Criminal Justice System

– in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 13th January 2003.

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Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office) 3:38 pm, 13th January 2003

I beg to move,

That this House
views with great concern the rise in gun crime and domestic burglary, the growing demoralisation of the police, the increasing sense of helplessness of the honest citizen and the apparent inability of the Government to provide a coherent, long-term strategy to resolve these problems;
and deprecates the Home Secretary's resort to short-term, irrelevant and illiberal measures to conceal this failure.

As the Home Secretary is well aware—incidentally, I welcome him back to the Green Benches, which is a place that he properly occupies—last night, in Tankersley, not far from his own backyard, there was a dreadful stabbing associated with a dreadful robbery. I wish that I could tell you, Mr. Speaker, that I was naive enough to suppose that the House would be shocked to hear that. Neither the House, nor the country, however, is any longer in a condition to be shocked at the news that such a dreadful event has taken place.

The Home Office's own figures show that, in the last year, there were some 9,000 reported violent crimes. I am afraid that that is part of a set of statistics that makes dismal reading: we have all become accustomed to such statistics, and we saw them again last week. Robbery—by the Home Office's own account and after its own adjustments—rose by 13 per cent. in the last year. That is on page 10, in table A, of the Home Secretary's own productions. He demurs, but I think that he has some difficulty in refuting what his own office produces. The figure on domestic burglary in the same table, after the same adjustments, shows a 5 per cent. rise. Other kinds of burglary—principally, retail crime—are up 6 per cent., and, by the same token, drug offences are up 12.3 per cent. Furthermore, as the Home Office has spent a great deal of time saying in the last week, gun crime is up—probably by more than the Home Office started by admitting—indeed, it is up dramatically.

If all that was happening was that we had a sad blip in the reported crime figures and if the underlying truth was that the Government had a well-worked-out strategy for dealing with what has been a long-running problem for this country, I do not suppose that I would have bored you, Mr. Speaker, and the House with this debate. However, the sad fact is that over the past five years the Government have shown no signs of having a coherent long-term strategy for addressing this problem.

On 16 July 2000, a newspaper produced a leaked and now famous report from Downing street in which the Prime Minister asked for what I believe he described as Xeye-catching initiatives". He has been well served by his Ministers in that regard. We celebrate today—if Xcelebrate" is the right word—a centenary by our account. As far as we can make out, there have been about 100 eye-catching initiatives in criminal justice since the Government came to power. However, I regret to say that they have largely been in response to headlines and show little sign of achievement.

Twenty-four out of every 25 of the famous antisocial behaviour orders promised by the Prime Minister have not been implemented; instances of benefit docking for the breach of community sentences, which is critical to the Government's current policy—if policy it be—run at 78 a year; child safety orders, another initiative, run at three a year; mandatory seven-year sentences for third-time drug dealers run at one a year; and child curfew orders run at zero a year. Those are the lucky initiatives. Many others have not even started their lives. Benefit docking for truancy has been abandoned; on-the-spot fines at cash tills have been abandoned; and vouchers for good behaviour have been abandoned. I fear that the Government have given us initiative after initiative in response to headline after headline, but the initiatives have often failed and have often never been implemented. There is very little sign of a coherent strategy.

There are two critical elements to a proper long-term strategy for dealing with crime. The first is to get police on to the streets. I do not believe that there is a great difference of view on that between the Home Secretary and me. We shall soon hear from him, and I have never detected the slightest sign on his part of a reluctance to admit what is evidently the truth. The great difference between this country and the American cities that have cracked crime so well is the fact that they have—and that we do not have—police visible, proactive and effective in numbers on the streets.

The problem is, therefore, not one of design but of effective delivery. The fact is that we do not have police on our streets. I do not know why the Home Secretary has not been able to get much help from the Chancellor of the Exchequer on that, but I know that the Home Secretary has not helped the matter himself. He has been keeping the police off the streets, and he has been adding to the reasons why they are not on the streets. He has been adding targets, monitoring, standard units, bureaucracy and rules and he has been forcing the police to keep records and to make notes. That is not the way to have them on the streets. Making a report each time someone is stopped is not the way to increase the time spent catching crooks.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. [Hon. Members: XRight hon. Gentleman."] I apologise. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that he is doing the House and the country a disservice in completely overlooking the role of intelligence-led policing and the way in which police efforts focus on the hard end of crime? Focusing on the activities of criminals is bringing down crime across a whole range of offences to the benefit of communities.

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman gives me the opportunity to reply. I hope that at some time or another he will do what I have to do on a regular basis and talk to police constables the length and breadth of the country, because he will discover that the flip phrase Xintelligence-led policing" means something on the streets in Britain by its very absence. In the United States, as I have seen for myself, the police know the streets and the residents of them because they patrol up and down. As a result, they gain genuine low-level intelligence day by day and hour by hour. They have real-time information on the compliance status information system—the comstat system—and know where the patterns of crime are developing. That enables them to take the required forces to where the criminals operate. We, however, have to wait minutes, hours or days before the police arrive.

What do we find has happened in this country? In the past 24 hours, the Metropolitan police force has been so hampered by the Home Secretary and the Chancellor that its policy of intelligence-led policing on burglary consists of giving up the investigation of all burglaries except those for which it already knows the crook in question.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I thought we would soon get around to that. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will give me chapter and verse on what the Home Office has, or has not, said to the Met. Did it affect its decision last summer to introduce pilots in Enfield and Southwark? Did it affect the information that the force gave out on 2 December? We have done nothing that the right hon. Gentleman claims. Instead, we have done exactly what he asks us to do, which is to leave the decision making to the commissioner and the Metropolitan police.

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

I am sure that the Home Secretary is not to blame for that particularly lunacy. I suspect that he—[Interruption.] I will answer the Home Secretary. When some journalist rang him as he rang me, I suspect he thought, as I thought, that it was an April fool's joke. I suspect that he had no prior knowledge that the police were going in that direction. My accusation against him is that he has made it impossible for the police to adopt any other system of policing. I do not believe that the commissioner, for whom the Home Secretary and I have a high regard, chose that course of action because he woke up one fine sunny day and thought it would be fun not to pursue most burglars. I suspect that he is bound up with bureaucracy, as the president elect of the Association of Chief Police Officers said just a day ago, and is unable to provide the policing that is required because the Home Secretary has made it impossible for him to do so.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Labour, Chatham and Aylesford

The right hon. Gentleman says that he frequently speaks to police officers, and he criticises the intelligence-led model. Will he come to Kent, where the intelligence-led model has been extremely effective in cutting burglary and gun crime year on year?

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

I am a huge admirer of Sir David Phillips, the chief constable of Kent, who pioneered the intelligence-led model of policing. That has been a huge success in the restricted examples to which it has been applied at the higher end of crime. At the lower end of crime, however, intelligence-led policing is not possible without having police officers on the street because they cannot collect the intelligence unless they are there to do so. That is what is lacking in this country.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Labour, Chatham and Aylesford

We have more police officers in Kent doing exactly what the right hon. Gentleman describes than we had last year and the year before that.

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

The hon. Gentleman and his constituents have more police officers, but not enough of them by a large measure. When the BBC, which is not a supporter of the Conservative party as far as I am aware, discovers in a poll that 28 per cent. of the people in Britain cannot remember when they last saw a police officer, it behoves Labour Members not to make a great song and dance about policing on our streets.

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin Labour, Sunderland South

I think that the right hon. Gentleman is mistaken. We both have flats in Lambeth and I have seen more policemen on its streets in the past few months than I have seen in the 25 years that I have owned a flat there, including two officers on the Brixton road in the past half hour.

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

I am tempted to say that the hon. Gentleman is in a privileged class of one. I know not what anecdotal evidence suggests about the police officers on the streets immediately adjoining his residence, but his colleague the Member of Parliament for that area does not share his view about the number of those officers or about the Home Office policy on drugs which is occupying most of their time because of the vast increase in drug-dealing networks.

One half of a settled and coherent policy would be to get the police on the streets, but the other half would be to offer young people a way off the conveyor belt to crime, and I regret that the Home Secretary and his predecessor have been as deficient in that as in the matter of the police. We have not seen long-term rehabilitative sentences for young persistent offenders. We have not seen mandatory drug treatment and rehabilitation for young cocaine and heroin addicts. Neither of those measures has been implemented in an effective form. Instead we have seen a rash of initiatives, some of which will be discussed in the next debate, and a flood of money. Those policies are very ill-focused and there is no clear means of lifting the majority of young potential criminals off that conveyor belt to crime. If we do not do that we will never make a serious impact on the causes of crime about which the Prime Minister spoke so eloquently in opposition.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I share the right hon. Gentleman's concern about that matter. He knows that I share many of his criticisms and those of the public of what the Government have done, or failed to do, in the last five years. However, will the right hon. Gentleman explain to the country why it should now have greater confidence in his party when crime doubled during its 18 years in power and violent crime increased in every one of those years? What would make the Conservative party deal more effectively with crime and law and order now, when during its 18 years in office it lamentably failed to do what the right hon. Gentleman is now calling for?

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

I do not believe that we can hope to make an impact on these problems without doing the very things that I have described: getting police on to the streets and getting young people off the conveyor belt to crime. The hon. Gentleman is well aware that the policies that we have been promoting for a year or more are new, and they offer the possibility of a serious attack on crime, in the way that American cities have attacked crime through policing and in the way that the Netherlands and Sweden have got young people off the conveyor belt to crime.

I want to defend the record of my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Howard, because during each of his years as Home Secretary he remorselessly reduced levels of crimes such as burglary, both recorded crimes and those measured by the British crime survey. I shall tackle that in some detail, and I will reflect in a moment on what is happening to that record as a result of the Government's muddled messages and confused thinking.

The second problem that we face, apart from the Government's failure to produce a serious long-term strategy, is the fact that the Home Secretary has sought to mask what people know are the realities of crime through irrelevant and illiberal high-profile measures in criminal justice Bills. That is the eye-catching initiative method of legislation. What has the proposed change to the double jeopardy rules to do with the kinds of crime that we are talking about today? Very little. What has the limitation of trial by jury in fraud cases to do with robbery, burglary or gun crime? Very little. The point of those eye-catching initiatives is to sound tough, and the tragedy is that in sounding tough the Home Secretary has succeeded in being illiberal without being effective. To be illiberal in order to be effective has a justification; to be liberal, admitting that one may be ineffective has a justification, but to be illiberal and ineffective is inexcusable. [Interruption.] I am charmed that the Home Secretary is so charmed by my remarks.

Nowhere is that pattern of incoherence masked by lunges for ineffective, irrelevant and eye-catching initiatives more evident than in relation to recent sentencing policy. A little while ago, the Home Secretary made a magnificent discovery. He spotted ahead of the rest of us that his own figures—we had not seen them, but he had—were going to reveal a vast increase in gun crime. I imagine that an order went out in the Home Office saying XDo something—a headline is coming, so let us anticipate it." An order was eventually given: XLet us have mandatory sentences for gun crime." About 24 hours later—I am unable to ascertain the precise number of hours—a counter-order was given: XLet us have exceptions to the mandatory sentences for gun crime." There was a process of order, counter-order and disorder.

The fact is that an initiative on sentencing was produced at short notice in relation to an anticipated headline and that it could not withstand even a day's scrutiny. However, that is small beer, as they say, in comparison with what has been happening on burglary. I admit that I should today very probably be tendering my resignation as shadow Home Secretary. I should have to do so on the ground of sheer mental inadequacy, as I have struggled mightily for many days now, but failed utterly to understand the Government's position on burglary sentencing. I do not know what it is that the Government have been trying to tell us; my powers of intellect have not been up to the task. I hope that, at the end of this debate, the Home Secretary will rescue me from the need to resign by informing me and unclouding a mind that is currently unable to wrestle with the ghastly question of whether the Government have a policy on burglary sentencing, and if so, what that policy may be.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. I have no intention of attempting to compete with him in my powers of intellect, but I suggest to him that the Government's policy is very simple. It is to say one thing and then appoint subordinates such as the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice who will quietly arrange for something else to happen at ground level.

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

I would assume because of the source and its plausibility that my hon. Friend is right, except that I think it is very difficult to describe the Lord Chancellor as a subordinate. Indeed, I suspect that, were it not said in this House, my hon. Friend's remark about the Lord Chancellor might lead to a legal action. I believe that the Lord Chancellor might think that it lowered him in the expectations of right-thinking men to be regarded as a subordinate. He may well believe that the Prime Minister is some form of subordinate; after all, I believe that he was one of the Lord Chancellor's clerks or pupils. The Lord High Chancellor of the United Kingdom is not a subordinate. He is clearly the most senior Law Officer of the United Kingdom, or at any rate of England and Wales—or at any rate of something.

I heard with my own ears what the Lord Chancellor said when he appeared on a radio programme. It was not an April fools' joke; it may be that the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis was merely trying to fool us, but he was not. In a briefing, Mr. Alastair Campbell or some other Downing street minion who is genuinely a subordinate said that they were not sure what he said, but I heard him, so I was sure. What I do not understand is what on earth he meant. I do not know what the Prime Minister's spokesman meant when he slapped down—I believe that that is the phrase—the Lord Chancellor. I would not like to try doing it myself, but he apparently did so. I do not know what the Home Secretary said when he stood with the Attorney-General and the Lord Chief Justice

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

Yes, that it is exactly it. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Nobody in the United Kingdom has the slightest idea what the Government's policy is on the sentencing of burglars, but the burglars are beginning to get an idea. Their idea is roughly that, on the whole, except in appropriate circumstances, as the Prime Minister said—we do not know what those circumstances are—they should not expect to go to jail. That is, of course, if they are investigated. If they are not investigated they are unlikely to go to jail because they will not be caught in the first place. However, if they are caught, and thus among the unlucky few who have been investigated, they might go to jail, but they will not. Perhaps they will under appropriate circumstances or after the second or third time that they have been caught.

Photo of Ian Lucas Ian Lucas Labour, Wrexham

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

I shall give way shortly in anticipation of some blinding insight into the Government's policy.

I have been jesting, but there is a serious issue. Confusion has been sown, affecting a subject that is not a laughing matter for many of our constituents. They regard burglary as serious and they want to be protected against it. They have noticed what we, the Home Secretary and his statisticians and researchers have noticed. The Home Office has paid for a thorough survey, entailing great expense, of sentencing policy and its effects on crime. Lo and behold, it shows that burglary is the one crime that tends to be significantly affected by sentencing policy. It shows exactly the same as the British crime survey and recorded crime figures.

That is why I said to Simon Hughes that we would return to the efforts of my right hon. and learned Friend the current shadow Chancellor. From the moment he put pressure on the judiciary to increase sentences for burglary, the trend decreased. According to the BCS, that trend levelled off from 2000 and the burglary rate started rising.

The announcements, counter-announcements, unannouncements and disannouncements of the past week will affect burglary statistics badly and they are therefore no laughing matter. They will affect our constituents adversely.

Photo of Ian Lucas Ian Lucas Labour, Wrexham

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that sentencing individual burglars in individual cases should be a matter for the individual judge who has heard the facts?

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

Yes, but—[Interruption.] No, I unequivocally agree with the hon. Gentleman, but guidelines exist, and the Lord Chief Justice currently sets them. Under the Criminal Justice Bill, a sentencing council will set them, with some consultation with Parliament. We shall propose amendments. It is time to remove Ministers—of all parties—from the position, which they have held for many years, of well-informed commentators on sentencing policy, holding forth from the public bar of a public house. It is time for the House to take charge of sentencing policy guidelines.

The judgments of judges in individual cases are properly the preserve of the judiciary, but I have long considered the matter in the past year and the events of the past week have crystallised my view.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

Does that constitute a sudden spasm, a new initiative, a knee-jerk reaction or has it taken 18 months, the Bill, our proposals for sentencing guidelines and our decision to involve Parliament for the right hon. Gentleman to make the amazing intellectual leap to wishing to ensure that Parliament has control over sentencing guidelines?

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

Oddly enough, none of those things. I began speaking about the matter in July, having begun considering it in March.

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

No. XHaving begun" is a form of the verb that takes one backwards, not forwards, for the hon. Gentleman's education.

