HC Deb 26 February 2001 vol 363 cc583-97 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the Command Paper "Criminal Justice: The Way Ahead", copies of which are available in the Vote Office, together with the criminal justice system business plan for 2001–02. Both are published today.

Throughout their period of office, the Government have been determined to tackle crime and the causes of crime, and to build a fair, effective and swift criminal justice system, which commands the full support and confidence of victims and the public.

Reducing crime carries wider responsibilities than those of the criminal justice system alone. The Government have invested in a range of cross-cutting programmes, which tackle the underlying causes of crime. They include sure start for pre-school children, the new Connexions programme, the children"s fund, the welfare-to-work programme and the new national treatment agency, which deals with drug abuse. The programmes are a key element in our approach to crime reduction, but they must go hand in hand with changes in the criminal justice system. I am pleased that profound improvement is already under way.

Following an inquiry under Sir Iain Glidewell, the Crown Prosecution Service has been restructured in line with police force boundaries, and a local chief crown prosecutor is now in place for each area. Criminal justice units, which are responsible for processing cases to court, and are now collocated with the police, are being trebled.

The youth justice system is being transformed. The national Youth Justice Board and a network of local youth offending teams are co-ordinating effort against youth crime as never before. Repeat cautioning of juveniles has ended. Graduated court sanctions are helping to ensure that young offenders, and their parents, take greater responsibility for their behaviour, and allow for the active involvement of victims in the process.

From April, for the first time, police, probation, CPS and magistrates will operate in the same, coterminous boundaries. Statutory partnerships between the police, local councils, the health service and voluntary organisations have been established across the country to ensure that everyone works together effectively to reduce crime and disorder. Those partnerships benefit from significant investment under a three-year crime reduction programme, including the biggest ever expansion of closed circuit television, to help drive crime down locally. New antisocial behaviour orders have removed a climate of fear and intimidation from many neighbourhoods, while more than 1,100 successful prosecutions have taken place for new offences of racial violence and racial harassment.

The system for community punishments is being reformed to ensure better enforcement by a new national probation service. The Prison Service is investing large sums in drug prevention, accredited offending behaviour programmes, better education and training, and an extra 2,660 prison places.

The strategy is bearing fruit. Against demographic projections that crime would rise between 1997 and the end of 1999, the British crime survey shows that overall crime fell by 10 per cent. in that period, with reductions of 4 per cent. for violent crime, 15 per cent. for vehicle crime and 21 per cent. for domestic burglary. Since 1997, overall recorded crime has fallen 7 per cent. to a total of about 5.2 million offences, with reductions of 28 per cent. for domestic burglary and 20 per cent. for vehicle crime.

I pay tribute to the efforts, commitment and dedication of the police, all the others who work in the criminal justice system agencies, and the hundreds of thousands of volunteers in victim support, neighbourhood watch and many other local organisations for that achievement.

The recent improvements have, however, taken place in the context of more fundamental and deep-seated problems. Over the past 20 years, the performance of the criminal justice system has kept pace neither with long-term trends in crime nor with new types of crime. Too few of fences are detected and prosecuted successfully. Between 1980 and 1995 the number of recorded offences doubled, but the number of convictions in respect of those offences fell by a third. To put it mildly, the system has not been as successful as it should have been in catching, prosecuting and punishing criminals.

Cases still take too long, and sentencing is too variable, and insufficiently focused on reducing reoffending. Within two years of starting a community sentence or finishing a prison sentence, more than half of all offenders will be back in court to be convicted and sentenced for further offences. TN legacy of those failures is that crime in this country is still too high, in comparison not only with the levels here 20 years ago but with those of many other western countries. Furthermore, the British crime survey showed that although violent crime has fallen by 4 per cent., there are worrying increases in street crime, including robbery.

In the Command Paper, the Government have set out to tackle the longer-term problems. Alongside the continuing improvements put it place over the past four years, the paper describes our further strategy for reducing crime and reforming the criminal justice system. It describes a demanding programme for delivering the targets set out in the criminal justice service public service agreement, and identifies a wide range of new areas in which we are seeking improvements.

Those improvement are focused on four key themes. The first is crime prevention, and dealing with the factors that appear to increase the chances of a person"s getting into crime in the first place. The second is catching and convicting more offenders—especially persistent offenders—to close the justice gap between crimes reported to the police and those resulting in a criminal being brought to justice. The third theme is ensuring that punishments fit the criminal as well as the crime, thus reducing reoffending and crime itself. The fourth is radically improving treatment for victims, to ensure that their need for information, support and advice is better met at every stage of the criminal justice process.

