We now come to the second debate on an Opposition motion. I must tell the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.
I beg to move,
That this House notes the increasing evidence of a crisis in the criminal justice system, with excessive levels of prison overcrowding, failure to tackle rising reoffending rates, unacceptable breach rates of the Government’s anti-social behaviour measures, widespread public fear of crime and the judiciary’s concern over Government sentencing policy; believes that a new direction in Government policy prioritising administrative competence over media-driven legislative initiatives is urgently required; calls on the Government to make prison work by tripling the numbers of prisoners doing paid work and making education and training compulsory, with contributions from earnings going towards a victim compensation fund; calls for measures to allow sentences to mean what they say; further calls for the abandonment of the expensive identity cards scheme to allow funding for a sustainable increase in police numbers; urges the Government to divert money allocated to the latest prison building programme towards the expansion of secure and semi-secure mental health treatment facilities; and further calls on the Government to increase the use of restorative community justice panels to help reduce repeat crime, increase the use of rigorous and visible non-custodial sentences as a viable alternative to short-term prison sentences and change licensing provision to give local communities greater say over the closure of pubs and clubs which contribute to alcohol-fuelled violence.
This debate is extremely timely. For 10 years the Government have presented us with an endless menu of tough rhetoric on crime and law and order and a barrage of frenzied new law-making, and now we are entitled to ask questions. By coincidence, it is 10 months almost to the day since the first revelation in a series of scandals that have rocked the Home Office. Members will recall that in April last year it was first revealed that more than 1,000 foreign offenders who had been recommended for deportation by British courts were not being deported. So it is a good time to ask what has happened in the last 10 years. What is the result of all the tough talk? Has all the legislation really made a difference? What has gone so spectacularly wrong, and why?
If we look objectively at almost any aspect of the criminal justice system—every body, every institution—it is impossible to claim other than that almost every pillar of the system is in a state of perhaps irremediable crisis. [Laughter.] Labour Members laugh, but it is no laughing matter. We have a prison system that is bursting at the seams, with offenders moved at dead of night from one overcrowded prison cell to another and an epidemic of violence—prisoner on prisoner, prisoner on officer—which has risen by 500 per cent. in the last 10 years. Meanwhile, we have no space, resources or time for the rehabilitation that is necessary to deal with reoffending rates that have also gone through the roof. It is no laughing matter that our prisons are at breaking point.
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the Liberal Democrat policy of ending jail sentences for drug possession would be one element of his strategy to solve the problem of overcrowded prisons, and will he explain that policy to people in the outside world who do not think that it is a sensible proposition?
I anticipated that that question would be asked, because I read about it in the parliamentary Labour party briefing on the Liberal Democrat Opposition day debate. I note that the hon. Lady has referred closely to what is in the briefing, and if she does not have the wit or the independence of mind to ask her own question, rather than be spoon-fed by party managers, she does not deserve a response.
Reoffending rates are at an unprecedented high level: 66 per cent. of all offenders who go to prison reoffend within two years, and 92 per cent. of all male offenders who serve short-term prison sentences of three months or less reoffend. That is a system of the mad house; offenders go straight into prison and then come out and reoffend, leaving a trail of innocent victims in their wake.
Our judiciary are in near open revolt against the Government, as one Home Secretary after another has vilified and blamed judges for taking decisions that invariably faithfully follow sentencing guidelines that flow from the Government’s own legislation. The probation service is on its knees; it is vilified by one Home Secretary after another, and under-resourced and overstretched.
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman’s Jeremiahs about increasing crime, but if that is the case, why did the Sheffield and Rotherham Star, which covers his constituency and mine, state in its headline of last Monday that crime in South Yorkshire has fallen?
The right hon. Gentleman is interested in European Union affairs and, as he knows, a recent EU report revealed that non-violent crime has declined throughout the EU since about the middle of the 1990s. That has happened here as it has in other countries. The point is that in South Yorkshire and in the rest of the country—[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman should listen; the point is that the rate of decline in non-violent crime in South Yorkshire and the rest of the country has not been as fast as it has been in other countries. To my knowledge, Germany, France, Italy and Spain have not been indulging in a heady mix of populist rhetoric and frenzied law-making, but in those countries non-violent crime has declined more rapidly than it has in our country. Has new Labour solved the crime problem in Paris, Bremen or Madrid? I think not.
There are wider reasons why non-violent—not violent—crime has gone down. Most criminologists agree that it is because of a relatively benign economic environment, and also because of the roll-out of anti-burglary technology that protects both cars and homes.
No, I would like to make some progress, as time is limited.
In contrast to non-violent crime, violent crime has doubled since 1998. Violent offenders are now more likely to get a caution than a conviction in court. Fewer than one in a hundred crimes is punished in court. Antisocial behaviour orders—the great catch-all magic wand solution to everything, and the one-trick pony of the Prime Minister in dealing with antisocial behaviour—are now breached more than 50 per cent. of the time. The Home Office, according to the Home Secretary himself—there is no greater authority—is not fit for purpose. The report from the EU, which I referred to earlier, has confirmed that we are now the sick man of Europe in terms of crime. We are the most burgled country in Europe.
I could go on. [Hon. Members: “Go on.”] I will go on, and then I will give way. Overall, gun crime has doubled since 1997. The Government have still not introduced the gun register promised after the Dunblane incident. Street crime and muggings are heading towards the 100,000 per year mark, following a rise of 8 per cent. last year.
The hon. Gentleman says that ASBOs are only 50 per cent. successful, although that would mean that there is 50 per cent. less crime and disturbance on the streets than would otherwise be the case. If what he says is accurate, is he in favour or against ASBOs? Have the Liberal Democrats changed their minds about ASBOs—are they for or against them?
I refer the hon. Gentleman to his party’s briefing. We voted in support of ASBOs in 1998, when they were first introduced. I have a note from the House of Commons Library that confirms our record. However, we have always said that they should not be overused, that they should not be overly relied upon to deal with the complex issues underlying antisocial behaviour, and that they should not be imposed in excessive numbers on young people. The record shows, in Committee and in this Chamber, that we have supported ASBOs but we have always expressed perfectly reasoned objections to them.
Even an august academic report from King’s college, released on 15 January, asserts that the Government’s
“claims of success have been overstated and at times have been misleading”,
and it describes reoffending rates as one of the Government’s “most conspicuous failures”. How has this dismal state of affairs come about, given that this Prime Minister has made tough talking his political trademark for the past 10 years? It is this Government who have launched one barrage of illiberal new legislation after another. There have been 63 Home Office Bills, and we are about to debate the 24th criminal justice Bill. More than 3,000 new criminal offences have been shoved on to the statute book—two new offences for every day that this Parliament has sat since 1997. Frankly, if new offences, laws and legislation really could cure crime and antisocial behaviour, ours would be the first crime-free society in the history of this planet.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. If he is so concerned about antisocial behaviour, can he explain how his party’s policy of allowing alcohol to be sold to 16-year-olds will improve the situation? People in my constituency would like to know how that would assist them.
I will ignore that, if I may. [Interruption.] Does the hon. Lady seriously think that an arcane debate about what the precise drinking age limit should be would provide the simple catch-all solution to antisocial behaviour? If I look at the estates in my constituency where there are serious antisocial behaviour problems, what do I find? The greatest cause of complaint from residents is the lettings policy, in that new residents are coming on to the estates whom the sitting residents feel are not appropriate for those estates. The idea that this problem can be solved by a single solution or by a particular change in legislation is absurd and fatuous.
I am greatly concerned about the Government’s never-ending attack on, and demonising of, young people. Does my hon. Friend think that the suggested curfews for young people are inappropriate, and that we should invest in more facilities and activities for them, so that we can get them off the streets and stop their drinking?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I am frankly surprised by the gall of the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) in talking about alcohol-related antisocial behaviour, given that such behaviour has rocketed under this Government; it takes some brass neck to do that.
The Government live in an Alice in Wonderland world of their own, trapped in an unthinking faith in their own tough rhetoric, and oblivious to the fact that the public want not tough talk, but competence and effective policies that work and do not simply catch headlines.
I want to offer some relief to agitated Labour Members. I want to suggest four ways in which the Government can get themselves out of this mess. First, they should stop digging when they are in a hole. They should abandon this headline-grabbing frenzy that has disfigured their approach to the criminal justice system for the past 10 years. The omens, of course, are not good. Do we all remember the headlines generated by the new Home Secretary in November, just in advance of the Queen’s Speech? Let me remind those who do not. On 12 November 2006, the Sunday Express ran the headline, “Reid: the gloves come off”. On 16 November, The Independent headline ran, “John Reid: ‘Why I’m called a thug’”. On 15 November, the Liverpool Daily Post headline was, “Only Labour tough enough”. Even that sensitive newspaper The Guardian ran the following headline on 16 November: “Queen’s Speech: Tough on crime, again”.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Given that we should judge political parties by what they do, rather than what they say, will he comment on the performance of the Liberal Democrats in government in Liverpool? They failed to support youth services, closed youth clubs and reduced the other services that are necessary in assisting the police in ensuring order. They also take every opportunity to attack the police on every public platform for their inability to be effective. It is not good enough for the Liberal Democrats to seek to present themselves here as the defenders of the police, when the police in Liverpool know that the situation is quite different.
I can only go by the discussions that I have had myself with the police in Liverpool. The right hon. Lady will know about the Matrix team which works to combat serious and organised gun crime in the area. The leader of Liverpool council and I spent the day with that team recently, and its members were full of praise for the support that they had received from Liberal Democrats on Liverpool city council. Liverpool Liberal Democrats have done pioneering work in introducing alley gates, which have cut domestic burglary rates in Liverpool by an unprecedented amount.
