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Home Department

Volume 180: debated on Thursday 15 November 1990

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Free Television Licences


To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on Government policy towards the provision of free television licences for pensioners.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
(Mr. Peter Lloyd)

We have no plans to introduce free licences for pensioners or to extend the present concessionary arrangements.

Although the licence fee is excellent value and far better than any alternative scheme, is the Minister aware of the strong feeling of many pensioners that they should not have to pay the full sum? Is he also aware that two thirds of pensioner households are on low incomes? Why do the Government give every concession to the rich, but deny poor pensioners the concession for which Labour Members ask? Is it any wonder that the Government are so detested?

I wonder whether the hon. Member would think it fair, when many pensioners are well off and many non-pensioners have low incomes, for £435 million which would otherwise go to the BBC to be spent in that way, with the result that low-income families would have to pay 50 per cent. more for their licences, up to £107. Is that fair?

Does my hon. Friend agree that if the suggestion of the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) were followed, hundreds of thousands of extremely wealthy people over the ages of 60 and 65 would get handouts from the taxpayer and that if any Government were to subsidise pleasure we should be on a slippery slope?

I agree with my hon. Friend and so, I believe, does the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher). I regret that the hon. Gentleman is not in his place. He made it clear in a letter to The Guardian that there was no question of exempting pensioners who were able to pay. My hon. Friend is right to say that if money is available it should be used for projects which benefit the lower paid and are targeted on them. That is why, in October last, we increased the pensioner addition to income support by £200 million.

Is the Secretary of State aware that, more than the question of free television licences, it is the nature of programmes which gives offence to pensioners, and that this problem should be tackled? Is he aware that deep offence was caused on 1 November, during a by-election in Dungannon district council, when on voting day the BBC transmitted a programme which highlighted the fact that the previous member for the seat had been shot by security forces when on IRA activity, and——

Order. The hon. Gentleman must relate his supplementary question to television licences for pensioners.

I am talking about the offence given to pensioners and the deep upset caused to them by news items such as these.

I think that that supplementary falls very much on the edge of the issue raised by the question. I understand the feelings expressed by the hon. Member, but they are matters not for me but for the Broadcasting Complaints Commission and the Broadcasting Standards Council, which have been set up to look at issues of that kind.

When my constituent Mrs. Littlefair received notification that, along with all her neighbours, she had been given a concessionary licence, she was naturally delighted. However, she received a further letter saying that, because of the inefficiences of Middlesbrough council, the bureaucratic bungling in the Home Office and the intransigence of the advice given by my hon. Friend, her concessionary licence was taken away, as were those of her three immediate neighbours, but not those of any of the other people. I have now been asked by the chief executive of Middlesbrough to bring in the ombudsman to see whether he will investigate the way in which Middlesbrough council has failed in its duty and the Home Office has been so intransigent.

I have much sympathy for my hon. Friend's constitutent, but the law gives no opportunity for Ministers to grant a concessionary licence when the individual concerned does not fall within the rules. The individual must be in a property which falls within the rules or have had a concessionary licence prior to the relevant date. If the individual did not have one but understood from Middlesbrough council that he or she would have one, that one was in force or that one was applied for, the remedy surely lies with the council. That, however, is a matter for my hon. Friend to pursue.

Do not the supplementary question of the hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) and other comments on this issue demonstrate that the concessionary licence scheme is arbitrary and unfair as between pensioner neighbours?

Yes. The Government did not have the bottle to do that, but I agree that that is what they wanted to do.

Is the Minister aware that when a flat in a block occupied by pensioners is taken by a person under pensionable age, all the other pensioner residents lose the concession? Will the hon. Gentleman undertake to put that right?

The concession is carefully drawn to ensure that pensioners living in the equivalent of residential care, in warden-controlled or sheltered accommodation, may have the concession. As the rule has to be clear and understandable at law, and not challenged at law, the detail must be set out clearly. There can be no concessions for those who fall outside the rule. It is regrettable that that is so, but it is necessary for local authorities to organise themselves so that their tenants can take advantage of the scheme and to ensure that they do not let accommodation of the kind to which the hon. Gentleman referred to people not of pensionable age. That is the remedy and the solution.

Radio Frequencies


To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department when he intends next to meet the chairman of the BBC to discuss the allocation of radio frequencies; and if he will make a statement.

