§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Michael Howard)
Madam Speaker, my first priority as Home Secretary has always been to protect the public and to build a safer Britain. The legislation in the Gracious Speech adds up to the most radical attack on crime this century. It will build on the progress that we have made in every area to tackle crime more effectively. There will be five Home Office Bills in this Session of Parliament and each and every one of them has one simple aim: to protect the public.
The tragic events at Dunblane highlighted the need for radical reform of our firearms legislation. I intend to introduce a Firearms (Amendment) Bill this week to achieve that reform. With the co-operation of all parties, I hope that it will be law by Christmas.
§ Mr. Norman Hogg (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth)
The Home Secretary will know that the tragic events that occurred at Dunblane have greatly motivated public opinion on handguns. Does not the right hon. and learned Gentleman recognise that there is a real need for the House properly to express its view on the matter? That would best be done if Conservative Members were accorded a free vote.
§ Mr. Howard
I do not accept that view. One of the most important considerations that the House should bear in mind as it approaches the proposed legislation to which I have referred is the need to get it on to the statute book as quickly as possible. It may help the people of Dunblane to draw a line under the dreadful experiences to which they have been subjected, and to put those matters behind them, if we bring the matter to a close in the House as soon as possible. I do not think that a free vote would assist in achieving that objective.
§ Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West)
Will my right hon. and learned Friend explain a little further why getting such a measure on to the statute book quickly will help the people of Dunblane? It seems highly unlikely that such a horrible incident is likely to occur anywhere near the people of Dunblane in the foreseeable future. Are not they as concerned as anyone else that we should proceed in a careful and orderly way, and not in a hurry?
§ Mr. Howard
With respect to my hon. Friend, I think that it will be possible to examine the proposed legislation 331 in a careful and orderly way and with expedition. It is important to get such legislation on to the statute book as quickly as possible, and that is not inconsistent with examining it carefully. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be one of those Members who will ensure that we do indeed examine it carefully.
§ Mr. Howard
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall make some progress.
The proposed Bill will ban all handguns from the home. It will outlaw higher-calibre handguns of the sort used by Thomas Hamilton altogether, and it will ensure that all other handguns are kept under safe lock and key at all times. The Bill will lead to the destruction of at least 160,000 handguns—80 per cent. of those legally held in Britain.
I know that some hon. Members believe that we should go further and ban all handguns completely, but I believe that we can both provide protection for the public and allow target shooting with low-calibre handguns—which has always been an Olympic sport—to continue in the security of clubs. Indeed, I believe that banning all handguns might drive some target shooters underground. That might well mean that the public had less protection than will be afforded by my proposals.
Clubs that cannot meet the new security arrangements will have to close. We will also ban the sale of guns through the post, narrow the grounds on which applicants can appeal on being refused a licence and outlaw expanding bullets except for the shooting of deer.
§ Mr. John Carlisle (Luton, North)
My right hon. and learned Friend will understand that there is a large lobby outside the House—innocent people who enjoy the sport of shooting—that entirely disagrees with the line that he has taken. It took six weeks to produce Lord Cullen's report. It is a comprehensive report, as my right hon. and learned Friend knows, because he, like me, has read it. Yet he has decided almost to ignore the report's conclusions. The report does not state at any point that all handguns, or the categories that my right hon. and learned Friend has put forward, should be banned. Why has he gone beyond the report? Why did he not stick to the report? Or is there some deep political motive of which my right hon. and hon. Friends and I are not aware?
§ Mr. Howard
I understand the feelings of those members of the community to whom my hon. Friend has referred. He is right to say that the vast majority of them are decent, law-abiding citizens. I accept that. I do not agree, however, that the conclusion that the Government have reached ignores the conclusions of the Cullen report. We have carefully examined the report. We have carefully taken into account Lord Cullen's analysis and his conclusions. We disagree in some respects with his conclusions, but that does not mean that we have ignored them. On the contrary, we have given them the most careful attention.
Our proposals are clear and consistent. We promised to await the outcome of the Cullen inquiry, and we did. We promised to act speedily and positively after we received 332 his report, and we have. Contrast that with the reaction of the Opposition parties. The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) stressed in September—.
§ Mr. Howard
No. I am not giving way to my hon. Friend.
The hon. Member for Blackburn stressed in September that Labour would not make final decisions about gun control until it hadreceived and studied the conclusions of Lord Cullen's Inquiry".That message somehow failed to reach the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson). He was telling his constituents:We support a ban on the holding of handguns in residential property. People such as yourself,he said to one of his constituents—will still be able to own handguns but they must be kept safely under lock and key at properly run centres".But, to be fair, the hon. Gentleman was just following the policy set down by the Opposition spokesman on rural affairs. In a letter to the Shooting Times and Country Magazine published on 3 October, the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) said:We do think that handguns should be limited to the Olympic Standard of .22 calibre and we do think there is an argument for handguns to be kept in secure storage and under supervision at clubs".He went on to explain that claims that Labour supported more "draconian" measures were a figment of the "hysterical imagination" of the Shooting Times and Country Magazine.
They were all wrong. The day before Lord Cullen's report was published, the Leader of the Opposition pulled the rug from under their feet. He rewrote Labour's policy. He let it be known without, apparently, telling his party's home affairs spokesman that Labour would ban all handguns. So much for waiting for Cullen. So much for studying his conclusions. So much for allowing people to keep lower calibre handguns under lock and key in clubs. The draconian measures described by Labour's rural affairs spokesman as a figment of people's imagination are now official Labour party policy.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
If that is the case, it is quite clear that there are varying views across the Commons on these matters. Why not have a free vote? Then Conservative Members will be able to walk into the Lobbies quite freely and vote as we intend.
§ Mr. Howard
The hon. Gentleman's repetition of the question that I answered earlier does not improve the question, and I have nothing to add to the answer that I gave earlier.
333 The Liberal Democrats have been just as hypocritical. At their party conference, they voted for a motion that endorsed the policies in the Firearms (Amendment) Bill. Two weeks later, their spokesman, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), said:The Government's proposals have much common ground with our proposals to the Cullen inquiry…we are prepared to support and facilitate legislation based on those proposals"—[Official Report, 16 October 1996; Vol. 282, c. 836.]Last week, the Liberal Democrats said that they would vote against the Bill. Once again, the gulf between the sanctimonious platitudes of the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) and the squalid manoeuvring of his party is shown to be as wide as Westminster bridge.
§ Mr. Beith
We have never said that we would vote against the Bill. The issue, as I said when the Government's proposals were announced, was whether the Government's proposals for an 80 per cent. ban would prove adequate and workable. As the Police Federation has said that they are not, the Home Secretary should not be surprised that we take some lead from what the police say on this matter. Can he name any organisation, from either side of the argument, which thinks that the Government's proposals are satisfactory?
§ Mr. Howard
There have been many reactions in support of the Government's proposals. Many people think that our proposals get this difficult balance right. The right hon. Gentleman has not seriously answered the question why the proposed legislation, which corresponds to the measures that he put to Lord Cullen, which he welcomed when I announced them on the Floor of the House less than a couple of weeks ago, are now proposals that his party is not prepared to support.
§ Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)
This subject deserves a more serious and high-minded contribution than we have had so far. The Home Secretary is making much—unnecessarily, I think—of when decisions were made. The Government did not show us the Cullen report until a few hours before it was published and announced to the House, yet every heavy Sunday newspaper on 13 October, the day before the Government received Lord Cullen's report, ran almost identical stories saying that, irrespective of Lord Cullen's recommendations, the Government's response would be to ban handguns from the home. The Home Secretary surprisingly said that he did not know who had told the Sunday newspapers. Will he now tell the House that he has no evidence to suggest that anyone close to him or acting on his behalf told those Sunday newspapers exactly the same story?
§ Mr. Howard
The hon. Gentleman and his party—[HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."] I will answer the question: I am dealing with the hon. Gentleman's initial observations. He and his colleagues are the last people to talk about taking a high-minded and serious approach to the proposals.
334 I have no idea where the stories in the Sunday newspapers came from: they were all wrong. The hon. Gentleman must know that they were completely wrong. They would hardly have come from the Home Office or from me, because they were all, without exception, absolutely wrong, and did not accurately forecast the Government's response to the Cullen report.
§ Mr. Howard
I shall give way to the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), and then I shall move on.
§ Mr. Anderson
Will the Home Secretary answer a serious question about compensation? When a private interest yields to a public interest, the usual pattern is that the private interest is properly compensated. A legitimate shooting establishment in my constituency will be made non-viable as a result of the likely measure. What assurances will the Home Secretary give that private interest that it will receive compensation according to normal principles?
§ Mr. Howard
We shall, indeed, follow normal principles. People whose guns will be banned under our proposals will be compensated for their loss, and that is as it should be. It is not in accordance with normal principles for those whose business interests are affected by tighter regulation and legislation automatically to be compensated for the consequences of that change. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall follow normal practice. Our measures will be strictly in accordance with precedent and with our obligations under national and international legislation.
Mr. Edward Leiw (Gainsborough and Horncastle)
§ Mr. Howard
I have already given way to my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen), so I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh).
§ Mr. Leigh
My right hon. and learned Friend answered that question very well. However, does he accept that, as a matter of honour, a Conservative Government would take the view that if a lawfully held private possession were confiscated by the state, the Government would pay the full market price to compensate the individual concerned?
§ Mr. Howard
Yes. I have already said that people who now lawfully hold guns that will not be lawfully held under our proposals will be compensated at market value. I am happy to repeat that assurance to my hon. Friend.
Mr. David Mell (Putney)
§ Mr. Mellor
How would my right hon. and learned Friend feel if people who received compensation for handing in their higher calibre guns immediately invested in .22 guns?
§ Mr. Howard
If the Government's proposals find their way to the statute book, that will be perfectly legitimate 335 and will be a matter for individuals. We propose that the use of .22 calibre guns should be limited to stringently secure conditions in clubs under security arrangements about which we shall consult the police and others. No sensible comparison can be made between those who now use higher-calibre weapons in different circumstances, and those who will use .22 calibre weapons in the strictly controlled circumstances that our legislation will create.
I shall now consider the Police Bill. The Government are determined to ensure that the police have the resources and the powers that they need to fight crime. Spending on the police has doubled since 1979, even after allowing for inflation. The police are having considerable success in combating crime. Thanks to their efforts, recorded crime has fallen by 10 per cent. in the past three years: there have been more than 500,000 fewer crimes. Between 1993 and 1995, England and Wales showed the greatest fall in recorded crime of any OECD country for which figures are available. But there is more to be done. Organised crime is an increasing threat, and as a result of last Session's Security Service Act 1996, which came into force this month, the Security Service is able to work in support of the police and Customs and Excise in tackling serious crime.
Criminals do not respect police force boundaries and often travel long distances to commit crime. The Police Bill will establish a national crime squad to build on the existing regional crime squads. This will not be a British FBI nor will it become one. Policing will remain locally based, but that squad will provide an improved, nationally co-ordinated approach to organised crime. The Bill will also put the National Criminal Intelligence Service on a statutory footing—reinforcing its leading role in gathering intelligence for the police and others.
In addition, the Police Bill will create a criminal records agency. Access to criminals' records raises important issues. On the one hand we must do what we can to rehabilitate offenders, to help them find work and to keep them on the strait and narrow. But we must also ensure that the public are protected, particularly the most vulnerable in society—our children. All those who work on a regular unsupervised basis with children—among others—will be eligible for an enhanced criminal record check which will include both conviction and non-conviction material. In addition, all doctors and teachers will be eligible for a full check which will list all convictions and cautions centrally held. These are difficult issues, but I believe that our proposals strike a fair balance between the rights of individuals and the need to protect the public.
§ Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)
Can the Home Secretary confirm a newspaper report which suggests that section 9 of the Interception of Communications Act 1985 about bugging may be lifted? I have no objection to that in principle, provided that there is full disclosure about the how the bug was placed, what resulted from it and how the evidence has been used since then.
§ Mr. Howard
I can neither confirm nor deny that report. The hon. Gentleman will have to wait for a possible decision on that question to be announced. I am sure that if such a decision is announced the caveat that the hon. Gentleman has entered will be considered carefully.
336 Sex offenders pose a particular danger because many of them are highly manipulative and likely to reoffend. To help protect the public the Police Superintendents Association last year called for a register of paedophiles. We have consulted widely and concluded that serious sex offenders, not just paedophiles, should be required to notify the police of their address and any subsequent moves. They will also be required to notify the police of any change of name. These proposals will enable the police to keep tabs on such criminals and help to protect the public from their activities.
In the past year a number of widely publicised stalking cases have come to court. The current law does not give the victims of this dreadful crime the protection they deserve. The hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Ms Anderson) raised this issue earlier in the year with her private Member's Bill, but there had been no consultation on those proposals and the Bill had significant deficiencies.
As Evonne von Heussen of the National Anti-Stalking and Harassment Campaign said:A had Bill is worse than no Bill…and her proposals"—referring to the proposals by the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen—were not precise enough. You have to be able to defend legitimate activities such as debt collecting against the stalking charge".Our proposals have been the subject of wide consultation. They are tough and they will help to protect victims. They focus on the impact on the victim and they do not require proof of intent. Victims would have several remedies open to them. They would be able to seek a civil injunction against someone who was molesting them and a breach of that order would be a criminal offence punishable by up to five years in prison. We shall create two new criminal offences, which I shall explain to the House after I have given way to the hon. Lady.
§ Ms Janet Anderson (Rossendale and Darwen)
Why does the Home Secretary feel that it would not have been possible in a Standing Committee to iron out any differences between us on the contents of my Bill?
§ Mr. Howard
It is because there was no time and there would not have been full and proper consultation. Those who criticise the Government for our attitude to the hon. Lady's Bill are the first to criticise us for rushing into legislation without proper consultation hasty and ill-considered proposals. We have published a consultation paper that sets out in great detail the basis of our proposals. We invited comments on that paper. We have modified our proposals in the light of that consultation exercise. As a result of the consultative exercise, we are now in a position to introduce legislation that is substantially better and more effective than the hon. Lady's Bill. That is the right way to approach difficult legislation, when definitions are of the essence. That was our approach and it is the right one. I hope that the hon. Lady and her friends will give our proposals full support.
§ Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe (Bradford, South)
Why did the Home Secretary think that the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Ms Anderson) was not appropriate because time was not available? Why, when a longer time was available, did he think that a private Member's Bill was appropriate for his current 337 proposals, until the Prime Minister stepped in? Why did the Home Secretary think that my hon. Friend's Bill was not the appropriate Bill?
§ Mr. Howard
I have just answered that question, if the hon. Gentleman had listened to what I said. The hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen introduced her Bill at a late stage in the previous Session. There was no time to engage in the sort of consultation exercise in which we have since engaged. That was why we could not do it in the previous Session.
§ Mr. Howard
I will in a moment, if my hon. Friend will bear with me while I answer the question of the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe). In this Session, we thought that the speediest way forward would be through a private Member's Bill, until we received the offer in the House last week from the Leader of the Opposition. In that context, it is right that I should draw to the House's attention a most worrying communication that my right hon. Friend the Captain of the Hon. Corps of Gentlemen at Arms has received from the Liberal Democrat Chief Whip in another place. It shows that that party looks as though it is likely to obstruct the passage of that legislation and go contrary to the assurances of the Leader of the Opposition in the House last week. A passage from the Liberal Democrat Chief Whip's letter says:We favour the principles behind both measures but we will insist on full debates in the normal timescale provided in the Companion to Standing Orders. We would resist any suggestion that the timescale should be abbreviated in any way whatever.So it looks as though the best intentions, I am prepared to accept, of the Leader of the Opposition and of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister may yet be endangered by the party political manoeuvrings of the Liberal Democrats in another place.
§ Mr. Howard
Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman wishes to disown the Chief Whip of his party in another place. I hope that that is exactly what he will do.
§ Mr. Beith
I rise merely to confirm the assurance that we gave that we will support and assist the passage of these Bills, but it is unusual for the Home Secretary to conduct on the Floor of the House the sort of discussions that go on in another place to ensure that, if this House does not have the details of the Bill right when it reaches the other place, it will sort the Bill out. To assist the matter, will the Home Secretary guarantee that he will introduce no amendments to the Bill in the other place?
§ Mr. Howard
That fell some way short of the sort of assurance that we might have expected from the right hon. Gentleman and his party, if they were determined to co-operate to get the legislation through as quickly as possible on the fast track promised by the Leader of the Opposition last week.
§ Sir Michael Shersby
Does my right hon. and learned Friend recall that I first tabled an amendment to provide for a law to deal with stalking during the passage of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994? Does he further agree that the difficulties that were explained then by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, made it clear beyond any shadow of doubt that, before this sort of legislation could be introduced, it had to have the most careful consultation and consideration, including representations from organisations such as Liberty?
§ Mr. Howard
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. We pay careful attention to the representations that have been made, both by Liberty and police associations, and they have all contributed to the fact that the legislation, which we hope to introduce shortly, will be in such excellent shape.
The first criminal offence is to catch persons who behave on more than one occasion in a way that causes the victim to believe that immediate violence would be used against them, and the maximum penalty would be five years in prison. The second offence is to catch persons who behave persistently in a way that causes someone to be distressed, alarmed or harassed. The maximum penalty would be six months in prison. Those proposals will also help to protect the victims of racial harassment and nuisance from neighbours.
§ Ms Liz Lynne (Rochdale)
As to paedophilia, why is there no Bill in Government time on sex tourism, to prosecute men in particular who engage in sexual acts with children in other countries?
§ Mr. Howard
A similar private Member's Bill made excellent progress through the House in the last Session and is now on the statute book—and was none the worse for taking that route. However, we will take the hon. Lady's comment on board when we make our final decisions about the way in which our proposals will be taken through the House.
§ Mr. Howard
The centrepiece of our legislation will be the Crime (Sentences) Bill. The proposals that it contains have one simple aim—to protect the public from serious persistent and dangerous criminals. The police have revolutionised the way in which they fight crime. They are increasingly targeting persistent and known criminals who commit the majority of crime. About two thirds of crimes are committed by a hard core—one fifth or so—of offenders. Operation Bumblebee and Operation Christmas Cracker are testament to the success of the police.
We need to ensure that the criminal justice system targets also the career criminal. Our proposals will do just that. They represent the most radical reforms to our sentencing system this century.
For serious sexual and violent criminals, the maximum penalty for crimes such as armed robbery and rape is a life sentence. Such offenders rarely get life, even if they offend again. In 1994, 217 offenders were convicted of a second or subsequent serious sexual or violent crime. 339 All 217 offenders could have been given a life sentence but only 10 were. Unless such offenders are given life, they must be released even if they remain a danger to the public. That cannot be right. It does not give the public the protection that they deserve.
Two months ago, for example, a rapist was sentenced to life at Chelmsford Crown court. He was described by the judge as "verging on the satanic" and had been convicted of rape before, not once but twice. One of his victims was a nine-year-old girl. Because that rapist was not given a life sentence, he had to be released—released to rape again. He did. That is something that should never happen.
The Crime (Sentences) Bill will ensure that second-time serious violent and sexual offenders get a life sentence. In such cases the trial judge will set the tariff—the minimum period to be served for retribution and deterrence. Once that term has been served, the parole board will decide whether the offender still poses a danger to the public. If he does, he will remain in prison. If he does not, he will be released on life licence and subject to recall for the rest of his life. The Association of Chief Police Officers, supporting my proposals when I announced them in 1995, said:The public have a right to be protected.
§ Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)
Lord Justice Donaldson has been quoted as saying that he disagreed with that particular issue. My understanding is that a judge could say, in exceptional circumstances, that a second life sentence should not be imposed. Will my right hon. and learned Friend clarify that point?
§ Mr. Howard
My hon. Friend is right, as I was about to explain.
The hon. Member for Blackburn likes to pretend that he supports that policy, but there are fundamental differences between us. The hon. Gentleman does not, despite his strenuous efforts to give the opposite impression, support automatic life sentence for second-time rapists and other serious sexual offenders Under his proposals, those offenders—once judged safe to be released—could not be recalled back to prison. In addition, his proposal would not cover repeat violent offenders. As the hon. Gentleman explained in his document, "Honesty, Consistency and Progression in Sentencing",Offences of a sexual nature should be distinguished from other violent offences.The Opposition think that the public do not need greater protection from those who conspire to commit murder or from armed robbers. Despite all the synthetic fuss that they are presently making about knives, they argued against giving the police greater stop and search powers to deal with those who carry knives on our streets and they now oppose automatic life sentences for those who twice use knives to inflict serious injury on others.
§ Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)
Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?
§ Mr. Howard
Yes. I am not surprised that the Opposition do not like to be reminded of the effect of their policies.
§ Mr. Foulkes
Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that there is great disappointment throughout the 340 country that he has not seen fit to introduce a measure to ban combat knives, on the spurious excuse that he cannot tell combat knives from household knives? Has he ever seen a combat knife? It is one of the most horrific and easily identifiable knives that he will ever see.
§ Mr. Howard
However much the hon. Gentleman and his party may pretend otherwise, the truth is that we have not been able to come up with a satisfactory definition of a combat knife.
§ Mr. Howard
It is not. The Association of Chief Police Officers agrees with us, as do the Scottish Police Federation and the Police Superintendents Association of England and Wales. We have been working with the police for some time to try to come up with a satisfactory definition. ACPO has said, and the other associations agree, that it is not possible to do so without at the same time banning lawful knives.
§ Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)
On Independent Television News at lunchtime, a representative of the Police Superintendents Association said:If they can get a man on the moon, I am sure they can come to a definition of a combat knife.Does not the Secretary of State think that there is a palpable difference, which can be defined in law, between a kitchen knife and the sort of knife advertised in the magazine Gun and Accessories Mart as:Special operation knife, ¼" stock, 12" overall. 145 lbs",which has no purpose whatever other than killing or maiming people? It should be banned.
§ Mr. Howard
ACPO, in a letter dated 9 May—[Interruption.] We have been looking at the issue, together with ACPO, for some time. The letter said:I should first say that we agree with you on the impossibility of defining an undesirable dangerous knife without also catching other knives which should not be banned. We can all sympathise with the public view that certain types of hunting knives should not he on sale, but their definition would he difficult and the benefit dubious if carving and other catering knives are to remain available.The Police Superintendents Association, to which the hon. Member for Blackburn referred, issued a press release this afternoon saying:The Association's views do not differ from our colleagues in the Police Service and mirror those of the Home Secretary.The truth is that the Opposition were invited last week by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to put forward any suggestions that they might have, but what was their response? They came forward not with a suggested definition, but with a petition. What we need are definitions, not petitions, and rather less of the trivialising gesture politics in which the hon. Member for Blackburn and his party indulge.
§ Mr. Straw
Would the Home Secretary like to read on? The national secretary of the Police Superintendents Association says in today's statement:We believe that both the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, and the Shadow Home Secretary, Jack Straw, have the same ambition to deal with so-called 'combat knives'.341 I hope that that is true. The statement goes on:It is up to those concerned now to see if such a definition can be agreed and to support any measures proposed by the Government as a result.It was the same representative of the association who, at lunch time, asserted on ITN that it was possible to distinguish between a kitchen knife and a combat knife—and it is.
§ Mr. Howard
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is casting any aspersions on the credibility or veracity of the secretary of the Police Superintendents Association. I read what the association's press release said—that its views mirror my own. Of course I would like to ban combat knives if we could come up with a satisfactory definition—we have been trying to come up with one for a considerable period of time. If the hon. Gentleman has any suggestions, I will consider them carefully—but we need specific suggestions for a definition, not party politics built on petitions.
§ Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)
I agree very much with my right hon. and learned Friend about kitchen knives and so forth. I am a keen cook—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) appears to be amused; I remind him that I was the country's No. 1 housewife in 1960. It would be difficult to define the knives in my kitchen. I do not believe that my right hon. and learned Friend saw the kitchen knife displayed by the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), but the only thing that that proved is that his wife has never let him into the kitchen—no one would regard that as an eligible kitchen knife.
§ Mr. Howard
I have never had the privilege of being invited into my hon. Friend's kitchen, but I am certain that she would not give kitchen room to the knife that the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) played with during his absurd shenanigans in front of the television cameras on Friday.
I want to draw attention to the real reason why the Labour party has engaged in this entirely synthetic fuss about knives. Three Labour Members rose to intervene during the part of my speech in which I pointed out the fact that Labour has no proposals to deal with second serious violent offenders. That is a diversionary tactic designed to divert attention from the extremely important proposals that I shall explain to the House.
§ Mr. Howard
It always gives me great pleasure to give way to and deal with the interventions of the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth), so I am delighted to give way to him now.
§ Mr. Howarth
There is a pressing and urgent problem in respect of knives, and it is fatuous of the Home Secretary to contemplate some kind of endless Socratic dialogue in which we attempt to define a knife0that is, of course, impossible. He must accept, however, that any police officer, magistrate or judge can recognise the sort 342 of knife that is designed for violence. Is not the right hon. and learned Gentleman's difficulty0which I can well understand in view of his uncomfortable experiences at their hands—that he is prejudiced against allowing the judges any more discretion? Because of that prejudice, he is prepared to allow the knife culture to fester and citizens to remain at risk of being injured or killed.
§ Mr. Howard
The hon. Gentleman's suggestion is absurd. Everybody, including the police, agrees that a definition is needed before those knives can be banned. I understand that even the hon. Member for Blackburn agrees with that. We have welcomed co-operation in trying to find a definition, but it is not an easy task.
§ Mr. Howard
The hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position that we have not invited co-operation. Last week, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister wrote a letter in which he specifically invited co-operation. He said that, if Labour Members were able to suggest a definition, we would be happy to sit down with them and discuss it. That remains our position.
§ Mr. Michael
I shall give way to the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley), but I shall not allow Labour Members to continue to divert attention from the serious matters that I was addressing in my speech.
§ Mr. Soley
I am grateful to the Home Secretary for giving way at last. There are several proposals, some of which have been around since at least 1985, when I put one to one of his predecessors. It was seriously considered then and should be considered again now. A sub-committee should be set up in the Home Office to consider imitation guns and knives, and to make recommendations on them. Using the statutory instrument procedure, certain types of knives should be designated unacceptable for sale or production. If we can ensure that it is impossible even to look through the window of bookmakers' shops, the Home Secretary can ensure that knives are not displayed so that some young lad with a fantasy of violence can look in a window and see how much it would cost to turn his fantasy into horrific reality
§ Mr. Howard
There is no difficulty about the procedure. The hon. Gentleman is right to identify the statutory instrument procedure. We have used it in order to ban 14 knives and sharp instruments. We are not reluctant to use it. That is why 1 have said repeatedly that as soon as we have a definition—if such can be produced—of a combat knife, we shall not hesitate to use the procedure that we have used in the past. I have no hang-up about using it; I would be delighted to do so. The only difficulty is the purely practical one of finding a workable definition.
§ Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)
Does my right hon. and learned Friend recall that he and I considered carefully how to deal with that very problem when I was preparing for my own knives Bill—the Offensive Weapons Bill? Does he agree that one of the 343 problems is that a combat knife could be outlawed, but the same weapon could then be described as a diving knife or some other kind of knife? It is easy for the House to apply glib descriptions to an acutely difficult problem.
§ Mr. Howard
My hon. Friend is entirely right. If my recollection is correct, it was in the context of her private Member's Bill in the previous Session that we engaged in consultation with the police staff associations, which produced the letter from the Association of Chief Police Officers to which I referred earlier.
I return to the Opposition's proposals for dealing with serious violent offenders and the ways in which those proposals differ from ours. Their proposals will not deal with someone convicted of armed robbery who serves his sentence, is released and subsequently commits rape. But Labour have a record on the matter: eight years ago the hon. Member for Blackburn and the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) voted against increasing to life imprisonment the maximum sentence for taking a gun to a crime. Now they refuse to support the proposal that criminals who do that twice should get an automatic life sentence, despite the dangers that those criminals pose to the public and the police. Old Labour, new Labour, it all comes to the same thing: a serious violent offender can rely on Labour to protect him.
Order. There are two Members standing at once. If the hon. Gentleman is seeking to intervene, he might let it be known not only to the Secretary of State but to me, rather than simply standing at the Dispatch Box. Is the Secretary of State giving way?
§ Mr. Straw
I am grateful to you, Madam Speaker, and to the Secretary of State. Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that we adopted that position in 1988 not only because of firm advice that we had received from the Police Federation that the proposal was likely to be inoperable, but because, perhaps unwisely, we took the advice of the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence), who said of the proposal for life imprisonment for carrying firearms that it wasanother con on the public."—[Official Report, 18 January 1988; Vol. 125, c. 711.]
