have recorded hundreds of fights and attacks on staff. Rather than admit that individual care by social workers would be better, the government ordered more kiddie prisons to be built.

To be fair to new Labour, its "drug treatment orders" have been an undoubted success. Junkie offenders are seen five or six times a week. By the end, about half are either off drugs or on the way to rehabilitation. This is not bad going by anyone's standards. By Home Office standards, it is a triumph without compare. Drug treatment orders, however, are not eye-catching. The Home Office has therefore got with the Blairite programme and introduced "drug abstinence orders". Heroin addicts and crackheads aren't offered treatment: they are told to stop injecting at once or go to prison. Most will go to prison.

A Criminal Records Bureau was meant to issue millions of certificates last summer. These would allow employers to find out what crimes, if any, their workers had committed. The bureau was stopped in its tracks when the Home Office discovered that criminal records were inaccurate, often libellously inaccurate. The launch was postponed to the autumn of 2001, and then to spring 2002. Easter has been and gone. No certificates have been issued.

Blunkett inherited most of these gimmicks from Jack Straw, the cheapest trickster in Westminster. He has, however, conjured up a few party pieces of his own. My favourite is his plan to place troublesome teenagers in the "secure" homes of foster parents. It is hard enough to find foster parents for children in care who have not broken the law. Emergency fostering is thankless work. Who is going to to look after a child if they are told they must first bar their windows and lock their doors? Who apart from paedophiles, that is?

The gimmicks may seem like froth, a waste of time, which causes no harm. But, as Harry Fletcher of the probation officers' union, Napo, said: "judges take their lead from politicians. When Tony Blair raises the temperature, the courts send more people to prison."

Downing Street's trivia not only leave Blunkett to clean up the mess it creates in the prison system, but wreck his attempts to become a serious politician. These should not be underestimated. Blunkett may charge around like a crazed wildebeest, but he's the first halfway intelligent home secretary in more than a decade. He is experimenting with the only measure that would slash crime back to the levels of the 1970s: prescribing uncontaminated heroin to addicts on the NHS. Doctors' leaders oppose him - presumably because they are content for addicts to go robbing for, and receive lethally adulterated drugs from, gangsters.

He is also showing political courage by insisting that officers get out of stations and on to the streets. This is brave because the anti-union, anti-crime press drop their hatred of organised labour and crime when the Police Federation blames everyone but its members for the police's abysmal clear-up rate. The press have other ways of preventing reform. The nationals incite paranoia - Private Eye recently published a leaked Associated Press memo that showed how the Daily Mail's "terrifying" expose of the open sale of heroin in the most salubrious districts of Bath and Oxford had been made up. The downsized regional press covers the gaps in its coverage with crime stories. The particulars are true: the overall impression is a lie.

The Prime Minister and the press, and the focus groups who respond to both, demand eye-catching initiatives rather than the hard, dull work of remedying the faults in the police and the Home Office. Nearly a decade on from Jamie Bulger's murder, it is worth wondering if Britain's addled democracy can cut crime. Maybe it does not want to cut crime. A lot of people are making a good living from it, after all.