In December, I issued a statement that it was official Tory party policy to move an amendment to the effect that I described. Given the circumstances, I do not blame the Home Secretary for not noticing. However, I hope that we can reach consensus on the matter and give the Government room for manoeuvre. I accept that some members of the judiciary will be critical of the step that I would like to take. However, I hope that creating a clear distinction between an individual judge in a case and policy guidelines means that we achieve a lasting settlement.

I am conscious that the Home Secretary's problems with, for example, gun crime, are not unprecedented.

As things stand, Parliament has but three options. It can set a maximum that has little effect in practice, and is modulated through the guidelines into whatever the then judiciary seek to modulate it into; it can set mandatory sentences that are too rigid to accommodate the judgment of an individual judge; or it can set mandatory sentences with exceptions that quickly become the norm through policy guidelines set by the Lord Chief Justice.

None of those methods is satisfactory. Our fellow citizens expect that, when they elect us and send us to this place, they will influence not just the legislative definition of crimes but the effect of so defining them. The ordinary person believes, I suspect, what I believed 18 months ago, before I took on this crazy job. I was under the lunatic misapprehension that Parliament set the basic sentencing framework and judges then interpreted it in individual cases, but that is not so at present, and it is the state of affairs that we need to achieve.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Trade and Industry)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of a case that arose in my constituency last week? Gary Callaby admitted three offences of burglary, one of theft and one of arson, and asked for four other offences of burglary to be taken into consideration. The judge said that if the latest guidelines had not come out, it would have been a prison sentence. There is one burglar in my constituency who is laughing, and one judge who is extremely angry about the way in which his hands were tied.

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

My hon. Friend makes a serious point, which relates to a specific case. If he and I were judges, we would be bound to pay the most solemn attention to the guidelines produced by the Lord Chief Justice. That is the problem: there is a disjunction between the view of the very senior judiciary and what I think is the view of about 98 per cent. of our fellow citizens, and—this is the irony—the joint view, I suspect, of the Home Secretary and myself. Both sides of the House overwhelmingly support a particular stance on the guidelines; many of the judiciary themselves support it; a vast weight of the population supports it; yet we are powerless to bring it about, which cannot be right.

We find ourselves in a bizarre situation. The current Prime Minister came to power with some great slogans. XEducation, education, education" I think I remember, dimly. I recall also Xfrom welfare to work". Above all, however, I recall Xtough on crime, tough on the causes of crime". That is well on the way to becoming this Government's version of XCrisis? What crisis?".

The fact is that we have a crisis of police demoralisation. We have a crisis of confidence, or lack of confidence, of the people in the criminal justice system. We have a crisis of old people too frightened to leave their homes, who are in effect subject to a life sentence. We have a crisis of young mothers who dare not take their children to playgrounds. We have a crisis of streets and neighbourhoods that are under the control of gun gangs, pimps and drug dealers. We have a crisis that amounts to a retreat of civilisation and a loss of control of the streets for the honest citizen. The Government are failing on crime, and in so doing they are failing English society.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department 4:08 pm, 13th January 2003

I beg to move, To leave out from XHouse" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

Xwelcomes the steps the Government has taken and continues to take to reform all aspects of law enforcement including increasing police numbers to record levels and the 6.1 per cent. increase in police funding for 2003–04;
further welcomes the steps the Government is taking to modernise the criminal justice system through the coherent long-term strategies and the introduction of the Criminal Justice Bill;
notes that for the last five years crime rates have fallen by 27 per cent. according to the British Crime Survey, that burglary has reduced by 39 per cent. since 1997 and that the chances of becoming a victim of crime are as low as at any time in the last 20 years;
and particularly supports the decisive action being taken by the Government to tackle street crime and the rise in gun-related crime."

I ask the House to reject a motion, which, if it were not so serious, would be laughable. Mr. Letwin has made a supreme bid to outdo the leader of the Liberal Democrats in joining XHave I Got News For You". I was going to say XDrop the Dead Donkey", but after last week I had probably better not.

Let's face it: every time a set of statistics is published, every time a high-profile crime is committed, people believe the evidence of the front page but not the evidence placed before them. It behoves us, in a debate of this sort, to get to grips with the real issues. The right hon. Gentleman said, after an amusing interlude, that this was not a laughing matter, and indeed it is not. He said that confusion did Xbad things" to the message to potential burglars, and of course he is right. He rightly said that we need to take much more control of the guidance that goes out, and we do. That is why we put such measures in the Criminal Justice Bill and published them in the White Paper last July. I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman was thinking about that at the time. I do not remember him saying anything when we published the White Paper or the Bill, but I am happy to be corrected on that.

Confusion damages the signal that is sent out, and, therefore, the culture on the streets. The Lord Chief Justice is, rightly, independent—the judiciary must remain independent and I challenge any Opposition Member to suggest otherwise—and he will be as concerned as I am, and as I am sure the Lord Chancellor is, that we get the message right and that it is clear. I am sure that he will contribute, as I intend to do this afternoon, to ensuring that the guidance that has gone out is clarified, and that judges who misunderstand or misinterpret it are left in no doubt that there is a very clear policy coming out as part of that guidance.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I absolutely agree with the Home Secretary; it is very important that accurate statistics are given, so that the media cannot misrepresent the truth. That being the case, what does he say to the chairman of the Statistics Commission, Sir John Kingman, who wrote to him on 1 October—I quote accurately—to say:

XWe were, however, concerned that you had felt forced by ill-based comments to publish a set of interim figures on street crime in what could be seen as a selective fashion, rather than sticking to your guns and waiting for the national statistics. Not all management information can or should be published, but it is important that when such data are published, whether they are national statistics or not, that there should be no suspicion that Government is picking and choosing, publishing the good news and not the bad."

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I agree entirely with that last sentiment. To publish only good news and not bad would be a luxury I could not afford, and one that we do not have. No one could pretend that we have hidden the facts. This time last year, we made it absolutely clear that we believed that street crime—robbery and snatch theft—had reached a point at which direct intervention was required, and, it has to be said, that intervention was successful. The reason that we published information in the autumn was precisely to avoid the complete untruth that was being perpetrated at the time and is being perpetrated now, namely, that the street crime initiative had failed. In March last year the main Opposition party declared it another initiative on another day, and that it was bound to be a failure, but by October, its own publication had acknowledged that it had succeeded. The reason that we published a full evaluation of the first period of the full street crime programme after six months was precisely because we had said that within six months we would reverse the trend, and that the incidences of robbery and snatch theft would fall. They have, and they are. The statistics that we published last Thursday showed a 10 per cent. drop in robbery figures. So the straight lies that were being told last week, and reiterated and perpetrated, for instance by the leader of the Conservative party on XThe World at One" on Friday, when he simply lied [Interruption.]

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. We had best have temperate language in the House. I would ask the Home Secretary to withdraw that remark. The right hon. Gentleman is a Member of this House.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

Of course, at your request, Mr Speaker, I will.

Let me put it another way. The Leader of the official Opposition completely misunderstood and misinterpreted the statistics that had been published the day before, by declaring that all sectors of crime had gone up when the vast majority of sectors of crime had just been shown to have come down. According to the official statistics, burglary has come down by 39 per cent. since 1997, and, according to the British recorded crime survey—the largest and most highly respected such survey in the world—has come down over the previous 12 months to September by 7 per cent. Street robbery has come down, and the police are proud of their record in terms of what they have done to deal with street robbery over the past nine months. I am proud of them as well, because they have made this work. If, however, someone says that street robbery has risen when it has fallen, I presume that they have either misinterpreted the statistics, that they have a problem with numeracy, or that they are just trying to make mischief. I presume, Mr. Speaker, that that language is acceptable to the whole House.

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron Conservative, Witney

The Lord Chancellor said on the radio that the Home Secretary agrees with the guidance given by the Lord Chief Justice on the sentencing of burglars. Was he right to say that?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

The Lord Chancellor was perfectly right to say that he, the Attorney-General and I had agreed with the Lord Chief Justice last March on a clear statement on sentencing, which followed the clear statement on sentencing that I made on 5 July, a month after taking over as Home Secretary and when we had the first ever national probation conference. I spelled out my intentions clearly, which were to ensure that we reduce the incidence of crime and, in particular, reoffending with the aim of cutting the number of people who go to prison through ensuring that they no longer commit crimes, rather than having the objective of sending more people to prison who then reoffend and have to be sent to prison again. I repeat that, because, in my view, it is straight common sense.

I also believe that those who commit repeat crimes should, per se, be sent to custody. The introduction of custody minus was not included in the Halliday report, but it is, I think, a proposal that has commanded support across the House. I say XI think" because a number of proposals that commanded support across the House on 4 December appear not to command the support of the whole House just over a month later, even though the official Opposition did not vote against the Criminal Justice Bill on Second Reading as they agree with a large proportion of what we are putting forward.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Shadow Attorney General

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

Let me finish on sentencing before I let the hon. Gentleman intervene. Let us get it on the record properly.

For the first time, we set out in the legislation the objective of sentencing, which is to ensure that our streets are safer whereby those who are dangerous sexual and violent offenders are put away, and put away for longer, and action is taken when they are away to ensure that they do not reoffend if and when they come out. That is clear and I hope that anyone could agree with it. Those who have committed repeat offences—that includes committing a new offence for the first time—should expect to go to prison.

We should expect to mix prison and community sentencing in the way described in the Bill and as I described on 4 February last year at the prison governors' conference—in a new, imaginative way to avoid reoffending. We should ensure reparation to the victim. We must ensure that we tackle the scandals of the intimidation of witnesses and the delays and repeat delays that they have to put up with, which ensure that they do not want to take part in the criminal justice system. Where people have offended non-violently for the first time, we make a sensible judgment in the courts, allowing the judiciary—the magistracy and the judges—to decide whether a new range of tougher community sentences should come into play to ensure that such people have the opportunity of rehabilitation.

It seems to me that, unless we are to go down the road of spending all the money available to us through the criminal justice system on even more prison places year after year, there is no alternative but to have an incremental, stepped approach under which custody minus and custody plus play their part. I heard someone guffawing about tougher community sentences. Community sentences can be not only tough, but as effective as prison in terms of avoiding reoffending if they are rightly designed and if they involve, for instance, proper drug treatment after testing. The investment of #500 million, which we are making, over the next three years will make that real.

A party that is against increased public expenditure, that has opposed the Chancellor's investment in public services and that would have prevented us from having the new deal programme, which has taken the very young people referred to from the Front Bench by the right hon. Member for West Dorset out of unemployment and despair, has no right whatever to take us to task. We have reduced crime, reduced burglary, reduced robbery and reduced street theft and we have turned around a system in which there was no Youth Justice Board and no programme of long-term investment in reducing young people's reoffending. We have turned around young people's reoffending by 14.6 per cent. That is an official figure, which is on the record—[Interruption.] I am being told that no one believes official statistics. Does that have anything to do with people who believe that they are intelligent, including highly intelligent and thoughtful leader writers for The Times, who have written about the publication of the national crime recording standard—recently revamped by chief constables, not us, so that it is more transparent and involves more recording, for example on CCTV, as well as crimes otherwise recorded? There is more recording, of course, because there are more police to undertake recording and greater confidence that they will do something. Who would believe that a leader writer for The Times would be so puzzled as to suggest that publishing that recording standard alongside the British crime survey, involving a 40,000 sample, was a deliberate ploy to confuse the British people? The answer is anyone who had not read previous leaders in The Times—for three years, they have been pressing us to publish both figures—or anyone who had not read previous editors of The Times, such as Simon Jenkins, who pressed us to use the British crime survey rather than the national crime recording standard because it is more accurate and is not subject to the vagaries of recording methods.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am not—I am taking up the point that no one believes the figures. Is it any surprise that that is so when people who have the intelligence to know better suggest that official statistics are either confusing or fiddled?

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Shadow Attorney General

Does the Home Secretary remember that during an interview on the XToday" programme about first-time offenders, and in the context of the agreement between the Lord Chief Justice and the Attorney-General, the Lord Chancellor used the words

Xonly as a last resort".

Does the Home Secretary agree with that statement?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

For first-time offenders, I agree entirely and have just said so. I have made it absolutely clear that people who have committed non-violent offences for the first time should be considered for tough community sentences or drug rehabilitation—that is not a mixed message. The right hon. Member for West Dorset, started off by saying that I would agree with him—I do, on the importance of community policing and the role of the community. I agree with what he said on the XToday" programme in December, which was reprinted in a number of newspapers. He said that

Xif we have serious community sentencing"— an Opposition Member just guffawed when I suggested that—

Xif people were engaged in things which were tough, if there was real rehabilitation for the drug addicts, then I think there is a great deal to be said for trying to distinguish between first-time burglars . . . and persistent violent criminals."

I have this on the record. Surprise, surprise, on 9 January the right hon. Gentleman had changed his mind. When Jim Naughtie quoted his own words back to him, he said that, no, he did not have much sympathy with the idea, although he went on to say that he was looking carefully and learning. He had obviously changed his mind between the third week in December—when, in a spirit of Christmas cheer, he was going to give first-time offenders a chance—and 9 January, when it was expedient not to do so. That is the truth.

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

I am going to do something that the Home Secretary may or may not be surprised by. He is right: I changed my mind. Let me explain why. I started looking at what had happened to burglary, and I found that, since 1992, with more and longer custodial sentences, burglary rates, unlike those for many other crimes, really responded. That was the evidence from the Home Office's own publications. I hope that he will now join me and change his mind, too, because when the facts tell us that custodial sentences can impede burglary, we should listen.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

There are times, I hope, when I am prepared to change my mind. Indeed, I can think of at least one in the past 18 months. However, I cannot remember changing my mind within a fortnight about something that I had said on the radio.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

Yes, it would be a terribly mixed message, because if the right hon. Gentleman were Home Secretary, he would have said something before Christmas and then, having heard the Lord Chief Justice, he would have thought about it, then he would have contradicted the Lord Chief Justice, who would then have had to go back to the position that he had held in the first place, before the right hon. Gentleman had had time to think about it.

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

The Home Secretary has now made my case for Parliament to consider and decide on the sentencing guidelines. Had we been in a position—as I hope he will agree that, through an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill, we need to be—to debate these matters properly instead of having to react to a comment from the Lord Chief Justice one fine morning, we could have come to a settled view after sensible democratic debate. That is one of the reasons why I have become convinced that we need to make such a change.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am very pleased, because I do not disagree at all, other than to say that the suggestion about the Sentencing Guidelines Council was mine, not the right hon. Gentleman's—and it is in the Bill. I give him this pledge. I am very happy for Opposition Members in Committee to table amendments to strengthen the role of the Sentencing Guidelines Council vis-à-vis Parliament. Let us debate it, not least because, a year last July, when I talked about sentencing and we published the White Paper, I said that I would be happy for Opposition parties to make proposals on sentencing. That was part of the nationwide consultation process.

We all suffer amnesia at one point or another. In chiding me about minimum sentences for the illegal carrying of guns, the right hon. Gentleman had a little moment of amnesia, having forgotten that on 2 December, before I went into hospital, I made it clear in Home Office questions, in a reply to my hon. Friend Ms Abbott, that we were in the process of responding to the chief constables' call for a five-year minimum sentence.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

I thank my right hon. Friend for saying again, as he did on Second Reading, that he is prepared to entertain rational, sensible change to make the Criminal Justice Bill a better Bill. That has been his position right the way through. I hope that he will allow sensible amendments not only from Opposition Members, but from his own colleagues. Many of us feel that any sentencing council should include members of the Executive, the legislature and the judiciary, and that had we had such a council, with all our political arms represented, some of the strange decisions that individual members of the judiciary appear to have made might not have taken place. I thank my right hon. Friend again for his warm expression towards open government.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I shall weigh those commendatory words very carefully. I am in favour of fewer but good amendments, rather than lots of them, and the Committee will no doubt share that view.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

This is a very important issue. As it happens, today I spoke to some circuit judges about how one establishes a sentencing guidelines council that reflects the community at large. Will the Home Secretary look seriously at a proposal that, unlike the current one, does not require all nominees to be nominated by the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice or the Home Secretary? There should be some way to enable people to put their own names forward, and to enable those who do not hold high office to choose who sits on such a body. Such people should range from 18-year-olds to 80-year-olds, so that the body is really representative of the public at large.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am in favour of trying to ensure that we get people on to the Sentencing Guidelines Council who reflect the wider views, age and make-up of the community whom we serve. Someone has to decide who sits on this body, and certain people—the Government—have to take responsibility for the medium and long-term consequences, including the reaction of the judiciary. We do have a separation of powers, and we walk a tightrope in terms of maintaining it. I say to the whole House that it is no good someone's being in favour of the independence of a particular sector of our balanced constitution one minute—or one fortnight—and being against it the next, when it is expedient to change their mind.