§ Mr. Howard
The proposal was not and is not a con on the public. The hon. Gentleman's comments do not go an inch of the way towards explaining Labour's present position on the proposals contained in the Crime (Sentences) Bill.
I turn to the subject of drugs. Drugs devastate lives, often young people's lives. A recent sample showed that the average sentence for a third conviction for dealing in hard drugs was just over four years. People subject to such a sentence would often be out after two years. That does not remotely give the public the protection that they deserve. The Crime (Sentences) Bill will ensure that anyone convicted of dealing in hard drugs on three separate occasions would get a minimum of seven years in prison, and the maximum would remain life.
344 House burglary is another dreadful crime. Victims lose treasured personal possessions. The sanctity of their memories, as well as their homes, is violated. Persistent domestic burglars deserve long prison sentences, but they rarely get them.
§ Mr. Howard
I must make progress.
A sample of the most serious domestic burglars convicted in the Crown courts in 1993 and 1994 showed that the average prison sentence for a first-time offender was 16.2 months. After three or more convictions, it was 18.9 months, and after seven or more convictions it was barely higher, at 19.4 months—and, of course, only half of that is served.
Those sentences do not deter career burglars, for whom the occasional short spell in prison has become an acceptable occupational hazard. The Crime (Sentences) Bill will ensure that career burglars spend a minimum of three years behind bars. Such sentences will, I believe, deter many burglars altogether. Others will not be deterred, but at least the public will have a lengthy break from their criminal activities. As the chairman of the Police Federation has said:People whose homes have been desecrated by intruders will applaud the automatic sentences in store for persistent burglars.
§ Mr. Howard
I gave that estimate in the White Paper, which I am sure the right hon. Gentleman has seen. The provisions for automatic life sentences and mandatory minimum sentences for those who traffic in hard drugs for a third time will, I hope, be brought into force in October next year. I hope that the provisions for honesty in sentencing, which I have yet to explain, and for minimum mandatory sentences for career burglars will come into force in 1999.
The White Paper, which I published in April, made it clear that the courts would have the discretion not to impose minimum sentences in exceptional circumstances. The Bill provides them with that discretion. The White Paper also made it clear that we were considering a discount for guilty pleas. For professional house burglars and dealers in hard drugs, the Bill will enable the courts to take up to 20 per cent. off the minimum sentence for guilty pleas. Such a provision is, of course, not necessary for automatic life sentences for second time serious sexual or violent offenders, because judges will be able to take into account a guilty plea when setting the tariff.
Fourthly, there is honesty in sentencing. Automatic early release from prison enrages victims. The former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor, strongly disagrees with many of my proposals, but he made it clear that the current early release arrangementshave the appearance of a charade".The fact is that the majority of prisoners are released after serving only half their sentence. The Crime (Sentences) Bill will abolish automatic early release. Instead, prisoners who co-operate and behave well will be able to earn a small discount—20 per cent.—off their 345 sentence, creating an incentive for them to behave well. All those sentenced to more than a year will, on release, be supervised in the community for 15 per cent. of their original sentence. These proposals will ensure that the most dangerous criminals spend the longest under supervision. In addition, all sex offenders will be subject to extended supervision of 50 per cent. of their sentence, or 12 months, whichever is the longer. The courts will have the power to increase the period up to a maximum of 10 years.
Those are the main provisions in the Crime (Sentences) Bill. The Liberal Democrats are clear that they oppose them. They believe that current sentencing practice is adequate for persistent and dangerous criminals. They are entitled to that opinion. We at least know where they stand.
Labour has been less forthcoming. The hon. Member for Blackburn said that he would say whether his party would support the Bill when he saw it. But on Friday, having seen the Bill, he consistently refused to tell the BBC lunchtime news how his party would vote. Labour's position is untenable. The hon. Member for Blackburn has complained that my proposals raise "important issues of justice" and that they would lead tosentencing becoming arbitrary, taking insufficient account of the full circumstances of the offences and the offender".On 19 June—two months after I published the details of my proposals—the Labour party and its leader voted against them. That at least was logical. Apparently, Labour now argue that my position has changed. My position has not changed. The proposals in the Crime (Sentences) Bill are those set out in the White Paper in April—the very proposals that the Opposition attacked as unjust and voted against on that basis.
Yet over the past few days, Labour spin doctors have been working overtime. They have had two objectives. The first is to create a myth that my original sentencing proposals have been ditched. That is not the view of my critics in another place. More important—as I have already explained—it is completely untrue. Secondly, they seek to create the headline "Labour supports tough sentencing" when it does nothing of the kind.
The hon. Gentleman's proposals would leave it up to the Court of Appeal. There would be no guarantee whatever that the present pattern of sentencing for persistent house burglars and dealers in hard drugs would change at all. My proposals would provide that guarantee. If Opposition Members want the credit for supporting tough action, let them earn it. There should be no abstentions and no weasel words in reasoned amendments, but clear, unequivocal support. It can be demonstrated in only one way: by voting with us in the Division Lobby.
The Crime (Sentences) Bill was drafted to meet the need to protect the public. As the president of the Police Superintendents Association said, it is in "the national interest" that it should become law as quickly as possible. Yet Opposition Members complain that it was designed to put them on the spot. They made the very same complaint two years ago when they voted against the Prevention of Terrorism Act as IRA mortars were raining down on Heathrow airport. That complaint tells us all we need to know about the new Labour party. Labour 346 Members are put on the spot when they are asked to support tough anti-terrorism powers. They are put on the spot when they are asked to support stiff minimum sentences for career burglars and dealers in hard drugs. They are put on the spot when they are asked to support automatic life sentences for repeat serious sexual and violent offenders.
The Conservative party is not put on the spot. Our instincts are clear. We understand the importance of protecting the public. The country needs the Bill. It is crying out for the Bill and we are the only party that can be trusted to deliver it.
At this stage, I must announce that all Back Bench speeches are restricted to 10 minutes as there is such a great demand to participate in the debate.
§ Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)
After that speech, only one person is on the spot—the worst Home Secretary in Britain since the war.
Let me deal immediately with gun control. Of all the traumatic events in recent history, none has been worse than the killing in Dunblane on 13 March of 16 children and their teacher and the wounding of many others. When similar appalling events have occurred in the past, time has undermined the resolve of Parliament and the people to seek remedial action. Sadly, that was the case after Hungerford, but not after Dunblane. Thanks to the huge courage of the parents and the strength and dignity of the Snowdrop campaign, there is ever-increasing public support for an immediate ban on handguns in general civilian use.
We shall have a further opportunity to debate the issue on Second Reading of the Firearms (Amendment) Bill in a few weeks' time, but in view of the Home Secretary's opening speech, let me make Labour's position quite clear.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) and I, after careful consultation with the Home Affairs Committee and the Scottish group of Labour Members, presented the following report to the Cullen inquiry in May. It stated at paragraph 18:In general, given the lethal nature of handguns, we see a strong case for banning them altogether. The shooting fraternity must make a case for possession and if they can, they must suggest and accept restrictions and costs necessary to prevent such guns for being used for anything other than for target practice.At the end, we said:Following discussions with the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Scotland this report has been prepared to set out our initial views to the Cullen Inquiry. We shall of course, carefully consider all the evidence given to the Inquiry and the recommendations which Lord Cullen makes before coming to final conclusions.And that is exactly what we did.
On such a crucial issue, there is of course scope for honest disagreement. I am the first to accept that but, as I did in the statement two weeks ago, I must ask the Secretary of State to think again and reflect on the merits of his decision to allow a fifth of all handguns to remain available for licence.
§ Mr. Howard
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will lift the veil a little more on the decision-making processes of his party and explain the circumstances in which his hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) came to write a letter to his constituent on 24 September stating very clearly:People such as yourself will still he able to own handguns but they must be kept safely under lock and key at properly run centres.
§ Mr. Straw
Nor does he write mine. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition explained, we shall be having a free vote on the issue. If my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool wants to take a different decision from that which some of us will take, it is entirely a matter for him. In our judgment, gun control should be the last issue to be made into an official dispute between the parties. We and the Liberal Democrats have played our part in seeking to take the issue out of party politics by pledging a free vote. It is up to the Government to respond in a similar way.
Having observed the spectacle of disunity behind the Secretary of State while he was speaking, there can be only one reason why he and the Prime Minister are sticking to the decision not to allow a free vote: the Secretary of State is scared of the result of allowing Conservative Members to follow their own judgment on the issue. I must ask the Secretary of State to think carefully about the consequences of turning the issue into a partisan one, for it cannot then be resolved as a result of votes on the Firearms (Amendment) Bill and will end up following us through into the general election.
§ Mr. John Carlisle
We have noted that the hon. Gentleman does not want the issue to become party political. On that basis, perhaps he will tell the House whether his party invited Mrs. Ann Pearston of the Snowdrop campaign to address its conference or whether it just so happened that she was passing the door at the time and was invited in. Was she invited by the Labour party to address the conference or not? If she was, is that not taking the issue right into the party-political process?
§ Mr. Straw
Mrs. Pearston was a Conservative voter and we invited her without knowing anything about her party politics. She has made it clear that she would very readily have accepted an invitation to speak at the Conservative party conference as well. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman was slightly more measured in his tone than he was a couple of weeks ago when, with a quite deplorable lack of taste, he accused the Dunblane parents of being hysterical and emotional. Had I been in the position of the Dunblane parents, I would have been hysterical and very emotional indeed. They are also very angry about the lack of a proper response from some Conservative Members to the campaign for effective gun control.
§ Mr. Carlisle
I am grateful for the chance to clear up the matter. I said that the people who were getting 348 hysterical and emotional were the leaders of the campaign and its spokesmen and spokeswomen. I might say that the enormous postbag that I have had since then endorses that view, which is held by very many people and many, many members of the Labour party. Regrettably, I believe that such emotion takes those leaders and spokeswomen out of the argument. They have approached it in such a hysterical and emotional way, which has no place in the formation of legislation.
§ Mr. Straw
If that is so, I hope that the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle) will write to the Dunblane parents to apologise and withdraw his appalling words of two weeks ago.
On the Secretary of State's current position, the more I consider the case for allowing .22 pistols to continue to be licensed, the flimsier I find it. As the Police Federation said, .22 multi-shot pistols are just as lethal, and faster on the draw, than higher-calibre weapons. The only argument advanced by the Secretary of State for not imposing a complete general ban was his fear that a complete ban woulddrive underground an activity that could then be conducted without any safeguards for security".—[Official Report, 16 October 1996; Vol. 282, c. 835.]That would not happen, not least because rifle and shotgun shooting will still be available as alternative lawful sports. Moreover, we should not be blackmailed into such a position by the increasingly shrill and disingenuous arguments of the gun lobby. The Dunblane children could have been killed as easily and swiftly with a .22 pistol as they were with a 9 mm Browning. There must therefore be a complete ban on all handguns in general civilian use.
§ Mr. Straw
I had intended to leave the matter of firearms now as we shall return to it under the Firearms (Amendment) Bill, but if the hon. Gentleman wishes to intervene I will accept his intervention.
§ Mr. Budgen
Is it not a question of proportionality? Some 1 million firearms are held illegally; we wish to guard against the risk that somebody who holds a handgun in a heavily regulated club might leave it in circumstances such that someone else could pinch it. If regulations on such clubs are efficiently carried out, someone who wants to do a dreadful deed will get hold of an illegally held firearm rather than break into a club. The risk that the hon. Gentleman is guarding against is therefore tiny.
§ Mr. Straw
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it is an issue of proportionality, but he and I obviously disagree about how the public would best be served. I suspect that throughout the Firearms (Amendment) Bill we shall be on different sides of the argument. The most horrific massacres in the past decade have taken place using not illegal but lawful firearms. The Secretary of State's position is logically inconsistent: while he accepts that weapons of a higher calibre than .22 should be banned from general civilian use, he has created a huge loophole by allowing the continued availability of .22 multi-shot and single shot and lower calibre weapons.
§ Mr. Mellor
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that Lord Cullen specifically found that Thomas Hamilton would not have bought weapons on the illicit market had he been unable to obtain weapons legally? Is he also aware that it is precious little consolation to Robert Kennedy and Yitzhak Rabin that they were shot with a .22 calibre weapon?
§ Mr. Straw
The right hon. Gentleman is right on both points. In response to the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) about greater control on clubs, he should look at page 121 of the Cullen report, where Lord Cullen quotes in detail the view of the British Shooting Sports Council that, no matter what system of checks and paperwork was in place, somebody like Thomas Hamilton could still withdraw his weapon and use it.
The major issue before the House today is the Secretary of State's proposals for better control of crime. The Government's record on crime is the worst of any Government of a major western country since the war. In 17 years, crime has doubled. Today, 50,000 crimes will be committed—one every two seconds. Under the Conservative party, violent crimes—those that cause most fear in people—have risen even faster, and street robberies have risen by 400 per cent. since 1979. There is much more crime, but many more criminals are getting away with it. Although the number of crimes has doubled, the number of people convicted or cautioned for those crimes has fallen by almost a tenth. Only one crime in 50 results in a conviction. The Crown Prosecution Service drops far too many cases. Sentencing has become a lottery, witnesses are routinely intimidated and costs have spiralled. Alongside that, people must face not only the fear and reality of specific crimes but the constant, wearing anxiety of disorder in the streets caused by criminal anti-social neighbours, drug dealers and gangs of youths.
The Government's record is worst on youth crime. In 10 years, the number of youth crimes has risen sharply but the number of young criminals dealt with by the courts or the police for those crimes has fallen by a third. It is no wonder that so many young people believe that they can get away with their crimes when the youth justice system is in serious disarray. Many youngsters do not believe warnings or cautions that further criminal behaviour will lead to serious consequences because, even if they get to court, in more than half the cases another warning follows. The system fails too often to confront young offenders and their families with the consequences of their unacceptable behaviour. It fails too often to impress on young offenders the difference between right and wrong.
That appalling record on crime is an indelible stain upon the Conservative party. As the right hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor), a former Home Office Minister, said in the summer, the Conservative party is losing the plot on law and order. Having promised more law and better order, the Conservatives have delivered greater lawlessness and more disorder.
§ Mr. Mellor
The hon. Gentleman goes too far in what he says. I said that the Conservatives were in danger of losing the plot on the gun control issue; I made no wider comment.
§ Mr. Straw
With respect, the right hon. and learned Gentleman did say that. I will read the whole quotation. In The Guardian of 1 August 1996, he said:The Labour party is outflanking us on law and order and there is a serious danger of the Conservative party at all levels losing the plot.Faced with the rising tide of crime, the reaction of Conservative Ministers has been to panic. There have been 33 criminal justice Acts in 17 years, 12 in the past four years, more crime Bills since 1979 than in the previous 60 years, and there are five more Bills before the House this Session.
There would be no objection in principle even to that incontinent torrent of legislation if each Bill had been thought through carefully, if each Bill had built upon the experience of the last and, when it became an Act, if it had worked to cut crime and to improve public safety. Instead, the Government have lurched from one extreme to the other. As one ill-thought-through stratagem failed to work, the Conservatives discarded it for the exact opposite in the arrogant hope that the public would not notice the difference.
In March this year, the Secretary of State described the present sentencing system as a "mockery and a farce". As ever, the clear implication of his criticism was that that "mockery and farce" had nothing whatever to do with him. However, the system—that "farce and mockery"—is not the creation of some misguided liberal philanthropists of the last century nor or previous Conservative or Labour Governments. The system is just five years old: it is the creation of this Prime Minister and of this Cabinet, of which the Home Secretary is, and was, a leading member.
§ Mr. Howard
The hon. Gentleman knows that he is being absurd. He must accept that the system of parole and early release dates back a very long time—far beyond the Criminal Justice Act 1991. That Act increased the proportion of the sentence passed by the court which was served by the criminal. It did not go far enough, but it was a step in the right direction.
§ Mr. Straw
I am afraid that that will not do, as I shall show that huge parts of the 1996 crime sentencing legislation overturn key parts of the Criminal Justice Act 1991, for which the Home Secretary voted. It is not a matter of the Bill's proposals differing a little in emphasis from the 1991 legislation: one is a total contradiction of the other.
As the Secretary of State said, under the new Bill an offender's previous convictions will be critical in determining sentence length. However, under the 1991 legislation—for which the Secretary of State voted—the courts were generally banned from taking any account of previous convictions. The then Home Secretary—that well known left-winger, now Lord Waddington—referred to the need to ban courts from considering such convictions. He said:If an offender has already been punished for a previous offence it seems unfair and unjust to punish him twice over by increasing the penalty for a subsequent offence".—[Official Report, 20 November 1990; Vol. 181, c. 141.]Fixed so-called minimum sentences will now be the cornerstone of the Government's strategy for punishing the guilty. In 1991, the Government explicitly rejected 351 fixed minimum sentences on the grounds that they would increase crime. The 1990 White Paper, which preceded the legislation, stated:A system of minimum sentences…could result in more acquittals by juries, with more guilty men and women going free".Today the Government propose to trim the discretion of the judiciary because of inconsistency and a lack of progression in sentencing practice. In 1991, Ministers fiercely defended judicial discretion and, when Labour advanced measures to provide for greater consistency and uniformity in sentencing, they dismissed our proposals as unnecessary.
§ Mr. Straw
I shall give way in a moment. The then Home Office Minister, the right hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Mr. Patten), said that our proposals wouldend up like the experience in the United States".—[Official Report, 20 November 1990; Vol. 181, c. 232.]He said that they would producethe dead hand of conformity".—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 7 February 1991; c. 721.]Ministers—including the present Home Secretary and, I suspect, the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls)—voted down our proposals for greater consistency and instead voted in favour of unfettered judicial discretion.
§ Mr. Nicholls
So that the public can understand the hon. Gentleman's point about inconsistency, does he recall that he and his shadow Cabinet colleagues voted against the proposition that the prosecution should be entitled to appeal against over-lenient sentences? Will he take this opportunity to apologise both to the House and to the public for doing so while pretending that Labour is serious about matters of law and order?
§ Mr. Straw
I will take no lectures from the hon. Gentleman on our voting record. I have a transcript of the debate that took place on 20 June 1988. In debate on the Criminal Justice Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) introduced a series of proposals to control the sale of knives to those aged under 16 and to control the advertising and marketing of combat knives. The hon. Gentleman, however, together with the Home Secretary and the Deputy Prime Minister, voted against them and the Conservative party defeated our proposals. If those proposals had gone through, we would not have the dreadful knife culture that now afflicts this country.
As I made clear in a detailed document published in March this year, the present sentencing system is not working as it should. The description of sentences amounts, at best, to a benign deception of the public who can be clear neither about what a sentence means nor about when a prisoner is likely to be released. Worse still, the system lacks proper consistency or progression. The punishment that an offender receives may depend more on where the offender is sentenced than on what he or she is sentenced for.
In the Staffordshire Moorlands magistrates court, one in six defendants convicted of indictable offences receives an immediate sentence of imprisonment. In Maidenhead, Berkshire, the chance is not one in six, but one in 66. 352 We now have the bizarre situation where, according to figures that I gave in my paper, the sentence length for repeat house burglars remains the same—at 15 months—whether for a first, second or third conviction. The custodial sentence for dealing in drugs on a third conviction is two months less than on the first.
We need a sentencing system which operates clearly and transparently, is consistent between courts and is progressively more severe the more persistent or dangerous the criminal behaviour. It is on those aims—on the paramount need to improve public safety—that we shall judge the Crime (Sentences) Bill. The public, especially women and children, must be protected as far as possible from those who have raped and then rape again. Some 21 years ago, an official committee recommended an indeterminate reviewable sentence for such dangerous offenders. The proposal in the present crime Bill for an indeterminate life sentence to be imposed for repeat rapists and other serious sexual offenders, with exceptions, amounts to the same thing— and we support it. The sentence served will of course still be determined by reference to the particular offence and the particular offender.
§ Mr. Bermingham
I declare an interest as a practising lawyer. I recognise unreservedly the danger of the repeat rapist, but half the problem has always been that those serving a sentence for rape are not regularly medically assessed to determine whether there are any predilections toward a repeat offence. Would it not be sensible to invest in regular medical assessments for those who are sentenced once—never mind twice—for rape, and to allow those assessments to form part of the view of the parole board in deciding when it is safe to release them?
§ Mr. Straw
My hon. Friend makes an important point and we must consider it carefully. I know from my visits to vulnerable prisoner units that the Prison Service is already doing a good deal to get sexual offenders to confront their offending behaviour. I recall a chilling occasion when I was sitting in a cell with three prisoners who had been convicted of rape and one of them said to me—I think that he was telling the truth—that it had taken him eight years to recognise that it was not he, but the woman whom he had raped, who was the victim. The capacity of such rapists to turn the world upside down and to convince themselves that they are the victims is quite extraordinary.
Such people are profoundly dangerous. That is why we support the proposal that the decision to release someone convicted of a second serious sexual offence should not be made at the moment of sentencing, but at an appropriate time when it is judged safe to do so. The sentence in such a case will be determined by reference to the particular offence and the particular offender. After the minimum laid down by the trial judge, the parole board will decide on release when, in its opinion, it is safe to do so. There will therefore in practice be nothing fixed or automatic about the length of term served in such cases.
We support the aim of securing greater transparency or honesty in sentencing. I am concerned, however, that the Home Secretary's proposals could result in serious criminals being released without an assessment of the risk that they pose to the public and that the proposals could reduce the period of supervision in the community after release. That strong, though not irrefutable, case was 353 made by the Parole Board. We believe that there may be a means whereby the Home Secretary can achieve the accepted aim of greater honesty in sentencing without scrapping the mechanism developed to protect the public from dangerous criminals after they have served their sentence. We want to pursue that matter in Committee.
The third proposal in the Crime (Sentences) Bill is for so-called automatic fixed minimum sentences for drug dealers and domestic burglars convicted for a third time. The Home Secretary told us today that he had not changed his position. Who was he trying to kid? When he first announced the plan at the Conservative party conference last year, he said that he had a simple answer to those who offend again and again and again:If you don't want the time, don't do the crime.There were to be no exceptions to that rule. The word exceptions did not appear once in his speech to the 1995 conference.
The Home Secretary knew that his words were good for a headline, but he also knew that they would be hopeless as a policy: a wholly rigid and inflexible sentence to apply in every circumstance was, as he well knew, bound to produce manifest injustice and to lead, as his predecessors had all predicted, to more not guilty pleas and to more guilty people walking free.
The Home Secretary had to start watering down his proposals. In December, he conceded that there might have to be exceptions to the rule. By April, in a statement to the House, he grudgingly acknowledged that there would have to be exceptions, but said that they would be limited togenuine, very special, exceptional circumstances."—[Official Report, 3 April 1996; Vol. 275, c. 394.]The Government's White Paper referred to "occasional, quite unforeseeable circumstances".
Now all those qualifications have been dropped from the Bill and the courts are to be given a much wider discretion not to apply the so-called minimum if they are of the opinion that there are exceptional circumstances. As both the prosecution and the defence will be able to challenge the trial judge's definition of exceptional circumstances, the Court of Appeal will quite swiftly lay down detailed guidance on the criteria.
Next we learned that there would be up to a fifth off the sentence if the defendant pleaded guilty. In addition, for the largest category of criminals concerned—repeat domestic burglars—the provisions would not in practice start to bite until 2001.
The problem with the Home Secretary's original simple answer is that it was never really simple, just simplistic and naive. His clarion call about time and crime has now become, "If you don't want the time, don't do the crime until 2001 and, by the way, there's 20 per cent. off if you plead guilty and even more discount for exceptional circumstances." We dispute not the Home Secretary's aim—stiffer sentences—but his methods. He has rowed back a long way and we shall examine his proposals with greater care in Committee.
We support other proposals in the Bill, including the proposals for sensible alternatives to imprisonment for fine defaulters, the substitution of the Parole Board for 354 the Home Secretary's discretion on juveniles detained at Her Majesty's pleasure, and a new and long overdue provision for mentally disordered offenders.
§ Mr. Howard
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that he has no proposals for automatic life sentences for second serious violent offences?
§ Mr. Straw
I am glad that the Home Secretary asked that. In the past I have spoken of my concern about the breadth of the categories of offences that would trigger that proposal. I have no difficulty at all about those offences of serious violence which result in homicide or about sexual offences, but I have some reservations about the breadth of section 18 wounding. It would be sensible to discuss that matter in Committee, and we shall do that.
We shall ensure that the Bill receives a Second Reading when it is debated next week. In Committee, we shall scrutinise the detail and try to improve the Bill as a whole. We shall make final decisions on its separate specific elements once they have been fully considered.
One other measure in the Bill has our whole-hearted support: that relating to the calculation of time spent on remand. One thing that the Home Secretary told the Tory party conference last year has certainly come true: "Release from prison—", he said, "it comes too soon." Those words were ringing in the ears of 541 hardened criminals as they walked free in August, months—in some cases years—before their sentences should have come to an end. There are few better illustrations than that bizarre spectacle of the chaotic way in which the Home Secretary has administered the Prison Service. Clarification of the law is long overdue, and we shall secure it.
The legislative programme is as significant for what has been omitted as for what has been included. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has been Secretary of State for three and a half years. He has presided over a Prison Service in persistent crisis, a youth justice system in disarray, mounting public fear about crime and rising anxiety about the fracturing of our society. However, he has notched up one achievement to his credit that we would not dream of taking away.
§ Mr. Straw
I am generous.
Opinion polls record that the Conservative party is even less trusted on law and order now than it was three and a half years ago, when the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) was Home Secretary.
It may be the growing realisation that the Home Secretary's principal powers of persuasion are to drive voters into Labour's hands that led the chairman of the Tory party to make an otherwise extraordinary decision about the timing of debates at Conservative party conference a few weeks ago: those stars of the political stage, the Secretary of State for National Heritage and the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, were put on at prime time, with live coverage; but the Home Secretary's speech was delayed until live television coverage had been switched off—his place taken by Oprah Winfrey. Even Sky abandoned him. I had to surf the radio waves to hear his familiar tones crackling through the medium wave of Radio 5 Live. Those 355 members of the British public who, like me, were able to hear the Secretary of State, if not see him, would have heard him promise action on paedophiles, stalking and sex tourism. With regard to a Bill for a paedophile register, he said:I intend to bring it in.Of the proposed stalking Bill, he said "I will make sure" that women get protection from stalking.
If Conservative Members want to know why the Tory party has lost the plot on law and order, they should consider what followed. First, the Minister of State announced 10 days ago that the stalking Bill was to be left to the lottery of the private Member's Bill procedure. Only last week, we learned from The Times that the Bill to introduce a paedophile register would also remain outside the Government's programme. As soon as I found out about that change of position, I wrote to the Secretary of State to offer our co-operation to get the measures through. He wrote back almost as swiftly as I had sent the letter—rejecting the offer.
At 11.30 am last Wednesday, as Her Majesty was about to read her speech, the Secretary of State's senior officials and aides were briefing heavily on his behalf that there was no way in the world that the Secretary of State would allow these measures in Government time. It was to be the private Member's Bill route or nothing, and that position was repeated by Ministers in all lunchtime interviews.
At 3.30 pm my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition repeated the offer that the Secretary of State had rejected the day before. We then witnessed the extraordinary spectacle of an impromptu meeting of the legislation committee of the Cabinet taking place on the Treasury Bench, followed by the public humiliation of the Secretary of State as the Prime Minister overruled his decision of the previous day and announced that the two measures would, after all, be in the Government's legislative programme.
§ Mr. Howard
The hon. Gentleman knows how preposterous is the version of events that he has just given. The truth is that the offer made by the Leader of the Opposition across the Floor of the House bore no relation to the offer that the hon. Gentleman made in his letter to me. The offer that he made in his letter to me was that the Labour party would treat these Bills in the same way as in the last Session it treated the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Bill and the Security Service Bill, both of which took seven months to reach the statute book. We do not have seven months for these Bills to reach the statute book, so we could not possibly have acceded to his offer. The Leader of the Opposition made an entirely different offer of a fast-track procedure for these Bills, and that was why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister accepted it.
§ Mr. Straw
I have the letter with me that I wrote to the Secretary of State. The offer that I made was exactly the same as the offer that my right hon. Friend made. Indeed, my right hon. Friend made the offer because I had made the offer the day before and the Secretary of State had refused it.
So far as co-operation is concerned, the Secretary of State just made a very unwise intervention. I will, if I may, offer him this gratuitous advice. It does not do for 356 the Secretary of State to talk about the delays that took place on the Security Service Bill. He knows that we co-operated fully on that Bill. It was given its Second Reading on 10 January. It then went to Committee. Its Third Reading took place on 14 February and it was committed the very next day to the House of Lords. What happened next? For no reason to do with Opposition Members, but everything to do with Government business managers, the Conservative party then delayed the introduction of that measure for three further months. That was why it took seven months. It would have taken four months if they had followed our timetable.