My right hon. and learned Friend meets the chairman of the BBC from time to time to discuss a wide variety of broadcasting matters.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the adverse effect that the introduction of the new frequency arrangements could have on sports coverage, especially the ball-by-ball cricket test match commentary? Does he agree that those continuous commentaries, which have an international as well as a national audience, are an essential part of our lives and should be maintained even when there are competing sporting events on the same day? It is important that all of us should have the opportunity to know who is batting, how many runs have been scored or who has taken most wickets.

My hon. Friend raises a matter of great national importance. The changes in the airwaves are to give many more people a much wider range of choice. I understand that most sporting events will be uninterrupted on the new Radio 5. The only likely clashes will be in June when Wimbledon and the test match come at the same time. It is entirely for the BBC to decide how to manage, bearing in mind what it considers audience demand to be. I understand that it intends to broadcast a ball-by-ball commentary of the test match and to intersperse within it occasional reports on other sporting events.

In any such discussions, will the Minister take up the issue of wavelengths and reception for both radio and television in parts of Wales, as people in Wales are having considerable difficulty receiving programmes which originate from Wales? Will the hon. Gentleman consider the odd situation in which Kenny Dalglish can watch soccer matches from Wales in Liverpool while large sections of the population in Clwyd cannot receive those programmes?

I am aware that there are difficulties, especially in Wales, as are the BBC and the broadcasting authorities. There is a programme to improve FM transmission with the move to the new wavelengths for the BBC. The television authorities are aware of the difficulties in certain places, but I believe that broadcasting standards and reception are improving and are designed to improve markedly in the coming years until the old wavelengths are phased out.

When my hon. Friend next meets the chairman of the BBC to discuss radio frequencies, will he remind him of the continuing frustration of people in areas such as Swaledale and North Yorkshire that they cannot receive FM broadcasts and thus cannot listen to Radio 2? Will he urge the chairman to complete the construction of more repeater stations so that the whole nation can listen to FM broadcasts?

I note what my hon. Friend says. No doubt those responsible in the BBC and other broadcasting authorities will read our exchanges. As I said to the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley), the BBC is mindful of the speed with which it needs to improve FM transmission in particular.

Broadcasting Act


To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on the implications for the provisions of the Broadcasting Act of the merger of BSB and Sky Television.

Under the Broadcasting Act 1990, the ownership provisions of the Broadcasting Act 1981 apply to the existing DBS contractor until 1993, and the IBA is accordingly considering whether the merged company is in conformity with the 1981 Act. I understand that the Office of Fair Trading is currently considering whether the merger falls within the scope of the merger provisions of the Fair Trading Act 1973.

Is the Secretary of State aware that while the Broadcasting Act 1990, which placed great emphasis on choice, gathers dust on the shelf, thousands of families like mine around the country who chose not to have Sky but to wait for the better quality and technologically superior BSB have had choice effectively removed from them without being consulted or having their wishes considered? What consultation will the right hon. and learned Gentleman undertake to ensure that the rights of such people are protected and that manufacturers, retailers and customers who do not wish to avail themselves of the offer that they cannot refuse from Sky are properly and fully compensated?

The Act is designed to open up new opportunities. It is for entrepreneurs to take up those opportunities and for viewers to decide whether they deserve to succeed. It is no part of the Government's duty to prop up and subsidise the entrepreneurs.

What action would the Secretary of State propose to encourage diversification by Sky or BSkyB when it reaches a dominant position in the marketplace?

It is not a matter for the Government, but I mentioned earlier that one of the consequences of what happened a week or so ago is that important decisions must be taken by the IBA and the Office of Fair Trading.

Bearing in mind the BSB-Sky merger and this week's announcement that Mr. Rupert Murdoch seems likely to acquire an interest in yet another newspaper, what are the Government's objections to and arguments against a general reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission asking it to inquire into the concentration of newspaper and media ownership?

That goes far wide of the question and of my responsibilities. We are dealing today with the consequences of what happened a week or so ago.

Sunday Trading


To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what recent representations he has received regarding the application of the law on Sunday trading; and what is the latest figure he has for the number of actions instituted this year against stores contravening the Shops Act 1950.

Since I answered a similar question from my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) on 1 November, five written representations broadly in favour of Sunday trading and three against have been received. Figures for the number of prosecutions instituted this year are not yet available.

