HC Deb 13 May 1993 vol 224 cc939-52 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)

With permission, I should like to make a statement about the criminal justice system.

The House will recall that on 14 April it gave an unopposed Second Reading to the Criminal Justice Bill dealing with money laundering and other financial crimes. That Bill had already been considered in another place.

The House of Lords authorities had taken a narrow view on what was within the scope of the Bill. At the time of Second Reading in this House, I explained that I had been advised that we would therefore be unable to use the Bill to improve the working of the Criminal Justice Act 1991.

However, two days ago I was told that the authorities of the House of Commons might take a different view. I therefore might now have an unexpected and welcome opportunity to bring before the House in this Session of Parliament amendments to give effect to commitments that I have already made to amend the 1991 Act. That Act is plainly not working as Parliament would have liked, and it is clearly in the interests of justice that I should move to put matters right quickly, now that I do have this welcome opportunity.

Subject to the approval of the appropriate authorities in the House, therefore, I intend to table amendments to the present Criminal Justice Bill which will deal with the problems of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 and also strengthen the powers of the courts in other important respects.

First, we will seek to amend section 1 of the 1991 Act so as to allow the courts to take into account all the offences for which the offender is being dealt with, instead of only one offence, or that offence and one other offence, which is the case now.

Secondly, we propose to restore to the courts their power to have full regard to the criminal record of an offender and his response to previous sentences when deciding on the sentence for his current offences. We will do this by repealing section 29 of the 1991 Act, which prevents a court from regarding an offence as more serious by reason of any previous convictions of the offender, or his failure to respond to previous sentences.

These changes, which I wish to see made to the 1991 Act, will make it clear that sentencers have all reasonable discretion to decide upon the right sentence in a particular case, bearing in mind the seriousness of the offences being dealt with, all the circumstances of the offender and his offending behaviour.

We will ensure that the law allows the courts to exercise judgment and common sense within a sensible legal framework that allows justice to be done in the interest of the public, the victim and the offender.

So far as fines are concerned. I am quite satisfied that courts should continue to have regard to the particular circumstances of individual offenders—in particular, to their means to pay—when fixing the level of a fine. I have been equally clear for some time, and I have frequently said, that we should not require magistrates' courts to go through the mechanistic provision currently required under the unit fine arrangements. My hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), Minister of State in my Department, and I have been seeking for some time modifications that we might make to the rules of the unit fines scheme to produce better results. We have now concluded that it is not possible to do so.

Accordingly, I now propose to abolish the unit fines system and replace it with provisions which will require magistrates fully to consider an offender's means when imposing a fine but which will not require them to fine by application of any mathematical formula. [Interruption.] I get the sense that this change will be widely welcomed, not least by magistrates outside the House.

I will also—again, subject to the judgment of the House authorities—seek to table further amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill currently before the House which will give to the courts the statutory power to increase sentence for those who offend on bail. We will also be seeking to fulfil our undertaking to increase the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous or drunken driving from its present five years to a new maximum of 10 years' imprisonment.

There are many other improvements to the criminal justice system and the powers of the courts which I intend in due course to bring before the House. We are also awaiting the report of the Royal Commission on the criminal justice system. At this stage of this Session of Parliament, it would not be prudent to introduce more complex amendments to the law and new criminal offences which might require extended parliamentary debate. I hope to have an opportunity to introduce further criminal justice measures in fresh legislation in the reasonably near future.

Mr. Tony Blair (Sedgefield)

First, I welcome the Home Secretary's statement on the shambles of the Criminal Justice Act 1991. We are surprised, however, that he has not seen fit to make a statement specifically on the allegations that there has been illegal bugging of the conversations of the royal family—allegations that are directly relevant to criminal justice. I should like to put to the Home Secretary one question about this matter. Either the transcripts that are circulating are forgeries, in which case a serious offence of criminal fraud has almost certainly been committed, or they are genuine, in which case a gross intrusion of privacy by illegal—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. If hon. Members were listening to the statement of the Secretary of State, they will remember the final paragraphs. Will the hon. Gentleman keep that in mind?

