HC Deb 26 November 1981 vol 13 cc1009-56

4 pm

Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)

I beg to move, That this House believes that the maintenance of law and order and preservation of liberty depend upon a relationship of confidence and co-operation between the police and local communities, and therefore draws particular attention to the need for community policing methods and an independent procedure by which complaints against the police can be examined; considers that inadequate help is given to the victims of violent crime; and further considers that urgent action is needed to deal with the crisis in the prisons. Any right hon. or hon. Member introducing a debate under the general heading of law and order could clearly cover a very wide canvass. Those who have read the motion will note that it does not seek to go into the necessary background to such debates—for example, the influence of the planning of our cities and towns, the decisions taken by successive Governments and local authorities on housing programmes, and so on. There is an increasing awareness that rehabilitation of older property may lead to a more satisfactory community than the use of the bulldozer and the development of new and remoter housing estates without social facilities. Nor does the motion attempt to cover the role of education in this important area.

In drafting what I hope is a fairly non-contentious motion we have tried to focus on some of the issues concerning the combatting of crime, which has been the subject of increasing concern in recent years, and particularly on the methods of policing. In the interest of brevity I do not propose to say very much about the crisis in the prisons, partly because I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) will succeed in catching your eye later in the debate, Mr. Speaker, and talk about that. Furthermore, I learned last night that the Opposition had chosen the topic for an extended debate next week, and therefore it would be idle to go too deeply into the issue now.

It is appreciated by the House that this debate is taking place on the day following the publication of the Scarman report. Again, I should not like to trespass on the debate that the Government have promised on the details of the report, but it is useful to have an immediate opportunity to make comments on some of the important findings of the report.

It would be as well to refresh our minds at the start of the debate about some of the current crime statistics. Last year—I give the figures for England and Wales only because the statistics are collected slightly differently in Scotland—there were 97,000 crimes of violence 'against the person, 622,000 burglaries, about 15,000 robberies, and approximately 300 muggings a day were reported. The total number of offenders who were found guilty or cautioned in England and Wales increased from just over 2 million to 2,350,000—an increase of about 16 per cent. in one year between 1979 and 1980. Therefore, it is right that we should pause to express concern about the continuing and almost relentless rise in crime in our society.

I refer for a moment to the Scarman report. It is interesting that although it has been published for barely 24 hours it has already established itself in the public mind as a major social document, and it has received widespread support from chief constables, community leaders and politicians alike. That is why it is imperative that the Government should arrange a debate soon and act swiftly and imaginatively by implementing all the detailed recommendations in the Scarman report. It would be a mistake—I hope that I misunderstood the Home Secretary's approach yesterday—if the Government were simply to single out one or two reforms, however worthy, undertake to implement them and then brand the remaining detailed recommendations as merely a statement of Lord Scarman's philosophy. Lord Scarman referred in his report to the need for "urgent action" throughout. What is required is not Government acceptance of a statement of philosophy, but a Government programme for specific action.

The riots that took place earlier this year now seem to have occurred a remarkably long time ago. The House welcomed the Scarman report yesterday in a calm atmosphere. However, it is worth refreshing our minds about the real horror of the atmosphere of the period in April when the riots first took place. Lord Scarman summed it up very well in an early paragraph of his report. He said: During the weekend of 10–12 April the British people watched with horror and incredulity an instant audio-visual presentation on their television sets of scenes of violence and disorder in their capital city, the like of which had not previously been seen in this century in Britain. I should like to pause on the three words "in this century". It is easy to exaggerate both the scale of rioting and the general levels of crime in our big cities, and to forget that there have been periods in our life, particularly in the last century, when to walk around the streets was infinitely more dangerous than it is today. Throughout these debates we must keep a sense of proportion when we listen to some of the more alarmist reports.

Even before the riots in Brixton there was general public concern about the methods of policing and the general principles that the Government were following in the development of a modern police force. Yesterday I selected one quotation from the Scarman report about the effects of racial disadvantage, but the report puts even that disadvantage in a wider setting. Lord Scarman spoke of the mood of despair in our inner cities. It is undeniable that successive Governments have devoted substantial resources to an attempt to cure the problem, but, as I hinted earlier, I am not sure that the money has always been put to the best possible and most imaginative use. Greater forward thinking on how we develop and redevelop the life in our inner cities, rather than simply looking at the amount of money that is available for it, might be more fruitful.

There is then the current problem, which we cannot balk, of the enforced idleness caused by unemployment. There is an old saying that idle hands find mischief. That is certainly true among younger people who feel deprived of any opportunity to make full use of their daily lives. Under the heading of racial disadvantage—this is not in Lord Scarman's report—I have been constantly critical of not only Government statements but statements by various politicians that add to the feelings of insecurity among the ethnic minorities. Talk of being swamped and about parts of the Government's British Nationality Act have helped to create an adverse climate.

The Scarman report makes generalised statements that are not limited to the Brixton experience, and it embodies points that many people have been talking about for some time. In my experience of speaking about police matters—I devoted part of my speech at our annual conference this year to criticism of police methods—I have found that if one attempts to criticise them, one is accused of being anti-police. As I am about to make some comments about police methods, I should like to say straight away that I have a brother who is a serving officer in the police force and that I have personal cause to be grateful to the police for their vigilance and protection during the present troubles in our land.

In my view, a bad policeman, like a bad clergyman, a bad teacher or a bad Member of Parliament, is a menace to society. As a society we are entitled to demand the very highest standards of our police, and any lapses should be rooted out.

That is why it is extremely important, irrespective of the Brixton experience and the particular recommendations of the Scarman report, to take up the question of liaison with the communities, as Lord Scarman recommended, and to evolve an independent complaints procedure. I listened carefully to the Home Secretary's answers at Question Time today, and I accept entirely that this is a most complicated matter that cannot be dealt with simplistically, but I understood him to give a commitment to it in principle. I hope that that is so and that he will not be long in bringing forward detailed proposals for general consideration in the House on this very important matter.

I was looking the other day at an opinion poll published some months ago about public attitudes to the police. The good news is that overall there is great confidence in our police force—and so there should be, as it compares favourably with those of many other countries—but there is also a disturbing increase in the number of people who distrust the police. Therefore, despite all the caveats mentioned by the Home Secretary, it is very welcome news that the Police Federation has switched its basic view about the moral proposition of an independent complaints system.

Last year, in England, there were 7,460 complaints against the police, but only 176 charges were brought. The Government must be prepared to devote at least some resources to setting up a system of independent investigation of complaints, which will remove the element of public anxiety about the police investigating and judging their own cases.

We should not listen to clichés about throwing money at problems. The Scarman report contains a number of specific and sensible reforms which, given limited funding, could be implemented almost immediately. Certainly the "radical option", as he described it, of a wholly independent procedure to deal with complaints is a candidate for fairly prompt action. Another is the proposal about police training, and the Home Secretary is to be congratulated on taking this up for immediate discussion with the chief officers.

I turn briefly to the difficult issue of positive discrimination, which was also mentioned at Question Time. I am sure that Lord Scarman was correct not to urge a quota system for the police force. In the United States, however, there is an obligation on companies to "use their best endeavours" to employ fairly from among the ethnic minorities. I believe that a similar provision for our police forces would be useful.

As specific instances of racial discrimination by the police are constantly brought to the attention of Members of Parliament, and were found to exist by Lord Scarman, it is astonishing that, so far as one knows, not one police officer has been dismissed for racial prejudice. A most important recommendation by Lord Scarman was that it should be made clear to the police that that would be the normal penalty for acts of racial prejudice.

A further suggestion to improve relations between the community and the police is to consider the Scottish experience of the prosecution system. It is interesting that in Scotland we have nothing like the same amount of antipolice feeling or criticism. I believe that that is partly because the process of prosecution is removed from the police and transferred to an independent prosecution system.

Our most important plea in introducing the motion is for a return to genuine community policing. That means a reversal of the policies that have been followed almost automatically in most constabularies for a long period. I remember a few years ago joining a community residents' association in a part of Liverpool protesting about the closure of a local police station. Over the years we have all seen the modernisation of police facilities involving the closure of local community police stations and their replacement by rather grander but inevitably more centralised offices. The result has been the withdrawal of police from local communities to centralised operating units and the increased use of motorised police.

In a discussion some years ago, a senior officer in my constituency made the obvious point that in the old days when a policeman operated on foot or on a bicycle in a particular community and had a specific territorial base, it was not so much that his presence on the streets or in the houses prevented crime more effectively than a Panda patrol, but that he was more aware of the problems in the community, such as problem families, people returning from prison or people suffering from stress due to marital or other problems. The Scarman report also draws attention to the role that the policeman could play in a far more social sense, but he cannot do so unless he is given a territorial responsibility and real involvement and recognition in a local community.

Perhaps the Minister will also say something about the role that might be given to the special constabulary. We often forget the value that we could obtain from that force. A few weeks ago I raised the subject of the resignation of Chief Superintendent David Webb in Birmingham on the ground that he felt obliged to abandon his community work because he was not getting sufficient support for it from senior officers. It is interesting to note that, among other things, he had been recruiting more and more people, particularly from the ethnic minorities, to the special constabulary.

Time and again, the approach that has come to be known as community policing has proved to be correct. Again, therefore, we look to the Home Secretary for a lead and the assurance that that approach will be given higher priority and will be accepted as Government policy for the future, Community policing should not become merely a minor cosmetic for any police force that wishes to be considered progressive. It will be no more than a token if it is suffocated beneath general policing methods which amount to a direct contradiction of it.

It is worth looking back to the comments of the chief constable of Devon and Cornwall long before the events in Brixton occurred. If anyone is tempted to sneer at his views because he is chief constable of Devon and Cornwall and not of the Metropolis, it should be remembered that he was assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police before taking up his current appointment.

In a remarkable lecture about a year ago he said: People who are poor and have a chip on their shoulders against society are inclined to say: 'I am getting nothing out of life so I am going to be angry'. If society then says: 'Okay, you can get as angry as you like, but I have a well-paid fat-cat police force and if you get angry I shall just clobber you,' then we are making a big mistake. He concluded: One thing is certain—it is no answer to resort to brute force to try to control people. If community policing works in Devon and Cornwall, including the city of Plymouth, it can work elsewhere, but it would be a mistake for the public or the House to assume that community policing is something exclusive to that constabulary. It is already practised successfully elsewhere. I have seen it in my own constituency as well as in part, though sadly not the whole, of Liverpool.

I noticed this morning in a press profile of Sir David McNee a reminder that when he was chief constable of Glasgow he was responsible for the introduction of community policing there. So it is not a madcap scheme dreamed up by some rural policeman. It is a tried and successful method of policing which should become the general policy of the land. It is important that the police are put back into the community, not just as law enforcement officers, but as social leaders working with local people.

I welcome what the Home Secretary said to me yesterday about his intention—whatever the legal difficulties—to look at the question of banning racial marches in our cities. About two years ago, when I first suggested that in a speech, I came under a lot of criticism from, among others, those in my party who thought that that was a highly illiberal suggestion. Since then, either the Home Secretary or the chief constables have had to make general bans on marches—which are much more illiberal—in order to stop one particularly unpleasant march.

We must now accept that if we can legislate—as we legislated some years ago against offensive notices to let rooms, which used such phrases as "No coloureds here"—we are entitled to say that it is madness to expect chief constables to make basically political decisions about the type of marches that are calculated to stir up racial hatred in certain parts of our towns and cities. Therefore the Home Secretary should look at the Public Order Act and make whatever changes may be necessary.

Given the terms of our motion, I should like to say a word about the victims of violent crime. However successful new policing methods might be, there will always, sadly, be victims of crime. They are the neglected party in current criminal justice procedure. They are viewed only in terms of the evidence that they are able to offer. Civilised society has a duty to care for the victims of crime.

The Criminal Injuries Compensation Board makes provision only for financial recompense for physical hurt. In the first six months of this year there were 368,000 burglaries and 9,900 robberies. That was a considerable increase over the numbers for the same period last year. Compensation orders are made only if specifically requested and if the criminal is caught. Otherwise, no provision is made by our society for the victims, who are sometimes old and infirm and who are left frightened—sometimes even penniless—and helpless to recover or replace their property or their self-confidence.

In the last few weeks my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. Alton) has asked the Home Office and the Department of Health and Social Security whether we could devise a system to ensure that at least the weaker members of our society are visited by social security officials in the wake of reported crime, to ensure that they have simple basic things such as enough money for food—perhaps paid for, if necessary, from an emergency fund—and to ensure that damaged entry points are made good and, if possible, to offer alternative sheltered accommodation.

The giving of such attention and high priority to the victims of crime is long overdue. Perhaps the Home Secretary might wish to look at the recent Scottish experience, where sheriffs are increasingly using their new-found powers to demand on behalf of the victim, restitution from the sentenced criminal. The practice is new and is working quite well. Sheriffs are being encouraged to use that power in Scotland, but I do not believe that the power exists in England and Wales.

Mr. Charles Irving (Cheltenham)

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. I am rather surprised by his comments about the victims of crime. We may hide our light under a bushel, but has the right hon. Gentleman never heard of the national victim support scheme, which I founded, and which is supported by hundreds of volunteers throughout the nation?

There are now 140 victim support schemes, all managing on a shoestring. They were immediately supported by the Home Secretary when we requested aid to establish a national office. It is a growing voluntary force, and I am surprised that the Leader of the Liberal Party, of all people, should not be aware of such a powerful force in the land. It is the only body of its type in the whole of Europe that is run under the voluntary umbrella. I should like to feel that the Leader of the Liberal Party would not only pay tribute to it——

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

Order. The hon. Gentleman has made a long intervention, and I think that he has made his point.

Mr. Steel

I was not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was making his speech in the middle of mine, but I hope that he will catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so that he can develop his theme. I had the great pleasure of visiting his constituency recently, but that was in a political capacity. I was not dishing out compliments then, but as the hon. Gentleman seems to be fishing for them now I should say that I readily accept that the work done by the voluntary organisation is splendid. However, I think that the hon. Gentleman will admit that the organisation is not nation-wide and that it is not a national scheme. I accept that it is a voluntary scheme.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving) will be the first to admit that the scheme is not universal. If he wishes to place so much weight on the scheme, I invite him to talk to those victims of crime who feel, even now, that their needs are being ignored, while society, quite naturally, pays attention to the criminal.