Is my hon. Friend aware that most people find the Sunday trading laws rather more confusing than one of Dr. Habgood's sermons? Is it not possible for the Government to consider giving the power to borough and district councils to take decisions about whether to allow Sunday trading so that decisions are taken at a local level, giving more power to the people and less to the prophets and the politicians?

My hon. Friend will know that local authorities have the opportunity to bring prosecutions in such matters. It would not be right for us to go further at present.

Is the Minister aware of the law? If she is aware of it and believes, as the Prime Minister has said on many occasions, that it should be enforced, will she ensure that those who attempt to enforce the law are not pressurised by companies? I have a full list of companies that have gone to court to appeal against local authority decisions to impose the Sunday trading laws. It is about time the Minister sent a circular letter to all local authorities defining their responsibilities and, indeed, the legal position under the Sunday trading laws.

The hon. Gentleman knows that there is no need for a circular letter. The law is perfectly clear. It is within the remit of local authorities to undertake to prosecute in such cases if that is what they wish to do.

Is my hon. Friend aware that if the Government were to adopt as a sensible compromise the REST—recreation, emergencies, social gatherings and travel—proposals of the Keep Sunday Special campaign, there would be no difficulty in getting that reform through the House?

As my hon. Friend knows, it is difficult at present to see how progress can be made because so many people hold divergent views on this matter. If there were any reasonable proposals that could command the support of a majority of the House and of Parliament it would, of course, be possible for us to consider legislation.

Is the Minister aware that the Conservative Government are encouraging law breaking because of their failure to reform the Shops Act 1950? That is happening despite the lecture on law breaking that the House received from the Home Secretary on Monday during the debate on the Queen's Speech. Is the Minister also aware that the Government's procrastination is resulting in allegedly threatening letters being sent to elected members of Macclesfield borough council by B and Q plc of the Kingfisher group, which is continuing to trade illegally? I notice that this matter is also causing concern to the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), whom I see in his place. The Minister is responsible for this mess. When is she going to reform that Act? The House wants to know.

The hon. Gentleman is talking nonsense. He knows perfectly well that it is not long since the House had a perfectly good opportunity to reform the legislation on Sunday trading, but hon. Members declined to do so. The hon. Gentleman's party participated fully in that debate. If the Opposition wish to have reform, it is in their interests to ensure that reasonable proposals come before the House so that all parties can agree on the way in which legislation should be framed.

Will my hon. Friend ensure that in this country the law of this country is upheld? If undue pressure and threats are brought to bear by B and Q on officers and councillors of the borough of Macclesfield, will she ensure that the Government are prepared to support the council and to ensure that a company is not allowed, because of its wealth, to bring such undue, unfortunate and undemocratic pressure to bear upon a duly elected council?

My hon. Friend is aware that the place for such disputes is undoubtedly and indisputably in the courts. It is important that my hon. Friend should remember that it is not possible for Ministers to do more than that which falls within the scope of their responsibilities, which is to uphold the rights of local authorities to pursue such matters in the courts.

I shall be brief, Mr. Speaker. Has the Minister noticed the strength of the Keep Sunday Special movement in Germany? What consideration is she giving to the known intentions of some of its promoters in Germany to campaign for wider acceptance within the European Community?

The hon. Gentleman will recognise that Sunday trading is a matter for this Parliament and that we must discuss their wishes with the people of this country. It is because there is a discrepancy among the different groups that we have so far been unable to put forward any proposals that could command the support of the majority of the people of this country and enable Parliament to pass an Act.

Prison Population


To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what is the current level of the prison population.

This morning, there were 44,540 prisoners held in prison service establishments in England and Wales. In addition, a further 970 were held in police cells.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that those figures are already encouragingly below the trends forecast some years ago? Will he ensure that the Government's twin-track approach to sentencing, which involves longer sentencing of violent offenders but greater use of non-custodial penalties for those who commit less serious offences, is fully implemented?

I will certainly do the last. As my hon. Friend knows, that is the theme of the proposals to be embodied in the Criminal Justice Bill which we shall be debating before long. My hon. Friend is right to say that much encouragement can be taken from recent figures, which show a fall of 2,962 prisoners by comparison with one year ago and a fall of more than 5,000 compared with two years ago.