I will not give way as there is very little time in this debate. I am sure that there will be other opportunities to intervene.
Another recommendation would be to stop legislating when the ink is barely dry on previous legislation that has been rammed on to the statute book. Why are we about to debate another criminal justice Bill when the 50 sections of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 have not even been applied yet?
Does my hon. Friend share my concern, and that of my constituents, that somebody convicted of murder has still not had his tariff set under the 2003 Act? Hundreds of people are in the same situation. The implications for their families are a symbol of the Government’s incompetence. Legislation is not a proxy for action.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend because I can think of no better example of the gap between rhetoric and bluster, and what the public actually want—competence and effectiveness. The public do not want the endless headline-grabbing legislative gimmicks: they just want Government to work.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned effective policies that work and he also mentioned gun crime. Given that 58 per cent. of all firearms offences in Scotland involve air weapons, why did his colleagues on the Committee considering the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 refuse to support measures for a purchaser licensing scheme and instead back the weaker vendor licensing scheme?
In that case, I shall get back to the hon. Gentleman when I have researched the matter a little more.
The Government should stop blaming others. The new Home Secretary had barely walked through the doors of the Home Office when he started blaming his predecessors. He then blamed civil servants, the Opposition and the judges—when they said things that were not to his liking—and, most recently in an interview on Radio 4, he blamed the redecoration problems of some fictional house in the Home Office. Peeling away the wallpaper apparently reveals one problem after another, as if the Home Secretary is Bob the Builder. People want the Home Secretary to get to grips with issues, not continually shuffle blame on to others.
It is high time that the Prime Minister and the latest Home Secretary showed some contrition and apologised to the British people for promising so much and delivering chaos, and for talking tough and creating systematic incompetence.
My second suggestion is that the Government should have the courage to do the hard work to change the behaviour of offenders. They should not simply perpetuate the carousel or revolving door of repeat crime. That means thinking radically about what is happening in our overcrowded, over-burdened, dysfunctional prison system. The Government need to admit that it is not possible to build their way out of the prison overcrowding crisis. The 8,000 new prison places that will be built at an expense to the taxpayer of £1.5 billion will not come on stream until 2011-12, by which time every objective observer accepts that prison numbers will have increased far in excess of those extra places.
No, I do not agree and it will not be in the next manifesto.
Clearly, there is a role for prisons, but more difficult questions need to be asked. Why is one prisoner in 10 identified as functionally psychotic? Why not invest the money being put into the prison building programme in expanding the secure and semi-secure mental health facilities that are necessary to keep offenders with serious mental health problems out of harm’s way? That money could also be used to rehabilitate and treat them, and so help them avoid falling into the pattern of repeat offending on release.
The present paid-work schemes in prison are patchy, so why do we not expand them? We advocate that the numbers of prisoners doing paid work should be tripled, and that some of the earnings that they accrue should be passed to a consolidated victim compensation fund.
Is my hon. Friend aware that Buckley Hall prison in my constituency had two empty places last week? It has changed from a prison for women to one for men, and the result is that the mental health services there have been stripped out. Moreover, the retraining promised when the men’s prison was set up has not been delivered. The prisoners face intolerable circumstances, and their families and the governor are very worried about it.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have spoken to countless prison governors, and they are tearing their hair out because they simply do not know what to do. The tough rhetoric, new legislation and growth in new offences are causing prisons to be overcrowded and making it impossible for governors to do their proper work.
If the Government simply stuff prisons with more and more offenders while doing nothing about drug addiction and the serious mental health conditions that afflict many prisoners, the result will be increased reoffending and crime. That will be the pattern, and the British public will suffer.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
My hon. Friend referred to work in, and associated with, prisons. Is he aware of the really impressive scheme involving the Prince’s Trust and Transco? Under the scheme, prisoners worked outside prison on gas pipelines and so forth, and the result was that reoffending rates fell dramatically. That demonstrates precisely what my hon. Friend is saying—that work projects such as I have described can have a real effect on reoffending rates.
That is certainly the experience in Reading. Toyota is running a very successful scheme in Aylesbury, where prisoners are trained to be specialised car mechanics. In addition, the Howard League is running an extremely interesting pilot project in a prison—I think that it is in Suffolk, although I stand to be corrected—where prisoners run a printing press operation at commercial rates. Those are examples of the sort of innovative thinking that has been lacking in the past 10 years. The Government have been so blinded by the need to capture headlines claiming more prison numbers, offences and offenders that they have done nothing to change offenders’ behaviour.
I want to make one more point, and then I shall give way to the hon. Lady.
As I said earlier, 92 per cent. of young men who go to prison to serve a sentence of three months or less reoffend within two years of release. We have no rational or moral reason to accept that, because the result is that there is more crime and there are more victims. Could we not think more creatively about ways to hand out community sentences that are more visible and demanding? We suggest that they should be no less than twice the length of time of short custodial sentences. The evidence shows that such sentences provide a better way to cut crime, and that they do not create it.
Will the hon. Gentleman say which offenders he would not send to prison? Does he support the probation service and probation hostels? If he thinks that people should be held in psychiatric hospitals instead of prisons, will he support the Mental Health Bill? That Bill will make it possible to hold people in such hospitals more easily.
That is just a diversion. The Mental Health Bill, in effect, treats as criminals people who have committed no offence. It once again blurs the boundary between innocence and guilt, and that has been a trademark of legislation over the past 10 years.
The Minister will be relieved to hear that my third point is the penultimate one. My kind and benevolent suggestion to the Government for getting themselves out of the mess is that they should get their priorities right. Why are they spending £100,000 of taxpayers’ money every day on an unworkable, illiberal and unnecessary scheme to introduce ID cards, while they are slashing the promised number of community support officers who really make a difference by quelling public fear of crime and antisocial behaviour in our communities? Why indulge in the endless merry-go-round of new legislation and debating points in this place when the public want basic leadership and management competence in the Home Office?
Fourthly, and finally, the Government should be honest. Why do they continue to dupe the public? For instance, they have sustained a false rhetoric about sentencing that has left the public utterly confused and bewildered. Life sentences are nothing of the sort. The average life sentence is 11 years; 53 so-called lifers, given life sentences in 2000, have already been released. That is not just an insult to the English language—it is an insult to the British public to suggest that they should accept the woeful double-speak so beloved of the Government.
I am just about to conclude so that others can speak.
I look forward to the Minister’s response. I am sure that it will be characterised by the good grace and absence of personal vitriol for which he is known in the Chamber. I ask him to do one thing: will he at least accept that the populist mix of tough rhetoric and frenzied law-making over the past 10 years has undoubtedly failed and must stop?
I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
“welcomes the significant and lasting reductions in crime this Government has achieved since 1997 which mean that the chances of being a victim of crime are at historically low levels, 24 per cent. according to the most recent British Crime Survey figures, compared with 35 per cent. in 1997; notes the new and innovative powers to tackle anti-social behaviour which are helping provide respite to communities across the country; welcomes the introduction of biometric identity cards to combat immigration abuse, illegal working, identity fraud and crime as well as strengthening national security and improving access to public services; notes the delivery of an extra 19,000 prison places and an increase in spending on prisons by 35 per cent. in real terms over the last 10 years and a further increase over the next five years to deliver a further 8,000 places; welcomes the record numbers of police officers and police community support officers on the streets helping to make communities safer; and congratulates the Government on its commitment to driving down crime further.”
I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) and his nine colleagues—it is nice to see them all—for choosing a debate on this serious subject. It should be discussed seriously, although that did not happen much just now. If we are to have a proper, serious and focused debate on crime, the sort of rant we have just heard is not terribly helpful.
I wholly concur with Mr. Speaker and admonish my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac). What a disgraceful thing to say! Of course, I welcome the three Conservative Front Benchers, who make up in quality for what is absent in quantity behind them.
We need to look at the context for the debate. The Government have much to be proud of—certainly not to apologise for—in our record of tackling crime. The 2005-06 British crime survey shows that, compared with 1997, all crime is down by 35 per cent: burglary is down by 55 per cent., all vehicle-related thefts are down by 51 per cent. and violence, measured by the BCS, is down by 34 per cent. In stark terms, those figures mean that there are 5.8 million fewer offences overall than in 1997, as estimated by the BCS, and that the risk of householders experiencing crime is at an historically low level—24 per cent., down from 35 per cent. in 1997.
Whatever the policy differences between us, it is indisputable that the 10,000 antisocial behaviour orders—they have not been raining down like confetti, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam suggested—the 13,000 acceptable behaviour contracts and the 1,000 or more dispersal orders have made a significant difference in communities up and down the country, and should not have been treated in a disparaging way that he will probably live to regret.
Does the Minister agree with the statistic that gun crime has doubled under the Government, while seizures of illegal firearms have halved? Is his Department undertaking any links with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to try to ensure that the number of seizures increases rather decreases, given the fact that gun crime is rising so rapidly?
The hon. Lady will know that, last year, gun crime was down some 14 per cent. However, the point that she makes about the link between HMRC and the importation of guns is a real one. We are addressing that, but more needs to be done, not simply between HMRC and Government, but across Government and with our colleagues in Europe. It is not an accident or anything other than the fact that, with the demise of many of the so-called people’s democracies in eastern Europe there has been a flood of firearms on to the European market and there are things that we can and should be doing about that.
