Protection for the public

SCOTLAND'S record on combating violent crime has been a persistent concern of voters in the election campaign. That concern will be raised notably today by our report that the number of murders in Scotland's towns and cities has jumped by nearly 30 per cent in the past year, with an even bigger rise in fatal stabbings.

Official police figures obtained by The Scotsman reveal that there were 120 homicides in 2006-7 compared with 93 the previous year. Meanwhile, 47 people were stabbed to death, compared with 34 victims in 2005-6 - a 38 per cent increase.

These figures are particularly depressing as they follow the announcement of a record drop in homicides last autumn. This enabled the justice minister, Cathy Jamieson, to rebut charges of a failure to tackle violent crime and to claim that the Executive's efforts to combat violence, and in particular the west of Scotland's knife-carrying culture, were proving successful.

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Now it appears that statistic was a blip and that Scotland's murder culture remains as virulent as ever. It is far from being the only indicator of continuing problems in this area. Only recently it was announced that 42,000 people were mugged by thugs with knives in Scotland in 2005-6. A recurring public concern has been a tendency towards light sentencing and early release of violent criminals, who go on to reoffend - with horrific and tragic results. The Executive cannot be accused of not trying, even if the latest figures put a question mark over the effectiveness of its measures. A five-week amnesty, part of a "Safer Scotland" campaign, netted 13,000 weapons last summer, while penalties for people caught carrying knives have also been increased. These formed part of an all-too-familiar "raft of measures" launched to reverse Scotland's reputation as one of the most violent countries in Europe.

They included high-profile police campaigns and restricting the sale of non-domestic knives. But the summation of the Violence Reduction Unit was damning: that these measures could do no more than "contain and manage" the deeper problem of Scotland's deadly obsession with knives.

Few dispute that this a complex area of public policy requiring more than the simple response of more bobbies on the beat. Serious steps need to be taken to tackle the drug and alcohol abuse that is a factor in an overwhelming number of murders and attempted murders. But equally, much tougher measures are needed than ASBOs and knife amnesties. A bias against early release would be one useful step. And a similar bias against light sentencing would be another. The public deserves protection. This should be the policy priority.