I promised that I would be brief, and I have already spoken for too long. An apt final quotation from Lord Scarman's report is his quotation from President Johnson's Address to the Nation, which appeared at the beginning of the American Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, 1968. Lord Scarman was right to quote that, because President Johnson said: The only genuine, long-range solution for what has happened lies in an attack—mounted at every level—upon the condition that breeds despair and violence. All of us know that those conditions are: ignorance, discrimination, slums, poverty, disease and not enough jobs. We should attack these conditions—not because we are frightened by conflict, but because we are fired by conscience. We should attack them because there is simply no other way to achieve a decent and orderly society in America". Lord Scarman said that those words should apply to Britain. In endorsing them, I am not suggesting for a moment that there are not evil and wicked people in our society rather than those who have been sinned against. However, we must pay more attention to the methods of policing that we use. We can be more effective in getting better value from our well-tried police forces in combating the rise in crime.

4.25 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Patrick Mayhew)

The right hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel) began his speech by saying that anyone who chose the topic of law and order as the broad subject for a debate had a wide canvas on which to paint. That is perfectly true. He also said that it was not his intention to trespass on the ground that Lord Scarman's report covered. However, the first part of his speech dwelt almost exclusively on that ground. I hope that he will forgive me if I do not take up every aspect of his speech. It is always welcome to this Government that the House should debate questions relating to the maintenance of law and order, and the preservation of liberty. There is no subject to which this Government attach more importance. It ranks equally with the defence of the realm. That is why we had, in Government time, a full day's debate last Friday, on the report of the Royal Commission on criminal procedure.

That very important report discussed many matters crucial to the establishment of—as the motion states— a relationship of confidence and co-operation between the police and local communities, I refer to such things as the power of the police to stop and search people in the street; the power of arrest; the circumstances in which the police shall be able to detain people after arrest; the judges' rules that govern how the police may interrogate suspects; and the right of silence. All of these matters affect how the police are trusted in the community.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will allow me gently to point out that, unhappily, throughout that important debate he exercised his right of silence—and, indeed, his right of absence—as did all his hon. Friends in the Liberal Party and allies in the SDP. On Friday, we had an alliance of silence on this subject. I must therefore begin by welcoming not only the wording of the motion, which we believe is plainly right, but also the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends.

We shall, of course, be discussing Lord Scarman's report at an early date. Therefore, it is enough to say that yesterday my right hon. Friend stated in the clearest terms his acceptance of what he described as Lord Scarman's philosophy of policing, as well as his resolve that it should be carried into practice.

An essential component and objective of that philosophy is, in Lord Scarman's words, the establishment of a relationship of mutual trust and respect between local communities and the police. I was glad that the right hon. Gentleman pointed out the good news—that there is a great deal of confidence in the police. That is right. We all agree that we must seek to establish a relationship of mutual trust and respect. That is what a relationship of confidence amounts to, and without it we can look in vain for the co-operation of the local community with the police that the motion calls for. I believe that we are all agreed on that.

It follows, therefore, and it is almost a truism, that policing must take account of, and respond to, the special needs and characteristics of the local community. That is the essence of what are generally known as community policing methods. That is not a new concept. The right hon. Gentleman did not need to say that this was not a madcap concept dreamed up by a chief constable in a remote part of Western England. No one would dream of suggesting that it was. It has a long and honourable pedigree both in the Metropolitan Police and other forces. As Mr. Barry Pain, the chief constable of Kent and the chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers said recently, it goes back to 1829.

There is no one model for universal application. There can be as many variants as there are communities, and probably there should be. In recent years, chief officers have made sustained efforts to experiment and to develop them, and certain features that are worth identifying are common to the most successful schemes. These schemes demonstrate a move away from what is sometimes called "reactive" or "fire brigade" policing towards a preventive approach. Everyone welcomes that. They lay emphasis on the need for the police to enlist the help of other agencies—both voluntary and statutory, to co-operate with the police in dealing not merely with crime and its effects, but also in the long term with the conditions associated with criminal activity.

Behind them all lies a recognition of the part that the police can play in promoting a sense of community. I agree entirely with the right hon. Gentleman, who spoke of the advantages that can flow from a police officer just being around. One example he used was that such an officer would be able to notice someone who had come back into the community from prison. The advantages of what we describe loosely and without definition as "community policing" are self-evident. Among them is the advantage that a police officer so employed can promote a sense of community, of belonging to a community.

First and foremost, by a distance, there is in these successful schemes of community policing an emphasis on returning officers to the beat. I am sure that that is what the public want. They are right in wanting to see it. It is on the streets of our towns and cities, and in the lanes and the villages of our rural areas, that the police make their most effective contribution. It is here that they preserve the peace, offer to villains the risk of getting caught and most effectively reassure the public.

An important achievement of the Government is that since my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary took office, the police service in England and Wales has been increased by 7,500 officers. Without doubt, that is the result of our decision to implement in full and at once the recommendations of the Edmund-Davies committee on police pay.

My right hon. Friend has also urged chief police officers to do their best to ensure that the police are not used on work that does not require their particular skills, and they have willingly complied with that suggestion and advice.

In London, where the Metropolitan Police numbers 25,000 for the first time in its history, the commissioner's policy of using civilians has enabled 233 sergeants and 673 constables to be released from their desks for operational duties in the community—on the streets.

The motion is silent about this, but we should not forget that, in addition to confidence, the maintenance of law and order depends on the police catching those who commit crimes and deterring others who would like to. If they do not catch them or deter them, no amount of good works in the community will win the police the community's confidence.

I now turn to that part of the motion that calls for an independent procedure by which complaints against the police can be examined". I have already mentioned it, and in the circumstances I can pass briefly over it.

It is perfectly true that public confidence requires this, but it is also true—we do not hear so much about this—that any procedure should deserve and attract the confidence of police officers. On that the motion is silent. I want to say three things about it: first, we already have an independent examination procedure, introduced by Parliament during the lifetime of the last Government; secondly, it is not working well enough to command public confidence in full; and, thirdly, to quote what my right hon. Friend said yesterday, it must be "substantially reformed". He will bring forward proposals to the House as soon as he can.

Again I gently point out that this was discussed by the Royal Commission and was valuably debated last Friday when the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends were "playing away".

Sadly, as the motion says, it is also often true that inadequate help is given to victims of violent crime. In one sense, no compensation can remedy that injury. Perhaps the best help can come from within the community itself, in the form of prompt, sensitive, neighbourly support.

My first duty on joining the Home Office in January was to go to the annual meeting of the National Association of Victim Support Schemes. I was glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving) intervened in the right hon. Gentleman's speech. He was too modest to say that he was the founder, or at least he was too modest to say it with the conviction that would have registered with me. It is a great achievement that these 140 branches should now be established throughout the country under the wing of the national association.

This is an important body. It co-ordinates the activities of all the local schemes, whose appearance we warmly welcome and whose volunteers we greatly admire. I am glad to say that this year we have been able to increase the grant to the national association to just over £23,000.

Financial compensation, as distinct from support within the community, is important to the victims of violent crime. The State's contribution is made mainly through the criminal injuries compensation scheme, whose chairman of the board is Mr. Michael Ogden, QC. Last year, more than 20,000 awards were made, to the value of more than £21½ million. We have improved that scheme by extending it to victims of violence in the home—a long neglected category.

But criminals can also be made to pay—and a good thing too. We intend to improve the existing ability of the courts to order criminals to compensate themselves those whom they have violently attacked, or otherwise harmed. The right hon. Gentleman was wrong when he said that a court could not make a compensation order if it was not asked for one; courts can and do make such orders. In 1980 nearly 128,000 compensation orders were made in England and Wales.

It is right that we should strengthen the law here, so that where a criminal's means are not sufficient to allow him to pay both a reasonable compensation order and a reasonable fine imposed by the court, the duty to compensate his victim shall have priority. We shall make early proposals to achieve that end.

We intend also that parents can be ordered themselves to compensate the victim of an offence committed by their child, unless the court is satisfied that it would be unreasonable to do so in the circumstances. We are well aware that to the victim of crime it often seems that his interests count less than the interests of the criminal. These measures will help to correct that impression.

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has been able to sweep up, as it were, into this omnibus motion, a reference to what it rightly describes as the crisis in the prisons, even though the "urgent action" which it calls for to deal with this is left unspecified. I know that he said that he proposed not to deal himself with that part of the motion, but he will forgive me if I do, because the Government regard it as a matter of extreme importance, as has my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary from the first day he assumed office.

No Home Secretary has done more than my right hon. Friend to draw attention to the dangerously and scandalously overcrowded state of the prisons in England and Wales. A measure of overcrowding exists when there are more than 37,000 prisoners locked up. Certified normal accommodation is 39,000. The current figure is just under 44,000, and the local prisons are the worst.

This is a problem of great gravity which my right hon. Friend inherited. He has consulted very widely on means to lessen the pressure on the prisons. He of all people, needs no reminding of the need for urgent action. During the prison officers' dispute last year, he asked for and was granted emergency powers by Parliament.

The Government recognise the duty to provide the prison accommodation that our criminal justice system really needs. It would have been better if that had been more widely recognised in the past. For 40 years after 1918 no purpose-built closed prison or borstal institution was constructed.

We have therefore, allocated extra resources to the prisons. Six new prisons are to be started, or have already been started, between this year and 1984. Design work on two others is in progress, and feasibility studies are being carried out for a third and fourth. Major reconstruction work at over 60 establishments during the 1980s is planned, at a cost of about £360 million. Simply maintaining the structure of the existing prisons is costing £20 million a year. That is the answer to those who appear to light upon so simple a solution to this problem as bricks and mortar.

However, this cannot provide immediate relief to the problems of overcrowding, and indeed it has to be seen against the background of further decay in the existing prison estate.

That is one reason—but not the only reason—why the Government have seen so much significance in the lead set by the Lord Chief Justice in the Court of Appeal to bring about a reduction in the length of prison sentences, in cases where that would be proper.

This action has already begun to have a perceptible effect on the size of the sentenced prison population, as may be seen in the latest statistics, but an effect which unfortunately has been at least in part offset by the increasing number of cases which have had to be dealt with by the courts. Accordingly, it is clear, and again I believe generally accepted, that some new measure is needed to deal with the problem. The question is, what new measure?

Earlier this year, in the document embodying the results of our review of the parole system, we put forward the idea that for shorter sentence prisoners—including those now ineligible for parole—there might be provision for early release on licence to supervision in the community. This idea was put forward for discussion and comment, because my right hon. Friend and I thought that it deserved serious consideration. It received the approval of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, and it was welcomed in other influential quarters, too.

But in our system of criminal justice, it is the courts that have, subject always to the maxima fixed by Parliament, the duty of passing sentences that they consider, in the exercise of their judicial discretion, will meet the justice of each particular case. That is their responsibility. It would hardly be wise if the consultation process were to take no heed of opinion from that quarter and from the probation service, as to the likely outcome of the change that was proposed if it were to be applied mandatorily, without regard to the circumstances of each individual case. It would be especially unwise at a time when sentence lengths are beginning to come down, in response to the guidance of the Court of Appeal.

So there is no question here of the courts thwarting the will of Parliament, as has been so unwisely suggested elsewhere, or not loyally acknowledging its sovereignity. But until they are deprived by Parliament of all judicial discretion—and may that day never come—they will rightly continue to assess what sentence the justice of each particular case requires. That is bound to take into account the actual time that will be served in prison.

In the event, we formed the view that our first proposal would be likely to counteract the very welcome downward trend in sentence lengths. So we accordingly have turned our attention again towards what has long been Conservative policy in principle, reflected in section 47 of the Criminal Law Act 1977, which itself represented a Conservative amendment to that measure—the concept of the sentence that is partially suspended, the first part being served in prison.

This has the great merit of keeping the question whether to release a prisoner with the sentencing court, rather than imposing a blanket release for all cases. The gravity of the offence can be marked by the totality of the sentence imposed. The circumstances of the offender can be reflected in the proportion of the sentence suspended. We intend that a proper case can be dealt with by the court being able to order that as little as 28 days of a sentence shall be served in custody.

We believe that by this means there is a prospect of obtaining more quickly, and without distortion of sentencing practice, a saving in the prison population substantially greater than we would gain from supervised release in practice. We had thought that 7,000 places, at best, might be saved by that method, but, in the light of our consultation, we discovered that that estimate was quite unrealistic. We now believe that, under section 47, the optimum saving may be as much as 4,000 places. The reason why we are now more optimistic than we were a few months ago is that the consultations we have held give us good grounds for confidence that the judiciary would use partially suspended sentences in such a way as to avoid the risks we had previously foreseen.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

In dealing with that matter, the Minister has not mentioned community service orders. Whilst acknowledging the discretion of the court in individual circumstances, may I ask whether he is satisfied that a proper assessment of this system has been made, or that the alternative is widely advertised and developed where it is suitable and where suitable personnel are recruited to operate it?

Mr. Mayhew

Community service orders are one of the great success stories of recent developments of sentencing practice. There has been a marked increase in recent years in the number of community service orders. We very much welcome that, and encourage courts to make use of them whenever this is practicable. We shall continue to do that. We shall bring forward shortly proposals enabling courts to make a community service order for a child of 16. The threshold at present is 17.

I have tried to offer the House our thoughts on the various components of this broadly drawn motion. The right hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles was right in saying that this is, to a great extent, an uncontroversial matter. It is, nevertheless, an exceptionally important matter. The maintenance of law and order and the incidence of crime and of criminality set problems that are among the toughest and most intractable for any Government to grapple with. We must have rules that permit our police to be efficient while requiring them to be fair. The community must have confidence in its police. The community has to care properly for the victims of crime. The prisons have to be humane as well as secure. To all these objectives, the Government attach very high importance and we look forward to the assistance of this debate.