Since my hon. Friend has been talking about antisocial behaviour orders, is he aware that, in addition to the Liberal Democrats’ repeatedly voting against every antisocial behaviour Bill that has come before the House of Commons, the Liberal Democrats on Manchester city council said that there was too much antisocial behaviour legislation and the Liberal Democrats in my constituency were against the appointment of neighbourhood wardens but then asked for more neighbourhood wardens?
On the point about firearms seizures, the port of Falmouth used to seize more firearms than any other part of the UK. The reason why it has not done so for the last three years is that there have not been any patrols in Falmouth. All those resources have been deployed to the large ports to seize things such as tobacco. Will the Minister promise to take action in that respect and accept that that is the reason why seizures are declining?
With the best will in the world, the hon. Lady simply cannot say that, because whatever we are doing in ports up and down the country is, by definition, a matter that is not related in the public domain. She made a causal link between a decline in seizures and the intelligence-led work that the authorities do. That simply is not the case. She made a fine point in terms of HMRC and working much more closely in that regard, but then she made a rather futile point.
The measures—especially dispersal orders, of which there have been 1,000—have made significant differences to our communities up and down the country and should not be disparaged. I do not accept the premise of the point made by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam about young people. The Government do not demonise young people and ASBOs are not raining down like confetti. There have been 10,000 in the best part of three years. There has been an enormous amount of work up and down the country—involving individual support orders, acceptable behaviour contracts and a whole array of other interventions—to do everything but serve ASBOs. So his was nice, but profoundly empty, rhetoric.
Let us look at some of the steps suggested by the Liberal Democrats this week—if I can put it that way, as a reflection of their inconsistency—in relation to their “Safer Britain” initiative. They mention “More police on patrol” and say
“Don’t waste billions on ID cards”.
The measures have been much vaunted and much costed. There is nothing in addition to what the Government have already done or have planned to do. Some 16,000—or 24,000, or whatever—community support officers were promised in the manifesto. Then we have the canard that somehow the Government are going to spend all the money that is needed in this area on ID cards. That simply is not the case. We have said time and time again at the Dispatch Box that, as a premise, some 70 per cent. of all the start-up costs for ID cards are there for biometric passports. To refer back to what my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) said, that is something that the Liberals apparently agree with. So they are okay on the 70 per cent., but they also want that money to be spent on more police, not biometric passports. The rest of the moneys, as has been made very clear, will come through the recovery of costs through the charge for the ID card. There is no massive pot of billions of pounds implied, at least, by the Liberal Democrats for additional police. If there are no ID cards, there will be no charge for ID cards and no recovery of the costs for ID cards, so it is an utter canard. It is a nice little suggestion that bears no scrutiny at all and is simply wrong.
It is unfair—I have to say this, as it ran through the speech of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam—to attack, however benignly, the hundreds and thousands of professionals up and down the country who are working throughout the criminal justice system. It is profoundly wrong to suggest, as the hon. Gentleman did, that—[Interruption.] The problem is that we are not now in a school debating chamber, so the Liberal Democrats should rest easy a bit.
It is profoundly wrong to suggest that there is no education, training or skills tuition inside our prisons. That there should be more might be a proper argument, but it is a fact that there is plenty of it going on and it is wrong to suggest that absolutely nothing is going on.
In connection with attacking professionals, what would my hon. Friend say to residents living near the Toll Bar road area in Hulme in my constituency who have been persistently plagued with drug problems from nearby flats? The police have gone in and seized large amounts of drugs in some cases, but it is very difficult to prove that people are selling. The Liberal Democrats would end sentences for possession of drugs, so those people would escape without punishment.
What I would say to those people, if I may step out and be partisan momentarily, is that whatever else they do, they should never vote for a Liberal Democrat. It will not be possible to use antisocial behaviour orders, because the Liberal Democrats are against them, as they have shown in practical terms in councils up and down the country. Seeking a dispersal order to get rid of those individuals will not happen because the Liberal Democrats are against them, so those people causing trouble in my hon. Friend’s constituency are going to remain for ever in that estate.
The Government have made substantial additional investment in education for offenders—from £52 million in 2001-02 to £156 million in 2006-07. There is clear evidence that it is working. In the foreword—sadly, it is spelled F, O, R, W, A, R, D in my brief, so I will see someone and have words with them later—to its annual report of 2005-06, the chief inspector of the adult learning inspectorate said:
“Perhaps the most heartening success I can report this year has been achieved in prison learning and skills... only 16 per cent.”—
still too many—
“had inadequate learning and skills provision.”
A commitment to make learning and skills compulsory would come close to trebling those costs in terms of delivery alone and substantial investment would be needed to increase the availability of classrooms, workshops and IT.
Again, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam made a fair point—but then lost it in all the “Focus” drivel—about people with mental health problems and about levels of functional literacy in prisons. Some problems need dealing with, but it is absolutely and profoundly wrong to suggest that nothing is being done, though it may well be the case that more should be done.
The Minister really cannot get away with the concept that he agrees that something should be done about people in prison with mental health difficulties, when the problem has been pointed out year after year in every report of Her Majesty’s inspectorate—and nothing gets done about it. The same problem is still there.
No, that is not the case at all. The hon. Gentleman should not run away with his own rhetoric. It is not the case that nothing is being done. It may well be the case that more needs to be done and that the Department of Health and the Home Office need to deal with these matters more closely together than they have. I freely accept that that is a legitimate debate, but again it is wrong, particularly in view of what colleagues are doing—long before people even get to prison and subsequently when they are outside prison—on the mental health side of the equation. It is profoundly wrong to say that nothing happens. Again, the hon. Gentleman over-eggs the pudding.
Significant numbers of prisoners already work in prisons—for example, in prison workshops, kitchens and horticulture and, increasingly, as peer advisers, gaining qualifications themselves while providing support and guidance to other prisoners. Again, more needs to be done. Again, of course, as the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), has said, it is far more difficult to make that provision in a prison estate where optimal numbers are already surpassed. We have published the “Next Steps” action plan, a cross-Government commitment further to develop offenders’ skills and get more offenders into sustainable employment through the corporate alliance. Many employers have already seen that this makes business sense, as they can fill their labour gaps and work with prisoners through the prison gate, as it were.
To get back to the subject of the motion, it is not the case that better compensation for victims is paid for by prison work. That assumption shows a profound lack of understanding of the nature of prison work, and of who pays for it if it is not undertaken for the commercial sector. A number of commercial contracts already exist with the private sector. More often than not, however, prison work is about providing purposeful activity for prisoners and making a modest contribution to some aspects of running prisons. To suggest that we can develop our 160 prisons into some kind of corporate whole, with each one as a little profit centre, so that the profits can be used to compensate victims is shallow and sub-intellectual at best, and profoundly wrong and flawed at worst. Nor did the hon. Gentleman mention in passing that our criminal injuries compensation scheme is one of the most generous in Europe, paying out nearly £200 million a year to some 35,000 victims.
Then we come to the Liberal Democrats’ call to take back our town centres. Well, it would have been rather nice if they had voted for some of the measures that we have introduced on that issue. They ask for a reduction in alcohol misuse and the harms associated with it, and for more “liberal” licensing laws so that locals can have a more direct and profound say in the matter—[Interruption.] Well, they do. Yet they voted against the new licensing laws on 23 March 2003. The Licensing Act is now working. About 600 licensing reviews have been completed where concerns have been expressed, and approximately 100 licences have been revoked.
Dispersal zones are working well in relation to alcohol issues, as are antisocial behaviour orders, but the Liberal Democrats do not like them either. As for alcohol disorder zones, I got fed up trying to find out whether they had voted for them or not. Again, however, those measures are working, or will work when they are implemented.
The Liberal Democrats propose that, before someone could have a drinking banning order imposed on them, they would have to have a psychiatric assessment. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is typical of the nonsense that we get from the party across the way?
Sadly it is, on matters that are very serious.
Interestingly, the hon. Gentleman did not dwell on the last little gimmick from the Liberal Democrats. This is the Lib Dem freedom Bill, which was supposed to advance our ability to take these matters seriously. The genesis of this particular ditty came about when the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) resolved that his party needed a tougher form of liberalism. This was before he decided that prison was rubbish and did not work at all.
Alongside what is in the motion, the Lib Dem freedom Bill makes profoundly depressing reading. It would run a coach and horses through much of what we are trying to do, misguidedly all in the name of freedom and liberalism. It would reverse changes in the law on the right to silence, which have made it easier to convict the guilty, not in every case but in specific cases in which it would be of use to the authorities to make it more difficult to acquit those who are clearly guilty in specific circumstances. That is not even our measure, actually. It goes back to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, to give due credit to the Conservatives, three of whom are in the Chamber this afternoon—
I will if I have time during our deliberations.
Our measure refers specifically to a tight set of circumstances in which the right to silence can and should be challenged. The Liberal Democrats would get rid of it. That would make it much more difficult not only to convict those who are clearly guilty, but in some circumstances, to acquit the innocent. That is a totally befuddled and bemusing approach. It might look nice in a little five-point freedom Bill, but it is profoundly dangerous.
An equally dangerous proposal in this little ditty, the Lib Dem freedom Bill, is their opposing the retention of DNA records, which are helping to crack old crimes and convict dangerous offenders. Here, they are slipping into their rhetoric and entering profoundly dangerous territory. A fellow called Anthony de Boise would be very grateful if the Liberal Democrats had had their way and there were no DNA database. I will not go into all the details, but he was in dispute with his sister over the estate after one of their parents had died. He was taken in for theft and DNA-fingerprinted. The DNA was put on the database. The charges were dropped, but he was subsequently the subject of a further investigation, and because that DNA sample was on the database, the unloved Anthony De Boise is now doing 13 years for six counts of indecent assault on girls aged between 13 and 16, committed in Surrey between 1989 and 1996. That is because our legislation allowed us to retain that database.
