- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 13, 2002

LONDON Crime in England and Wales has surged by its biggest yearly jump in a decade, and the London borough where the government stopped arresting pot smokers led the nation in robberies.

Statistics released by the Home Office yesterday showed crime in general in the year to March was up by 7 percent from the comparable period a year before the largest annual increase since 1991.

The report, compiled from police statistics, marked the reversal of a long-term trend of falling crime.

"There's a real worry about street crime," said Prime Minister Tony Blair.

"That's where we have been focusing on over the past few months, to try and make sure we get more police on the beat and toughen up the criminal-justice system," he said.

The figures showed the proportion of solved crimes plunged to an all-time low of 23 percent, to 1.3 million. That was less than one out of four of the 5.5 million criminal acts the police recorded.

Among the biggest problems for police are muggings and other street crimes, which the official figures showed had climbed by 28 percent. Topping a list of the 20 worst areas for street robberies was Lambeth, a borough in south London known as a hot spot for illicit drug dealing.

Lambeth is where the government recently began writing tickets for pot smokers instead of hauling them to jail.

Two days ago, the Blair government decided to extend the Lambeth scheme nationwide, contending that it would free up police to concentrate on serious crimes.

Home Secretary David Blunkett said that from next July, possession of cannabis for personal use will be a non-arrestable offense.

Friday's Home Office figures showed Lambeth was hit by 6,465 reported street robberies last year, more than double that of any other comparable region in the country.

Police said many of the culprits were after money to purchase drugs, both hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine, as well as so-called "soft" drugs, such as marijuana.

Mr. Blunkett pledged he would make tackling street crime, which he described as a "significant problem," a matter of high priority.

But a spokesman for the Victims of Crime Trust charity was scathing over the government's handling of the battle against crime.

He described the Home Office figures as "appalling" and said Mr. Blair, Mr. Blunkett and other ministers "should hang their heads in shame."

The statistics may be even worse than the Home Office report indicated.

Other government estimates leaked to journalists indicated that the true crime level could be as much as 40 percent higher than the official figures show, and that these results will be seen in a report expected out in three months.

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