§ Mr. Howard
Does the hon. Gentleman not appreciate that if a Bill has to be slotted into the main legislative programme without any offer of fast-track procedures that is precisely what will happen? That is why, in the absence of the assurance that we had from the Leader of the Opposition, it was sensible to say that a private Member's Bill would be the best way forward. It was only the assurance of the hon. Gentleman's right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition that made things different. Does the hon. Gentleman not understand that?
§ Mr. Straw
What I do understand is the advice that my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Healey once gave, and which I now give to the Secretary of State:If you are in a hole, stop digging.I am delighted that in the end we have ensured that the Secretary of State's clear promise at the Tory party conference will be now be backed by action and, as I said in my letter, we shall co-operate fully on these Bills, as we did last year on two important criminal justice Bills—the Security Service Bill and the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Bill. Indeed, so much did we co-operate that the Secretary of State and the Minister of State put their thanks on record.
Do not this sorry shambles and the dreadful display that we have just seen from the Secretary of State show how vacillation and indecision have again taken over the current Administration? They say one thing; they do another. The talk may be tough, but the action is weak and ineffectual. Indeed, in some cases, they say one thing and then do nothing.
One has only to consider the three-year saga on identity cards. First, we had the flagship policy from the Prime Minister, in April 1993, of compulsory ID cards. Then we had the holding policy from the Secretary of State of voluntary ID cards, followed by a diversionary argument about whether the Union flag should appear on the cards, and whether they were voluntary or compulsory. Then we had the intervention of the Tory right-wing leadership challenger, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), who said that any kind of ID card was a bad idea. So now we have no ID cards, just the fig leaf of a draft Bill that the Secretary of State did not even bother to mention.
As I made clear last year in the debate on the Security Service Bill, we support the principle of a properly accountable national police squad and look forward to co-operating with the Government to get this measure on 357 the statute book. We have also supported the plan for a criminal records agency, provided that there are effective safeguards, but we believe that that measure alone will not provide adequate protection against the scourge of cowboy, criminal private security companies.
There is now widespread appreciation that our society is deeply fractured. We are reaping the whirlwind of a selfish "me first" society in which too often people demand rights but refuse to accept responsibility. What we have proposed are measures so that communities can rebuild confidence and control over people's lives, so that young offenders and their parents are forced to accept responsibility for their wrongdoing before it goes too far. We have called for comprehensive measures to deal with neighbourhood disorder, where youngsters roam the streets without any adult supervision, to establish an effective duty on local authorities to work in partnership with the police, for a thorough reform of the youth justice system, new and tougher drug treatment and testing programmes to get addicts away from their habit, for a major shake-up of the Crown Prosecution Service, with locally accountable prosecutors for each police force area, and effective regulation of the private security industry. As we heard earlier, we also propose a ban on the marketing and sale of combat knives.
§ Mr. Michael Fabricant (Mid-Staffordshire)
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way on that point, although I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will be surprised that it has taken him so long to get there. Assuming that the hon. Gentleman is not synthetic in his strong views on the banning of knives, will he now give a clear definition of a combat knife so that the House can legislate swiftly to outlaw them?
§ Mr. Fabricant
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. When one asks a clear question for a clear definition so that the House can legislate—for the record, I have been present throughout the whole debate and have heard what the hon. Gentleman is about to read out—is it in order for the hon. Member to rattle out an answer that he gave a quarter of an hour or 20 minutes ago and not to answer my question?
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)
That is not a point of order for the Chair. Indeed, if it were, the burden on the Chair would be tremendous.
§ Mr. Straw
The hon. Gentleman knows very well that the drafting of Bills does not take place across the Floor of the House. However, like the Police Superintendents Association, I believe that it is possible to distinguish between a kitchen knife and a combat knife. What is 358 more, I also believe, and it was our opinion back in 1988—I do not think that the hon. Gentleman was in the House then, but no doubt he would have joined his hon. Friends and voted against the measures on the control—[interruption.]
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. As the hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant) is very keen that we should all be in order, I remind him that seated interventions are out of order.
§ Mr. Straw
We believe that it is possible not only to give a definition that will distinguish between kitchen knives and those disgusting combat knives, but to control the sale and marketing of combat knives, and we have done so for eight years.
I have made it clear that we require a more effective sentencing system. Given that only one crime in 50 results in a conviction, sentencing is only a partial solution to a far wider problem. A co-ordinated strategy is required to prevent crime and to tackle the underlying causes of crime, such as bad parenting, truancy, youth unemployment and drug and alcohol abuse. Each of the measures that we have proposed would make some difference and would improve the quality of people's lives, but taken together they would significantly shift the balance against the wrongdoer, and improve the self-confidence of citizens and their communities. They would re-establish the notion that responsibility and respect for others are the preconditions of rights and freedoms from others.
None of the proposals to which I have referred should be controversial, because they have been widely welcomed by the police, local authorities and groups campaigning for better standards of parenting. Yet time and again, our proposals are dismissed by this Administration. First, they say that the measures are not necessary. Then, as they discover how detached they are from public opinion, they introduce half-hearted versions of our proposals and hope that the public will not notice that they have made yet another U-turn.
The current Administration have presided over the near collapse of the youth justice system, which is ineffectual, wasteful and replete with delay. It permits scandals such as the one in Mansfield, Nottingham, where six young offenders were arrested 419 times last year before any effective action was taken. The Secretary of State always talks tough, but his actions are too often weak or even non-existent.
The Government have been panicked by our proposals and by an Audit Commission report that is likely to be damning in its criticism. Consequently, they have drawn up new plans for young offenders, as the Prime Minister told the Tory party conference. However, it seems that there are no plans to reform the youth courts, and there is little prospect of any action this side of the election. It has been the same old story with knives, child sex tourism, stalking and paedophiles: so anxious are the Government 359 to score cheap political points that they put the interests of victims and their communities below the self-interest of the Tory party.
The first duty of any Government is to secure the safety of their citizens and their communities. On that, the present Administration have failed. They have lost not only the plot on law and order, but the confidence of the British people. The Government are profoundly out of touch with people's feelings and anxieties. They lack a proper understanding of the causes of crime, and they have no coherent strategy or vision for dealing with the epidemic of crime and disorder that now scars the nation. We shall be tough on crime, and tough on its causes. We shall give communities the power to help people face up to their responsibilities. We shall close the yawning gap between the number of crimes and the number of convictions. We shall make this country a safer place.
§ Mr. David Mellor (Putney)
I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State on a vigorous speech, with almost all of which I entirely agreed. I am sorry that, owing to the constraints of time, I must focus on the one section with which I did not agree.
I can tell the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) that I recall the comment about losing the plot. It was made on the radio in the aftermath of the publication of the Home Affairs Select Committee's report. I assure the hon. Gentleman that, if I had thought that the Government had lost the plot on law and order, I would not have been afraid to say so, but that is not what I said. I suspect that he is relying on an errant transcription taken down from the radio.
I reiterate what I have said since Dunblane. I think that the Government would have been well advised to move more swiftly on this matter, and in the direction of a total ban. But I do not believe, and have never said—I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not continue to say that I said it—that the Conservative party has lost the plot on law and order.
I hope that the superficial, partisan element of this debate will be calmed down. In the aftermath of the shooting, the Prime Minister invited the Leader of the Opposition to go with him to Dunblane. The two of them stood together with the Secretary of State for Scotland and the shadow Scottish spokesman. As they were all deeply moved, indeed overwhelmed, by such a singular tragedy in the history of our nation, I hoped that it marked the beginning of a process that would enable the House to move swiftly and decisively towards a resolution of this matter in a way that would gain the public's sympathy.
Thomas Hamilton was able to obtain a small arsenal of handguns with the assent of the public as expressed through our laws and the way in which they were applied. He was then able to go into that school and massacre 16 infants and their teacher. It is perfectly understandable that the public want a repudiation of the gun culture, and of the introduction in this country of the alien concepts of the right to bear arms and the right to use handguns—I am not making the point about shotguns, because they are different—as depicted in American mass entertainment.
I still think that it would have been better to have disciplined discussions between the parties. Hon. Members should have had the opportunity to state their 360 views before the Government had made up their mind on their response to the Cullen report. My right hon. and learned Friend has proposed a measure that will go a long way towards resolving the problem: indeed, I previously thought that it could have been an opportunity for compromise. The tragedy is that public opinion has hardened. As predicted, Lord Cullen was unable to help on policy issues—he is a judge, and it is not a judge's job to make policy.
§ Mr. Mellor
I do not have time to give way.
It is a judge's job to evaluate evidence, not to make policy. My right hon. and learned Friend must have been as distressed as the rest of us when he woke the day after he made his statement. It was as if he had done nothing about this matter. He said that, after such a singular tragedy, each of us should draw on our own experience when making up our minds, and I hope that that is the spirit in which hon. Members will make up their minds—some more speedily than others, because some of us have had experience of this problem. I was a Minister in the Home Office for more than five years, which is at least as much as anyone else. My view is that a tightening of the gun laws is long overdue.
The range of options is fairly narrow: we reject the Government's proposals—as some of my hon. Friends want to do—because they go too far; or we accept them as a reasonable balance between the interests of the wider community and those of shooters; or we say that they do not go far enough and that there should be a total ban.
The Government are faced with two unpalatable alternatives, one of which is to be defeated. After 17 years in the House, I have never voted against the Government on a three-line Whip. I do not want to be turned into a rebel merely to be consistent in my view about what needs to be done. Ultimately, we will all have to bend to the will of the public, as the Government have shown. I am sure that they wanted a much less draconian proposal than the measure that they have introduced.
The public will not be denied on this issue. The tragedy for the Government is that, even if they carry the day, they will gain small comfort, because the public will think that the measure is wrong.
§ Mr. Mellor
No, I will not, because I have only 10 minutes.
It would be better if we were allowed to bring our independent judgments to bear. There would be no shame or disgrace on anyone for having held any particular view. I hope that that can be done.
Clubs will have to go to much trouble and fuss to establish proper storage arrangements for .22 calibre guns. There are more than 2,000 clubs, whose members do not want this measure. They are supposed to operate a compromise that they have rejected out of hand. I do not see the point of that.
Derisive comments were made when I asked my right hon. and learned Friend how he would feel if people traded down from one calibre of handgun to another. 361 If it is the public will—as I believe it is—to do away with handguns altogether, what is the point of saying that only 40,000 of the 160,000 handguns will be left, when the truth of the matter is that many people will simply invest in .22 calibre guns? Those .22 calibre guns are known to be extremely dangerous. They were responsible for the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Yitzhak Rabin, and for the attempted assassinations of Governor Wallace and President Reagan. That is why I hope that the House will not underestimate the strength of public feeling on this matter.
The Government have a good record in dealing with the problem of knives. Some categories have been banned by order, and the Bill that had Government support in the last Session increases the penalties for going out with knives. It is right to look further, and I hope that that will be done in the spirit of sensible co-operation between the Front Benches.
We should make some further legislative intrusion into the culture of violence which leads to those dreadful magazines that were produced by Opposition spokesmen and the description of weapons that are manifestly sold on the basis of their ability to harm others rather than on their usefulness in the kitchen. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) mentioned that. That should not be beyond the wit of people, and some of the ingenuity that is being used to say that it cannot be done should be used to say that it must be done.
Why are Rambo side-swords or whatever they are called being produced? It is for only one reason—as a contribution to the culture of violence that we have imported by our unthinking acceptance of American entertainment norms. The House needs to grasp that. I was a Minister with responsibility for broadcasting and I am aware that we have all permitted this to happen, but even in Hollywood people are becoming aware of the unacceptable culture of violence. Each film is trying to push the frontier even further forwards, gratuitous violence is pumped in and television follows.
What is spawning the kind of young thug who murdered Philip Lawrence? It is the fact that he could go round as a Triad. Did he learn about Triads even in the advanced history classes in inner-London schools? Absolutely not: he learned about Triads from a cult of unpleasant and unattractive films, which influenced his immature mind. Many people can endure such stuff but others cannot, and we shall have to look long and hard at the issue. It is not a matter for legislation. It is more likely to be a case of asking the British Board of Film Classification to tighten up on violence.
Throughout the 1980s, we were obsessed with sex in films, when we should have been obsessed with violence. It is the unwillingness of television companies, film makers and film distributors to come to terms with that which leads to the kind of climate that breeds the parasites, the people who run the clubs that pander to the taste for violence that has captured the imagination of some people in society, some of whom inevitably ape what they see in public entertainment.
I warmly welcome the Home Secretary's proposals on paedophiles. The problem is that it is extremely difficult for a person, once committed to paedophilia, to get rid of 362 the habit. The difficulty that bedevils the law in this area is that people are punished for what they have done but are released without any test for dangerousness. Future danger is what we must fear, and that can lead to ghastly situations, as in the murder of young Sophie Hook. Howard Hughes, who was a known paedophile, was regarded as a ticking time-bomb, a disaster waiting to happen. However, he could not be apprehended until he had done something vile. I hope that the Home Secretary's proposed changes to the law can deal with that.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. The right hon. and learned Gentleman's 10 minutes are up. I call Mr. Denzil Davies.
§ Mr. Denzil Davies (Llanelli)
Some of the Bills mentioned in the debate will receive a Second Reading and be debated again several times. In the nine and three quarter minutes that are left to me, I shall deal with the seven lines in the Gracious Speech on the European Union and their failure to relate to the single currency or its constitutional consequences.
I am not surprised that the Government did not mention the single currency. Since 1972, the Government and, I am sorry to say, the Opposition have embarked on a journey of obfuscation on the constitutional consequences for the House and for democratically elected Governments of a single currency. The leadership of both main parties are determined to establish that a decision to join the single currency is a matter of economics and nothing else. It is said that it is a question for the counting house and not about the United Kingdom's constitution and the power of the Government.
Whatever the economic advantages or disadvantages—that matter poses difficult questions—the single currency is substantially about democracy. As I have said, it is about the power of democratically elected Governments over the economy. Whatever one's view of the economic consequences, it cannot be denied that joining the single currency would considerably diminish our already imperfect democracy.
The powers that now reside with democratically elected Governments over a range of significant economic functions such as the exchange rate, the setting of interest rates, the control of the money supply, price stability, the control of inflation and the level of public borrowing would be lost. Those powers would go to a European central bank or to the Commission, or they would be entrenched in treaties, all of which would be supervised and controlled by the European Court of Justice. Powers currently exercised by Ministers in democratic states would be exercised by bankers, bureaucrats and lawyers.
Many people argue that it is not necessary to have such powers, or that they are illusory, and democratic Governments do not really possess them. It is also said that they are too important to the functioning of a modern economy to be left to democracy. For example, let us examine power over the exchange rate. We have been told that devolution is bad and no panacea, so it is better not to have it. Of course it is not a panacea. Everybody understands that, from time to time, short-term adjustments have to be made to an economy, and that the power to devalue helps to make such adjustments.
363 The German Government are desperate to devalue the mark because of problems over productivity and wage costs. I have not read pompous editorials in the Financial Times about how terrible is devaluation. The Germans are said to be adjusting their parity, or trying to, and of course it is being adjusted down, because that has short-term benefits. I make no criticism of the Germans for that.
A few years ago, many people said to me that the Government no longer had power to set interest rates, and that anyway the Bundesbank does it. One good feature that emerged recently is the transparency introduced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his fine-tuning of the British economy with the Governor of the Bank of England. It is a crazy system, but at least we know that it is done by the British Government. That has been happening since the war, but it now it takes place more or less in public. The British Government, quite properly after consultation with the Governor of the Bank of England, determine interest rates.
Price stability is a strange concept. I understand that it means that inflation should be zero, or perhaps 1 per cent., and that decisions should be taken on the basis that inflation must remain very low or be non-existent. That is the latest economic ideology. Again we are told that price stability is too important to be left to politicians but must be entrenched, as it is in the Maastricht treaty. None of us must touch this economic icon.
One can imagine on 1 January 1999 this icon of price stability being carried through the streets of Frankfurt, bedecked, bejewelled and painted, taken to the cathedral of the European central bank and placed there away from democracy and the mobs in the streets, so that it is unsullied and undesecrated. But economic fashion changes, and economic ideologies come and go. The gold standard was considered a marvellous ideology, and perhaps it was for a long time. If the Maastricht treaty had been drawn up in the gold standard era, we would have had an entrenched clause in the treaty saying that the gold standard had to go on for ever and be protected by treaty.
It is said—I do not know whether it is true—that, when Britain eventually came off the gold standard in the 1930s, a former Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer said, "Nobody told us we could do that." If we had had the Maastricht treaty in the 1930s, we could not have gone off the gold standard.
We come to the 1950s and that now despised ideology, if I can so describe it, of Keynesianism. For 20 years, from the 1950s to the middle of 1970s at least, there was no alternative to the doctrines and theories of John Maynard Keynes. All the political parties agreed. Bankers did not spit on Keynes in the 1950s and 1960s. Again, if we had had the Maastricht treaty then, Keynes's theories would have been entrenched in that treaty, to go on for ever, despite the changing economic circumstances of the 1970s, which in the end destroyed that economic fashion and ideology.
I dare say that price stability will not last very long either, and that that economic fashion will become outdated, but we are asked to entrench it for ever. The House will not be able to change it. Democratically elected Governments will have no power to do so. It is supposed to be put beyond the reach of the horrible mob and that terrible thing called democracy.
364 Finally, there is public debt and public borrowing. The House knows—I will not go over it again—about the 3 per cent. and the 60 per cent., but, in addition, it is necessary to introduce a stability pact into the operation. Understandably, we cannot have Governments inflating their public borrowing and then seeking redress or recompense, or to be paid by the other European Union Governments, so we are going to write in another limitation on the power of democratically elected Governments—this time the limitation that they cannot borrow more than a certain figure—again all to be entrenched in non-democratic institutions and treaties.
My party believes—I subscribe wholly to that belief—in devolution. We believe in taking power from bureaucracy in the United Kingdom—in Wales, Scotland and the regions of England—and handing that power somehow to regional assemblies, which will be able to debate these matters. That would be two steps forward for democracy, but, if we signed up to the single currency, it would be eight steps back for democracy.
We all protest that we believe in democratic accountability, in bringing power to the regions—we all make these speeches and, I think, we all believe them—yet here we are embarked on an exercise that will diminish and floor democracy by entrenching these ideologies and theories, which will never be able to be changed, either by the House or by a democratically elected Government.
I mean no disrespect, but the Gracious Speech is half a speech, because it is for half a Parliament. The next Queen's Speech in about six months will be that of a new democratically elected Government. It will be made at the threshold of conclusions in the intergovernmental conference and of major decisions on the single currency. I live in hope that the next Queen's Speech will frankly tell Parliament and the people the consequences of the single currency for the House. I live in hope, hut experience tells us otherwise.
§ Sir Peter Lloyd (Fareham)
I am not going to follow the right hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies) in his disquisition on the single currency, but I am happy to endorse what he says, and hope that his party listens to him with care. Instead, I should like to reach guns and sentencing via Hong Kong—a circuitous route, I know.
I applaud the references to Hong Kong in the Gracious Speech. I took the British Nationality (Hong Kong) Act 1990 through the House. It proved a far-sighted measure—good for Hong Kong, for China and for the United Kingdom—even if it was more limited than I would have liked it to be. I was conscious, however, that some loose ends were left, which I expected to be dealt with reasonably soon afterwards. Citizenship for war widows was one example. Although the substance was conceded, with an undertaking that they could come to the UK whenever they wanted, the desire for citizenship was insensitively and pointlessly denied for years.
That is now to be remedied, I believe, but it should have been done before. I hope that any other such claims on our duty and loyalty to the people in Hong Kong—for instance, in relation to the armed services or the ethnic minorities, who have no other home—will be dealt with imaginatively and generously.
365 It would be a pity if our departure from Hong Kong were marred by minor meanness. I am glad that we shall be having a debate on Hong Kong before Christmas, when such matters can be dealt with more thoroughly than I can do now.
We shall also have a debate, it seems even sooner, on the firearms Bill. It was right that the Government should immediately set up a review of gun laws in response to the appalling atrocity at Dunblane. It was right to pay special attention to the bereaved parents and the horrified disbelief of the public at large. It is, however, seldom right to legislate at high speed out of sympathy and guilt. Our duty in the House is to make sound, just and effective law. Lord Cullen appears to have produced a thorough review, which should be studied and thoroughly discussed. I am not yet convinced that the Government are justified in going beyond his recommendations.
I have never been interested in shooting. It has always seemed to me a boring sport, and I have always felt suspicious of people who find it exciting. However, many law-abiding people gain sober pleasure and satisfaction from the combination of discipline, co-ordination and concentration that accurate shooting requires. They are not a threat to society. Their guns are held securely, and we can require that they are held even more securely and that licences are even more difficult to obtain.
We should do that, but I wonder whether it is right, or a fitting memorial to the murdered children, to ban a lawful sport and to incur a large bill for compensation, which could be spent on genuinely effective anti-crime programmes, when there is little or no evidence that the public—children or adult—would be any better protected as a result.
I have similar reservations about the crime Bill. It contains much of value, but its proposals, particularly on sentencing, do not seem to have been properly thought through, and we shall regret it if they reach the statute book unchanged. It will not achieve greater honesty in sentencing, and ending parole will leave the public less well protected. Minimum sentences will not better deter, but they will certainly lead to injustice in a proportion of cases, which will bring those changes, and thus criminal justice in Britain, into disrepute.
By contrast, not enough use is made of indeterminate sentences—partly, I suspect, because, to sound fiercer, they are called life sentences, although that greater honesty that is much spoken of in this context would demand another name.
I made those points more fully in the debate on sentencing in the summer. As I shall no doubt repeat them on Second Reading, I shall not weary the House now. I will say that Parliament has the duty as well as the power to limit the discretion of judges, if justice and the safety of the public require it. In 1991, Parliament restricted the right of courts to take previous offences into account. That was a mistake that had to be remedied.
We should beware of making a similar error at the other end of the law and order spectrum. It will not be sufficient to allow judges discretion just in cases where there are exceptional circumstances, as the Bill presently does. The problem will come with cases in which a concatenation of ordinary factors makes the mandatory sentence the 366 wrong one. The court will be left with no opinion but to pass it. I hope that further debate will produce amendments that will transform the Bill into the good legislation that it could be.
§ Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)
Never have home affairs Bill provided such a large proportion of the Gracious Speech—and that was true even before two Bills were added, although that was more by accident than design. I welcome the Prime Minister's decision—a genuine change of mind to incorporate the stalking Bill and paedophile register into the Government's programme—but I criticise some previous actions. I heard the Minister of State's announcement the week before because I attended the conference that he addressed, and it was successfully designed to secure the headline "Government will put stalkers behind bars". However, he never said that the Government would not introduce the Bill. That should have been the announcement: "Government to exclude stalking Bill from programme". Thankfully, that was overturned by the Prime Minister.
To compound the felony, Ministers went around saying that a private Member's Bill would have been a fast-track method of dealing with that legislation. Clearly some Ministers have never attempted to take a private Member's Bill through the House—otherwise they would know that such a Bill could not be introduced until shortly before Christmas at the earliest, and that its prospects would depend on which hon. Members came high in the ballot. I can think of two or three Conservative Members—a couple of whom have intervened in this debate—who would not have adopted such a Bill. Also, the subsequent stages of a private Member's Bill are much more staggered than those of Government Bills.
If the Government want to know what is meant by a fast-track Bill, they should consider their agenda for Thursday, when the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office Bill will be taken on a fast track through the House in Government time. That is the only real fast track that allows proper debate and consideration. The Minister of State, the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe), suggested that the stalking Bill could be taken through all its stages in one day—that we should not even debate and properly examine the details of that complex legislation. One can take a Bill through the House reasonably quickly and still examine it properly. Taking it through the House without any debate at the closing moments of Friday business is not a reasonable way to legislate—and would be a great disservice to the people whom we seek to protect. Both Bills are important. If we get them right, they are potentially of real value.
Other Bills have fallen by the wayside. The Government have now announced that they are sympathetic to a sex tourism Bill, but it is still not in their programme. This afternoon, the Home Secretary appeared to suggest, in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Ms Lynne), that the Government have not finally decided to exclude such a Bill from their programme. Perhaps it will appear as one of the other measures that will be laid before us. The right hon. and learned Gentleman did not seem to exclude that possibility, so we will continue placing pressure on him.
We would like a Bill, or the inclusion of appropriate clauses in other Bills, to regulate the private security industry. It remains a scandal that criminals can gain such 367 easy access to an industry that offers them the opportunity to commit further crimes while posing as protectors of the public. The industry itself wants change and is crying out for regulation.
We are in favour of draft Bills, but it is a bit of a joke to say that the identity cards Bill is being published as a draft. It has already been the subject of widespread consultation and the Home Secretary has already told Ministers which flags must appear on the card. It is called a draft Bill because of deep division in the Government.
The route for draft Bills looks compromised and blocked, now that the draft adoption Bill is not to feature in the Government's programme. It was the subject of widespread consultation but has disappeared from view, despite having enjoyed widespread support—which suggests that the Government's inclusion of various measures as draft Bills is not constitutional reform but the pigeonhole into which losing candidates were put when left out of the Queen's Speech.
We welcome the Police Bill. I am on record as arguing that it should have come before the House before the Security Service Bill, because it attempts to put in place a system of national co-ordination of police intelligence and national operations against crime, into which Security Service work must be plugged. The provision for formal authorisation of eavesdropping is important and we need to get it right. It raises the matter to which the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) referred—press speculation that admissibility of eavesdropping evidence in court might be introduced by means of yet another Bill. The Home Secretary sounded as though he had not heard about that issue before and gave an extremely defensive answer.
It is a matter of anxiety that a body as important at the National Criminal Intelligence Service appeared to command such little confidence in a recent survey. That service's work is extremely important. Its position has been far too shadowy and has been inadequately provided for in legislation.
What is needed are more policemen and confidence-building measures in communities. Must the new policeman's helmet be in the form that has appeared? The public will find it baffling to see police officers looking like people gathering for a cycle club outing. Police uniform has some bearing on public perception, and many officers regard the dignity of their uniform as something to be considered with care. I appreciate that the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton), who is the Minister of State, Scottish Office, is not in a position to comment, because the traditional helmet is not worn in Scotland except by the British Transport police. However, that helmet is significant in England, where the public make traditional assumptions. Anything that chisels away at those assumptions can be unwise.
We have said all along that we will assist during the passage of the Firearms (Amendment) Bill through the House. The Government have accepted a mass of Lord Cullen's recommendations. Some of them present cost problems. The vetting of youth leaders is important, but the Scout Association has pointed out that it will incur extra costs. Many other organisations will do the same. Those costs will represent an investment in preventing crimes that may be committed by unsavoury people who get into youth leadership work, and will ensure that youth 368 organisations can continue their good work. That is vital in turning another generation of young people away from crime. Their role is underestimated.
All parties have gone beyond Lord Cullen's recommendations on handguns, which did not say that they should be outlawed. All parties have sought, in different degrees, to take account of strong public concern and demand. That emphasises my party's belief that there should be a free vote on that legislation—the differences of opinion we have heard from Conservative Members make it obvious that that should be so—or some hon. Members will be dragooned into voting for something in which they do not believe and think unwise.
The Government's proposals on handguns do not command support from people who would like a total ban or from shooting sports organisations, which view the proposals as unworkable and offering no reasonable prospect of a continuation of Olympic standard sports shooting. Nor do the Government's proposals command support among the police. The Police Federation has made it clear that it anticipates real difficulties in trying to administer the Government scheme. We must look for another approach. When an amendment on a total ban is proposed—perhaps by a Labour Front Bencher—right hon. and hon. Members will examine its exemptions. Will there be an exemption for professional use, such as by veterinary surgeons? Will there be an exemption that would allow the Commonwealth games to take place in Manchester in 2002, as planned? It is clear that all party leaders have felt it necessary to respond to enormous public concern.
The Government will also have to re-examine compensation. They have shown a willingness to compensate at market value the owners of guns that are made illegal, but clubs may be forced to close. Many of the legitimate businesses involved are small firms of the kind that the Government claim to favour, but those firms are being hit disastrously. Compensation must not be limited to gun owners. If the Government's proposals are passed, some gun owners will be unable to use their legal weapons because no club will be available to them—and will be unable to sell those guns because the market in them will have collapsed. If a total ban is not introduced, some provision will have to be made for that category. Let us not pretend that the legislation that we eventually pass will solve the problem. Many other types of gun will still be legally available and licensed and there will be many illegal guns. Effective policing remains crucial.