I would like to know why the Minister is not honest about the criminal justice system’s requirements. The database should either genuinely encompass everybody, or be restricted to those convicted of a criminal offence, and there are entirely logical arguments for either position. However, there is no basis in logic for a DNA database not only of those who have been convicted of a criminal offence, but of those who have been arrested but not charged, and those who have come before the courts and been found not guilty. If the police have followed proper procedures, a few people who work in No. 10 should now be on the DNA database; is the Minister?
I am not, but I would have absolutely no difficulty with being on the database. I tell the hon. Gentleman sincerely that he should consider the victims of Anthony De Boise, the victims of another individual who is now doing six years for sexual assault, to whom the same thing applies—his DNA was picked up in one environment, but the charges were dropped, and he was subsequently charged for other offences—and the victims of Shaun Greenway, who is serving a life sentence for three rapes committed between 2002 and 2005. The Prime Minister has said clearly, in terms, that he is quite comfortable with the notion of everybody being on the database. [Interruption.] I will ignore the chuntering, if I may.
We are told that, under the Liberal Democrat freedom Bill, the use of hearsay evidence in court would be scrapped. It should not be used all the time, in all circumstances; however, in particular circumstances, and for particular crimes, when the proper safeguards are in place, it can make the difference between convicting someone who is guilty, after due process, and not convicting them. The proposal would sound lovely in a little Liberal Democrat freedom Bill, but it would be profoundly destructive to what we are trying to do for our communities under the criminal justice system.
I can tell my hon. Friend that in 2005-06 there were, at the very least, some 45,000 DNA matches for crimes, including 422 homicides, 645 rapes, 256 other sex offences, nearly 2,000 other violent crimes and more than 9,000 domestic burglary offences, but the DNA database offends the sensibilities of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), so he thinks that we should scrap it. That is abject nonsense. The Liberal Democrats voted against the legislation when it came before the House, but what did we expect?
There must be, for public policy sake if nothing else, a serious and substantial debate about criminal policy, conducted responsibly by both the Government and Opposition parties, but sadly this is not it. We need a debate about who should be in prison, and who should not. There must be a debate about how we deal with many low-level, but still deeply destructive, crimes for our communities, through the use of fixed penalty notices, summary justice, ASBOs, and dispersal orders, which do work. We need to ensure that ever more serious, persistent and violent offenders are put where they belong, and we are doing so.
We do not need lectures from a party that tells us that dispersal orders offend their sensibilities. The Liberal Democrats could not care less what dispersal orders do to alleviate the difficulties for our communities; they are against them, so that is the end of it. They do not like fixed penalty notices, but they do not explain why to our communities. They, with their stratospherically pseudo-intellectual sensibilities, do not like fixed penalty notices, so they do not matter, whatever they do for our communities. Liberal Democrats do not like the notion of giving the police powers to close crack houses, although that relates to the very point that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam made about how to allocate houses on estates. We offer the power to close crack houses, and the Liberal Democrats vote against it. We offer—[Interruption.] I am afraid they did vote against police powers to close crack houses. What else would we expect, given that on one local authority a Liberal Democrat councillor wants the police to be charged £400 every time they knock down a door in a drug raid? She thinks it is appalling that the local council should have to pay to refit the door if, for operational reasons, the police had to knock it down. Even her local colleagues called her stupid and rushed to distance themselves from her suggestion.
The Liberal Democrats would end all sentences for drug possession, as we heard. Time after time, we are told that all of a sudden they are tough on crime. The debate should not be about tough v. soft. It should be about practicalities, substance, making a difference in the criminal justice system both for those who offend and those who are offended against, and getting that balance right across the piece. Being very bad at being tough, as evidenced by such a weak and flaccid record, is not good enough.
The debate should have been a chance for the Liberal Democrats to set out a shining, substantial policy for the way forward. I have no idea what their policy is, save for two features. First, their previous shadow Home Secretary said—I think this gets closer to the reality:
“Liberal Democrats aim to maximise freedom and this applies to the perpetrator and victim alike.”
No difference, no distinction is made. On another occasion, one of their much vaunted ex-leaders said that it was important to him that Ian Huntley, among others, should be able to vote and take part in our democratic process.
Liberal Democrats are all over the place, as the motion shows, in their proposals for the way forward for themselves, let alone for the country and for tackling crime. Let us have the substantive debate. Let us discuss where the Government need to do more and where the emphasis should be in penal policy. That discussion is necessary, but we cannot have it wrapped around a silly little motion proposed in a rather sub-intellectual way by the next leader of the party, who will remain where he is, not on the official Opposition Front Bench and certainly not on the Government Front Bench.
I agree with much that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) said. I welcome his conversion to the principle of honesty in sentencing. We have said that judges should specify a minimum and a maximum number of years for an offender to serve in prison, with a minimum sentence being served in full. We have said that the early release scheme should be scrapped. We made those pledges at the last election.
It would be churlish of me not to welcome the hon. Gentleman’s belated recognition that we were right, but we have some important differences with the Liberal Democrats. They support community sentences instead of prison for many crimes, but I cannot agree that prison sentences are not appropriate for serial shoplifters, vandals or fine defaulters. Custodial sentences are sometimes the only option for courts when offenders are serially abusing the criminal justice system. Some call these offenders petty, but their actions can make people’s lives a misery and blight communities.
The failure or improper use of many non-custodial penalties has gravely undermined the public’s confidence in ill thought-through alternatives to prison. Over 4,000 prisoners released early under the home detention curfew scheme have reoffended, committing more than 7,000 crimes. More than 1,000 of those were violent offences, including a murder, woundings and assaults. The hon. Gentleman says that there should be no soft options. I agree, so I have been reading the Liberal Democrats’ “We Can Cut Crime” website with great interest. I am surprised that so much Liberal Democrat policy has been left out—the generous pledge to give prisoners the right to vote, their plan to downgrade the classification of ecstasy, and their long-standing commitment to the legalisation of prostitution. The party’s new campaign appears to be the latest incarnation of what was briefly called tough liberalism, a notion best epitomised by the proposal to send teenage joyriders to race cars or learn car maintenance. In the words of the party’s former home affairs spokesman:
“maybe, just maybe they will get out of committing crime”.
Alternatively, maybe they will learn to fix the cars that they steal and drive them faster.
It would be a shame if the full complement of Liberal Democrat policies were not promoted more effectively. We cannot rely on wecancutcrime.com, so I have done some research, and I can tell the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam that woollyliberals.com is still available—woollyliberals.eu is also available, if he prefers it.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister told the Liaison Committee:
“I think that we have got to be careful as law makers that we are not literally living on a different planet from the public”.
It is safe to say that the Prime Minister is not literally living on a different planet from the rest of us, even if many in his own party would like that to be the case. When it comes to the Government’s claims on tackling crime, however, the Government appear to be living in a parallel universe. The Government amendment
“welcomes the significant and lasting reduction in crime”.
Reduction? Only on a measure that excludes crimes against under-16s and commercial property, drug dealing and murder. If one adds in the crimes that have been left out, there are not 10 million crimes a year—the figure is more like 30 million.
In November, a leaked document from the Prime Minister’s own strategy unit admitted that 80 per cent. of the claimed decrease in crime was due to economic factors. As the centre for crime and justice studies at King’s college London has pointed out, the Government easily achieved their crime targets, because those targets were
“set on the basis of existing trends continuing regardless of government action”.
The fact is that almost 500,000 more crimes were committed last year than in the year in which the Government entered office. Far from the “lasting reduction” claimed in the amendment, the strategy unit document tells us that the Home Office prediction is that crime will begin to rise—in fact, crime rose in last week’s figures. Not surprisingly, that page in the strategy unit’s document did not appear in the final version—another dodgy dossier, and another inconvenient truth hidden from the public.
Frankly, no one believes the Government’s claims on crime any more, because, as the Statistics Commission has said, the Government routinely spin the figures. The Government claim that the chances of being a victim of crime are at “historically low levels”, but people in this country have a higher chance of being a victim than people in any of our peer group countries, bar one. Home Office spending has risen by £6.2 billion a year under this Government, an increase of nearly £290 per household. We now spend more on law and order as a proportion of GDP—2.5 per cent.—than any other OECD country. Yet only this week, the European crime and safety survey showed that the UK has the highest rate of burglary and assault in the European Union. We have the highest spending and the worst performance. Have the Government not stopped for one second to ask themselves why that is the case?
The second claim from planet Marsham street is that new and innovative powers to tackle antisocial behaviour are working. How exactly are they working, when more than half of ASBOs are breached? The Youth Justice Board has said that young people treat ASBOs as a badge of honour. The Government say that ASBOs are working. It is not hard to decide who to believe. How do the Government know that ASBOs are working, when the National Audit Office has said that there has been no formal assessment of the programme? There is no serious programme to deal with antisocial behaviour; all we get is a series of gimmicks. We have had “Respect handbooks” and “Respect rocks” parties on beaches, and we have had together plans and action plans, yet antisocial behaviour still plagues our communities—in particular, it affects the poorest communities in the country.