Does the Home Secretary agree that in view of the number of suicides and other problems associated with prisoners suffering from mental deficiency, it is time to give prison medical services extra funding pro tern, so as to ensure early diagnosis of prisoners at risk?

I am not sure that it is just a question of extra funding, but the hon. Gentleman is right in thinking that we have a serious problem on our hands. We asked the chief inspector of prisons, Judge Tumim, to investigate and I expect to receive his report before long. Meanwhile, a number of important measures have been taken throughout the prison estate for dealing with that very real problem.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that there has been a reduction not just in the total prison population but in overcrowding within prisons and, in particular, a substantial fall in the past year in the number of three-to-a-cell prisoners?

A combination of our prison building programme and the important reforms embodied in the Criminal Justice Act 1982 and 1988 resulted in fewer young offenders being sent to prison or to young offenders institutions. That has changed the scene radically. The new criminal justice legislation will extend to the whole age range the kind of measures that have proved so successful in respect of young offenders.

In the light of Judge Tumim's report on Armley prison in my constituency, does the Home Secretary accept that it is universally agreed that Armley is a totally inappropriate place to send young, unconvicted remand prisoners? What plans does the Home Office have to provide an alternative and by what date does the Home Secretary envisage that Armley prison's remand wing will be closed down?

Our response to Judge Tumim's report was made public on 6 November and it is available in the Library. I indicated that action had already been taken to improve conditions within Armley, in terms of staffing and the regime. Harking back to an earlier question, the recommendations on suicide prevention have already been adopted. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we must take other measures, particularly in getting young offenders out of Armley. We intend before long to move adult offenders into another prison, so in due course there will be more scope for providing better accommodation for young remand prisoners in Yorkshire.

In his consideration of the prison population and the prison building programme, will my right hon. and learned Friend bear in mind that Northeye prison in my constituency is scheduled for closure? Will the site be sold when that happens, or will it be retained indefinitely by the prison service?

I cannot give my hon. Friend an off-the-cuff answer, but I will write to him. He will appreciate that it was important to undertake the review of the prison estate that I reported to the House in the summer because we must make the best possible use of the accommodation available within the prison estate.

Security Service Tribunal


To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department how many cases are currently under review by the Security Service Tribunal; and how many of them relate to matters that took place prior to December 1989.

The Security Service Act 1989 established the Security Service Tribunal as an independent body and it is not for me to make available details of its work. The tribunal is precluded by the Act from considering matters that took place before the implementation of the Act on 18 December 1989.

Is it a closely guarded secret whether the tribunal is declining jurisdiction in cases where the inquiry began before it was established? If it is, will the Home Secretary confirm that that is not what the Act says, and it would surprise hon. Members who voted for it?

I have made absolutely plain what the Act says. There is not the slightest doubt that the tribunal is precluded by the Act from considering matters that took place before its implementation. It is not for me to give details of the tribunal's work. It was established by Parliament as an independent body—[Interruption.] If hon. Gentlemen will wait for a moment.

The Security Service Commissioner may choose to cover the work of the tribunal in his report.



To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if his Department has any plans to bring forward proposals to tighten the law on squatters.

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister told the House on 19 June, we are considering the criminal law on squatting as it affects unoccupied residential property. This is a difficult and complex area in which the criminal law has traditionally not played a major role in England and Wales. But we recognise that there is a case for strengthening the law and I hope to announce the Government's intentions in due course.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that a number of my constituents who have suffered because of the reprehensible activities of squatters will welcome the answer that he has given me today? Many of my constituents cannot understand why—despite the complexities of this aspect of law—the law cannot be brought into line with that governing a prime residence. Can the Minister advise me when he might be able to make an announcement on this matter?

I know of my hon. Friend's strong feelings on behalf of his constituents, and especially the occupant and owner of The Warren, near Chelmsford. I understand the distress that his constituents went through. My hon. Friend is right. There are serious issues to be considered here and that is exactly what my right hon. and learned Friend and I are doing at the moment. We hope to make an announcement as soon as possible.

Can I make a suggestion to the Minister? He should have a word with the Secretary of State for the Home Department over these problems, that is squatters. Could I suggest that he tell the Secretary of State—[HON. MEMBERS: "No. Ask a question".] I have already asked a question. When the Secretary of State sits round that table at No. 10 drinking tea, doing nothing else, only doing as he is told by that lady in the chair, he might overcome the problem if he told her to change her policy on housing. So get stuck in and do something about it.