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

I am grateful to the Home Secretary for giving way again—he is being very generous—as we are discussing a very important point and we are near to making progress. Our proposal is not that we should make some minor or major alterations to the Sentencing Guidelines Council, but that Parliament should take the power to set the guidelines. That is a critical distinction, which observes the independence of the judiciary—in the sense of the utter independence of an individual judge in an individual case—but gives to Parliament the right to set the guidelines. Will the Home Secretary consider that proposal?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I certainly would not rule it out, and for this reason. Often—although not in every single detail, and not in respect of every one of the thousands of sentencing possibilities—for major sentences the House does take that power. What Parliament expects to be done is included in legislation, and that is what we are doing in respect of the Criminal Justice Bill. We are doing that by toughening up enormously on the most dangerous violent and sexual offenders, and I expect us to do so through legislation on sex offenders and sex offences that we will bring forward shortly. So the principle of Parliament's deciding on particular aspects of sentencing is already established; however, the extent to which it could cope with the work currently undertaken by the advisory panel—in future, it will be undertaken by the Sentencing Guidelines Council—is an interesting and moot point.

I know that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend Hilary Benn, will want to mull over this issue before we reach the point in Committee where we have to consider how many hours are available in the day, and how many Members—on both sides of the House—would be able to spend their time on this issue. However, getting the principles right is unexceptionable, and we should do so for the sake of the British people's confidence in the criminal justice system, for the legitimacy of our democracy, and for the credibility of Parliament itself. I said all that on 4 December, when we moved the Second Reading of the Criminal Justice Bill.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

I am much obliged to the Home Secretary, and I am listening carefully to what he has to say. A moment ago, he said that good rehabilitation is vital and he is absolutely right, but what would be his advice to sentencers in Wales, where there are fewer than 40 rehabilitation beds throughout the country?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

We should join together in the variety of funding streams and constitutional responsibilities that lie between Westminster and the Assembly in Wales, not merely in terms of those directly engaged in rehabilitation, but—as the shadow Home Secretary correctly said—in terms of investment in drug treatment and rehabilitation. Common ground would exist there, as it would on a number of the issues that we debated on 4 December, on which we were at one.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

I thank my right hon. Friend for his generosity in giving way again. Normally the House does what the Government of the day decide. If the Floor makes the decision, it will in effect be the Home Secretary who has the power to make changes to sentencing. He talks about mulling this over; I hope that he will also Xmullin" it over with my hon. Friend Mr. Mullin, the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs. There are ways of involving the House other than the Floor, which is often in the pocket of the Executive. Involving the Select Committee might be a way for Parliament, the Executive and the judiciary to decide on a sentencing policy that will command public support and consensus.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I reaffirm that I am certainly in nobody's pocket, and will remain that way for as long as possible. I remember responding to my hon. Friend Mr. Mullin on this point. I am very sympathetic to the idea of the Select Committee taking a powerful role in this area, and I think that we are moving towards a consensus.

To give the rest of the House the chance to debate this, let me deal quickly with the two central issues raised by the right hon. Member for West Dorset, the first of which concerned community policing. It was a year ago, almost to the day, that I asked Bill Braddon, the former commissioner for police in New York, now in Los Angeles, to speak to the second of the major meetings of all chief constables and police authorities that I had called in London. Bill Braddon spelled out his view of community policing and how we need to tackle antisocial behaviour so that we send the right signals to those who would otherwise grow into organised crime and therefore violent and, eventually, gun crime. In his view, we needed to ensure that the police were on the street, that they used the variation of the comstat system being developed in a number of police authorities in Britain, and that not only should we increase police numbers, we should consider, as the New York police did, integrating different elements of policing. That is why we were in favour of community support officers.

All those things we have done. The 5,000 extra police officers whom I expect to have, over and above those we inherited, by later this year, the commitment that I have made for another 2,500 on top of the commitment for another 130,000 police officers for this time next year are not only articles of good faith but represent the reality of increased police officers available on the beat. The O'Dowd report on slimming down bureaucracy, the massive cut that we have already made in the amount of paperwork, the XDiary of a Police Officer" and the 400 examples drawn from it, which led to the O'Dowd report, are all examples of removing unnecessary paperwork and data collection. However, data collection still needs to exist. Understanding how we operate intelligence policing and the Comstat system depends on having the information in the first place. New technology, our investment in the new airwave system, people's ability to communicate adequately and quickly and forensic science all make a difference if—and this is the real issue—the chief constable and the immediate command are prepared to take on the challenge.

There is a second difficulty with people saying that they want to be independent of Government in one breath and the tools of Government in the next. The difficulty that we have with the judiciary is mirrored by the police. Everyone, it appears, wants the police to be independent of Government, particularly the Home Office. Opposition Members speak about it all the time—they reiterated it this afternoon. They want the Home Office to be hands-off. They criticise the development of a standards unit. They criticise the direction that we give in the national policing plan. They criticise prioritisation, which includes everything that has been spoken about both today and at Home Office questions and over and over in debate. They cheer when chief constables have a go, as they did when the right hon. Member for West Dorset mentioned Chris Fox, incoming chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers. Let me quote what Chris Fox said so that we may all understand just what the position is and so that we are not total hypocrites. He said that new laws allow me to send in Xhit squads", and that I have set a growing list of priorities for chiefs to concentrate on. He added:

XThe police's autonomy is being eroded and it's a dangerous development . . . Any student of political history will tell you that the first thing a revolutionary state does is take hold of the police."

I have read that out only because I want to reassure the Labour party in the weeks ahead that it at last has a Xrevolutionary state" at its disposal.

What people really want is a police force that responds precisely to the priorities seen and felt by every Member of the House, irrespective of political party. They want antisocial behaviour to be clamped down on. They want a feeling of respect and safety on the street. They want their homes to be safe. They want the police to tackle burglary and to investigate wherever there is any evidence that can be followed up.

As it happens, that is what the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis had in mind on 2 December when, independently from the Home Office and without interference from Ministers, he prioritised after an experiment in two boroughs. In one of those boroughs, the conviction rate for burglary increased by 21 per cent. Should I interfere? Should I tell him to reissue the guidance that he sent out on 2 December? The House cannot have it both ways. It cannot be that passing legislation is interference. It cannot be that issuing guidelines, creating a national policing plan and asking local police authorities to engage with chief constables on real prioritisation on behalf of the community are all considered to be interference, while Opposition Members demand in the next breath that I introduce community policing, order police on to the streets and change the policing priorities of chief constables. They cannot have it both ways.

Nor can the Opposition have it both ways on the second of the priorities set out by the right hon. Member for West Dorset. We cannot invest in getting young people back into work through the new deal and then condemn it and say that there would not have been the funding for it. We cannot have a Youth Justice Board and then say that we would pull the money out. We cannot say that we would cut public spending, then demand more and more public spending, including #500 million on top of what we have announced, which, before Christmas, the right hon. Gentleman said he would invest in drug treatment. I do not know where he is going to get that money.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

Does the right hon. Gentleman mean that we should go back to having fewer police, as was happening in 1997 when we came into office? There were no community support officers, street wardens had been condemned, there was lower investment in probation in the community and less investment in prisons. That is what was happening. We will have 3,500 more prison places on stream by the end of this year than we did last spring when it was announced in the Budget that we had extra money. All that has cost us, but it would cost the public dear if we did not do it. Let us stop the hypocrisy—

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

Well done. That was just like Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday afternoon in that the right hon. Gentleman almost got me offside.

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

I am delighted. Before the right hon. Gentleman works himself up into too much of a lather, let me tell him that I shall argue in the next debate this evening that the Government's spending on getting people into contact with about 236,000 treatment agencies is heavily misconceived. That money should be used in the way that we have described. That would happen to cost less rather than more, and we would be able to spend even more than we want to without exceeding the right hon. Gentleman's budget for drugs.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am just as cheered by that intervention as I was on Saturday afternoon when Sheffield Wednesday was losing 2-0 but won 3-2, with a brilliant goal to put us into the lead.

The right hon. Gentleman has not taken us any further forward so my diatribe will continue: more police; more community support officers; more street wardens; more prison places; more investment in probation; the Youth Justice Board doing the job we asked of it; and above all a changing culture and climate. That change involves parents and families and a different atmosphere in schools; it involves hope for young people, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, spelled out today with reference to the Xsplash" schemes that we introduced last summer and our investment in prevention and diversion.

We are ensuring that there is an understanding between the Government and the independent judiciary and that the messages are clear and that they really count: if people commit violent, dangerous sexual offences, are repeat offenders, cause havoc or fail to avoid reoffending, they will go to prison. First-time offenders will be given a chance, which will be backed up by support to repair the damage so that they can put themselves on the straight and narrow.

We want to get the message across: tough where we have to be and common sense where it is needed. We need a stop to the contradictions and, yes, the sneering coming from the Opposition. We need to get rid of hypocrisy and in its place send everyone the clear message that we are getting tough on crime, and that we will not get knocked off course by silly suggestions that thought-through policies are knee-jerk reactions because someone has not read about them in Hansard or has not checked their computer to find out what was said. The policies are sensible and address the needs of the British people so that there will be a reduction in crime and common sense will prevail.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 4:46 pm, 13th January 2003

Following last week's publication of the recent crime figures, a debate on the criminal justice system and law and order is especially timely. To that extent, I welcome the debate initiated by Mr. Letwin and his colleagues.

Despite some positive long-term trends, it is clear to us all that crime is a hugely unwelcome feature of everyday life throughout Britain. Statistics published last week show that one person in four was a victim of crime last year—an unacceptably high level.

I want my remarks to be fair, so I must say that the Government have done some good things—but they have not done enough to reassure the public that problems are being brought under control and that crime is going down. The statistics are abundantly clear: the public are not persuaded that we are moving in the right direction. The result, sadly, is that people are losing faith in both the police and the criminal justice system. Mr. Allen, who, like me, is a member of the Standing Committee on the Criminal Justice Bill, regularly makes the point that we are all trying to restore faith in the twin pillars of a civilised society: the belief that the police can and will do their job properly and that, thereafter, the criminal justice system will do its job properly; both might be trying hard, but at present they are not succeeding.

In our view, which we share with the Conservative Opposition, one of the problems is that the Government keep trying to tinker with the system. There have been hundreds of targets and hundreds of headline-grabbing initiatives, but they do not amount to a coherent strategy. There have been too many instances of the Government manipulating the figures to try to make things sound the way they want them to sound. I gave the Home Secretary an example of that when, in respect of something that happened only three months ago, I referred to the remarks of the chairman of the Statistics Commission.

After this debate, I hope that we shall achieve a better consensus, based on independently produced facts and figures. I pointed out to the previous Home Secretary, now the Foreign Secretary, who was keen that we should agree on such things, that if we could reach agreement on the statistics and the evidence about what does or does not work, we would make huge progress. I hope that that is the wish of the Government and I commend the work of Home Office research, development and statistics directorate. If everyone read its work rather than the front page of the tabloids, we should make much more progress.

Policies must be seen to be fair to all people in society, because the poorest often suffer the most. The most deprived areas may suffer from the most crime, but they also have the most victims. Our police service must be much more effective at deterring and catching criminals. The clear-up rate is one in four across the country and one in eight in London, so the statistical odds for those who want to try crime are pretty good and they offer a high incentive to do so.

We need an effective sentencing system. If someone asked me to give a quote or a soundbite, I would replace the soundbite that the Prime Minister used when he was shadow Home Secretary—Xtough on crime, tough on the causes of crime"—with Xeffective on crime, effective on the causes of crime", because sometimes what sounds simplistically tough may not be nearly as effective as something that initially does not sound effective but proves to be so in practice.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

Achieving consensus on which statistics are accurate or even on the need for some new form of sentencing, whatever form the Sentencing Guidelines Council takes, might be classic territory for pre-legislative scrutiny. Instead of hurrying Bills into Committee, as it is apparently necessary to do, it would be better to have at least four, five, six, seven or eight weeks during which we could determine some of the core issues without partisanship. Surely that would be a better way to proceed than the sometimes rather sterile, lawyerly debates that we have in Committee.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I agree. To their credit, the Government asked Mr. Halliday to review sentencing and Lord Justice Auld to review the criminal justice process, after which they published a White Paper. I compliment them on the fact that there has been much pre-legislative activity, but it would have been better if there had been pre-legislative scrutiny as well.

Another suggestion is that bodies such as the Select Committee on Home Affairs could nominate people to the Sentencing Guidelines Council, thereby ensuring cross-party agreement. That would command more confidence than the current proposal. However much the Home Secretary does such things on the best evidence available, by definition they are perceived as being done by a party office holder, and I am sure that we could do better than that.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

Is it not the case that parts of the Criminal Justice Bill have not been scrutinised in Committee because the Government's timetable fails to make enough time available? In fact, far from having pre-legislative scrutiny, we are enacting legislation that will not have been adequately scrutinised by a perfectly co-operative Standing Committee.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman will know that I agree with him about that. I see the Committee Whip on the Treasury Bench, and it is not at all his fault; he has been entirely co-operative and reasonable. We are constrained, and since the election the Home Office's legislative programme has been the greatest victim of such constraints. Bill after Bill has not been fully debated in the House of Commons. Additional amendments have been tabled in this House or the House of Lords, and large parts of Bills have not been debated at all. Whatever we think about the policies, that is clearly an absolutely crass way to legislate on issues of law and order, liberty and freedom, which matter to all of us and to all those whom we represent.

I wish to mention one other general matter. Whether we are talking about the big villains or the little villains, we should not tolerate a lawless society. Violence must be met with a presumption of custody, as I have said at my party's conference and in other places.

I would add three other categories for which the presumption should be custody. Those who drive in such a way that they risk and sometimes cause injury or death should expect to go away. Many families are victims of so-called road accidents that are actually not accidents at all; they involve intentional or reckless activity by drivers. Those involved in child pornography should expect to go away, because it is such an abuse of innocence and childhood. Those who interfere with the course of justice should also expect to go away, so that everybody knows the score. I would include in the violence category those who burgle residential property when they know that there is somebody in the property or that there is a risk that somebody is in the property. For me, that crosses the line between something that does not personally affect or threaten somebody psychologically, mentally or physically, and something that does.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

No.

This is a difficult area, and it has been the subject of great debate recently. There are differences. I accept the attempts being made to make sure that the first-time burglar does not go to prison on that occasion, and I shall explain why that would be the wrong course. When somebody enters a property and frightens an elderly lady out of her wits, however, the egg-shell skull principle, as it used to be called in civil law, should apply: one must take a place as one finds it. If there are kids, people on their own, elderly or vulnerable people, the offender must expect the courts to punish him. That is why I am sympathetic to the constituency case raised by Mr. Bellingham, which was reported in The Sunday Times, where an offender was returned to live three doors from the person whose house he had burgled. The courts should have taken that into account: it is improper for the victim of a first-time burglar to feel that that person is at liberty, three doors away, having been into their house only a few months previously.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

I thank the hon. Gentleman for being generous in giving way to me for a second time. One of the comments that we hear most when we are in our constituencies is that a sentence does not mean what is stated when it is passed. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that, in respect of the offences that he has listed or others that the Government may care to add, standard sentences should be set out in a schedule to the Bill that is being considered Upstairs? Everybody would therefore know exactly what the sentence would be in a normal case, and that information would be available in one place. Would he propose that to the Government, along with me?