4.51 pm
Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

It is by an extraordinary coincidence of timing that hon. Members are able to discuss in this debate many of the fundamental and underlying issues to which reference is made in Lord Scarman's report which was the subject of a statement yesterday to the House. The issues that we face are very grave. The growth of crime is a cause of concern to every household. The growth of violent crime—the growth of violence as a whole in our country—is a particular cause for concern. To that problem of violence there is no solution. Indeed, there is much dispute as to its causation.

I suppose that I can claim to have supported practically every liberal reform that has come before the House. Yet, on the issue of violence on television, I hold views that I suppose some would say were deeply reactionary. I am convinced, although I know that I have not much evidence to pull to my support, that as a society we have tolerated for far too long the continued expression of violence through television at all hours of the day and night and frequently seen by young children. We shall never do justice to the issue of the growth of violence until we apply our common sense to it.

The IBA working party on the portrayal of violence on television in 1973 took note of the fact that research clearly indicated that it was precisely the immature and emotionally insecure who tended to be most dependent upon, and the heaviest consumer of, that kind of television output which had the highest violent content". The crucial factor is "Who are those affected by violence?" Most of the population may be able to absorb this continued portrayal of violence in the home without their threshold of abhorrence of violence being lowered. I suspect, however, that there is a significant group in the population who are deeply affected by it. It is a matter of high priority, I believe, that we tackle the problem. There may not be a great amount of evidence. As a natural scientist, I like to have the maximum amount of research before making a decision, but, repeatedly, one comes to the conviction that, on this issue, one has to trust one's common sense. I recognise openly that I have no quick or simple solution to the problem of violence.

I should like to turn to the question of our approach to Lord Scarman's report. There is much wisdom in the report. There is much wisdom in many previous reports that have come before the House. I am worried that what will happen to this report is what has happened to many in the past. A very important White Paper in 1975 on racial discrimination warned of many of the issues that have now come about. There have been repeated reports by Select Committees containing detailed propositions worked out and agreed on an all-party basis. The problem has been the implementation and the effectiveness of the measures taken. There is a danger that this country has become more expert than almost any other in suffocating a report and in embracing a report with general praise and generalised endorsement of its philosophy but not following it through with the most detailed implementation.

I say to the Home Secretary, who commands a great deal of respect on both sides of the House and who, I think, with a great deal of prestige and authority, is coming, in a reasonable time, to the end of his political career—[HON. MEMBERS: "Not at all."] I believe that the right hon. Gentleman has indicated that he sees his future in that way. His record includes what, in my view, is one of the most imaginative proposals ever produced. I refer to the 1973 Sunningdale attempt to resolve the problem of Northern Ireland. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will stick firm on all these issues and will come to the House, when it debates the Scarman report, with the most detailed implementation proposals. Another generalised debate would not befit the mood of the House.

I hope also that the Minister of State will not back off from his clear intention to take a dramatic and bold step to cut the prison population. I understand the resistance that his proposal has encountered. I understand the arguments by the judiciary. I believe, however, that the time has now come when a decision has to be taken in the House. A step has to be taken that leads to a dramatic fall in the prison population. Only by implementing the proposal that he has put forward will the hon. and learned Gentleman achieve that aim. I hope that he will not be dissuaded from taking the decision.

I agree with much of the Scarman report and its recommendations. I wish to concentrate on some aspects that are either unclear or that I wish to criticise in order to focus the debate on some of the proposals that I hope the Home Secretary will bring forward. Lord Scarman says in his report that he does not believe that institutional racialism exists in Britain. I wish I believed that this was true. One can look at this Chamber, and one can look at this Parliament, but one sees no representative of black opinion. One can look at most council chambers dealing with issues of racial tension and racial stress and ask how many councillors represent black opinion and the ethnic minority groups. One can look at the decision-making procedures of Government, the senior civil servants, the senior military figures and the police force. Everywhere there is a totally inadequate representation of the black community.

It would be a great mistake if we did not recognise the dissatisfaction about the structure of decision-making reflecting black opinion. We should accept that something much bolder has to be done. I deal first with the police. The ethnic minority in the whole population of the United Kingdom is 4 per cent. The ethnic minority represented overall in our national police forces is a mere 0.27 per cent. In the GLC area the ethnic minority represents 14 per cent. of the community. The ethnic monority represented in the Metropolitan Police is a mere 0.5 per cent. Something has to be done. The Police Complaints Board has at present no ethnic minority member.

Until we can reflect a much higher percentage of ethnic minorities in many of our crucial and critical decision-making bodies, it will be very hard to resist the argument that there is a form of institutionalised racialism. Furthermore, we have a generation of decision makers who are still being greatly influenced by a past colonial climate and by the years before we had a large and growing ethnic community in our midst. I do not, therefore, accept, the view that we do not have institutionalised racialism in Britain.

One of the interesting things about the Kernow report, which looked at the American racial problem, was that it was quite open about saying that it existed. The Scarman report would have carried more conviction if Lord Scarman had at least explored the area of governmental and council and institutional decision making, and perhaps been a little more critical about our inability to reflect there the minorities within our society.

I come from the West Country and I strongly endorse all that has been said about community policing, but I agree with the Minister that it is not new. It is a great mistake to see the advocacy of community policing as being only within the West Country. The chief constable in my area has my complete confidence and support, and I believe that all hon. Members representing West Country constituencies take the same view of him. The chief constable has become an advocate of community policing, but he would trace its origins back through the history of the police force.

It is important to recognise that there will be variations and different ways of introducing community policing in different parts of the country. I want to see a diversified police force. I am not in favour of steps being taken towards a national police force. I wish to see the police authority and the chief constable, in the closest consultation with the local community, developing a somewhat individualistic attitude to policing.

One of the most important recommendations in the Scarman report was that a statutory duty should be imposed on police authorities and on chief officers of police to co-operate in the establishment of consultative arrangements. When the Home Secretary made his statement in the House yesterday his wording was slightly different from that in the Scarman report. I may be pedantic in picking up this point. The Home Secretary may have meant "statutory", but he said: I accept the need to develop formal arrangements in every police force area for consultation".—[Official Report, 25 November 1981; Vol. 13, c. 891.] There is a difference between "formal" and "statutory", and I believe that Lord Scarman was right in insisting that there should be a statutory arrangement. It is a very important obligation, and I hope that the Home Secretary will clarify that aspect of the report.

The question of stop and search causes me concern. In my area, the police do not have the right to stop and search. The vast majority of police forces in Britain do not have that right. I understand that it exists only within the Metropolitan area, in Liverpool, and in some parts of the West Midlands. I grow more and more concerned about the operation of the stop and search policy. I agree with the proposition that a mobile special police unit is necessary. Although that is an unpopular recommendation of Lord Scarman, I believe that it is justified. But I am not happy—nor was the Royal Commission on criminal procedure—with the present position.

The Royal Commission recognises that there must be safeguards to protect members of the public from random, arbitrary and discriminatory searches. But it is extremely difficult to see how such safeguards can be produced. The onus of proof of the effectiveness of stop and search powers is on those police areas which currently exercise them. The statistics show how infrequently the practice leads to arrest. Therefore, one is bound to question whether it is necessary.

Between January and July 1981, in four major inner city areas, there were 3,842 stops by the police, leading to only 179 arrests. A large number of citizens was inconvenienced. It will be very difficult to produce the safeguards proposed by the Royal Commission, and I urge the Home Secretary to look closely at the matter.

In my experience, nothing is harder than for a Minister to divest himself and his Department of responsibilities. There will be endless arguments as to why the Home Secretary should retain powers. I was involved in this aspect of policy when I was a Minister in the DHSS. Endless attempts have been made by successive Governments to improve co-ordination.

I was particularly concerned with how to improve provision for the group under five years of age, and with the difficulty of securing a policy for children, for children's law and for the care of the family, when those questions concerned the Department of Health and Social Security, the Department of Education and Science, the Department of Employment, the Department of the Environment and the Home Office. The problem is well known to the Minister. Machinery of government changes is usually the refuge of last resort and frequently the refuge of despairing initiative, and I am 10th to recommend them, but all the evidence of the past 20 years seems to be that the Home Office is incapable of carrying out the responsibilities in these areas, and particularly in race matters.

The more I look at the necessity of involving local government in the partnership arrangements and in the programme area schemes, the more I become convinced that we shall not get the co-ordination that is crucial if the prime responsibility remains with the Home Office. There is now an overwhelming case for the transfer of its responsibility to the Department of the Environment.

The Policy Studies Institute has just produced an important study entitled "Policy and Practice in the Multiracial City". Underlying its detailed criticisms of the problems of central and local government relations and the lines of communication is the need for a transfer of responsibility for race relations to the Department of the Environment, accompanied by a ministerial action group or task force to take the lead in implementing changes. There is a great necessity to have a Cabinet subcommittee—perhaps chaired by a non-departmental Minister, but with the overall responsibility lying with the Department of the Environment—to try to bring together all the issues.

Various Select Committee reports have drawn attention to examples where local authorities were doing well, where low-cost schemes had produced imaginative cooperation, and where it had been possible to bring play groups into primary schools and to use their classrooms. This had made it possible to have a low-cost alternative to nursery education, sometimes extremely successfully.

The best examples should be brought to the attention of all local authorities, and there should be more effective pump-priming machinery. Some of the partnership schemes have worked very well, but in some areas there are complaints that the ethnic minorities are not represented in the decision making and are not consulted adequately or early enough. That question should be examined. I hope that the Home Secretary will look carefully at the PSI study to which I have referred and make recommendations relating to it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Mr. Ellis) initiated a very important Adjournment debate on 6 July 1981 on the Rampton report concerning West Indian schoolchildren. There is grave danger that the Government will lose sight of that report. There is a real need for the Home Secretary to tell us what targets he is setting some of the local authorities in areas of considerable stress. For example, what targets is he setting them for nursery education provision, for pupil-teacher ratios and for special education for children who come from homes where there is a serious language problem?

It is not enough to make generalised statements. If money is to be made available, it is legitimate that the House should be told where it is going. I am in favour of earmarking funds. Without earmarking I do not believe that we shall ever achieve the coherent implementation that we all want. We all say that we want a constructive strategy and a coherent pattern. Very often the result is an incoherent pattern and few constructive proposals.

Our experience of earmarking funds is not good. When I was the Minister for Health I earmarked £3 million for the implementation of Lord Butler's report on abnormal offenders, with a view to introducing regional security units. A few years later a Select Committee discovered that most of the £3 million had been wafted away by regional health authorities and that all too little of it had gone to where it was allocated.

The House has a right to become much tougher over the allocation of resources. If we allocate resources on the bases of perceived need and positive action, we want to know that they are being spent on genuine schemes. Some of the schemes that have been submitted give the impression that they are too generalised. Sometimes there is rather too much on the cultural side. The schemes are not sufficiently specific and they are not oriented to real need. It is difficult for central Government to interfere in the decision making of local government and I am not keen for it to interfere. The partnership concept is a good one, but there is insufficient monitoring.

Why is it that the Tavistock report on the Civil Service has been quietly shelved? It recommended that we should monitor the progress of the Civil Service in introducing blacks into the Civil Service. That is not being done. Why did we not take the bold decision of including the ethnic question in the most recent census? I was a member of the previous Labour Government and I know why it was not included. That Government were frightened of including it. Despite the overwhelming endorsement of all the professionals that the question should be included, the Labour Government succumbed to what I believe was an irrational prejudice. There was not ethnic pressure. All the major ethnic groups said that the question should be included. I hope that the House insists that the question be included in the 1986 census. I hope that we shall be prepared to accept a monitoring procedure.

Quotas have been rejected for the police. It may be that that is right. I know that there are arguments against quotas. However, at the very least we should have an annual report on the progress that has been made in introducing more blacks into police forces throughout the country. I hope that the Secretary of State will produce detailed proposals on how he will make it easier for the percentage to be increased.

If the Government have to wait a week or two before initiating a debate on the Scarman report, I urge them to take that course and to wait until they can present detailed proposals. There is a great danger of having too early a generalised debate in which we shall not be able to concentrate on specifics. I should prefer a slightly longer pause that will enable the Government to present detailed proposals. The House would then be able to consider whether the Government's response to the Scarman report was what the nation needed. It is no longer sufficient to produce a generalised endorsement. We must grapple with the detail. It is on the detail that in 10 or 15 years we shall be able to judge whether there has been success.

5.15 pm
Mr. Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)

There is not much for which the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) stands with which I agree, but I support his argument about violence on television. Young and impressionable people are inspired by what they see to engage in the wrong sort of pursuits. I suggest that many are desensitised by a continual diet of violence on television. That makes them unconsciously accept more real violence in our society, and that has a damaging and a long-term detrimental effect. I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman advanced that argument.

I am speaking in this debate mainly because a week ago a woman constituent told me that her young daughter had recently started working in London and that, two days before she spoke to me, as her daughter walked out of Clapham underground station she was set upon by a gang of coloured youths. She was mugged, robbed and quite seriously injured. My constituent asked "What are you, my Member of Parliament, and the Government going to do about this increasingly difficult type of offence?" I was much impressed by what she said. The young woman concerned had only recently started to live in the Metropolis. She is thoroughly respectable and just setting out on her career.

Crime has reached epidemic proportions. Two sinister aspects are associated with it. The right hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel), the Leader of the Liberal Party, referred partly to them in a fairly low-key speech. First, there is the greater use of violence by all who indulge in criminal activity. It is really tough violence. Secondly, there is the vicious targeting of the weakest in our society. Gangs of coloured and white people—this is not an ethnic issue—now use violence more frequently. There has been a definite move over the past few years—especially the past two years—to attack defenceless old ladies and young women, who may be frail, and the disabled.

Four months ago I broke my hip. I was using two sticks. Now I use only one. I was told when I went to America in September to be careful because I was a natural target, as I appeared to be disabled. I understand that it is necessary for the slightly less able and the less mobile to be careful here as they might well be attacked by criminals. It is the duty of society to respond toughly. The Government's first duty is to protect the lives and property of their citizens. Those who are attacked often rate only a paragraph in their local newspapers, but often their lives are ruined. Old ladies live in terror of being mugged again or of having their houses or flats broken into.