Research that we have undertaken shows that a small group of hard-core, highly persistent offenders—fluid, but probably no more than 100,000 strong at any given time—may be responsible for about half of all crime. Our strategy, involving both investment and reform, is intended to help catch and convict more of those serious and persistent offenders, and to do so more often.

The police will have the means to give priority to those serious and persistent offenders. The entire active criminal population will be on the DNA database by 2004. The national intelligence model will be adopted by every police force to establish a consistent basis for gathering, sharing and using intelligence. In addition to previously announced measures to increase the number of police officers to the highest-ever level by March 2003, the document details proposals to improve detective capability, leadership and the management of senior careers in the police service, and to enhance the prospects of those who make a career of being a front-line constable.

As a whole, the criminal justice system will receive the biggest injection of new resources in 20 years. This will deliver more staff, more capacity, and the modernisation of information technology systems for all those working in the criminal justice agencies. A 23 per cent. real terms rise in funding for 2001–02 will enable the Crown Prosecution Service to recruit scores A extra prosecutors, remedying the underfunding that has bedevilled the service ever since it was established.

With that investment and reform must come results. There will be a criminal justice system-wide target for 2004 to increase by 100,000 the number of recorded crimes ending in an offender being brought to justice.

The document sets out why we also want to consider fully and carefully the scope for improving court organisation and procedures and the rules of evidence, and codifying and clarifying the criminal law itself. In December 1999, we asked Sir Robin Auld, a Lord Justice of Appeal, to conduct a comprehensive and independent review of the criminal courts. The Government will take final decisions after carefully considering his recommendations.

To achieve our broad goal of punishment that fits the criminal as well as the crime, we aim radically to reform the present sentencing structure, focusing on preventing reoffending as well as on punishment, and ensuring that persistent offending leads to an increased severity of punishment. There will be a new approach to community punishments and better enforcement.

From April this year, the new national probation service will have its funding increased by more than a fifth in real terms over the next three years, to Deliver a 5 per cent. reduction in reoffending. There will for the first time be proper supervision of short-sentence prisoners after their release, and a new emphasis on sentence management and review. In making final decisions in this area, we shall take full account of the review of the sentencing framework under Mr. John Halliday, a senior Home Office official.

There will be a range of new measures to deal with young offenders, including a commitment that every young offender in custody will get a minimum of 30 hours a week of education, training or similar development work.

Many of the 100,000 most persistent offenders are hard drug users. We must better target our efforts to break the link between drugs and crime. New measures include the introduction nationally of drug treatment and testing orders. There will be more referrals into treatment at the point of arrest, and drug testing at the point of charge, to ensure that we identify drug misuse problems and intervene much earlier. Over the next three years, spending on drug treatment is due to rise by 70 per cent., to more than £400 million.

There will also be a lot more money to help to educate prisoners and ensure that they are able to get work on release.

Finally, I would like to speak about victims and witnesses. Support for victims in the United Kingdom is already high by international standards—I am delighted during my period as Home Secretary to have doubled the amount of financial support available to victim support—and we have the most generous criminal injuries compensation scheme in the world, but the Government are determined to do still more to deliver a better deal for victims and witnesses.

Tomorrow, I will publish a consultation paper that will include details of our proposals for a new charter of victims" rights and a victims" ombudsman. That will include a commitment to ensure that victims are kept properly informed throughout the progress of their case.

We want the criminal justice system and everyone working within it to focus on two clear and linked outcomes: the delivery of justice and the reduction of crime. That is the goal of the programme that I have set out today. I commend the Command Paper to the House.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald)

I thank the Home Secretary for his customary courtesy in providing the Opposition with a copy of his statement well in advance, but I draw his attention to the fact that, despite the supposed Home Office embargo, the press have had the details of the announcement drip-fed to them by Downing street over the past week. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would comment on that and tell us precisely who authorised it.

I welcome the Home Secretary"s intention to expand the number of secure training places by 400, but does he accept that that is modest compared with the 1,000 places that we have already announced we will provide? If the menace of youth crime is all that he claims it to be, why will the right hon. Gentleman not match our proposals? However, bearing in mind his opposition when the previous Government introduced secure training centres, I suppose that we ought to welcome the U-turn.

