I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I rise to invite the House to give a Second Reading to the Violent Crime Reduction Bill. As colleagues on both sides of the House will know, the introduction of the Bill was a manifesto commitment at the general election. It reflected deep concerns that existed in many parts of the country and were in turn reflected in the election debate. I believe that the steps that we are setting out today will make a contribution towards addressing those concerns in a serious and positive way.
It will be clear to everyone that violent crime takes a wide variety of forms, ranging from common assault, often fuelled by alcohol, through to more serious crimes such as sexual assault and crimes where guns, knives and other offensive weapons are used, which can lead in extreme cases to homicide. Although the British crime survey data show considerable falls in violent crime since 1997—by about 26 per cent.—it remains the case that in many parts of the country there is high, and genuine, concern about the level of violent crime, and a strong desire, reflected, I am sure, by Members on both sides of the House, to take the most appropriate steps to deal with it.
The proposals in the Bill are part of our ongoing work to tackle violent crime in all forms and to make the country much safer for its law-abiding citizens. The overall objection of the legislation is to provide the police and local communities with the powers that they need in two specific areas: first, alcohol-related violence; and secondly, the use of weapons, particularly guns and knives.
I want to deal first with alcohol-related violence and disorder. It is obvious, I think, that alcohol misuse is closely linked with a wide range of crime, disorder and antisocial behaviour. It is a highly visible part of the night-time economy and, moreover, a phenomenon no longer confined to weekends. The British crime survey shows that 33 per cent. of stranger and 25 per cent. of acquaintance alcohol-related assaults happen on weekday evenings and nights. The effects are widely apparent and have an impact on large numbers of people in a variety of ways.
There is no inconsistency at all, for reasons that I am about to explain.
It is obviously true that responsibility for ending the binge-drinking culture must ultimately lie with the individual. That is the point in relation to the hon. Gentleman's intervention. I am sure that he has many friends who, late at night after a meal or going to the cinema, might welcome the chance to have a drink afterwards with their friends in a way that is absolutely no threat to the security of the community in which they live. That is true throughout the country and it is a reasonable part of civilised life. In this country and throughout Europe, we have seen that that can happen in a proper way. The point is to distinguish between such perfectly civilised activity and the binge drinking and horizontal and vertical drinking culture that is such a serious problem. [Interruption.] I meant vertical drinking, which leads to horizontal drinking. That was the confusion in my language on which hon. Members picked up.
The Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 gives local authorities the powers to try to prevent the cumulative impact of a concentration of places where people might drink standing up or lying down. I hope that all local authorities will be serious about trying to apply those powers.
In the Wirral, there is another concern. On weekday and weekend evenings, part of the centre of the Birkenhead resembles the wild west on speed. We are worried that such centres will spread to other parts of the Wirral where there are currently no licences. If the local authority and local Members can devise a suitable amendment, will my right hon. Friend consider favourably granting local authorities the powers to refuse the first licence if they fear that the relevant area will go the same way as the centre of Birkenhead?
We will consider such aspects. The Licensing Act 2003 and the Bill allow local authorities in the Wirral and elsewhere, working with the police, to define matters of greatest concern. As I shall explain shortly, I hope that the Bill gives the powers that are needed. However, the short answer is yes; if necessary, we shall consider amendments to deal with such an eventuality.
Responsibility must ultimately lie with the individual. However, the industry and licensed premises also have a role to play—that is a critical point. Legislation, therefore, has a firm part to play. I shall set out the five provisions on alcohol-related violence that the Bill includes.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the responsibility of the licensees and the licensed premises. Does he know about the scheme in Blackpool, whereby the Licensees Forum works constructively with the local authority and the police, who then police licensed premises in the Blackpool area? Will he consider the expansion elsewhere of such schemes, for example the excellent night safe scheme, and of good practice, so that the licensed premises, the police and the local authorities genuinely work together to ensure the safety of those who want to drink in the evenings?
