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Home Department

Volume 301: debated on Monday 24 November 1997

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The Secretary of State was asked—

Asylum Seekers

1.

If he will discuss with the Commission of the European Union the processing of applications for asylum status of refugees within member states. [15751]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
(Mr. Mike O'Brien)

The Government regularly discuss the handling of claims for asylum at a number of European Union forums on which the Commission is represented. In addition, United Kingdom and Commission officials have had preliminary discussions about the United Kingdom's presidency's planned work programme on immigration and asylum.

Does the Minister believe that the present position is satisfactory, given that a coachload of gypsies can be taken, at their request, from Dover to seek asylum status in London, whose boroughs are already overburdened with such applications? Is it not time to re-examine the whole procedure at European level? Is article 11 of the Dublin convention—whereby a country to which a refugee first applies for asylum status can pass the applicant on to another country, like the United Kingdom, which is already under enough pressure in that regard—appropriate?

The position is far from satisfactory, but we inherited it from the Conservative party. A number of local authorities have had an enormous burden placed on them as a result of the withdrawal of benefits, without much thought, by the previous Home Secretary. We have said that we wish completely to re-examine that problem. We also need to look at the operation of the Dublin convention, which we also inherited. It is proving complex and difficult to make progress on that. There are now provisions that the state concerned must accept responsibility for a case before the refugee can be returned, which makes matters enormously difficult. Article 11 is complicated by other articles in the convention. Basically, the situation that we inherited from the previous Government is a bit of a mess.

Will my hon. Friend hold urgent talks with his colleagues on the continent about the absurd situation that has arisen in relation to ferries, whereby staff are being threatened if they do not urgently take on board people who do not have permission to land in the United Kingdom? That is bizarre and should be remedied as quickly as possible.

They are not being threatened by us. Some ferry companies have expressed concerns about instructions that they are receiving at Calais from the local French authorities. I understand that Stena, P and O, and other ferry companies are negotiating with the local authorities in France on that point.

Why should not Kent county council be fully reimbursed for the cost of looking after bogus asylum seekers and their families? Rather than council tax payers in my constituency having to fork out, why should not ferry companies have to bear the burden of asylum seekers who are subsequently sent home?

I have sympathy for Kent, but I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would admit that the previous Government created the problem. We have been placed in the position of having to pay £140 a week to Kent county council for each adult asylum seeker because benefits were withdrawn. We are reviewing the whole problem, which was created by the previous Government. Although the hon. Gentleman did not serve in that Government, the problem is the responsibility of many of his colleagues on the Conservative Benches.

Electoral Registration System

2.

If he will make a statement on the effectiveness of the electoral registration system. [15752]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
(Mr. George Howarth)

The House will be aware that my hon. Friend has a distinguished record in the House on raising electoral register issues— [Interruption.].

Order. The Minister is replying to Mr. Barnes, who is right behind him.

The 1997 electoral register for the United Kingdom had the highest ever number of parliamentary electors registered to vote—44.2 million. We shall examine options for improving the effectiveness of the registration system still further in the coming months and shall consult the other parties in the House on that process.

Is not this stakeholder idea a good notion, because there could be equal stakeholding in electoral registers for everyone? Millions of people are missing from the electoral registers, disabled people find it difficult to get to polling stations and the homeless face legal impediments to being on the register. Could we have an up-to-date, modern register? That is another good idea—modernisation. We could have it for electoral stakeholders.

My hon. Friend is known as one of the great modernisers in the House. He raises some interesting ideas, several of which I intend to pursue and one or two of which I do not. If he waits with some patience, he will find out in due course which falls into which category.

I share the view of the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), but would the Minister also look at the converse of that point? It seems that, all too often, names are left on registers when people have moved from an area, even years ago. Will he look at the possibility of ensuring that electoral registration officers act together in dealing with that matter, which ought to be solved with the introduction of information technology?

The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. Given the modern databases and computer technology that are available to electoral registration officers, the sort of phenomena that he has described should not happen. Certainly, such considerations will be taken into account during the review that we shall undertake. Hopefully, the practices that are involved in electoral registration can be improved as a result of some of the suggestions that we shall examine.

Sentencing (Consistency)

3.

