Cases of murder and manslaughter have risen by almost a quarter since Labour came to power, Home Office figures have revealed.

Since 1997, the number of homicide victims, including solved and unsolved cases, has averaged 737 per year. In the period from 1990 to 1996, the average was 601.

The figures deal a further blow to Tony Blair's reputation on law and order, after he came to office pledging to be "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime".

The Government will reaffirm its commitment to try to tackle violence when it announces this week that tens of thousands of blades were handed in to police during last month's knife amnesty.

But separate statistics, released by the Home Office under the Freedom of Information Act, show that most people caught with knives are let off with a fine or a caution. Only one in seven is jailed; and this month's crime figures will show a surge in robberies.

The revelations come in the wake of The Sunday Telegraph's Make Britain Safe campaign, which is calling for more police, tougher sentencing, more prisons, effective rehabilitation and a royal commission on criminal justice.

David Cameron, the Conservative leader, last night praised the campaign as "incredibly important" and said that crime had "a huge impact on people's quality of life and well-being".

Mr Cameron will, however, spark debate tomorrow with a call for society to show "love" to hoodies and young tearaways. He will use a speech to the Centre for Social Justice to reposition his party's stance on law and order, with a demand that more is done to understand the emotional causes of anti-social behaviour.

John Reid, the Home Secretary, has had a torrid first two months, with his department reeling from the fiasco of wrongly-freed foreign prisoners and revelations over soft jail sentences and reoffending.

Figures for the number of homicides each year from 1990 to 2005, and the methods used by the killers, were released by Vernon Coaker, the Home Office minister, in response to a parliamentary question from Iain Wright, a Labour MP who is campaigning for tougher punishment for people caught carrying knives illegally.

Ministers have sought to explain away rises in recorded violence by pointing to changes in the way police count crimes. But the homicide rate is one of the most accurate long-term measures of crime, because the offence is almost always reported to police and its definition - the taking of someone else's life - has not changed.

Michael Howard, the Tory home secretary from 1993 to 1997, said: "This is one of the few examples where direct comparisons can be made between Labour's record and that of the Conservatives. The figures demonstrate an increase of almost 25 per cent in the number of homicides since Labour came to power. This is an absolutely horrifying figure."

Norman Brennan, of the Victims of Crime Trust, said: "These are terrible figures. One extra murder is bad enough, 23 per cent is a huge rise. And homicide is just the tip of the iceberg of violent and serious crime."

Deaths by stabbing have averaged 228 a year since 1997, up nine per cent from their former level. Fatal shootings average 69 a year, up 18 per cent. The number of victims poisoned, drugged, punched or kicked to death has also risen, but the number strangled or beaten with a blunt instrument has declined.

The figures exclude at least 250 people murdered by Harold Shipman during his 23 years of killing.

Mr Blair told MPs last month that he was considering increasing the minimum penalty for carrying a knife, declaring: "We want to make sure that anybody who is found in illegal possession of a knife is subject to the toughest penalties possible."

Yet among more than 11,000 people arrested in the past five years for illegally possessing a sharp or bladed weapon in public, 67 per cent were let off with a caution; 19 per cent were fined; and only 14 per cent were jailed. Of 362 people caught carrying a blade at school during the same period, 71 per cent were merely cautioned.

There were 19 fatal stabbings in England and Wales during the five-week amnesty period and Mike Craik, the chief constable of Northumbria, has called for automatic jail sentences for people who carry knives.

The police clear-up rate for homicide is 90 per cent, far higher than other offences, reflecting the priority placed on solving murders.

Crime figures for 2004/5 will show a continuing drop in recorded crime, with ministers relieved that extended pub opening hours do not appear to have made matters worse.

Mr Cameron will use his speech tomorrow to move the Conservatives away from their traditional harsh line on crime and punishment. He will say: "Hoodies are more defensive than offensive. They're a way to stay invisible in the street. Putting things right is not just about law enforcement.

"If the police stand for sanctions and penalties, you stand for love - and not a soppy love. No child is beyond recovery, beyond civilisation."

His remarks will provoke criticism among traditional Conservatives. They tear up years of Tory thinking on youth crime which was summed up by John Major when he urged society to "condemn a little more and understand a little less".

By contrast, Mr Cameron will say: "When you see a child walking down the road, hoodie up, head down, moody, swaggering, dominating the pavement - think what has brought that child to that moment."

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