I agree with my hon. Friend. Blackpool is one of the parts of the country where all sectors of the community, including the people who run businesses and know that they will be successful only in a climate that is secure for the wider community, work together. People have come together in a scheme to which I pay tribute. In my constituency in Norwich, a similar relationship operates in the nightclub areas. That has been positive. I believe that the provisions will encourage people to consider the example of Blackpool and elsewhere and make progress in their communities.
The Bill contains five specific provisions to deal with alcohol. The first is drinking banning orders. The measure provides for a new civil order, called a drinking banning order, which can be made against an individual who is engaged in criminal or disorderly conduct while under the influence of alcohol, and when such an order is necessary to protect other people from further harm. The order could impose any provision to protect others from criminal disorderly conduct while under the influence of alcohol. The length of the order will be between a minimum of two months and a maximum of two years. The order will be much more targeted than antisocial behaviour orders. Although ASBOs may be relevant in some circumstances, drinking banning orders will be more appropriate when the basic problem is binge drinking and alcohol-fuelled behaviour, pure and simple, and when there is a need for more flexible time limits on a ban.
As I understand it, under current legislation, magistrates can impose a drinking ban on somebody convicted of an offence on licensed premises. However, it is also important to be able to impose a ban on those who are convicted of offences such as disorderly behaviour outside licensed premises. Will the Bill allow that to happen?
My hon. Friend is entirely correct, and the short answer is yes, it will. The drinking banning order is necessary precisely for the reason that he implies. It is important to deal with disorder within premises, but it is also important to have powers to deal with disorder outside premises in areas in which a large number of premises are grouped together.
Drunk and disorderly behaviour is specifically an offence relating to someone's drinking. The new offence will allow a drinking banning order to be put in place when the problem is not simply one of drunkenness but of other antisocial and disreputable behaviour in the locality. I regret to say that such instances are only too common.
The Home Secretary will remember that, when we were discussing the so-called 24-hour drinking proposals, we suggested that they should be held off until the effectiveness of these alcohol disorder zones and drinking banning orders had been proven. Will he assess their effectiveness regularly during the early part of their implementation?
Very much so. We shall look very carefully at their effectiveness not only before the legislation comes into force but throughout their existence. We shall also ensure that there is every opportunity for licensees to behave in the way described by my hon. Friend Mrs. Humble, and to get their act in order. That would be the best solution for many of the places that we are talking about.
The second measure in the Bill involves the direction to individuals to leave a locality. The Bill also provides for new powers for the police to issue a direction to leave a locality to an individual aged at least 16 who is in a public place, and to prohibit his or her return for up to 48 hours. A direction could be given if the presence of the individual in the locality was likely to cause or contribute to alcohol-related crime or disorder, or to its continuation or repetition. A direction could be given to a person involved in any offence or disorder where alcohol was involved, and the provision is not limited to those offences relating specifically to drunk and disorderly behaviour.
I am trying to understand the place of local authorities in the strategy that is being put forward. There is an oddity in the Bill that I cannot explain, but I hope that the Home Secretary will have an explanation for it. In relation to the drinking banning orders, clause 11 gives a role to county councils but not to district councils where a county council exists. However, it is the other way round in clause 17, which deals with alcohol disorder zones. I fail to understand the purpose of that distinction.
The orders are different, and the key relationships are those between the local authority on the one side and the police on the other. That runs right through this legislation. However, I am quite happy for any inconsistency between county and district councils in regard to particular orders to be explored in Committee, if the issue would be better served by such a debate.
As I understand it, there would be no criminal accusation made in regard to someone being asked to leave a locality. However, loss of reputation could result from any publicity involved. If an individual were incorrectly identified by the police—and such errors will eventually be made—what recourse would he have, other than to go through the police complaints procedure?
Of course, a person would have recourse to the police complaints procedure, and to getting his or her case taken up in that way. However, I want to make a serious response about proportionality. In relation to the hypothetical situation in which a whole series of offences could be committed in a particular area, the sanctions that we are proposing are not enormous. Examples include an individual being asked to leave a locality for up to 48 hours, or the imposition of a drinking banning order lasting between two months and a maximum of two years. I acknowledge that there will be consequences, however, and if an individual has been wrongly accused, he will be able to have his case taken up. However, there is a difference in proportion between an issue of that kind and some of the other scales of penalty that can be applied, and that needs to be taken fully into account.