The Government are committed to implementing an effective sentencing system and consistency in sentencing. I therefore intend to include provisions in the crime and disorder Bill to require the Court of Appeal to consider producing sentencing guidelines when appropriate cases come before it and to review existing guidelines. The provisions will establish a sentencing advisory panel which will offer advice to the Court of Appeal. There will be a statutory duty on the panel to consult those who represent interested bodies, such as victims and the police. Further details of those provisions are set out in a note which I am placing in the Library.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of my early-day motion calling for the reform of rape law? In the context of that and on behalf of the many victims of rape, their families and the support services, I should like to know whether reform of sentencing will include rape sentences. Has my right hon. Friend any plans to reform the Crown Prosecution Service, which is causing many problems for victims and the police force? Can there be a prohibition on the circulation in prisons of the sexual history of victims, because that is causing distress to all concerned and is a completely disgusting practice?

There are already sentencing guidelines. It is one area in which they already exist, following a decision by the Court of Appeal in the Billam case. The problem in rape cases is not so much the sentencing practice of the courts but of securing effective convictions. We are greatly concerned about the way in which women victims and other witnesses in rape cases can sometimes be subjected to the most appalling cross-examination by defendants. For that reason, the Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) has announced that we have established a full review of those practices and of whether laws of evidence ought to be changed. We hope to announce the results of that review very quickly. That will deal with the issue of whether a victim's previous sexual history should be adducible in evidence to the extent to which it is today.

My hon. Friend asked also about the reform of the Crown Prosecution Service. My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General announced in May our determination to press ahead with major reforms of the CPS with the appointment of chief crown prosecutors for each of the police force areas in England and Wales— there are 42—and by establishing a full inquiry into other aspects of the CPS under Sir Iain Glidewell.

Is the Home Secretary aware that mandatory minimum sentences of three years for third-time burglars are popular with the public? May I therefore ask him when and how he proposes to implement that sentencing change?

Our position is exactly that of the previous Government. They willed the end, but failed to will the means. It was made absolutely clear in chapter 13 of the White Paper on sentencing, as it was on Royal Assent at the end of March this year, that decisions on implementing that part of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 depended on resources for which the previous Government had not made provision.

Does the Home Secretary agree that sentences should reflect not only the nature of the crime, but the means and conditions of the offender? For example, in any two motoring cases, one offender might be rich and the other poor and to give them exactly the same sentence would be unfair. Should not the Home Secretary and the courts take into account not only, as I have said, the offender and the crime, but the particular social and economic conditions in that region?

Courts have to take into account a range of factors in coming to a decision on sentence, but the most important factor is the gravity of the crime and the degree of harm or damage caused to the victim. I understand what my hon. Friend says, but sentencing should be capable of greater categorisation and greater use of science. The means of offenders should, of course, be taken into account, but I remain concerned that, when living standards have risen in the past 10 years and unemployment has fallen, the use of the fine has dramatically fallen—half as many fines are issued today as were issued 10 years ago. There is no good reason for that.

While I welcome the Secretary of State's announcements about sentencing, does he recognise that sentencing policy is only as effective as the prison and probation system to which it directs people, and that an overpressed Prison Service cannot work miracles or provide effective rehabilitation? In sentencing, should we not bear in mind what is faced by prison officers in their daily work, not least Friday's 19-hour ordeal involving a prison officer in my constituency at Castington? Will the Secretary of State pay tribute to the courage of those involved in bringing that to an end?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising the issue of what happened at Castington, where a prison officer was taken hostage. I know a good deal about that circumstance. I join the right hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the great courage of that prison officer in enduring that hostage situation, and to the skill and professionalism of the other prison officers in bringing the hostage situation to a satisfactory and peaceful conclusion, without making any. concessions to the prisoners concerned.

On the right hon. Gentleman's wider question about prison and probation, of course we have to ensure that all punishment systems work effectively. That is one of many reasons why we are conducting a review of whether the Prison Service and the probation service could and should work much more closely.

Drug-Related Crime

4.

What estimates he has made concerning the amount of drug-related crime. [15771]

My hon. Friend may be aware that research by the Home Office shows that there is a strong relationship between drugs and crime—indeed, the figures show a much higher relationship than we expected. However, the results of that research are not yet complete. We hope to publish them early in the new year.