Mr. Blair

Either these transcripts are forgeries, in which case a serious offence of criminal fraud has almost certainly been committed, or they are genuine, in which case a gross intrusion of privacy by illegal means has taken place. In either event, given that the Home Secretary is responsible for both criminal justice and issues concerning the royal family, are not these matters ripe for serious and urgent investigation, irrespective of the position of the security services?

I should like now to deal with the Criminal Justice Act. Never have we seen so quick a collapse of Government policy, even for the present Government. In dealing with the worst abuses of the Act, the Home Secretary will have much support. I am surprised that he did not pay tribute to the private Members' Bills of my hon. Friends the Members for Warwickshire, North (Mr. O'Brien) and for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham).

I should like to press him on one central matter. Having spent weeks, if not months, robustly telling us that the Criminal Justice Act had a lot to commend it, he now equally robustly tells us that he must scrap its central provisions. Does he not understand that the problem with which the Criminal Justice Act sought to deal is arbitrary and inconsistent sentencing, and that it is therefore important that he should not scrap the Act and leave a dreadful hole

? Is there not therefore now a clear and urgent need for proper sentencing guidelines? Otherwise, the very difficulties that gave rise to his predecessor's legislation and the reasons for his support will recur, and one ill thought out proposal will simply be replaced by another.

May I also ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman why he is not trying to deal with other abuses of the criminal justice system? First, does he know that, because of the rising scandal of delays and adjournments in the criminal courts, it takes six months or more for many cases to reach a hearing? Is it not high time that the operation of the courts was overhauled thoroughly and they were run not for the convenience of those who administer the system but in the interests of justice for those who use it?

Secondly, does he know that, according to his own figures, the number of cases discontinued by the Crown Prosecution Service has risen by over 20 per cent. in a year? Is he aware of, and will he comment on, the concerns of the police and prosecution services that many cases are discontinued, not on public interest grounds or for lack of evidence but because of pressure on resources? Is that right?

Thirdly, is not one abuse of the system the treatment of victims? Why will the Home Secretary not support us in saying that the Crown Prosecution Service should be legally obliged, before dropping or amending charges, especially in cases of rape or assault, fully to consult the victim? Above all, will he confirm that the level of crime is such that only one in 23 cases ever results in a conviction or caution? Therefore, may I urge him once again to rethink his strategy on crime prevention and accept the advisory report that was published in his office two years ago?

There is little point in drawing attention, as the Home Secretary does, to the link between crime and drugs, and then cutting drug advisory posts. There is little use in worrying about the appalling rise in truancy, with tens of thousands playing truant every day, and cutting the funding for truancy officers in local authorities. There is little chance of young people learning self-respect when thousands of them have to leave school every year and face nothing better than a life on the dole.

May I tell the Home Secretary that there is a possibility of establishing a broad basis of action on criminal justice, but to do that the Government must learn not just to rectify sensibly the mistakes for which they were responsible in the past, but to think through a coherent policy for the future to fight both crime and its underlying causes, so that the plague that makes life hell for millions of people in local communities can be addressed with the seriousness of purpose which they desperately wish to see?

Mr. Clarke

I find the hon. Gentleman's choice of priorities in politics utterly absurd. We are considering extremely important matters about the powers of the courts to deal properly with offenders who appear before them. Yet he kicks off by making his first priority, presumably placed on behalf of the Daily Mirror, to try to sell rather sleazy royal books, asking me to inquire into ridiculous allegations for which he knows well that there is no shred of support. He is a tabloid politician, unable to turn his attention to serious criminal matters.

My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) is among those who have been pressing me for legislation to address the 1991 Act. I have been saying for some time that I do not like the way the Act has been working. Most hon. Members and magistrates do not like the way it has been working. We can now take action to get it into the shape that it ought to have been.

The hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) has kept his head down on the subject. A few moments ago, he gave those warnings about arbitrary sentencing, which were used in the speeches of his hon. Friends when they supported the legislation which tried to put in place mechanistic constraints on the courts, which in practice, as we all know, have not worked out properly. If he can turn away from royal scandals, buggings and matrimonial quarrels, he will have a chance to decide how he will vote on some things which matter to real men and women throughout the country.