I also welcome the Home Secretary"s decision to consult on a new victims" charter. Will he be implementing the proposals that we have put forward for statutory rights for the victims of crime and if not, why not?

The right hon. Gentleman"s document says at paragraph 3.109 that victims and witnesses—[Interruption.] Labour Members just do not want to hear this, Mr. Speaker; that"s okay. The document says: Victims and witnesses want to be kept informed. Current performance is not good enough. Is that not a damning indictment of the record of this Government, who in their manifesto four years ago pledged to ensure that victims were kept fully informed of the progress of their case? That manifesto pledge was broken and now we are supposed to rejoice at a consultation document, just a few weeks before a general election.

The right hon. Gentleman said that antisocial behaviour orders had removed a climate of fear and intimidation. How many orders did the Home Office estimate would be issued, and how many have actually been issued over the past two years? Are the 2,660 extra prison places on top of the 12,600 extra places over the 15 years to 2011 that were announced by the previous Government in March 1996? Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that at any one time around 2,000 prisoners are out early on the Government"s home detention curfew scheme, in which case the extra places that he has announced should be occupied by those prisoners anyway?

Will the Home Secretary tell the House—no doubt his special adviser will have told him—how many prisoners will be released earlier than they are at present as a result of the proposals in his document, especially those on custody-plus sentences? Will he also spell out in detail exactly how persistent offenders will receive tougher sentences under the Government"s proposals? Will those sentences be mandatory and, if not, what guarantee is there that they will be imposed?

What exactly is the status of the Home Secretary"s so-called crime plan? Despite the spin doctors" efforts to convince us otherwise, there are hardly any firm detailed proposals on the courts or on sentencing. Throughout the document, the words "consider", "examine, "might" and "possibly" are used in relation to proposals that the right hon. Gentleman"s spin doctors have been putting forward over the past week as the Government"s firm plans for action.

Why is the right hon. Gentleman making what is billed as a major 10-year announcement on the court system and sentencing before either the Auld report on the criminal court system or the Halliday report on sentencing have been produced? Is he aware of Lord Justice Auld"s statement last week that the Lord Chancellor has assured him that, pending receipt and consideration of the report, the Government do not intend to take final decisions on issues within his terms of reference? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that Lord Justice Auld has said that his review is unassociated with and uninfluenced by current Governmental and political initiatives"? So, is what is in this so-called crime plan final or not? If not, how can the Home Secretary claim any credibility for proposals with which the senior judge conducting the Government"s own review of criminal justice clearly wants nothing to do? Should there not be a "check against delivery" sticker on the plan as well as on the right hon. Gentleman"s statement?

Under this Government, police numbers have been slashed by more than 2,500, violent crime is rising and more than 30,000 criminals have been let out of jail early. Many of the right hon. Gentleman"s flagship policies have been abject failures. In other words, the Government have produced endless spin and no delivery. Even the Prime Minister said this morning, "Clearly we haven"t done enough." What he actually meant was that, clearly, he has done very little.

Is it not the reality that the right hon. Gentleman was rushed into his announcement by a Prime Minister who has realised that his Government have failed to be tough on crime and to deliver on their promises? The Prime Minister thinks that the solution lies in making another set of promises in time for the election. The reality was stated by the Home Secretary"s own special adviser, Mr. Justin Russell, who said that the right hon. Gentleman"s policy "doesn"t look very impressive", and that it would be, in practice, a significant softening of sentencing arrangements". In reality, is not today"s announcement a desperate attempt to cover up the failure of child curfew orders, antisocial behaviour orders and the special early release plan, which has created more than 1,000 victims of crimes committed by perpetrators who should still have been in jail, and who would have been in jail if we had been in office? Does not the announcement attempt to cover up the first rise in crime in six years and a huge decrease in both regular police officers and specials?

Far be it from me to reject a repentant sinner, but let me say this. When we proposed measures to give victims more rights, the Home Secretary was silent. When we proposed to expand secure training centre provision, he said that it would be too costly. When we proposed cops in shops and better use of part-timers, the right hon. Gentleman shrugged When we proposed more purpose in prison regimes, he laughed. Yet today he proposes all those things. If it has taken him so long to catch up with the Opposition, he should make way for us, which is exactly what he will have to do in a couple of months" time.