I thank the Minister for his reply and congratulate the Government on the appointment of Mr. Hellawell as the anti-drugs co-ordinator—I do not like to call him a tsar because he is no royal; he is certainly not of that ilk. He is to visit Scotland, where drug-related crime is to the fore—police reckon that 70 per cent. of all thefts are drug related. Will the Minister guarantee that Mr. Hellawell will be given full authority to cross all the borders and break down all the barriers to ensure that crime does not pay and that we eradicate the crime of drug taking?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He will be aware that the Scotland figures also apply in England and in some parts of Wales. I join him in congratulating Keith Hellawell and his deputy Mike Trace and assure my hon. Friend that the United Kingdom anti-drugs co-ordinator's writ runs throughout Government. Every year, £500 million of Government money is spent on dealing with the problem. We want to be sure that every pound of that £500 million is spent in the right place, either in treatment or in criminal justice interventions, to ensure that every part of Government works towards eradicating the evil of drugs.

May I help the Minister by telling him that, on best estimates, 40 per cent. of all burglaries are committed by drug addicts, who steal to get money to fund their drug habits? Does he agree that the way that the trend is going means that that statistic can only get worse? Does he further agree that it is important to make our streets an area of zero tolerance on drugs and ensure that our prisons are drugs free? Too many prisoners go into prison as drug addicts, stay as drug addicts and then come out as drug addicts. It is a vicious circle which must be broken.

The hon. Gentleman raised three points. First, the most recent British crime survey showed that the incidence of drug taking is not rising, but has levelled off. However, we do not want to be complacent about it. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman's figure of 40 per cent. possibly underestimates the relationship between various sorts of acquisitive crime and drug taking; it may be even higher than he suggested.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Government take very seriously the problem of drugs in prisons. At this very moment, officials at the Prison Service are reviewing all the statistics on drug abuse because we are not sure that they are sufficiently accurate to enable us to take proper action to eradicate the problem in prisons. Let it not be misunderstood—we are very serious about the problem, whether in prisons, on the streets, in clubs or elsewhere. The Government will not tolerate drug abuse and those who fuel it.

What work will be done looking at the problems of young people, especially very young people, and drugs-related crime? Will the drugs tsar be looking at that? Is my hon. Friend aware of the problems on the Blackthorn estate in my constituency where there is a large drugs problem; indeed, there was rioting there earlier this year? Will he or one of his hon. Friends visit the area to talk to people about the problems they face and the real loss in quality of life on that estate?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has already visited the area, but I am sure that one of us will be willing to come again if there is a particular problem. My hon. Friend will be aware that we shall shortly introduce measures in the crime and disorder Bill relating to drugs testing and treatment. She may also be aware that the drugs prevention initiative, which is funded by the Home Office, is implementing a number of different and interesting measures, which we are currently assessing. We are keen that community-based initiatives to eradicate drugs on estates and in the wider community should be assessed and evaluated and the best practice possible introduced to deal with the problems.

The link between drugs and crime is indeed a serious matter, and those who fuel drug abuse are committing serious offences. Will those convicted of offences involving the supply of drugs, who are serving sentences of between three months and four years, be eligible for early release under the Government's tagging scheme?

The hon. Gentleman will already be aware that we have introduced section 2 of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997, which covers the point he raised. He should be under no illusion that we shall deal just as seriously with such problems as the previous Government did. Quite frankly, the problems escalated during the previous Government's period in office, so we shall not take any lessons from Conservative Members. However, we are prepared to work with the Opposition on those issues. If the hon. Gentleman has any serious points to make, we shall listen to them. It is a serious problem, and we take it seriously.

Mr Lakhinder Reel

5.

If he will review the investigation by the Metropolitan police of the case of the death of Mr. Lakhinder (Ricky) Reel. [15781]

I am sure that my hon. Friend will appreciate that that is an operational matter for the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis. From what I have been told, however, it appears that the investigation conducted so far by the Metropolitan police service has been thorough and sensitive. The Metropolitan police have promised to follow up any further information that may arise. The Met are also awaiting receipt of the coroner's report. There are no grounds for me to act further at this time.

I appreciate the nature of the reply, in view of the coroner's inquest. I am also grateful for the facilities that were provided last Friday for me to meet the investigating officer, with the family present. May I ask the Home Secretary, as the police authority for London, to examine with the Commissioner three policing procedural matters? The first matter is the liaison arrangements between investigating officers in cases in which the police station nearest the home of the missing person is different from the station that is nearest to the location where the person was last sighted; the second is the communication strategy between investigating officers and the family of a missing person; and the third is the impact of major investigations on outer London policing divisions, which have recently suffered personnel losses because of the funding formula for policing in London.