I have long felt that in a more ideal society we need a new approach to crime and the treatment of offenders. I am aware, from visits that I have made to special security prisons and from discussions that I have had with officials, that probably a majority of the inmates have some serious mental abnormality or personality defect.

I should like to see a more radical approach in the longer term, but that time is not now. A desperately serious situation has developed and the Government's remedies should match it. I do not think that we are supplying adequate remedies. I say that in the knowledge that the Government have done much to improve conditions and increase the strength of the police. By and large, the police are doing an excellent job, but they are constantly sniped at by Left-wing elements. However, they are apprehending a large number of criminals.

We know that our prison system is in disarray and that most of the population are still appalled by the imposition of light sentences for serious crime. The prison building programme is impressive, but we need a crash course to build more prisons. I do not accept that several years must pass before they are completed. Some people say that the building of prisons is negative, but prisons are required because of the large number of desperate and dangerous criminals in our society. The Government's duty is to institute a crash programme both of building new prisons and of refurbishing old ones.

There should be tougher sentencing for all crimes of violence. Let the perpetrators of violent crime, whatever their age or condition, whether they are unemployed or from one-parent families or whatever fashionable intellectual excuse may be put forward on their behalf, be in no doubt that, if they are caught, they will be sent to prison for a long time. The loss of liberty in unpleasant circumstances is a real deterrent for a criminal.

Why do we have a near-breakdown in law and order? All the advanced nations suffer from it, but we suffer rather more than others. We are rapidly approaching the position in the United States of America where very few people in the big cities are satisfied with what happens.

There are a number of reasons why we have reached our position. I advance a personal view. The problem has been created because parents have not fulfilled their basic responsibility of teaching their children the difference between right and wrong and the need for respect of one's neighbour. It has been created by the appointment of the wrong type of school teachers. Large numbers of teachers have failed to keep order and have encouraged aggressive thinking by their pupils. It has been created by unrealistic magistrates and the judiciary who have foolishly pursued liberal sentencing policies as crime has expanded apace. It has been created by politicians on the Left, who are always seeking to push forward the frontiers of permissiveness in all its forms, and those more on the Right, who are fearful of tough, positive action because of a backlash from the unsympathetic media, which in turn carry a great deal of responsibility for the deterioration that has taken place.

We should not be misled into thinking that a tougher approach means a less fair or unfeeling one. However, it means a realistic approach. Unless we are prepared to act significantly and more strongly than we have, our society will continue to deteriorate to the point where the majority will have to live a restricted and guarded life for fear of attack from the minority. Some old people in my constituency already do.

Twenty years ago, if one had said that elderly people in Leamington Spa were afraid to go out in the evening, there would have been incredulous cries of disbelief. Nobody would challenge that today. No hon. Member, unless he represents an extremely rural area, would not subscribe to that view. All of us have constituents who are frightened, particularly in the hours of darkness. We should all remember that.

It has always been said that the fear of detection was the main deterrent, but that should be matched by the fear of a substantial term of imprisonment if a crime of violence has been committed. I do not welcome the Home Secretary's suggestion for remitting parts of sentences. I am glad that, according to press reports, the judiciary has rejected that approach. Suspended sentences have been shown to be a mockery. They do not fulfil their intended function. Once the situation is under control, which we hope will happen soon, we can embark on more radical reform and perhaps a more liberal approach and then indulge in some of the theories put forward by many who have studied the problem.

The situation is extremely difficult and dangerous. Some say that the present position has been created by deprivation, injustice and high unemployment. I believe that it has been created chiefly by the absence of the basic discipline that our society has signally failed to implement in the last 25 years. That is the root cause of the trouble. We must face the consequences. If we do not, law-abiding society will make a more telling call for a robust and realistic approach.

5.25 pm
Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

I do not agree with much of what the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Smith) said, but I certainly accept that there is a need for greater parental responsibility. Many of the problems can be explained by the breakdown of family life. I agree with the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) that the showing of violence on television as had its effect over many years, and it continues.

The answer does not lie in incarcerating more and more people in prison. Community work and discipline are needed. It might be unpopular, but the introduction of periods of compulsory community service for the younger generation should be considered seriously. Such service gives youngsters from areas such as Brixton the opportunity to go to different parts of the country, to meet people from different walks of life and to find something worth doing which interests them. When they return they might have a different attitude.

Towards the end of the last war I served for four years in the Services. I met people whom I had not had the chance to meet before. I met boys from Dr. Barnardo's homes who had gone into the Navy at 16 years of age and signed on for 21 years. I met tough Glaswegians from the Gorbals who became my friends. I had not had the opportunity to meet them before. That opportunity affected my attitude to society.

I should like more of the younger generation in the Isle of Wight to be able to learn different skills and to meet people from different environments. I am sure that similar experience would benefit the people of Brixton and other areas where the ethnic minorities live.

My main anxiety is about the continuing crisis in our prisons. My constituency contains no fewer than three prisons. The May inquiry was initiated by the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) when he was Home Secretary, largely as a result of a public letter of despair from assistant prison governors. Despite that and the strenuous efforts of the all-party penal affairs group, the fourth report of the Home Affairs Select Committee published last July, the Home Office review of parole in England and Wales published last May, the Howard League, the National Association for the Care and Ressettlement of Offenders, Peter Evans, a regular correspondent in The Times and publisher of books on our prisons and the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving) whose concern is well known, we are on a time bomb. It took the courageous letter from the governor of Wormwood Scrubs to remind us of that.

If we do not take immediate action to reduce the gross overcrowding in our prisons we shall have a repeat of the riots of a few years ago. If that happens, I suspect that they will be more serious and widespread. We remember the riots in Hull and Parkhurst. They will spread among all prisons that are experiencing gross overcrowding, such as Wormwood Scrubs, Leeds, and Birmingham, and those that are not so affected.

The hon. and learned Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Mayhew) said that the Home Secretary had regrettably changed his mind on the well-supported modified form of parole. That is the third option, which I feel had a lot going for it, whereby short-term prisoners spend one third of their sentences in custody, one third is automatically suspended and the final one third is, as now, remitted but liable to forfeiture on bad behaviour.

Like Lord Longford, who made a notable speech in the other place last Tuesday, I regret that news, if true. His contribution was criticised, but I believe that it was sound and I recommend other hon. Members to read it. Instead, we gather that the Home Secretary is to rely on the courts being given the power to suspend part of a sentence as provided for under section 47 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 but never implemented.

I am not a lawyer, so to me the proposals look rather complicated. There is however a substantial difference between the two proposals because automatic parole means the immediate release of people already in prison. Despite the comments of the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington, I believe that there are too many people in prison. I regret that we are having to build more prisons. The Dutch experiments of halving the number in prison has not led to a sudden increase in crime. Even in Mexico there is a more humane form of imprisonment than in this country.

Mr. John Wheeler (Paddington)

They shoot the prisoners.

Mr. Ross

They do not shoot them. They allow wives in, which we do not allow in this country.

By contrast, giving the courts the power to suspend part of a sentence may not have the desired effect of reducing the prison population. A recent press release by NACRO states: The accumulated evidence is not very encouraging. If the main objective of the suspended sentence was to reduce the prison population, there are considerable doubts as to whether it has achieved this effect. It may even have increased the size of the prison population. One reason for this disappointing result is that courts, initially at least, misused the sanction by passing it on offenders who would not, but for the existence of the suspended sentence, have been given a custodial sentence. Experience suggests that courts have passed suspended sentences greater in length than the sentence of immediate imprisonment they might otherwise have given, and when these have been activated in full the result has been a longer stay in custody for the offender". A document published by the Home Office last May refers to the one-third idea. In paragraph 58 it states: A development along these lines would not be wholly novel. There is already provision, in section 47 of the Criminal Law Act 1977, for the courts to suspend between a quarter and three quarters of a sentence of imprisonment of between six months and two years. That section has not been activated because of fears that the new sentence would be used to give a 'taste of imprisonment' in cases where at present the courts would impose a fully suspended sentence or non-custodial sentence. Inevitably, too, in a proportion of cases the suspended part of the sentence would be subsequently activated. Thus there can be no certainty that implementing section 47 would achieve any reduction in numbers in custody and would not confer any advantage in the treatment of individual offenders. The new approach"— the one-third idea— outlined above offers a rethinking of section 47, using a similar framework to extend the concept of parole to those at present ineligible. Obviously that was the belief of the Home Office when that document was published, but there has been a substantial change of thought. I regret it. Too often a short custodial sentence is imposed when a community service order or fine would have sufficed.

Apart from parole or a suspension of sentence, if we wished we could introduce 50 per cent. remissions. We do that in Northern Ireland. Therefore, why cannot we do it here? We could reintroduce the amnesty. Mr. Churchill did that when he was Home Secretary. He is probably the last person to have done it. We could do it on celebrations of State occasions. I refer hon. Members to the leading article in The Times on 21 November which states: Whatever permanent system is introduced, it would have far better efficacy if it started on the base of 40,000 rather than more than 45,000 inmates of our prisons. I gather that that figure is now 44,000. The article continues: For that reason, the possibility of an amnesty must be given serious attention. As the right hon. Member for Devonport said, we should be making much greater progress to provide for the mentally sick in properly equipped regional secure units. It is a disgrace that the money that he provided, when he was the responsible Minister, was misused and that it has taken so long to provide such units. Parkhurst is a typical example of where there are many inmates who ought to be in such secure units. Those people are mentally sick.

Unless action is taken now to remove from prison those who could just as well repay their debts to society in other more sensible ways, I am convinced that we shall have an explosion of unparalleled ferocity. It is the responsibility of the House to prevent that event from happening. The sooner we take action, the better.

5.36 pm
Mr. Tom Benyon (Abingdon)

I welcome the opportunity to make a short contribution to this valuable debate.

Our voters expect the Government to reduce the crime wave. From a Daily Telegraph poll, it is apparant that there is a wide gap of opinion between the majority of politicians and the public on precisely how to achieve that. The public want longer sentences to be imposed, the return of capital punishment and possibly corporal punishment. Such measures would not work, even if we could get them through the House of Commons. Therefore, what can the Goverment do? I feel that calls for more toughness on the part of the Government are chasing a mirage. It is not part of my job to sell mirages to my constituents. We must face the reality of the situation.

The inability of the Government to reduce crime is not because they are wet or that they have lost the will. To reduce the crime wave dramatically is not in their gift within the life of this Parliament. Extra prisons, longer sentences and harsher methods would do more in terms of retribution, at high cost to the taxpayer, than achieve the result of less crime or at least contained crime.

The causes of crime are elusive to identify and inevitably involve guesswork. The list is long. Many causes have been touched on in the debate. High unemployment makes a contribution to increasing the numbers of those tempted to follow a criminal life. Huge, soulless comprehensive schools, bad housing, bad or no recreation facilities, colour discrimination, lack of parental responsibility—which was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Smith)—television violence and increased prosperity, which has not been touched on in the debate, play a major part in the increase in crime.

However, it is unlikely that a modified system of justice, stronger sentences or even a penal system that involved terror would reduce crime's, accelerating momentum. There is little that the Government can do to insulate the United Kingdom from an international trend other than to take steps which will comfort the voter that all that can be reasonably done is being done.

Rising criminal activity has not suddenly occurred. It has been gathering pace for over 50 years. In 1903 the police recorded three crimes for every 1,000 people. In 1980 there were four crimes for every 100 people. In 1948 the Old Bailey operated four courts and now there are 24. Increased prosperity does not reduce crime. On the contrary, in all industrial societies crimes have surged as poverty has receded and relative prosperity has spread. The more possessions there are, the more policemen are needed to protect them.

What effective steps can the Government take? We have recruited 7,000 more policemen than there were in May 1979 to correct undermanning. That was the right thing to do. I understand that we require further police recruitment in the Metropolitan Police district. However, it is doubtful whether further recruitment would be followed by a corresponding reduction in either the number of indictable offences committed or the number of criminals brought to justice, because the police rely on the public for their knowledge of most crimes. An increase in the number of policemen will not necessarily increase public co-operation, which is vital. That is illustrated by a survey at the Old Bailey, which showed that in 90 per cent. of cases the identity of the suspect was clear from the first report of the crime. Therefore, if reports are not made by the public it is unlikely that police detection will result in their apprehending more culprits.

It is useful to consider foreign examples, from which we can learn. Recently in New York the police attempted to reduce the number of offences committed in the subway by flooding it with police officers. The number of thefts reduced dramatically, but unfortunately the thieves took to the buses. The costs of the operation were dramatic. It cost $35,000 for each successful capture against the average criminal's takings of $50.

The Government are embarking upon a prison building programme. As there are no votes in such a programme, they are the first Government in memory to take such an initiative. They should be highly commended for so doing. The programme is designed to prop up prisons that are falling down and it is hoped to ease congestion. Currently our prisons are chronically overcrowded and insanitary. Those who wish for harsher conditions in prisons will be comforted by the fact that it is difficult to see how prison conditions could be made much more nasty for the inmates. Our prisons are now a national scandal. Future generations will look back at the 1980s and wonder how any civilised society could tolerate such prison conditions, let alone fool itself into believing that such a system had much identifiable value or reform, other than keeping 44,000 people away from the public for some time in accommodation designed for 35,000 people.

Evidence from the United States of America shows that building more cells does not ease congestion. Fifteen states that increased their cell capacity by 50 per cent. increased their prison population by 57 per cent. Fifteen states that increased their capacity by 4 per cent. decreased their prison population by 9 per cent. The number of indictable offences committed in all 30 states remained constant. There is no evidence that longer sentences deter more successfully than shorter ones and at a cost of over £70,000 per cell built and £180 a week per prisoner, that matters. The major contributing factor towards a high prison population is not crime, unemployment, family breakdown or racial tension, but the availability of cells for the courts to fill with more people for longer sentences.

Although there are many violent and dangerous criminals who should be incarcerated for long sentences to protect the public, thousands of people either should not be in prison at all or could be there for a shorter time without exposing the public to risk. However, it is difficult for any Government to institute liberal reforms without criticism that they are soft. I congratulate the Home Secretary on his courageous work. I believe that he is a liberal, reforming Home Secretary. May I say—before he becomes too depressed by the words of the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen)—that I hope that he remains Home Secretary for many years?