Mr. Straw

As usual, I shall endeavour to answer the right hon. Lady"s questions. She spoke of the time when her party was in office. Indelible from the record of the previous Government are the facts that crime doubled while the number of people convicted of crime fell by one third. They did nothing to bring together the disparate aspects of the criminal justice system. If one thing, above all others, led to the degradation of our criminal justice system, it was the botched reorganisation of the Crown Prosecution Service in the mid-1980s and its continued underfunding throughout the remainder of the Conservatives" period in office. That is one of the many things that we have determined we will put right. Now that the economy is on track, we are able to do so by increasing total spending on the CPS by 23 per cent. in a single year.

The right hon. Lady asked a series of questions. She noted that we are promising 400 extra secure training centre places for young offenders, but asked why we would not match her pledge of 1,000 places. The reason is simply that we are not in the business of spraying promises around like confetti without any resources to pay for them, as the previous Administration did with catastrophic electoral consequences.

The best illustration of the difference between what the Conservatives said and what they would have done had they returned to office in May 1997 lies in the spending plans that they published in the month of the election. They promised 5,000 extra officers, but, as the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) will remember well, they also promised less money in real terms. That was the reality. Time and again, they made promises and refused to match them with money. We have matched our manifesto promises with action, and we have put those promises into practice.

The right hon. Lady asked about persistent offenders and whether the changes that we are flagging up would necessarily result in mandatory sentences. We shall not make a final decision on that point until we have received the report from John Halliday. What is plain, however, is that the Criminal Justice Act 1991, which established the present sentencing framework, is fundamentally flawed in that it does not give proper weight to the persistence of offending. That sentencing framework certainly needs to be changed. How exactly that is to be done remains to be seen, but I do not rule out the use of more mandatory sentences or of steps to ensure a proper gradation into custody if people do not accept the opportunities to get out of crime offered through more effective community punishments—just as we have provided similar steps for young offenders.

The last of the charges made against us by the right hon. Lady is that the Command Paper has, from time to time, used the words "consider" and "examine". I plead guilty to that charge. We do indeed say that we will consider and examine a number of proposals. If only the Opposition considered and examined ideas and proposals before they spoke about these matters, they would be much more effective as an Opposition.

Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth)

I welcome the emphasis on victims in the Home Secretary"s statement. Does he agree that many communities throughout the country experience the occasional relief of seeing an individual or a small group of people consigned to prison and a consequent reduction in crime in their area, but fear a fresh wave of crime when those people emerge from prison? Does he agree that the strong message must be, first, that if people reoffend, punishment will be strict and will follow quickly; and secondly, that there will be the hope of rehabilitation—not least through a job—for those who chose an alternative way of proceeding?

Mr. Straw

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. We have to tackle the causes of crime We have to provide convicted offenders with a better or opportunity to get out of their life of crime, but as my right hon. Friend makes clear, we must also raise the game against persistent criminals. That is what we propose to do by ensuring effective supervision of short-sentence prisoners.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) asked me about the number of prisoners who were released early Last year, 95,000 prisoners were released early under her sentencing legislation.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

No Opposition party can fail to welcome a Government who take an interest in trying to deal with crime and its causes—to that extent the Home Secretary"s statement is welcome. However, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the launch of the plan comes after we have followed a four-year road that has been paved with failed intentions and full of falsely raised expectations? The Labour party still has a long way to go before it can persuade people throughout the country that it is effective in dealing either with crime or with the causes of crime.

On the deterrence and detection of crime, will the Home Secretary admit that it was a terrible mistake to let police numbers fall by 2,500 over he past two years? There should be a target, with a Government guarantee, that, within a few years at most there will be no community in the country that does not have enough police officers to do the job.

On conviction rates and the prevention of reoffending, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we must do much better than we have done over the past year, when convictions dropped by 60,000? We must do much better on constructive activity in prison than at Pentonville, which he visited this morning, where such activity dropped from 24 to 20 hours a week under the previous Tory Government, and from 20 to 17 hours a week under the Labour Government. There should be a guarantee that every prisoner—not just young offenders—will have a full working week of constructive activity with, in addition, a full system of continuing rehabilitation for as long as they need it when they leave prison.