My hon. Friend raises three important issues, which are worthy of consideration, and I am sure that the Commissioner will examine each of them. We have to be careful, however, not to read general points into a specific investigation until we have full information. I reiterate that it is not appropriate to comment further on the detail of the case until the coroner's report has been received.

Police Officers (Beat Patrol Duties)

6.

What proposals he has for increasing the number of police officers allocated to beat patrol duties. [15782]

Ministers have no direct control over police numbers or their deployment. Under legislation passed by the previous Government in 1994, it is for the individual chief constable or chief officer to determine the number of police officers in their force. However, we are working with police to reduce administrative burdens and to enable chief constables to put more officers on the beat and back into the community.

Does the Minister agree with Sir Paul Condon, the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, who was quoted in a recent article in the New Statesman as saying

"I don't buy your notion that bobbies on the beat are anachronistic. If it reduces the fear of crime, I have to find ways to satisfy that"?
Does the Minister agree that—despite the answer that he has already given—it is the Government's responsibility to try to reassure the public that they will see police officers, and that police officers seen on the beat help to deter criminals and reassure the public, which is a crucial part of policing?

What the public want is to see police officers in their community, getting involved in tackling the problems of crime and disorder that have been allowed to grow in recent years. The Metropolitan police, like other police forces across the country, are suffering from the disadvantage of reduced police numbers and the previous Government's failure to keep their promises.

Does my hon. Friend agree that what is required is not greater resources but more effective use of existing resources? May I draw his attention to the success of Northumbria police, for example, in shifting large numbers of police officers out of bureaucracy—there by also ending a few scams—and back on to the streets? May I draw his attention also to the safer cities programme—it was officially launched today in my constituency—which is reintroducing police officers into some of the most crime-ridden parts of Sunderland? In the 1980s, police effectively abandoned those areas.

My hon. Friend raises some important points. Northumbria has shown the way in some of its approaches to dealing with crime, one of which has been getting police officers back into direct police work. Another one is the way in which Northumbria has worked in partnership with local authorities to tackle and prevent crime. Great gains can be made, which is why we are including a requirement in the crime and disorder Bill for a partnership between police and local authorities in ensuring that we mobilise all the strengths of the community to tackle and prevent crime.

Does the Minister agree that tackling crime is a matter of both management and resources? Does he agree that, when budgets are squeezed, patrol duties are the most vulnerable part of police activity? Does he agree that patrol cuts are a result of the previous Government's lamentable failure to match their promises with action by putting policemen back on to forces? Will he give an assurance that, after next year's police settlement, there will be more officers—not less— on the beat?

My only quibble is that the hon. Gentleman should have said "fewer" police officers rather than "less". There was a failure by the previous Government, and it is a matter both of resources and deployment. We want police officers deployed to tackle the problems of crime and disorder experienced by the community. The Audit Commission did draw the conclusion to which the hon. Gentleman draws attention, but it also said that patrolling must be purposeful; it is not just a question of police officers standing at the end of the street or patrolling without purpose—there must be targeted activity aimed at the prevention of crime and disorder.

If this is an exercise in reassuring communities that they can feel safe, why is there not a substantial increase in the number of special constables who have always been supported by the general public and who, I understand, are cheap and effective in comparison to full-time policemen? Is it not the case that they allow us to concentrate our resources during peak periods of the week when crime is rife?

Again, my hon. Friend makes a good point. We want not only to reassure communities but to tackle the crime and disorder that is causing them problems. It is a question of being effective, not only of providing reassurance.

My hon. Friend's question gives me the opportunity to say that we value the work of the special constabulary very highly. Early next year, we shall be actively promoting the recruitment of special constables in the special constables week. I hope that my hon. Friend and other hon. Members will support that initiative and encourage people to join the specials.

In spite of what the Minister says, in a written answer to me only three weeks ago, he confirmed that there are now 2,322 more police constables in post than there were in May 1992. Is it not clear that, unless police budgets are protected from the 1 per cent. increase in inflation caused by the Government since May this year, there will be fewer, not more, police constables on the streets? Is not the Government's continuing silence on the question of police funding a clear sign that fighting crime is a low priority for new Labour, just as it was for old Labour?

That was a pathetic attempt. There will be a statement on police finances next week, I believe, which follows the pattern established by the previous Government of when to inform the House of the intended finances for next year.

I notice that the hon. Gentleman cites the number of constables rather than the number of police officers—he is very selective. The number of police officers in England and Wales fell from 127,627 in March 1992 to 127,158 at the end of March 1997. Let me do the arithmetic for the hon. Gentleman: that means a cut of 469 officers, or 1,469 fewer than were promised by the previous Government in the 1992 election—another broken promise.