A precondition to the Government's ability to tackle constructively the deep-rooted problem is public recognition that there is no easily identifiable, hard-nosed solution to an easily quantified law and order problem, and public acceptance that we should send fewer people to prison for shorter sentences. However bleak the prospect of reducing the crime wave, the Home Office should undertake various reforms. The first is a review of offences that are currently imprisonable. Why are drunks, prostitutes, inadequates and vagrants gaoled? Why do we build more cells when the present accommodation is stuffed with many thousands of people who are no danger to society? Why is the number of people imprisoned for a month or less so different from the number in Holland? In Holland, half the prison population is there for periods of less than a month. In Britain only 18 per cent. are imprisoned for that short time. The crime wave in Holland is no worse or better than ours.

I welcome the introduction of legislation that will oblige criminals to pay compensation directly to their victims. In no other country is that done comprehensively. Currently the number of offenders making restitution is less than 5 per cent., which we should try to increase as much as possible.

The public can also play a part. To be realistic, they must stop asking the House to solve all problems. Crime is a problem for society as a whole. One of the better things that the public could do is to consider their own security. They can also help the police. That matter has been mentioned by many hon. Members, and the Scarman report contains many important recommendations about how the public can play a major part by assisting the police. Members of the public can also volunteer to become special constables. People have often written indignant letters to me complaining about how frightful everything is. I always write back to them saying that I am glad that they should express such a responsible view and that they should become special constables. I regret to inform the House that few people write back to tell me that they have become special constables. However, I commend it and it is certainly wished by police forces.

All those matters would not dramatically reduce the crime wave, but they would enhance the vital links between the police and the public. Also, if people wish to reduce violent tendencies among the young, they should write to the heads of the broadcasting authorities to request increased vigilance in the monitoring of programmes that include gratuitous acts of violence. If the power of advertising is so potent, how can anyone argue that a continuous diet of television violence does not brutalise?

5.47 pm
Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)

The House should be grateful to the Liberal Party for choosing this subject for a half day Supply day debate. It is fortuitous that it comes after the publication of the Scarman report yesterday, but it is useful for us to have a preliminary trot over the ground before we come to a more serious consideration of that report later. I agree with the Minister that it would have been useful to have had a Liberal presence in the debate last week on the Royal Commission report on criminal procedure. I hope that Liberal Members will join in those debates more often in the future.

As to the motion on the Order Paper, the Opposition are happy to accept all the propositions in it. Before I come to other aspects of the problem, I wish to make one point to the Minister that is in rather a different category from the rest. Recently I was appalled to receive answers from the Minister in response to questions about the number of people remanded in custody awaiting trial for very long periods. That problem exists in England and Wales but does not exist north of the border to anything like the same extent, because north of the border a law says that if a man is not brought to trial within a specified period he must be let out of prison. If we had such a provision south of the border it would force us to avoid the totally unjust position of some people being in custody awaiting trial for over two years.

I have asked the Minister a series of questions. The first was: how many people are in custody awaiting trial and have been for more than 12 months? The Minister's answer was that he could not say precisely. Then I asked him the same question with regard to 18 months and his answer was the same. So I asked the same question with regard to people who had been in prison for two years and more, and the answer was the same.

Is there any period for which the Home Office feels an obligation to find out how many people are in prison still awaiting trial? The person is innocent because he has not been tried. Even if he is ultimately found guilty, he may have a sentence that is not even custodial or a custodial sentence that is less than the period that he has spent incarcerated. It is monstrously unjust that such a person should be in custody for a prolonged period. It is the job of the Home Office, in conjunction with the Lord Chancellor's department, to make sure that it knows how many people are so held for longer than, let us say, six months. I should like to say three months. That information should be regularly available to the House when anyone asks for it.

The subject of law and order, including the public order aspects that have been touched on very much, has had a great deal of attention this year for the obvious reason of the riots but in other contexts as well. Many pieces of local legislation have been tidied up, which have brought to our attention the business of bans on marches—whether we should have selective bans and whether notice of marches should be given to the police.

We have been waiting for some time for the Home Office to complete its review of the Public Order Act. It is understandable that in the past month or two the Home Office wanted to wait for the Scarman report before making an announcement, but we should have an announcement soon on the Home Office's attitude to the review of the Act, even separately from other aspects of the subjects covered by the report.

A distinction is to be drawn between what I thought was the Secretary of State's reaction to the Scarman report and what I read in the newspapers this morning is his reaction. I read in some newspapers that he has accepted the recommendations in general, but what I heard the Home Secretary say yesterday—as has been pointed out by the leader of the Liberal Party and the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen)—was that he accepted the philosophy stated by Lord Scarman but not necessarily all the specific recommendations.

Mr. Mayhew

How could he?

Mr. Cunningham

I am not suggesting that it is possible within 24 or 48 hours for the Home Secretary to say "Stamp", to every detailed recommendation that Lord Scarman made, but, having read the report, I believe that it is possible for him to say not only that he accepts the philosophy but that the package of specific recommendations is one that he accepts in general. By that I mean that he would be able to accept and recommend to the House, shall we say, 80 per cent. or 90 per cent. of the specific recommendations for changes of law and of procedure.

The Scarman report is not like most other reports. It is not like the report of the Royal Commission on criminal procedure, although even that requires speedier action than some reports. The Scarman report has been produced in relation to a series of incidents of a desperate character. The response that it needs is a quick and specific one. If the Minister today, or the Secretary of State next week, were able to say that the Government expected to be able to recommend the House to implement 80 per cent. to 90 per cent.—or perhaps even 100 per cent.—of the specific proposals, that reaction would have a markedly different effect than simply saying that the Home Secretary accepted the philosophy behind the report.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

As one who supports 80 per cent. or 90 per cent. of what the Scarman report recommends and who knows so much about our constitutional practices, surely the hon. Gentleman welcomes the Home Secretary's statement that a debate should take place in the House first. Is it not at that stage that he would expect the Government to specify which areas of the report they could accept and proceed with?

Mr. Cunningham

That is the kind of response that one would expect to most reports, but I am trying to distinguish between this and most other reports.

I believe that most of us feel that Lord Scarman has struck a wise balance. He has not only put in general recommendations; he has chosen some specific recommendations. If people wish to have ages to think about them, they must do so, but I think that the recommendations are sufficiently sensible on the face of it for the Government, because of the public effect that it would have, to be prepared to say that, with perhaps only occasional exceptions, they are prepared to go for the package. The Opposition are prepared to say that, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) did so yesterday.

There is nothing outrageous or very worrying about the recommendations. We all know that we shall not be making terrible errors if, for example, we were to make the machinery for community consultation by police authorities outside London based on statute, as Lord Scarman recommends, or not based on statute, as the Secretary of State thought of yesterday. There is no great difference of principle there.

I am not suggesting that the Secretary of State should prejudge the decision of the House. I should be the last person to do that. But he needs to make it clear very quickly on the Government's part—just as we have made it clear on the Opposition's part—that they accept the package with only, at most, occasional exceptions.

Mr. Geoffrey Dickens (Huddersfield, West)

As we have waited months for the Scarman report, why should a few days make all that much difference? It is common sense to wait a while, debate the matter in the House and then take action, just in case it might be desirable to implement one or two elements in the report.

Mr. Cunningham

I hoped that I was covering the position of one or two elements within the report by saying that it would be unreasonable to ask the Secretary of State to say, "One hundred per cent. on every detail we will do exactly what Lord Scarman says". I am not asking that. I am saying that, given the nature of the report and the general consent that it has received in the past 24 hours, for its public effect, it should have a swifter, more positive and affirmative response than the Secretary of State has yet given it. Such a response is more justified in this case than it would be in the case of many other reports.

We are dealing with public confidence and with proposals that constitute a kind of a balance. We are dealing with a report from someone who has great experience in the field. I hope that the Government will give the response that I recommend rather than the response that they have made so far.

I come now to specific points covered in the report and reflected in the motion before the House. A significant paragraph, paragraph 5.62, deals with police authorities outside London. Lord Scarman states: many Police Authorities are somewhat uncertain of themselves and do not always exercise the firmness which the statute envisages as necessary to the discharge of their awesome responsibility to secure the maintenance of an adequate and efficient police force for their respective areas. Some of us have argued for some time that the important thing to do first about police authorities outside London is to get them to exercise the power that they have and to press the frontiers of what that power really is in law. We cannot blame them altogether for not doing so, because, although Home Office Ministers in the past 12 months have made, so far as I have noticed, about three speeches saying that the police authorities outside London should take a more positive interest in the policing of their areas, that has not been the long-term orthodoxy of the Home Office and it most certainly has not been the long-term orthodoxy—and nor is it now—of chief constables.

Chief constables, who could have been guided in the matter by the Home Office, have tended to say that the less that the police authorities do the better. Therefore, if members of police authorities outside London have tended not to push their powers as far as they should and not to test and to use them as much as they should, the Home Office and chief constables must take a share of the responsibility. What some of us said about the powers of the authorities has been emphatically backed up by Lord Scarman. I hope that there will be a different attitude in future and that the Government will support his recommendation that the obligation on authorities to act to improve community relations will be made a statutory one. I hope that the Minister of State will say that tonight.

Lord Scarman said that in London the equivalent of the police authority should be the Home Secretary. The Opposition accept that proposal in the spirit I mentioned a few minutes ago, although there are some who would like to see a change in the arrangements of one sort or another. However, we accept what Lord Scarman has said. It is important, nevertheless, that the spasmodic and rather informal liaison arrangements, on many different bases, which exist in London boroughs should be formalised. There has been an informal police forum in Islington for a couple of years. I had difficulty in attempting to create that, but I have found, significantly, that the slight resistance by the police has been replaced by an enthusiasm and a desire to participate in discussions with the local councillors and Members of Parliament. The arrangements in Islington are adequate, but they could be greatly improved by being put on a formal and statutory basis.

I plead with the Secretary of State that, when police forums are put on a statutory basis, they should not be a means of liaison between only the police and borough councils. Members of Parliament, certainly in London, must be part of that arrangement. Although it may be difficult to build them into the general London operation, that can be done. There is no reason why the Members of Parliament for particular areas should not be members of liaison forums established for the Metropolitan Police districts.

The Home Secretary replied on the question of independent police complaints procedure during Question Time. He said that if there were a team of Ombudsman staff to investigate complaints against the police it might be better—if I understood him correctly—if it was not involved in investigating trivial complaints. That is exactly wrong. We cannot allow the police to reject a complaint as trivial—that has been the trouble. However, an independent organisation could be trusted to do that. One of the great advantages of an independent element in the investigation of complaints, as against their determination, is that it could reject the trivial complaints and not waste a great deal of time.

I was surprised that Lord Scarman referred to an attitude in the police force suggesting that the home beat officer did not have the same status as the rest of the force and was regarded as a "hobby bobby". I have not come across that attitude, but if it is widespread it needs to be eradicated.

When there is an ongoing community problem, the first thing we ask for is a home beat officer who will remain in the area for a long time. In London, such officers should be protected and not be whisked away to Trafalgar Square every time there is a demonstration. If the home beat officer has a low status within the overall police force, it is something that needs great attention.

I do not want to say anything about prisons because they will he dealt with thoroughly in next week's debate.

In conclusion, I hope that the Minister of State will give a more definite and forthcoming indication of agreeing with the Scarman report than has been given so far. I hope that he will take back to the Secretary of State the view that in order to get the Scarman recommendations strongly and quickly off the ground, it would be as well for him to come to the House not merely with specific proposals, as the Leader of the Liberal Party suggested, but with the specific proposals in the Scarman report and to say "We accept those almost entirely".

6.7 pm

Mr. Edward Gardner (South Fylde)

We are dealing with two crises of extreme concern to all hon. Members and the country. One is the inner cities crisis, which is the subject of Lord Scarman's excellent report, and the other, which has been equally long-standing and is still with us in alarming proportions, is the prison crisis.

As my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State said, the crisis in our prisons is dangerous and scandalous. Clearly it must be solved at the peril of disorder in a dimension that none of us wants.

I endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Benyon) said about the high quality of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I do not believe—this is said not in a party spirit—that in most hon. Members' assessment there has ever been a Home Secretary who has been so concerned about overcrowding in our prisons. I do not believe that anyone in history has done more to try to solve the problem. However, the problem is still with us and we must seek ways of overcoming the difficulties.

I spent many years considering the prison system and trying to discover an answer to the simple and stark question: how can we reduce the prison population? Are there people in prison who ought not to be there and who can be removed? The obvious answer to that question is "Yes, there are".

The people in prison who ought not to be there can be identified without difficulty. One does not have to spend years on the problem. Anyone who spends only an afternoon in a prison talking to prison officers and governors will soon discover their common sense and persuasive views on the persons who ought not to be there—the alcoholics and the mentally sick who deserve treatment and pity rather than custodial sentences by way of punishment.

However, we must not let the easy identification of people who could safely be released from prison conceal or distort the fact that the public are in no mood to see lenient sentences imposed for crimes that they believe are harmful and dangerous to society. In the view of the public, for an offence that involves violence there is no alternative to prison. I share that view. The sentence is not just to punish; it is to protect the public.

What can we do to reduce our prison population, which, after all, is the nub of the problem? One-third of that population consists of the most unpopular types of criminals in the country—burglars. No criminal incites the indignation of the public more than the burglar. Any suggestion that there should be a general amnesty or supervised release after serving one-third of the imposed sentence would rightly be met with a sense of outrage. The letting loose of people who should be kept in prison—certainly until they have been properly punished—would be an Executive decision. My firm belief, which is shared by most people in the country and by many of my right hon. and hon. Friends, is that the judiciary, not the Executive, should decide when and for how long a man or woman should be deprived of his or her liberty.

Over the last few years the judiciary, in its sentencing policy, has recognised the gravity of the difficulties with which we are now having to cope in our prisons. The judiciary, from the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Lane, down—instanced by the directives and cases in the Court of Appeal criminal division—is doing everything possible to understand and co-operate in the solution of the problem.