On victims, especially the victims of the alcohol and drug-related offences that are such a terrible scourge, will the Home Secretary reconsider the Government"s refusal thus far to accept the establishment of a permanent advisory body, like a royal commission, on the abuse of alcohol and drugs? Victims should have the right not only to give written statements—that is welcome—but to appear before the court after conviction and before sentence if they choose to do so. Such initiatives would be much more effective than either the gimmick of curfews or the attempt to get rid of the right to choose jury trial on which the liberties of many people depend.

Mr. Straw

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his constructive approach to the proposals. I do not accept what he says about our record. He would be hard-pressed to find another incoming Administration in the past 50 years who have had a better record in reducing crime. Crime increased by 40 per cent. in the first three and a half years of the Major Administration and by 20 per cent. in the first three and a half years of the Thatcher Administration, but in the first three and a half years of the Blair Administration, crime has decreased by between seven and 10 per cent. That is the truth of our record.

I regret the fact that police numbers had fallen until about a year ago, just as I regret the fact that they fell, from 1993, under the previous Administration. However, I regret very much more the fact that there were boom-and-bust policies in place that would have led, and would have continued to lead, to an even larger reduction in police numbers under the previous Administration"s published spending plans. That is the truth, and the simple fact is that we have put more money into the police service than the previous Administration had planned to do. In many cases, chief constables chose to spend the money in other ways, and the number of civilian officers has increased by 1,000 while the number of uniformed officers had decreased by 2,500, but that is now turning around. There is a 75 per cent. increase in the number of new recruits going to the training schools, and the number of police officers will rise to record levels within two to three years.

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman is correct to say that convictions dropped by 40,000. The figures, which I looked at this morning, show that convictions increased from 300,000 in 1996 to about 340,000 last year.

We want a clearer definition of purposeful activity. At the moment, it includes, for example, time spent seeing visitors, which is important but does not stop people reoffending. We are doubling the number of places in education available to prisoners and doubling the number of opportunities for prisoners to go straight from prison to work, and I think that that will work.

The hon. Gentleman is right to talk about the problems of alcohol abuse. I do not think that a royal commission would solve that problem at the moment, but I am willing to consider the matter. I believe that, although people are increasingly aware of the problems of hard drug abuse in this country, we are only beginning to understand how serious is alcohol abuse, which is linked not only to violent crime, but to many other crimes. We are doing a lot in the Criminal Justice and Police Bill, which is currently before Parliament, but I know that there is a lot more that we should do.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House more about the plans to deal with those who reoffend and commit further crimes when out on bail—a matter of intense frustration to the police in Greater Manchester? Is he aware that the Greater Manchester police—whose numbers have risen, are rising and are programmed to rise still further—are being caused great offence by posters scattered around Manchester from the Conservative party that describe the police as paper shufflers? Given that civilianisation has reached 90 per cent. among the Greater Manchester police, is it not time that the Conservative party supported the police instead of insulting them?

Mr. Straw

Yes, I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. Only last week I had the privilege of discussing the problems, especially that of bail bandits, with Mr. David Wilmott, the chief constable of Greater Manchester, and his colleagues. I am pleased to say that, last weekend, the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) announced changes, which will be included in the Criminal Justice and Police Bill, to make it easier for courts to place on remand young offenders who break their bail. That is long overdue. We strongly support the change, which is suggested in "Criminal Justice: The Way Ahead", to the way in which the Bail Act 1976 is drafted so that there should be a presumption against bail wherever bail or its conditions are broken. My right hon. Friend and I hear far too many stories from police officers about cases where courts have granted bail—often on certain conditions—but where, when the offender has been brought back before the court for breaching those conditions, instead of immediately remanding him into custody, which is where he should be, the court has either continued the bail with conditions or, in far too many extraordinary cases, has abandoned the bail conditions altogether. That is simply an invitation to those offenders to continue spree offending, and it must be ended. That requires changes to the law, but we already expect changes in practice by the courts.

I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton about paper shuffling. The police do not take kindly to the near insult that they have received from the Conservative party about their work. The simple truth is that, under our Administration, we have cut by a third the paper burden on the police. We introduced the Narey reforms and they are reflected in the indicators of police morale, which show that sickness rates have gone down very significantly and that assaults on the police have dropped by a quarter.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)

When will the Home Secretary abandon his ludicrous practice of comparing his performance with that of the first four years of the incoming Conservative Government more than 20 years ago—a Government who themselves inherited from their predecessors a legacy of apparently inexorably rising crime—and start to compare his performance with that of the final four years of the previous Government, when crime fell by an unprecedented 18 per cent? That was the legacy that he him self inherited.