Crime Victims (Support)

7.

If he will make a statement on the Government's plans to give greater support for victims of crime. [15783]

We are firmly committed to helping victims of crime and to taking action to redress the balance of the criminal justice system in favour of the victim. We shall ensure that all criminal justice agencies give a high priority to treating victims with sensitivity and respect, that they listen to their views and that they continue to improve the services that they provide to victims. Within six weeks of taking office, we increased Victim Support's grant by £1 million a year.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Is she aware of the excellent restorative justice scheme operated by Thames Valley police, whereby offenders are confronted with the victims of crime? It has had quite startling results in reducing reoffending. What proposals do the Government have for extending the scheme to other areas of the country?

I pay tribute to the work done in the Thames Valley area on restorative justice. That theme is also being taken up in other initiatives across the country. I have seen some good examples, such as the courses run by the Greater Manchester probation service, aimed at making offenders realise the effect on their victims of what they have done and at promoting reparation and restorative justice. We expect to highlight the approach in our forthcoming White Paper on youth justice.

Does the Minister agree that the most distressing experience for victims is when the police have to tell them that they do not have the resources or the manpower to pursue the criminals? Will she give the commitment that my right hon. Friend the previous Prime Minister gave, that there will be more bobbies on the beat, or are the Government going back on that?

A commitment was given, but the promise was broken, as has just been pointed out. My hon. Friends have spoken of initiatives that are being taken in particular police forces. We need to build on those initiatives so that communities can feel safer than they did under the previous Government.

My hon. Friend will be aware that one in four victims of violent crime are likely to have been victims of domestic violence. Many more such victims are too scared to report the fact to the police. Does my hon. Friend agree that they are not always treated as sympathetically as they could be, not so much by police officers as by some of the other statutory agencies? What plans does she have to develop inter-agency working, involving housing bodies, the Benefits Agency, the police and others, to ensure that victims get the support that they need?

My hon. Friend raises an important point, although I believe that a lot of progress has been made by the police and other authorities towards being more sensitive and aware of the issues. I am also glad that the Home Office and the Ministerial Sub-Committee on Women's Issues are addressing the problem of domestic violence with considerable urgency.

Does the hon. Lady accept that all hon. Members are pleased that the Government are continuing the record of the previous Government in increasing the grant to Victim Support? Does she agree that victims of burglary would greatly appreciate the knowledge that repeat burglars will be locked up for a considerable time? As the Home Secretary always mis-states the previous Government's position and then hides behind it, may I ask the hon. Lady a different question? If the Chancellor of the Exchequer makes the resources available, would she be in favour in principle of mandatory minimum sentences for repeat burglars?

We made it clear in opposition that we were in favour in principle. The right hon. Gentleman is mis-stating the situation under the previous Government, because resources were not made available. That was clear from the Home Office press release at the time.

On the right hon. Gentleman's first point, rather than supporting Victim Support, as he suggests, the previous Government froze the grant.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways of supporting victims is through the criminal injuries compensation scheme? Does she also agree that the previous Government made a terrible mess of that, having their first attempt thrown out by the courts? Does she further agree that various aspects of the scheme need to be looked at? The eligibility rules for victims of domestic violence have not been reviewed for nearly 30 years. Some 200 families of victims of murder or manslaughter slipped through the net because of the hiatus caused by the previous Government's mess-up when they tried to review the scheme.

My hon. Friend is right. The previous Government made a tremendous mess of the scheme. We soundly criticised them at the time.

Travellers

8.

What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the present laws relating to the occupying of land by groups of travellers. [15784]

The hon. Gentleman may be aware that the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 gives two sets of powers—one to the police and one to local authorities—to deal with problems as and when they arise. The police can remove trespassers in justified circumstances. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions is looking at the powers given to local authorities and is conducting a review. He hopes to publish guidelines in the spring which will make it easier for local authorities to deal with the situation.

I thank the Minister for that reply; I am encouraged by what he said. Is he aware that at least 100 people descended on my constituency of Tewkesbury this summer? It took a full two weeks to clear them from the land, during which time there was great mayhem in the town, which is trying to regenerate itself. Will the Minister assure my constituents and the House that he will carefully monitor the situation?