I was astonished when the noble Lord Longford in another place this week put forward the suggestion that the judiciary was thwarting the views of the Home Secretary and disregarding the will of Parliament. It was such a distortion of the truth that one can only hope and suppose that, as the years go by, the noble Lord's ability to mislead and to distort will be recognised for what it is.

I am delighted that section 47 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 is to be incorporated into a new Criminal Justice Act, with possible amendment. I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State because, although he is too modest to say so, he was the author of section 47. He believed in it throughout the years, up to its incorporation in the 1977 Act. I believe that it will help to reduce the prison population and will be understood and applied wisely by the judiciary.

Where there is a possibility or a danger of fire, it is prudent to have a fire brigade available. If there is a danger, or even a possibility, of the crisis in our prisons developing into a more serious crisis, it is prudent for the Government to have legislative provisions to enable them to deal with it as quickly as possible. The Government now have such powers under the Imprisonment (Temporary Provisions) Act 1980, but that is temporary legislation and can be activated only by an order, with the approval of the House. I do not think that many right hon. and hon. Members like temporary legislation of that sort. It usually gets on to the statute book in an emergency, and sometimes without the necessary thought that permanent legislation would undoubtedly attract.

Is it not time for the Government to include in the Criminal Justice Bill that they will shortly introduce—I am prepared to make only a broad suggestion—a provision that would be of assistance to them and of comfort to the country if we ultimately—I pray that we shall nor—have to face the consequences of the present prison crisis getting out of hand?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

It may help the House if I indicate that we hope to begin the winding up speeches at about 7.10 p.m. If hon. Members who are called to speak show some restraint, more will be able to contribute.

6.17 pm
Mr. William Pitt (Croydon, North-West)

I cannot agree more with the hon. Member for Abingdon (Mr. Benyon) or the hon. and learned Member for South Fylde (Mr. Gardner) who said that there are too many people in our prisons. The suggestion in Lord Scarman's report for positive action may be one way of keeping the numbers in our prisons down, not just the alcoholics and the mentally ill people who should not be there in the first place, but the many other people who go to prison largely because society creates the conditions in which they commit the offences. I support the positive action recommended by Lord Scarman in the form of investment in our inner city areas, especially the areas of South London where I work, which need much investment to bring them up to any degree of civilised living.

I also agree with the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham). I have always been puzzled as to why the Metropolitan Police should have been left out of the democratic process that is carried on in police districts outside the Metropolitan area—purely because of an historical accident—and why the Home Secretary should be the one person in charge of our police service. I welcome any suggestions for a liaison between the police and local authorities and I support the suggestion that Members of Parliament should form part of the liaison group.

I hope that eventually—as Liberals in London have already suggested—we can organise a form of police committee that will be responsible on a democratic basis for the police in London, not for its day-to-day running, but on the same basis as police committees operate in other police districts.

Mr. Wheeler

Does not the hon. Gentleman know that the Metropolitan Police is accountable to a police authority—my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who comes to the Chamber to account for the police in London? Does he not also know that in the 32 London boroughs there are liaison arrangements, with the possible exception of the London borough of Lambeth?

Mr. Pitt

Of course I am well aware of that. I am also aware that the arrangements are informal. What the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury proposed, and what I support, is that they should be more formal and put on a statutory basis so that the electors of the boroughs concerned can have a proper liaison with the police. I take the point that the Home Secretary is responsible to the House, but Liberal Members would rather that the police were accountable in a more direct and democratic way to the people for whom they have a responsibility and a charge.

I intervened to draw attention once again to the Home Office report on racist attacks. Sadly, such attacks are a phenomenon of the so-called decay in law and order. Following a meeting with the Home Secretary in response to anxiety expressed by bodies concerned with the welfare of ethnic minorities and communities, including the Joint Committee against Racialism, of which I am co-vice-chairman, the Home Secretary was shown a report compiled by the joint committee listing a large number of racist attacks and estimating a large incidence of such attacks in this country. The Home Secretary immediately undertook to carry out a study of such attacks and to produce a report. I record my thanks to him and to his officials for having carried out a very demanding task in a very short time and produced a report, which I am sure those who have read it will agree is both comprehensive and fair.

It will do the House no harm to be reminded of some of the figures that have led to the considerable concern in the House and elsewhere about racist attacks in this country. I quote briefly from the Police Review of 30 October this year: Racialist attacks against Britain's ethnic minority communities, especially Asian communities, are now occurring on a massive scale … The Home Secretary told a fringe meeting"— a meeting organised by the joint committee— at the recent Conservative Party conference that 2,500 interracial incidents had been recorded over a two-month period and that a significant number had been attacks of a racialist nature. I have with me a list of some of those attacks and a summary of the types of attack that have occurred in the United Kingdom in the past few years. For example, at Woolwich Arsenal railway station on 21 September 1980, 60 skinheads, all members or supporters of the British Movement, attacked a lone West Indian. They then attacked a police officer who intervened. Seven of them were later found guilty of offences at the Old Bailey. At Liverpool Street railway station on 25 May 1978, a gang of teenage British Movement members attacked a black family in the street. Three people were found guilty of affray and unlawful fighting.

In Lancaster, in February this year, a 12-year-old Asian boy was kicked at a bus stop. The man later accused and convicted of the crime said that he was an active supporter of the National Front. For his attack on the boy, he was fined £300 and ordered to do two hours community service.

There are also many incidents which it is considered could not have taken place spontaneously and must have involved some planning. At Thames polytechnic in Woolwich, in June 1979, a large group of young people disrupted an ethnic minority dance and left British Movement stickers. In Preston, in September 1980, National Front slogans and swastikas were daubed in bright blue paint on the eve of a major Right-wing demonstration in Chorley and Bolton.

In my own constituency of Croydon, North-West on 12 October 1980, slogans saying "Hitler was right" and "Scum" as well as swastikas were daubed on the walls of Croydon synagogue. Seven days later, at Ruislip synagogue, a pigs's head was found in the doorway with Klu Klux Klan stickers in its ear.

I am sure that the House will agree that these incidents must cause considerable concern. It is not merely that racist attacks are on the increase.

Mr. Alan Clark (Plymouth, Sutton)

Why has the hon. Gentleman not mentioned all the attacks by black people against white people? Why does he not refer to the repeated mugging of elderly white people by blacks? Is he not aware that the blacks never mug their own race but only elderly and defenceless white people?

Mr. Pitt

I am well aware that both blacks and whites mug people. That is not the point of my argument. My right hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel) mentioned that at the beginning of his speech. Having worked in Brixton for six years, I am well aware of the incidence of criminal violence by one person against another.

I was making the point that, as my right hon. Friend said, there is a considerable element of political attack. The incidence of these attacks is not merely haphazard but heavily concerted and I suggest that there is great premeditation in the incidents that take place.

The Home Office report states in paragraph 55 on page 23: There was a widespread belief among the ethnic minorities that racial violence and harassment were being instigated or carried out by particular extremist organisations, but the police considered that there was rarely concrete evidence to substantiate this belief. Even the presence of slogans at the scene of an incident, does not necessarily prove that the offender belonged to a particular grouping. In paragraph 58 on page 24 the report states: A number of local authorities, teachers and community relations councils, believe that racialist activity in schools is increasing. In my view, that shows that a considerable number of politically motivated people, either by concerted action or through the inspiration of their political affinities, are injecting poison into the minds of the young people and the voters of this country. In so doing, they are provoking—intentionally or unintentionally—the type of racist attack that I have described and the type of assault upon persons that my right hon. Friend described. They are also—intentionally—doing that for one purpose: to subvert the democratic process of this country.

I am glad that the Home Secretary has said that he keeps an open mind on the subject, but I am sorry that he has not seen fit at this stage to investigate further the possibility of creating a special squad, in the first instance in the Metropolitan Police area, on the lines of the fraud squad or the drug squad. Such a force could investigate these matters, get to the root and inspiration of these attacks of mindless violence and calculated insult on members of ethnic minorities, and stamp out this canker in our society for ever. I am glad that the Home Secretary's mind is open. I hope that he will look again at that proposal and investigate the possible creation of such a squad more deeply. I hope that at least one squad will then be set up, if only on an experimental basis, so that we may begin to get to the root of this mindless political activity.

6.28 pm
Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

I shall be brief, in view of the time available. I was interested in the comments of the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Pitt) about the racist attacks carried out by those very nasty people. He wanted strong action to be taken. I suggest that it might have been more helpful if he had said what should be done. He complained that one person who was convicted was given a small fine and some community work. Is he suggesting that more of these offenders should be sent to prison for longer periods, or is he thinking of some other method of punishment?

One of the problems is that there is a demand from many people that the prison population should be substantially reduced. On the other hand, as the hon. Member rightly said, there is evidence of a substantial increase in crime, not just by alcoholics or people with social problems but by real criminals engaged in activities that are making life a hell for many decent, law-abiding people. I accept that there is a serious problem of overcrowding in our prisons, but the House has an obligation to investigate ways in which to reduce the incidence of crime. The crime figures have increased sharply and substantially, and the report for the last quarter shows a further increase on last year's record figures. Table 2.2 in the recently published criminal statistics shows that the number of serious offences is about five times higher than it was 25 years ago. All the signs are that the increase will continue. I accept that minor changes could improve the situation. For example, the right hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel) rightly said that England should seriously consider introducing Scotland's fiscal system of prosecution. More emphasis could be placed on investigating the link between alcohol abuse and crime. The Government are devoting much time and attention to the serious problem of smoking, but they could pay just as much attention to the problems of excessive drinking. Such drinking injures not only the drinker but the others involved. If we introduced a system of direct payment for supplementary benefit beneficiaries at all stages—and not only when those involved were in trouble with their rents, rates or electricity bills—much stress could be reduced.

Mr. Tom Benyon

Good point.

Mr. Taylor

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that comment. In addition, we should promote a feeling of community. However, that has little relevance to those who live in areas of stress and whose main concern is to get out of them.

I hope that the Minister will seriously consider one point. It has been argued that sentences do not have much effect on the number of crimes committed. It has been suggested by several of my hon. Friends—and it appears to be accepted by many people—that whether sentences are short or long, tough or soft, the incidence of crime is not greatly affected. There is an argument for saying that the same incidence of crime could be achieved by using a lucky draw method when imposing sentences or by abolishing sentences altogether. It has also been suggested that if two thirds of a sentence is not to be served, prison overcrowding will be relieved and there will not be any significant effect on the amount of crime.

I wonder whether the Minister and his officials in the Home Office are prepared to consider the possibility that there has been a sharp increase in crime and a substantial increase in violence because we have eroded the deterrents. The erosion of deterrents may have made a substantial contribution to the increase in crime. Those who call themselves experts generally say that that is a load of rubbish. However, some of the specific instances in which deterrents have been removed and eroded show that a reasonable argument can be made for saying that their removal has a significant effect on the amount of crime.

We all know the consequences of abolishing capital punishment. Few would argue that there have been more killings and murders since then, but some would argue that that would have been the situation anyway. The case cannot be absolutely proved. We do not know how much violence and how many killings there would have been if capital punishment had still been a deterrent. There is no conclusive way of proving the proposition. But the figures for the number of serious crimes involving the use of firearms show that there has been a dramatic rise since the abolition of capital punishment.

It is generally accepted that when capital punishment existed as a deterrent, guns were not usually carried by criminals. When we consider the dramatic 500 per cent. rise in crime that has taken place in a short time and the number of serious crimes involving the use of firearms, we find that guns are being used for petty crimes, such as robberies in the home, robberies from shops and so on. There must be a good reason for the sharp and savage rise in the use of guns in such a short time. The implication is reasonably clear. The removal of the deterrent of capital punishment has led not only to more violence and more killings, but has contributed to a dramatic rise in the number of guns being carried.

Another, more limited example can be given. Following the decision of the European Court, corporal punishment on the Isle of Man has been abolished. The crime figures for the Isle of Man are so small that it is difficult to draw general conclusions. However, in the annual report of the Chief Constable of the Isle of Man in the year following that decision there was a sharp rise reported in the number of crimes of violence and of assaults. There is a danger that if we substantially reduce prison sentences and thus reduce the deterrent effect of penalties, our prisons, instead of being less full, will become full and overcrowded again.

Unless we have deterrents that strike fear into the heart of potential offenders, it is unlikely that we shall be able to curb or reduce crime. As a party, we have a special responsibility. Although many people supported the Conservative Party because they believed that we would try to bring public expenditure under control and ensure that our money supply did not go out of control, many of those who live in areas of stress are seriously perturbed—and often injured—as a result of the upsurge in crimes of violence and vandalism and they hoped and believed that a Conservative Government would give the containment of crime top priority.

It worries me that hon. Members have suggested a reduction in prison sentences and in the prison population but have not seriously argued that that, in itself, will reduce crime. The evidence is that such measures could lead to a serious increase in crime. Although the Minister's view seems well formed and perhaps a little inflexible on the general issue, I hope that he will give serious consideration, at some stage, to this question, particularly in view of the dramatic rise in serious crime. I hope that he will consider that if we could reduce crime we could make the lives of the general public more tolerable and less frightful. That might be achieved if, instead of reducing sentences and eroding deterrents, we had more effective deterrents. They would reduce crime, and thereby, the number of those who suffer seriously as a result.

6.37 pm
Mr. James Wellbeloved (Erith and Crayford)

The hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) was a little unfair to my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Pitt), when he suggested that he had not put forward constructive proposals to deal with the serious problem of racist attacks and provocation in our great metropolitan areas.

My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West suggested that a special squad should be established, similar to the fraud squad, with responsibiliy for catching and bringing those who have committed racist attacks before the courts. I fully support my hon. Friend, because the establishment of such a special squad would act as a great deterrent to those who have embarked on a course that can only be described as a deliberate political attempt to incite racial discord and hatred.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

Does the hon. Gentleman believe that once such nasty racists have been caught, their prison sentences should be reduced by two thirds, or that they should be sentenced to longer terms of imprisonment?

Mr. Wellbeloved

I shall turn later to the question of prisons and of the prison population. The view that we need, above all else, to get back to the good old, traditional, policing methods has united the House. That view holds that the police should be involved in the community, be recognised by the local community and that the local community should develop a feeling of confidence in their local police officers. There cannot be any substitute for returning to a closer concord between the public and the police. That is the foundation upon which our police force is established. It should be a co-operative effort. It should be the responsibility of the citizen and the police officer together to try to deal with the problems that occur from time to time.