I assume from what the hon. Gentleman has said that he will support the changes which I propose to the 1991 Act. I wish I always had that docile acquiescence from my opposite number on everything I propose. He has not yet made up his mind about bail and whether he approves of the proposal that we give the courts the statutory power to increase the sentence of those who offend on bail. [HON. MEMBERS: "What about Asil Nadir?"] Perhaps the thought that, when we get Mr. Asil Nadir back, we will give the court a power that it now lacks to add to the sentence if he is convicted and if he commits further offences while on bail will prompt Labour Members to support us, but hitherto they have not supported sensible propositions in this field at all.

The hon. Member for Sedgefield has not yet made up his mind whether to support the increased penalty for causing death by dangerous or drunken driving—we shall see where we get to on that proposal. He gave us his usual litany about how important it is to go back to the Morgan report and examine whether local authorities should have a statutory duty in crime prevention. As far as I can see, that is the only original insight into crime that the Labour party has had so far in its new guise.

When the hon. Gentleman says that cases are discontinued for lack of resources, he plainly ignores the amount of resources that we are putting into the police and criminal justice system. It may be the burden of paperwork which has been imposed on those who arrest, prosecute and take people from arrest to trial by various people with well-intentioned reforms over the years that needs to be addressed. That is why I have set up an inquiry into the matter—we look forward to the report. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the other matters to which he referred are not within my area, so I should not dilate on the drive that my right hon. Friend the Minister is having on truancy and the £10 million campaign that he has already carried forward.

Today, I have announced the next stage in a package of measures to give the courts a proper range of powers so that they can exercise their discretion, judgment, and mercy on occasions, as well as their proper regard for the public interest of others, when they deal with those who are brought before them. Labour Members have not given serious thought to the matter. Perhaps, when this Bill comes before the House, at least they will have the decency to allow it a reasonably quick passage in its amended form.

Sir John Wheeler (Westminster, North)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the Government have done much to strengthen the criminal justice system by one of the largest increases ever in appointments of Her Majesty's judges to the High Court bench? Does he further agree that his statement to the House today, arising from his listening to his colleagues on the Conservative Benches and the public more generally, will do more to engender confidence in the criminal justice system than ever before?

Mr. Clarke

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his reminder that we have strengthened the courts to deal with the weight of work before them—I am grateful for his support. His advice has been invaluable in our consideration of the way in which the Criminal Justice Act has been working. I look forward to having similarly constructive advice during the passage of this Bill and the other criminal justice Bills which we intend to introduce in due course.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

Is it not utter gall on the part of the Home Secretary to attack the Opposition spokesman for seeking to catch headlines when the whole of this operation is designed to catch a headline, "Crackdown on Crime", in the face of escalating crime figures which are without parallel in our history? Is it not monstrous that he should bring forward a total reversal of policy, which was commended to the House only two years ago by another instant governing Home Secretary as the answer to the problem of inconsistency in sentencing, to further his own petty personal policies?—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. The House must come to order.

Mr. Maclennan

At a time when the royal commission is reaching its final conclusions, the Home Secretary has the effrontery and lack of sense to introduce ill thought out measures at a time when he does not even know whether Parliament is allowed to consider them. Surely it is time that he sat on the back burner and allowed sensible debate to take place in the House.

Mr. Clarke

In response to the hon. Gentleman, I ask him to go away, lie down in a dark room, keep taking the tablets and think carefully about whether the Liberal Democrats have an opinion one way or the other on the merits of any of the proposals that I have just announced.

Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)

The Home Secretary's announcement this afternoon will be warmly welcomed not only by my constituents but by the Police Federation and its members up and down the country. All hon. Members in the House, bar one or two, know that his common-sense decision to allow the courts access to previous criminal convictions must be right. I hope that it will help to put behind bars burglars who pester the private homes of all our constituents.

Can my right hon. and learned Friend tell us what proposals he has for restricting the bail granted to, in particular, young people, who often go through what the police regard as the revolving door of arrest, bail, further offending, bail and so on? How will that work?