We want the Government to look at the knives issue and we have underlined our willingness to co-operate. Even if the only effect of banning combat knives is to prevent certain types of knives from being advertised, that, in itself, will be helpful.
We are also concerned about violence on television and videos. I gave a wry smile when I heard the Home Secretary say with pride that the Government had legislated against violent videos, as I knew that it was the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton), supported by hon. Members on both sides of the House, that forced the Government to take action in a previous Criminal Justice Bill.
I want to deal with sentencing. Our prisons are already scandalously overcrowded. Leading figures in the Prison Service concede that we might have to move to weekend prison sentences to cope with the pressure on our prisons.
369 Prison regimes designed to stop people coming out of prison as hardened criminals are falling by the wayside because of the pressures on the service. It is against that background that the Government want to make the fundamental constitutional change of taking away from courts and judges the ability to decide when life or other sentences are appropriate.
The issue is not whether a rapist should receive a life sentence at the second offence; it is whether Parliament should decree that a judge should, in all but the most exceptional circumstances, pass that sentence. That is what the issue is about—not the effectiveness of particular sentences. It is about what the framework should be. We believe that the proposed legislation—as well as its Scottish shadow to be brought in in its wake—is fundamentally misconceived. It runs counter to the Government's previous policies and legislation and to the work of previous Home Secretaries, such as the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Hurd). There are constitutional objections as well as numerous practical objections.
If the legislation is passed, in cases of rape there will be fewer guilty pleas and greater ordeals for women victims of rape as they are questioned in an extremely unpleasant and oppressive way. More rapists will walk free because they will not have the incentive to plead guilty. Indeed, some rapists may murder because there will be no difference in penalty for the two crimes.
There will be an effect on the fight against drugs. If the legislation is passed, less intelligence will be available because the sentence will be automatic. Recently, some serious drug offenders were given extraordinarily broad concessions, presumably because they had provided intelligence that assisted in the apprehension of other offenders. [Interruption.] Whether or not that was the right route to use in that case, there is no doubt that it will be more difficult to use that route in future and intelligence will dry up. In addition, the parole system will be seriously undermined, almost to the point of being destroyed.
The cost of the proposals will be phenomenal—about £400 million a year on the Government's own estimate. Twelve new prisons are to be built. Where will the money come from? What part of the Home Office budget will suffer? Will it be policing? Will it be probation work? Will the money come from other Departments' budgets, such as education or social services? Will it come from the other agencies that are needed to fight crime?
§ Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham)
The right hon. Gentleman rightly points out the cost of keeping people in prison, but what about the cost of leaving them at large to burgle our constituents' houses? What about the costs to the insurance companies, our constituents, the courts and the police who arrest those people time and time again?
§ Mr. Beith
We want offences prevented. The whole of the Government's policy approach is from the wrong end. It says, "Let us accept that there will be lots and lots of burglaries and violent crimes and then let us lock up people for longer and longer and in such a manner that they will be even more likely to commit further crimes when they eventually get out." The Government's policy does not deal with crime prevention.
370 The transfer of resources involved in building 12 new prisons will decimate the programmes necessary to prevent the offences from being carried out in the first place. In particular, the potential impact on policing is disastrous. Of course, it will not happen. We know—and the Government know—that those 12 new prisons will not be built. No part of this policy will be implemented—it is gesture politics. The Labour party should not fall for gesture politics. I acquit the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) of doing so with the Scottish Bill, as the Labour party made clear its fundamental opposition to it. Labour's opposition is not so clear when it comes to the English Bill. Indeed, if it does not oppose the Bill, it had better say how many prisons it is prepared to build and how much expenditure it would approve for a massive prison building programme. We will oppose the Bill because it is fundamentally misconceived and will damage programmes to prevent crime.
Sentencing is only a small part of fighting crime. Policing, preventing crime in every community and teaching young people the practical skills of parenting and citizenship and making them feel that they have a place in society will all be severely damaged by the transfer of resources involved in the proposed Bill, yet they are essential if we are to tackle crime.
The Conservative party, which is in office for just a few more months, has seen a doubling of crime, despite taking the opportunity to introduce a new Criminal Justice Bill every year. Each Bill was supposed to contain the answers to the problems of crime. Now, the Government are engaged in last-minute gesture politics, bringing forward proposals that will not work and that will not even come into force until long after the Government have gone for good. They cannot be taken seriously.
§ Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton)
I do not know why the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) says that it is gesture politics to promise to build 12 more prisons. We have built 22 prisons over the past decade and a half at a cost of £1.4 billion, providing 11,656 new places. If we have done it once, we can do it again. The right hon. Gentleman's remarks are just one example of the Liberal Democrats' ridiculous attacks on the Government.
The ludicrous speech of the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) should not pass without mention. As the Opposition see their lead in the public opinion polls slipping away, they are beginning to panic. As a result, the noise as they leap on to every passing bandwagon is becoming deafening. The whole country knows that their record on law and order is a disgrace. They have opposed or failed to support practically every toughening measure that the Government have introduced over the past 13 years.
Many of the ills in our society are due to the years of weak, wet, feeble socialism that the Labour party now rejects, but that found its way into all our Departments of State, including the Home Office. The Opposition seem to think that the public are less intelligent than they really are in noting such nonsense. They will get a big surprise when the next election comes if they stand on a law-and-order platform.
In contrast, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary is determined to protect people from crime. He has presented this country with a series of excellent 371 measures for the protection of society. They have the support not only of the police but of those whom we represent in this place. I shall come to those measures in a moment, but in passing I want to mention handguns. The Home Affairs Committee found that there was no rational case for banning handguns. That position was vindicated by Lord Cullen—someone who could not be considered to be a member of the Conservative party or to be looking at the matter through political eyes. However, there is a political imperative, because in a democracy a Government who ignore the deep feelings of a large number of people do so at their peril. So there is some justification for doing what the Government propose, despite there being no practical, rational case for banning just handguns.
On the Police Bill, I welcome the Government's response to the Home Affairs Committee's recommendations on organised crime—a national crime squad and closer liaison between the police and the home security service. I also welcome the Bill's provision on employees' criminal records—again, something that the Home Affairs Committee recommended in its report on the private security industry. As one who originally encouraged the Stalking Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Ms Anderson), I commend the Government for making the Bill so much more useful and effective after proper and due consideration than it would have been had it been rushed through.
The Home Affairs Select Committee has not had time to consider the issue of combat knives. I find it very odd, however, that, after the many years in which we have been talking about this issue and as recently as January 1996—during the passage of the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland)—Labour agreed that there was, as yet, no definition that could exclude combat knives. The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) has suddenly decided that there is a definition for such knives. Unfortunately, he could not remember the definition, or there was not one, and he did not have it written on the piece of paper that he had in front of him.
The hon. Member for Blackburn told us that the police, or representatives of the police, have changed their minds on the subject. They said that there must be a definition. But where is the definition? The British public will laugh at the hon. Gentleman and at the Labour party for saying, "There is a definition, but we cannot tell you what it is."
Labour says, "There is no need for a definition for sales and display restrictions." But that is nonsense if one cannot define what it is that one cannot sell or display. Moreover, it is spurious nonsense, because anyone found with a combat knife in a public place without a good reason would be liable for up to two years' imprisonment under the Offensive Weapons Act 1996, which Conservative Members introduced and passed earlier this year.
I come now to the main issue that we are debating: the sentencing Bill. Ordinary people have grown fed up with what they consider to be rising crime. I do not think that it is necessary to argue about whether they are fed up with increasing crime or with an increase in reported crime because more people are reporting crimes. Whatever the facts, people are fed up with the situation and with the inability of the police, the courts and the criminal justice system to do very much about it. In any given part of the 372 country, they are fed up with a relatively small hard core of offenders who are back on the streets a short time after being arrested, who then commit more crime. The public are fed up with the absurdity of judges telling offenders that they will go to prison for four years, and the offenders being out and about in a year or two.
So the Government are doing something about the situation. The Government have taken a string of action to reduce crime. That action has been effective, because crime has fallen by 10 per cent. over the past three years. There is more to be done, however, and we are not complacent about the situation. The proposals have the people's overwhelming support, as measured in public opinion polls.
I must make one very important point. The proposals are not justified only because they are popular, but because, in our free society, our criminal justice system works only if it has the approval and support of the people it is protecting. Public approval and support are important for the containment of crime. Without that support, witnesses will not come forward, jurors will not serve—or, if they do serve, they will not convict—and crime that should be unacceptable if a society is to remain healthy and free becomes more acceptable. That is why it is vital, first, to restore honesty to the sentencing process.
Under these proposals, the sentence served will—more closely than ever before—match the court's sentence, with a small discount of about 16 per cent. for co-operation and good behaviour, which will be continually assessed. There will be no early release and parole, and time off will not be a right regardless of good behaviour. I am sure that the public want those measures, and that they will support and encourage them. If the measures result in an increase of about 10,000 or 11,000 prisoners, so be it—we will build those prisons. It is ridiculous to say that what we have done once before we cannot do again.
It is not only necessary and sensible for the system to ensure that the sentence served by prisoners is nearer the sentence delivered by the judge, but—if we are to have public support—we must put a stop to the more persistent and the worst offenders. Who are they? They are offenders who simply cannot get violence and hatred out of their systems. They are those who cannot stop inflicting serious sexual violence on women and children. They are those who make a profession of crime, such as the professional burglar—the crime that most people fear, because of the desecration of their homes and prized possessions, and the shock of catching villains in the act. They are those who push drugs to our children and to young people in schools, in pubs and on the streets.
Those offenders get up every morning to go to work with their tools, cocaine, heroin and amphetamines packed in their bags, and they come back at the end of the day. That is their work, and they are professionals. The public, whom we represent, expect—they have a right to expect—the Government to do more than they have so far succeeded in doing to stop those types of crime.
So people over 18 years old who are convicted of a serious violent or sexual offence and who have one previous conviction for that type of offence will receive a life sentence. It will not necessarily be a lifetime in prison, but they will be released only if they no longer pose a danger to the public. What on earth is wrong with that? The public have a right to be protected.
373 A life sentence is already available for rape, attempted murder, the most serious wounding and having sex with a girl who is aged 13 or under, but the point is that offenders rarely receive a life sentence in those cases. Too often, they are released to offend again, after which they still do not receive life sentences. A sample taken from 1993–94 shows that only one in 10 of those convicted a second time received a life sentence. In 1994, only 10 people out of 217 convicted received a sentence of life imprisonment for a second rape or serious violent assault. Unless those people receive a life sentence, they must be released after serving two thirds of their sentence, even if the authorities believe that they will try to murder, rape or wound again.
§ 6.5 pm
§ Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)
I have already declared my interest in this subject. So much has been said about crime, the need for deterrent sentences and the need for this or that new power, but no one has ever gone back to the roots of what causes crime. Where is crime caused? Who commits it? We know that certain juvenile criminals are repeatedly arrested and released. They get out on bail and are perhaps put into the care of their family or local authority. Then they commit one offence after another, increasing the crime statistics. The hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) will then—quite rightly, because we have never tackled the problem head on—tell us about someone committing 417 offences.
Madam Deputy Speaker, you once travelled across the Atlantic to Massachusetts with me and other hon. Members to observe the old Massachusetts experiment. In that experiment, if a youngster was delinquent, he was taken out of society until he could prove that he was safe to be re-admitted to it. Had we done that in the United Kingdom, we would not have youngsters committing 417 offences, because they would not have committed three offences before they were deemed to be delinquent and put into care, custody or control. Moreover, they would have had to prove themselves before they were released from that care or custody.
Why do not we examine some of those ideas? I have advocated such ideas for the past 10 years, but they have fallen on deaf ears because they are not cliché ridden or headline grabbing. We must think through where and how we combat crime. When we begin to think through the issues, we discover—as Massachusetts discovered, all those years ago—that the adult crime rate also decreases if we take a delinquent off the street and keep him off until he learns not to be delinquent. The child who is a criminal and gets into bad habits often becomes the young person in his or her 20s with whom those who work in the criminal courts deal every day.
Perhaps we could start at the right end for once, instead of for ever starting at the wrong end—when the crime has been committed, the victim has been hurt, and the offender, if he was unlucky, has been caught.
I welcome the Police Bill, which is why I intervened on today's speech by the Home Secretary. It has always seemed to me to be nonsense that the decision in Regina v. 374 Preston and the constraints of section 9 of the Telecommunications Act 1984 stopped people talking about bugging or matters of that nature. We all know that there are such practices and surveillance devices. Perhaps the matter can now come into the open, evidence can be adduced and proper safeguards erected.
As this is a short debate, I must be careful not to address too many issues. I therefore propose to deal with only one other. The cliche that the sentence must reflect the crime should be examined with considerable care. It is too glib and easy to say, "He got four years, but did only two." There is much more to it than that.
Some of us are old enough and experienced enough to remember when the Government—the current Government under the same leadership—introduced the Criminal Justice Act 1991, sections 28 and 29 of which liberalised sentencing. Every lawyer in the land told them that it would not work, but it took about a year and a half for the Government to realise that they had made a complete and utter mess.
If we are to sentence, let us sentence the offender and the offence. Let us do it honestly; no one is against that. The idea that a person can have two or three strikes and is then out is not fair. I shall give a simple example involving a section 18 crime of violence. If I go up to my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) and hit him on the head with a bottle and it cuts him, that is a wound and it was inflicted with intent. Under section 18 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861, the maximum offence currently is life, even if it is a first offence. Suppose that I am 17 and stupid when I do it. At the age of 21 I am involved in a pub tight. I may or may not be the cause of it, but I am convicted. Again there is a wound, and again it is said that it was inflicted with intent. Under section 18 do I then—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) has obviously forgotten his law—if there is a wound and if there is intent, section 18 applies.
§ Mr. Bermingham
No; just sit down. If the hon. Gentleman had dealt with as many cases as I have over the years, he would recognise that I know what I am talking about, even if he does not.
In the case that I described, a second sentence would be imposed—and a potential life sentence. That is ridiculous. The matter must be examined with great care. Exceptions must be defined, as must the application of section 18, which has become a commonly charged offence.
I dealt with rape in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), so I shall not do so again. There are so many issues to be considered. Are we to reconstitute the Parole Board so that it can consider all the relevant matters? What would that cost?
On pleas, should we consider the present situation as opposed to the proposals? The accused would get one fifth off for pleading guilty; currently the proportion is one third. What incentive would there be to plead guilty? Guilty pleas should be encouraged, as they save a great deal of money and court time.
If remission is to be removed, the views of prison officers should be taken into account. They deal with prisoners day in, day out. The way to discipline and 375 control prisoners is to give them an incentive to qualify for remission. Removing that incentive will stir up trouble. The prison system will become overcrowded beyond belief with people who have nowhere to go and no hope. The only thing that their idle hands will do is cause trouble.
Let us think logically about sentencing. Let us begin with the causes of crime and consider how we can deter crime among juveniles. If they are still committing crime as adults, of course they must be made to pay, but that must be done in a sensible and constructive way. providing a disincentive to entering the criminal system. Those who do enter it should emerge rehabilitated.
§ Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle)
I welcome the Queen's Speech, but it is a "Nine o'clock News" version rather than a Reith lecture version. The two main parties are competing to load on to a Christmas tree more and more populist measures. The individual measures may have some merit, but there is great danger in a race between the two Front Benches to get as many of these measures as possible on the statute book by May. We may be in danger of producing over-hasty legislation that will not stand the test of time.
I have made known my views on the Firearms (Amendment) Bill. Each year we seem to become a less free and more censorious society. I did some research in the Library this morning. I noticed that in 1979 we passed 1,770 statutory instruments, whereas in 1995 we passed 3,345. There is a common view in Parliament that society's problems can be solved by banning pursuits that, up to now, have been legitimate. If I believed that violence could be reduced or massacres prevented by banning ownership of particular weapons, I would be the first to advocate that, but there is insufficient evidence, I fear, to warrant such a view.
I was speaking last week to a Labour Member whom I shall not name. She disagrees with her party's policy on guns. She said that in one London borough last year there were 700 gun-related incidents to which the police were called. Every one of those incidents involved illegally held guns. By banning legally held guns, we will leave in place up to 1 million illegally held guns. There seems to be a "Witches of Salem" witch hunt against a part of the community which, up to now, has been exceptionally law abiding.
§ Mr. Budgen
On the matter of illegally held guns, there is a dispute about the figures, which range from I million as the lowest estimate to 2.7 million as the highest.
§ Mr. Leigh
My hon. Friend cites an extremely worrying figure. Nothing that we can do through prescriptive legislation will affect such a serious problem.
I am worried about the stalking Bill as well. Would Romeo have been guilty of stalking Juliet? There must be a definition. We cannot simply pass in a few months legislation that will put at risk practices that hitherto have been considered legitimate, if rather odd. There must be a proper definition so that the courts can be certain that an ordinary person—a lady—is being made to suffer intense, physical, personal fear.
We have heard, rightly, that there is no proper definition of knives. We need a clear definition with regard to the paedophile register. None of us has any time 376 for paedophiles, but we must consider these matters carefully. If we must wait until the next Parliament to produce properly framed legislation on stalking, paedophiles or guns, so be it. That is the function of Parliament.
We commissioned Lord Cullen to study a specific matter, which he did extremely carefully. We should have allowed him to publish his report; a short statement should have been issued on which people could comment; after a few weeks there should have been another debate in which we could express our views, and draft legislation should then have been produced. If it meant that we could not pass that legislation by the May deadline, so be it—at the beginning of the next Parliament we would at least have ended up with legislation that would stand the test of time.
I support the Home Secretary on minimum sentences. I have suggested that course of action for many years, but the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) is right: that alone will not solve the problem.
I wish that we had the time and the majority—which, clearly, we do not—to debate a Queen's Speech that got to grips with the real problems in society. The series of measures that we are debating is merely a palliative. They cannot address the real problems. We need to start, as the hon. Member for St. Helens, South made clear, right at the beginning. Hon. Members may not be aware that 33 per cent. of children under the age of five are raised on income support, or that our rate of taxation on working-class families, where the father is working and the mother is at home looking after the children, is one of the highest in Europe.
The Budget is probably as important as any measure in the Queen's Speech, if not more important. I hope that the Chancellor addresses the problems of society not simply with a cut in the base rate, but by using the benefit and tax system to encourage children to be brought up by parents, with one parent looking after small children full time.
In the debate about morals, freedom in society and law and order, we hear that there should be more emphasis on civic values in school. There is a danger that there will be increasingly faddish courses based on the latest fashion. We already have provision for daily religious assemblies—the legislation has been on the statute books since the second world war. Let us enforce it. Let us ensure that, at least for half an hour each day, all our children have a simple prayer, psalm or gospel story. Those stories have been around for 2,000 years. They have some effect in instilling basic civil, civic and ethical virtues in children.
The Government propose to introduce a Bill to address the problem of social security fraud. We cannot simply address the issue at that stage. Why are youngsters being paid to do nothing? Is it surprising that we are creating a desperately unhappy, purposeless, valueless underclass when we pay youngsters to do nothing? Should not we have an individual-based social security system that encourages youngsters back into work and training? Most of the crime that we are considering is committed by youngsters aged between 15 and 25. Every youngster should be nurtured by society to make a contribution. If that means having a fully functioning workfare system, a Bill should be proposed in the Queen's Speech—or, if 377 we do not have a sufficient majority, in the next Queen's Speech—to bring in a workfare system for young people, because the problem starts early.
We could go all through society. What sort of Queen's Speech do we really want? Our social security system is breaking down. At the moment there are three working people to every retired person. By the time I have retired, there will be only two working people to every retired person. We have £6,000 of unfunded pension liabilities for every retired person in the country. I do not blame the Government because they do not have the majority, but there is nothing in the Queen's Speech to solve that fundamental social problem. The Select Committee on Social Security will soon produce a report on how to address the problem. It has been addressed elsewhere in the world by the creation of properly funded personal pension systems in private companies, so that everyone has an individual pension and can be secure in old age.
I wish that there were proposals in the Queen's Speech for a Bill to extend the voucher system, so that we could have true parental responsibility throughout the school years, not just for nursery education.
One theme runs through what I have said: we cannot solve society's problems simply by bringing in fashionable legislation at the last moment to ban this or that. Conservatism is about nurturing the individual. We must try to nurture ethical and responsible individuals before school age, at school, while they are seeking work and when making provision for the education of their children and for their pensions.
That is the sort of Queen's Speech that we should have. I very much hope that, after next May, we shall have a majority to enable to us to put it through Parliament.
§ Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)
It is unlikely to come as a surprise to Ministers that I have chosen to address my remarks to that part of the Gracious Speech which deals with organised crime and terrorism.
The Gracious Speech says:The fight against terrorism. organised crime and drug misuse and trafficking will remain a priority".What does that mean? The need to protect society from the sophisticated and professional threat posed today by terrorism and organised crime requires effective detention and deterrent measures before we can begin to think about the length of sentences.
I am astonished that, apparently, the most daring proposal under consideration for hindering organised crime is for a draft Bill to open the way for voluntary identity cards. I suggest to the Home Office that terrorists and criminals are unlikely to be volunteers, unless the measure is so innocuous as to have little or no relevance in the fight against crime.
I know the Home Secretary's dilemma. He must face the obstruction and ridicule of that small but vocal bevy of bleeding hearts who are, allegedly, so eager to protect our civil rights. I cannot take too seriously the protestations of those who consider the civil rights of terrorists and drug barons worthy of precedence over those of society, which has had to carry the brunt of the 378 Canary Wharf, Manchester, Hyde park and Warrington bombings, or over those of parents who grieve for children who die through drug abuse.
I have no regard for those few misguided, malicious and treacherous hon. Members who seek to promote the interests of IRA terrorists such as Gerry Adams. By their actions, they demean our democratic system.
The problem that any Home Secretary faces is that organised crime is so elaborate that it will not be overcome unless every one of us is prepared to pay a share of the price required. I believe that we may have to sacrifice some of our rights as individuals to underpin the rights of society. That is where the Home Secretary must start.
The Home Secretary must embark on an intensive, coherent and co-ordinated public information campaign. The public have a right to know what organised crime costs them, not least in their pockets. For example, the state loses nearly £600 million in tax revenue in one year because of tobacco smuggling. What is the Home Secretary going to do about that? In this age of instant communication and worldwide travel, alcohol, drugs, gambling and the financial markets are all areas in which huge illegal fortunes are being made and where the standards of our society are being corrupted.
I do not believe that retribution is solely dependent on longer prison sentences, although the professional criminal who gambles for enormous stakes at the expense of society must pay a heavy price in that respect. For a hardened criminal and a terrorist, retribution should be a balance between the length of sentence and tougher, more austere prison conditions. It is time that the man in the designer suit—there are many such criminals—understood that prison is not about cellular phones and a free office courtesy of Her Majesty's Prison Service where he can conduct business as usual. He should find it a miserable place, where every vestige of his corrupt existence is effectively challenged.
Real retribution must become what it once was—being subjected to a rigorous, disciplined regime in prison and to the reality that the evildoer, even on release, will never be able to enjoy his ill-gotten gains.
The Nick Leesons of this world should not be elevated to folk hero status, entitling them to private visits from all and sundry, especially not cheque-book journalists and publishers. He is no folk hero. He knew the implications of what he was doing. He, and others, such as the Maxwell dynasty who preyed on their employees, are scum and should be treated as such.
The press has a part to play. The Home Secretary must seek to educate society through the responsible and objective elements of the press. The press must accept responsibility and promote, not diminish, our legal system by its presentation of law and order issues.
Turning specifically to terrorism, I commend to the Home Secretary's careful attention an article in The Observer yesterday which examined the way in which the IRA's financial business is organised. It will come as no surprise to learn that Gerry Adams was the architect of the complex multi-million pound business which is IRA Murder Incorporated. Terrorism needs finance. To deal effectively with that problem, we need new thinking from this administration.
Currently, politicians in Northern Ireland have had to create structures and arrangements for the rehabilitation of an organisation that has made it patently obvious that 379 it has not the slightest intention of abandoning its adherence to violence and insurrection. Instead, IRA-Sinn Fein rejected the otherwise unanimous acceptance by the Dublin Forum for Peace and Reconciliation of the need for political consent as the basis for a political way forward.
The IRA, unlike Loyalist terrorists, has a strategy that is intended to take it into the next century and beyond. It does not intend to deviate from that strategy. It has, therefore, to be opposed, but opposition that depends merely on conventional policing, including the work of the intelligence services, will not be enough. Instead, there must be effective action on the financial front where the terrorist consistently crosses the murky boundary between terrorism and what is foolishly called ODC—ordinary decent crime. The setting up of the terrorist finance unit in Northern Ireland was a start, but more needs to be done.
One of the biggest problems arising from organised crime and terrorism is that Joe Public does not know and is not told enough about what it all means. Having been kept in the dark, he treats the issue as though it is someone else's problem. The public in general has to be actively recruited, encouraged to support the authorities and, most importantly, protected when it does so. The use of informer evidence should be re-examined. Ten years ago, we almost succeeded in that, but our public relations were totally inadequate and we failed to withstand IRA propaganda, particularly in the United States.
So-called supergrass or converted terrorist evidence must be permitted within strictly controlled conditions. In that respect the world has changed in the past decade. The United States now knows the treachery of the IRA and has experienced terrorism at first hand.
Converted terrorist evidence has worked in Italy. There was a time when the mafia ruled supreme and no one dared challenge its awful authority, but that has changed. While the United Kingdom system of law and order has served us well in the past, it now needs to be radically reviewed. My hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir J. Molyneaux)—the present and the previous leader of my party—have advocated the use of investigative magistrates, endowed with wider powers than the police to call witnesses and to ensure their protection afterwards. That idea was mooted again yesterday in The Observer.
The Administration could learn from the way in which other countries deal with terrorist incidents. I have advocated the introduction of quite stringent measures to deal with terrorism and criminality. I do so not because I wish to see the creation of authoritarianism in our country, but because there have to be new, potent measures to protect society.
Incumbent upon any Administration with the courage to embark on such an effective programme will be the responsibility to ensure that the state is beyond reproach in its implementation of those measures. With every new initiative, there will have to be a transparent system of checks and balances, not to ameliorate the effect on the offender, but to reassure society.
§ Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)
One of the closing remarks in the speech by the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) struck me as particularly right. He said that 380 the first obligation on the Government of the day was to protect the people. That overriding obligation runs through the law and order theme in the Queen's Speech.
Part of the current debate has been to assume that some of the appalling events of recent months, particularly the murder of Mr. Lawrence, suggest that our society is fractured and the fact that a young person was capable of behaving in that way means that there is something rotten about our society. I do not agree. The fact that someone could murder Mr. Lawrence is evidence not of a fractured society, but of the eternal battle between good and evil. Those of us who take pride in our society feel that, despite all the complex problems that a sophisticated country faces as we approach the second millennium, we have a fine and decent society that should be protected.
There is an obligation on us to use the language of good and evil—unfashionable as that may be. I do not consider the murder of Mr. Lawrence to be evidence of fracture, but of a society under siege. A society that has confidence in its own worth and believes in its virtues and the sense of common purpose that most of us feel represents a corpus of values that is worth protecting to the last extremity.
One subject that has not been mentioned so far in the debate—perhaps because it has become increasingly unfashionable—is the role that capital punishment might have to play in any proper penal system.
I am delighted that the Government are committed to building 12 new prisons. As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) said, we should believe that as it has already happened in the past. However, in time, we shall need more than 12 extra prisons if we constantly incarcerate the most odious scum that society can produce. If we continue to lock up rapists and murderers from the time of their conviction to the end of their natural lives, we may have to consider what happened in the United States where it was thought that capital punishment had been abolished for ever—it has been brought back.
When my constituents spoke to me about Dunblane—the same is true for every hon. Member—it was clear that, had Hamilton survived they would not have wanted to know why he went off the rails. They would not have wanted to know whether he had an unhappy childhood. They would not have been concerned—as the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) was—that had he been put in prison, he might have been deprived of hope. They would have known what they wanted to happen to Mr. Hamilton: they would have wanted him to be taken to a place of execution and executed.
Although I greatly respect the views and judgment of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) in these matters, he should face one fact. He says that there is a political imperative for banning handguns which goes far beyond the demands of logic and reason, but if there is an imperative to be followed, it leads in another direction too. We know the views of the parents of Dunblane on handguns and the House will deliver what they want, but we also know what their views on the restoration of capital punishment would have been had Hamilton survived.
381 The House will respond with commendable speed by doing what parents want when it coincides with what we want, but time and again, in regard to capital punishment—which is not a party political point—the House debates what the people of the country want. There will come a time—in 20, 30, 40 or 50 years' time—when we simply cannot have our gaols bulging with the very worst creatures in society when the public demands that some of them at least should pay the ultimate penalty.