The Minister might also care to look at the growing practice of closing local police stations. I understand the reasons for it. He rightly drew our attention to the substantial increase in the number of Metropolitan Police officers. I make no bones about it. I congratulate the Government on implementing the Edmund-Davies pay awards, improving police morale and attracting more young men and women into the Metropolitan Police. Much humbug has been spoken on this subject. The Government did a good job and deserve our congratulation.

Having said that, I have to say that if the process of closing police stations continues, it will detract from the feeling of confidence that we must re-establish among local communities. A police station in operation is an important factor in many communities, particularly in areas of great stress. As well as taking the credit for the increase in the number of police, the Government must also meet the costs of the additional stations and equipment that those extra police officers require.

The idea of lay visitors to police stations is an excellent suggestion. That would be a tremendous advance. It would establish confidence, and, perhaps even more important, counter some of the alarming and sometimes untrue stories that we occasionally hear.

If the Home Secretary is to take this idea seriously—I hope that he does—perhaps he will include Members of Parliament among the lay visitors. Nothing would be more beneficial to many of the absent Labour Members than to obtain a closer understanding of the problems that confront the police force. It would be no bad thing if they visited a local police station and saw constables struggling with a lunatic drunk who was creating havoc and perhaps assaulting police officers. That would do much to expand understanding and sympathy among Labour Members, because they would see for themselves just what goes on in police stations. The idea of lay visitors should be implemented, if only to improve confidence.

Many hon. Members have referred extensively to Lord Scarman's report, and the House will not be surprised to learn that I have several comments to make. I regard as essential the proposal to amend the Public Order Act 1936. When we discuss the Scarman report, I hope that the Government will not merely indulge in a general debate. As my right hon. Friend the parliamentary leader of the SDP the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) has said, we shall expect positive proposals in response to Lord Scarman's report.

I hope that the Government will pass through both houses with the utmost speed amendments to the Public Order Act, enabling the police to require advance notice of street processions, particularly political street processions. It is intolerable that such processions can be held without the requirement at least to notify the police that traffic problems could result. Advance notice of such processions is not an attack upon the liberty of the subject or on the right to demonstrate; it is merely a means of ensuring that demonstrations are carried out in a reasonable fashion.

We should also consider an immediate amendment to the Public Order Act, introducing the power to ban a specific and named march without the necessity of using the blanket ban. Nothing would do more damage in parts of my constituency, which contains many ethnic minorities, than a provocative National Front or Fascist march. I and every other responsible citizen would be put in an intolerable position.

When the British Movement last planned a march through the borough of Bexley, I appealed personally to people to stay away. I did so on the basis that the march should not be allowed through an area of racial tension. If such a provocative march was planned to go through such an area, and was not banned, an impossible burden would be placed on responsible local councillors to make the plea to stay away. It is vital that that amendment be made as a matter of considerable urgency. It would provide substantial assurance to the ethnic communities that the Government are alive to their problems and are taking positive action to solve them.

Lord Scarman also suggested improvements in the consultative arrangements. I pay tribute to the police in my area, who have established fairly close links with the ethnic communities. It is now necessary to move further and to formalise the requirement for proper consultation. That can now be done. Lord Scarman takes the view that under existing powers chief police officers can move forward in that direction. I hope that the Government will make it clear that they want such consultative arrangements to extend beyond the local authorities. We should seek to involve representatives of the churches, the ethnic groups, Members of Parliament and chambers of trade. The consultations should be as representative as possible so that all sections of the community are aware of the problems faced by the police and the action that the police feel might be necessary to deal with those problems. I hope that widespread consultation will be introduced as a matter of urgency. Indeed, I hope that it will be announced by the Home Secretary during the debate on the Scarman report.

Lord Scarman rightly calls for a review of the functions of community relations officers. I believe that he has got it right. It is time that there was a review. The job of the CRO is mediation. That should be his prime function. I fear that in many areas CROs have gone beyond that prime function. It is time that their role was redefined. Those who feel that they cannot work under any redefined system might well do better to try to solve the problems of racism by joining some other organisation.

I shall refer briefly to prisons. Once again, I congratulate the Government without reservation on the programme of prison building and rehabilitation upon which they have embarked. The Minister was right to point out that this has not been done in any significant way for many years under either Labour or Conservative Governments. The Government therefore deserve our congratulations.

I urge caution about shorter sentences and earlier parole. It would be monstrous if, by administrative decree, we took away from the courts the sole responsibility for hearing the case, evaluating the evidence and seeing the person in the dock. We must be very careful about that matter.

As regards parole, it would be devastating to public opinion if the feeling spread that the Government would be making it easier for those convicted of crimes of violence to receive an early release from prison. I urge great caution.

Despite the fact that I have congratulated the Government on their building programme, even in the present economic recession I believe that they ought to embark on a crash programme because providing places in prison would deal with many of the problems with which we are confronted without, perhaps, the necessity of using administrative means to interfere with the authority of the courts. This would also have a considerable impact upon unemployment, inasmuch as it would bring people back into constructive work. We must not let the word get around that the present Government and the House of Commons will be soft on thugs and people who have been convicted of acts of violence.

My last point is important. I want to ask a question of those on the Opposition Front Bench representing the Official Opposition—who are unsupported by any of their Back Benchers, who believe, I take it, that Lord Scarman's report and all the problems of law and order that confront us are of little consequence. I am glad that a former Home Secretary is sitting there. I want to ask the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) a question. If he cannot answer it, I should like him to convey it to the Leader of the Opposition and to the Labour spokesman on home affairs.

I have in my hand a report published in "London Briefing" and signed by Mr. Peter Tatchell. He is not only the secretary of the Bermondsey constituency Labour Party but also, I understand, the prospective Labour parliamentary candidate who is aiming to succeed that distinguished Member of this House, the right hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish). Mr. Peter Tatchell says in the report: we must look to new more militant forms of extra-parliamentary opposition which involve mass popular participation and challenge the government's right to rule. Do the Official Opposition support that? Are they prepared to denounce Mr. Peter Tatchell and those who support him? If they cannot answer now, let the Leader of the Opposition or the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) answer that question. That is the question that the people of Bermondsey will ask when the right hon. Member for Bermondsey resigns his membership of the House, and it is the question that the British people as a whole will ask. Is the Labour Party soft? Will it support outside activity challenging the Government's right to rule?

It is a fundamental question, not only on law and order but democracy itself. It demands an answer.

6.53 pm
Mr. Norman Miscampbell (Blackpool, North)

I want to consider the last line in the motion, which deals with the "crisis in the prisons". Hon. Members on both sides of the House—notably my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Benyon) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Fylde (Mr. Gardner)—have noted that a great deal can be done to get out of our prisons the drunks, the disturbed and others. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State are well aware of the problem and will do all that they can to help in that regard. Sadly, we need more accommodation. I congratulate the Government, as have many others, on the amount of effort that has been put into providing the new accommodation that is so urgently needed. The Minister of State told us that £360 million is involved.

I agree with hon. Members who have said that there is still a grave need for more prison accommodation, unfortunately, because the public would not willingly countenance a situation in which they felt that those who had committed serious crimes were not being made. to serve their sentences for sheer lack of accommodation. That matter can be examined on other occasions. I do not want to deal with it now.

I want to consider briefly the two proposals that have been made to see whether it is possible to reduce the numbers in prison.

I am pleased that blanket parole no longer appears to feature as a priority in the Government's thinking. I am sure that my right hon. Friend, in his judgment—I emphasise that it must have been his judgment—was right to make that change. It is a question not of the judges influencing him or of undue pressure, but of a decision having been made, it seems, on purely common-sense lines.

If those who sit in judgment and have the duty of imposing a sentence feel that it is certain that two thirds of that sentence will, one way or another, be removed, the only likely human reaction will be to increase the initial sentence. That point was dealt with by the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen). I should have thought that such a step, rather than clearing the prisons, would be more likely to fill them.

However, I sincerely welcome the proposals to implement section 47 of the 1977 Act. As has been noted, my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State was the author of the amendment concerned. Over the years a number of us have hoped to see it activated as quickly as possible.

The only point I make is that we should not provide another form of suspended sentence. The suspended sentence has probably led to more, rather than fewer, people being in prison. Often people commit other crimes, having been given suspended sentences, and naturally the courts say "You have had your chance. You are on a suspended sentence. Therefore, you will serve that sentence." The accused then ends up serving the old sentence and the new one. That is proper. We cannot give people a chance and then simply ignore it.

What is being offered in this initiative is that judges will be able to say to convicted persons "You must learn what prison is like. You will go in for 28 days, and thereafter you will be released." So often in courts one knows all too well that if only the person concerned had a taste of prison, he would never offend again. Why give him the full six months if we can get away with one month which will teach him a lesson?

The crime may be such that one could not, in all conscience, simply impose a sentence of one month in all. But if a person transgresses again, he must pay for his misdemeanour. I welcome that proposal.

Lastly, I believe that judges can be trusted. Sometimes one feels that that view is not well received in the House. Judges do not send people to prison if they feel that they can keep them out. That certainly applies to the younger judges. The way forward is to trust judges and to give them this power. It is a creditable and important step.

6.58 pm
Mr. Richard Page (Hertfordshire, South-West)

I am pleased that the motion and some of the contributions to the debate have tried to help to fight a view seemingly held by many citizens in this country—namely, "Do not worry if there is a problem, especially if it is nothing to do with us personally. Let the State fix it." For years I have been getting exactly the same feeling on the topic of law and order, especially concerning children's offences—"It is not the public's worry at all. It is a matter for the police and the courts to solve."

A strikingly close parallel is found in the education complaints received by hon. Members relating to the fact that teachers do not seem to have the discipline or to keep the control that existed in former times. Discipline is the responsibility of schoolmasters and respect for the law a province for the police and the courts but it should not be forgotten that both are primarily the responsibility of every parent to instil into a child. Hon. Members must do everything in their power to stop the shift of that moral obligation on to the shoulders of the State.

I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Smith). I support warmly the idea of requiring parents to pay fines imposed on children under 17 years of age unless the court feels that the circumstances are unreasonable or unsuitable. The vast majority of parents realise their responsibilities for their children. There is a minority that does not. The proposal I have mentioned could act as a spur to concentrate in the minds of those parents the fact that they are responsible for the behaviour and discipline of their children.

Many people, especially youngsters, drifting down the road towards crime would be dissuaded and redirected by an improvement in communications. The visible remoteness in the past of our police force, literally driven into panda cars to cover their patch, has produced a feeling among youngsters of alienation and a feeling that policemen are almost a separate species.

It is my hope and belief that the support given by the Conservative Party—I also here pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for his efforts—to the creation of an extra 7,500 jobs for police officers will put more bobbies back on the beat. I hope that this improvement will continue. I am glad to say that it is happening in the division that covers my constituency. Policemen are back on the beat, talking to and helping the general public. I hope that this leads not only to a reduction in crime but also to an increase in understanding and friendship.

I shall not discuss tonight the reason behind man's behaviour patterns and his reaction to circumstances in certain ways. It is an extremely complex and difficult subject to analyse. I can only say from studying the Scarman report that phrases leap out of the pages time after time. I give these examples: Distrust of police action on the streets was too common a phenomenon of life in Brixton"; and The worst construction was invariably put upon police action even when it was lawful, appropriate and sensible. Those phrases illustrate the need for a closer and personal contact between members of the public and our police force. I echo the plea of my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Benyon) on behalf of the special police force. I recognise that hon. Members of the official Opposition have heeded his words and have probably rushed out to join the special police force tonight which explains why they are not present. Members of the special police force in my Division, which covers also the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones), have been addressed at the House of Commons by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths). Whether or not it was due to our influence I do not know, but there has since been increased recruitment into the special police force. I should like to think, when hon. Members take an interest in this area, that an improvement will be seen in the numbers that come forward.

There is not sufficient time available for me to deal with the variety of sentences available to the courts. It must, however, be right to have available as wide a variety of sentences as possible. In this world of equality, there has been pressure to try to deal with every sentence and every crime as if it were a grade on a ladder. It is time to examine some of the minor offences to see whether they should be punishable by prison sentences or whether the attempt should be made to find more enlightened methods to try to help and reform. It is possible that the short, tough sentence at a detention centre, with the emphasis on hard and constructive activities, with discipline, inspection and drill, will deter youngsters from reappearing before the courts. The youngster might even be given a sense of responsibility, a sense of discipline and an appreciation of a framework of life in which to live, which might be lacking at the time in his personal circumstances.

In some cases the parent should be much more involved in imposing discipline on children. Parents should not be able to opt out in the belief that the State will take responsibility. I welcome the idea that 16-year-olds should be made eligible for community service orders. A youngster will have far more respect for property and people if he is confronted by, and then has to rectify, the damage that he has caused. That changed attitude, I hope, will be transmitted to his friends and companions. I should like to see progress made towards an environment in which people can be discouraged from slipping deeper into more serious levels of crime—not only for the good of the individual and society but for the practical and economic reason of trying to keep down the horrific cost imposed on the State in running prisons.

I should like to refer to the unfortunate victims of crime. There seems to be a feeling that, provided the State picks up the tab and pays for compensation, everything will be all right, and that if at the same time the person who has caused the damage or the personal injury suffers by some custodial sentence, justice will be seen to be done. I hope that more effort will be made to ensure that the individual offender is made to pay directly to the victim in some measure for the pain and suffering he or she has caused. I know that there are ways in which the individual offender can be made to pay. However, there is also a fairly widespread belief that it is not worth the financial trouble to enforce it in any depth. The criminal injuries compensation scheme has been revised. Grant aid has been provided to the National Association of Victim Support Schemes. The policy relating to compensation orders has been reversed. I should like to see vigorous implementation of a policy to ensure that the offender personally is confronted with, and pays for, his crime.

In these comments, rushed and hurried as I have been obliged to make them, I wish to make clear my view that the community only as a united society will defeat crime. Only with its wholehearted support will society's agent, the police force, help to achieve that aim.