The third measure covered here relates to alcohol disorder zones. As I have said, as well as individuals, the industry and licensed premises have a major role in helping to end the binge-drinking culture, for the simple reason that nearly half all violent crime is alcohol-related. One in five violent incidents take place around pubs or clubs, and 35 per cent. of hospital accident and emergency admissions are alcohol-related. That rises to 70 per cent. between midnight and 5 am. Parts of too many of our towns and cities have become unpleasant places to visit on some evenings, and that can be exacerbated by a mixture of poor operating practice in certain sections of the trade and public spaces having to cope with large numbers of people heading for the town centres.
I welcome the steps that some in the trade have already taken to raise operating standards. Initiatives such as the one mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood, the best bar none accreditation scheme first launched in Manchester, and the constructive work of the trade associations to develop clear standards for responsible retail of alcohol—for instance, the recently published document on drinks promotions—are steps in the right direction, and we want to encourage them. There is more to be done, however. The Licensing Act 2003 gives the police and local authorities more powers to come down hard on irresponsible operators, and we need to make sure that the powers to review licences are used to their maximum potential.
I nevertheless think it incumbent on us all to face the fact mentioned by my hon. Friend Hugh Bayley. Much alcohol-related disorder in town and city centres at night takes place in the streets around pubs and clubs rather than inside them. That requires a change of approach.
I think that there is an issue of enforcement generally. The Bill's key message is that powers need to be enforced more effectively, but we must also ensure that the police have the powers that they need to deal with offences. Part of the problem, as I have said, is behaviour in certain localities in towns and cities.
I will give way when I have made a little more progress.
It is difficult to blame a particular pub, club or off-licence for disorder in public places, but that does not mean that premises can deny all responsibility. We want the industry to take collective responsibility for the problem. The Bill proposes a new power to designate alcohol disorder zones where there is a significant problem with alcohol-related disorder. Local authorities will be able to impose charges on pubs, clubs and off-licences within the boundaries of the zone if they fail to implement an action plan designed to tackle the problem.
Let me stress that the front-page story in the Daily Express suggesting that certain kinds of institution will be excluded from that power is entirely wrong. Clause 12(7) explains why. It is necessary for us to deal in this way with all the generators of alcohol abuse in a particular locality. I should make it clear, however, that alcohol disorder zones will be a measure of last resort. They would be used if licensed premises in the area were unwilling to take steps to deal with the problems voluntarily. The focus is on ensuring that action is taken to change the situation, and we believe that the threat of charges would be a powerful incentive for premises to participate voluntarily. The action plan will be tailored to individual local problems and solutions, and we will set up a practitioner-level working group to consider what might be a typical example. That is why the Local Government Association and the Association of Chief Police Officers have welcomed our proposals.
Why do so few convictions occur each year for the selling of alcohol on licensed premises to people who are inebriated? The law is quite clear, and easily enforceable.
I think it is because the partnerships between local authorities, police and licensees are not anywhere near as strong as they need to be in all parts of the country to achieve the policing that the hon. Gentleman describes. One of the major arguments for the Bill is that it would create that sense of corporate responsibility. I believe that this is the way forward.
Does the Home Secretary agree that much of the disorder on our streets is caused not only by those who are intoxicated with alcohol but by those who are intoxicated with a cocktail of drugs and alcohol, and that nothing in the Bill does anything to address the drugs element that is causing disorder on our streets? Does he agree that the downgrading of cannabis was a retrograde step and should be amended?
The drugs issues were addressed in the Drugs Bill, which became an Act at the end of the last Parliament. Obviously, the relationship that the hon. Gentleman describes exists, but we have decided, rightly, to focus in this legislation on alcohol-related aspects of disorder.
Further to the inquiry of my hon. Friend Mr. Jones, may I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that he should not lose sight of the importance of the drugs point? As I understand it, two thirds of the Government's flagship drug rehabilitation places have been terminated without the individual participant in them completing his or her term, yet the Government envisage an expansion in the number of places. Will he confirm, if he is intending to go ahead with that expansion, that he has in mind the length of time that each placement should last and how he intends to ensure that participants complete their term?