Mr. Clarke

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who takes a close and continuing interest in matters connected with policing. I am happy to confirm that we will give the courts power to consider previous convictions, among other things.

The men and women we appoint to the bench, be they judges or magistrates, are expected to bring civilised common sense and judgment to their task. They must be allowed to examine all the relevant circumstances, the nature of the offence, the offender's background, whether he has committed crimes before and how he has responded to earlier sentences. They must bear those factors in mind when passing a sentence that matches the seriousness of the offences of which the offender is now guilty. I believe that that approach will be welcomed by serving police officers who take those whom they arrest to the courts, as well as by all right-thinking people who want justice to be done.

My hon. Friend also raised the extremely complex issue of the way in which out-of-control young people should be handled—for instance, how those who are currently given bail before being dealt with by the youth courts should be remanded. That question takes us into much more complicated areas. In many ways, I should like to present provisions related to the treatment of young people in the form of amendments to this year's Criminal Justice Bill. We are now in May, however; I have been given the unexpected and welcome news that the proposed amendments are acceptable, but I think that we shall have to wait for later legislation to tackle such a complex matter properly, thus satisfying the legitimate public concerns voiced by my hon. Friend.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

I welcome the abolition of the unit fines system, but will the Home Secretary now apply his mind to the victims of the massive escalation of crime by funding victim support properly and on a proper basis, funding the youth service which literally keeps young people off the streets and recognising that local authorities can play a legitimate positive role in dealing with crime? Above all, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman urge his colleagues to provide 16-year-olds with benefit, jobs or at least some stake in the future? At present, they have none.

Mr. Clarke

We have built up the concept of victim support panels; I agree with the hon. Lady about their value. We continually increase the resources that we provide for such panels, and also give financial compensation to crime victims through the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board. Such compensation is now provided on a considerable scale. We are readdressing the quality of service and the promptness of the payments.

We have developed the idea of crime prevention panels, which is 25 years old. Youth crime prevention, however, is a particularly important issue, and we continue to support and build on the necessary measures in every possible way. I do not deny that local authorities can play a very useful role in crime prevention: indeed, such a role is played by authorities up and down the country. However, I dispute the narrow point about whether we should lay a new statutory duty on them. The hon. Member for Sedgefield seems to cling obsessively to that idea. It is not a great centre of policy, as he suggests; it is a footnote to activities that are taking place throughout the country.

Of course it is important for young people to have a purposeful occupation. That is why all the relevant agencies must be involved—local authorities, the education service, the police and others—and why we take every opportunity to support any measure that provides young people who may risk becoming offenders with the chance of some purposeful activity and outlet for their energies. None of that, however, avoids the need to give the courts the power they require to protect the public against those on whom such measures have no effect—those who desire to commit crime and who need to be punished in a way that the public consider fit.

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)

Many people throughout the country will praise my right hon. and learned Friend for his willingness to admit that we have made mistakes. He has listened to the comments that have been made, and come forward to correct the errors.

May I urge my right hon. and learned Friend to try to find time to implement his announcement about secure training orders in the new amendments? Many people, particularly the police, are most concerned that we cannot deal with those young people aged between 12 and 15 who are consistently out of control, when the court has no power to lock them up or restrain them. If Government policy could move towards achieving that, it would be welcomed by both the police and the general public.

Mr. Clarke

I have announced my intentions, and I am grateful for my right hon. Friend's support. I have considered that specific factor, but I do not think that it would be sensible for me to place before the House authorities possible amendments on that issue, which requires greater development of the proposed legislation than can properly be considered in the House and another place in the time remaining in this parliamentary Session.

I do not think that it would save a great deal of time to seek to legislate now in a hurry, because we still have to develop the concept of such institutions. We must have places to which the hard-core persistent offenders can be sent where we can be sure that the regime is suitable for delinquent school-age boys, and is likely to give them the quality of education and training they require when they are locked up to prevent them from harming themselves and the public.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

In the light of the massive changes that the Home Secretary has announced today, where people have been fined £400 or £500 for traffic offences and the cases have not gone to appeal, or where fines have been paid over a period of months or weeks and have not yet been paid in full, will those large fines be reduced and will transitional payments be reduced? Thousands of people feel that they have had a raw deal. If the law is to be changed, the changes should be retrospective.