Given the unprecedented rebuke that Lord Justice Auld administered to the Government last week, may I also press the Home Secretary on the relationship between his proposals and the Auld report? In view of the Lord Chancellor"s assurance that no final decisions would be taken on anything within the terms of reference of the Auld report until the report had been received and considered, how many of the proposals that have been issued with such a fanfare today should have been marked "purely provisional"? Would it not have been better to wait until the Auld report had been received and considered?

Mr. Straw

The right hon. and learned Gentleman became something of a connoisseur of rebukes from the judiciary when he was Home Secretary. Under our proposals, his offending record would certainly qualify him for a lengthy period inside while, even under the stricter regime that I am proposing, I would probably get off for a first offence—and it is a first offence—with a caution.

I do not recognise the description of Lord Justice Auld"s remarks as a rebuke. His work is independent and I am quite clear that his report will be independent. He placed the emerging themes of his report on a website for everyone to see. They were not his recommendations, but they were themes and we have drawn on them. I happen to think that the whole House will welcome this indication of the direction in which we wish the criminal justice system to go.

With regard to the right hon. and learned Gentleman"s first point, he cannot have it both ways. At the last election and the previous one, he campaigned time and again on the Conservative Government"s record on the economy and many other things. He cannot pick and choose the dates that suit him. [HON. MEMBERS: "You did."] I am picking a date when there was an election—May 1997. The right hon. and learned Gentleman cannot continue like some Pol Pot figure declaring a year zero—but if wants to pick and choose, I have the figures for his period with me. Between April 1991–92 and April 1996–97—that is he period he wanted—total violent crime increased by 28 per cent. and robbery increased by 52 per cent.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

I welcome my right hon. Friend"s statement and wish to point out that West Midlands police has, in the past year, achieved a cut of one in eight in the number of burglaries, improved by one in five the number of robberies detected and is charging substantially more people with offences involving cocaine and heroin. Given that too many prisoners return to prison, can my right hon. Friend confirm that he expects the Prison Service to set and meet high targets for work on rehabilitation and resettlement as the most effective way of preventing reoffending, and that it will have the resources to do that?

Mr. Straw

Yes, I can. I also pay tribute to the West Midlands police service, which with a budget similar to those of many other services increased its police numbers by nearly 240 between April 1997 and September last year.

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire)

The Home Secretary has said that at last there will be a significant increase in the budget of the Crown Prosecution Service. Will he confirm that the service remains independent? Will he explain what is meant by the criminal justice system-wide target to increase by 100,000 the number of recorded crimes ending with an offender being brought to justice? Does that mean that, this year, 100,000 such recordable crimes are going unprosecuted, or are we to expect an increase of at least 100,000 in such recordable crimes? Is it not a matter for the Crown Prosecution Service to decide where and when it is right and fair to prosecute, and not for the Home Secretary?

Mr. Straw

Of course the Attorney-General and the Director of Public Prosecutions properly remain independent of, for example, the Home Secretary. However, the antediluvian approach that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has exhibited shows precisely why we need far better to co-ordinate the work of the criminal justice agencies. Independence in decision making on individual cases cannot equal immunity from any effective management or co-ordination of the different criminal justice services.

Mr. Joe Ashton (Bassetlaw)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, all too often, criminals on council estates go free because witnesses are terrified to give evidence? They know that when they go to if e police, their name will somehow get out, and the next day they find that their car has been vandalised, they get phone calls at midnight from heavy-breathers and they are abused and shouted at in the street. Those witnesses come ot their MPs and give us names and addresses, and we take the matter up with the police, but the culture of fear goes on.

Even in drugs cases, people on council estates who let the police take pictures or film a video from their bedroom window have their name read out in court, which is a load of nonsense. Communities in Northern Ireland and New York, for example, have realised that there should be rewards, even cash rewards, for giving evidence. There must also be protection for witnesses who live on the estates and who have to suffer the consequences even after the criminals have gone to jai. Until we eradicate that fear, more and more criminals will get off scot-free.

Mr. Straw

I share my hon. Friend"s concern about the intimidation that takes place not only on council estates but elsewhere. Fortunately, although there has been only a relatively small increase in the grand total, the number of people being brought to justice is going up while crime is going down. A great deal more needs to be done to rebalance the criminal justice system so that there is a fair balance between the defendant, the public and the victim.