First, let me say that this Government have given more attention to the issue of drug abuse than any previous Government by a very long way. We have tackled the issue both through legislation and by making the necessary resources available. However, I do not believe that we have solved the problem by a long way. There is a great deal to do, as has been described, but I will not debate the drugs issue in the context of this legislation, which is to do with alcohol and guns and knives.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the problem of alcohol-related disorder appears to affect all cities, many suburban areas and a large number of smaller towns? Does he therefore expect most right hon. and hon. Members to have alcohol disorder zones declared in their constituencies?
I hope that the answer to that question is no, not because I disagree with my right hon. Friend's analysis—there is an issue in most of our constituencies to some degree or other, and certainly in a great city such as Southampton and others—but because the aim of our approach is to change the culture significantly. I hope that the kind of approach that my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood described in her intervention is the kind of approach that will be taken up and down the country, reinforced by the Licensing Act 2003, giving the local authority, together with the police, responsibility for dealing with the matter. If what my right hon. Friend described happened throughout the country, I would regard that as a failure. It would be a success if we had a relatively small number of alcohol disorder zones and changed behaviour in towns, cities and suburbs throughout the country in the way everyone wants. I am certain that that is the right direction to go in.
I thank my hon. Friend.
I welcome the proposals that the Home Secretary has put before us and has just outlined, although I suspect that the close working between the local authority, the police and the licensed trade in Brighton and Hove may mean that we will have no alcohol disorder zones. However, once these measures are on the statute book, will he liaise closely with the Lord Chancellor? I have in mind the fact that, in relation to antisocial behaviour orders—I think that there is a parallel—there is concern still that magistrates are perhaps not as aware as they might be of the full range of their powers. I suspect that, when this Bill becomes law, they may not be fully aware of the range of their powers when these orders are breached.
I am grateful to respond to such a well informed contribution. I certainly will liaise with the Lord Chancellor. As with ASBOs, ensuring that everyone understands exactly what the legislation does and how it is to be enforced is critical to its success. As I implied in my answers to interventions earlier, the single most important ambition we have in relation to this part of the Bill is to change behaviour. I agree that, in Blackpool, as in Brighton and Hove, there is a focus on solving the problem effectively. I hope that the Bill will provide more strength to the elbow of those seeking to do that.
Will my right hon. Friend accept that a change in attitude and behaviour is taking place in Stockton, where there is a voluntary agreement between the local authority and Cleveland police? In two months, crimes of violence were reduced by more than 20 per cent. One can see that the change in behaviour is encouraging people to respect and enjoy the night time economy.
I accept what my hon. Friend says. I was fortunate enough to visit her in Stockton a couple of months ago for a seminar on domestic violence, which brings to mind another important point. A central reason for achieving the change in behaviour to which she refers is to reduce domestic violence, which is so often alcohol-fuelled. That point was made by participants at the seminar and I am happy to give credit on that specific example.
Does the Home Secretary agree that there may be a lack of incentive for good landlords if they are treated the same as the bad landlords in a disorder zone?
First, there is a clear difference between the way in which the law treats good and bad landlords, in the sense that the bad landlords will have a series of sanctions that apply against them, and rightly so, while the good landlord will not. Secondly, it is important to stimulate every landlord, good or bad, to recognise that the welfare of an area depends on all landlords working together to drive out the bad and encourage the good. I believe that the Bill will help with that.
Will the Home Secretary clarify the role of the armed forces in relation to the police, as we are getting mixed messages on exactly what they are supposed to do? Would it not set a bad precedent if we saw the armed forces patrolling with the police on our streets?
The hon. Gentleman is referring to a story in the newspapers whose source I am still trying to discover. I do not recognise the descriptions in the newspapers; not an uncommon experience for me. However, the military police—rightly, in certain circumstances—are active in certain communities in terms of policing individuals in the military. I know the story to which he refers but I cannot give him any help with it.