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

There are several things with which I hope the hon. Gentleman would agree. First, we must get all the legislation in one place so that it can be seen and read easily. At the moment, we struggle with amending Bills, and it is difficult to find things, which is unhelpful. Secondly, a penal code would be helpful—which, to his credit, the Home Secretary favours and which I support, as he has heard me say. I am in favour of there being easy access to information on what the maximum sentence should be for each crime, and to what the guidelines say that the sentence should be. I support both those proposals.

I am clear, however, as Liberal Democrats have always been clear, that there should never be mandatory sentences. We have argued against such sentences for murder and in respect of lesser crimes. In the case of murder, there is all the difference in the world between somebody who plans to go out and shoot somebody with whom they have had a row the previous day and somebody who kills their husband after 30 years of domestic violence. It is entirely inappropriate to have the same automatic starting sentence for those two incidents.

Offenders who do not use violence, however, should expect that a custodial sentence would not be the presumption. I agree with the Home Secretary that we must guard against going down the road of arguing for prison to be the answer to a whole list of offences, especially non-violent ones. For those offences, the option should be supervision and treatment in the community wherever possible. To pick up the point of the hon. Member for Nottingham, North—this is why the Halliday reforms are welcome—we should have a sentencing system in which the first half of a custodial sentence is served inside, but the second half, which is equally part of the sentence, is served outside, as the Government, to their credit, are proposing, by and large, in their sentencing reforms. What has been hopeless in the past is that people have thought that their sentence finished the moment they came out through the prison door, but the reality is that, without support, supervision, probation, drug treatment or alcohol treatment they have started to reoffend. The sentence should continue for an equal period, or at least a significant period, outside as well as inside prison. That should be part of the sentence, and the offender should know that. If he reoffends in that period, he should expect to go back to court to be dealt with.

My final general point relates to an issue that has been debated a great deal since the terrible killing of two young women on new year's eve in your part of the world, Madam Deputy Speaker. Those who carry knives or guns should absolutely expect to go away. Society has gone down the road so that people fuelled by drink or drugs often think that it is acceptable to carry such weapons. Ten years ago, they would have carried knives, but now it is more likely that they will carry guns. It is never acceptable to carry such weapons. There is a difference, however, between a 16-year-old who is given a gun to hold for 10 seconds while his cousin goes into a shop to pick up a newspaper and the 21-year-old who goes out carrying a machine gun as part of a gang. We must distinguish between the two, but the presumption should be that anyone who goes out armed and who is caught will lose his liberty.

The messages must be clear. Anyone who is caught carrying a gun or a knife can expect to lose his liberty. Burglars who terrorise or intimidate people in their own homes should not expect to escape custody either. If we get the measures for such crimes right, dealing with low-level disorder will follow. We will be able to start work on the causes of criminal misbehaviour. As the right hon. Member for West Dorset rightly said, and as experience in New York and other places has shown, criminal behaviour often starts with children of five, six, seven or eight who live in disordered homes with bad parenting and no appropriate discipline at home.

The test is whether the punishments are effective. Sometimes the better punishment is to provide an alternative that offers a good option for lawful activity. That does not necessarily mean locking someone up or treating him in a disciplinary fashion. Other options can be effective in dealing with crime and with the causes of crime if they are used to deal with people who are young when they start their criminal behaviour. We must send clear messages, but I fear that the messages sent in the past few months have been unclear. However, I believe that we could deal with that problem.

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

The hon. Gentleman knows that there is considerable agreement between us on these matters, but has he considered the statistics that have persuaded me? Burglary is a premeditated crime and the statistics show that the imposition of custodial sentences appears to have had a very significant downward effect on the incidence of burglary as reported in the British crime survey figures and in the reported crime figures for burglary. How does he deal with that point?

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I have considered those statistics and I accept that point. Interesting articles appeared in the press this weekend. For example, an article in The Sunday Times by Minette Marrin went through many alternative statistics on what works and what does not. It quoted a set of statistics that suggested that alternatives to custody had a higher success rate than custody. However, other statistics suggest that that is not the case and that the different options have a similar success or failure rate. I accept that there are different rates of success depending on the offence and on whether the alternative to custody was attached to drugs or alcohol treatment, but if we had a clearer idea about what works we would be able to make progress.

I agree with the Home Secretary that we should criticise those who misrepresent the position. I share his view that, last week, the Leader of the Conservative Opposition and, surprisingly but to a lesser extent, his shadow Home Secretary appeared to get so carried away with the thought that this was a good issue for them that they misrepresented the facts. I do not often criticise the Conservative shadow Home Secretary as he is normally meticulous in his approach to these issues, but my one criticism of him today is that he appeared to show total amnesia when he described the figures published last Thursday as truly terrible. It was a total misrepresentation of the figures that have just been produced independently.

I am not here to sell other people's products, but I commend the Home Office's statistical bulletin, which clearly sets out the trends. For example, it shows that domestic burglary reached its peak in 1994 and has since gone down or steadied and has not gone up again. For the Conservative motion to claim that the number of burglaries is going up flies completely in the face of the evidence in the bulletin.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Not according to the evidence. The right hon. Gentleman and I are not statisticians, but the figures are clear. All that has happened is that the recorded crime figures show a recent increase, but the British crime survey figures, which are more respected, show a decrease. I refer the right hon. Gentleman to page 6 of last week's document. He quoted from another part of it, so presumably we agree that the document is authentic.

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

Of course I agree that the document is authentic, including page 10, from which I quoted. The problem is that the British crime survey is woefully deficient in two significant respects because it fails to deal with retail crime and multiple occupation. As a result, it does not tell us the same story as the reported crime figures, other than on a broad-brush scale over a long period. Is not it clear that even after the adjustments for the new reporting system, the reported crime statistics show a significant increase over the past year in domestic burglary and other burglaries?

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am keen to go outside and pore over the documents. I am willing to go by the work carried out by people who produce statistics independently on a regular basis. A big effort has been made to ensure that the statistics are more reliable and produced more frequently. If we want to reassure the public, it is better to concentrate on crimes, such as firearms crime, about which there can be no argument that they have increased. We should not frighten people about crimes, such as vehicle crime, if the evidence clearly shows that the trend is in the other direction.

The right hon. Gentleman's party has an ongoing problem. Violent crime increased every year when it was in government. There were 2.5 million recorded crimes in 1979. That rose to 4.5 million in 1997, an increase of 81 per cent. The figure peaked at 5.5 million when the Conservatives were in government. In addition, the number of police officers, which had increased, decreased in their last five years in office, contrary to their promises. There were 469 fewer police officers in that period although the Government promised 5,000 more. In London, part of which I represent, there were 1,269 fewer officers. The number of convictions also fell from 1.8 million in 1979 to 1.4 million in 1996. In 1985, there was one conviction for every eight crimes; by 1997, there was only one conviction for every 14 crimes.

The right hon. Gentleman will try to reinvent his party's policy on law and order, as he should do, but its record in office shows that it presided over an increasingly lawless society. In its last five years in government, police numbers decreased and crime increased, so he does not stand against the background of an effective alternative record when we judge his party's time in office. That is not his fault and I do not blame him personally, but the electorate need to take it into account. When they criticise the Government, which I am happy to do when they get it wrong, they also need to ensure that they do not forget what happened in those 18 years when the Conservatives got it badly wrong.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Labour, Gedling

I am pleased to say that the number of police officers in Nottinghamshire increased by 10 per cent. in the past three years. On statistics, however, does the hon. Gentleman agree that they are most effective when considered on a local basis? We need to make local statistics more easily available to local communities so that they can judge the effectiveness of the police or the crime prevention strategies in their communities. Surely the way to make communities more confident is to enable them to see the statistics for their own area.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Absolutely. My local police force could tell the hon. Gentleman that one of my beefs is that I perpetually say that it is no good merely producing statistics for the past quarter. It has to compare those with the previous quarter, last year and statistics for surrounding areas; otherwise they are meaningless. I have never understood why it is so difficult for the police to produce comparable statistics on a local basis. I simply cannot understand it. It is a great failing that, in the age of the computer, statistics and technology, comparable statistics cannot regularly be produced.

My final points will, I hope, be encouraging. The Opposition may try to exploit statistics, but the reality is that although crime is far too high, overall crime has been falling since 1995, and violent crime has fallen in some years since then. It is troubling that there was, as the Home Secretary well knows, a huge increase in robberies between 1997 and 2001, and the most troubling statistics are those for reported firearms-related crimes, which is why the Government are right to act, although I am critical of the sequence of their actions.

In 2001–02, firearms were used in 10,000 recorded crimes—a rise of 35 per cent. Airguns were used in more than 12,000 crimes, which is a rise of 21 per cent., and handguns were used in nearly 6,000 crimes, which is a rise of 46 per cent. We have to deal with knives and guns, but people are now terrified by guns, either because of an encounter with one or because of the fear of an encounter. That is partly why the figures show that so many adults, 35 per cent., believe that crime has increased a lot, and 34 per cent. believe that it has increased a little. Locally, they do not see sufficient police officers, and they do not yet see sufficient numbers of other people, such as neighbourhood wardens and community support officers, doing a policing job, so they do not yet feel that the system has law and order under control.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I will continue; otherwise I will never get to the end of my speech and he will not have his chance to speak.

When MORI, a perfectly reputable opinion polling company—it is based in my constituency, so I would probably have had to say that anyway—did its two-yearly survey of my borough, it asked people what they were most concerned about. The poll went through all the usual crimes, beginning with low-level antisocial behaviour, and asked people about their responses and planned reactions to those crimes. One problem, which is now apparent to us all, is that the public have lost confidence in the system's ability to deliver. When asked why they had not reported a crime to the police, 50 per cent. of people said that there was no chance of catching the criminals.

Until we make the public believe that reporting a crime to the police will deliver a result, they will not have confidence that the criminal justice system works. I accept what the Met say they have done, although they have not done what they are represented as having done, but if somebody's home is burgled, a police officer should attend. The least that people can expect is that their home will be subject to proper policing and police support and advice. To send out someone who is not a police officer, or to send nobody, strikes me as an unacceptable response.

Having made it clear that statistics must be true, I have also, I hope, made it clear that it is for Parliament to set maximum sentences but not specific sentences. Judges should do that, and just as judges must be autonomous if we are to have confidence in the judiciary, so the police must be autonomous. I share the Home Secretary's view expressed today on that, which is why Liberal Democrat Members have fought to resist Home Secretaries' interference with police authorities, commissioners and chief constables. There should be different responses in different places. What may work in Nottinghamshire, South Yorkshire or Dorset, may not work for the Met, and we have to allow the police to respond to their local community. Judges may be criticised, but in my experience politicians command less respect than judges, and if we tried to usurp their role, we would be in trouble.

I turn now to an idea in which I believe the Home Secretary will be interested, although I understand the personal difficulties in pursuing it. One reason that our justice system is dysfunctional is that we have three Departments running it—the Home Office, the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Law Officers Department. My party has long argued that we ought to follow the model of other countries and have a Ministry of Justice with a Secretary of State or Minister responsible, in the House of Commons, to elected representatives. There would then be a considerable chance of achieving a more co-ordinated set of policies, and we would not hear the Lord Chancellor saying something on the radio one day, followed by a Home Office Minister saying something different the next.

I have argued that we must not have mandatory sentences. I think that they are wrong in all circumstances, but I hope that I have been clear in saying that we should debate the guidelines. I have also argued that we should very clear about the presumption of what should happen regarding gun use and about the sort of burglaries in respect of which people should expect to lose their liberty. However, the real danger of the war cry of the tabloids is that they are increasingly calling for prison for everything. Prison is the last card that can be played in the criminal justice system; there is no other. Once somebody has gone to prison, no bigger penalty can be used. When that card has been played, by definition, it loses its strength and efficacy.

Alternatives can work. In Committee, the Solicitor-General has been proposing conditional cautions, with support from the Opposition parties, as an additional weapon in the armoury at the bottom of the scale of punishment. Where there are enough officers to do the job, the probation service is often very good at ensuring that alternatives work in the community. Earlier today, I was at Snaresbrook Crown court, which is the largest such court in England and Wales. The resident judge told me that Snaresbrook regularly has one probation officer for its 18, 19 or 20 courts. One day recently, however, it had no probation officer at all. If the Government do not proceed more quickly with the Chancellor's help to beef up the probation service, all the outside prison work will be at risk of being highly ineffective, instead of much more effective.

I should like publicly to commend the Youth Justice Board. The Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport are right to draw attention to the programmes that it has been running in my constituency and elsewhere, which can divert energetic young people from criminal activity in the holidays and include all sorts of alternative activities that young people can do well, whether they involve drama, music or sport. We need more of those diversionary activities throughout the country.

As Mr. Giuliani said in New York, one can make a difference, and a difference was made there. However, that requires more police, and I hope that the Home Secretary is now big enough to admit that one of the biggest mistakes that the Labour Government made after their election in 1997 was not to increase police numbers from the beginning. It is not only me who is saying that. The XNarrowing the Justice Gap" document produced by the Government states in very small print, under the title XRecent performance in bringing offences to justice",

XBecause there are so many points in the criminal justice system where a justice gap may occur, when performance gets worse, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly why that has happened. The fall in police numbers in 1999–2000, which the Government has now reversed, is likely to account for at least part of the widening of the gap."

I commend the Home Secretary for having record police numbers, which need to increase further, as he knows. However, it was a big mistake—it was not made under his stewardship of the Home Office—to let them decrease for the first three and half years of Labour government. If they had not done so, not nearly so many offences would have been committed and there would not be so much worry about crime.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Labour, Gedling

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. He is right to point to the welcome increase in police numbers and the fact that that should put more police on the street. Does he agree that we could consider how many extra police are on the street in relation to particular police forces? One police service with 2,000 officers might get 1,600 of them on to the street, while another with the same number might get 1,300 on to the street. Should not we consider that difference in performance and tell people how many operational officers they have got, as well as how many police officers?

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Absolutely. Like the hon. Gentleman, all my hon. Friends with all their different police forces know that we need auditing, comparisons and the sharing of best practice. The reality is that merely having more police does not deliver results. It is what they do that counts. I have suggested, including to the Police Federation—it did not like my doing so—that civilians should be allowed to do any jobs that they are capable of doing. That could even include taking witness statements. Volunteers can work on the desk in a police station during the night. As I discovered when I stopped in Exeter once, a volunteer was perfectly able to do the job and could call a police officer if that were needed. Lots of jobs can be done in such a way. It is a question not only of more numbers, but of more numbers and more effective use.

I am proud that we had an early neighbourhood warden scheme in Bermondsey. It has been in operation for a year and a bit and has been hugely effective in reducing graffiti, vandalism, antisocial behaviour, environmental damage and racist attacks. Members of the scheme have been able to do the work on the ground, thus releasing the police for other activities. That means that we are more effective across the board. Although I have argued about powers, I have always supported the family of the police.

It is important that we do not change Ministers every two seconds and I therefore hope that the Home Secretary remains in post for the remainder of the Government's term of office. [Interruption.] I am serious about that. We need continuity.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

That comment does not need to be made more than once. But I ask the Home Secretary not to believe that an initiative a day keeps the criminal away. It does not. I hope that he will ensure that we aim for medium and long-term solutions, not short-term quick fixes. If the Prime Minister draws up an idea on the back of an envelope to catch people on a Friday night outside the pub, and delivers it in a lecture to academics in Tübingen, I hope that the Home Secretary ensures that it is examined, piloted and tested before it becomes policy—

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron Conservative, Witney

And is subsequently ignored.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Indeed. If we had half the schemes and they were twice as effective, we would have done better than the record of the past four years shows. Labour Members and people outside share that view with Liberal Democrat Members.

I hope that we can agree about statistics because we must take on the media distortion. I hope that we can agree about what works—that would be productive. I also hope that we can agree about good alternatives to custody and give them the necessary resources. I hope that we all realise that if young people get constructive things to do from their primary school, and if there are more male teachers, mentoring, good role models and much more sport, they have a much better chance of a productive life.

My colleagues and I are not going to subscribe to talking up the crisis. The Conservative party is trying desperately to rescue itself and it therefore wants to make matters sound worse than they are. However, the weekend poll shows that eight out of 10 members of the public do not believe that the Government have law and order or crime under control. I hope that, from now on, the Government will lead the debate and therefore the media rather than following the media. There is a danger of government by headline; that is not the way to reduce crime. 5.22 pm

Photo of Professor Ross Cranston Professor Ross Cranston Labour, Dudley North

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has no case to answer on the motion. I commend Simon Hughes for his dispassionate approach to the problem in his 36 minutes. I hope to adopt the same approach in my 10 minutes.