I was astonished to discover that when the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) was Attorney-General, fees for defence counsel were allowed to grow significantly in advance of those available to the prosecuting counsel in the same cases. That was a scandalous situation—which arose I am sure inadvertently, but under the right hon. and learned Gentleman"s nose.

We are including in a Bill currently before Parliament much better protection for witnesses, particularly in cases involving antisocial behaviour orders. The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) asked me about the number of ASBOs, which I found extraordinary because the Conservatives" policy is to tear up that law altogether so that people in those communities would have none of the protection afforded by those orders. Some 150 ASBOs have been put in place, which is 150 more than there would have been under the previous Administration. We want that number greatly to increase, but the Conservative party would leave communities without any proper protection.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the great concern in rural areas about low police numbers? When will he introduce the recommendation of the external consultants whom he employed that the sparsity factor in the police funding formula should be increased? When the right hon. Gentleman has taken advice, will he tell the House when he proposes to pay special constables?

Mr. Straw

On the right hon. and learned Gentleman"s first point, although the standard spending assessment formula for next year does not provide for that, we have followed a different route and provision is made in the formula for Lincolnshire. [Interruption.] No, I am talking about the next three years. Rural forces will receive £30 million over the next three years, based on the equivalent of the sparsity formula. We believe that we are greatly helping rural forces.

Ms Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East)

My right hon. Friend knows that I always welcome statements that announce his intention to deal robustly with offenders, especially persistent young offenders. I am happy to say that I represent one of the safest boroughs in London. It is so safe because its police have welcomed my right hon. Friend"s policies and have targeted persistent young offenders. Is he aware of the pioneering system that they use to get the local community to help them to find persistent young offenders? As part of the "ringmaster" system, the police forewarn people about possible crimes in their areas, which encourages members of the community to be more vigilant and respond more quickly to the police. In targeting persistent young offenders, especially those who consistently offend in particular areas, can my right hon. Friend say how we can expand the Lewisham system to ensure that such people are brought to book?

Mr. Straw

I pay tribute to the Lewisham police and local authority and to everyone else who has helped to reduce crime in that area. Lewisham"s experience shows that, for the same resources that are available to many equivalent London and other metropolitan boroughs, a great deal can be achieved by having good leadership and management and a clear focus on crime reduction. My hon. Friend asks about the "ringmaster" system. I do not know a huge deal about it, but I am looking forward to receiving further details on it, especially on how we can make better use of it, for example in the crime reduction plan and crime reduction toolkits that we are making available across the country.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross)

The Home Secretary mentioned codification of the criminal law. Does that mean that he recognises that annual legislation on criminal justice has not proved helpful in removing inflated expectations of change? Bearing in mind that the Law Commission"s proposals for codification have been lying on the table for many years, what does he intend to do about it?

Mr. Straw

I have in front of me the Canadian "Pocket Criminal Code" from 1996 which contains in one volume Canada"s human rights Act, all its substantive criminal law, its procedural law and matters of jurisdiction. We should aim to have such a simple code. I am aware that the Canadian Parliament regularly amends the law. I do not accept that the sensible and widely welcomed amendments that I have introduced over the past four years could not happen under a codification system. However, if we move towards a codification process, Parliament will need to examine its internal procedures. We have sensible procedures to deal with consolidation, but do not have up-to-date modern procedures to deal with codification. We would need those if such a code were to be kept regularly up to date.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Can we have an assurance that the next Labour Government will hit the ground thinking on drugs policy? We will soon be marking the 30th anniversary of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. During that time, the greatest failure in almost every European country has been an inability to reduce drug use, drug death and drug crime, which have increased by 2000 per cent. Can my right hon. Friend re-examine the Police Foundation report and consider the examples of Portugal, Spain, Belgium, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland, which have redefined drug use? As a result, they have reduced drug-related crime and have redirected money to other purposes. That has saved money, especially with regard to crimes that create victims. Are we going to be one of the last countries in the world to continue to use our criminal justice system to persecute and imprison seriously ill people for using a drug medicinally?