I do not understand how anyone can believe that the principle of minimum sentencing is wrong. It is not unknown to the criminal system and where it exists it works well. It is something that I have called for over the years, and at times I have been told that it was quite impossible. Why should it be impossible? What could be wrong with a mandatory life sentence for a second offence with the provision that in exceptional circumstances a judge could say otherwise, if it provides a mechanism for dealing with those who are unable to control their urges and satisfy the parole board that they are safe? Some may still subscribe to the idea that property is theft and feel that it is unfair to have minimum sentences on burglars, but the abhorrence of offences of trafficking class A drugs cuts across ideas about education, background, left, right, Conservative, Liberal, Labour or whatever. How can anybody deny that someone who has been convicted of a second offence of trafficking in class A drugs should not receive a minimum sentence of seven years? Such a sentence seems entirely appropriate.
I was having a discussion recently with some judges over lunch. That shows how catholic my eating habits are. Given my views, it shows how catholic their eating habits are as well. One judge asked me whether I realised that if the proposals of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary went forward, it would not be the views of the judiciary that counted but those of the man in the street. I thought for a moment that I was being treated to some sort of exercise in heavy judicial wit, but the comment was truly meant. When I said that I, as somebody elected by people, thought that the ideas and views of ordinary men and women about criminal sentencing should be taken into account—not as final writ without any qualification—my comment was regarded as truly extraordinary. I am afraid that the judiciary will learn in due course that what ordinary people believe in passionately ought to play a part in framing policy.
One can never stand still; one should always think about measures that could be introduced in future. Speaking as somebody who has practised criminal law for well over 20 years, I should say that the inability of the jury to know, except in the most exceptional circumstances, the previous convictions of those standing before them leads to many outrages. On many occasions I have heard a gasp from a jury when, having acquitted someone, its members have suddenly discovered the knowledge that they have been denied—that that person had a string of previous convictions—and that the defendant has to stay behind because other matters are pending against him. It is not beyond the wisdom of a competent judge to advise a jury and direct its members that the mere fact that a person has previous convictions does not mean that their guilt must be assumed, but it should be taken into account.
382 If the ideas that run through the Queen's Speech and inform this debate appeal to the public—as I believe they do—the public need have no doubt about who will be capable of delivering such an agenda with passion and conviction. The simplest proposition of all, that the prosecution should be able to appeal against an over-lenient sentence, was fought tooth and nail and derided by the Labour party when it was introduced. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) took a great deal of time during debate on that proposition to say what he thought about it. How on earth can a party that cannot even summon up the collective will to support the right of the prosecution to challenge an over-lenient sentence come to this House, let alone go to the country, and speak with conviction? The law and order matters in the Queen's Speech are right, correct, effective and go with the grain of what people want. When people consider that, they need have no doubt about which party to look to in order to deliver it.
§ Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn)
I welcome the opportunity to take part in this debate. I must declare an interest. As many hon. Members know, I am a parliamentary adviser to the Police Federation. I think that it is only right that I should remind the House of that fact in this debate.
I was surprised when I heard in this year's Queen's Speech that we were to have another crime Bill. The Government have introduced more than 30 crime Bills in 17 years, and they still have not got it right. When there is no crime Bill before the House of Commons, there will be a gap in all our lives.
I was even more astonished to discover that the proposed crime Bill did not include measures to combat paedophiles and stalking—two issues about which the Government have made a great deal of noise. Indeed, until Monday last week, the Home Secretary, no less, led us to believe that legislation on those two issues would be introduced as private Member's Bills.
I was particularly surprised because, in May, I shared a platform with the Home Secretary when he addressed the Police Federation conference in Scarborough. Then he said that he would introduce legislation to combat stalkingat the earliest available opportunity".There we have it. Until Monday last week, he was planning all along to introduce a private Member's Bill himself. Having undergone that experience myself in the last Session, I would happily give him some tips.
Perhaps the real reason why the Home Secretary made that announcement to the Police Federation conference in May was that, just before he spoke, the conference had unanimously voted to press for legislation to combat stalking. The Home Secretary received no applause for his announcement at that conference. The Government had just wrecked a private Member's Bill on stalking introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Ms Anderson). Clearly, the police, like the rest of the society, simply no longer take the Government at face value.
Members on both sides of the House agree that Bills to combat stalking and paedophiles must get on the statute book as soon as reasonably possible. When, day after day, our papers feature stories of how this stalker cannot be arrested or that paedophile was known to the police but not the local school, it is no wonder that the public have 383 lost faith in the criminal justice system. By dealing with those two high-profile issues effectively, we in this House can play our part in restoring public confidence in the criminal justice system.
Thus, unusual though it was, I welcomed the Prime Minister's U-turn on Wednesday, when he suddenly let the Home Secretary off the hook. The Home Secretary will not be queuing with us to sign up to introduce a private Member's Bill tomorrow morning.
I welcome some of the measures that the Government have announced, such as those to combat organised crime. The establishment of a national crime squad and a more developed role for the National Criminal Intelligence Service will help fight organised crime. We must ensure that an atmosphere of co-operation rather than competition is fostered between the various crime-fighting agencies, and that there is a smooth exchange of information between them.
I am sure that the Government were inspired in part by the excellent report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs on organised crime in November 1994. That report noted that organised crime in the United Kingdom wasa cause for serious concern",and thatthe fight against organised crime must involve more than just the normal law enforcement agencies".Another measure that I would have liked to see in the Queen's Speech was a statutory requirement for local authorities to work with the police on crime prevention strategies. Two weeks ago, I took part in a national conference in Manchester on anti-social behaviour, where I learned of the excellent work being done by local authorities, co-operating with the police across the country.
In partnership with Gwent police, my own Caerphilly borough council has been particularly active in that area of crime prevention. The council has appointed a crime reduction officer. Regular meetings are held between him and the police, and crime prevention panels, involving members of the community, are being set up throughout the borough. Partnership at a local level between the police, local authorities and the community can reduce crime.
There are a great many demands on local authority resources, but only by placing a statutory duty on councils to undertake crime prevention work in conjunction with the police can we ensure that prevention remains at the top of the local authority agenda. As all hon. Members know, the public's faith in the criminal justice system is very low at present. If local authorities are not seen to be taking steps against those whose anti-social behaviour causes havoc and misery in our communities, the public will lose confidence in their councils.
Such a loss of confidence is just part of a downward spiral. If people think that the police take no action when crimes are reported, they will not be prepared to make witness statements, and will feel frustrated. People also become frustrated when criminals are not caught—none more so than the police. When officers cannot tackle stalkers, they become frustrated. When they cannot tackle those responsible for anti-social acts in our community, they become frustrated. When they see convictions fail because the public, disillusioned by the criminal justice system, are no longer prepared to make witness statements, officers become even more demoralised and frustrated.
384 A recent Home Office study found that, on high-crime estates in Britain, 13 per cent. of crime reported to the police by victims and 9 per cent. reported by witnesses resulted in people being intimidated. The report said that there wasa general unwillingness on the part of the public to come forward as witnessesand that less than a third of people interviewed had reported crimes that they had witnessed. Those findings are clearly disturbing. We need to restore the public's faith and confidence in the criminal justice system.
As other hon. Members have said, we could help to improve the conviction rate by increasing the number of officers patrolling our streets. The Government must think that that is a good idea, because they keep promising to do so. They promised an extra 1,000 police officers before the 1992 general election and a further 5,000 at their conference last year, but where are those officers? That is what my constituents are asking me.
Since 1991, the Government have spent nearly £15 million recruiting special constables. Why do they not show a similar enthusiasm for expanding the establishment figures of the regular police force? Compared with 1992, 1,000 fewer officers now serve in Britain. Welsh police forces are threatened with the loss of £4.6 million if the Government decide to extend the area cost adjustment to the rest of England and Wales. That will not improve law and order for the people of Wales, but will result in cuts and fewer officers on the streets. How many more promises will the Government break?
§ The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton)
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
§ Mr. Touhig
I would normally give way to the right hon. Gentleman but I have only 10 minutes in which to speak.
If the public no longer have confidence in the criminal justice system, it is because they no longer have faith in the Government. The country wants to pass sentence on the Government, and that sentence will be a stiff period in opposition. We shall then have a Government who truly begin to fight crime, and who, I hope, will not need to introduce a crime Bill year after year.
§ Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West)
I shall confine my remarks to the Government's proposals on guns, particularly handguns—
§ Mr. Budgen
I have always called them pistols. My hon. Friend rebukes me and I have rebuked others. But we must all be fashionable occasionally.
I also wish to say a few words about the Government's proposals on gun clubs. Gun clubs used to be regarded as highly honourable, patriotic organisations, set up in much the same spirit as the Territorial Army. Historically, many of them were set up after the South African war, when many people who lived in urban areas and were prevented by draconian laws on poaching from exercising skills with guns in the countryside, were encouraged to set up their 385 own sporting rifle and pistol clubs in urban areas. They have been regarded as highly responsible and potentially patriotic people ever since. Although they are a minority, they have never previously regarded themselves as threatened.
Many other minorities know that they are threatened, such as those who indulge in game shooting and the quarter of a million people who go hunting. As soon as they perceive themselves to be threatened in any way, they are quickly on to their parliamentary representatives, urging them to protect their rights.
Curiously, the urban people who have so honourably and responsibly run their gun clubs—the people of Burnley, Bradford and Birmingham—have been abandoned. Their natural representative, the Labour party, has been so anxious to support the high-minded middle-class people of Islington and Hampstead that it has forgotten many of its traditional supporters. I hope that the Tory party will not make that mistake. We have many supporters in urban areas—natural Tory patriots who regard their membership of a gun club as part of that patriotism.
Whenever there is a hue and cry, contrary to what my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) says, it is the role of the High Court of Parliament to take into account public opinion; but we do not have the high honour of being Members of Parliament to be a lynch mob. We are assembled here to weigh carefully the rights and liberties of every section of the community, and gun club members have as much right as anybody else to have their views carefully considered when they are unpopular.
Unfortunately, it has been put about that some sort of deal has been done between the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Scotland on what sort of shooting should be continued in clubs and the use of what I agree should be described as pistols. I am all for deals on public expenditure, and deals must take place between constituencies and ministries. There is nothing immoral about that. But when it is a question of taking away the rights and liberties of a substantial section of the community, there must be some principle about it. That cannot simply be done by a deal dependent on whether somebody has a marginal seat and whether he is running in front of the wind of public opinion. The public must have the sense that their liberty has been taken from them only out of great necessity and principle.
In his statement to the House on 16 October, the Home Secretary set out proudly, not reluctantly, how he would take away the liberties of ordinary, decent, law-abiding, patriotic citizens. First, he said that he would go further than Cullen in banning the custody of single-shot handguns remaining in people's homes. I think that that is justified—
§ Mr. Budgen
My hon. Friend takes a different view. He is entitled to his view.
386 The second extension of the Cullen proposals, however—that high-calibre pistols should not be used in the highly controlled environment of a shooting club—is justified simply by one sentence:We believe that a distinction needs to be made between high-calibre handguns, which are principally made for police and military use, and .22 rimfire handguns, which are largely intended for target shooting."—[Official Report, 16 October 1996; Vol. 282, c. 832.]Surely it is not the purpose for which the handgun is made that is important but the use to which it is put. Some heavy-calibre pistols may originally have been manufactured for police or military purposes, but, once they are in the controlled environment of a shooting club, they are used for the peaceful purpose of shooting at targets and no other purpose.
Moreover, let us look at the Government's response to Lord Cullen's report and why they say that they want to go further. On page 5, paragraph 24, we do not see much of an argument explaining why it is all right for people to use .22s in gun clubs but not all right for them to use heavy-calibre pistols. We know that 80 per cent. of pistols—160,000—will be taken out of use. May I be so impertinent as to suggest that, if you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, wanted to take up a life of crime, you would not pinch a pistol from a gun club, but would find out where somebody had an illegally held handgun or rifle? As about a million of those are presently in the public domain, it would be much easier to get one of them than to break into a gun club.
§ Mr. Budgen
My right hon. and learned Friend knows much more about the Bar than I do, and is a regular and serious operator at the Old Bailey. I am sure that he is right to say that there are many more than that, but I am taking the Government's figures. They say that there are at least a million illegally held firearms; at most, there may be 2.7 million. I am trying to use the figure that is least advantageous to my argument.
It is difficult to see why 45,000 people should be deprived of their rights because of the outside chance that someone seeking to commit a crime may break into a gun club. Of course the parents of Dunblane have rights, and those who feel very strongly and emotionally about the use of all handguns should have their case considered carefully. However, Parliament is not the place to reflect the emotion of the moment. We must try to establish some principles so that someone who is deprived of his liberty believes that he has been deprived justly.
At present, I cannot discern any principle in the Government's distinction. I hope that I shall be persuaded to the contrary, but I hope also that the process will be slow, careful and conciliatory, as 45,000 people must be persuaded as well.
§ 7 pm
§ Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South-East)
Before I raise the issue of crime, which is the subject of tonight's debate, I shall refer to other elements of the Queen's Speech that concern me and probably some of my colleagues.
There are no positive initiatives in relation to the national health service. The Coventry and Warwickshire hospital in my constituency has provided a service for 387 many years. Many people in Coventry have much affection for that hospital, but, in the longer term, it may be threatened with closure and, in the short term, its role will be diminished. That concerns me and my constituents. The Queen's Speech contains no major proposals in relation to homelessness or increased funds for old age pensioners. I touch upon those issues as part of the general debate.
We must put in context the issue of crime and the crime Bill to which the Home Secretary referred. Ministers boast that they have turned the tide of crime, yet it is on the increase. For example, there were 9,000 recorded acts of violence in the west midlands last year, and the number of notifiable offences increased by 7.8 per cent. Some £227 million-worth of property was stolen—an increase of 94 per cent. on 1988.
Yet while there is more crime in Coventry, more criminals are getting away with it. The clear-up rate for attempted murder and wounding in the west midlands is 11 per cent. down on the rate six years ago. Criminals are three times more likely to escape conviction now than in 1980. To paraphrase a former Prime Minister: criminals have never had it so good.
Many problems—such as anti-social neighbours—remain untackled. The crime Bill and the Queen's Speech fail to introduce measures to tackle the rising tide of disorder caused by anti-social neighbours, yet it is fast becoming the issue of most concern among residents, tenants and owner-occupiers.
Earlier this year, I advanced proposals to enable victims of anti-social behaviour to give evidence against their aggressors. My Witness Protection Bill is a sensible and a practical proposal to deal with a problem that is ignored by the Government. It was received warmly by the national tenants associations and by all sections of the community—both the private and public sectors—in Coventry. However, the Government failed to respond to my initiative. It is not surprising to find that the crime Bill does not tackle anti-social behaviour. The people of Coventry and beyond will be disappointed to learn that the Government have failed to act once again.
Those people will be disappointed to learn also that the Government have no plans to ban the sale of combat knives. Last year, two young people in my constituency were stabbed. In addition, there were several shootings. The local community was shocked and grief-stricken by those stabbings, and people were particularly alarmed that the weapons used were easily available. I believe that the Government should be held partly responsible for those crimes, as their record on the control of knives is chequered—to put it mildly.
In May 1995, I asked the Home Office about its plans to ban the sale of knives to children. The Minister replied that no measures needed to be taken, as they would have little effect. Events have moved on since then. Despite repeated warnings from Opposition Members and others, it took a tragedy to force the Government to reconsider their position.
I welcome the Government's change of heart, but it does not go far enough. It is surely possible to frame a law that clarifies the difference between combat and household knives. That must be within the scope of the Home Office, if only it had the political will. However, it appears that the Government do not have the will to act: they simply tinker around the edges.
388 Measures such as minimum sentences instead of greater consistency in sentencing; automatic life sentences instead of greater honesty in sentencing; and abolishing parole instead of introducing reviewable, indeterminate sentences which would protect communities better will do nothing to tackle the real problem of low conviction rates. That is a glaring example of the Government failing to recognise the key issues of concern to the public. The Government are interested in one thing: the election. They are not concerned with protecting the public. If they were interested in safeguarding our streets, they would reconsider the measures that I have outlined.
§ 7.5 pm
§ Mr. Phil Gallie (Ayr)
At the outset, I apologise to my right hon. and learned Friend and to the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) for not being present for the beginning of the debate. I made the mistake of travelling from Glasgow airport to Heathrow instead of from Prestwick to Stansted and, as a consequence, I suffered a two-hour delay.
I listened to the opening speeches in the debate on the Gracious Speech on Wednesday and I was pretty dismayed by the Leader of the Opposition's presentation. Despite his comments about negative campaigning, his speech was filled with negatives, from beginning to end. That contrasted with the positive contribution of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who responded in a reasonable way to the one positive proposal advanced by the Leader of the Opposition—regarding measures against stalking and paedophiles. However, I am somewhat concerned about the introduction of legislation on stalking, as I believe that definitions of stalking will be difficult to clarify, particularly when individuals live in close proximity to each other.
I commend my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland for the way in which they have attempted to deal with criminal law in recent times. My right hon. and learned Friend has been in constant dispute with the courts regarding his interpretation of what is right and just, but it seems to me that his interpretations are very much in line with those of the public at large.
I listened with interest to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls), who said that the law is the same for everyone in this country; it is not simply for the lawyers and the judges who operate within the criminal justice system. Respect for the law must be maintained across the land because if people lose respect for the criminal justice system, society will suffer.
The Gracious Speech did not concentrate simply on the Crime (Sentences) Bill or the Crime and Punishment (Scotland) Bill, measures to which I shall return. It went much further than that. It referred to developments in education, which I believe will have a positive effect on standards in society in the longer term, and also developments in health and primary care. It commented on future legislation. In the environmental sphere, there will be legislation on coastal protection which will improve our quality of life. The Gracious Speech also foreshadowed the introduction of the police Bill, which is a very important step in the battle against organised crime. All the measures are designed to make the United Kingdom a safer and more pleasant place to live in.
The social security Bill contains important compensation provisions. In considering crime and the criminal justice system, we should recognise that the 389 victims should benefit from compensation, especially with regard to the pain and suffering element of that compensation. I look forward to that matter being dealt with by the Bill.
The firearms Bill is important to everyone in Scotland, because what happened at Dunblane fills us with deep regret. However, I have some reservations about the powerful campaign to ban all so-called handguns. I believe that other factors should be considered and that in the main the Government have got it right. Yesterday I heard the Lord Provost of Glasgow say that he looked forward to the day when Edinburgh and Glasgow could co-host the Olympic games. I asked whether a handgun ban would automatically knock the United Kingdom out of consideration for hosting games. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) suggested that a handgun ban might have an effect on whether Manchester could host the Commonwealth games in a year or two. If a ban does not rule us out from hosting the games, it would certainly rule us out from competing in them.
If we ban handguns, would it not be logical to go further and ban all guns? I believe that that would be wrong and that it would kill off sporting interests that we have had for many years. I wonder about the tradition of show grounds, where we and our children have all enjoyed the air gun stall; would we ultimately have to scrap air rifles and air gun facilities and stores?
On combat knives, I wonder whether political opportunism rather than reality might not be the message of the day. It is already illegal to carry on the streets a blade more than three inches long. When I hear of deaths through crimes of violence I have to ask whether the perpetrators are using combat knives, or kitchen or industrial knives; I would suggest that the majority of attacks with knives are made with domestic, not combat, knives.
That would be of particular interest to people in Scotland. Over the weekend, five people became victims of extremely serious knife attacks in the west of Scotland. We have legislated and banned the carrying of knives, but still such things happen. What would happen with handguns? I suggest that the situation could be the same: we ban handguns and that drives them underground to the extent that the situation is more dangerous than under the limited controls that the Government intend to put in place.
There is to be an education Bill and I believe that there is much that we could do about discipline. Perhaps it would be a great step forward in instilling some discipline if we were to bring the belt back in Scottish schools. Perhaps there should be other penalties, such as withholding child benefit from parents whose children are persistent absentees or persistently disrupt classes. We should consider such matters, and perhaps the Bill could go a little further.
I warmly welcome the intention to make sentences mean what they say. My constituents cannot understand why someone who gets a four-year sentence should be out after two years. I argued against that two or three years ago, and I was ridiculed for it by the hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall), among many. Only recently, however, Lord Macaulay said that my arguments had won 390 the day, and he is quite right, although they are not just my arguments but those of my constituents, of the people of Scotland and, above all, of common sense.
§ Lord James Douglas-Hamilton
It was Lord McCluskey who said that—not Lord Macaulay, who is a very senior judge.
§ Mr. Gallie
I thank my right hon. Friend for that correction.
I welcome the change—it was an amendment for which I pushed—allowing the procurator to appeal against solemn court judgments that are seen to be lenient. I believe that that has been highly successful and I look forward to that right being extended to sheriff court judgments by the Bill on criminal proceedings in Scotland. That is an important step forward.
My constituents keenly await the introduction of the right of the police to confiscate alcohol from under-age drinkers. That is a testing matter for my constituents, who experience constant problems with young—
§ Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)
I want to concentrate on family issues, crime and crime prevention. I have been commenting on those issues since well before the recent media coverage of the alleged moral crisis that we face. In 1994—the United Nations Year of the Family—I chaired an all-party committee on the family; many of the recommendations in our report concern the questions that we are discussing now.
It is a tragedy that it took Dunblane and the murder of Mr. Lawrence to make everyone sit up and take notice. The media should recognise that it is important to pick up such issues as early as possible. and that many of them should have been addressed in 1994, the Year of the Family. When people pick on the media and say that they cause violence, they frequently blame television without recognising that newspapers—especially the tabloids—have a problematic way of presenting crime and that they increase the fear of crime by the repetitive reporting of certain cases.
The current general debate about the family should not panic us into thinking that everything is disastrous. Many good things are happening within family groups and in society as a whole. Many of the young people whom I meet have a high standard of moral behaviour and are deeply concerned about society and about the environment. We are in danger of belittling what they are doing and saying if we carry on pretending that everything is bad.
I caution hon. Members against looking back at some golden age that in my judgment never existed. I went to school in the 1940s; there were failing schools then and there was plenty of violence in and around our schools. I do not doubt, however, that the situation is much worse now. Hansard will show that I have spoken on the issue in the House over many years, and that the Government were warned about what would happen. In the early 1980s I said that the crime rate would rise faster here than in other European countries if we continued with some of the social and economic policies that were then being pursued.
391 I take no satisfaction in saying that I also predicted that there would be a riot in our prisons, before the riots that took place in the early 1980s, and I warn the Government that it will happen again if we continue to use prisons as dumping grounds for people with multiple problems, giving them the impression that we have locked the door and thrown away the key and that even if they behave well they cannot expect any improvement in their conditions or any hastening of their release time. We then expect prison officers to deal with that crisis. That is neither fair nor responsible.
My next point relates to parenting and crime. Again, there is a danger at the moment that we assume that all crime is the result of bad parenting. Bad parenting is a crucial factor in the causation of crime—I do not doubt that—but it is not the sole factor. Much is also down to the social and economic structure. One reason why parents often fail is that they are tipped into crisis by an economic or social problem that they face—frequently, for example, homelessness or unemployment. If families with young children are put into bed-and-breakfast accommodation—for example, when their houses are repossessed—or if one of the parents of a family that is only just coping, only just holding together, is put into long-term unemployment, the children are more likely to get into trouble. That is why crime goes up when unemployment is higher and tends to go down when it is lower. That is one of the reasons why we must get it right.
If I had a single message to get across to the Government today, it would be to say to them what we said in 1994 in our all-party parenting committee: they must have a policy on the family. This is not about marriage or single parents: it is about all types of families, because families come in different shapes and sizes and it ill behoves this place to start moralising to people about what kind of family they should have. Many hon. Members—particularly Conservative Members in recent years, but it could apply equally well to Opposition Members—will fall by the wayside if we start moralising in that way. It does not help. Instead, we have to try to help families, and particularly the children, to cope well.
The one recommendation that I would make would be that a sub-committee of the Cabinet should be set up to look at family matters and to co-ordinate between Government Departments and outside agencies, including local government. People throughout the country are crying out for such co-ordination. We could have aims which, though simple, would affect the crime rate. For example, we could say that no child will be kept in bed-and-breakfast accommodation for more than a month or two.
Another good way to deal with crime committed by young people would be to ensure that any child expelled from school, as increasingly happens, is back in some full-time education structure, be it a school, a special unit or one-to-one tuition, within a week or so of being expelled. Otherwise, they end up adrift in society, lose their place in the educational queue and become liable to crime.
The same applies to parenting education. One cannot just dump parenting education on schools and expect it to work. The policy on it needs to be thought out. Nobody in the Government or the country at the moment—other than voluntary groups and one or two people who are ahead of the field on this—is giving much thought to that.
392 Let us get tough on crime. My great criticism of the Government is that they have never been tough on crime, in the sense that they need to stop crime happening. They are soft on crime. On punishment, they think that they are hard, but in fact they are just muddled. If they were to say to a hardened criminal, "We are going to lock you up for life if you carry a gun, and you will get the same sentence if you kill the person you faced," the criminal might as well kill that person. To go down that rather stupid road would endanger the public. We can ban the sale of guns. In 1985, when I was shadow Minister for home affairs, I put it to the House that there should be a standing committee of the Home Office to consider the question of imitation guns. At that time, two youngsters had been shot while holding imitation guns that the police thought were real—understandably, in the circumstances. There was also Hungerford. We should have taken action there and then.
What about knives? Who can believe that it is beyond the wit of the House to legislate to prevent the open display and advertising of killing knives? Of course it is within our capacity, and we should have legislated against that ages ago.
We should also have a proper policy on crime prevention. Every local authority and police force should be required to come up with a crime prevention policy to target crime. There is one bit of hope for the Government, and it does not come from them. Crime levels may drop, but that is because unemployment is falling and police and local authorities now have good crime prevention policies. We have cut burglaries on one estate in Hammersmith by 66 per cent. in two years, but we did that only by crime prevention policies between the police and local authority. If we can do it in Labour-controlled Hammersmith, the Government could ask for it to be done throughout the country, but the police and local authorities have to take the lead and they should be given encouragement to do that.
§ Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)
I begin my speech on the home affairs debate on the Loyal Address by applauding the Government for all the measures that have succeeded in halting the rise in crime in my constituency. The Bournemouth police division is experiencing its second successive year of falling crime. Particularly encouraging to my constituents is the dramatic decrease in burglaries of domestic homes—so far this year, 34 per cent.—while crime in general has decreased, by 13 per cent. I thank the Government for those measures and for the greatly increased resources and police manpower that are making my constituents more secure in their homes and safer as they go about their business.
Under the Conservatives, since 1979, spending on the Dorset police has increased by 112 per cent. in real terms—by £57 million. Police strength has risen and there are an additional 467 officers and staff. I understand that we are to obtain a further 66 officers following last year's announcement of an extra 5,000 police over the next three years, and, for the first time this year, the Home Office will pay the security costs of the Conservative party conference, which took place in Bournemouth a couple of weeks ago, to the tune of £1.5 million, all of which is good news for my constituents.
393 Nevertheless, despite those achievements, the chief constable of Dorset remains concerned that his force remains undermanned and under-resourced, particularly in comparison with other areas. For example, the population-police ratio for Dorset is 1:527, compared with the average of 1:494 for all the non-Metropolitan police forces. Two months ago, one of my constituents, the mother of a 16-year-old boy, telephoned 999 to report that her son had been assaulted by a number of youths in an attack involving knives and CS gas. The father subsequently went off to confront the youths alone. The mother complained to me that the police did not respond to her call. Apparently, in attempting to respond to her call, the police were diverted to other calls; it was proving to be an exceptionally busy evening and all local officers were already committed to other duties, including the policing of an AFC Bournemouth football match.
I accept that difficult decisions had to be made that evening, but personal experiences such as that are rightly encouraging my constituents to press for more police for Bournemouth. I hope that the Government will fully accept and implement the recommendations of the Elliot report, which found that Dorset's present area cost adjustment does not adequately and fairly reflect our costs. The recommendations would mean extra resources for the Dorset police authority.
The success of Dorset police in reducing crime in Bournemouth is attributed to more effective intelligence-led policing, leading to the conviction and imprisonment of persistent offenders. I pay tribute to the police for that. It is also put down to habitual burglars receiving longer gaol sentences from the courts. In the light of this local experience, I welcome the proposal in the Queen's Speech for a new crime Bill providing for stiff new minimum prison sentences for professional house burglars. Because so much crime today is drug related, I welcome the stiff new minimum prison sentences for persistent dealers in hard drugs. Only by keeping such hardened criminals locked up for longer can our constituents be better protected from them and others deterred from following their example. I hope that, while in prison, criminals are made to spend their time more productively. I believe that prisons should be profit making, that prisoners should work to pay compensation to their victims and pay for the cost of their accommodation.