Let me begin by dealing with the figures because the Opposition tabled their motion on that basis. The recorded crime figures involve what the police set down about crimes. Any first year criminology student can say that that depends on the way in which the figures are recorded and the recorders' behaviour. For example, it depends on whether control staff deal with calls in a specific way, the behaviour of the police and the public. The number of victims with insurance policies might drive up the reporting rate.

The new national crime recording standard, which was introduced in April last year, tries to take a more objective view. It adopts a prima facie approach to reports from the public and takes what a person reports at face value even if there is no sound evidence that an offence has occurred. None the less, grave problems are attached to recorded crimes. Page 342 of the most recent edition of the XBritish Handbook of Criminology" states that

Xvariations in recording practices can have such a great effect on the totals produced as to render 'face value' comparisons almost meaningless."

As I said, the recorded crime figures have been used by the Opposition. There is no doubt that the figures for the 12 months until September 2002 show a 9 per cent. increase on those of the preceding 12 months, although when the changes introduced by the national crime recording standard are taken into account the increase is only 2 per cent. The figures for the quarter between July and September 2002 show a 1 per cent. fall if the NCRS changes introduced in April 2002 are taken into account.

As the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey pointed out, the British crime survey involves asking people what crime they have experienced. I accept the shadow Home Secretary's point that that will not always represent all crime experienced—it may not take account of commercial burglary, for instance—but the important aspect is the 7 per cent. drop in all crime during the 12 months to September 2002. The BCS figures also show a 2 per cent. drop in violent crime, a 7 per cent. drop in domestic burglary and a 14 per cent.drop in vehicle theft. That is very good news. Nevertheless, even those figures show problems.

As my time is limited, I will concentrate on firearms offences, especially in the light of the tragic deaths of Charlene Ellis and Letisha Shakespeare in the west midlands conurbation. Fortunately my constituency does not experience gun crime, but—like your constituency, Madam Deputy Speaker—it is part of that conurbation, and it is worrying that those tragic deaths occurred in our region.

According to the figures I have, firearms, excluding air weapons, were used in 9,974 recorded offences, an increase of 35 per cent. on the previous year. In 24 per cent. of those offences, the firearm was fired. Those statistics should be seen in perspective, and should be compared with what happens in other jurisdictions. The number of firearms deaths per 100,000 of the population varies from 26.6 in South Africa to 6.2 in the United States, 0.4 in Australia and 0.13 in the United Kingdom—although that last figure must be adjusted in the light of last week's figures.

I have acknowledged that the total number of firearms offences has risen in each of the past four years, although I should point out to the Conservatives that the current figures are only slightly higher than an earlier peak in 1993. 100 deaths and 558 serious injuries in crimes involving firearms represents a serious problem. The deputy chief constable of the west midlands struck the right note the other day when he said, according to the Birmingham Post,

XGun crime is increasing in many city areas and although it is still relatively rare, accounting for less than one per cent of all crime, it has devastating consequences . . . People are less likely to become the victim of crime in the West Midlands than they were last year or indeed for many years"

I want to talk about three factors. The first is the guns themselves. We banned handguns, which obviously has not worked. According to a National Criminal Intelligence Service report picked up by some of the newspapers, many of the guns are coming from eastern Europe. Many are made in small back-street factories in Bulgaria, Croatia and Slovenia, and some have been bought on the internet.

There is also the problem of replica firearms. Hon. Members will have read that the Manchester police recently seized nearly 1,800 replicas in a raid on three Manchester shops. The guns had been imported mainly from Italy. They fired blanks but could readily be adapted to shoot real bullets. There is also a problem of illegal firearms coming into the country through the post. Customs and Excise has found weapons hidden in parcels from a range of countries. Most are concealed alongside drugs. I welcome the measures taken by the Government to address the problem of guns. The national forensic firearms intelligence database will enable the Forensic Science Service to track the provenance of guns and ammunition more effectively, and there is also the possibility of an amnesty. We must, however, address the problem of guns getting into the country and being sold either by rogue dealers or through the internet.

Who is using the weapons? Last week, I appeared on a media programme with a community activist in south London, Charles Bailey, who is also a producer of rap music. Charles explained to me that there had been an influx of people coming from Jamaica over the last 10 years, and that

Xa certain element of them are a criminal element and they've seen us as soft targets."

His explanation was that, whereas in the past local criminals might have targeted banks or building societies, they are now targeting drug dealers, because drug dealers have cash. So the dealers arm themselves and those committing an offence by trying to get money from them are arming themselves as well. The shadow Home Secretary rightly pointed out the other day that the drug culture is an important contributory factor in the gun culture, so we also have to address the problem of drugs.

My third point relates to culture. There has been some discussion about violent video and computer games, and about rap music. I do not want to make a point about how they might contribute to the gun culture, but rap music can be used, as Charles Bailey explained to me, to counter the gun culture among young people. He is working with local authorities round the country to try to get young people away from the notion that violence is a good thing. I would commend to my hon. Friend the Minister Charles's latest rap CD, XDon't Shoot!". The Home Secretary will be as agitated as he was when he returned from Sheffield Wednesday's performance at the weekend when he listens to it, but I commend efforts such as this, in which young people can get the message that the violence associated with weapons is not a good thing.

In conclusion, I agree that crime is a major social problem. Freedom from crime and from the fear of crime is as important for our constituents as improving standards in our schools and in the national health service. The figures demonstrate, however, that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and the Government are doing a good job, and the assertions in the Opposition motion are largely fantasy.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Conservative, Harborough 5:34 pm, 13th January 2003

I agree with earlier remarks that the sooner the criminal law is codified, the sooner we will stop having these debates, because it will be so much easier for the Home Secretary of the day to understand what the law is, without having to leap unadvised, or ill-advisedly, on to the media.

I do not want to spoil the very good speech made by my right hon. Friend Mr. Letwin, but I urge some caution on him in relation to sentencing guidelines. It seems to me from my experience—I sit as a Crown court recorder, although my practice as a barrister is entirely in the civil sphere—that the flexibility given to the guidelines by having them designed or promulgated by the Court of Appeal is far greater than that which would be achieved by having them set by the House of Commons.

Parliament is usually several years out of date when it comes to discuss any particular criminal justice problem. It may be that we have a difference of language and that my right hon. Friend is not proposing that the House of Commons should play quite the same role as the Court of Appeal, criminal division. Anyhow, I urge a little caution there.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Trade and Industry)

Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that burglary sentencing was going quite well and that it was unnecessary for the Lord Chief Justice and the Lord Chancellor to intervene?

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Conservative, Harborough

That involves two different problems. I do not know whether my hon. Friend has read the judgment issued just before Christmas by the Lord Chief Justice in the two cases that have caused the controversy, but it is well worth reading.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Conservative, Harborough

I am sure that my hon. Friend, as an assiduous studier of these matters, will rush to the Library and do so.

The recent shootings in Birmingham have brought once again to public focus a particular aspect of the criminal justice system—namely, gun crime. It is right that we are turning our attention to it once again in the House, although I am not sure, as other speakers have suggested, that the Government's response to those shootings has been thought through coherently.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset said, the Government are notorious for their love of a good headline. Indeed, the Prime Minister desperately pleaded with his staff in the last Parliament to find him eye-catching initiatives with which he could be personally associated. Lately, he has had to contend with an eye-catching Lord Chancellor and a Lord Chief Justice—two figures at the very top of the judicial tree who are not quite so adept at anticipating the consequences of interviews with the press as he would like.

The Prime Minister, of course, wants to be seen as leading a Government who are tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime; one of his glibber little phrases that was so pleasing to the eye and the ear when invented and first spoken, but which has returned to haunt him again and again as the public have come to realise that he and his Ministers have done nothing of substance to make this a safer country to live in.

The Government have promised much and delivered little in a vast swathe of public policy areas, but in the sphere of criminal justice that criticism is particularly accurate. Much of their failure has been entirely of their own making. We have a Home Secretary who celebrates his antipathy to judges and lawyers—the very people who work hard to make the criminal justice system work—and we know that he is a reasonably canny operator who never says anything without having first worked out whether it will resonate well with his chosen audience.

That is all, I suppose, the stuff of politics and one should neither be too surprised nor too precious about the approach of the Home Secretary or of the entire Government to public discussion of their failures, but I sometimes think that they would not be in such a muddle if the Government had occasionally thought before putting their spin machine into operation. The desire to fill the available air time or newspaper page has led them to believe that the announcement is the answer and that the soundbite is the substance.

To identify a target is to hit it in the bull's-eye, so we had last week two conflicting messages and a lot of tongue-tied and confused junior Ministers trying to reconcile the irreconcilable. We must have tough new minimum sentences for gun crime, but we must not send burglars to prison.

May I deal briefly with the second of those two issues? All criminal sentencing is based on both the offence and the offender. The first-time defendant is likely to receive a lesser sentence than a defendant on a similar charge who is back for his third or fourth offence. First-time burglars, be they burglars of domestic or business premises, are not sent to prison if at all possible because sentencers realise that jail is not always the answer to the defendant's problems, albeit that prison is likely where the victim would like him to go.

The Lord Chancellor's remarks on the XToday" programme were, frankly, fatuous and an object lesson in that it is better to say nothing if one has nothing sensible to say. Repeat, professional burglars must go to prison, because, to put it at its lowest, they are a public nuisance. If there are insufficient prison places, the Government must provide more temporary or permanent ones. They should not go on the radio to tell the public that their concerns about burglary and its consequences for the home owner and his family are exaggerated or misplaced.

As for the five-year minimum sentence for gun criminals, yet again I fear that the Home Secretary said what he thought would go down well in a saloon bar, but failed to recognise what is already happening in the courts. It is hardly surprising that he has had to step back. Had he taken the trouble to find out what the courts are already doing he might not be in the mess in which he now finds himself. The offences and the penalties associated with them are set out in the Firearms Act 1968, the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1994 and the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. The existing penalties range from non-custodial sentences to life imprisonment and, in appropriate cases, the courts have imposed lengthy prison terms.

However, the number of years' penalty determined by statute does not deter the criminal. By and large, if he thinks about the long-term consequences of his actions at all, he does not believe that he will ever be caught. Announcing new minimum sentences merely makes the politicians think that they are doing something positive, whereas what is needed is a vastly better resourced and increased police force, Customs and Excise service and intelligence service, and far greater co-operation between our drugs and gun-crime teams and those overseas. If #1 million is spent on diverting drug-crop farmers in south America or Asia, that is far more productive than spending the equivalent sum on the criminal justice system here to deal with the gangs, the guns and the dealers.

However, that is not to underestimate the problem that we face. The unlawful possession and use of firearms has long been recognised as a grave source of danger to society. The reasons are obvious—firearms may be used to take life, cause serious injury or further the commission of other serious crimes. Often the victims are those charged with enforcing the law or the protection of persons or property. In conflicts between competing criminal gangs, often related to the supply of drugs, the use and possession of firearms provoke an escalating spiral of violence. When imitation firearms are used, the risk to life and limb is absent, but those weapons are often used to frighten and intimidate victims to reinforce unlawful demands. It is often hard to distinguish them from the real thing—for practical purposes, it is impossible in the circumstances in which they are used. Victims are usually as frightened and intimidated as they would be if genuine firearms had been used, and are often isolated and vulnerable. Sometimes, genuine firearms are disabled and cannot be fired, or cannot be fired for want of ammunition. In those cases, the risk to life and limb is again absent, but the use of the weapon to frighten or intimidate remains, and it may be used in earnest on another occasion.

The appropriate sentence for a firearms offence, as for any other offence, depends on all the facts and circumstances relevant to the offence and the offender. It will, however, usually be appropriate for the sentencing court to ask a series of questions. First, what sort of weapon is involved? Genuine firearms are more dangerous than imitation ones; loaded firearms are more dangerous than unloaded ones; unloaded firearms for which ammunition is available are more dangerous than firearms for which no ammunition is available. Possession of a firearm that has no lawful use, such as a sawn-off shotgun, will be viewed even more seriously than possession of a firearm that can be used lawfully. Secondly, what, if any, use has been made of the firearm? The more prolonged, premeditated and violent the use, the more serious the offence is likely to be. Thirdly, with what intention, if any, has the defendant possessed or used the firearm? Clearly, the more serious the intended act, the more serious the offence. Fourthly, what is the defendant's record? The seriousness of any firearms offence is inevitably greater if the offender has an established record of committing firearms offences or violent crimes.

The cases decided in the Court of Appeal are diverse in nature. Any rigid and formulaic approach to sentencing could produce injustice in some cases. Even offences which, on the face of it, appear to be very grave may, on examination, turn out to be less so. Given both the clear public need to discourage the unlawful possession and use of firearms, whether real or imitation, and Parliament's intention, expressed in a continuing increase in maximum penalties, the courts should treat any firearms offence as serious—and they do. It is fair to say that some sentences imposed for such offences in the past have failed to reflect their seriousness and the justifiable public concern that they arouse. Save for minor infringements, which may be properly dealt with summarily, firearms offences almost invariably merit custodial terms, even on a guilty plea and in the case of an offender with no previous record.

When the courts deal with serious offences under the legislation, the custodial term is likely to be of a considerable length. When the four questions that I have posed yield adverse answers for the offender, terms at or approaching the maximum may, in a contested case, be appropriate. We do not need more legislation to deal with gun crime but the sensible application of existing law and clarity of approach from the Government. I urge them not to rush to the newspapers and media studios to sound off the latest half-witted saloon bar idea that comes into their head. They should ask their advisers what the law is and how it is being applied, and if it is being applied sensibly they should leave it alone. We have far too much legislation mucking up the criminal justice system and confusing the courts. The Minister is a man of integrity and common sense, and I urge him to take that lesson back to his masters.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford 5:45 pm, 13th January 2003

It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Garnier, who brings to the debate the perspective of today's sentencing judges. If he reflects judges' attitudes accurately, I would say gently to him that there is a little bit of complacency on the part of the Bench in relation to their role in assuring the public that everything is under control. The motion talks about the honest citizen's feeling of helplessness. It is fashionable to blame all woes on the Government, but as a constituency Member I hear complaints against the police, the prosecutors and, indeed, the judges. The feeling of helplessness has more than one source.

Before I begin citing statistics, let me make it clear that I never lose sight of the human effect of crime. Clearly, in serious crimes such as homicide people lose their lives and families lose loved ones, and crimes involving guns, violence or sexual assault can create an enormous amount of misery. We should remember that when we consider the dry statistics.

Today's debate is based on figures from the Home Office statistical bulletin No. 2 of 2003. Simon Hughes praised the accuracy and good work of the Home Office statistical unit. The figures show that the trend in overall crime continued to be flat up to September 2002, showing little difference from the year up to March 2002. That picture of crime neither going up nor down over 18 months or so is allied to the British crime survey picture of all crime having diminished by more than a quarter since 1997, which is a pretty happy picture, not a miserable one, even though we can all say that crime is still too high and more measures are needed to drive it down further. This is certainly not a crisis.

It is easy for people to pick out the statistics that show a worse picture than the others. That is what the media did last week and what the motion is based on.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Shadow Attorney General

Will the hon. Gentleman, whose constituency is adjacent to mine, confirm that, according to the figures for 2001–02, sexual offences in the Stafford area have increased by 42.4 per cent., and burglary from dwellings by 16 per cent? That certainly does not sound very good to me.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

In the words of Ronald Reagan, there he goes again: the hon. Gentleman has picked out the statistics that show the worst picture. I pay great tribute to Staffordshire police and the agencies with which they have worked in partnership, because they have taken sexual offences and domestic violence very seriously and have encouraged the public to trust them and report such crimes in greater numbers. The increase in the statistics is partly the result of increased reporting of crime that was happening in any case, because people trust the police more.