Mr. Straw

Of course, we shall continue to think very carefully about this issue. We make our own decisions on cannabis, as does the House, but we are led by scientific evidence. That does not come full square to my hon. Friend"s view. He needs to bear in mind the fact that, although we all recognise his evangelical zeal for a particular solution, it does not follow that just because everybody thinks about an issue, they come to only one conclusion: the one that he happens to draw.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

Does the right hon. Gentleman still hold the view that successful prosecution of local criminals is based very much on the willingness of local witnesses to come forward to assist the police? That depends to a considerable extent on magistrates courts being near the community that they cover. Therefore, will the right hon. Gentleman have words with the Lord Chancellor to try to overcome the right hon. and noble Gentleman"s desire to close magistrates courts throughout the country? The closure of seven near or around my area of Devon is quite unnecessary.

Mr. Straw

I am sure that my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor would be very interested in any evidence—and I mean evidence—of a shift in the numbers of people prosecuted as some courts are closed. I have not seen that evidence, but I am sure that my right hon. and noble Friend would be open to argument about it. We are concerned with a modernised criminal justice system, end to end, letter to get the criminals who have committed offences into justice.

Ms Ann Coffey (Stockport)

An anti-crime strategy depends on effective partnerships at local as well as national level. I wonder what my right hon. Friend thinks about the decision of the Lib-Dem council in Stockport to remove funding for a post on the youth offending team, which shows very little commitment to tackling youth crime. Will my right hon. Friend be tough not only on crime but on the councils that fail to deliver their part of the crime bargain?

Mr. Straw

I was not aware of that; I shall certainly look into it with some care. I am of course aware that not a day goes past—indeed, not an hour goes past—in this place without the Liberal Democrats promising to spend even more than the Conservative party on one thing after another. It is a different story locally. I know the youth offending team in Stockport; I have high admiration for it. One of its greatest success stories—ensuring that a persistent young offender got custody and then moved out of criminality—is highlighted on page 31 of the Command Paper.

Mr. Michael Fulton (Sevenoaks)

Is the Home Secretary aware that, shortly, when Sevenoaks police station is closed, there will not be a single fully manned police station in my constituency, and that all these cross-cutting programmes and partnerships are no substitute for proper, locally based policing of our streets and villages? Does he also accept that one cause of the justice gap to which, he referred is the police gap that he created?

Mr. Straw

I am aware that at any time individual chief officers will make judgments about how they use their resources. As people"s patterns of life change, there will be some changes. That led to the closure of many more police stations while the Conservatives were in office. In North Yorkshire—I speak from recollection—75 police stations were closed during the five years immediately preceding this Administration.

As for Kent, David Phillips and Kent constabulary have one of the best records of any chief constable and of any police service in the country. I should have thought that, rather than whingeing about that, the hon. Gentleman would be praising the success of a very good police service.

Mr. Christopher Leslie (Shipley)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that drugs are the root cause of many crimes? On a recent visit to Armley prison in Leeds, I was told that more than 80 per cent. of offenders there had some connection with drug abuse; yet, when they are released, they are too often and for too long left to their own devices, and return to the cycle of drug abuse. What measures can be taken to encourage former prisoners to adopt a more positive and productive, rather than destructive, life style?

Mr. Straw

I entirely accept my hon. Friend"s observation. A significant proportion—at least half and probably two thirds—of the hard core of 100,000 persistent offenders are heroin or cocaine abusers. We are intercepting drug abusers at the point of arrest through arrest referral schemes. Compulsory testing at the point of charge will ensure that that information is available to the courts when deciding whether to grant bail: in general, a court dealing with a persistent drug abuser should not provide bail, as that will simply lead into a continuing cycle of drug abuse. We are also setting specified community punishments, such as drug treatment and testing orders. Persons going into custody will have clear through-care, with detox, education and treatment in custody and steps taken to ensure that they continue that treatment on release. That is one of the reasons why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and I are establishing a national treatment agency for drug abuse and increasing its funds by 70 per cent.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)

The Home Secretary asked for evidence of the effect on the criminal justice system of the closure of magistrates courts. Victims of crime in my constituency tell me—and, through me, the Home Secretary—that they do not want to travel two hours to have their case heard in a magistrates court. How can the people of Wales, especially those living in rural areas, have any faith in the latest bunch of promises when the Government propose to close two thirds of the magistrates courts in west Wales?

Mr. Straw

I know that my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor is always open to representations. However, as people"s pattern of life changes, so, too, does public service provision. Police numbers in every police service in Wales have increased since 1997, and the crime reduction record of those police services has been exemplary. South Wales has had one of the best records in the country, with a reduction in crime of more than 20 per cent. since 1997.