Orders of the Day — Law and Order

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:08 pm on 25th March 1982.

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Photo of Mr Jocelyn Cadbury Mr Jocelyn Cadbury , Birmingham, Northfield 8:08 pm, 25th March 1982

I listened with great interest to the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Soley), but I cannot agree with him that the Government have undermined the social fabric of this country. One cannot undermine the social fabric of a country, even if his reasoning is right, in two and a half years. The hon. Gentlemen has been talking complete rubbish.

All politicians are guilty of over-simplification—no doubt Conservative as well as Labour Members—but one of the largest over-simplifications of the Labour Party is that it says that it can solve the country's economic problems by spending £9 billion that has not been earned. We are all guilty of over-simplification.

I agree that the causes of crime and its explanations are not simple, and nor are the solutions. For that reason I do not accept the arguments that have been advanced by Labour Members that one factor—unemployment—is mainly responsible for the increase in criminal acts. In support of that view, I quote Sir Philip Knights, the chief constable of the West Midlands police force. The Secretary of State rightly paid tribute to that force when he opened the debate. Sir Philip Knights said: It is always difficult to positively identify the reason for increased crime, and there is often a temptation to look for easy subjective answers such as, at present, the rising unemployment figures. I do not see any evidence, however, to connect the two.… I believe the answers are being found much more in the way in which old standards of honesty and respect for others and their property and former social controls such as religion, 'what the neighbours think' and parental control and training have become eroded in the face of modern living conditions.

There are many reasons why crime has increased. There is a whole range of cultural factors involved. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden) referred to television, and, quite rightly, mention has been made of the press. The press has had a bad effect. I do not know whether any hon. Members listen to the so-called punk rock music. Occasionally, I have tried to decipher some of the words of the songs which come under the heading of punk. It is difficult because the singers usually screech out the lyrics, but when I have been able to understand the message it sometimes seems to propagate an ethos of violence which must have a disturbing effect on the behaviour of young people. Criminologists should study those cultural factors. To some extent, they must influence human behaviour for the worse.

Following other hon. Members, I should like to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on the positive measures that he has taken over the last two and a half years to combat the rise in crime. Many hon. Members have already referred to the success in raising police strength. This has been largely the result of the Government's decision to implement in full the Edmund-Davies pay award and subsequently to maintain the relationship between police pay and average earnings elsewhere in the community. That is a step in the right direction.

A most welcome outcome of the success in attracting new recruits is that it has made possible the return of the beat policeman. A great deal of nonsense has been talked about community policing. As my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington (Mr. Wheeler) said, that is not new. It has been going on for 100 years. It was the Social Democratic Party's candidate for Hillhead, Mr. Roy Jenkins, who took the policemen off the beat and put them into panda cars.

Effective policing, as the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) said, is the only way to deter street crime. Policemen who walk the streets will thereby get to know what is happening in the community. I welcome the move back to the beat policeman.

A third area in which the Government are facing up to the need for urgent action is in their prison building programme. It is astonishing that between 1918 and 1959 no new prisons were built in Britain. We have neglected our prison system in a most disgraceful way. Winson Green prison at Birmingham was designed to take 518 prisoners, yet the present prison population is 1,057. That is an overcrowding factor of two. It has led to the appalling situation in which many prisoners are crammed three into a cell.

Such conditions cannot be conducive to reforming the character of prisoners. They must place intolerable burdens on the prison officers and they are bound to lead to outbursts of violent behaviour as nerves become frayed. The worst aspect of overcrowding at Winson Green is that 250 of the inmates have not yet been tried. Some may be innocent, yet they have to endure even worse conditions than convicted prisoners. Therefore, the Government's programme to build eight new prisons and to create 5,000 places by 1990 is to be greatly welcomed. That should have been undertaken many years ago, but it is to the Government's credit that they are getting on with it now.

Although the Government are showing determination in the fight against crime, two points give cause for concern. The whole House will agree that the most serious aspect of the recent growth in crime is the rise in the incidence of violent attacks. In 1977, there were 82,000 such incidents, but last year there were 100,000. That trend has resulted not only in terrible distress for the victims, but in a climate of fear, especially among the elderly. The press may have exaggerated the situation, but there is a basis of fact.

I agree with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary who has made it clear that the perpetrators of violent crimes must expect long prison sentences. However, my constituents have brought some cases to my attention in which violent attackers, whose victims have died, have escaped with absurdly short sentences, or merely with fines. I shall cite one instance. The father of one of my constituents was struck on the head with an iron bar when he resisted two young men who were trying to steal his car. They drove off in the car and left him dying in the road. They were subsequently found guilty of manslaughter—not murder—and were sentenced to seven years, with a recommendation that they serve a minimum of four years.

I can understand the bitterness of the dead man's daughter. Within four years her father's murderers may walk free.