HC Deb 07 November 1996 vol 284 cc1345-7
1. Mr. Robert Ainsworth

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will list for each of the last three years the proportion of criminal offences that ended in a court conviction. [914]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Michael Howard)

About 6 per cent., but the percentage for more serious offences was very much higher and many of those convicted will have committed other crimes of which they have not been convicted.

Mr. Ainsworth

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that that figure is a percentage of recorded crime only, that the level of convictions is a disgrace and that the biggest deterrent to crime is the fear of getting caught? Will he accept that it is now three times more likely that a burglar or rapist will escape punishment than when Labour was in power? Will he do something to address that problem, instead of giving us this continual rhetoric?

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman's comments would carry some conviction if he and his hon. Friends had been prepared to support the measures that we have taken to increase the likelihood of convictions taking place. Let me give an example: if the rate of suspects refusing to answer questions has fallen by half—as it has since we reformed the right to silence—that reform is likely to increase the proportion of convictions, yet the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends, including the Leader of the Opposition, steadfastly opposed it, root and branch.

Sir Irvine Patnick

Some of those offences will be knife offences. As my right hon. and learned Friend is aware, I contacted the umbrella organisations for the industry in Sheffield to ensure that none of the manufacturers were disadvantaged. I sent him some of the work done by the Cutlery and Allied Trades Research Association. Has that been taken into consideration when framing any proposed legislation?

Mr. Howard

I can assure my hon. Friend that we shall take into account all representations, including those to which he referred, when considering proposals for further legislation on this matter.

Mr. Riddick

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, when someone is convicted of a criminal offence, it is important that he receives an appropriate sentence? Will he assure the House that he will continue to work towards his objective of imposing longer sentences on burglars, rapists and other people who commit violent crimes, and that he will not be deflected from that objective by the views of former Ministers, liberal judges and penal reformers? The British public are entirely behind his efforts on this front.

Mr. Howard

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I can certainly give him the assurance that he requests. If we are to fight crime effectively, we need both to convict the criminals and to ensure that they are properly dealt with—and properly punished—when they have been convicted. That is one of the purposes of the proposals set out in the Crime (Sentences) Bill—a Bill to which the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) referred on the radio this week, saying that he was leading the opposition to it.

Mr. Beggs

When criminal offences involving the illegal smuggling of tobacco products into the United Kingdom occur, such as the recent large haul impounded in Belfast in Northern Ireland, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman seek to ensure that the level of fine imposed on conviction matches the value of the impounded cargo and thereby protect our local newsagents and, indeed, the Treasury, which is losing valuable revenue?

Mr. Howard

I understand and sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's argument. I am not sure that we are yet ready to introduce a series of minimum mandatory fines and, in the absence of such fines, the matter is for the discretion of the court concerned, but I have great sympathy with the argument that the hon. Gentleman makes.

Mr. Michael

As the Home Secretary issues his soundbite attacks on the Opposition, he knows in his heart of hearts that Labour has worked hard in opposition to be tough on crime, to be tough on the causes of crime and to support the Government when they make constructive proposals. In contrast, would not a little more humility be appropriate when the Home Secretary considers the facts: that recorded crime is double the level it was when the Conservative party came to power, that fewer than one in 50 crimes end up in a punishment by a court, and that, in his county of Kent, violent crime has gone up by 300 per cent.—and robbery by 600 per cent.—since the Conservative party came to power?

Mr. Howard

We hear these inane generalities from the Labour party, but Labour Members refuse to deal with the specific points such as the example that I put to them a few minutes ago. The number of suspects refusing to answer questions has nearly halved since we reformed the right to silence. When we reformed the right to silence, the Labour party—whose shadow Home Secretary at the time is now the Leader of the Opposition—opposed that reform root and branch. What we have done—not uttering inane generalities across the Floor of the House—is the way to get criminals convicted and to reduce crime.

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