I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. I understand that the problem to which he refers occurred as a result of a wedding among some travelling people; there was a similar incident a few years ago in my constituency. Such incidents cause difficulties and the hon. Gentleman is right to make that point. We are keeping the matter under review and, as I said, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions will publish helpful guidelines in the spring.

The present law is not working, so the need for the review is extremely urgent. Areas such as mine suffer not from new age travellers but from old age travellers, who give rise to considerable cost and considerable nuisance. The previous Government removed the obligation to provide sites and, in doing so, made the problem a lot worse. Will my hon. Friend ensure that we reimpose and strengthen the obligation to provide sites, preferably on a regional basis? We can link that to tougher enforcement powers.

I hope that, in referring to old age travellers, my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) was not referring to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner).

This is, however, a serious subject. If my hon. Friend needs reassurance, he can have it. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions recognises the problem, and that is why he is conducting a review. He will consult local authorities and we hope that the end of that process will be very helpful.

Will the Minister urge local authorities, at both district and county level, police forces, the Home Office and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions to co-operate in the exchange of intelligence so that local areas know when a group of new age travellers are about to descend? The provision of sites, such as happened under the old law, will not assist, because new age travellers are not interested in static sites; they want to go where they please.

New age travellers are a nuisance. In my constituency, there have been two large encampments and a huge number of sheep were killed as a result of their activities. They even had the nerve to say, during the court case to decide whether the local authority could remove them, that their dogs did not kill the sheep because their dogs were vegetarian. Will the Minister ensure that local authorities take a grip of the law? The law is there; it just needs using.

The hon. and learned Gentleman may or may not be right; we need to wait for the outcome of the review. Clearly, the dogs were new age dogs. It is important that, when intelligence can be shared between local authorities, the police and any other agencies concerned, it should be. I suspect that the difficulty is that the intelligence the hon. and learned Gentleman describes may not exist in a form in which it can be easily shared. Where it does, we would encourage those concerned to share it.

Human Rights

9.

What measures he intends to introduce to safeguard the rights of British citizens under the European convention on human rights. [15785]

We introduced the Human Rights Bill in another place last month and published a White Paper at the same time. The Bill gives further effect in domestic law to the rights and freedoms set out in the convention and will significantly improve the ability of people in the United Kingdom to have access to their convention rights before our own courts.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his welcome reply. May I clarify with him the position of British citizens who are already bringing cases to the Strasbourg Court and are thereby locking themselves into a lengthy and expensive procedure? Will British citizens be able to transfer their cases into the British legal system when the incorporation of the European convention on human rights into our law is complete?

We thought about that issue carefully in preparing the Bill. However, we decided that it would not be practicable to allow for cases to be brought retrospectively in the British courts. For that reason, the Bill provides for a right of action in the British courts that will come into force at the same time as the Bill.

Does the Home Secretary accept that one effect of incorporating the European convention on human rights into our law will be the politicisation of the judiciary? If he does not, will he explain his position to the Lord Chancellor who, in 1996, wrote an article expressing those very dangers?

I do not accept that for a moment. I am interested to learn that the hon. Gentleman disagrees with the shadow Lord Chancellor. It was Lord Kingsland, the shadow Lord Chancellor, who said on the radio on the day we published the Bill:

"One thing you could say in favour of the Bill is that it domesticates the powers of the institutions of the Convention with the result that our own judges are now making these decisions instead of the judges in Strasbourg."
The Conservative party needs to get its act together on this, as on so many other issues. Of course we are not remotely politicising the British judiciary; indeed, we have constructed the Bill carefully to ensure that there remains a clear separation between the role of the judiciary and the role of Parliament.

Do prisoners have any rights under the European convention? In particular, does Myra Hindley have any way of challenging my right hon. Friend's decision to keep her in prison until she dies, while other people convicted of heinous, revolting and repulsive crimes may be released early?

Any individual, whether or not he or she is a British citizen, who is resident or in Britain has a right under the European convention at the moment and subsequently upon incorporation. Myra Hindley has such rights. Indeed, she is seeking to exercise her rights under British law by bringing an action for judicial review of my predecessor's and now my decision in respect of the whole life tariff which he set and which I confirmed last week.

What the Lord Chancellor actually said about the incorporation of the European convention on human rights into British law was that it offers

"immense scope for political and philosophical disagreement"
between the House and the courts. I have a simple question for the Home Secretary: does he agree?