What action has there been? There has been action to keep offenders out of court. Thousands of offenders, including sex offenders, are now receiving cautions for their crimes. Serial shoplifters are being rewarded with penalty notices, which can be less than the value of the stolen goods. Those actions all count as offences brought to justice, but half the fines are not paid, so the offences are not brought to justice at all. The only effect has been to hit a Government target.
The Government’s amendment claims that the introduction of identity cards will combat immigration abuse and illegal working. How will ID cards prevent illegal immigration when foreign visitors, of whom there were 28 million last year, will not be required to have one unless they plan to stay in the UK for more than three months? I notice that in the midst of the constantly shifting justifications for ID cards, the amendment does not claim that they will prevent terrorism. As the previous Home Secretary admitted, they did not prevent the bombings in Madrid and would not have prevented the 7/7 bombings either. If the Government were serious about dealing with immigration, they would reintroduce proper border controls, but the UK Borders Bill no more does that than it deals with the 10,000 foreign nationals in our prisons, more than half of whom still will not face automatic deportation under its measures.
The Government congratulate themselves on the provision of extra prison places, but there is nothing to congratulate them on as regards prisons. As Professor Rod Morgan, the former chairman of the Youth Justice Board who resigned, warned last week, we are standing on the brink of a prisons crisis. Prisons are full. Unsuitable police cells are being used to house inmates. Unsuitable offenders have been transferred to open jails, and prisoners, including murderers, have been walking out of the doors at a rate of two a week from Ford prison in my constituency. Drugs are rife in prisons—institutions that are meant to be secure. Reconviction rates are rising. Nearly 80 per cent. of young male prisoners reoffend within two years. I agree with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam that we have to do more to ensure that prisons work effectively and to provide alternative secure places for prisoners with serious drugs problems. Seventy per cent. of adult prisoners have a reading and numeracy age of under 11. The amount of purposeful activity in prisons is appalling, be it work, education or training. We cannot possibly hope to rehabilitate prisoners in the current crowded conditions.
The Government proclaim that record numbers of police officers and police community support officers are on the streets helping to make communities safer. Where are all those officers? They are spending less than a fifth of their time on the beat. They are in stations filling in multiple forms to process arrests. They are in court spending hours waiting for cases that are cancelled when witnesses do not turn up. Some 8,000 of them are on restricted duties—on full pay but doing as little as an hour’s work a day, at a cost of £243 million a year. Police stations have been closed. The Government have reneged on their manifesto promise to deliver 24,000 PCSOs by next year. They have shelved their manifesto promise to introduce the national non-emergency 101 number. The police national database that was promised in the wake of the Soham murders has been delayed by three years, and costs have more than doubled. Perhaps by Home Office standards that counts as a reasonable performance.
In November, the Government said that they were going to publish a vision for policing. Like the 101 number and the promised PCSOs, the vision has been shelved. After the collapse of the mergers, the Government have nothing to say about policing. Ministers are giving no direction at all but merely call lamely for a debate. The Government’s sole remaining vision of policing is the prospect of Scotland Yard officers marching up Downing street. Where are the big ideas? What happened to the tough action on the causes of crime? Like the Minister’s advice to members of the public who see a mugging, all the Government can do is put up their hands.
But let us be fair to the Home Secretary. He has one big idea—to split his Department in two. Of course we agree that there is a major security challenge facing the country, and that the Home Office ministerial team needs strengthening to confront that challenge—frankly, it would be hard to disagree with that. Splitting the Home Office would be disruptive and would dislocate the criminal justice system by separating the police from the penal system at a time when justice so clearly needs to be joined up. However, it would not solve the real problem, which has been successive Home Secretaries under this Government and the strategic errors that they have made. Ministers took the decision to relax immigration controls, and the decision was wrong. Ministers were warned four years ago that the minimum level of the prison population would be higher than it is now, but they ignored the advice, took the decision, and the decision was wrong. Officials are not to blame, and it is not the Department that is unfit for purpose, but Ministers. Why should splitting a Department result in Ministers who can make better decisions? What we need is a Home Secretary who prefers responsible, long-term decisions to grabbing the next headline, but we have not had that for 10 years. Instead, the criminal justice system has been deluged with legislation. Sixty-two Home Office Bills have been introduced since 1997—six in this Session alone. Twenty-three measures have subsequently been wholly or partly repealed. Out of 3,000 new offences, 430 have been created by the Home Office.
There has been equally frenetic spinning. The Government Communication Network is currently advertising a vacancy for a news editor for the Home Office website. The job specification is candid. It states:
“This is a challenging role… The successful candidate will be joining a professional… team”—
that will be news to the Home Secretary—
“and taking the lead in writing news stories… You will need to be someone who is highly adaptable, excels when working under pressure and can juggle a varied and demanding workload with good cheer.”
I wish the news editor well on planet Marsham street. Back in the real world, people have had their fill of spin.
After 10 years and billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, there is no one else for the Government to blame. The failure to tackle crime is their record. Failures in the Home Office are their responsibility. The 27,500 files on criminals that sat for years on a Home Office desk are their responsibility. The failure to jail sex offenders because the prisons are full is their fault. They promised the public tough action, they failed to deliver and they will be held to account.
I listened with great interest and some amusement to the speech of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg). I waited for answers to some of the knotty problems that the Government are tackling. Alas, I heard none. I filleted two main themes from the hon. Gentleman’s speech: we should all be honest about crime and antisocial behaviour and we should focus on prevention. In so far as the Liberals can be honest, we should examine the reality—not the windy rhetoric—of their hare-brained proposals for people’s lives, for example, in my constituency. From the perspective of my community, the Liberals are much more interested in the rights of the perpetrators than those of victims. My constituents pay the price for that woolly Liberalism.
The hon. Gentleman smirks and laughs but my constituents pay heavily for Liberal-Tory controlled Luton council, which has voted against using any antisocial behaviour measures. Liberals and Tories oppose those measures not only in this place but in practice in Luton.
Does my hon. Friend agree that dispersal orders constitute one of the most popular measures? On estates in my constituency, they have been used to disperse the plague of youths that hang around street corners. Yet the Liberal Democrats voted against them when they came before the House.
I agree. The Liberals oppose not only dispersal orders but fixed penalty notices for drunken louts. They claim to deliver greater public safety but they voted against police powers to break up unruly gangs of teenagers and so on. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), one of only a handful of Liberal Democrats present, chunters, but he should come and talk to people in Farley and Bury park in my constituency who are still waiting for gating schemes. The Liberals claim that they are leading the way on that issue nationally. Luton has areas with major problems of crime and drug addiction, yet the Liberals will not enforce gating schemes in places such as Farley.
In areas such as Brook street, there are major problems of prostitution, drug dealing and drug taking, and action is not effective, not because the police do not want to act but because the Liberal council tells them that it does not want to get involved in that partnership approach. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam must explain to constituents in areas such as Brook street why the Liberals oppose measures to tackle crack houses and drug possession and why they believe in liberalising prostitution. All those problems plague my constituents in that area and the surrounding area of High Towne.
My hon. Friend’s experience in Luton is being shared by the people of Hull whose council is now Liberal-controlled. The party concerned voted against CCTV cameras to provide protection and security for local people, and will not fill vacancies in the CCTV monitoring room to make sure that perpetrators are brought to book.
My hon. Friend raises an important issue, which illustrates that the Liberals talk tough here but do not vote tough. Their voting record shows that they have been against any of the tough measures introduced by our Government, and that they are a danger to our communities.
The Government have invested nearly £3 million to improve St. George’s square and regenerate the centre of Luton. What has the Liberal council done? It has refused to introduce dispersal orders and alcohol-free zones. The problems that have plagued the centre of town will therefore reappear, and people will again not want to work in and visit Luton. Despite the Respect Task Force having been called in twice to deal with antisocial behaviour, that is the approach of Liberals on the council and of the Liberals’ national policies. The police tell me that they are doing their best, but that the council has refused to co-operate with them and introduce dispersal orders and alcohol-free zones. How can the police deal with such issues and respond to community needs when the practice of Liberal councils is to do exactly the opposite?
The council has not only wasted money from the Government for regeneration but in relation to identity cards. I undertook a major consultation of my constituents, 96 per cent. of whom are desperate to have ID cards. One in seven of the UK population wants ID cards, because they are a price worth paying for greater security and to get rid of fear of crime. Again, Liberal Members, and Liberals on Luton council, have voted against ID cards. The majority of people in Luton want the measure introduced, however, and we will deliver it.
Across the UK, crime has decreased by 35 per cent. since 1997, with domestic burglary down by 55 per cent. and 250,000 more offences being brought to the courts than five years ago. I especially commend the Government on introducing tougher sentences for murder and sexual and violent offences. In some areas, however, there are still problems. As I have illustrated, many of those problems are brought on by Liberal policies.
My area is covered by Bedfordshire police authority, which often tells me that it suffers from lack of resources. I must disabuse it of that notion. It complains that it did not get sufficient resourcing for the force amalgamation proposals, but it got what it asked for in full—£23,500. It says that the Government are cutting its resources; in fact, its budget in Luton has increased by 3.6 per cent., which is above the rate of inflation. Next year, it will receive £66.4 million in general grants, which is an increase of 3.7 per cent, and an estimated £11 million on top of that from a range of other Government funding streams, for instance, to help roll out neighbourhood policing across the area. It will also receive substantial investment in local policing. From 2007, the control on officer numbers that accompanied the large specific grant—the crime fighting fund—is being lifted, for which the authority asked.
However, the distribution of police resources within Bedfordshire police authority is a major issue, on which I wish that our Liberal-Tory council would take action instead of whingeing.
