Adjournment (Spring)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:09 pm on 19th May 1992.

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Photo of Mr Walter Sweeney Mr Walter Sweeney , Vale of Glamorgan 6:09 pm, 19th May 1992

I am honoured to have been elected to represent the Vale of Glamorgan and should like to thank the 24,220 people who voted for me, particularly the 19 people who wavered most before putting a cross next to my name.

I am honoured because I follow in the footsteps of Sir Raymond Gower, one of the most distinguished Back Benchers. He acquired a reputation as the most prolific letter writer in the House. He also had a reputation for turning up on people's doorsteps at the most unexpected moment. It is said, no doubt anecdotally, that many of his constituents would hear a light tap on the door and would arrive at the door just in time to see him disappearing down the path. However, he was an assiduous Member of Parliament. He represented the Vale of Glamorgan—previously the old seat of Barry—for 38 years.

Sir Raymond's death in 1989 led to the famous by-election victory of my immediate predecessor, Mr. John P. Smith, who won by 6,000 votes. I pay tribute to John Smith for his extremely hard work as MP for the Vale of Glamorgan. He established himself as a popular Member of Parliament and very nearly pulled off the virtually impossible task of holding on to a seat won by Labour from the Conservatives in a by-election.

The Vale of Glamorgan is a beautiful constituency. If anyone is considering taking a holiday within the United Kingdom, I recommend it. It has about 20 miles of coastline and some attractive inlying areas, and so far, the countryside is relatively unspoiled. We have also benefited from the highest level of inward investment of any constituency in Wales, so there is much prosperity in the vale. One sad thing blights that picture: the breakdown of law and order, which has been widely experienced by my constituents.

My solicitor's office, which lies in the heart of Barry, was burgled five times in a few months, and I decided to conduct a survey on what was happening elsewhere in Holton road, which is the second largest shopping street in south Wales. The results of my survey made grim reading. One retail business has been burgled more than 200 times in two years. That reflects a national problem: last year, 5.3 million crimes were reported in Britain.

Before adjourning the House, we need to send strong messages to certain people. I welcome the announcement of a victims charter, but it does not go far enough. The main message that must go forth from this House is that we care far more about the interests of victims than those of villains. We need to send a message to the police, criminals, the motor industry, the courts, solicitors, victims and the public.

The message to the police should be that we support them in their tremendous endeavours to protect us. In return, we look for increased efficiency from them. We need to back up the police. If a police officer is assaulted in the course of his duty, we need to be able to rely on the courts to hand out tough penalties to his assailants. If a police officer or member of the armed forces is murdered in the course of his duty, the death penalty should be reintroduced. On the whole, the police force are marvellous but, as in any profession, there are a few rotten apples. Where those rotten apples cause miscarriages of justice through tampering with evidence, the courts should fall on them like a ton of bricks, and long prison sentences should be imposed.

The main message for criminals must be that crime does not pay. Offenders who reoffend while on bail should know that they will be automatically remanded in custody and not given a chance to commit further offences. They should also know that, if they commit a string of offences and are eventually brought to justice, they cannot expect a string of concurrent sentences. The more offences they commit, the heavier should be the punishment. They should be made aware that, except in the most exceptional circumstances, they must pay full compensation to the victims of their crimes.

Our message to the courts should be that they should order full compensation, fines and prosecution costs. It is a disgrace that the Barry magistrates court does not normally award prosecution costs against defendants. When I put that to clerks of the court, I was advised that it was difficult to get blood out of a stone—most of the criminals are unemployed. If people are unable or unwilling to pay the orders made by the court, they should be set to work in a new scheme analogous to community service. They should be paid for that work but the money they earn should go first to the victims of their crime, secondly to the court in payment of their financial penalties, and thirdly to the prosecution in payment of costs.

The House should also send a message to solicitors, and I call on the Lord Chancellor to review the operation of the courts. I understand the Lord Chancellor's reasoning in trying to control the ever-burgeoning costs of legal aid by introducing standard fees for criminal legal aid work in the magistrates courts. I declare an interest, having practised for many years as a solicitor in courts. The Lord Chancellor has failed to take account of one of the main reasons why the cost of legal aid has gone up.

With the increased number of defendants appearing in court, there is far more waiting time, for which solicitors get paid at an uneconomic rate. They need to be able to charge for that waiting time if their bills are to reflect the amount of time devoted to the cases in question. Although I do not object to fixed fees for legal aid, the legal profession should, in return, have a reform of the courts' system. Such a reform should get rid of unnecessary adjournments, which are not the fault of solicitors acting for defendants, and reduce waiting time—for example, by introducing a staggered listing system similar to that which already exists in county courts.

The next message is to the motor industry. I want the House to legislate to make the installation of deadlocks on motor cars compulsory at the manufacturing stage. No new car should be sold in this country today unless it is fitted with a satisfactory lock. We have already legislated to make seat belts compulsory: why should not deadlocks also become compulsory? That would save an enormous amount of money in insurance claims, and young people driving high-powered cars would no longer be penalised because their cars were more likely to be stolen. It would be much cheaper to install those locks at the manufacturing stage than to add them later as accessories.

The most important message is to the victims of crimes. They should be allowed to use force to protect their personal property, provided they give full notice to the malefactors of the risks that they run by proceeding with their criminal actions. It is no good victims relying on the police. A report in the Financial Times today said that a police constable on the beat in London is likely to come within 100 yards of a burglary being carried out only every eight years. We cannot rely exclusively on the police, and must allow the victims to help themselves. I should also like victims to be invited to attend court so that they have the opportunity to make representations on compensation. Courts should make apologies to victims if full compensation is not granted, and explain why it has not been awarded.

The message from the House to the public should be that the House will not rest until the citizens of Barry and every other city, town and village are safe to go about their business in peace.