In a spirit of co-operation, as always, I will be happy to write to the right hon. Gentleman with the results of my investigations when they take place. However, those investigations cannot be into the ways of news reporters, even on such august journals as The Sunday Telegraph, with which the right hon. Gentleman is keen to curry favour at the moment. But I certainly will write to him.
The fourth measure relating to alcohol disorder zones, but also to knives and guns, is the fulfilment of the commitment that will require those pubs and clubs that are at risk to search for knives and guns on entry to a club. This is a key step in our work to change the culture of carrying offensive weapons and will serve as a deterrent. The licence review provisions in the Bill supplement existing arrangements in the Licensing Act to expedite reviews of premises, and the licensing authority can act quickly to deal with the situation. We have not restricted the provision just to searching for weapons and glass. We want to provide an effective power that can be used flexibly, but it is important that licensees have more powers to deal with the situation and that the police have more powers to ensure that they do.
The Home Secretary will agree that the measures in the Bill, worthy as they may be, will only work if they can be enforced. Will he look again at the crippling burden of paperwork on our police officers so that they can get on with enforcing these measures?
The fifth measure in the Bill is the crime of persistently selling alcohol to children. The House has grappled for some years and on many different occasions with the unlawful sale of alcohol to children. Since 1988, progressive changes to the licensing law have attempted to create more effective powers to deter such irresponsible retailing. However, the number of children under 16 who consume alcohol has not changed significantly since 1988. About a quarter drink alcohol, but in one important sense at least, the position is deteriorating: those young people who do drink are drinking more. In the past decade, the average number of units of alcohol consumed per week by such children has almost doubled—from 5.3 units in 1990 to 9.8 units in 2001. That should concern us all.
The responsible parts of the alcohol industry, which helped us to establish enforcement campaigns such as last summer's alcohol misuse enforcement campaign, are as disturbed as we are by those results. Alcohol is obviously a contributory factor in raising levels of youth crime. This Bill will create a more robust deterrent to unlawful sales by threatening the profits of irresponsible businesses, rather than just the individuals making the sales. So the Bill will create a new offence of persistently selling alcohol to children if, on three or more different occasions in a period of up to three consecutive months, alcohol is unlawfully sold on the same premises to a person aged under 18. The penalty for the new offence on summary conviction will be a fine not exceeding £10,000. Where the offender is the licence holder, the premises' licence could be suspended for up to three months.
But the Bill goes further than that. On detecting an alleged offence, it will be open to the police and trading standards officers to serve a closure notice requiring the licence holder to cease sales of alcohol on a specified date for 48 hours, or face trial in the courts.
The right hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. I greatly welcome what he has just said, but will he reconsider the question of allowing the Portman Group voluntarily to regulate the advertising of alcopops?
I greatly respect the work of the Portman Group, which has worked very hard over the years—it is true that it is funded by the industry—to reach the position where we have more responsible drinking generally. On regulating the sales of particular drinks, however, it is better if possible to proceed by way of voluntary, rather than statutory, arrangements. There are some who do not agree with that approach and perhaps the hon. Gentleman is among them, but I think it better in principle to establish a set of voluntary agreements. In fact, the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety, my right hon. Friend Hazel Blears, through her own advocacy, secured some progress on this issue and I hope that we can move further in that direction. We should take that as our starting point, rather than going further and trying statutorily to define the types of drink that can and cannot be sold.
In addition to the Bill's provisions on dealing with those who persistently sell alcohol to children, will my right hon. Friend undertake to look in Committee at the penalties for those who purchase alcohol for minors? In my constituency, most of our problems are caused by kids standing outside off-licences and getting someone to go in and buy alcohol for them.
My hon. Friend's point is powerful and true—I have seen precisely that happen in some parts of the country. I can confirm that in Committee we will consider whether there is a better way to target penalties in that regard.