That brings me to the reliability of one set of statistics. In April 2002, those police forces that were not already doing so agreed to adopt the national crime recording standard and started to record figures more accurately for the crimes that were reported to them. That is bound to create a difference, probably for a couple of years, and I warn people not to take too much account of one set of reported crime figures until they have bedded down correctly and accurately.

In support of that warning, I want to talk about the situation of Staffordshire police. While some reported crime has shown an increase in the quarter up to September 2002, Staffordshire police were able to announce, for the six months up to September 2002, that crime fell in their area by 8.8 per cent., putting Staffordshire at the top of the national crime reduction league table. In key priority areas, crime fell: burglaries dropped by 20 per cent.—the third biggest national reduction in this type of crime—and there was an overall decrease in vehicle crime of 24 per cent. There were also smaller falls in incidents of public disorder and nuisance complaints. In addition, the detection rate improved, jumping to 30 per cent., against a national average of 22 per cent.

Those are startlingly good figures, and I expect Members to listen raptly as I tell them Staffordshire's secret so that they can duplicate it in their constituencies. The truth is that there is no secret: Staffordshire adopted the new Xethical", or victim-focused, method of crime recording two years earlier than the rest of the country. Because we recorded more crime, we experienced an apparently big increase in crime two years before everybody else, and the Staffordshire police force was panned for those big increases. We appeared in The Observer as the fifth worst performing police force in the country, and yet just 12 months later, everybody else has adopted that method of recording figures. We have worked through those figures and maintained a steady sea, as it were. Now, we are somewhere near the top of the best performing police authorities in the country.

That is not to belittle the efforts of all who have played their part in Staffordshire's good performance. The force is very well led by the chief constable John Giffard and his astute senior officers. All the officers are committed to their work, and they are supported by a large civilian work force that does dedicated work on their behalf. So everyone deserves credit for those figures, which show that the police are doing well.

Nor are the police sitting on their laurels. This year, we are introducing a system of 219 designated community beat officers, whose job is to be seen on the ground and to talk to local community members, thereby picking up the street intelligence to which the shadow Home Secretary referred. Staffordshire is also slightly ahead of the game in terms of changing shift patterns to try to match police numbers and police presence to the places and times at which crimes are known to be committed. Indeed, the Police Reform Act 2002 has tried to establish that principle across the whole country. So the police are doing all the right things, and when we are satisfied that that is so, our job as politicians is to call for the public to support them. For me, that is the message that we should be sending through this debate.

That is the statistical argument, and I am glad that other Members have accepted that, in statistical terms, more police officers are engaged in police work throughout the country than ever before in our history. That is a useful tool in the fight against crime, but there is more to that fight than policing. We should also consider the effectiveness of the prosecution service, and of the rest of the criminal justice system. That is why we are trying to make changes to ensure that every component of that system plays its part in reassuring the public about crime.

An announcement has recently been made concerning mandatory five-year sentences for gun crime, and I want to say something about the reporting of such announcements. When the British crime survey released its quarterly statistics on reported crime, the media picked out the worst parts. They are entitled to do so, but I did not hear many of them balance that by pointing out that crime was flat overall.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

Surely one problem is that the Government played exactly the same game in reverse in respect of street crime. They can hardly be surprised if people apply the same importance to quarterly statistics as Ministers apply to street crime statistics.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

I am not attempting to pick out the best statistics to enable Labour to justify the current situation; I am making a plea—the hon. Gentleman will have heard me make it a moment ago—for people to show patience over time, so that we can see how the trends develop rather than focusing on one set of statistics. I am not particularly interested in playing that game with the hon. Gentleman.

My point is that, just as the media picked out the dramatic aspects of last week's figures, so when the announcement was made that the Home Secretary intended to table an amendment to the Criminal Justice BillMr. Grieve and I are currently deliberating that Bill in Committee—the media reported that announcement as the Home Secretary's changing the law by introducing five-year mandatory sentences. That plainly was not right. When the judges responded the next day by saying that there should be exceptions so that they can continue to use their judicial discretion, and the Home Secretary agreed, the headlines were, XHome Secretary does U-turn and changes the law". The truth is that we have yet even to debate either of those propositions.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman highlights one of our precise criticisms of the Government. Even after the Home Secretary accepted that mandatory sentences for firearms offences were not really what had been proposed, last Wednesday the Prime Minister repeated at the Dispatch Box a reference to mandatory five-year sentences for firearms offences—presumably precisely because he wanted to see that copy in the newspaper the following day. So again, the Government can hardly complain about the way in which they are reported, because that is exactly the spin that they themselves have tried to engineer, in order to cover discussion of the true nature of the problem.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

I do not accept that it is spin; I regard it as inaccurate reporting of that announcement. There will be a discussion in Committee about an amendment to introduce mandatory sentences, and the hon. Gentleman and I will be among the first to have it.

The final important aspect that I want to mention is the effect on the mind of the public, and the reference in the Opposition motion to the

Xsense of helplessness of the . . . citizen".

The British crime survey tells us that a majority of the public still feel that crime is rising, even though it is in fact stable and has fallen for five years or more. We need to deal with that by addressing the public's concerns. Despite the seriousness of homicide, gun crime, violence, sexual offending and so on, what affects people most in their day-to-day lives is antisocial behaviour. As we debate serious matters such as gun crime, we must not lose sight of the fact that day-to-day issues such as antisocial behaviour still need to be tackled, and that is what we are going to do in this Session. 5.57 pm

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Trade and Industry)

I congratulate the shadow Home Secretary on his excellent speech. It is also a pleasure to follow Mr. Kidney, who made a thoughtful and well-informed contribution.

A lot has been said about the comments of Lord Woolf and the Lord Chancellor, both of whom have shown that they are completely out of touch. Burglary is never a victimless crime. It often involves the threat or fact of physical attack, and many victims are permanently traumatised. Many move home because, once their home and their prized possessions have been violated, they feel unable to stay in the same place. As my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary made clear, the figures are rising at an alarming rate. In the year to September, burglaries were up by 8 per cent. to nearly 500,000. Robberies were up by 13 per cent., and firearms offences by 35 per cent. Handguns are now used in 5,800 crimes—a rise of some 46 per cent.

We must have proper deterrents, and I really do feel that the statements by Lord Chief Justice Woolf and the Lord Chancellor are totally at odds with public opinion. The shadow Home Secretary made it clear that there is overwhelming evidence that custodial sentences for burglary do indeed deter. In looking at the new guidelines, we should note that a couple of cases have already shown clearly how much damage is being done. In an intervention, I referred to the case of Gary Callaby, who lives in west Norfolk. He admitted to three offences, including one of burglary and one of theft, and asked for four other offences of burglary to be taken into consideration. They were not minor burglaries. The first involved stealing a quantity of food and compact discs from Park lane, in Helhoughton; the second involved a break-in and the theft of #1,500-worth of property in West Raynham; the third, occurring four days after the second, involved the theft of a jewellery box and jewellery worth #1,500 from Weasenham. A few weeks later, Gary Callaby stole a number of fittings and other equipment from West Raynham farm.

That person committed three burglaries and one theft; in court he admitted four other offences of burglary which he asked to be taken into consideration. Judge Darroch made it clear that he felt a custodial sentence was the only answer. However, he said:

XIf the latest decision had not come out, it would have been a prison sentence.

These are very serious offences, and in my view there are two particularly aggravating features: One, they occurred over a period of time, and two, you misused information obtained from customers."

This man was a painter and decorator; he used insider knowledge of the particular homes and the families whose trust he betrayed when he burgled them. That case rightly gave rise to a great deal of local and national coverage.

Another case since then involved the Crocker family who live at Bedlington in Northumberland. A burglar broke into their house and tried to stab Mrs. Crocker with a kitchen knife. Fortunately, he was overcome and the police were called. He came up in court two or three days ago and has escaped a prison sentence, much to the dismay and anger of the victims.

Damage is being done, and I feel strongly, as do many of my right hon. and hon. Friends, that Lord Woolf must move into the real world. An overwhelming number of people in my constituency believe that he is out of touch; I have had very many letters on the subject.

I have had even more letters on the case of my famous constituent, Tony Martin, who is due to come out of prison next week. The facts of his case are well documented. He was a victim of crime; what happened was an appalling tragedy for him and for the people who were killed and injured. He has made it clear that when he comes out of prison, he will campaign for the victims of burglary. He will also push very hard for changes in the law on exactly what householders can do to defend their property.

Rural police forces up and down the country are overstretched. Burglars know this and they are targeting homes in my constituency and in those of my hon. Friends the Members for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and for Stone (Mr. Cash). People in rural areas feel particularly vulnerable. Their natural instinct is to protect themselves. The law clearly states that one can use reasonable force, but recent cases have resulted in total confusion. Tony Martin fired at someone who was facing away from him and shot him in the back. A man was recently convicted for repeatedly stabbing a burglar who had broken into the flat where he believed his children were sleeping. However, when a householder stabbed to death one intruder and seriously wounded another, the Crown Prosecution Service found that the force used was reasonable and did not prosecute. Clearly the CPS cannot decide where the boundary between reasonable and unreasonable force lies and what the law actually is.

How can it be right to prosecute people when the law is confused and contradictory? If lawyers, safe in their offices, cannot work out what is right, how can the householder be expected to weigh up the pros and cons in the middle of a violent struggle in the dark? Is it reasonable to expect that same householder, during a few fearful seconds on the stairs when he is being menaced by broken bottles, to guess what the law would say when lawyers themselves do not know?

We do not want new, over-prescriptive laws; we certainly do not want a firearms free-for-all, but we need a much more sympathetic approach by the police and the CPS towards householders who defend themselves. There needs to be a presumption in favour of their innocence rather than the other way round, which appears to be the case at present. There needs to be a presumption against further prosecutions. I am not suggesting that the Government should immediately change the law, but we should have a report from the Law Commission. It should be tasked with examining whether we need a new law whereby the relevant test is not based on the Xreasonable man" but a new, subjective test of what the householder believes to be appropriate at the time. That would allow for the fact that every case is different and every set of circumstances unique. As a result, householders would not be prosecuted unless they were launching revenge attacks on burglars.

There is a strong feeling in west Norfolk in particular that burglars who enter properties should leave their civil rights outside. That, too, needs to be addressed by the Law Commission. At present, burglars and robbers can profit from their crimes if injured, which is ludicrous. Brendon Fearon, who was injured during the burglary of Tony Martin's property, applied for legal aid, and tried to sue Tony Martin for damages and loss of earnings.

I am not advocating American-style laws with people being shot for trespassing into gardens to retrieve footballs. However, homeowners and householders need to know that they can defend themselves. That would send a clear message to members of the criminal fraternity that if they enter other people's property, they do so at their peril. That would be a significant step forward in the fight against crime, which every party is rightly determined to win.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Labour, Redcar 6:06 pm, 13th January 2003

Simon Hughes talked about the dangers of trying to understand crime by headlines. I suggest that this debate has been brought about by headlines, and misunderstood headlines at that. No sooner is there a headline about burglary and a difference in emphasis about what should happen to burglars than there is a debate demanding that the whole criminal justice system be saved from what is perceived as the brink of collapse.

Even Mr. Letwin could not sustain his scream of outrage at the outset of his speech. He concedes that there must be guidelines on sentencing and that judges must individualise the sentence in the specific case. In that situation, it is inevitable that some burglars will not go into custody. The right hon. Gentleman would not, I am sure, send to prison a 12-year-old who entered an empty house to steal scrap. He would not sentence a man of 16 or 17 who had committed that kind of burglary to prison, particularly if he had a drugs problem that could be dealt with far more adequately by a drug treatment and testing order. So the scream of outrage cannot even be sustained by the Conservative Front Bench.

The criminal justice system is not just about burglary, important as that is, but about many more offences. Let us consider what the Conservatives did regarding two offences in which I am particularly interested. Home Office figures for 1985 showed that convictions for rape stood at 25 per cent. By the mid-1990s, the figure was 9 per cent. The Tories were firmly at the helm for all that time. What did they do about that? After all, it is of great concern to women. The evidence shows that one in four or five women is raped or sexually assaulted. With the Tories firmly at the helm, the conviction rate hurtled down a banana slide to next to nothing. What did they do?

The Tories had the perfect opportunity to legislate in the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996. It has been well known in many circles for many years that the admission of previous sexual history is a massive deterrent for women to come forward and a huge block on them sustaining a prosecution when they have started. This is not about upping conviction rates but about the core of what the criminal justice system should do for victims—giving them support so that they have the confidence to come to court, do themselves justice and let a jury decide.

The admission of previous sexual history put the complainant on trial instead of the defendant, and women were discouraged. It is in all ways irrelevant to the issue before the jury in 90 per cent. of cases. Research shows that in so far as previous sexual history comes into a trial about a complainant, the jury's conception of the guilt of the defendant declines. That is true even if the woman or man complainant denies every bit of it. In other words, it contributed to wrongful acquittals.

The Tories had the opportunity to legislate in the 1996 Act. Did they make any attempt to help with the vast decline in rape convictions at that stage? Was there any mention of it in any aspect of Tory debate on the matter? None whatever. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, then in Opposition, introduced an amendment to that Bill to limit the admission of previous sexual history and to exclude it from being introduced to show consent. She and the then shadow Home Secretary, now my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, had, unlike the Tory Government, consulted survivors and practitioners, of which I was one, and they know of the importance of that amendment. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport set out then everything that I have said now, but the Conservative Government simply voted it down. They were not interested in stopping the decline in the conviction rate.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Labour, Redcar

I will in a moment.

Change has since been enacted, and it is having an effect. Since 1999 no previous sexual history has been admissible to show consent. I suggest that when Mr. Grieve stands up, he should apologise to those rape complainants who had to be cross-examined needlessly about their sexual past during the intervening three years between the Conservative failure to act and our acceptance of responsibility. Will he consider doing that?

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I will not. I have two things to say. First, notwithstanding the amendment to which the hon. and learned Lady refers, the rate of conviction remains very low, as she is aware. Secondly, I am sure that a legitimate point was made at the time about concern that any change in the law should still ensure that a fair trial could take place, and I am sure that she was alive to that.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Labour, Redcar

The reason given for rejecting the amendment at that time was that existing provision was perfectly adequate. In other words, the old law, which had repeatedly since the 1970s allowed previous sexual history to go into court, was considered perfectly sufficient and women's complaints were put at naught. There was little mention then of the other issues that the hon. Gentleman now raises.

In addition to making an important change, the Labour Government have conducted a sex offences review, XSetting the Boundaries", they have produced a White Paper, XProtecting the Public", and they propose legislation. In addition, specialist prosecutors for rape now exist so that proper concentration may be placed on the issues in the case. Did the Tories take any of those fairly obvious measures, which are bound to be effective? They did not.

Codes of practice are in place for how the police and the Crown Prosecution Service should deal with rape. Did the Tories introduce any such thing? Not at all. There is a power for the Attorney-General to challenge unduly lenient sentences, which were a further reason why women did not come forward. Small sentences were insufficient satisfaction for women who managed to sustain their complaints. Did the Tory Government try systematically to use that power in the aid of rape victims? No, they did not.

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron Conservative, Witney

I know that I am going back into ancient history, but the hon. and learned Lady will find that the power to challenge lenient sentences was introduced by the Conservatives and opposed by Labour.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Labour, Redcar

The hon. Gentleman will find that the Tory Government made no attempt at any stage to use that power to come to the assistance of women rape complainants in the way that the current Attorney-General has systematically done over the past few months. His action has resulted in clear and helpful decisions for women: for example, in sentencing for culpability, no distinction should be made between a rape carried out by a stranger and a rape carried out by an intimate. That important principle could have been established 10 years ago if the Tory Government had had the slightest interest in an issue of high concern to women.

I acknowledge what the hon. Member for Beaconsfield said about the conviction rate still being poor. It takes a long time for crime figures to come into the system and I have been trying, preparatory to consultation on sex offences, to carry out as best I can a survey to see what is happening. Chief Inspector Walton from Project Sapphire, the highly successful Metropolitan police unit at the forefront of dealing with rape, is pretty sure that conviction figures are improving. He told me last Wednesday that it is still too early to prove that, but that he knows more cases are coming to court. I had a meeting at the University of Teesside last Friday with people from my local rape crisis centre and women's support network. The women I met also know that more cases are coming to court and that more convictions are being sustained because the Government, unlike their predecessor, are tackling that aspect of criminal justice.