Luton does not receive a proportionate share of police resources. Although it is pushed up the M1, it is essentially a London borough with the multiplicity of problems experienced by London boroughs, including the problems of crime.
Luton has higher crime levels than any other part of Bedfordshire. I have figures of 2 per cent. for sexual offences compared with 0.9 per cent. in the United Kingdom as a whole; 3 per cent. for robbery offences compared with 1.4 per cent. nationally; and 24 per cent. for violence against the person compared with 16.5 per cent. nationally. Within Bedfordshire, Luton is experiencing most of those problems. That is all the more reason why there should be co-operation between the police and the council. However, owing to decisions made by Bedfordshire police authority, Luton is disproportionately underfunded. If it received the same funds as a borough with a comparable “police family”, we would have at least 32 extra officers on the beat to tackle some of those serious issues.
I have called on Luton council to join me in a campaign to ensure that Luton receives its fair share of the additional funding for Bedfordshire police authority. I wish it would get its finger out, not only to deal with the issues that we have been discussing but to help me fight that campaign for a fair share for Luton. I hope that the Minister will have words with members of the police authority, and will urge them to ensure that Luton’s crime problems are tackled more effectively with better resources.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam has had his wings substantially clipped. The windy rhetoric that we heard bears no relation to the reality of what is happening in people’s lives.
I am concerned by what the hon. Lady said about her police authority. I have no torch to bear for Bedfordshire police authority, but it is not the police authority that determines the operational decisions of the chief constable. It is for the chief constable to decide who is deployed in her town.
The police authority, in conjunction with the chief constable, makes decisions on the allocation of resources between areas covered by the authority. I am sure the Minister will clarify the position, but that is what I have been told by both the chief constable and the Minister concerned.
I want to mention some serious national issues which, sadly, were not raised by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam. I hope that the Minister will think about ways in which we can tackle crime even better than we are already. The hon. Gentleman mentioned prison capacity. There should be further investigation of the number of women in our prisons. The Fawcett Society has done sterling research on those who are in prisons, and has found that a disproportionate number of women are there as a result of relatively minor offences. Many have been victims themselves, particularly of domestic violence, and increasingly they are becoming victims of the criminal justice system as well. More and more women are in prison unnecessarily, and we must try to break that cycle.
The second issue that I want to raise is e-crime. I am surprised that the Liberal Democrats have no policy on it, as it will be one of the biggest issues affecting the criminal justice system and the police system. I have just returned from Washington, where I had meetings with the FBI and others to discuss the issue. I am sorry to say that I have received no satisfactory answers to my probing questions about the extent of e-crime in the United Kingdom. The FBI and other United States authorities have a much clearer picture of what is going on: according to them, e-crime is now taking place on a massive scale, and will be the biggest issue affecting us in the future. [Interruption.]
On that point, I have recently been contacted by a constituent whose credit card details, e-mail address and password were published on the internet, and he finds that he cannot report that as a crime unless he has suffered some financial loss. Does the hon. Lady agree that the Government urgently need to address that issue?
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Liberal Democrat Members obviously do not want to learn any lessons about what they should address if they want their party to be taken even half way seriously as a party of opposition, which is what it will continually be.
The hon. Gentleman is not doing himself any great service. I merely made the point that we need to look into the fact that there are many women who are in prison for relatively minor offences and who have been victims of violence. I sincerely hope that the hon. Gentleman will support measures to tackle domestic violence and repeat victimisation, as he has so far failed to support most of the measures to tackle crime and support our victims that have passed through the House.
The Met police have recently concluded a report, and I am pleased to say that Detective Chief Inspector Charlie McMurdie, who visited Washington with us, was able to brief us on the fact that there is concern that local specialist e-crime units throughout the country can no longer cope with e-crime. Businesses have complained that the merger last year of the national hi-tech crime unit into the Serious Organised Crime Agency has left a serious gap in policing at a time when computer crime is reaching epidemic proportions.
Demand for computer forensic services, which cost the Met £4.3 million last year, is forecast to increase by 40 per cent. in 2007. There is a great need to focus on crime prevention and intelligence gathering, and there is a particular need for greater police resources to tackle organised criminal networks and individuals who represent a high threat in the online world. I am pleased that the report concludes that the police need to work more closely with businesses to prevent attacks. That is in all our interests, as confidence in the commercial world—indeed, in our whole economy—rests on a secure online world. We need to recognise that e-crime is now a mainstream issue.
I concur with the Met report’s suggestion that we should have a central unit. We cannot be Keystone Cops chasing after developments in the online world. The rate of advance in technology is very fast and the speed with which organised criminals online are able to develop new software and technologies outstrips our police’s ability ever to get to grips with that. We will never have sufficient police, forensic and technology-based specialisms and skills to keep up with the rapid rate of change in technology.
We should take up a suggestion of EURIM, the IT parliamentary and industry group that I chair, and of the Met report, although we should go further than it recommends. We should slap a sheriff’s badge on many people in the IT industry, where there are legions of security and technology experts, and give them greater powers to tackle some of these issues, because our police and resources will never keep up with the rate of change. We need to place greater emphasis across Departments—not only in the Home Office—on finding ways to tackle this problem. Confidence in our economy could rest on it.
I commend the Government for the work that has already been done on online child abuse, and the Minister in particular for his dedication to the issue and his wisdom in adopting the measures in two ten-minute Bills that I proposed: the checking of moderators by the Criminal Records Bureau, and a requirement that internet service providers introduce filters to protect us all—and particularly the children abused—from access to online child abuse sites.
When we were in Washington, we made very valuable contacts with the FBI and NCMEC—the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which does wonderful work in this area. They asked me to pass on their congratulations to our Government on taking a lead on the issue by working with the Internet Watch Foundation and setting up the Home Office taskforce. That is a tribute to partnership working, and such an approach does indeed work. The Government’s partnership arrangements with industry and with the charity and voluntary sector have been spectacularly effective in closing down child abuse sites. A few years ago, some 15 per cent. of such sites were hosted in the UK; now the figure is only 0.1 per cent. That has been achieved without legislation, and through partnership working. As the experts in the United States suggested, this model could be used around the world. We must take the opportunity to work with other countries to ensure that they understand how successful that model has been.
The problem is all too prevalent. In only the past week, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre—a Government initiative that I commend most highly—identified three men who were using an online chat-room and planning to abduct and rape a young girl. That was excellent policing by CEOP, but it does need more resources. The FBI has thousands of investigators looking at sites; in effect, we have only one. We need to recognise that this is only the beginning for CEOP; it needs more resources. People are using the YouTubes of this world to associate online in order to plan real abuses of young women and children. Sadly, what happens in the online world translates to the real world. Through good detective work, an online paedophile in St. Albans was discovered to be raping and abusing a baby. He was tracked down through the good technical online detective work that organisations such as CEOP carry out.
There is a range of online issues that we need to address, not just grooming, chat-room paedophiles and the exchange of images. Of course, the technology is moving fast, and such images are transferred around the world through personal digital assistants. The cost to organised child abusers of entering that world has gone down. Anybody can now have a PDA, whereas the production of such images used to require a room and a camera or a video-recording facility, and much more equipment besides. The problem is that we are having difficulty keeping up with the technology. The sad fact is that some internet service providers, including some internationally known ones, are not doing enough to safeguard against the use of chat-rooms by online child abusers and paedophiles to plan their terrible acts against children.
We should remark on the only policy of the Liberal Democrats. [Interruption.] They are not interested, apparently, as they are talking to each other. They say that criminals should have the same freedoms as their victims. That is in the Liberal Democrats’ “Orange Book”, and suggests that paedophiles should have exactly the same liberties as any other member of the community. Another good one from a Liberal Democrat campaign booklet states:
“A liberal vision would deliver greater public safety”.
However, the campaign booklet also suggests that party workers should give sweets to children to lure them into delivering Lib Dem leaflets. That is hardly appropriate or sensible behaviour in the context of the difficult issues that we are discussing.
We need to recognise that online child abusers are often techies and evidence suggests that they are developing new forms of encryption and software. They are using multiple servers to redirect images instantly and they are splitting data. We have to be ahead of online child abusers and to that end, I have a few recommendations to make.
We need to work globally and the internet governance forum is an opportunity to discuss the issues with other countries where servers are being hosted, such as Ukraine and other former Soviet Union countries. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will support that. We need to devise common standards for data retention by ISPs so that we can detect abuses more easily, and we need to consider the forfeiture rules used by the FBI where online organised child abuse is being developed.
I suggest that in the light of the Home Office review of child sex offenders we need to drop silly ideas such as Megan’s law—I am sure that we could have a debate about that—and we need to look at the research that has been conducted, by the Pugh institute in the US, for example, which shows that a relatively small number of children and young people are subjected to abuse online. The same young people indulge in risky behaviour online as do so in the real world. Perhaps we need to examine those studies to see how we may better focus the limited resources that we have to ensure that we tackle that problem and safeguard those few young people who are particularly at risk.
We also need to consider greater resourcing for organisations such as CEOP and we need to discuss sentencing. The FBI is especially concerned that sentencing in the US far surpasses anything imposed by UK courts. It is keen to prosecute UK child abuse offenders because possession of such images in the US means a sentence of five years in prison, and production of the images means 25 years in prison. Let us compare and contrast that with the sentences of a few months passed down by some of our judges for such offences. Indeed, in a recent case the judge suggested that the paedophile buy his young victim a bike. There are some serious issues arising from sentencing that we need to address, and I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider those.