The second major issue that the Bill addresses is the abuse of weapons, particularly guns and knives. Again, there are five specific measures to which I want to draw attention, the first of which concerns using someone to mind a weapon. It is already an offence illegally to possess an unlawful firearm, and to carry knives and other weapons in public without reasonable excuse. The Criminal Justice Act 2003 introduced a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for illegal possession of an unlawful firearm, but the truth is that offenders can skirt the law by using other people—their friends, family or siblings—to carry their weapons or to hide them for them, in a manner not dissimilar to that which my hon. Friend referred to in respect of the purchase of alcohol. As well as such a person's being put at risk of harm from the weapon, they are also at risk of prosecution, while the offender escapes scot-free. In cases where children are used, they may be at risk of the longer-term harm of involvement in gun and knife crime, as a result of such early association with weapons.
It is clear that we need to close this loophole, so the Bill will make it an offence to use a person to hide or to carry a knife or firearm. In addition, if a young person under the age of 18 has been used, it must be regarded as an aggravating factor, which will affect the length of the sentence handed down. The penalties for this offence will be in line with those already existing for possession and send a very clear message that we will not tolerate the possession of such weapons in our society and that passing them on to another person, particularly if that person is a child, will not leave someone in the clear.
The second measure in this part of the Bill deals with air weapons—a matter of great concern across the House.
If, as the Home Secretary says, it is right—I am sure that it is—that using a young person to mind one of these weapons is an aggravating factor, is there not a case for applying an even more severe sentence for such an offence than would apply for mere possession?
There is a case for that and I am prepared to consider amendments to that effect in Committee. It is important to get this matter right and the Committee will look into it in detail. Overall, it is right for the offences to be introduced in the way that I said.
Airgun safety and incidents of misuse are matters of real public concern and I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will have had such concerns put to them by their constituents. In 2003–04, air weapons were used in 13,756 crimes—a fall of 0.5 per cent. from the previous year, but a 59 per cent. increase from 1998–99. Most offences were criminal damage, but even so there were 2,238 slight injuries and 157 serious injuries. We would all have read with horror the details of the tragic deaths of two-year-old Andrew Morton in Glasgow and 12-year-old Alex Cole in Doncaster. They underline the concerns expressed, and arouse—universally in the House, I am sure—a feeling of deep sympathy for the families and friends.
The Home Secretary refers to the tragic case of Andrew Morton, which has excited considerable press comment and, indeed, political comment in Scotland. Has he discussed the provisions of clause 26 with the First Minister or the Minister for Justice in Scotland and, if so, have they pronounced themselves content?
I have discussed that specific clause and the issue with both the First Minister and the Minister for Justice. We are still working to see whether any further amendment could usefully be made to deal with circumstances in Scotland. Both parties held a press conference during the election campaign and subsequently there were ministerial discussions and my officials and those of the Scottish Executive are discussing all the time how best to make progress in these areas. As to whether they are content, that is a difficult word to use in this context and I shall explain why.
The call was made for a licensing regime for all airguns. I did not go down that path because there were substantial representations from the police—including the police in Scotland—to the effect that expressly licensing airguns in the same way as firearms would lead to a bureaucratic and ineffective system that would not deliver the result that people wanted. There are still those who believe that we should nevertheless go down that route and I have no doubt that it will still be debated as the Bill proceeds and perhaps also in the Scottish Parliament. It remains important to reflect carefully on it.
I shall give way to both hon. Members in a few moments, but I want first to set out what we intend to do about airguns.
There is already a wide range of controls on air weapons, but in view of the high number of offences, we need to tighten up on certain aspects. Much of the misuse is attributed to young people, which is why we will be raising from 17 to 18 the minimum age for possessing or acquiring air weapons. We also propose to make it an offence for any person to fire an air weapon beyond the boundary of premises. We view that as particularly important, as weapons discharged from premises generally are a real danger around and about, so the new offence is right. It is already an offence for a person under 17 and adults who misuse air weapons can be prosecuted for other offences, but that measure has not always been effective. I am mindful of a case where two men fired shots from their balcony and hit a woman. Although the men admitted firing the guns, the police could not prove intent or who fired the crucial shot. The new offence will close that loophole.
Although the measures that my right hon. Friend has outlined are welcome, will he think again about a licensing scheme or indeed a ban on airguns? Although some police officers are against such a scheme, many senior figures in the police are in favour of a licensing scheme. Even if there were discussions to introduce such a scheme or a ban in Scotland, which I would welcome, the issue applies throughout the UK. I do not want people to be able to buy guns in Berwick-upon-Tweed or Carlisle and use them in Edinburgh where there may be a different regime.