The Lord Chancellor made it absolutely clear that he accepts—and, indeed, he was one of the architects of the scheme—the arrangements which we have laid down in the Human Rights Bill to separate the role of the judiciary from the role of the House. One of the important parts of the scheme of incorporation that we have adopted—views have moved on since the Lord Chancellor made that point—was to ensure that the sovereignty of Parliament was absolutely protected. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, there will be no provision in the Human Rights Bill by which the courts will be able to override and render void a Bill or an Act of Parliament.

Criminal Justice System

10.

What plans his Department has to ensure equal treatment for people with communication or learning difficulties under the criminal justice system. [15786]

As the hon. Gentleman is aware, on 13 June we announced an urgent, wide-ranging examination of the way in which vulnerable and intimidated witnesses, including those with communication or learning difficulties, are treated by the criminal justice system, with the aim of assisting them to give their best evidence in court.

There is existing protection for suspects in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and the accompanying codes of practice which provide safeguards for people in police detention, including suspects who may be considered vulnerable and in need of additional protection.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Is she aware of the campaign being run by Community Caremagazine to highlight the failings in the criminal justice system in respect of disabled people? Will she ensure that the interdepartmental working group that is looking into these matters takes a close look at the guidance and training that are available for judges and others involved in the criminal justice system to ensure that ignorance does not represent a barrier to people with learning and communication difficulties obtaining their right to justice?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The interdepartmental working group is aware of the campaign to which the hon. Gentleman referred and will look into the issues that he raised.

This is a very important point. All levels of the criminal justice system should be brought into the review. I would welcome an early end to the review so that people from all levels can get the justice and respect that they deserve but on occasions are missing.

I agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, I have come across examples in my constituency which very much reinforce that point of view. The group is aiming to report to us by the end of the year. We certainly intend wherever possible to improve the situation.

Crime (Young People)

11.

The Government's plans to tackle youth crime were set out in three consultative documents which were issued this autumn. The main features include proposals to speed up the youth courts, replace cautions with a new final warning scheme, introduce new community-based sentences, strengthen arrangements for custodial punishment for young people and establish a youth justice board for England and Wales with local youth offending teams. Many of those features will be contained in the forthcoming crime and disorder Bill. I intend shortly to publish a White Paper which will reinforce the proposals and look to future reforms of the youth court system.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is already widespread agreement that one of the most effective proposals in his consultation documents is the reparation order, which will force young people to face the consequences—and, indeed, the victims—of their actions and give victims the chance to come face to face with the perpetrators of the crimes from which they have suffered? Does he think that the principle of reparation can be allowed further to permeate the youth justice system, as it is far more likely to be effective than traditional forms of punishment? Does he believe that child mentoring will also play an important part in preventing youth crime?

I disagree with my hon. Friend in one respect only: in suggesting that reparation is not a traditional form of punishment. Reparation is the most effective and traditional form of punishment, by which one forces the offender to say sorry and repair the damage which he or she has caused. One of the problems with the youth justice system is that it effectively ignores the interests of both the victim and the wider public, and detaches the system to some high level of abstraction, where even the offender is simply a spectator in an endless and often useless process. We are determined to tackle that.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that prison institutions for young people are rather like an old school tie: a costly way of confirming a young person's identity for life? Although those who have committed the most grievous offences will need to be imprisoned, will he build—[Interruption.] New Labour is so hard-hearted. I am urging the Home Secretary to assume more enlightened colours rather than subscribe to the harsh face of new Labour.

Rather than shunting on troubled and troublesome young people, will the right hon. Gentleman urge education, social services and health departments to work with his agencies to reduce the number of young people in prison institutions?

No one wants to see young people gratuitously put in prison, but they are there because they have committed a series of crimes and have to be put away. The major problem that we face of the large number of 16, 17 and 18-year-olds who are sent to prison or young offenders institutions arises as a result of the wholesale failure of the youth justice system to deal effectively with those young offenders at an earlier age. The system is so soft for so long before, to compensate, it becomes over-harsh.

A major part of my reforms is designed to cut delays in dealing with young offenders, especially very young offenders. It is designed to ensure that the system is consistent, and that, when it gives a final warning, it really is a final warning. Where the courts come to the view that 12 to 14-year-olds have offended so badly that the need for protection of the public and their own protection requires them to be locked up, not in prison but in secure accommodation, the provision exists to enable that to happen.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the reconviction rate for young people who enter young offender institutions under the age of 17 is 88 percent? Does he therefore agree that putting more and more young people inside for longer and longer is not necessarily the answer to rising levels of juvenile crime?

