Crime

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:03 pm on 5th March 1993.

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Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael , Cardiff South and Penarth 2:03 pm, 5th March 1993

With the leave of the House, I shall reply briefly. If the Minister has listened as he promised he would, he must acknowledge that the case that I made at the start has been widely endorsed.

There is a case for a national strategy pinning responsibility on the Minister, for developing that strategy and for providing resources, while supporting the police, the local authority and the community in making their analysis of local problems and developing well-targeted programmes to tackle the problems in communities. That is the sort of partnership we need, and calls have been made by hon. Members on both sides of the House to develop it.

In a thoughtful speech, the right hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) said that he wanted to see more police on the beat. I must remind the House that that was a promise in the Conservative party's election manifesto t o which reference has been made today. I remind the Minister and other Conservative Members of what the Labour manifesto says: Elected police authorities will use the extra resources available for the war against crime to ensure that more police officers are visible on the beat, backed by the modern technology which is essential to crime prevention arid detection. We got a balance in our proposal and it does little to strengthen the arguments of Conservative Members when they seek to misrepresent that.

Hon. Members such as the hon. Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge (Mr. Hawksley) asked why we had to wait two or three years for action on problems that exist now. Why does so much bureaucracy surround the police? My hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) rightly underlined the importance of values and structure to bring out the best in cur young people. We must look at how we bring out the best as well as how we tackle the bad.

The hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) ended on a note that was appropriate to his attitude during the debate. He said that he would not listen. That is a problem for all of us, but perhaps more for the Minister. It is a problem of a section of the modern Conservative party that is complacent and will not listen. The hon. Gentleman claimed that our interest was recent, but that simply is not true. He should remember the esteem in which my predecessor Lord Callaghan was held. I have been involved in law and order issues for 20 years of practical experience, as have many of my right hon. and hon. Friends who take an interest in the issue.

I remember coming to the House in 1986 to discuss juvenile crime. I left greatly encouraged by the detailed grip of the problems shown by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), who made an excellent speech earlier. He demonstrated that concern and understanding are the only basis for real toughness and protecting our communities from the effects of crime.

My right hon. Friend referred to the imbalance in dealing with offences and dealing with people in Conservative Britain. I share his anger at the devastation that has befallen local people as housing and leisure facilities have been cut and young people everywhere are left to drift. He was right to refer to the undermining of drug and alcohol rehabilitation centres against the advice of the all-party group on alcohol misuse and the all-party group of drug misuse. Conservative and Opposition Members have warned Ministers of the effects that will flow from that decision and from the Government's reneging on their promise to ring fence the funds. The anger expressed in one of our meetings by Conservative peers was certainly as strong as that of Labour Members. Yet Ministers have disregarded all the advice that they have been given.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) highlighted the need for speed in acting on a young person's offence. He was right. The way in which we deal with our own children is to react immediately to misbehaviour. It is when we do not react immediately that the problems start. Yet our court system allows people to drift for a long period. It takes far too long to bring the young person before the court and to reach a decision. That is one of the major problems of our time. No one seems to own the court system. No one is truly responsible for it. That issue needs to be tackled as a matter of urgency, as we promised to do if we won the general election.

The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) was rightly scathing about the Government's failure in crime prevention and to undertake sufficiently targeted work to reduce crime. I welcome his recognition of the benefits of street lighting and other positive actions to reduce the opportunity of crime.

The hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Mr. Evans) said one sentence with which we could all agree. I choose the sentence carefully. He said that there was a crisis of confidence in the criminal justice system in Britain. I would hardly agree, however, and neither, I am sure, would the Minister, with the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that we should simply lock young people up and throw away the key. The short, sharp shock failed because it was a knee-jerk reaction—like the reactions of the hon. Gentleman.

We must all recognise that only one in 25 offences result in a young person appearing before a court to be sentenced or given a caution. So 24 out of 25 offences do not lead to that result. We may have doubts about figures, but it is certain that the bulk of offences do not result in a court appearance or caution. That should lead us to say that we want to tackle the 24 as well as the one. If we are to do that, we must examine carefully the effectiveness of prevention and creating a society in which offences do not occur.

The hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) will probably feel insulted if I describe his speech as balanced. He rightly said that the majority of offenders respond and the minority do not. I hope that he agrees that we need to identify the numbers involved, the ages of those involved, where they are, where facilities should be located and what is the best regime for reforming young people. Unfortunately, the Home Secretary has signally failed to make that identification. In a parliamentary answer to me, he said that he had been able to identify 106 young people in 41 police authorities. He rightly said that there was some doubt about whether that covered the whole problem.

The problem was that that was hasty research to justify a judgment that had already been made, rather than careful and open-minded research which I hope that the Minister will agree that we should seek, so that we go out to find the real problems. We should amend the monitoring system to make it more effective and to enable proper policy decisions to be taken. We should undertake more research on the effectiveness of different solutions.

Having done all that, we should not just say, "That's interesting; somebody ought to do something." The Minister should put in place a national strategy and the necessary resources to curtail the continued rise in crime.

I welcome the comments on domestic violence made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche). Courts have certainly been slow to respond to repetitive domestic violence, which can be among the most frightening and dangerous offences to the victim. I was disappointed at the Government's curt dismissal of the thrust of the Morgan report, which my hon. Friend also highlighted. That disappointment is shared throughout the country and people find it difficult to understand why the Government turned it down in that way in December.

The hon. Member for Cheadle (Mr. Day) returned to his obsession with comparing the 1990s with the 1930s, but there have been complex changes in society. Far earlier than the 1930s, Plato's Socratic dialogues contained an interesting discussion about the unruliness of the young, and the fact that the next generation was not behaving as they did in the good old days that their fathers and grandfathers could remember. We must study what is happening now, in the ethos of an accelerated society and in the electronic age of video and television.

We must accept the Home Secretary's grudging admission that social causes have an impact on crime. As hon. Members have said, some of those causes are obvious. The devil makes work for idle hands and if Ministers create greater idleness, through their cuts, there will be more work for the devil to do. Like other hon. Members on both sides of the House, I believe that there is evil for us to tackle and to fight.

My hon. Friend the Member for Warwickshire, North (Mr. O'Brien) was right to emphasise truancy, as 50 per cent. of truants offend, compared to 15 per cent. of non-truants, and that needs to be tackled.

In conclusion, we need from the Government more action without delay, better monitoring and more and better-targeted research. Projects that work locally should be spread more widely, as part of a national strategy to tackle crime. We also require the Government to accept that they must provide the resources for the police, local authorities and communities to work together. Above all, we need the Government to keep their promises and to provide secure accommodation. Despite past promises, they have not done so.

When Ministers recognise that they have a responsibility to young people in the community, we shall be on the way back to a society in which everyone can accept and receive the protection of the law, and that is the serious message which I want the Minister to take from the debate.