Of course, longer sentences may mean heavier demand on prison places. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary is already responding to that with more places and new prisons. However, I urge him to consider the position of people who end up in prison for minor offences, such as non-payment of television licences or default on fines, when that was not the court's intention. Richard Tilt, the head of the Prison Service, recently referred to that. Community work and curfew orders were intended for such people, and electronic tagging was intended for young offenders. Prisons should be a last resort, to be used for people who pose a real threat to the rest of us in the community.
I welcome the Government's decision to introduce legislation to curb stalkers and to establish a national register of child sex offenders. The cases of two of my constituents were referred to me recently. Their quality of life is being destroyed by stalkers, one of whom is 394 apparently working in collusion with others. Those tragic cases can be dealt with only by new and effective legislation.
The establishment of a paedophile register has been welcomed by my local newspaper, the Bournemouth Evening Echo, which has given a lead with its "protect our children" campaign. It has pioneered the establishment of a register available to key groups working with children in the community. That campaign was in response to a one third increase in the number of Dorset children facing violence, sexual abuse and neglect. It has already been picked up across the water in France by newspapers in Cherbourg. Given the events that have taken place in Belgium, it should be emulated there and throughout the European Union. Just as there is a single market for jobs, we should establish common standards of protection for our children. Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Scottish Office will deal with that matter in his winding-up speech. Why cannot the lead taken by the Bournemouth Evening Echo result in a Europewide register available to all?
I welcome the Firearms (Amendment) Bill. It is a fair and realistic compromise between the Cullen recommendations and the reasonable demand of gun owners and clubs for the retention of target shooting with low calibre pistols, which, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary reminded us, is an Olympic sport. Given the figures quoted in the media, I suggest that the amount to be set aside for compensation is totally inadequate. Will my right hon. Friend the Minister give me an assurance that it will adequately compensate not only for guns but for ancillary equipment, such as holsters, magazine pouches and shell slides, which will become useless, and possibly illegal, under the Bill?
Bournemouth and other seaside resorts have a problem with houses in multiple occupation and hostels, which attract benefit claimants from inner cities and from the Irish Republic, who are often encouraged by the advertisements of commercial organisations. Constituents complain that some of those places are centres for crime, drugs, prostitution and other anti-social behaviour. They adversely affect my constituents' quality of life, and threaten the viability of our tourism industry, on which our local economy and jobs depend. People will not want to take their families for a seaside holiday in a hotel next door to such places.
I welcome the special control provision in the Housing Act 1996, which gives local authorities the powers that they previously lacked to respond to this problem by closing the places that management and landlords clearly cannot control. It is essential that resort authorities apply for those new powers and use them to reverse the present decline. I hope that Bournemouth borough council, which is controlled by the Liberal Democrats, will use those new powers. As a result, they will revive the tourism industry in parts of the borough, and the quality of life of my constituents will no longer be threatened. I thank the Government for responding so positively to this problem.
§ Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)
People in my constituency and elsewhere do not understand what the Government claim they are doing to make their lives safer. People know that crime has doubled, and that 395 violent crime has doubled and then increased by a fifth, because they are the victims of such crime. No measure proposed in the Queen's Speech deals with their concerns.
It is unclear how 22 new prisons and an extra £500 million a year to keep convicted criminals in prison longer will make the lives of my constituents safer. If I could choose how to spend £500 million to deter, prevent and detect crime, I am not sure that I would build new prisons. How many closed circuit television schemes would £500 million provide? That would stop the present ludicrous practice of schemes having to compete against each other for funds—a process that shows the great need for such schemes in many parts of the country.
In Erdington high street, traders, who already pay the business rate, must now raise £50,000 to enter a lottery to get a matching amount out of the Home Office. On Friday, I attended a meeting of a group of people from Erdington neighbourhood watch. It was one of several such meetings that I have had across the constituency in the past few months. Those people are concerned about changes made in the organisation of West Midlands police. They believe that Erdington police station delivers a worse service at a time when crime along the high street has grown. For long periods, the police station is run by what they describe as "green jumper" civilians rather than police officers. They are worried that liaison between the police and neighbourhood watch groups is to be passed to a civilian, so that there will be even less contact between the police and the public whom they serve.
In the Birches Green and Stockland Green areas of my constituency, we have held public meetings involving the police and city council officers to discuss ways of building partnerships to prevent crime and anti-social behaviour. Work led by Birmingham city council, for which no specific grant is available, has been innovative and ambitious in building and developing a community safety strategy. The aim is to reduce crime and anti-social behaviour, to reduce the fear of crime and to improve responses to issues of public concern. The strategy is broader than mere crime prevention, and enables the council to examine social and economic causes of crime and anti-social behaviour.
The city's track record led to Home Office funding for a three-year study to evaluate that work. The report was submitted in June, and it is believed that it makes the case—made as long ago as 1991 in the Morgan report—that more progress could be made in community safety if local authorities had a statutory responsibility to deliver those services.
I shall briefly mention three steps that have been taken under that initiative. First, in May, a community partnership day in Druid's Heath brought together community groups, residents, city council departments and other agencies, and led to the drafting of a neighbourhood action plan to respond to the concerns of local residents about policing, youth provision and drug misuse. Secondly, the city council, West Midlands police and the West Midlands probation service have signed a tripartite agreement that lays the foundations for an expanded inter-agency commitment to community safety. Thirdly, and interestingly, community safety packages are part of the curriculum in all schools in the city. They encourage citizenship and responsibility among secondary school students and are entitled BRUM—being responsible, understanding and motivated.
396 The Government must understand that community policing will succeed only if it involves the community. People should take more responsibility for what goes on in their areas, with back-up from the police, the city council and other agencies. People also need to feel that the criminal justice system and the police are on their side. It does not help when, at the Government's behest, guidelines are issued to the police that lay down when they should and should not charge people with assault.
In a recent case, Mr. Leonard Watts was punched in the face during a vicious road rage attack. He took the driver's registration number, and drove straight to the police station despite a cut and bleeding mouth. He was told by the police that they would not investigate the matter because, under those guidelines, the injuries were not serious enough to warrant a charge.
Neither Mr. Watts nor anyone else can understand that: it must be wrong on several counts. It means that in some circumstances the police, rather than the courts, decide the punishment. It means that, unless someone can afford a private prosecution, which can cost up to £1,500, the thugs can walk free. It means that, while violent crime is still rising, perhaps thousands of such incidents will simply vanish, although reported, because the police feel unable to bring charges. As Graham Wright, senior law lecturer at the university of Central England, said,There is a danger that the true crime picture will be distorted.Chief Inspector Barry Evans, chairman of the West Midlands branch of the Police Federation said:We believe this is a cost-cutting exercise.Whatever the reasons, it has gone down badly with Mr. Watts and many others.
A shopkeeper in my constituency spotted two young thieves in his shop, chased them, apprehended them, retrieved the goods and held them until the police arrived. In front of those two young villains the police said, "You have got the goods back. What's the problem? See your solicitor." How are young people supposed to be turned away from crime when they hear police officers saying such things? Why should the police deny the courts the opportunities to act on behalf of the community to turn these and other young people away from crime?
Even those working in the criminal justice system do not understand what the Government are about. Prison officers in Birmingham's Winston Green prison have written to tell me that the prison board is considering contracting out to the private sector the administration of finance, personnel and prisoner services in all 126 prison establishments and at Prison Service headquarters. Management estimates that that puts 2,510 jobs at risk. In their letter, the officers state:This revelation has angered the thousands of loyal, hard working Prison Service staff, who have responded to numerous changes and challenges in recent years and helped the service through difficult times.I hope that I shall not be alone in endorsing what they say next. They state:We believe that the functions concerned should only be undertaken by public servants for reasons of integrity and confidentiality in such a sensitive, demanding and, at times, dangerous, area of public life.I hope that the Minister will comment on that in his winding-up speech.
Increasing the number of police officers and building more and more prisons to keep more and more people locked up for longer will not, on their own, make our 397 communities safer and it is wrong to pretend that they will. Community safety is best assured when communities relearn what living in a community is about and learn that some things can be done only by acting together. In one sense, it is rediscovering neighbourliness and recognising that the cost of crime for all communities is high and rising in economic and social terms.
A Government who have presided over a doubling of crime have shown that they are incapable of restoring a sense of safety to people and their communities. There is one last contribution that this Government can make. It is to step aside and make room for a new Government who know what needs to be done and will do it.
§ Mr. David Martin (Portsmouth, South)
This debate is a useful opportunity to raise some concerns that should be addressed in the new Session, either in the legislation proposed in the Gracious Speech or in other parliamentary ways. Many improvements that I have in mind for my constituents do not require legislation. I shall give two examples. I welcome the proposed health care Bill, which will offer doctors opportunities to set up even better and more diverse services for patients and build on the significant improvements that have been achieved in recent years, but I should like two more specific developments in the national health service as soon as possible.
First, more needs to be done to meet the reasonable concerns of people who do not want to share non-emergency wards with the opposite sex. Mixed-sex non-emergency wards are relatively new in the NHS. No doubt some hon. Members will remember the time when such wards would not have been introduced. At that time, single-sex wards were considered the only way to be treated in hospital. I am aware of the costs which it is claimed are saved and the shorter waiting time for beds in some cases, but the patients charter gives the patient a right to be told before admission whether it is planned that he or she should enter a mixed ward. If a patient prefers single-sex provision, those wishes should be respected where possible.
For the sake of respecting the dignity and comfort of patients, and to meet the concern of many people on this issue, which has been expressed to me and in petitions recently raised in Portsmouth over a longer time and in the local newspaper, more effort should be made in Portsmouth and nationally to provide real choice and separate provision, without unreasonable delay in admission or treatment. If necessary, the patients charter should be strengthened to make that clear.
Secondly, I urge the Government to make it clear that health care must include an automatic reminder for breast cancer screening for women over the age of 64. They currently have a right to such screening but, as there is no regular recall, many do not realise it, let alone take advantage of it.
I support the promised provisions of an education Bill which will strengthen teachers' powers of suspension, exclusion or expulsion of badly behaved pupils. The Home Office should be concerned to know where such pupils go and what they get up to when they are not at school. That was mentioned by the hon. Member for 398 Hammersmith (Mr. Soley). The problem is already noticeable in Portsmouth and arises from truancy as well as from suspension or expulsion. The answer is that such pupils make nuisances of themselves on the streets.
The Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Education and Employment must consider providing places which such pupils must attend. They could be called attendance centres or attendance units, but whatever they are called they should quickly provide some hours of the day that are more unpleasant than those at school. The centres should also be constructive and reform young people so that they can return to their schools and not make nuisances of themselves as before. Having to do something else when they are expelled, excluded or suspended from school would be not only a deterrent to persistently bad school behaviour but prevent children from roaming the neighbourhood with nothing to do but make trouble.
I welcome the inclusion in the legislative programme of Bills to deal with paedophiles and stalkers. Paedophiles cause immense suffering to children and their families, and the more information there is about particular people the better so that parents and the authorities have a better chance of protecting children from their evil activities. The criminal law has been added to over the years in an attempt to meet the curse of stalking which, with respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh), goes well beyond the actions of Romeo pursuing Juliet. There have been some spectacular successes when there has been the will to bring a prosecution using existing law, but there is no doubt that further measures are required. They should improve present procedures, which have proved too costly or cumbersome to protect those who are literally terrorised by people who are often disturbed and violent.
I have considerable sympathy for the Government in attempting to square the circle on the proposed provisions for gun control, and considerable contempt for the opportunist party politicking of the opposition parties. The powerfully argued case made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) will take some answering and I hope that I shall hear some answers in due course. In any change in the law, there has to be proper compensation for all those responsible people whose hitherto lawfully held weapons are to be banned and for clubs and businesses whose lawful activities will be made impossible.
I am pleased to see that the Home Office will be busy in this Session. I hope that means that there will be no more legislation on the extension of drinking hours late at night in densely populated areas in my constituency such as Southsea and Portsmouth. I do not welcome such legislation and I have consistently opposed it over the years. Residents in those areas will welcome the absence in the Gracious Speech of any such measures. Hopefully, there will be no parliamentary time to bring in any more.
One thing is certain, and it applies to all legislative programmes. Whatever we pass or do not pass into law, the great engines of Government churn on and the fuel for bureaucracy never fails. The endless offspring of earlier legislation—the thousands of statutory instruments and orders, of both domestic and European manufacture—pass year by year into our law and administration, mostly with scarcely a nod from members of some underpowered parliamentary Committee, let alone the vote of anyone on the Floor of the House. Such legislation is relentless, 399 never ending and pushing us ever closer to the continental system of government, with powerful functionaries and weak parliamentarians, in which Members of Parliament are at best irritants and at worst powerless to change much of any great significance.
That is one of the main reasons why I am strongly against any further integration into European economic and monetary union, and why I am, in principle, against our country joining a single currency, in whatever details it is dressed up in due course. I understand of course the difficulties of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on this subject and the formula for as much peace in the ranks as possible, but I have long made my opposition to a single currency plain and I will do so right up to the general election.
§ Mr. Thomas McAvoy (Glasgow, Rutherglen)
The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin) referred to his contempt for what he called the opportunistic Labour party. I assure him that it is nothing compared with the contempt of the people of Scotland for people such as him, who are totally out of tune with feeling in Scotland and who do not seem to give two hoots for the strength and feeling there, so I assure him that contempt is directed back to him across the Chamber.
In describing the Queen's Speech, the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie) referred to the positive way in which the Prime Minister had responded to the two measures on which Labour had offered co-operation. Rather than showing a positive side, it showed a weak Prime Minister. The thrust and tone of the Queen's Speech was designed, he hopes, to embarrass the Opposition. It, too, showed the Government's weakness and desperation. As they get closer and closer to their nemesis of the general election, they are scrambling about in an opportunistic way, with a Queen's Speech that is designed around, not a positive programme, but an electioneering programme to try to wrong foot the Opposition. That is weakness and deserves contempt because, instead of being used for the sake of Britain, the Gracious Speech is being used entirely for negative party interests.
I should like to spend some time on Dunblane, because people such as me better reflect national feeling in Scotland and throughout the UK than the hon. Member for Ayr. There is a revulsion against the importation into Britain of the gun culture. The right hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) mentioned the fear of that gun culture being imported from America into the UK. That is important.
I take the point about gun clubs made by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen). I understand how those people feel. They have been conducting this activity for a long period, but society as a whole wants to take action against a gun culture and against guns being regarded as a normal part of society. When it comes down to the potential use of guns, and to society wishing to show its disapproval of a gun culture, the rights of club members pale into insignificance.
I again condemn the Government for not allowing a free vote on the issue of whether there should be a complete ban on all hand guns. Other hon. Members have made the point about the deadliness of the .22 and the individuals who have been assassinated with that gun. There is no justification for retaining the .22 in clubs.
400 A knife culture has been mentioned. Unfortunately, we have such a culture. An increasing number of young people do not seem to realise the damage that can be done by knives, in particular the combat knife. They carry them as an act of bravado. They become involved in some silly incident that flares up. The knife is pulled out and used and, all of a sudden, young people face a charge of murder or serious assault, and the family of the victim must deal with the loss of or a serious injury to a member of their family.
Politicking has gone on. I am always amazed at the ingenuity of hon. Members on both sides of the House, who come up with ideas and with ways of getting around legislation and problems, but, all of a sudden, the Government tell us that, on this issue, there is no way they can distinguish between a kitchen knife and a combat knife. I do not accept that.
I am pleased that the Minister of State, Scottish Office, is here tonight because I have just received from him through the post a three or four-page résumé of how wonderfully the Government have been doing in Scotland in relation to his sector of responsibility. His letter states:1995 was the fourth successive year in which recorded crime in Scotland decreased",but nowhere does he mention the violent crime figures. It would be interesting if he could respond to that in his winding-up speech—but not during my 10 minutes. Elsewhere in the UK, although crime might have been going down, violent crime seems to be going up. I would be interested to know what the Scottish figures are.
Closed circuit television schemes were mentioned. There was some mirth earlier in relation, I think, to the Bournemouth Evening Echo. I shall mention the Rutherglen Reformer, which has been behind the lookout CCTV scheme in the Cambuslang, Halfwayhouse and Rutherglen region. There has been terrific community support for that scheme and first-class work from the police. The scheme will be a first-rate contender for funding from the Scottish Office in the next few months.
I am putting in my plug to the Minister who will take the decision, but is it not ludicrous that, with the amount of money being spent, regions and communities are having to compete with each other for CCTV schemes, which are welcomed and wanted by the community and can serve a good purpose?
Although strictly speaking not in the Queen's Speech, the next issue I want to mention comes within the home affairs function of the Minister. His circular mentions that the Children (Scotland) Act 1995introduced legislation dealing with public and private law affecting children.He makes the point:Consultation is presently under way on draft regulations, rules and guidance which will be required for full implementation by 1 April 1997. Part I of the Act will be implemented in November 1996.As I am sure he is aware by now, I have written to him about a constituent of mine who raises issues that the Act clearly does not deal with. They relate to the rights of a father when there is a dispute between him and a mother regarding custody and/or access to a child.
My constituent maintains—he is backed up by charities—that people such as him are disadvantaged and that the rights of a father are not regarded equally within 401 the law. I have written to the Minister asking for a meeting with my constituent to discuss his concerns. I hope that the Minister will agree to that meeting at some point.
There comes a time when society decides on change. I bear in mind the point made by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West that the House is here to frame laws. I do not believe in populist laws, but there must be exceptions. The strength of feeling among people not only in Dunblane but the whole of Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom is a clear indication that they expect action. If it is an emotional bandwagon, so what? If we cannot be emotional about an incident such as Dunblane, we cannot be emotional about anything. We should use the determination arising from Dunblane to root out any possibility of a gun culture becoming established in the UK. That would be a first-class testimony to the people of Dunblane.
§ 8 pm
§ Mr. John Whittingdale (Colchester, South and Maldon)
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in support of the measures in the Queen's Speech. I had intended devoting the first part of my speech to a particular welcome for the Local Government and Rating Bill, but given the imposition of 10-minute speeches, I will save my detailed comments for another time. I will merely express my welcome for that Bill's provisions, which will provide a lifeline to many small village stores and post offices in my constituency.
I will concentrate on those elements of the Queen's Speech that relate to home affairs. Among the more controversial of them is the proposal to introduce minimum sentences for persistent burglars and dealers in hard drugs, together with automatic life sentences for persons convicted for a second time of a serious violent or sexual offence. I can understand the concern of the legal profession that those proposals represent a limitation on the freedom of judges to impose whatever sentence they see fit, but those measures are necessary to restore public confidence in our judicial system.
There have been too many cases of serious offenders being given sentences that are far too lenient, then released after serving only a fraction of the original sentence. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary referred in his excellent speech to a case in my constituency. The details are so horrific that I believe that it would be useful to the House to provide further information.
In July, Mr. Harry Bannerman of Asheldham was convicted of multiple rape. At the beginning of his trial, he changed his plea and admitted the rape and false imprisonment of a 67-year-old woman with drink problems and the rape, buggery and false imprisonment of a mental health patient at Severalls hospital in Colchester. Similar charges remain on file, including the rape of an 89-year-old woman at the Asheldham residential home for the elderly, which Bannerman helped to run.
If that were not enough, it transpired that those were not Bannerman's first convictions. He had a history of offences going back 25 years, to when he was gaoled in 1971 for the rape of a nine-year-old girl whom he had lured into a derelict building and the indecent assault of 402 a 12-year-old girl a few days earlier. On that occasion, Bannerman was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment. He was let out, only to be gaoled again in 1975 for three years, for four offences of child stealing. In 1980, Bannerman was convicted of the rape of a woman at knifepoint and gaoled for eight years. It seems extraordinary that Bannerman should have received only an eight-year sentence. The judge's description of Bannerman's behaviour on sentencing him this summer of "verging on the Satanic" was no exaggeration.
The public are entitled to ask why Bannerman was released after his second conviction for rape—particularly as the first was for the rape of a nine-year-old child. Bannerman is now serving a life sentence, but if he had been given life in 1980, the chances are that he would never have been free to commit his latest appalling crimes. We must address that failure of the judicial process.
Under the proposals of my right hon. and learned Friend, Harry Bannerman would have been sentenced to life imprisonment in 1980. It is possible that he might have been released subsequently, but only under licence and when persons in positions of responsibility were satisfied that Bannerman was no longer a danger to the community. For that reason alone, I strongly support my right hon. and learned Friend's proposed measures—and to achieve them, I am willing to accept a curtailment of the freedom of judges.
After the tragedy of Dunblane it was right for the House to consider any measures necessary to ensure that such a tragedy could never happen again. The Cullen recommendations are sensible and I am pleased that the Government have moved swiftly to accept them all. I welcome the improvements in school security, vetting of persons working with children, and increased police powers to refuse applications for firearms licences and to revoke existing licences. My reaction will be shared by every responsible gun owner throughout the country.
I would like the Government to go further in some areas. Controls on the availability of air guns should be reassessed, particularly in relation to the possession of such weapons by young people. Earlier this year, a pupil at the Philip Morant school in Colchester was shot in the eye with an air gun while quietly riding his bike. The youth responsible, who was a member of a gang, shot his victim without any provocation. The result is that the victim has permanently lost the sight of one eye and the fear that any operation to remove the pellet could lead to loss of sight in his other eye.
The youth responsible was not evil in his intent. He was charged with committing the offence, but he was so horrified at the consequence of his actions that he committed suicide shortly afterwards. That double tragedy came about as the result of a young person being able to obtain and play with an air weapon.
It is already an offence for anyone under the age of 17 to purchase or hire any firearm, including an air weapon. Perhaps the existing law is sufficient and the problem lies in the law not being properly enforced. The easy availability of air weapons suggests that there is scope for tighter controls.
There seems little doubt that had the firearms rules been properly enforced, Thomas Hamilton would never have been allowed to possess a handgun. Despite that, I recognise the public's wish for far greater controls. The 403 impracticality of Lord Cullen's suggestion of disabling methods leads me reluctantly to accept the case for a total ban on home possession of handguns—although I anticipate difficulties. One of my constituents is the national squad director of a pistol team and tells me that he regularly shoots at 30 different clubs, as well as competing abroad. A ban on home storage will make such participation far harder for my constituent. The House will have to address that matter during the Bill's progress.
I am saddened that it is felt necessary to go beyond that measure and to outlaw completely pistols of more than .22 calibre. Many of my constituents are members of gun clubs and enjoy target shooting with pistols. I have done so at Bisley, along with other hon. Members. I understand the resentment of responsible target shooters that their sport is to be banned because of the actions of one lunatic who should never have been allowed to have a gun in the first place.
I welcome the Government's commitment to pay compensation to gun owners, although I suspect that the true cost will prove higher than estimated. The Government are proposing to remove 160,000 guns. I understand that the average cost of a handgun is £600. The Home Affairs Select Committee was quoted a figure of £700. Full compensation for those weapons could total £96 million, and that figure does not take account of the cost of associated equipment such as ammunition, magazines, sights and storage equipment.
§ Mr. Budgen
Does my hon. Friend also favour compensation for those businesses that produce handguns and run ancillary activities, as they may be bankrupted?
§ Mr. Whittingdale
I agree that those businesses have a legitimate case for compensation. It is something that we must examine.
The cost of the extra security measures that gun clubs will be required to install is likely to be unaffordable for many of them. The consequence of the Bill may be that it becomes impossible for any sportsman to pursue target shooting with any calibre of gun because gun clubs will no longer exist. I understand the public feeling on the issue and why the Government have felt it necessary to act. However, it is a tragedy that the right of thousands of responsible and law-abiding target shooters to enjoy their sport may prove to be the last casualty of Dunblane.
§ Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)
The Home Secretary outlined five important Bills, each of which could involve the House in full debate, quite justifiably. I want to talk about what should have been a sixth Bill, but instead was a shattering omission from the Home Secretary's speech.
This parliamentary Session will end with a general election on or before 22 May 1997, yet this country has a wholly inadequate system of electoral registration. It is creaking and corrupt and it must be replaced with a modern system. On modest estimates, about 3.5 million people—7.5 per cent. of those entitled to be registered—are missing from the electoral registers. In November 1994, an internal memorandum from Dennis Roberts, the director of statistics at the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, said about my figures:Surely the estimate produced by Mr. Barnes MP is broadly correct.404 Why do I believe that so many people are missing from the electoral registers? One way to arrive at an estimate is to compare the eligible population with the numbers actually registered. That is a simple method. There are mid-year population estimates and the appropriate population groups can be examined. Based on that comparison, the shortfall is 2 million people. The latest figures for England and Wales for 1996, which I have just obtained from the Treasury, show that 95.3 per cent. of the eligible population are registered, which means that 4.7 per cent. are missing. In 1983, the registered figure was 97.7 per cent. That is a fantastic change within that period. The position is worse among attainers—those who are coming up to voting age and who should be appearing for the first time on electoral registers.
The shortfall of 2 million people does not tell the whole story. Registers exaggerate the true number of people registered. For example, sometimes people who have died are still on registers. Other people have moved. They may not be on a new register. Some may be unlikely to get a postal vote. There are also double entries. Many people are just carried over from old registers.
There is a huge time lag between registering and the production of the register. People are expected to reply in October, but the register comes into operation the following February. The register is based upon October residence. Therefore, the registration lasts for 16 months. In 1991, the Hansard Society said that registers were 16 per cent. out of date by the time they were finished. Research shows that between 7.4 and 9 per cent. of people are missing from registers.
In 1993, Stephen Smith of OPCS investigated the 1991 electoral registers and his survey shows the categories of people who are missing. For those living in rented, private, unfurnished accommodation, the figure for missing people is 19.4 per cent.; for inner London it is more than 20 per cent.; for the age group 21 to 24, it is almost 21 per cent.; for attainers at 17, who should be coming up for registration, it is almost 22 per cent.; for people who are black it is 24 per cent.; for those who have moved in the past year it is almost 28 per cent. Others in that category must also be taken into account as they often turn out to be in the wrong place and do not take advantage of postal or proxy votes.
Given the nature of our system, it is not surprising that for those from the new Commonwealth who are settled in this country and who are entitled to be included on British electoral registers, the missing figure is 36.6 per cent. For people living in rented, private, furnished accommodation—those who are moving around, who are on their bikes looking for jobs—the figure is 38.2 per cent. Those figures should worry Parliament greatly as they show the state of the electoral registers on which we depend to come to this place on behalf of those whom we represent.
There has been no research into missing registrations among homeless people. As those eligible to register have to be residents, and therefore generally would have to have residences, by definition homeless people are massively excluded. A few have managed to get on to the registers, but about 90 per cent. are missing. Home Office regulations and circulars to electoral returning officers should be changed to rectify that position. The law needs to be changed to remove the residency qualification so that homeless people can qualify, within constituencies, to vote.
405 What are the consequences of under-registration? Some 3.5 million people lose their basic democratic right—the building block on which a democracy should be based. Furthermore, as I have shown, those missing in the greatest numbers are not a cross-sample of society—they are special groups. That means that there is a serious impact on election results. It also distorts opinion polls, which do not make use of the registers, but merely ask people whether they are on one. They do not get correct answers. In fact, the Labour party's position in the opinion polls is sometimes shown to be better than it really is. The matter should be put right.
In this time before the general election, the Government should introduce a decent system of electoral registration. That goal could be achieved with a rolling electoral register, such as they have in Australia. I introduced the Representation of the People (Amendment) Bill—in 1993, and again in 1995—to achieve that aim, which was supported by all Opposition and by some Conservative Members, although not by the Government.
The category of "homeless" should be changed and the term "resident" redefined. We have talked a great deal about the importance of definitions, which is an area in which the Government could greatly assist us. Disabled people should have good access to polling stations. Although they may be registered to vote, they cannot exercise their right to vote as easily as the rest of us.
Electoral registration is an immensely important issue, and the Government should do something to enhance it before the next general election.
§ Mr. David Hanson (Delyn)
I very much welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on crime and the Home Office's proposals. The issues are very important in my part of the world—north Wales—because, last year, 41,645 crimes were recorded, a 79 per cent. increase on the figures in 1979, when my party was last in office. It is also a 20 per cent. increase on the figures of five years ago. In north Wales, there has been a 96 per cent. in violent crime since 1979, and large increases in criminal damage. The chances have greatly increased of people in my constituency and in the North Wales police area being affected by every type of criminal activity—such as assault, vehicle theft and burglary.