Another aspect of the criminal justice system that received not a mention among the screams from the Opposition Front Bench was domestic violence. One quarter of all violent crime is domestic violence. One woman in four will experience it in her lifetime. The police receive a 999 call every minute about domestic violence. Between one quarter and one third of homicide victims are killed by a partner or former partner. The impact on children is monumental. The last domestic violence legislation was introduced in 1976, in the dying days of the Wilson Government by the then hon. Member for Barking, Jo Richardson. For 18 years was anything significant done by the Tories about domestic violence? I suggest that there was nothing whatsoever.

When Labour came into office, there was a White Paper within months. There is now a ministerial group, and a specialist cross-departmental domestic violence unit that is recruiting an experienced head. It intends to increase safe accommodation choices for victims of domestic violence, and that is in progress, and it is getting health care initiatives under way and improving the interface between civil and criminal law so that one court knows what another court is doing about domestic violence. It is ensuring that the police and the CPS, who are committed to best practice, play a supportive role. Now domestic violence cases can be prosecuted without the need for a victim to give evidence. A national network of domestic violence specialists co-ordinates prosecution policies. Did the Tories do any of that? They did not.

Every domestic violence murder is now the subject of an inquiry to try to ascertain just where the risk factors should have been picked up to stop the case from escalating to its appalling conclusion. The Government have gone out to consultation and there will be domestic violence legislation, a free-standing Bill that will allow scope for amendments and expansion. That Bill has been announced well ahead of its passage, and there will be consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny with every prospect of significant steps forward in solving the epidemic of domestic violence crime that is not even mentioned by Conservative Members when they call a debate about the criminal justice system.

I hope that the Conservatives will not, as they did with changes to rape law, oppose changes in domestic violence law. I have some hope. Domestic violence was not even debated at a Conservative party conference until this year, and I am pleased that a debate has happened. I hope that the Tories are turning the corner and will come along with us.

To the right hon. and hon. Gentlemen on the Opposition Benches who were rash enough to summon this debate, I must say that women are in no doubt about who failed to deliver on rape and on domestic violence. They are in no doubt about who is trying to assist them now.

I have spoken of specific items and shall widen my speech for one minute. I shall go to Eston in Redcar two weeks on Friday to talk about crime and community safety. When I walk in, people will say to me that more needs to be done. They will add, however, that they are glad to talk to me rather than to a representative of the previous Government, during whose period in office recorded crime doubled—including that in my constituency—and the number of criminals convicted by the courts fell by a third. During that time, the chance of being a victim of violent crime trebled—including in my constituency—and crime increased faster than it did in any other western country. I can return to the source of the debate by saying that the chances of being a victim of burglary increased from one in 32 to one in 13 over the Conservative period in office. They criticise us, but we may ask whether they were generally effective on crime. The answer is no.

The two gender hate crimes of high concern to women were not even on the field of play during those years. Thank goodness that the Labour Government are not only on the field, but scoring good goals.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Shadow Attorney General 6:20 pm, 13th January 2003

I rise to speak in my role as a Back-Bench Member on a matter of intense importance not only to my constituents, but to the public at large.

When the Lord Chancellor was interviewed on the XToday" programme a week ago, I was astonished to hear him say that first-time offenders should be sent to prison only as a last resort. As I pointed out in this place, it had apparently been agreed between him, the Home Secretary and the Attorney-General that, in general, that methodology would be employed even for serious offences.

Having criticised the tabloid newspapers for presuming to comment on such questions, the Lord Chancellor went on to assert that the people of this country were not so unworldly as to disagree with what he had to say. However, a west midlands newspaper, the Express & Star, held a poll a few days after the Lord Chancellor made his comments and I was asked to comment on the fact that no less than 98 per cent. of the respondents disagreed with his analysis and thus, by implication, that of the Lord Chief Justice as well. Furthermore, in a poll taken by The People on 12 January, 93 per cent. of people said that they want burglars to be locked up for a second or third offence rather than being given community sentences.

One of the lessons to be learned from all that is that it is extremely important that our senior Law Officers and judges should have regard—as politicians do—to public opinion. Those extraordinary percentages suggest that the Lord Chancellor was entirely wrong, not only in what he said but in the way that he said it. I suspect that the publication of newspaper reports about the guidelines has, in effect, suggested to burglars that they have been given a green signal.

One cannot draw criminological or academic conclusions about the construction of such guidelines because no one reads them, except to extract a few bits and pieces—as I shall do myself. I am extremely sceptical as to their value. When I was asked for my comments on them last week, I said that it would be better to put much greater emphasis on the judge's discretion—as my right hon. Friend Mr. Letwin also suggested. Furthermore, there should be much more parliamentary supervision or surveillance of such things. The law and political developments in the law should be kept in kilter with the needs of the times in which we live and with public opinion.

I have read the guidelines with great care and I am deeply concerned about the emphasis in interviews with Law Officers and in the guidelines themselves that the reason for what is being done is to deal with overcrowding in prisons. There is a severe danger that judicial guidelines, which should be dealing with questions of justice, are actually being used for political purposes. The Lord Chief Justice may not have realised that, but the unelected Lord Chancellor should certainly have done so and should not have associated himself with the tendency to focus on the question of prison populations.

It is part of my job to read the guidelines, but I would not criticise hon. Members for not having done so. However, if they have, they will have been astonished to note that paragraph 10 states:

XThe pressures on our prisons and the extent to which it is possible to address an offender's criminal behaviour during a prison sentence are not matters of which the public can be expected to be aware."

That is an extraordinary comment of great complacency. Indeed, it is somewhat contemptuous of the public at large—to return to the point that I made earlier about the mismatch between public opinion and sentencing policy, especially on burglary.

The guidelines send out hugely confused and contradictory messages, but there is a bottom line. As my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary suggested, it relates to the fact that, in the last resort, judges should be allowed to make their own decisions. Paragraph 19 states:

XThe width of the definition of burglary in section 9 of the Theft Act 1968 underlines the fact that the court can do no more than provide guidelines. The application of the guidelines must be subject to all the circumstances of the particular case and sentencers in applying the guidelines must tailor their sentence to meet those circumstances."

To put it simply, that means that after considering all the facts of the case—as I hope any judge would—the sentencer considers the law and uses their discretion in reaching a verdict.

There are serious questions as to the value of the guidelines. They create a theatre in which we shall see judicial dancing on the head of a pin, whereas I should be happier if much more emphasis was put on the discretion of the judge. I have faith in our judiciary, if it is given an opportunity. My hon. Friend Mr. Bellingham referred to a judge who felt constrained by the guidelines. One could enlarge on that example, although I do not intend to do so this evening.

In a burglary, the most important fact is that of entry—no one knows what is going to happen after that. For example, in the Tony Martin case, with which I am not familiar in detail, things happened as a result of the burglary. We have heard ideas such as the suggestion made by Simon Hughes about the burglar being able to guess that someone was in the house. However, the burglar does not, and cannot, know about that and we have to deal with the physical reaction that might result.

It is wrong for the guidelines to suggest that there should be a presumption against prison. There should be a presumption in favour of prison, but extenuating circumstances should be taken into account and it should be left to our judges to form their own judgment in the courts. That would be a sensible way to proceed and I commend my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset for his suggestion that such matters should be properly discussed in Parliament. They should already have been considered in this place and most people are astonished that that was not the case.

Photo of Ian Lucas Ian Lucas Labour, Wrexham 6:30 pm, 13th January 2003

I should like to focus my brief remarks on the statement in the Opposition motion that the Government have an

Xapparent inability . . . to provide a coherent, long-term strategy to resolve" the problems of crime. I profoundly disagree with that statement because I believe that when the Government took office in 1997 there was a major change in the approach to crime in our communities. The key word is Xcommunity". It is much over-used, but, importantly, it was recognised from the outset that crime is a community issue.

Another hackneyed phrase is Xtough on crime, tough on the causes of crime". It may be a soundbite, but it has a resonance. It was important because it expressed our constituents' knowledge that crime cannot be confronted simply by sentencing criminals. Crime is a community issue that needs to be confronted jointly by all the organisations in our communities, and that has happened since Labour took office in 1997.

We have had the introduction, for example, of crime and disorder partnerships and young offenders teams, both of which are highly respected throughout the criminal justice system. They reintroduced the role of local authorities, of which the Conservative party appeared to have a pathological hatred in the years leading up to 1997, to the extent that it would simply not recognise the fact that they had an important role in dealing with crime.

Whenever I speak to those involved in the criminal justice system in my community—from the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the probation service to defence solicitors—they all praise the structure that has been set up, involving crime and disorder partnerships and young offenders teams, and the work that is being done in our communities.

A coherent approach is being taken across our communities and it is having a major effect on crime, but we all recognise that there is a continued problem with persistent young offenders, on whom the Government's current policy is focused.

The Government have confronted many offenders who committed crimes in the 1980s and the early 1990s by providing them with routes out of crime through work and other measures—for example, opportunities through the new deal scheme. Those measures have provided people with the chance to work in our communities and not to commit crimes. However, we still have a problem with the young people who continue to commit crime, often because they are drug-related offenders.

The Government instituted a process to consider our criminal justice system—the Halliday report and the Auld review—and to try to find a better way to deal with repeat offenders. That coherent, measured and considered approach has developed over a number of years. It is important to adopt that approach, and I sometimes hear echoes from the Conservative party that it is buying into it, but it should try to avoid the temptation to create headlines such as those sought in today's motion.

It is simply not true to say that there has not been a long-term approach to the proposals in the Criminal Justice Bill. Two years ago, I held a sentencing conference in Wrexham to discuss the proposals set out in the Halliday review. Victims of crime, magistrates and the police attended, and we put our submissions to the Home Office. Those submissions and many others led to the proposals in the Bill, so there is a coherent view.

I share many hon. Members' great distaste of catching and seeking headlines, which, in my view, always creates bad law. We politicians must try to resist the temptation, which is felt by Members on both sides of the House, to react by trying to introduce legislation to confront single events. We must follow the coherent, positive approach of consulting as widely as possible, trying to reach consensus on criminal justice matters if at all possible and introducing sensible measures that the courts can apply.

We have debated the Sentencing Guidelines Council and the possibility of Parliament taking a more prescriptive role in setting sentencing guidelines. I have some sympathy with the suggestion that the courts should be more responsive to public concerns about certain offences. I suspect, however, that Parliament is not the right forum in which to devise a sentencing policy. I should want a much broader forum to be consulted, so that the issues raised by the victims of crime, the police and CPS could be taken into account more directly.

The Sentencing Guidelines Council represents a sensible approach, but we need to ensure that we draw directly on the experiences of those in our communities who are concerned and feel helpless. I shall draw my comments to a conclusion by saying that I profoundly disagree with the suggestion that no coherent approach has been followed since 1997. The approach that has been taken has led to major improvements on our streets.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham 6:36 pm, 13th January 2003

I should like briefly to focus my remarks on the need for honesty in sentencing and on the effect of overcrowding on the quality of rehabilitation programmes for persistent offenders.

First, let us deal with honesty in sentencing and consider the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997. That Act provided for the imposition of mandatory minimum three-year prison sentences for adult domestic burglars thrice convicted. It is true—it is important to put this on the record—that the legislation contained a provision for the exercise of judicial discretion to facilitate a 20 per cent. reduction in a sentence when the person charged made a timely plea of guilty. However, the legislation specifically emphasised that the mandatory minimum sentence itself could be waived only in exceptional circumstances. So Parliament thought that it was legislating to create a new mandatory minimum sentence that would apply in the overwhelming majority of relevant cases.

The legislation itself took effect in December 1999 to a fanfare of trumpets and was announced by the then Home Secretary, Mr. Straw. In rightly referring to burglary as a sickening offence, he emphasised:

XPeople need to know that criminals who make a living from house breaking will face a period of imprisonment which reflects their crimes."

Moreover, I must emphasise that the Government's apparent intentions and seriousness of purpose on that subject were further underlined by the then Minister of State, Home Office, Mr. Clarke, who is now, of course, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills. He emphasised in an answer published at column 137W of Hansard on 23 April that the Government intended to persist with that policy and to undertake an evaluation of it throughout the criminal justice system, including its effect on the incidence of burglary in 2003–04, with a final evaluation of its efficacy to be undertaken in 2010. As right hon. and hon. Members will have already noted from my remarks about the time scale, however, it has been in effect for more than three years, so we are entitled to take an interim review. At the end of two years of the policy, only six such individuals, thrice convicted, had suffered the mandatory minimum imprisonment term of three years. I have not so far been able to obtain the statistics, which would be significant as they would tell us the other side of the equation: the number of individuals to whom that mandatory minimum sentence could have applied. Has the mandatory minimum sentence been applied to a tiny minority, or has the incidence been relatively small? We do not know that for certain. What we do know, however, is that, during 1999–2000, the police in England and Wales recorded 442,600 domestic burglaries, and no fewer than 16,800 people were sentenced for the commission of that offence. It therefore looks at least dangerously as though what Parliament willed and intended to be the application of a majority cases policy has somehow transmogrified and deteriorated into a policy applied in exceptional cases, rather than one that is waived in exceptional cases.

That leads to the obvious question: do the Government believe that their policy in the implementation of the mandatory minimum sentence is right, and that the judiciary has been wrong to circumvent it? Alternatively, do the Government believe that they are wrong in their insistence on the mandatory minimum sentence of three years and that the judiciary have been right to circumvent it? I put it to the Minister who will wind up the debate, to whose response we look forward, that only one or other of those positions can be correct. It is not possible for both to be correct. We need to know the answer.

On the subject of parliamentary oversight and scrutiny of sentencing guidelines, I largely endorse what a number of my right hon. and hon. Friends said. I am bound to say in support of the eloquent testimony of the shadow Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend Mr. Letwin, that a Sentencing Guidelines Council that is chaired by the Lord Chief Justice and appointed by the Lord Chancellor is no substitute for the rigorous parliamentary scrutiny that I favour. That scrutiny could, and, I would suggest, should take place under the auspices of the Home Affairs Committee, which is admirably chaired by Mr. Mullin. What is not an option is the do-nothing approach. What we need—I say this to hon. Members on both sides of the House, and not in a partisan spirit—to counter the pervasive cynicism that characterises the conduct of our public life and the attitude of most people towards politics is demonstrable evidence for the public to observe that we say what we mean and we mean what we say. To do nothing would be an abdication by the Government of the responsibility to Parliament, and would simultaneously be an abdication of responsibility by Parliament to the public, who desperately seek the reassurance of a predictable, robust, credible and honest sentencing framework. That is the first issue of importance.

The second issue is the impact of overcrowding. We know that, in June 2002, the prison population was 71,220. It is variously predicted to rise to 99,000 or 100,000 by 2009, and, dependent on the incidence of criminality and the length of sentences imposed by the courts, to as high as 109,000 or 110,000, even before we take account of the provisions of the Criminal Justice Bill. It is estimated that 14,000 current prisoners are effectively doubling up in shared cells that were originally designed for occupation by only one person.

What more do we know about the effect of that overcrowding? We know that, in young offender institutions, for example, what operates is the phenomenon entitled Xthe churn": the process of constant transfer and movement of prisoners, including young offenders, from one institution to another, often taking place with little or no notice. That is exemplified by Glen Parva young offenders institution in Leicestershire, where, astonishingly and shamefully, only 4 per cent. of the 800 occupants are there for more than a month. We know the damage done to rehabilitation programmes and to the opportunity of training, education and job preparation in those circumstances.

We know, too, because the evidence testifies to it, that purposeful activity has been declining since this Government took office. In only one of seven years, to the eternal discredit of Labour Members, has the target for purposeful activity, which is critical to the chances of reformation of character of criminals, been achieved. Six out of 15 key performance indicators have been flunked. The people affected are those persistent offenders in aid of whom Ian Lucas spoke sincerely and with integrity a few moments ago. Eighty-four per cent. of 14 to 17-year-old young offenders are reconvicted within two years of release from custody—we are talking about people in secure training centres, typically aged 14, who have been brought up in local authority care and have had no fewer, on average, than 22 convictions. Those people need more, better-funded and increasingly effective and tailored programmes of rehabilitation if they are to get off the conveyor belt of crime and have a chance of success in the future.