7.07 pm
Mr. John Wheeler (Paddington)

In the moments still available for my contribution to the debate, I can hardly do justice to the issues that have been raised. I merely say that the right hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel) has done a great service in allowing many hon. Members to talk about the complex issues of law and order.

I shall confine my remarks to Lord Scarman's report, which I regard as a watershed. The report is moderate, sensible and balanced in every possible way. Lord Scarman's reference to the work of the House and the Home Affairs Select Committee pleases me. He is right to draw attention to the social conditions that are such an important part of the problems in inner cities.

I know that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, probably in the new year, will give a detailed response to the 57 recommendations made in the report of the Home Affairs Select Committee. The recommendations are important because they cover the whole range of Government, practically every Government Department, local authorities, commerce and the citizen. I look forward to debating those recommendations and the Home Secretary's response to the report early in the new year. The Select Committee's report, together with the Scarman report, will provide a programme of action and progress in the inner cities in future years that the whole House, I am sure, will welcome.

We have been talking about crime and prisons. If we are sincere about wanting to reduce the prison population and to control crime, we have to develop, in consultation with the police and the citizens as a whole, a better method for preventing crime. One third of the prison population is composed of burglars. If we want to prevent them from going to prison, we must first prevent them from being burglars. That is the challenge that falls to us and to the constabulary. I hope that in the coming debates we may have an opportunity to explore some of these ideas in greater depth.

7.10 pm
Mr. David Steel

By leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to reply. I thank the hon Member for Paddington (Mr. Wheeler) for his remarks. I agree with him that this has been an extremely useful debate. In his short contribution he summed up the connection between the two themes that have been running through our debate this afternoon—the reduction of the prison population and the more effective policing of our communities. He was right to tie the two together.

I was grateful for the Minister's response at the beginning of the debate. It was a positive one, except in one respect. He must have been a little taken aback at the sudden shouts that greeted him when he said that there was no need to say that community policing schemes were not some sort of madcap schemes thought up by a country bumpkin. But there is need to say that, because that is precisely what has been said, even by responsible figures in the Police Federation, in the course of the heated and lively debate on police methods.

I thought that the Minister was slightly smug in that one section of his speech, when he said that the advantage of community policing was self-evident. It may be self-evident, but alas, it is not nearly sufficiently put into practice as a matter of general police policy. Why, otherwise, did Chief Superintendent Webb resign from the force in Birmingham when he felt frustrated at being unable to pursue his particular ideas?

It is true, as the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved) said, that the Government are to be congratulated on the increase in police numbers. The Minister was right in saying that that flows from the implementation of the pay reports. The Minister gave us some welcome figures on the number of civilians who have taken over from the police, thus releasing more police for other work.

What is needed is a commitment from the Government—if we can have it in the Minister's reply we shall have achieved something—that there will be a policy introduced generally throughout the police force in favour of a return to locally based community police stations and the man on the beat. That, more than anything else, is what we have been seeking in the debate.

I welcomed some of the other items that the Minister mentioned, including the commitment to bring forward proposals to extend compensation to the victims of crime. To that extent the Minister's response was extremely valuable.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) the leader of the Social Democrats, in mentioning violence on television, must have been surprised by the chorus of unanimity with which his remarks were received. He was almost making a confession that, as a liberal, he thought it necessary to control some of the output of television. But I find that need, too, as a Liberal. I hope that the board of governors of the BBC and the board of the Independent Broadcasting Authority will note that it was a unanimous view in all parts of the House that the level of violence on television has become unacceptable and has, in our view, a contributory effect to the growth of violence in our society.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Devonport was right also to warn the Government against giving generalised philosophical welcomes to the Scarman report without backing it with a commitment to the specific recommendations. The one criticism of the Scarman report which I shared with him was the sweeping reference that Lord Scarman made to there being no institutionalised racialism in this country. As my right hon. Friend showed, there is a good deal of unconscious institutionalised racialism that we ought to tackle.

I was not entirely happy with my right hon. Friend's suggestion that the responsibility for race relations should be transferred from the Home Office to the Department of the Environment, which is, if anything, an even greater amalgam of Ministeries. I thought that my right hon. Friend was on sounder ground in recommending that there ought to be a Cabinet sub-committee of the various departmental Ministers, including an Education Minister——

Mr. Wheeler

Will the right hon. Gentleman allow me to intervene?

Mr. Steel

There simply is not time for me to give way, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand. I want to reply to as many of the speeches as possible.

The hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Smith) made a fairly standard speech calling for tougher sentencing and the building of far more prisons. Apart from that being a rather depressing counsel of despair, it seemed to omit one word that has not featured at all in the debate—recidivism. There is a good deal of evidence that the long-term crowding together of prisoners provides more breeding grounds for further crime. That is true not only of our prisons but of prisons everywhere in the world. The hon. Member seemed to overlook that aspect.

The hon. Member's contribution was in marked contrast to the welcome remarks of the hon. Member for Abingdon (Mr. Benyon), who spoke of the very high cost to the taxpayer of the doctrine of retribution, instead of concentrating expenditure on the solving of crime. He gave us interesting evidence from different states in the United States on their prison sentencing policies.

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) stressed, as did other hon. Members, the responsibility of parents and aired his view—with a note of apology that I thought was unnecessary—that there was a case for considering some form of compulsory community youth service. It is a view that I share, even though not everyone in my party shares it.

My hon. Friend pleaded for regionally secure units for the mentally sick. The hon. and learned Member for South Fylde (Mr. Gardner) also said that there are too many people in our prisons who ought to be catered for elsewhere. I am sure that the whole House would support what my right hon. Friend the Member for Devonport said in asking what had happened to the funds allocated to regional health authorities for this purpose and then not used.

I was most grateful for the speech of the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunnningham), because he was the only representative of the official Opposition present throughout the entire debate. I thought that was something of an achievement, especially at a time when even his own credentials as a member of the Labour Party seem to be a matter of some public speculation.

I thought that the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford was right to take the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury to task by asking whether the Labour Party will stand for the rule of law. If it does not stand for the rule of law against the increasingly lunatic pronouncements of its parliamentary candidates, we shall be in real trouble in trying to enforce the ordinary rule of law in our streets. Whatever we may think of the politics of any Government at any time, the idea that one should undermine the right of the Government to rule seems to me to be an extraordinary proposition to come from anyone seeking election to this House in the name of the Labour Party.

None the less, the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury, in speaking from the Opposition, made a constructive speech in which he drew attention to the better practice that we have in Scotland of placing a limit on the length of time for which persons can be detained in custody without trial. That practice could well be copied south of the border.

The hon. Member pressed for more specific implementation of the Scarman report and made an interesting point about the development of local liaison committees in the London boroughs involving Members of Parliament—a point supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Pitt). The hon. Gentleman's remark about the status of the bobby on the beat was important. I have never understood why we have continued to diminish the influence of the bobby on the beat, especially with the advent of personal radios and levels of communication which the former bobbies on the beat did not have. The hon. Gentleman made a sound point that ought to be pursued.

I was delighted to hear the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West, because I missed his maiden speech. I am delighted that he is taking such an active role in the work of the House at an early stage. He was right to draw our attention to the report of the Select Committee on racial attacks. I am sorry that he was so blatantly misunderstood or misrepresented by some Conservative Members who seem unable to distinguish between politically motivated racial attacks and attacks that merely happen to be by a member of one race on a member of another.

The debate would not have been complete without the remarks of the hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor), which seemed to come straight from the Conservative Party conference. I thought for a fleeting moment that the move to Cathcart from Southend, East had done the hon. Gentleman some good. He made some sensible remarks about excessive drinking being a cause of crime. Those remarks lasted for no more than a couple of minutes and the hon. Gentleman then took his usual path of deterrence, and capital and corporal punishment, which he admitted experts would describe as a load of rubbish. I have never known him allow any expert to deter his prejudices on any topic. He was in no danger of allowing that to happen this evening.

The hon. and learned Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell) made some interesting observations about suspended sentences possibly leading to a larger prison population He welcomes the new initiative that my right hon. Friend has taken, as we all do.

Finally, the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Mr. Page) reminded us again of the need for parental and teaching discipline. He referred to what he described as "panda car alienation" and the need to bring the police nearer to, into and among the community.

The message that has come from the debate and from both sides of the House to the Home Secretary is that the House will support a modern police force that works among and alongside those whom it serves.

7.23 pm
Mr. Mayhew

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall add my thanks to those that have already been expressed to the right hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel), the leader of the Liberal Party, for the opportunity that he has given us to participate in an extremely interesting debate, which has been distinguished by hon. Members on both sides of the House finding a great deal of common ground. I have, alas, to omit from that compliment those who normally occupy the Opposition Back Benches, who have been absent throughout the debate, with the honourable exception for part of that time of the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing).

The Government will always hold to two propositions: first, that there must always be prison sentences, and long prison sentences available for those who are convicted of violent offences so that for the duration of those sentences they will be unable to commit further offences against the public; secondly, that prison accommodation must always be available as a front line of defence for the public We owe it to the public, and especially, as my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) said, to those who voted for the Conservative Party in the 1979 election in the belief that the containment of crime would be a Conservative Government's top priority, as it is, to ensure that those two policies remain unchanged.

The right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) asked whether the Scarman report would be neglected as have so many others. I take that rather hard when my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary expressed yesterday a degree of acceptance for proposals in the report. Such acceptance when making a statement on a report on behalf of the Government is almost without precedent. Those who have asked today—the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) is one—that the Government should say during the debate "Yes, we accept the whole thing lock, stock and barrel, give or take a few propositions", are not being realistic.

My right hon. Friend has said that on the matters whose acceptance he announced yesterday he needs to take the opinion of the House that will be expressed in the debate that is shortly to take place in Government time. He has explained that he will consider what is said and then introduce his proposals. I cannot believe that it would be other than irresponsible when dealing with issues of such complexity and importance to take any different course.

My hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Smith), who has kindly explained to me why he cannot be present, spoke of a constituent who recently was robbed in London. By that means he drew vivid attention to the fears of so many of our fellow citizens. He said that in many instances parents have not fulfilled the basic responsibility of parenthood. I entirely agree with that argument, which was taken up by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Mr. Page). Those who have not fulfilled that responsibility are in the minority. However, many of those who have taken part in the debate have welcomed our proposals for increasing the ability of the courts to bring home to parents their responsibilities. My hon. Friend claimed that suspended sentences had been a mockery but I do not think that that is quite fair. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell) observed that at present suspended sentences have to be wholly suspended. He said that in the early years following the introduction of suspended sentences they were imposed in cases where sentences of immediate imprisonment would not have been imposed, and that when subsequently there were further offences the earlier suspended sentences had to be activated. Lessons have been learnt by the judiciary at all levels from that.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) said that suspended sentences may have increased the prison population. That is much the same argument. The great advantage of section 47 of the 1977 Act, which will be implemented if Parliament agrees, and whose scope will be wide, is, as has been stressed by the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved) in an important speech, that the decision will always rest with the court whether any part of the sentence should be suspended. The decision should be a judicial one. In the circumstances outlined by the hon. Gentleman the decision would be a judicial, not an Executive, one.

I pay a special tribute to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Benyon), who said, fairly, that the public on the whole want longer sentences. He believes that they should not come about. He claimed that there is no evidence—this is true—that longer sentences have an effect in reducing the likelihood of reoffending. My hon. Friend has tabled a most helpful early-day motion and I draw the attention of the House to early-day motion No. 43. My hon. Friend congratulated my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on his work in seeking to reduce the numbers of those in prison and in seeking shorter sentences. I am grateful for what he said. He raised a most important issue when he said that the public must play their part and that they must look after their own security. That issue was taken up by my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington (Mr. Wheeler). My hon. Friend made a special plea for more volunteers for the special constabulary, with which I am glad to associate the Government.

The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury said that my right hon. Friend should accept the Scarman report as a package. He asked for a statutory obligation for consultative arrangements. My right hon. Friend said yesterday that he would implement formal arrangements and that the introduction of statutory arrangements would depend on the progress that is made. Of course, statutory arrangements would need legislation. My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office yesterday met the London boroughs and that has already been put in train. The door is not shut to statutory arrangements for consultation but we must wait and see how we get on.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Fylde (Mr. Gardner) referred in a helpful speech to the virtues of partially suspended sentences and said—I am sure that he is right—that the section would be understood and applied wisely by the judiciary. He added that there might be a future emergency during which the size of the prison population got out of hand, in which event there would be a case, as he argued, for a provision to be inserted in legislation and to be implemented by order.

Others have spoken of the need for a crash prison building programme, especially the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford. There is no such animal. We cannot have a crash prison building programme. There are years between conception and completion. If we were to short-circuit the procedures, local consultation would suffer. One feature to emerge from the debate is the need for local consultation on these matters. Furthermore, leading the opposition to the proposed prison in Woolwich is his hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Cartwright) and that, perhaps, brings the matter a little nearer home.

I thank the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Pitt) for his kind remarks about the Home Secretary and his officials in respect of the report on racialist attacks. That is a very important problem about which he knows much and about which he made an important speech.

We have had a valuable and, to me, encouraging debate because of the wide agreement and the sharing of objectives that has become manifest through the speeches from all parts of the House. It is true, as my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East reminded us, that the Government came into office committed to support the rule of law in an increasingly violent world. Our resolve has been demonstrated both in the programme of measures that I outlined when I first spoke, and which appeared to have generous support—for which I am grateful—and in our support for the police during the disturbances of this summer.

Law and order remain a continuing and top priority commitment for the Government. Whatever the difficulty, we are determined to take all the steps open to us to ensure that law-abiding citizens are protected from criminals. I take heart from all that has been said in the House this afternoon, which shows that we have wide support for our resolve.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House believes that the maintenance of law and order and preservation of liberty depend upon a relationship of confidence and co-operation between the police and local communities, and therefore draws particular attention to the need for community policing methods and an independent procedure by which complaints against the police can be examined; considers that inadequate help is given to the victims of violent crime; and further considers that urgent action is needed to deal with the crisis in the prisons.

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