Will the Home Secretary explain how he can talk about bail in the light of what Asil Nadir did the other week when he flew the coop, some say with the help of the Government as he paid £440,000 to the Tory party—and he who pays the piper, calls the tune?

Mr. Clarke

On the hon. Gentleman's first question, large numbers of people are appealing against the fines imposed on them, and quite large numbers have been successful in getting the fines reduced. The Crown court is able to correct on appeal some of the stranger fines which have been imposed—that process will continue. It is up to the House to change the law in future and give the magistrates courts the full discretion they require. Not all the reported cases of high fines are as outrageous as they are sometimes made to appear, although some are absurd, as I have said.

However, some are a slip—it is not necessary to regard the £100 unit as essential when someone has not filled in the form. For example, in the notorious case of the man who was fined £1,200 for dropping a crisp packet, the fine was reduced to £48 on appeal to the Crown court. The fine might have been lower if someone had asked the man to fill out a form at the magistrates court before the first £1,200 fine was imposed.

There is a process under which people can appeal against sentences which they feel are wrong, and have them put right. Some of those who complain to the newspapers have committed serious offences, and I have read of some cases that made me surprised that those involved were not sent to prison rather than being given a large fine. Parliament approved raising the maximum fine to £5,000—a fine is a proper penalty for people with the means who have committed serious offences.

I do not believe that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is seriously maintaining that the Government supported Asil Nadir's escape. If he is, his accusation is groundless and ridiculous, and there is no shred of evidence to support it. His claim is about as daft as his hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield believing that spies are bugging royal marriages.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that my constituents will be delighted by the proposals that he has announced today, particularly as they have suffered as a result of people who have reoffended while on bail? Will it be made clear in the amendments that it is not only parents who are responsible for their children's behaviour, but county councils such as Lancashire county council, into whose care they have been committed? Does he not deplore the fact that the county council appealed against the damages levelled against it for offences committed and damage caused by the children who had been in its care?

Mr. Clarke

The Act applies to local authorities with children in their care as well as to parents, and I agree with my hon. Friend. Some local authority homes are the principal centres of car crime and burglary in their areas. I have some sympathy for those in charge of the homes, however. Following the Children Act 1989 and the guidance issued under it, a great deal of litigation has ensued in the name of children's advocacy; and it has been extremely confusing to be buffeted between the following competing demands—those living near the homes need to be protected from burglary; at the same time, there are the constant worries about the abuse of children and the use of excessive force.

I welcome the guidance recently issued by my colleague in the Department of Health which made it clear that the staff have the legal power—and, in my opinion, the duty —sometimes to impose restraint on young people in their care who are likely to do harm to themselves or others. I am sure that my hon. Friend is looking at that guidance in more detail to ensure that we eventually arrive at a commonsense balance that protects children from abuse by those in charge of them and also protects neighbours and local people from crimes committed by children who are completely out of control and who cannot be restrained when the police return them to the children's home from which they have come.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. I am always keen, as the House knows, to call as many hon. Members as possible, but the House makes that extremely difficult for me when Members ask long questions and make long comments. It is equally difficult when Ministers give very long answers. I hope that what I have said has been taken to heart by all concerned.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

I welcome the Minister's intention to get rid of the unifying system which, in practice, has so often worked out unfairly. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman tell magistrates what they are to do in the meantime? Has he not advised magistrates to use their discretion? The Justices' Clerks Society has advised magistrates that, in its view, to do so would be unlawful. So what are magistrates to do until the system is changed?

Mr. Clarke

The Magistrates Association recently put out advice to its members shortly after it had held a meeting with me. I am glad to say that it was a productive meeting. We entirely agreed on what we wanted to restore to the courts. I believe that the guidance that the association put out thereafter was helpful and accurate.

I have not heard whether the Justices' Clerks Society is maintaining its opposition, but I think that it will find when it reads the guidance carefully that it is consistent with the Act.