In real terms, the statistics mean an increased chance of old-age pensioners being affected by sneak robberies and distraction robberies, an increase in car crime and violence, and an increase in the use of shotguns, other firearms and knives in the North Wales police area. Those increases have occurred when the "party of law and order" has been in office.
The conviction rate has decreased dramatically in north Wales. In the past 15 years, there has been an 80 per cent. increase in crime, and a 10 per cent. decrease in convictions.
§ Mr. Hanson
I do not have time. We are operating under the 10-minute rule, as the hon. Gentleman would realise had he been in the Chamber earlier.
406 The number of police officers has remained fairly static in north Wales over the past 17 years, during the time in which the Government have been in office. We have slightly more than 1,300 officers in north Wales, which is only 6 per cent. more than we had in 1979, since when there has been a 77 per cent. increase in crime. The demand for police services is obviously outstripping their resources.
In north Wales, there is great concern that the area cost review being conducted by the Home Office will result in funds for police forces in Wales being redirected to police forces in south-east England in particular. I have received representations from one of my local authorities—Denbighshire county council—and from others in north Wales about the potential threat to funding. I urge Ministers at least to maintain police funding levels in Wales at current levels. In addition to increased crime, we face a major child abuse inquiry, the costs of which will fall especially hard on the police and deplete their resources.
In the past few years, crime has risen faster in the UK—while the "party of law and order" has governed us—than it has in any of the other 16 western nations. Since 1987, crime has increased by 42 per cent. in the UK. I do not think that the crime Bill will take the long-term action necessary to prevent crime.
The Bill's impact will be to achieve an increase in inmates. An additional 11,000 gaol places are anticipated to be necessary, as are 12 new prisons, and another £3 billion to run the system. This increase is occurring at a time when there are 57,000 people in gaols, and when gaols are filled to record levels. Since 1979, 22 prisons have been built, and a further 11,000 inmates have been put into them—yet crime has doubled. We must examine more than the "one-club approach" of sentencing and gaoling people to prevent crime, although sentencing is and must remain an important sanction.
We must examine detection, prevention, police numbers and a long-term strategy. I commend to the Minister the suggestions by my hon. Friends the Members for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) and for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael). They have presented crime prevention measures that will help to reduce criminal activity in north Wales and elsewhere. Closed-circuit television is an important factor, but the question of which local authorities will receive funding for it is like a lottery. I should like CCTV to be made more readily available.
We must support youth services and imaginative schemes for early intervention in cases of potential troublemakers. We must examine issues of truancy and unemployment. In my constituency, the areas with the highest crime rate are often those with the highest rates of unemployment and poor housing. Other areas in my constituency reap the whirlwind of the breakdown of the social fabric caused by unemployment and poor housing.
We must examine ways of preventing the supply and abuse of drugs, and offering treatment to abusers. We must re-examine recreational facilities. Today, I received a letter from a constituent in Flint, who raised concerns about the lack of recreational facilities, the knock-on effect on young people and the fact that idle hands potentially turn to crime. We must examine suggestions by Labour Front Benchers for child protection initiatives, and for helping parents to bring difficult children into line. In particular, we must examine the issues of a paedophile register and combat knives.
407 The main message that I would like to send to the Government is that some of the money spent on prisons and increasing prisoner numbers could be spent on preventing criminal activity in the first place. Prevention and punishment go hand in hand, and we must consider both issues to make a difference.
On the issue of a paedophile register, I should like to mention the case of Sophie Hook. She was taken from her uncle's garden, not far up the coast from my constituency, by an individual with a history of offending, who was known to the police. There was recently an incident in my constituency in which an individual who had offended previously entered a guilty plea at Chester crown court for indecent assault on an eight-year-old child and was fined £200 by the judge. That sentence has horrified the parents, created absolute revulsion in my community and caused a great deal of damage to people's confidence in how those matters are handled.
The fine imposed on that offender was, of course, insufficient punishment. The point, however, is that the perpetrator of the assault has moved from my constituency to England, where he will be free to perpetrate his acts again and again. It is well known that sexual offenders will not go away, but will continue to offend. The police, local authorities, social services and the education department in the area to which he moves will not know that he is there, because there is no paedophile register. That is unacceptable. The sentence is unacceptable, and the lack of a register is unacceptable.
I hope that the Bill's proposals on a paedophile register will be examined in detail. It would bring a great deal of comfort to my constituents, who have been traumatised by the case, to know that the Government and the Opposition are pressing for measures to ensure that such a case is not repeated.
I welcome the crime Bill's inclusion of action on combat knives. It is not acceptable for AMK Warrior "skull-crushers", with curved serrated blades, to be on sale in shops for £197; for Combat Smatchets with double-edged blades to be on sale for £295; or for bowie knives, commando knives and machete-type knives to be on sale. My local authority, and certainly Flint town council, have pressed hard for the introduction of standards in nightclubs and other public places, to ensure that knives are not brought in. I believe that it is possible to create a definition to ensure that combat knives are banned. This week, my local police are considering the possibility of equipping police officers with chain mail protectors against knives. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) said only last week, such knives are not used for peeling potatoes. They have one purpose: threatening, intimidatory behaviour. The Government should be able to produce a definition so that such knives could be banned.
This weekend, I took the kids away to Blackpool, as I thought that they would like to see the lights. We stopped at the amusement arcade there to have a go at some of the games. In the corner was a live video machine with a handgun which people aged between 16 and 20 were using to shoot real people on videos. I do not consider it acceptable for such machines to be in amusement arcades at this time. I do not want to see live action video machines being used for that purpose.
408 Finally, I have an advertisement from Country Landowner magazine, which states:An ideal present and useful training aid. Recommended for ages 4–9".The object described is a life-size shotgun, which is advertised as suitable for young children. Whatever else we do on the subject of guns, let us make sure that we decry the gun culture, and do not introduce our young people to using handguns.
§ Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)
Madam Deputy Speaker, I am extremely grateful to you for allowing me to catch your eye at this juncture in the debate. I have an apology to make to the House. Because of constituency and other engagements and visitors from the constituency coming to the House this afternoon, I did not have time to pay full attention to this important debate, other than briefly during the Front-Bench exchanges. I was absent after that, but I hope that no hon. Members will feel that I did not pay sufficient attention. I will, of course, read the Hansard report of the entire debate.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) on the immense amount of content that he introduced in the short time available to him. That was an object lesson in how to speak in the House of Commons when time is short.
The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), who is a colleague of mine on the Select Committee on European Legislation, raised some interesting points about electoral qualifications and systems, which need closer examination. I would guess that, in the debate today, he was the only hon. Member who spoke on such matters, which are of great interest.
I share some of the hon. Gentleman's anxieties that the general psychology of public participation in the election process is diminished by the social and economic factors he mentioned, and also by physical factors in the past. The psychological intensity of the commitment of many members of the public—hundreds of thousands of them—is diminished by a feeling that worries me as a Member of Parliament—that the House of Commons has somewhat lost its way in serving the public.
Whatever our party allegiances, we represent the political views of thousands of people and provide clear party platforms within the adversarial structure of the Chamber and the parliamentary tradition, much of which is good and valuable, but which also has its drawbacks.
I get the impression that there is a tremendous ground swell of public demand for politicians of all parties to tackle certain issues rigorously and vigorously; yet there is also impatience and frustration among the public who feel that politicians are indulging their own detailed—but legitimate—arguments. Of course, that is indispensable and I make no complaint about it, but it does not meet the public's objectives.
One of the matters about which people are deeply concerned is the seemingly inexorable rise in crime in recent decades. It is right, per contra, to congratulate our present Home Secretary. He is an extremely robust, clear-cut and decisive Home Secretary, for which we should be grateful. He has considerable talent, and his own forensic legal experience, and has shown that, in recent years, there has been a fall in crime figures in 409 certain leading categories. In my constituency, there has been a recent sharp fall in the number of burglaries and violent assaults and in various other categories.
I pay tribute to the work of the police, not only in my area but in general terms. All too often we take their work for granted. The work of the police at all levels, from the chief superintendent down to the newest constable, is probably one of the most stressful jobs in society. We in the House of Commons should constantly remind ourselves that one of our first duties is to uphold the strength of the police, in psychological and resource terms, so that they feel that they have the backing of the mother of Parliaments in fulfilling their task.
I pay tribute to my local police force, under an excellent chief superintendent and his senior colleagues, and to the entire corpus of the four stations in my area. They have achieved considerable results in controlling crime, supported by a much more realistic attitude on the part of local magistrates in proper sentencing. Sentencing should be severe when the crime is heinous, and that message is gradually getting across, within the limits of the legislation and what the lower benches can do, of course.
§ Mr. Dykes
I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not give way; speeches are subject to the 10-minute rule, and I have a number of points to make in a limited time.
The factors to which I referred have been something of a turning point in the self-confidence of the police, which leads to the development of a much more positive attitude to community relationships. For example, police visits to local schools were often resented, but are now more easily accepted. The police in my area and elsewhere also do outstanding race relations work.
There is still something of a problem in the Metropolitan police in this respect, mainly south of the river and among younger police officers. However, the problem is not so evident north of the river, and one must pay tribute to the great efforts being made there. It is essential for us to continue to support the police, so that they feel that they have the backing not just of one party or only of politicians wishing to gain a short-term advantage but of the whole House.
A recurrent theme of today's debate—it is, of course, the subject of a Bill to be introduced this Session—is that of weapons of violence. There is still time for the Government to consider allowing a free vote on handguns and on the relevant legislation, which I believe is to be published in the middle of this week—I am only guessing about the timetable, and perhaps the Minister replying to the debate can give the House further details. Indeed, it may already have been referred to today.
Weapons of violence are another example of a topic on which the public want the House to take unequivocal and decisive action. I confidently believe that it is possible to construct wholly logical and coherent legislation framing a complete prohibition of handguns for private use. I think that gun club members simply have to accept that, although I know it may be hard. There may be schedules in the relevant Bill to provide for the exclusion of, for 410 example, Olympic sports pistols, but I would not go further than that. That also has to be examined with care because we know what can happen even with low-calibre guns, which can still be destructive or even lethal. They are different from agricultural shotguns. There is a distinction between various types of guns, and it can be satisfactorily encompassed in legislation.
Knives pose a more difficult problem, and are, in a way, more worrying than handguns. They are not so much on the public's mind at the moment, but they are receiving attention thanks to some dramatic press conferences. Handguns have a higher profile because of recent dreadful tragedies, but knives are more worrying, and a harder subject for Parliament to grasp.
There is already a long list of prohibited knives, yet there are other knives which are obviously weapons of violence and destruction and which must not be associated with the old tradition of the schoolboy carrying a penknife, or the scout with a legitimate scouting knife on a camp site. We need to act, because the public want Parliament to tackle the problem.
We shall shortly see the text of legislation dealing with minimum sentences, but we have to be careful not to excessively limit—I apologise for the split infinitive—the discretion and power of the judges. I believe that there is to be more flexibility in that legislation, so the Government have taken on board the need for it—I hope so. Although it is intrinsically and originally the high court of Parliament, I do not think that it is possible for this place to limit too precisely the discretionary power of judges, particularly senior judges, in dealing with heinous crimes of violence and the worst kind of criminal offence such as murder. It is up to us to let the judiciary make the final decision, perhaps within the framework of tighter legislation, if that is deemed to be in the public interest.
There has been a visible growth in crime in every country in the western world. We often lose the ability to distinguish whether the press is now reporting crime far more than before. Many people, particularly those of older generations, feel that there was a lot of crime in the old days as well, but that it was less well reported, because the press did not have the sensationalist attitude which is now creeping into local newspapers.
Those points show that the debate on home affairs and crime and punishment—particularly what we should do about sexual crimes—is one of the most important. Parliament has a lot of work to do, and it will be important for politicians of good will on both sides to get together on this crucial issue—
§ Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)
One wonders what the Government have been doing for 17 years. Some 31 criminal justice Bills have come before Parliament in that time, and we are still no further forward on tackling crime. I wholeheartedly agree with some of the Government's sentencing policies. I agree with their attitude towards paedophiles without a shadow of doubt, because 95 per cent. of them go on to reoffend. I also agree on double rapists. If my party gets its act together, I hope to be supporting the Government at least on those two issues.
411 I want to talk about drugs. The other week, I asked the Library to dig out some figures on drugs. We have a problem with drugs, although most of us, particularly the Government, bury our heads in the sand. I should like to take a minute to announce the figures, because this is the first time that the Library has compiled such information.
Between 1987 and 1995, the amount of heroin in circulation increased by 167 per cent. The figures for methadone, a heroin substitute prescribed by doctors, went up in the same period by 686 per cent. In the same eight years, the figures for cocaine went up by 320 per cent. The death rate among young people taking drugs has been running at 37 per cent. over the past eight years. The illegal drug industry—which is connected to crime; the police will not deny that—now runs at £5 billion, but we are still burying our heads in the sand.
I have written to the Prime Minister to ask for a national inquiry or even a royal commission on where we are going on the drug issue. I have given the House the Library's figures on the enormous increase in drug circulation. I shall quote figures later on the connection with crime. Now is the time to sit round the table with the people who know. We should get organised and see whether we are doing the job properly.
The police say that there is a direct link between drugs and firearms. Drug gangs use firearms. It is said that 80 per cent. of crime is committed because of illegal drug taking. If that is the correct figure, my God, somebody had better get their head out of the trough and get something done. Let us have a national inquiry to see where we are going.
The police do their job as best they can. I have no grumbles about the police. They do the best job possible with the resources they have. However, I get a bit upset about one or two things and I worry about some of their tactics. For example, the police allow some drug dealers to deal because information comes back to them about petty criminals. Allowing a drug dealer to stay in business if he gives little bits of information about who is burgling this and who is burgling that might keep the figures down in the local area, but I am not sure that it is the answer. A national inquiry might get to the bottom of such issues.
Last year, the chief constable of Avon and Somerset said:I am in no doubt that the abuse of illegal drugs is responsible for the majority of recorded crime. Solve the drug problem and the crime wave will reduce.Nobody took any notice of him.
Where are the drugs coming from? We do not make drugs in this country. We may try, but the real stuff comes from abroad, so we should look at Customs and Excise. What is going on there? Over the past three or four years, at least 700 Customs and Excise officers have lost their jobs. A port in my constituency had three Customs and Excise officers—two part-time and one full-time. They have all gone—replaced by a fax machine. If that has happened in one little port in my constituency, what has happened throughout the land?
Where are the customs officers coming from? They do the best they can—I cannot blame them. They have had some good successes. They are like the police—they can do only what their resources allow. If we can stop drugs coming into this country by using more resources we could crack a little bit of the crime.
412 It is all right saying that we can put drug offenders in prison, but I would hazard a guess that some drug pushers on council estates would take a chance on seven years in prison. Some of these people are desperate. They are drawing dole, or they are on income support of £47 a week. Some Conservative Members may think that art enormous amount for someone on a council estate to live on, but it is not.
Those people are getting into the drugs game because, once they start to supply drugs, they are on at least £100 a week on top of their dole. They will take the chance of supplying drugs. Who do they supply them to? They supply them to the young ones. How do the young ones get the money to feed the habit? Of course, they go burgling. Some of those burglaries spill over into violence.
We have a problem with drugs. "Tackling Drugs Together" was the Government's answer. I am not saying that that was wrong, but we have not got to the bottom of the problem. In my area we shall be launching a programme called "Living for Learning" to educate kids. I think that we have now accepted the need for education. At one time, some people argued against educating kids, but we have to accept that we must have local initiatives, setting up organisations to work within the drug culture.
The most important aim is to cut the supply of drugs. They are coming through at an enormous rate. I have given the figures to the Minister and the Prime Minister. The figures are unacceptable. Those drug dealers are causing up to 80 per cent. of crime in this country. Until we get that settled, we will get nothing settled. I call on the Prime Minister and the Government to set up a national inquiry to work out where we are going. Let us get round the table and sort out the issue once and for all.
§ Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham)
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) who made some profound points that we would all do well to ponder. As he rightly points out, drugs are a scourge of modern society, affecting the entire western world. They are at the root of so many of our social problems, particularly crime.
I sometimes feel that our debates on home affairs are conducted in a vacuum, because the criminal law is only one constraint on human behaviour. Not so many years ago, there were other powerful constraints, most of which, sadly, have fallen away, leaving only the criminal law as our defence against deviant behaviour. We all know that the criminal law is not up to the task.
What are those constraints? They include respect for others and the realisation that every right has a reciprocal responsibility. There was respect by men for women. but when one can read articles and see photographs in a family newspaper that a few years ago one would have found only on the top shelf of a seedy newsagents, is it any wonder that respect between men and women has weakened?
There was respect between parents and children. In the 1960s, as teenagers became more financially independent, respect began to break down; given some of the half-baked left-wing ideas in our schools, is it any wonder that respect between parents and children has weakened?
Respect for religion used to be a powerful constraint on human behaviour. People really worried about what would happen to them when they died. They regarded the 413 laws laid down in the Bible as rules by which they should lead their own lives. Perhaps bishops and the other clergy would do better if they spent more time trying to reinforce belief in religion and the laws laid down in the Bible, rather than dabbling in politics, as they so often do.
Respect for the police has also been undermined. Is it any wonder that young hooligans laugh at the police when a policeman who seeks to impose reasonable corporal punishment on some young hooligan is dragged into court and fined?
Is it surprising that young bullies in schools laugh at their teachers when, only last week, a teacher who made a brave attempt to stop bullying in her school was criticised and will be dragged before a tribunal?
It is all upside down. Why has it happened? There is one common denominator. I shall not seek to blame it all on them, but they must take a substantial share of the blame. They are the television editors and producers. When people with low standards of personal behaviour are portrayed on our television screens every day, is it any wonder that young and impressionable people imitate that behaviour?
It is no answer for the television producers to say, "We just reflect society." They do not, and they know it. They know that they are in charge of the most powerful medium ever invented for moulding ideas and changing behaviour. Why else would people pay tens of thousands of pounds for a few minutes advertising time on television? They must accept their responsibility.
Television has another charge to answer: it is often the thief of time—the time that parents should be spending with children, husbands should be spending with wives and communities should be spending together.
Television has also served to undermine respect for Parliament. The main responsibility for undermining respect for Parliament among our constituents must rest with us. If we spend our working day trying to make out that other Members are crooks or incompetents, as we so often do, is it any wonder that the public begin to believe that we really are crooks and incompetents? We all know that it is not true, and that hon. Members on both sides of the House work extremely hard and conscientiously for their constituents.
Television trivialises and sensationalises everything. I doubt very much whether the well-informed and thoughtful speech of the hon. Member for Blyth Valley will be broadcast on television. I doubt very much whether any of today's proceedings will be broadcast on television, except perhaps an ill-tempered exchange across the Dispatch Box. If respect for Parliament, the monarchy and all our institutions is undermined, is it any wonder that crime and lawlessness are increasing?
We should also consider the rise of single-interest pressure groups. Many of them are responsible, but some are not. Some say, "Elected Parliaments and Governments are a complete waste of time. If you want to get anything done, you should take the law into your own hands. Go and sit down in the road. Go and smash lorries. Go and sit in trees. Don't care about democracy." Their activities are extremely dangerous, because the liberty of British people rests here in the House, and in our hands as their elected Members of Parliament. We cannot abdicate our responsibility to single-interest pressure groups, or, indeed, to judges.
414 Expectations of what Governments and Parliaments can do have run far ahead of their ability to deliver, and that causes disillusionment. To some extent, we are responsible for raising expectations that we know cannot be delivered. We should think carefully before we do it in future.
The general breakdown of society is often blamed on my right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Thatcher. That is nonsense. In so far as our problems stem from increased prosperity—we have more cars, videos and everything else to steal—perhaps she is responsible. [Laughter.] However, when we consider that that phenomenon has been taking place since long before my right hon. and noble Friend became Prime Minister—it has been happening for 30 years, not just in Britain, but throughout the western world—it is easy to see how silly was the laughter from the Labour Front Bench when I suggested that the responsibility did not rest on the shoulders of my right hon. and noble Friend.
Governments can do only so much, and this Government have done it. Funding for the police has increased by 100 per cent. since we came to office. More prisons have been built to protect society against dangerous criminals, and new powers have been given to the courts and the police.
I have, however, one criticism of my party, and that is that we listen too much to the siren voices of the left-wing criminologists and other do-gooders within the criminal justice system, who were in and out of the Home Office almost every day. Fortunately, we have got rid of them, and we now have a Home Secretary and a ministerial team who are determined to roll back the liberal ideas that have done so much damage to our country.
Some judges say that prison does not work, but, with the greatest respect to them, that is none of their business. [Laughter.] I hear more silly laughter from the Opposition. There was a time when the judges imposed a self-denying ordinance on themselves. They did not descend into the political arena to take part in party political debate, because they knew that their value to our society rested upon the fact that they were impartial and were seen to be so. If the judges forfeit their impartiality, this nation will be losing a priceless asset. I warn the judges of the danger of departing from the very wise rule that they once imposed on themselves.
We should put dangerous criminals in prison. Prison works because it deprives them of the opportunity to commit further crimes. While they are in prison, however, there are opportunities to help criminals to come to terms with their offending behaviour. I commend to my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench the work of the Addicted Diseases Trust at Downview and other prisons. It does excellent work, and, we should give it even more support than we do.
§ Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)
Not surprisingly, I shall not follow the hon. Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen) down the strange alleyways in which he seemed to find himself.
I intend to speak about Dunblane and firearms, and it is probably the first time that I have done so without the presence of my opposite number, the Secretary of State for Scotland. It is a strange occurrence, but I am sure that the Minister of State will be a good substitute. The 415 Secretary of State is in Luxembourg, fighting the cause of Scottish beef in the various channels available, and we wish him well in that regard if not in any other.
I find this speech slightly awkward on another count as well. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) made an allegation about a deal between the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Home Secretary. In military circles, I think that that is referred to as friendly fire. I am not in any position to know whether deals were done or not. Perhaps the Minister will address himself to that point in his winding-up speech.
In this debate, we are considering a number of pieces of legislation, some of which we have seen and others that we have yet to see. Inevitably, the focus of attention has been on the Crime (Sentences) Bill, for England and Wales, and the Government's more poetically entitled—one might say even literary—Crime and Punishment (Scotland) Bill for north of the border. The debate has also concentrated on the Firearms (Amendment) Bill, which apparently we are to see for the first time later this week, and which we shall certainly speed on its way to Royal Assent before Christmas.
The issue of firearms is, of course, serious. It crosses normal party divisions and arises out of a horrific event which took place on 13 March in the town where I live and which the Secretary of State for Scotland represents, and a 200-page report by Lord Cullen that has taken seven months to produce. The issue is serious, sober, and crosses party boundaries. I for one was much saddened by the approach taken by the Home Secretary in his opening speech. His tone—and, indeed, the content of his speech—was not what the British public would have expected on a subject that has carried the country with it. I hope that when he reflects on what he said, and on how it sounded to the House and the country, the Home Secretary will regret the way in which he put it forward.
The Home Secretary said that his proposal for a partial ban on handguns on a whipped vote through the House of Commons would somehow allow the people of Dunblane—by that, I think that he means the parents of the murdered and injured children, the injured teachers and the family of Gwen Mayor—to draw a line under the events of 13 March. As somebody who knows those people and lives in the same town, I have to tell him that a partial ban on those weapons of destruction, those easily concealed, easily carried and all too easily used handguns, will allow no line to be drawn. Nor will such a ban draw a line under the real fear in the wider community that the remaining 40,000 handguns—20,000 of which are semi-automatic repeater pistols—will continue to represent a serious danger to public safety.
Although we shall be debating the matter again when we see the Government's precise proposals, I should like to make three simple points in considering what has been said in this debate. Dealing with the menace represented by handguns is not some sort of sop to the parents of Dunblane. Their feelings are deep, profound and understandable to any human being, but they were not the only reason why people were shocked to learn that on 13 March 200,000 handguns were held in homes all over Britain. Thus the demand for a full ban on the civilian use of handguns comes from every part of Britain and every kind of person, not simply from one small community that was afflicted by evil on that day in March.
416 The hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle), who participated earlier in this debate but has since evacuated the Chamber, said that the Dunblane parents and those who spoke for them were hysterical and emotional. He referred specifically to Mr. Les Morton, one of the bereaved fathers who spoke on the day that the Cullen report was published. His comments touched a new low for a Member of this House. He is an individual known for hysterical response on occasions. I am glad, however, that Tory Members dissociated themselves from what he said on that day. I only wish that the Secretary of State for Scotland, the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister had done so publicly as well, as that might have mended some of the wounds caused by what the hon. Gentleman said.
This issue naturally concerns emotion and the point that must be grasped is that it has been under consideration for the past seven months. None of us was absent from the debate that took place in the country. I accept that we were waiting for Lord Cullen's report. Lord Cullen is a learned judge who was chosen in consultation with this side of the House. I helped to write the terms of reference that he worked towards, and I asked the parliamentary question that led to his appointment to look at the circumstances surrounding the shooting. But he is not a royal commission. Neither is he some oracle nor the fount of all knowledge. We saw what went on at the hearings in the Albert hall in Stirling. The Secretary of State and myself gave evidence to the inquiry and saw the evidence as it piled up.
If the debate that took place during the summer in communities all over the country—in pubs, clubs, homes and the street—was soured or influenced, it was because, regrettably, a number of factors politicised it. The first reason for that was the premature publication of a report by the Select Committee on Home Affairs. It did not have to report; it spent only a day considering inadequately evidence that Lord Cullen was to consider in greater detail. It divided on solely partisan grounds because the Conservative majority on the Committee would not listen to arguments put forward by my hon. Friends on the Committee. Nobody should underestimate the report's impact on public opinion, and how it hardened the public's views and stopped them keeping an open mind until Lord Cullen had reported.
As I said during the Home Secretary's opening speech, the Sunday newspapers on 13 October also had an impact on public opinion, not only on the opinions of Labour Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) and myself, who read those newspapers and wondered whether that really was the Government's view in advance of Lord Cullen's report being handed to them. But we had no reason to believe that that was not the official line.
§ Mr. Robertson
I hear the Home Secretary's protestations of innocence. We have listened carefully. There was a degree of amusement when he protested his innocence in that regard. Somebody briefed the press. It was somebody close to the Home Secretary, the Home Department or the Conservative party brief. It might have been a false trail or designed to test the water, but the line told people that the Government appeared to have come to a soft conclusion. That hardened public opinion. When 417 we found out, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn asked the Home Office, while I simultaneously asked the Scottish Office, whether we could see, on Privy Council terms—we all know the meaning of that—the Cullen report before the statement on the Wednesday morning. Naturally, we had to discuss the contingency arrangements in the event of certain evidence being in Lord Cullen's report. No announcement was made until we had seen the content of Lord Cullen's report, which backed up what we had said in May in our evidence to the inquiry.
The second point is that even the Government have gone beyond Lord Cullen's recommendations, so no Conservative Member can fairly criticise the Labour party for going further than the Government. The Home Secretary said that they had considered Lord Cullen's analysis but had disagreed with some of his conclusions. We agree with the Government that some of Lord Cullen's conclusions seem strangely adrift from his good, comprehensive and well-summed-up analysis. All we ask the Government to do is to go one stage—albeit an important stage—further, and to ban all handguns in civilian use.
I commend the changes that the Government have made. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) was right when he implied that there was some dishonourable deal between the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Home Secretary, but I commend the distance that the Government went, because it was certainly further than most of us expected. However, it is still not enough. To leave in private hands 40,000 lethal handguns, 20,000 of them automatics, with the same firepower that they have always had, and the same devastating impact on the individuals at whom they may be fired, is still a serious risk to public safety.
The Scottish Police Federation, which originally said that it would be prepared to countenance an exemption for single-action pistols, has now said that that would leave a dangerous loophole in the law. The most devastating argument of all, cited by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn in our brief statement two weeks ago, lies in the words of the British Shooting Sports Council. In evidence published in paragraph 9.68 on page 121 of the Cullen report, it said:no matter what system of checks and paperwork is maintained in such circumstances, it would be a simple matter indeed for a shooter intent in recovering his guns to enter a competition, provide evidence to his club secretary that he had done so, recover possession of the complete gun together with ammunition for it, and perpetrate an outrage.That is the gun lobby—the British Shooting Sports Council—saying that a partial ban on handguns is fatally flawed. I do not see how the Home Secretary can shrug off the evidence not of those who are opposed to handguns but of those who want to keep handguns for sport.
The third point—perhaps the most important of the whole debate—is expressed in a plea to the Home Secretary and to the Government to keep the issue non-political. Inevitably, the issue is political with a small "p", because it is a great issue of public concern, but this afternoon the right hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) attacked the Government's proposal and the 418 hon. Members for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) and for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) supported the case for a total ban; it is also true that my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) holds a view different from that of Opposition Front Benchers. This is a great public debate across party lines.