My hon. Friend is right, but the depressing fact is that the reconviction rate for such offenders after any kind of punishment—custodial or non-custodial—is far too high. It is also true, and it has emerged from a number of inspectors' reports, that that average—which she quoted correctly—disguises large variations in performance between different young offenders institutions. With the same resources, some are remarkably successful in ensuring that young offenders lead more successful lives when they get out and some are less successful. As with the effective schools programme, the challenge today is to ensure that the resources available to those institutions are used more effectively, to establish more constructive regimes and to ensure that there is a path back into work for young offenders. That is why it is important to link work with young offenders with the welfare-to-work programme.

Will young people—16 to 18-year-olds—be covered by the tagging proposals that he announced to the House last week? Perhaps the Home Secretary might also care to answer the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) about whether tagging will cover those guilty of drug offences, because his frantic briefing did not quite make it to the Under-Secretary, his hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth). [Interruption.] Indeed, it seems to be continuing.

The answer to the first question, as I made clear last week, is that the tagging arrangements will be rolled out first to individuals in prison establishments. On the second question, I made it clear in the statement on Thursday that risk assessments will be made of any offender with a nominal sentence of between three months and four years. Such offenders will not be released under the tagging arrangements unless the governor of the prison judges that it will be safe to do so.

Closed Circuit Television

12.

If he will make a statement on the introduction of CCTV cameras into smaller towns and public places; and if he will make a statement. [15788]

I strongly support the use of closed circuit television—CCTV. I can announce today that the Government will support CCTV in the next financial year with a further CCTV challenge competition. In total, £9 million will be spent on CCTV in 1998–99. Although a large proportion of that expenditure was already committed by the previous Administration, I expect to be able to spend at least £1 million on new schemes. Full details will be issued in bidding guidance soon, but I intend to give priority to imaginative and innovative schemes that expand the boundaries of CCTV use.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that CCTV helps police and local authority strategies to combat crime? Does he accept that, under the former Government, the small, former urban authorities, of which there are four in my constituency—Ossett, Horbury, Normanton and Stanley—were left out and let down? Can he assure me those smaller authorities will now be considered by a Labour Government?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the success of CCTV, especially when linked to other approaches to reducing and preventing crime. In the bidding process, we will look for innovative schemes, not necessarily those in major town and city centres. In places where there is a critical mass of CCTV, it is possible to link smaller towns or out-of-town areas to the same monitoring system and that is often extremely valuable.

I welcome the Minister's announcement that he will follow our support for CCTV. Does he agree that the £1 million that he intends to add to the spending that the previous Government announced is pitiable? If CCTV is to be useful, it must be a national scheme, in Conservative as well as in Labour areas, and £1 million will go nowhere.

It is interesting that Opposition Members wish to spend money now that they are in opposition and not in government. Immediately before the election, the previous Government spent money that they did not have. Some £8 million of next year's finances was allocated by the Ministers who left office in May and that has left us with limited flexibility, but we will do the best with what we have.

Racially Motivated Crime

14.

What proposals he has to curb the incidence of racially motivated violence. [15790]

The lives of far too many people have been damaged or destroyed by racial violence and harassment. Labour promised in its manifesto to crack down on mindless racist thuggery, and we will do so. The crime and disorder Bill will create new offences of racial violence and harassment; it will send out a clear message that racist crime is unacceptable.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. The figures published this morning were extremely disturbing, especially as they included only reported crimes of racial violence, and the problem is in fact much bigger. Will my hon. Friend welcome the comments of the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) in the policing for London debate about continuing with a bipartisan approach to racially motivated violence, but agree that the right hon. Gentleman will be judged by his actions in the way in which he votes on the provisions concerning racial violence in the crime and disorder Bill, rather than by his words, because words are easy?

I agree. I hope that the new offences will have broad support in the House. I noted that the new Leader of the Opposition dissociated himself from comments about multiculturalism by the noble Lord Tebbit some weeks ago. I hope that that is a sign of a new attitude in the Tory party.

Britain is a multicultural society, and in many ways a successful one, but we still have problems of racist violence to resolve, and I invite the Conservatives to join the Liberal Democrats and the Government in backing a multicultural Britain to be proud of and in sending a clear message to all racists that if they have not yet learnt the lesson that this is a multicultural society in which we will crack down on racism, some of them will learn it from behind bars.