Unfortunately, this debate has been initiated by the Liberal Democrats—[Interruption.] They clearly do not take these issues very seriously. They made no mention of e-crime or of child abuse online, which are big and serious issues, preferring instead to assault the Government’s record. We know that our record needs further improvement, but compared with what the people in my constituency would experience if—God forfend—we ever had Liberal Democrats in power, we are doing so much better. I know that people in my constituency know that the fairy-tale policies of the Liberal Democrats would do them no good whatever, and I am astonished that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam had the audacity to initiate this debate.
I am pleased to be called to sum up a debate that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg), who opened it, called very opportune. We are approaching a decade of this Labour Government, and the Blair era will soon be written about in the history books. There will be plenty of material to consider—the absence of real leadership and of meaningful reform in welfare and health care, and the huge scar running through the Government that is the war in Iraq.
However, the Prime Minister is especially associated with one phrase. It made him famous as a politician, even though it was apparently authored by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The phrase is
“Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.”
Laudable though the thought is, the phrase neatly sums up where the Prime Minister, and the Government as a whole, have gone wrong. He has put his faith in a slogan emphasising toughness, when what was needed was action with an emphasis on effectiveness. The Government’s attachment to spin, media management and presentation at the expense of serious and effective measures to reduce crime—and especially serious categories such as gun crime—has been a lamentable feature of their time in office.
An indication of the Prime Minister’s style was apparent when an e-mail memorandum was published in 2000. It was from “TB”, and was dated 29 April. It summed up his approach to the way in which the Government were to go about the serious problem of rising crime in this country. The Prime Minister said:
“On crime, we need to highlight the tough measures … we are lacking a tough public message … We should think now of an initiative, eg locking up street muggers. Something tough, with immediate bite which sends a message through the system.
Maybe, the driving licence penalty for young offenders. But this should be done soon and I, personally, should be associated with it.”
That e-mail sums up the Prime Minister’s entire approach to crime—gimmicky, ill thought out, and associated with him. The preoccupation was with getting in tomorrow’s newspapers, and not with addressing the serious problems afflicting the country.
A more recent example appeared in the Evening Standard of 17 January. A senior official who had worked directly with the Prime Minister said:
“The trouble with Tony is that he thinks that just because he says he wants something to happen it is going to happen.”
One could not sum up better the sentiments of those Labour Back Benchers who have contributed to the debate. Because the Prime Minister thinks that something is a good idea, they think that it is happening and making a measurable difference to our communities.
I am listening very carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s summation, and I am sorry that I missed about half an hour of the debate. I referred to Liverpool during the opening speech by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg). The Liberal Democrat council there has funded fewer than five community support officers: all the rest of those officers have been funded by the Home Office, and the same is true of alley gating. Such measures make a material difference to local neighbourhoods, but the Liberal Democrats in power in Liverpool are mightily reluctant to put their money where their mouth is and fund similar initiatives.
The right hon. Lady seemed to suggest earlier that Liverpool was run better by the Labour party, but I remember when the then leader of the party commented on the obscene spectacle of a Labour council scurrying around handing out redundancy notices to its own workers. I therefore caution her against holding up Labour in municipal government in Liverpool as a model.
The right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) referred to police community support officers. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a disgrace that the national target for PCSOs has just been reduced from 24,000 to 16,000? In Gloucestershire alone, that will lead to a loss of 74 PCSOs whom we expected and needed.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. That target was a cast-iron pledge—a real, genuine, black-and-white, in-ink promise in the Labour manifesto—but it was broken almost as soon as the votes were counted in Liverpool and other constituencies across the country.
The Government’s approach is to put the emphasis on spin, appearance and media headline initiatives rather than on practical measures to deal with crime. Since 1997, a total of 39 Secretaries of State, Ministers of State and Under-Secretaries have passed through the revolving door of the Home Office. Labour has created more than 3,000 new criminal offences, passed 115,000 pages of legislation and introduced more than 50 Bills, including 24 criminal justice measures. In the 60 years between 1925 and 1985, Governments managed to get by with only six Criminal Justice Acts—an average of one every decade. The Labour Government get through them at the rate of more than two a year, yet they do not seem to be having the desired effect.
I shall list some of the Bills proposed in this Session, to give a sense of the legislative frenzy that the Government mistake for effective action on crime: the Fraud (Trials without a Jury) Bill, the Legal Services Bill, a criminal justice Bill, an asylum and immigration Bill, the Offender Management Bill, a counter-terrorism Bill, the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill and the Serious Crime Bill. No wonder Ministers have no time to run their Department effectively and deal with the public’s priorities and concerns about crime. They are too busy trying to position themselves for the next day’s newspapers and vis-à-vis the Opposition parties to get to grips with some of the serious problems that afflict our communities.
May I put the question that my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) asked the hon. Gentleman? When Liberal Democrats have local powers—as they do in Liverpool—to make communities safer by appointing CSOs, why have they not done so?
All kinds of measures have been taken by local councils all over the country. I may be as disingenuous as the hon. Gentleman was trying to be when I suggest that the correlation between crime rates and areas represented by Labour Members may be unflattering but that does not mean that every person in his party is directly responsible for the situation.
The outcome is bleak indeed. Violent crime, which concerns people most, has doubled since 1998. Our prisons are overflowing. Only this week, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam pointed out that violent offences in prisons have increased by 600 per cent., including attacks on brave prison officers. Sixty per cent. of prisoners reoffend within two years. The figure rises for young men on short sentences, 92 per cent. of whom reoffend within two years of release. Furthermore, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) has just noted, the Government have even broken their promises about the numbers of police community support officers.
Earlier in the debate, we heard a list of wholly misleading and unrepresentative claims about the Liberal Democrats. It is not for me to suggest that anybody in the House was deliberately being misleading, but I shall briefly go through the claims. It was said by a Labour Back Bencher that my party voted against ASBOs. Not true. I refer Members to a Library note of 18 January 2007, which states that the Crime and Disorder Act 1998
“had cross party support, and there was no division on second reading or third reading in the Commons, and no divisions on ASBOs in the Commons committee stages…while the Liberal Democrats moved amendments on such points, their spokesmen made it clear that they did not oppose the principle of ASBOs”.
Many Members on the Labour Benches owe the House an apology, which they may want to make through the proper channels.
It was said that my party favours votes for prisoners, but that was not in our manifesto and the leader of my party has made it explicit that he does not favour them—just as, I believe, the Minister is on the point of introducing them. It was said in interventions during the debate that my party voted against measures to close crack houses. Let me make it clear that we have always supported proposals to make it possible for crack houses to be closed, but, in this case, they were contained in a bigger Bill with a whole series of other measures. We voted against the Bill because there were other features of it that we objected to. Most particularly, we objected to the total inability of Labour Members to appreciate that freedom of association is an important right to preserve in an open, free and liberal country. Perhaps even worse than all those untruths was the claim that my party is against community support officers. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are the party that has championed community level activities to reduce crime. It is the big, top-down schemes that have been brought forward by the Government that have been most ineffective.
There is a better way. We could have more police on patrol in our communities—working with our communities—rather than having £100,000 spent every single day on getting ready for identity cards, which will curtail the liberties of our fellow citizens. We could make work and training compulsory in prison so that we cut the appalling reoffending rates. That would mean that those young people—92 per cent. of young men are reconvicted within two years—would be equipped with greater skills to read, write, get a job and make themselves respectable members of society, rather than going through a revolving door into the community and committing crimes against the constituents of all Members. We could have honest prison sentences—rather than the spin that we hear from the Government—where life really means life.
We could have new measures to tackle the problem of drink-fuelled violence, which has exploded under the Government. The idea that in 1997 the problem was worse in our town centres than it is today is a myth. Perhaps no Labour Members ever go out in town centres. The idea that drink-fuelled crime and antisocial behaviour is being sorted out by the Government is beyond contempt. We could have better compensation for victims—the people who are so often forgotten in this process—and real work in prisons so that prisoners are able to reacquaint themselves with some of the challenges that they will face on the outside and so that they can pay their dues to both the victims of crime and society as a whole.
We have had an interesting debate, but, more than anything else, it has revealed how thin and tired the Government’s legislative programme is. I am afraid that the public have seen through the spin and the eye-catching initiatives that are designed to win headlines in tomorrow’s papers, but do not seem to bear any resemblance to the effectiveness of tackling crime in the communities that we represent. They have seen through the endless legislation that is designed to score party political points in the House, but that does little, if anything, to tackle the problem of crime and antisocial behaviour. Labour Members think that the public do not understand that their day-to-day experiences are all too familiar. So many people see vandalism, graffiti, theft and other crime. They see that violent crime has doubled. Knife crime is up. Gun crime is up. The situation is serious, but Labour Members are living in a mythical world where everything is going all right, everybody in prison is being rehabilitated, crime is being sorted out and serious crime is being sorted out. When they go back to their constituencies, they can see with their own eyes that that is not the case. The public are sick of tough talk from Labour Ministers on crime. What they want is effective action to reduce crime, and that is what the Liberal Democrats are offering.
I think the usual words are that we have had an interesting debate this evening. I want to put on the record—I think it important to do so—some of the Government’s successes in tackling crimes. I will quote the sources so that Liberal Democrat Members, as well as my hon. Friends and other Members, can be clear about them. That should help to deal with some of the claims made in the Liberal Democrat “Focus” leaflets on crime, as my hon. Friends will hopefully be able to use Hansard to attack them.