My judgment is that the Government are guilty as charged of two serious offences in relation to sentencing policy and the effects of overcrowding on the critical objective of reforming prisoners. That reform must not be a Cinderella service, an optional extra or a belated afterthought in pursuit of the banner headline for the eye-catching initiative, the effect of which, whatever its intention, is invariably to betray the very people whom it intends to serve.

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron Conservative, Witney 6:47 pm, 13th January 2003

I am grateful to my hon. Friend Mr. Bercow. He can speak for many hours without a note, to which it is always good to listen, but he has given me a couple of minutes to raise a particular constituency case to which I would like the Minister to listen.

Many residents in my west Oxfordshire constituency have been terrorised by a particular criminal gang of violent burglars, who are believed to live in Cheltenham, next door in Gloucestershire. They have been responsible for dozens of burglaries. To illustrate, the Heyworth family, who live in the Cotswold wildlife park, said:

XOften burglaries are repeated in the same houses, leading to great stress for the occupants. One house of a couple in their 70s was broken into, at night, twice in 48 hours."

Another lady from Bampton told me:

XAt least six friends and acquaintances have recently been targeted, the majority of whom like ourselves are elderly. The situation is intolerable."

Clearly, this gang are causing great distress to all concerned.

The police have had some success, but there are problems, which I would like to share with the Minister. One problem is that, while the clan or group believed to be responsible for these burglaries live in the Cheltenham area, they rarely commit offences on their own patch. John Liversidge, the area commander concerned in the Thames Valley police force, has written to me:

XConsequently, the level of importance attached to the group by Gloucestershire is less than that given by surrounding forces, who bear the brunt of the gang's criminal activity."

His second point is about the difficulty of calling on central resources when there are so many other calls.

I have met the chief constable of the Thames Valley force and have visited, with Lord Hurd—my predecessor but one—the assistant chief constable of Gloucestershire. One issue arose, which I would like to raise in the remaining minute. I am concerned that some of the crime is falling between what the regional crime squads used to do and what is done now , on the one hand, by the National Crime Squad—which was set up to replace the regional crime squads—and, on the other, by the county forces. If we look at the National Crime Squad's mission document, we see that it is focused very much on class A drugs, organised immigration crime and high-tech crime. There is very little about cross-border burglary and I hope that the Minister will consider that point. The report refers to a

Xperceived void in relation to activity . . . which deals with cross force/regional crime."

The crime has been identified, but an answer to it has not been found.

I wish to make three quick pleas to the Minister. First, will he not give forces too many targets that mean that they cannot deal with crime outside their own area? If he does, they will not deal with such crime. Secondly, will he ensure that the national crime squad deals with burglary because that is a serious problem? Thirdly, after this debate, will he also give the attack on burglary a much higher priority than it has had so far?

A huge problem has not been mentioned sufficiently in the debate. The Lord Chief Justice's sentencing guidelines overturn what the sentencing advisory panel recommended and, God knows, that was weak enough in the first place. Ministers say that the Lord Chief Justice is talking only about not imprisoning a few first-time burglars, but they should read his judgment in the cases of Regina v. McInerney and Regina v. Keating. In two instances, which include aggravating circumstances and in which people could be put in fear and victims experience a dreadful burglary, Ministers will see that he is saying that the starting point should not be custody. Conservative Members firmly believe that it should be.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 6:51 pm, 13th January 2003

We have heard a great deal in the debate about statistics. Several Labour members, including Ross Cranston and Mr. Kidney, made the point that it was possible to be blinded by statistics. I entirely agree with them. Statistics should be approached with the knowledge that we all get from our constituencies, from what people tell us and from the experience of our lives. In that context, I point out to Ian Lucas that the suggestion that the Conservative party does not take an interest in neighbourhood and community issues in respect of crime is bunkum. I was the vice-chairman of a police community consultative group in Lambeth and those of us who have been involved in groups dealing with local crime prevention will find that a startling assertion.

I always start not with the statistics for what has happened over the past five years but with the statistics for what has happened in this country over the past 50 years. Although those statistics may be misleading in their detail, the picture that they paint is horrific. I receive from septuagenarian constituents angry letters telling us that this country is an entirely different place in terms of crime from that they remember from their childhood, and they are absolutely right.

I take as just one example the offence of wounding or other acts endangering life. In the year in which I was born, 1956, 1,227 such offences were committed. In 2000–01, the figure was 15,662 offences and, even under the old rules, there was a consistent upward trend in the late 1990s. Burglary has been spoken about at great length in the debate. In 1956, 85,000 burglaries were committed and we know that the figure peaked at 1.3 million. By 2000-01, the figure was more than 800,000 and surely the most significant thing about the latest statistics is that they strongly suggest that the bottoming out and gentle reduction have now been lost. If that is not the proper basis for an Opposition to initiate this debate, I cannot think what is. We should also consider the statistics for violent crime. The figure was as low as 3,000 in 1942, but it is now at an enormously high level.

The Government say that things have not got so bad over the past five years. They are entitled to be judged by their performance and, over the past five years, it has been extremely poor. They came to office committed to building on the improvements of the previous four or five years of Conservative Government in matters of crime. They told us that they would be tough on crime and tough on its causes, and they have had five years in which to show their mettle. As has been pointed out in the debate, the statistics for burglary—but, above all, those for violent crime—show that, in the past 10 years and particularly since the Government came to office and notwithstanding a rising tide of national prosperity, the willingness of people to resort to casual violence, to violence for the sake of gain and to graduate from the punch-up to the use of the knife and to the use of the gun is one of the most worrying aspects of our society. I would have thought that the Government would agree with us on that. I also assume that the Government would agree with us about burglary in the mid-1990s. That is an example of what happens when a particular crime is targeted.

What has been the Government's reaction? There has been plenty of discussion in the debate about two examples that show the Government's muddled thinking. The first example is the so-called mandatory sentence for gun crime, and the second is the message that they have put out about burglary. My hon. Friend Mr. Bercow made a powerful speech about the way in which the mandatory three-year sentence for the repeat offender was implemented by the Government. They did not need to implement it if they did not want to, but its implementation has led nowhere.

As my hon. Friend Mr. Cash pointed out, the judicial guidelines have been tailored and transformed to meet the immediate crisis in prison numbers. There is no other explanation and the public are entitled to question the new guidelines when they do not appear to have any other basis and when the evidence is that the introduction of tougher guidelines in the mid-1990s was the very thing that brought about the one reduction in crime for which the previous Government and this Government could claim some credit. The Conservative Government could claim credit for initiating that policy and the present Government at least maintained it. I fear that that policy has now been almost totally abandoned and we will rapidly see the consequences of that. They are already manifest in the rising rate of burglary.

My hon. and learned Friend Mr. Garnier made the same point and made a plea for flexibility in the sentencing guidelines. He is absolutely right. Mandatory sentences in themselves very rarely work, so what happened at Prime Minister's questions 24 hours after the Home Office had accepted that the mandatory sentence for gun crime was nothing of the kind beggars belief. In answer to a question from my hon. Friend Mr. Prisk, the Prime Minister said:

XThe five year mandatory sentence is not yet law, but we want it to be, and of course it would apply to such a person."—[Hansard, 8 January 2003; Vol. 397, c. 170.]

He was referring to someone carrying a gun. In one of the most unpleasant passages that I have heard in the House, the Home Secretary suggested that my right hon. Friends Mr. Letwin and the leader of the Conservative party were—he used an unparliamentary expression—being misleading, so what on earth are we to make of a Prime Minister who, 24 hours after the Home Office had corrected a wholly mistaken impression, decides to reinforce that impression in the House because he believes that that will make good copy? That was a disgrace. [Interruption.] The Home Secretary only has to read Hansard or to have it read to him to discover what was said. It was a wholly misleading statement, and quite deliberately so.

The Home Secretary has also told us how things will improve in future. For example, he told us that the Halliday report on sentencing would be implemented in the Criminal Justice Bill and that we would have custody plus, custody minus and greater flexibility. In fact, that will not happen. He knows that, although the Bill will introduce many changes—including the possibility of custody plus and custody minus—the Government have already indicated that the changes cannot, at present, be implemented, presumably because the resources are not available. I have to say to the Home Secretary that that was another extremely misleading comment.

The remedies that the Government have come up with are a series of ersatz ideas. We have talked about the 100 initiatives and mandatory sentences, but all the Government do is make headlines saying that they will attack and undermine the principles of jury trial—we will consider that tomorrow in the Committee considering the Criminal Justice Bill—when the number of people affected by that in terms of reducing crime is totally irrelevant. Yet the Government's proposal is an illiberal measure characteristic of their approach.

Then the Home Secretary told us about Mr. Braddon's visit. That fascinated me. He came over to tell us how New York has achieved its lowest violent crime rate—indeed, its lowest crime rate overall—since 1900. That is a complete contrast to this country and the Home Secretary seems to have accepted that we should study that example. This Home Secretary's tenure, however, has been characterised by a period of maximum police demoralisation because they are unable to carry out the task that they want to do. It is small wonder, therefore, that the crisis is so marked in my area of Thames Valley and no surprise that the Dyfed-Powys police force has the highest clear-up rate for crime. Dyfed-Powys police has the highest number of police officers per head of population; Thames Valley has one of the worst clear-up rates and one of the lowest number of police officers per head of population.

The Home Secretary has been unable and unwilling to tackle that issue. It is ultimately a matter of priorities. So let us consider the Government's priorities. At the moment, they are happy to spend #2.5 billion per annum giving us bureaucratic structures for regional government. If they had different priorities, that could be used instead to provide 25,000 police officers. The choice is theirs. They know from our Committee work that they will have reasoned support from us for sensible measures, but they have chosen to hide behind a series of spins and deceits to conceal the fact from the general public that they know, just as much as the public do, that there is a serious problem with violent crime. The Home Secretary is like a raging bull in a china shop: he can smash the crockery and smash civil liberties in the process, but he produces limited results for his exertions. He would do well to step back, consider the matter carefully and embark on sensible and long-term policies rather than a series of gimmicks.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Minister for Prisons and Probation) 7:02 pm, 13th January 2003

I think we were subjected to the nice cop, nasty cop routine at the beginning and the end of the debate. I definitely prefer the nice cop even if there were elements of Gilbert and Sullivan to the speech by Mr. Letwin. I am grateful to him for being honest enough to admit that he had changed his mind on sentencing. I agreed with him wholeheartedly on one thing. He said that we were debating a long-running problem. He is right about that. Mr. Grieve made the same point. In anticipation of tomorrow's debate, let me make it clear that the hon. Gentleman's criticism of changes to jury trial does not bear examination if one considers the measured comments of the Home Affairs Committee, which did not manage to get as excited about our proposed changes as he did.

The debate focused on several issues. Statistics received a great deal of attention. I agree with Simon Hughes that we must have faith in them, but my hon. Friend Mr. Kidney and my hon. and learned Friend Ross Cranston gave the most balanced account of the Government's record on crime.

On gun crime and firearms, I listened with great interest to Mr. Garnier, who dissected the circumstances that might arise when dealing with possession of a firearm. I think he acknowledged, however, that the existing law is not being properly applied. That begs the question of how it can be better applied. There is no doubt of the need for the changes proposed by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary so that the exceptional circumstances are clear. Of course the judiciary have to judge what the sentence should be for carrying a firearm in public. What possible purpose could someone have for doing that? There is also a strong case to ban the carrying of replica weapons in a public place.

Mr. Bellingham spoke with passion about the position in which householders find themselves when faced with burglars. He knows that the law allows someone to use reasonable force. For the reasons that the hon. and learned Member for Harborough gave, that has to be judged on a case-by-case basis. I do not understand how a subjective test, which is what the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk argued for in relation to the use of force against burglars, could replace it. From a different perspective, my hon. and learned Friend Vera Baird spoke with equal passion about the need to take the crimes of rape and domestic violence seriously. She welcomed the Government's steps to do precisely that.

We also heard a range of views on sentencing. I am sure that we will have a lively debate when we discuss the clauses in the Criminal Justice Bill in Committee and on Report which deal with the Sentencing Guidelines Council. I hope that Mr. Bercow will support the proposed changes. The position on third-time convicted burglars is not as he set out. To get to a third conviction under the Crime (Sentencing) Act 1997, a burglar would need to have two previous convictions and sentences since the Act came into force in December 1999, so the clock needs to tick a little longer. However, I am happy to write to him with more information on that. He is right about the impact of the Xchurn" on the prison population.

Mr. Cameron raised the problem of burglary. He may be interested to know that Peter Hampson, the chief constable for West Mercia, is leading ACPO's work on that.

Notwithstanding the ritual denunciation of the Government by the Opposition, the truth came out in patches. We are trying to deal with a problem—the causes of crime and its terrible consequences—that will not be solved by soundbites issued by any party or by a fruitless argument about who is harder than whom when it comes to punishing criminals. Of course people must be called to account for what they have done, but surely years of experience under Conservative and Labour Governments have taught us that the real question is what will work best, as the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey said. We need to consider what we need to do to prevent people from offending and reoffending.

Those of us who represent inner-city constituencies understand perhaps better than anyone the effect that crime and the fear of crime have on the people we represent. I am sure that we have all had constituents in our surgeries who have been in tears and in despair, and wondering why they are forced to live in a certain way. No doubt every MP has shared my feeling of anger and helplessness at that time. Even though crime overall has fallen under the Government, that does not matter to that person at that moment because he or she has experienced a crime. The challenge is to put the emotion felt by our constituents, by us as Members and by society as a whole to effective use. That is what the Government and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary are trying to do.

We have heard contradictory criticisms of the Home Secretary. On the one hand, he is accused of trying to do too much; on the other hand, he is not doing enough. One of his defining characteristics is that he will try to make a difference.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield asked what are our priorities. Very simply, they include a determination to increase the number of police officers, which is why we now have a record number, after the disastrous decline that occurred under the last Conservative Government. We are determined to give community support officers better equipment, so that they can support police authorities by talking to communities about what kind of policing they want. We need to audit what the police do, and we need to try to cut bureaucracy.

It is determination that lies behind changes to the criminal justice system. The proposal for street bail in the Criminal Justice Bill has been welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. That is a practical measure to cut bureaucracy and to help police officers to do their job. We are determined to provide new sentences for the courts—indeterminate sentences, which will mean at last that people are not released when everybody knows that they are still a risk to the public. We are determined to invest more money in offending behaviour programmes, drug treatment and sex offender treatment. We are determined to support people who are imprisoned by their drug habit, which is the subject of the next debate.

In the best example of the Government's priorities, we are determined to tackle offenders when they are young. Members on both sides of the House have paid tribute to youth justice reforms because, despite the cynics, they recognised that something could be done. We have halved the time that it takes to get people from crime to sentence, and we have reduced reoffending.

Finally, I concur with the point made by my hon. Friend Ian Lucas because we cannot solve this problem if we leave it only to the police, the courts, the probation service and the prisons. This is a problem for the community and for society. We have to make clear our values: we want to treat people with dignity and respect; we call on people to account for what they have done; we want to protect ourselves from those against whom we need protection; we want to give help to those who have offended, if they are prepared to change the way they live. If we do not have those values in our society, we will never solve this problem and find effective ways of tackling crime and building a safer society.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 152, Noes 365.

Division number 46 Criminal Justice System

Aye: 152 MPs

No: 365 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.

Mr. Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House welcomes the steps the Government has taken and continues to take to reform all aspects of law enforcement including increasing police numbers to record levels and the 6.1 per cent. increase in police funding for 2003–04; further welcomes the steps the Government is taking to modernise the criminal justice system through the coherent long-term strategies and the introduction of the Criminal Justice Bill; notes that for the last five years crime rates have fallen by 27 per cent. according to the British Crime Survey, that burglary has reduced by 39 per cent. since 1997 and that the chances of becoming a victim of crime are as low as at any time in the last 20 years; and particularly supports the decisive action being taken by the Government to tackle street crime and the rise in gun-related crime.