It seems to me that the hon. Gentleman is a little overexcited. It might be advisable, Mr. Speaker—if I may make a suggestion—if you put the kind ladies and gentlemen in white coats on watch as they may need to take him away a bit later.

No it was not. On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, if I had said that to the Minister you would have thrown me out of the place. It is time that you dealt with him. I am not satisfied. Deal with him. I will whitecoat him outside.

Order. I still think it was friendly and if the hon. Member had said it I should have thought it was friendly, too.

When my hon. Friend examines the law on squatters, will he also consider the law on gipsies, who frequently behave anti-socially, are often parasites on society and frequently tax dodgers?

That is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. My hon. Friend's constituents have some protection under section 39 of the Public Order Act 1986, which is a useful Act. It might be of use in respect of the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes).

Police Funding, Staffordshire

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department when he is next to meet the chief constable of Staffordshire to discuss police funding.

My right hon. Friend has no plans at present to meet the chief constable, but Home Office Ministers are in regular contact with chief officers of police.

In view of the hopelessly inadequate allocation of funds to the Staffordshire police authority for 1990–91, can the Home Secretary assure us that the level of capital grant will be sufficient to meet the known operational requirements of the police authorities for vehicles and other equipment in the coming year?

I am sure that the hon. Lady knows that the capital expenditure on vehicles, plant and equipment was open ended. In 1988–89 it was approximately £150 million. In 1989–90 it leapt to £238 million. Therefore, we had to cap central Government's contribution. That amounted to £174 million. There was, therefore, an increase that year, compared with the 1988–89 allocation. Next year, the figure will rise to £220 million. That is a substantial increase. It will be made available for the capital expenditure to which the hon. Lady referred. There will, therefore, again be more money. Moreover, we are consulting the police authorities about a mechanism to ensure that that money is shared out as fairly as possible.

Is my hon. Friend aware that earlier this year our right hon. and noble Friend the Minister of State received a deputation of county council representatives and Members of Parliament from all parts of the House? Is he also aware that the chief constable was a member of that deputation, that a very powerful case was made and that we are eagerly awaiting a good and positive reply?

Yes, I know that such a meeting took place and that my right hon. and noble Friend took close note of what was said. I hope that my hon. Friend has also taken note of what I have said: we are seeking, with the police authorities, to devise a mechanism to ensure that the money is distributed as fairly as possible and that it goes where it is most needed.

The way in which the Government have played around with the current and capital expenditure of county authorities such as Staffordshire means that the police have been hamstrung when planning to meet the rising level of crime that faces them, day in, day out, under the Thatcher Government. Is not it about time that the Government gave certainty to the financial structure? That is what the police need if they are to fight crime effectively.

That is exactly what we have done. We have changed an open-ended situation that was not used well by some local authorities and police authorities, to the disadvantage of others. We have set a cap on it which allows for a sensible increase each year.



To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what steps he is taking to enforce the law requiring bicycles to be adequately lit when being ridden on public highways during the hours of darkness.

Responsibility for the enforcement of road traffic law rests with individual chief officers of police.

Does my hon. Friend agree that what we must encourage is responsible cycling? Is he aware of the increasing public concern about the danger to pedestrians, motorists and cyclists due to the practice of cycling at night without lights? Will he draw the problem to the attention of the police, particularly the Metropolitan police?

I shall certainly draw this exchange to the attention of the Metropolitan police. As my hon. Friend said, it is an important matter, not least because there has been a considerable increase in the number of cyclist accidents during the last year. Only 20 per cent. of those accidents, however, occurred at night.

Is not it true, however, that more danger is caused to cyclists by badly maintained roads arid the failure of central Government to give enough money to local authorities to provide cycle ways? Is not it true that cyclists would be much better served if the Government were less parsimonious towards local authorities and provided them with adequate funds?

The hon. Gentleman is trying to construct an extraordinarily unconvincing explanation for people cycling in unsafe circumstances and unsafe conditions with their lights off. The hon. Gentleman's comments seem to have no relevance to the question that I was posed.

Is my hon. Friend aware that many cyclists who are involved in accidents after dark not only cannot be seen but cannot hear the traffic because they are riding with headphones on, playing loud music? Does my hon. Friend intend to take any action on that matter?