It remains clear that much of what the Government have done on crime has been a success. Crimes that affect most people are down by 35 per cent., representing 5.8 million fewer offences; and the chances of being a victim of crime fell from 35 per cent. to 24 per cent., while fear of crime remains at historically low levels. As my hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety said earlier, burglary is down by 59 per cent., vehicle theft by 60 per cent. and household offences are down by 45 per cent. All British crime survey violence offences are down 43 per cent. and all personal offences are down 41 per cent—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) wants me to continue, last year firearms offences were also down 14 per cent.
May I also say that tools and powers to tackle antisocial behaviour are now being widely and wisely used with nearly 10,000 antisocial behaviour orders across the country? I do not know about my hon. Friends, but what I often encounter in community meetings up and down the country is not requests to abolish ASBOs because they are paraded as a badge of honour, but to hand out more of them. We are often told that approximately half of all ASBOs are breached, but it is important to remember that half of those responsible for those breaches end up with custodial sentences. If we spent rather more time saying that half of ASBOs are observed and that in respect of the half that are breached, half the people go to prison, we would see even more ASBOs used, as the public would view them as more effective. Alongside those ASBOs, more than 13,000 acceptable behaviour contracts have been used.
On the subject of antisocial behaviour orders, the Minister may like to know that the Merseyside police use them extremely effectively against second-level criminals, such as the organisers of the drug dealers. They are based on the same rules as apply to young offenders. Very effective and imaginative use is being made of a tool that the Labour Government have provided to the police and which the Liberal Democrats have opposed.
My right hon. Friend provides an excellent example, based on her experience in Merseyside, of how ASBOs can be used.
More than 1,000 dispersal areas have also been established, but let me say this to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg). When it comes to ASBOs and dispersal orders, it is not about demonising young people. Everyone accepts that the vast majority of young people are decent people. What it is all about is ensuring that there are effective tools to deal with the behaviour of the minority of young people who cause problems in our communities. Who are the people who demand ASBOs, who demand action against criminal behaviour and who want acceptable behaviour contracts introduced? It is not people in this House. It is, by and large, other young people who are the victims of the sort of antisocial behaviour and criminality that take place on the street.
On the subject of dispersal orders, there have been problems at both ends of my constituency. Those orders have been put in place, but all they have done is move the problem to another location. The young people involved have moved from Falmouth town centre to the beach and in the Illogan area they have moved to Portreath. Is it not just moving the problem around rather than dealing with it?
It is not just a matter of moving the problem around, but of dealing with it where it exists. If the problem occurs somewhere else, it needs to be dealt with there. The hon. Lady has no doubt pointed out to the police in her constituency, who have used dispersal orders to try to deal with the problem, that she is against them. That is the point.
It is important to put on the record the facts about spending on the police. On a like-for-like basis, Government grants and central spending to help the police service tackle antisocial behaviour and crime in England and Wales will have increased from £6.2 billion in 1997-98 to £11 billion in 2007-08. That is a cash-terms increase of nearly £4.8 billion or 77 per cent. In real terms, there has been an increase of more than 39 per cent. between 1997-98 and 2007-08. We can always debate the level of resources, but no one can deny that, by the time the recruitment has finished, there will be an additional 16,000 police community support officers where there were none before, 14,000 additional police officers, and—a fact that is often missed out—20,000 additional civilian posts, making an important contribution to ensuring that we keep police on our streets.
I am interested in what the Minister is saying about police numbers. The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety will be aware from our debate in Westminster Hall last week that there are 216 fewer police officers in Greater Manchester this year than there were this time last year. The police authority there is facing a £26 million shortfall in resources over the next two years. Will the Minister tell us whether the Government are proposing to do anything about that? If not, it could mean further police cuts.
Like every police force in the country, Greater Manchester will have received a significant increase, of at least 3.6 per cent., in its resource budget. I understand that the hon. Gentleman’s party is in favour of local decision making. In response to representations from the Association of Police Authorities and the Association of Chief Police Officers, we have given local police forces flexibility over how they spend their money. We said that we would introduce local flexibility and local decision making. The hon. Gentleman is no doubt in favour of that. He can advocate dictating from the centre how resources are to be spent in a local area if he wants to, but we believe in local decision making. Local chief constables can make the decisions that they wish to make on their increased resources. That is what the hon. Gentleman supports, and it is what we support. He should stop moaning about it when it has consequences that he does not like.
The Minister has just quoted the figure of a 3.6 per cent. increase, but is not that simply in the general grant? If we are talking about overall funding of police forces, is not the figure well below that and, indeed, well below the police cost index, which would mean a cut in real terms? Will the Minister confirm that that is the case?
It does not mean that at all. The hon. Gentleman knows that all police forces have had an increase of at least 3.6 per cent.
I want to put on record some of the improvements that we have made. Since 2001, there has been an almost continuous improvement in the number of offences brought to justice. In the year to September 2006, the criminal justice system brought 1.38 million offences to justice. This represents an increase of 37 per cent. On gun crime, recent events show that there is no room for complacency, but in the year to September 2006 there was a 14 per cent. overall reduction in firearms offences. That is something that we should all be pleased about.
Let us look at the Lib Dem policy on DNA records. They want to reverse the changes that we made to the law because they are opposed to the retention of such records. They should understand that, using the DNA database, killers, murderers and rapists who would otherwise have been walking freely around the country have been brought to justice. The majority of people in this country would be proud of the fact that DNA is now being collected in a way that means that people who would not otherwise be brought to justice are being brought to justice.
I am not going to give way to the hon. Gentleman, as I have some further points to make.
The Liberals, a large number of whom are here today, voted against the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003—[Interruption.] Hon. Members shake their heads, but I will show them the relevant Hansard afterwards. On 24 June 2003, they voted against the Bill, which contained the powers to close crack houses and the provisions for dispersal orders. The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) was here; he voted against the Bill, as did the hon. Members for Bath (Mr. Foster) and for Twickenham (Dr. Cable). I have a whole list of them here. They all voted against the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003. One or two Liberal Democrat Front Benchers may be a bit confused about that, but if they look in Hansard, they will find a list.
The dispersal powers in the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 have been used more than 1,000 times across the country, so when the Liberal Democrats say that they want local teen gangs to be broken up, we point out that they opposed giving the police powers to disperse gangs of teenagers. Most astonishingly of all, in their mini-manifesto of March 2005, the Liberal Democrats informed us that they would end all jail sentences for possession of drugs of all classes. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam was not aware of that when he responded to one of my hon. Friends earlier. Are the Liberal Democrats honestly saying that that should apply to offences of possession of heroin, crack cocaine and crystal meth?
The hon. Gentleman says that, but the honest answer to my question is yes. He needs to get out into his constituency, and the country more widely, and tell people that the Liberals oppose jail sentences for possession offences for any drug, including class A drugs. I hope that that is read into the record. Hon. Members of all parties can put that fact in their leaflets, so that when the Liberal “Focus” leaflets about being tough on offenders are sent out, hon. Members can point out that the Liberal Democrat policy on drugs is soft, and will lead to more harm in communities.
I am not giving way to the hon. Gentleman; he was not in the Chamber for most of the debate.
Another point that seems to have caught the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam by surprise was the fact that the Liberal Democrats want to allow 16-year-olds to buy alcohol. That seems to have come as a shock to him, yet in Hansard on 25 January 2005, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) asked:
“Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that it is Lib Dem policy to legalise drinking at the age of 16? Does he think that that will contribute to a reduction in binge drinking?”
The hon. Member for Bath replied:
“The answer is yes. I do not think that I could explain the position more clearly.”—[Official Report, 25 January 2005; Vol. 430, c. 185.]
Liberal Democrats refuse to recognise that their policy on crime changes, depending on the issue, and it changes with the person who happens to be speaking, too. Frankly, the experience of hon. Friends and other hon. Members is that it also changes from one street to another.
Would my hon. Friend also say that Liberal Democrat policy changes during the course of a debate? On 2 June 2006, in The Guardian, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) said:
“Accepting that the bulk of prisoners should retain the right to vote, whilst a minority of serious offenders should not, is a nuanced response to a difficult issue”,
but the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) told us today that that was not Liberal Democrat policy.
I come from a borough where terrible gun crime has been in the news. Does the Minister accept that on some issues, such as reducing gun crime, there is much more agreement and collaboration, and much more working together on the part of parties and the community, than he pretends? There is unity on those matters, and working together is much better than creating artificial differences.
On gun crime, as the hon. Gentleman will know, firearm offences have fallen by 14 per cent. in the past year. We are grateful for the opportunity that this debate gives us to point out what Liberal Democrat policy is, and to point out the difference between what Liberal Democrats say in the House, and what they say on the street, in their “Focus” leaflets.
Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments):—
Mr. Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House welcomes the significant and lasting reductions in crime this Government has achieved since 1997 which mean that the chances of being a victim of crime are at historically low levels, 24 per cent. according to the most recent British Crime Survey figures, compared with 35 per cent. in 1997; notes the new and innovative powers to tackle anti-social behaviour which are helping provide respite to communities across the country; welcomes the introduction of biometric identity cards to combat immigration abuse, illegal working, identity fraud and crime as well as strengthening national security and improving access to public services; notes the delivery of an extra 19,000 prison places and an increase in spending on prisons by 35 per cent. in real terms over the last 10 years and a further increase over the next five years to deliver a further 8,000 places; welcomes the record numbers of police officers and police community support officers on the streets helping to make communities safer; and congratulates the Government on its commitment to driving down crime further.
MODERNISATION OF THE HOUSE OF COMMONS
That Lynda Waltho be discharged from the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons and Sir Peter Soulsby be added.—[Mr. Michael Foster.]