One trouble is that practice has varied so widely from court to court. Sometimes courts have appeared to be acting in the belief that they have scarcely any discretion in the size of the unit or how they apply the system. A proper examination of the Act, even before we change it, will show that it does give magistrates courts much wider discretion than some of them have been led to believe in the early stages.

Sir Edward Heath (Old Bexley and Sidcup)

As my right hon. and learned Friend has said that he will consider other improvements while he is examining these questions, may I ask him to recognise that what worries many of us more than anything is the appalling slowness of the machinery of justice? While it may be necessary to consult the Lord Chancellor, can he give us an undertaking that he will look into that speedily; and that if more resources are required, in the name of British justice they must be provided?

Mr. Clarke

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. Incidentally, I was probably less than fair to the hon. Member for Sedgefield for not referring to what he said about how the courts are administered. I have considerable sympathy with his remarks.

The process of criminal litigation—of investigation and processing—now takes much longer than it did 10 or 20 years ago. That is partly inescapable, because of all the additional safeguards introduced to protect yet further the rights of the accused and to guard against the problems of unfair convictions. I am not satisfied, however, that the process is conducted as expeditiously as it could be. I am not satisfied that it imposes the minimum office-bound duties on police officers.

There are too many court adjournments, a problem with which my right hon. and noble Friend is dealing. There are also many other aspects of the administration of criminal justice to which we should turn our minds. Some of them are far beyond my control—for instance, the average length of a criminal trial is almost invariably longer than it was 20 years ago, with no noticeably dramatic improvement in the quality of justice.

I accept that we should not look at the subject in a piecemeal fashion. The criminal justice system faces unprecedented burdens and demands today, but we must ensure that it responds expeditiously while remaining just in its conclusions.

Mr. Peter Mandelson (Hartlepool)

Resulting from the Home Secretary's initial response to my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) and the comments that the Home Secretary made on television yesterday—that in all probability private conversations between the Prince and Princess of Wales had been bugged—would the Home Secretary confirm that if such bugging took place it was an illegal act, and that a proper police inquiry and investigation should take place?

Mr. Clarke

I did not say that bugging had taken place. Among the many absurdities appearing in today's press is a misuse of what I said. I was being pressed, ad nauseam, by a lot of journalists—some from newspapers trying to justify yet more pages of royal gossip—about the marvellous bugging that they were so interested in. As they went on, I am afraid that I treated with derision the suggestion that they had the slightest evidence that the bugging had anything to do with the security services. I was told that they had all the information, so I said, "Well, it appears that someone's bugging the royal family."

I have no more knowledge than the hon. Gentleman of whether the stuff is authentic. Having seen some of the people who were parading around yesterday, arguing about who would get money out of it, I am not sure that I am satisfied that any of it is authentic. It is absolutely absurd for the House to be taking up such nonsense at the behest of tabloid newspapers, when the rest of us are discussing serious matters of criminal justice and the powers of the courts.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

My right hon. and learned Friend's statement will strike the people of my constituency—who have been writing to me in their hundreds—as according with the grain of common sense, which is exactly what they would expect from a Conservative Administration. They will also have noted the complete lack of support that the statement received from the Liberal Benches.

When my right hon. and learned Friend considers other measures in the same way, will he please consider the workings of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984? As a practising solicitor, may I inform him that any solicitor would tell him that the Act is wide open for exploitation in the interests of criminals? The problem with the operation of the Act is that the balance between the rights of the criminal and those of society has swung so far that the legislation is actively exploited in the interests of the criminal fraternity.

Mr. Clarke

I agree that common sense is one of the better qualities that can be brought to politics of all kinds. I am sorry that its application has finally sent the Liberal spokesman, the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan), rushing away to the refuge that I recommended to him. He has gone to confer with his colleagues.

On the second question, the introduction of taped interviews and so forth seems a valuable advance in criminal investigations, and I would not willingly sweep away the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. However, we are waiting for the royal commission, which must deal with the right balance between the demands of justice, the proper requirements of the public interest, and proper and sensible safeguards for the rights of the accused.

Mrs. Barbara Roche (Hornsey and Wood Green)

Does the Home Secretary agree that the allegations about the security service bugging the royal family seek only to undermine confidence in the service? Does he therefore think that it would be a good idea for the Government to approve the recommendation of the Select Committee on Home Affairs that there should be parliamentary scrutiny of MI5?