Who can deny that there will be huge passions and that political parties will be involved? What passions in the public arena can escape the involvement of political parties? In the past seven months, however, despite temptations and provocations, we have managed to maintain a reasonable degree of consensus, and I hope that it will be possible to continue that until Christmas, when the Bill receives Royal Assent and becomes law. That can happen only in one circumstance—if the Government allow Conservative Members to have a free vote. There will be a free vote for Opposition Members irrespective of the Government's decision. We have said that that is the right way to proceed. If we say that it is the right approach for the Government to adopt, that must apply to the Opposition as well. Some Members may find it convenient to be away from the House when the Division takes place. There will be others who might find it convenient to go through the Government Lobby. But let the will of the House be expressed through a free vote.
On this great issue, where passions run so strongly through national newspapers, individual journalists and writers and the vast majority of the public, let us avoid a whipped vote by the Government. Whatever the result of a whipped vote, however that is achieved and whatever the majority may be, it will not have the sustainability of a vote taken freely by individual Members accepting their own responsibility on such a great issue at a defining moment for this Parliament.
The Home Secretary, the Secretary of State for Scotland. the Prime Minister and the Government generally cannot escape from the fact that if they try to dragoon the issue through the House on the marshalled votes produced by the Government Whips some time in December, that will become an issue in the general election. That must be because that is the nature of our process. It would be a bitter and sad day for democracy if we were left in that position.
Handguns are special and the issues surrounding them are in turn special and difficult. Thomas Hamilton, whom the Secretary of State for Scotland and I both, to use the wrong figure of speech, crossed swords with in the past, took 743 bullets with him when he went on 13 March to Dunblane primary school. He fired 106 rounds, causing 58 wounds and killing 18 people, including himself. He injured 15 people. He used two legally held semi-automatic handguns. It took only four horrifying minutes to do that damage. No other weapon could possibly create such havoc and so much desperate damage. That is why handguns are special. That is why only a decision that is made freely in this place by the country's law makers will lead eventually to legislation on handguns that will stick.
The Government have shown in the past week that they can change their mind, even at the last minute. I hope that before we come to the day when a decision on handguns must be made they will consider all the implications and all the arguments. I hope that the Home Secretary will listen to his right hon. and hon. Friends as well as to Opposition Members and come to the right conclusion for his party, his country and for Parliament.
419 Another feature of the Queen's Speech that affects us all is beef. The Government will produce two Bills, one for England and Wales and one for Scotland. They will be strangely different, and I shall return to that matter. Inevitably, I wish to concentrate on the issues that relate specifically to Scotland.
My right hon. Friend—I almost referred to the Secretary of State as my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth), which might have been a terrible mistake to make, especially if anyone from the Scottish press had been listening. The Secretary of State for Scotland is in Luxembourg talking about beef. My hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) brought me a piece of paper this evening, which I hope somebody has faxed to the Secretary of State. On it was a question from a Conservative Member, the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey), asking the Secretary of State for Defence whether British beef is purchased by the armed forces for their own consumption in the United Kingdom. The Under-Secretary of State replied:The majority of our requirements are, however, for frozen beef, which is not readily available from the British market and I understand that on cost grounds the majority of beef joints have been sourced from south America, predominantly Brazil and Uruguay".So the NAAFI buys Latin American. The Secretary of State for Scotland, who as I have said is in Luxembourg and supposed to be defending the interests of Scotland, might want to take that on board.
We have had 17 years of Conservative Government. This has not been the first day of a theatrical performance from the Home Secretary, coming along with yet another definitive answer to the crime problems that have affected us. I tried to see whether I could find adequate words to describe the situation in Tory Britain after 17 years of this Government, and these words came to mind.When parents dare not let their children go out to play; when senior citizens who have given a lifetime of service to the community are forced to spend their sunset years—which should be among the most rewarding in their lives—as prisoners in their own homes; then we have reached a point where action must be taken.Those are the words of the right hon. Member for Stirling, Secretary of State for Scotland, in September last year when he was appointed to a job in the Cabinet—a job which, he tells us, he has coveted all his political life. It is a description of Tory Scotland by a Tory in 1995. It is not something of which the Conservative party can be proud, because it is all too accurate. They have had 17 years to get it right, so why should anybody believe that suddenly, startlingly, they have the answer? [Interruption.]
The hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) has now joined us to make yet another contribution to law and order by shouting from below the Gangway. His party has had 17 years, and now we are told that they have the answer.
§ Sir Ivan Lawrence
I apologise for not being here earlier. As the hon. Gentleman will accept, the wind-up speeches started early this evening, because many hon. Members were told that they could speak for only 10 minutes, so the debate has been shorter. Why do he and his hon. Friends bang on as though the world has not changed at all over the past 17 years, as though the situation with crime, families, everything, has been static and that all a Government had to do was to improve things 420 over 17 years? The world has changed immensely, and unless he realises that by dealing with the matter sensibly, he will be thoroughly incredible to the people outside.
§ Mr. Robertson
Of course the world has changed, and crime has got much worse, but every year we are faced with Conservative Ministers who tell us that they have the answer. Now, six months before the election, without the faintest possibility that any of this stuff will be in place and working beforehand, they tell us that after 17 years they have spotted all the social undercurrents, all the serious problems that are there, that they have discovered the defects in the prison system, the police system, the sentencing system, and here it is, in one Bill. Actually, the Home Secretary has half a dozen Bills, but the Crime and Punishment (Scotland) Bill is an omnibus Bill for Scotland that is supposed to sort it out. [Interruption.] The hon. and learned Member for Burton asks about the defects of socialism. He has put his finger on it. I thought that the Conservatives had eliminated socialism over 17 years. They always have to blame somebody else. I do not think that the people are convinced by these arguments.
I regret the Government's approach to crime, which is a serious issue, and I speak as the grandson of a police officer, the son of a police officer and the brother of a serving police officer. Indeed, I think that my son will. within the next year, become a police officer as well, so I do not speak from the crevices that the hon. Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen) spoke about, which could be defined as weak, do-gooding liberalism. I speak from the genuine, deep concern that my constituents feel about the way in which crime impacts on them. But from the Conservative Government we just get excuses. "Blame somebody else". There is no apology for the policies that have failed, no confessions that they have made mistakes in the past—no contrition at all, just sound bites, headlines and yet another Bill.
§ Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)
Perhaps we can test the hon. Gentleman's view about law and order and people who commit crimes. What view does he take about the two serving Labour councillors who, in a dawn raid, committed criminal damage at the home of the Deputy Prime Minister and say that they would be proud to do it again? Does he condemn it, as I do, or does he condone it?
§ Mr. Robertson
If anyone, including a Labour councillor, breaks the law, he should be dealt with by the law as severely as anyone else—and that goes for Tory councillors, a few of whom have been involved. We are all equal under the law. The hon. Member for Harrow, West should not use hand-picked examples that are good for the local newspaper, although I know that he needs to recover some of the ground that he may be sacrificing down here. I think that he spoke, very properly, about what is genuinely the issue. The law is the law, and it should apply to aberrant Labour councillors, as well as to Westminster city councillors, whose aberration goes way beyond anything that most of us would consider to be normal.
§ Mr. Robertson
The hon. Gentleman has woken up. As he is in the last few months of his parliamentary career, I shall give way to him.
§ Mr. Gallie
I have heard all this before from the hon. Gentleman, and he usually gets it wrong. We heard about his background and his close links with the police. What do the police think about stop-and-search laws? How important have they been to the control of criminal elements in recent times? Has the hon. Gentleman always voted in support of stop-and-search powers for the police?
§ Mr. Robertson
It is rather curious. I do not know where the hon. Gentleman comes from and what he is talking about. We have always been in favour of the police having appropriate powers. There is nothing in this huge Bill about stop and search. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that the police should have powers that his right hon. Friend has not included? Is he being critical of the Conservative Front Bench? A number of measures are not in the Bill.
What is most remarkable about the Crime and Punishment (Scotland) Bill is that the Secretary of State for Scotland has proposed it as the great answer to the problem of the Scottish crime wave. The Bill should be called the Repeal of Ian Lang Bill. It is ironic, but perhaps just, that the Minister of State, Scottish Office, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton), is present as he was the junior Minister who wound up the debate on 19 October 1992, when the Government were proposing exactly the opposite of what is in the Crime and Punishment (Scotland) Bill.
The then Secretary of State for Scotland, now El Presidente at the Board of Trade, said:There are those who argue that the sentence of the court should mean precisely what it says—a fixed number of years in custody.That is what the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie) said in his speech. The then Secretary of State continued:The Government believe, however, like the Kincraig committee, that a better approach is to allow, within the compass of the total sentence, for a period in custody, and a period in the community during which the offender will be encouraged to resettle under supervision."—[Official Report, 19 October 1992; Vol. 212, c. 238–9.]That was the Government's position in 1992, just after they had won a general election in Scotland. Now, only three years later, they say, "All that was wrong. Sorry we got it completely and totally wrong, and we are now going to turn the whole thing completely upside down." No wonder the public are not convinced that this Bill is the answer.
The public saw the new Secretary of State for Scotland emerge into a society afflicted by crime and criminals, as he described it in Flourish magazine in September of the year in which he was appointed. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Rutherglen (Mr. McAvoy) spoke movingly about that. My hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell), in a significant speech, pointed out the way in which ordinary people are affected by the crime wave. The public are not convinced by the Government's consultation process, because although 99 per cent. of those consulted were opposed to the Government's proposals, the Government still brought them forward.
The day after the consultation period ended, the front page of the Scottish Daily Mail said, "Forsyth proposes new laws for drug traffickers." Those new laws were not 422 included in the initial consultation. Moreover, yesterday's Scottish edition of The Sunday Times included a brand new idea produced by the Secretary of State for Scotland. Its headline said:Forsyth to tag teenage tearaways.There is no mention of tagging in the English one.
§ Mr. Robertson
The Home Secretary says that there will be. That is an amendment already notified and another memory lapse, like who told the Sunday newspapers about what the Government intended to do or who was in the Front-Bench meeting that decided the U-turn on the Bill on paedophiles and stalkers. The newspaper report states:Although the Bill refers only to offenders aged 16 and above, Michael Forsyth, the Scottish secretary, is considering extending tagging to juveniles. A senior source said, 'We are now exploring with officials the dispersal of electronic tags for children and we will consult on it.At each stage, the goalposts move further. It seems that the Secretary of State for Scotland is not interested in consulting, but only in deciding. He is not interested in having a fight with criminals, but in the publicity that goes along with having a fight with the judges. He is not interested in public welfare, but in his own constituency survival. That is highly regrettable in terms of law and order in a country whose people, as hon. Members have said throughout the debate, are deeply worried about the impact on them of crime and criminality.
The Bill is not right and proper at this time. We shall look at it carefully. We may not oppose it on Second Reading because it might be appropriate to look at some of the issues in detail in Committee to see whether matters can be improved. We are in favour of being tough on crime and on the criminals who are making the lives of so many people in Scotland a complete misery—and we always have been. The people of Scotland will not be convinced by a Government who have been in power for 17 years and who have been getting it consistently wrong in every one of those years now saying, "We have it right at last." They are not convinced—and nor are we.
§ The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton)
The hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) has set out his position fully and with some passion.
The debate has been overshadowed by the appalling tragedy and atrocity which occurred at Dunblane. My right hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Sir P. Lloyd) spoke about hearing of it with horrified disbelief. We owe it to our countrymen to put in place measures that will provide far greater safeguards for the public. That is why we are determined to implement Lord Cullen's recommendations, after receiving his powerfully argued report.
As my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary said earlier we are acting quickly on Lord Cullen's recommendations—as we promised. There are three key areas of action. First, we have supported Lord Cullen's recommendations on improving school security. The action plan for each school is a workmanlike approach which will improve security for all school users. 423 We have backed it by committing ourselves to a special grant towards security measures and my right hon. and learned Friend will do the same in England and Wales. We think that councils should have as much discretion as possible on the measures to be undertaken.
The second key area concerns the vetting and supervision of adults working with children and young people. Here again we have accepted the Cullen report recommendations, including the important innovation of accreditation by a national body of clubs and groups working with young people. However, we have gone further. The Queen's Speech foreshadowed legislation to improve access to criminal record information by bodies which will include those who work with young people. We are also producing a Bill to require sex offenders to notify the police of any change of address so as to protect the public, and especially children, from these dangerous criminals. I endorse what my right hon. and learned Friend said about the merits of that Bill, which will apply to Scotland as well as to England and Wales. That was welcomed by the hon. Members for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) and for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell), by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and by my hon. Friends the Members for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin) and for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson).
There may be objections on civil liberties grounds, but we believe that the protection and safety of our country's children and young people must have priority. Therefore, sex offenders should be easily identified and traced to ensure the safety and well-being of our families, and particularly young children. To that end, we are determined to ensure that the police are given every assistance in the prevention and detection of crimes of this nature, and the measures proposed in the forthcoming Bill will achieve that. Therefore, it is important to get this necessary legislation on the statute book as quickly as possible. I welcome the support that the Opposition have offered and their co-operation in putting through that Bill.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East asked whether we could have a Europewide register of sex offenders. I say to him and the Bournemouth Evening Echo, which he mentioned, that the Government's proposal is to require paedophiles and other serious sex offenders to notify the police of any changes of address to improve the prevention and detection of future offending. Obviously, that scheme cannot be applied outside the UK, but we expect co-operation between enforcement authorities throughout Europe. Such co-operation is vital. We are actively considering with our European partners the means of improving co-operation in the fight against child abuse.
We are going further than Lord Cullen recommended on firearms, which is the third key area of action. We accept his view that a partial ban on handguns is the right solution. The Bill to be published later in the week will implement the partial ban, which is somewhat stricter than he envisaged.
As Lord Cullen made clear, our action must be proportionate and just. Hon. Members will, I am sure, accept that he acted impartially and took account of expert advice. He did not recommend a total ban. His preference was for disabling handguns when not in use. He had very good reasons for coming to that conclusion. The Government's position, which my right hon. and learned Friend has described, is clear and is based on the need to secure public safety. I strongly commend it.
424 My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) said that we must have some principle. We do. Lord Cullen's statement at chapter 9, paragraph 108 of his report was:It is not enough to consider what would be practicable and effective. No assessment of what should be done would be complete without considering what would be proportionate and just.He went on to say in paragraph 113:I do not consider that the banning of handguns for target shooting or the banning of shooting clubs would be justified.A difference of opinion has been expressed in the debate. Some hon. Members have said that we are going too far and others say that we are not going far enough. My right hon. Friend the Member for Fareham, my hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh), for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) and for Wolverhampton, South-West and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, queried whether we were going too far. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) and the hon. Members for Hamilton, for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) and for Glasgow, Rutherglen (Mr. McAvoy) said that we were not going far enough.
I agree with Lord Cullen, but we have reached the view that his suggestions for disabling weapons of that sort would not go far enough to protect the public. We have therefore decided to ban the private ownership and use of all handguns over .22 calibre. Those of less than .22 calibre will also be banned, except in clubs that meet the highest standards of security and have been so approved by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department.
It is worth noting that, as soon as the legislation comes into effect, every handgun currently in private hands will have to be handed in to the police. The immediate effect of the legislation will be the removal of all handguns from private ownership. Those weapons will be returned to their owners only if the club in which they intend to store them meets the required security standards, or they will be destroyed.
The House should not underestimate the significance of the measures being undertaken, which will lead to the destruction of 160,000 handguns and will rightly give Britain what the Home Secretary has described as some of the toughest gun control laws in the world.
§ Mr. Stephen
Many of the handguns that would have to be handed in under the new Act are of special historical or technical interest. Will the Government consider making special arrangements for those weapons to be preserved in some suitable place?
§ Lord James Douglas-Hamilton
Yes. Indeed, that has happened in the case of amnesties. I remember one gun being handed in which had been used by monks. It was hidden in the middle of a bible. I do not know what use it was put to, but it went to a museum. In unusual circumstances, that will happen, provided that the gun is appropriately disabled.
My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, South and Maldon (Mr. Whittingdale) raised the subject of ancillary equipment and compensation. The Home Office is examining compensation arrangements and my hon. Friend's points will be considered.
425 The Government were asked to take a collective view on Lord Cullen's report and have done so. Our considered view is that legislation is the right way ahead, and we shall bring a Bill before the House in the usual way. The Prime Minister has made it clear in the House that the Government have formed a judgment of what is right, and we will invite the House to support that view.
The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed made a significant statement, when he promised his party's collaboration and support in implementing Cullen's recommendations, which I regard as extremely important. We will welcome that support in respect of not only the Firearms (Amendment) Bill but essential provisions which are likely to appear in the Police Bill and the Bill for the sex offenders register.
§ Mr. George Robertson
The Labour party has made it clear that it will support the firearms legislation and speed it on its way. There is much in that proposal with which we agree and of which we strongly approve, as will be revealed in debate.
I return to the partial or full ban on handguns. The Government managed to offer a free vote on two alternative Government clauses for the Sunday Trading Act 1994 but are unwilling to do the same in respect of an issue that the Government know is of considerably more importance—in which the conscience as well as the judgment of individual hon. Members can be called into play. Why are the Government standing so firmly against a free vote on handguns?
§ Lord James Douglas-Hamilton
That is a completely different issue. The 1994 legislation involved Sunday openings, which are traditionally free vote country.
We strongly believe that Cullen's recommendations should be acted on, and we want them on the statute book as soon as possible. I seek to persuade those of my hon. Friends who feel that we are going too far that not only I but my Secretary of State strongly take the view that it was thoroughly obscene that Thomas Hamilton could have in his home the amount of armoury and ammunition that he possessed. We have announced that guns of the type that Hamilton used will never again legally be held by private citizens. That firm and decisive response is strongly expected by the public.
I must take issue with the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed in respect of identity cards. The Government are extremely serious in our plans to introduce a voluntary identity card scheme. The Home Affairs Select Committee recommended a further period of consultation once the Government have decided on detailed proposals for the introduction of ID cards. We will publish a draft Bill which will provide a full opportunity for further consultation on that important issue.
The key aim of the Bills that we are bringing forward is greater protection for the public. The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis), who sadly cannot be present, is entitled to a reply to his impressive speech on the need to confront organised crime as effectively as possible. We are committed to doing so. The Security Service Act 1996 already enables the Security Service to support the fight against organized 426 crime. The new package of measures which we will bring forward in further legislation will include the creation of a national crime squad for England and Wales—a Scottish crime squad already exists. We also propose strengthening the central contribution made by the National Criminal Intelligence Service to the overall response to organised crime. Services provided by NCIS will include strategic analysis of the threat from organised crime, acting as the gateway to Europol and Interpol. NCIS will have a UK-wide operational remit.
The hon. Member for Islwyn asked about policing. In the three years from 1996–97, South Wales constabulary's share of the funding for the 5,000 additional police officers promised by the Prime Minister will amount to another 118 officers.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) raised issues involving community policing. In recent years, there has been widespread consensus on the need to reduce imprisonment for fine defaulters and to give the courts greater flexibility when dealing with persistent minor offenders for whom a fine is not suitable. Accordingly, the Crime (Sentences) Bill contains powers for the court to impose a community service or curfew order instead of a fine, if it is satisfied that a fine would not be an appropriate punishment, or as a penalty for fine default.
§ Mr. George Robertson
Will the Minister tell us what is in the Scottish Bill relating to fine default?
§ Lord James Douglas-Hamilton
I should be delighted to do so in a moment.
If the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) would like to send me the information on the video machine that he found so offensive, I shall look into the matter.
I can tell the hon. Member for Rutherglen that we are interested in extending closed circuit television schemes, which we view as extremely effective in crime prevention.
I come now to the point raised by the hon. Member for Hamilton on real-time sentencing. He referred to the 1993 Act which reduced the maximum amount of early release available and aimed to restore meaning to the full length of the sentence by getting rid of unconditional release. It was a step in the right direction, but in my view it did not go far enough. Further tightening is required. The Government now believe that it is necessary to go further to protect the public, to maintain public confidence, to deter offenders and to ensure that the punishment really does fit the crime. A recent poll by the Daily Record—a paper not usually associated with support for the Government—showed that 93 per cent. of its readers supported the policy of honesty in sentencing. The hon. Member for Hamilton would be wise, therefore, to advise his colleagues not to vote against the Bill.
On restriction of liberty orders, we believe that, just as it is important that really dangerous criminals should be kept in prison until they are no longer a danger to the public, at the lower end of the scale minor offenders should be dealt with through measures of use to the community, such as community orders, supervised attendance orders and restriction of liberty orders. The restriction of liberty order will be introduced under the Crime and Punishment (Scotland) Bill, which will add usefully to the range of sentencing options available to the courts. It will enable them to restrict the liberty of the 427 offender in the community in a way that reduces the risk of offending. For example, an offender could be ordered to remain at home between 8 pm and 8 am. That is a way of allowing offenders to remain in the community rather than going to prison. The pilot projects south of the border have been very successful. Further pilot projects will be monitored electronically. That method of monitoring has been tried out successfully. We will implement the policy in the Bill.
The hon. Member for Rutherglen asked about statistics on violent crime. I can tell him that 1995 was the fourth successive year in which recorded crime in Scotland fell—it was down by 5 per cent. That was due almost entirely to a decrease in the number of crimes of dishonesty—mainly housebreaking and theft, which fell considerably. The number of non-sexual crimes of violence increased, but crimes of indecency fell. The clear-up rate for crime rose from 37 to 39 per cent., but there is no room for complacency. The fact that the number of non-sexual crimes of violence increased strengthens our resolve to ensure that we put the necessary measures to deal with that in place in the Bill.
I shall give one very good reason why we believe that automatic life sentences are absolutely necessary—it is because of the Maguire case, to which many Opposition Members referred. Maguire severely sexually assaulted a girl, went to prison for a considerable period, came out, severely sexually assaulted a second girl, went to prison for a second considerable term, came out and was then charged with assaulting a further girl. That charge was not proceeded with very far, but he then murdered another girl.
Under our proposals, that man would have attracted a life sentence after the second really serious offence. We believe that the public requires much more protection from dangerous criminals, who are likely to do enonnous harm to women.
§ Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton)
Will the Minister enlighten us as to why the Bill for England provides for a mandatory sentence for repeat burglary offences—it is seven years for the third offence—but there is no such provision for Scotland?
§ Lord James Douglas-Hamilton
Yes, I shall. Circumstances in Scotland and England are not identical on that matter. The burglary rate in Scotland, for example, has decreased substantially. Moreover, Scots law has traditionally relied much more on common law. We believe that all the necessary powers are properly in place.
The hon. Member for Blyth Valley, who has temporarily left the Chamber, raised the issue of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences. We are determined to fight against the evil scourge of drug dealing. Although courts already deal severely with dealers of class A drugs, those convicted of a third or further offence of dealing in class A drugs will face a minimum sentence of seven years. When I debated the matter with the former chief judge of Scotland before the Law Society, he went so far as to say that that provision was not unreasonable.
Drugs offences are contained in UK statute, and drug trafficking is a national and international business. Drug traffickers might well be encouraged to move their operations to Scotland if we do not have minimum sentences. It is therefore entirely appropriate that we should apply a British policy on that matter.
428 My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie) has been a doughty warrior in introducing measures to control not only knives but under-age drinking. We do not seek to criminalise unsupervised under-age drinking, as that would drive the whole business underground, where it would be even more difficult for helping agencies to deal with the problem. We have announced that we will take legislative action to provide police with powers to confiscate alcoholic drink from under-age drinkers in public places. The police have said that they would welcome such a measure, which is practical and will offer a real prospect of reducing the nuisance that results from under-age drinking while reducing the scale and opportunities for such drinking.
The new powers will apply in all public places that are neither domestic nor licensed premises. That means that street corners, public parks, derelict property, shopping centres and all the other favourite haunts of under-age drinkers will fall under the new power. We have taken into account evidence on the measure from southern Ireland, which introduced similar legislation. It was discovered that problems arose because under-age youths were handing the drink to someone a bit older immediately before police arrived on the scene. We are getting around that problem by ensuring that drink can be confiscated if a person is suspected of supplying to someone under 18 years old.
We should be very willing to consider the suggestions of any hon. Member who has a workable definition of combat knives which distinguishes them from other knives, and effective proposals on how to control the marketing of such knives which will deal with the mischief without damaging legitimate businesses.
We believe that increases in sentencing powers are necessary. We have decided to increase the sentencing powers of sheriff courts and stipendiary magistrates. In future, sheriffs will be able to sentence to up to five years' custody under solemn procedure—instead of three years, as at present. Under summary procedure, in which a judge sits without a jury, the maximum sentence to custody will be increased from three to six months, and from six to 12 months for certain repeat offenders.
We are very much aware that there is considerable variation in courts in sentencing patterns. There may, of course, be good reasons for the variation. However, we have found that some of the variations seem to exceed what we might reasonably expect. That is why, in order to inform the public debate, we are to publish information on sentencing in those courts. We have also given the High Court specific statutory powers to develop comprehensive guidelines to ensure consistency in sentencing.
Where, exceptionally, a sentence is imposed which appears unduly lenient, the Crown will have the power to appeal against it. From Friday this week, the Crown's right of appeal will extend to all summary cases. That will allow the Appeal Court to review such sentences and whether they should be amended. That process was started in the higher courts by the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr. With those safeguards and the continuing attention being paid to judicial training, I am sure the new powers will be well used.
I turn now to certain statutory sexual offences in Scotland. The senior judge drew to our attention the concern of the judges that the maximum penalty for the 429 statutory offence of lewd and libidinous behaviour towards girls did not enable the courts adequately to punish the entire range of offenders convicted before them of such conduct. We therefore propose to increase the penalties for three statutory sexual offences against girls from two years' to five years' imprisonment to give the courts the power that they need to impose sentences which reflect the seriousness of such offences.
We are determined that when offenders are released from custody effective supervision arrangements are in place to reduce the risk of their reoffending, and thereby increase public safety. The supervised release order, or SRO, is an effective tool to achieve that. In the case of specifically defined sexual and violent offences, the court must impose an SRO. In other cases, if a court considers that supervision of an offender is necessary to protect the public from the risk of serious harm on his release, it would impose a supervised release order. That will be for up to two years or one sixth of the custodial sentence, whichever is the longer. Exceptionally, in the case of serious sex offenders, it could be for up to 10 years. Any breach of an SRO can lead quickly to custody for any unexpired period of the order.
We are also dealing with mentally disordered offenders under hospital direction. We will discuss that thoroughly when we debate the Bill.
I have put in train in Scotland a measure to ensure that our emergency services have a working party to protect them from assault. The Government want to be sure that we are doing all we can to protect the fire and ambulance services and the police. The police forces have been equipped with new batons. We are funding research to provide more effective protection for the police against knives; we hope to find a suitable stab-proof vest. To ensure that these and other measures are adequate—[Laughter.] Such vests are available, but they are heavy and uncomfortable, and many police officers refuse to wear them. We are doing everything in our power to provide the means that will save the lives of our police officers. We will share with our colleagues south of the border any important information that we acquire.
We want to put in place the most effective means of informing victims before their assailants are released from prison. We also want more effective witness support schemes, which are being established in three sheriff courts. We will make certain that victims are given useful information about what will happen when they report a crime and what their rights will be. That will be presented in a leaflet.
We are significantly shifting the emphasis away from the criminal towards the victim. We are giving much more funding to victims. This year we increased funding to £1.28 million, so the work of Victim Support Scotland can be developed.
It must not be forgotten by the House that the Labour Opposition voted against the Attorney-General having a right to appeal against lenient sentences in the Criminal Justice Act 1988. They voted against other legislation relating to Scotland involving police powers of stop and search. They voted against the legislation giving the courts the power to impose longer sentences for persistent, violent and sexual offenders in the Criminal Justice Act 1991. I should also mention that Labour has, in the past, 430 opposed the prevention of terrorism Act, and certainly failed to support it. For years, they were happy to put up with far too few police officers in Strathclyde, where the police were working under-strength. That is far from an unblemished record and it leaves a great deal to be desired.
We are determined to take crime by the throat. If Opposition Members want to claim to be tough on crime, it is time for them to stand up and be counted in support of our legislative proposals. We are putting together one of the strongest offensives mounted against crime in years. It is about saying no to half-time sentences for full-time crimes; no to repeat offenders; no to the private ownership of handguns; no to those who persist in stalking innocent citizens; no to sex offenders and their appalling crimes.
We will go ahead with the package of measures called for by Lord Cullen. We have an inescapable duty to fulfil that responsibility.
§ It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.
§ Debate to be resumed tomorrow.