My hon. Friend has made a useful point. As I said earlier, I shall draw these matters to the attention of the police. My hon. Friend underlines the fact that cyclists can do a great deal more to make their cycling safer.

Policing, Cumbria


To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what representations he has received from Cumbria on the question of policing.

My right hon. and learned Friend has received no representations from the Cumbria 'police authority since March 1989. My right hon. and noble Friend the Minister of State visited Cumbria police in May 1990.

In the light of the high incidence of petty crime and burglary in the county, may I make a special plea on behalf of hundreds of thousands of Cumbrians that the Government look most sympathetically on any request for additional policing resources for the county? Things really are quite bad.

Of course, the hon. Gentleman can be sure that we will look carefully at any such request. As he knows, extra police officers will be announced towards the end of the year. I commend the Cumbrian police authority for the way in which it has used the civilianisation programme. It has used the programme sensibly and better than many other authorities in the country. The increase in the crime rate in Cumbria, particularly for the crimes mentioned by the hon. Gentleman is lower than the national increase.

Is my hon. Friend aware that if he is looking for examples throughout the country of good relations between the police and the public, he could do no better than offer Cumbria as such an example?

Cumbria is a very good example and I have already mentioned some of its successes in my reply to the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours).

Will the Minister have urgent talks with the Secretary of State for the Environment, who is under the impression that Cumbria is spending too much on its police? He said that under the standard spending assessment, £1·6 million too much is being spent. It is obvious to the people of Cumbria that that is not the case.

Is not it a fact that, unless the county council cuts its police budget, we are likely to be capped this year by the Government?

The council must make its own judgment in terms of its obligations under the law and the arrangements for the community charge that it receives.

Petty Criminals


To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what measures are being taken to ensure that petty criminals receive community-based sentences rather than imprisonment.

My right hon. and learned Friend's Criminal Justice Bill, with the new framework for sentencing, will ensure that offenders are punished according to the seriousness of their crimes. In all but the most serious crimes the courts will have to consider a pre-sentence report before imposing imprisonment. Custody will need to be justified by the seriousness of the offence or the need to protect the public from harm. A wider and more flexible range of tough and demanding community penalties is proposed to enable more offenders to be adequately punished in the community.

I strongly support the greater use of community-based punishments, but does my right hon. Friend agree that, if they are to have a deterrent effect as well as a rehabilitative effect, they must be significantly more rigorous and better monitored? What steps does he intend to take to ensure that that is done?

My hon. Friend will recognise that in some parts of the country supervision is not adequately firm and in other parts the probation service does an excellent job. My right hon. and learned Friend and I are trying to ensure higher standards through his proposed legislation and through national standards for the imposition of punishment in the community.

Is the Minister contemplating any penalties for people who use sexist and abusive language on car phones?

There is a proposal in Lord Justice Taylor's report to outlaw the chanting of racist abuse at football games and my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has announced that we shall pursue that as soon as possible.

Computer Crime


To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what steps are being taken to improve police officers' training to investigate computer crime.

The police staff college runs a 20-day course for computer crime investigators entitled "Investigative Techniques in Computer Crime". The course is subject to continuous review and takes account of suggestions from forces and regular contact with the computer crime unit of the Metropolitan police.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, although the Metropolitan police is well equipped to investigate highly sophisticated crimes, the 43 provincial forces are not? Will he confirm that, if necessary, they can enlist the help of specialist computer firms with their inquiries, and would not it be a good idea if they were to add computer security to their crime prevention campaigns?

My hon. Friend's question is a matter for chief police officers. One of the advantages of the course that I mentioned is that officers from all police forces make contacts that enable them to know where to obtain additional expertise in the private sector, and it also enables them to have contact with the computer crime unit of the Metropolitan police, whose skills they can take advantage of.

Insist? The hon. Gentleman is a member of the Chairman's Panel. He knows that I take points of order at their proper time, not in the middle of questions.

I am sorry, but I cannot hear what is going on in this place. Could the instruments be adjusted to enable us to hear? Could they possibly be turned up so that we can hear what Ministers and others are saying? It is important.

This is in the hands of the House. If hon. Members do not make a noise or interrupt from the Back Benches, they will hear. The louder the microphones are turned up, the greater is the reflection from the amplifier back to the microphones. It makes even more noise.