Mr. Clarke

The House should not dance that sort of tune to the events of the past few days. We should devote the time of the House, and the efforts of those whom the Government ask to carry out inquiries, to serious matters, where there is some sort of evidence to be investigated. No serious person has come up with any evidence from which one could begin to investigate the rather daft allegation that MI5 is bugging the royal family—[HON. MEMBERS: "There is."). A mere suggestion in a favourite newspaper —it may not be your favourite, Madam Speaker —is not grounds for political debate or public inquiry.

Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South)

My right hon. and learned Friend's proposals will be widely welcomed on Teesside, which unfortunately is the second worst area for car theft. I am told by local police that about 150 young people are perpetrating about 90 per cent. of the crimes. If the courts take all their previous offences—which are legion—into account as a result of today's proposals, will that mean that we will have to put more young people in secure accommodation? If so, is he satisfied that the 17 or 18 places that he has announced for the region will be sufficient? If they are not, will he provide more?

Mr. Clarke

There are strong feelings in all parts of the north-east, and that includes my hon. Friend's constituency, about persistent car theft by a handful of young people. The changes that I am proposing will mean that, when dealing with an offender of any age, the court will be entitled to look at all the offences that he has committed and for which he is before the court, and not just at the most serious and one associated with it. The court will be empowered to have regard to what has happened previously when other types of sentence have been tried. There may well be an even bigger demand for secure accommodation than has already grown up under some of the better provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 1991.

There is nothing to stop local authorities providing secure accommodation now, so long as they comply with the requirements of the Children Act 1989. The policies of both the social services and local authorities have led largely to the dramatic decline of secure accommodation across the country, and many local authorities are still unwilling to extend any secure accommodation.

The Government make money available for small numbers of additional places, as my hon. Friend said, but we need to study the proposals made earlier this year about the secure training order and also look for other providers of secure accommodation apart from the social services departments if we are to meet the level of need in the north-east of England.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Why does not the Home Secretary take more seriously the allegations against the security service, bearing in mind the fact that previous allegations about the security service that were denied turned out to be true? Why does he not bear in mind that the feeling of many hon. Members, which I raised at the last Home Office Question Time, is that the Security Service should be fully accountable to Parliament, as in other western democracies? What is so wrong with that, and why does he dismiss it? The Opposition require no lectures on crime from the Government, bearing in mind what has happened in the past 14 years.

Mr. Clarke

The Security Service is subject to my supervision as Home Secretary, as it has been with succeeding Home Secretaries. It is also subject to supervision of the commissioner, Lord Justice Stuart Smith. The Master of the Rolls is also empowered to supervise the security services and has reported that he is quite satisfied—I do not use his exact words—that the Security Service has not been involved in those matters. So a High Court judge, who is the commissioner of the Interception of Communications Act 1985, can find no evidence of such involvement.

Some people are obsessive about anything to do with both the security services and with the royal family. I said yesterday, and I am sorry to repeat it, that if the hon. Gentleman asserted to me that the moon was made of green cheese—which he might—I would investigate it if he could produce anyone who had even seen that the moon was made of green cheese or had a crumb of cheese from the surface. However, the mere assertion in whatever newspaper the hon. Gentleman has read that MI5 is involved is not a basis for setting aside all the statutory controls that the House has agreed or for pandering to newspapers and to people trying to make a quick buck from nasty books.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

My right hon. and learned Friend's statement will, I am sure, help magistrates and courts to give priority in sentencing to the victims and not to the criminals. Therefore, will he confirm that it is not his intention in any way to interfere with those parts of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 that are working extremely well? They include stronger parental responsibility, tougher sentences for those who commit violent and sexual crimes, reform of parole and tougher community sentences.

Mr. Clarke

Those provisions are indeed all working well. They are quite essential, and I think that we have now sorted out the way in which those provisions are working and put them in line with what I believe the House intended. The Criminal Justice Act 1991 will be seen as yet another improvement to the criminal justice system, strengthening the hands of the police and the courts.