My hon. Friend is right about the need for a similar regime throughout the UK. I can assure him and other Members that I will listen carefully to debate on these matters and to the points of argument that are put. All my instincts—I know this is true of my hon. Friend, too—would be against those who used airguns in such ways and we need effective regulation. We have carefully considered the best way to do that, but I shall certainly listen carefully to debates in the House, in Committee and elsewhere about how best to address the problem in a way that works. I am sure that my hon. Friend and I share the view that we should act only in a way that is actually effective and that is the key test that we have to establish.
Given the points made by Mark Lazarowicz, the Home Secretary can see that there is cross-party consensus in Scotland on the matter. There may indeed be a desire to go further than the provisions in the Bill. The Home Secretary said that he prefers a UK-wide system, but if it were demonstrated that there was cross-party consensus in Scotland to go further, would he look into transferring to the Scottish Parliament the power to consider setting up a stronger system in Scotland?
The view taken at the time of the original devolution legislation was that the distribution of guns was rightly a UK issue, for precisely the reasons given by my hon. Friend Mark Lazarowicz—that people could buy guns on one side of the border and take them to the other. There should be UK resolution of that issue, so I do not have in mind the prospect of devolving that aspect of legislation to the Scottish Parliament. With respect, I know that the focus of the hon. Gentleman's party is on where the devolution line falls—or does not fall—but he would be on stronger ground if he talked to his colleagues in other parties about the best means for dealing with air weapons across the UK.
In relation to ammunition, we shall be unrelenting in our efforts to ensure that police and local communities are successful in tackling gun crime. As I have already indicated, there have been successes, but although it is an offence to possess full rounds of ammunition without a certificate the current law does not apply to component parts. That has given rise to police concern that some criminals try to escape prosecution by holding ammunition in its component form and we intend to make that illegal.
I certainly shall consider that proposal, which is a fair point to raise. Indeed, making it illegal to discharge an airgun from any premise would bear directly on the incident that my hon. Friend described. The offence of aggravation for discharging a weapon—for example, into a school playground—could be properly considered in Committee.
The third measure on weapons relates to imitation firearms.
Can my right hon. Friend give any assurance to my constituent, Mr. Peter Dyson, who has written to me expressing concern that plans to limit the use of replica guns will affect him and others who enjoy the sport of airsofting in a responsible and law-abiding manner?
I, too, have received correspondence on that matter and if my hon. Friend will allow me, I shall respond on airsoft and one or two of the other lobbies in a second, when I have outlined our overall approach.
The overall approach set out in the Bill on imitation firearms acknowledges the fact that in 2003–04 such weapons were used in 2,146 crimes, an increase of 18 per cent., on top of a 46 per cent. increase in the previous year. That accounts for 21 per cent.—more than a fifth—of firearms crime if we exclude offences committed with air weapons. Some 75 per cent. of offences involving imitation weapons constituted violence against the person. That is wholly unacceptable, and the whole House would agree that it is necessary for us to legislate on those issues.
It is true that a range of existing controls governs the misuse of imitation weapons. Those controls will remain in place and continue to be enforced, but they have been proved insufficient to halt the upward trend, which seems to be fuelled in part by the success of measures to tackle the misuse of real firearms, such as the five-year minimum sentence for possessing a prohibited firearm.
Of course, defining an imitation weapon has always been difficult. At present, the law refers to anything that has the appearance of a firearm whether or not it is capable of discharging any shot, bullet or other missile. That definition works in practice by virtue of the fact that it is subject to a qualifier relating either to the weapon's design: whether it is readily convertible; or to its misuse: whether it is possessed to cause fear of unlawful violence. However, it is a wide-ranging definition, and we want to bear down most of all on those weapons that closely resemble real firearms, which are being increasingly used to threaten, intimidate or rob.
If most of us saw one of the imitation weapons that I am talking about lying on a table alongside a real gun, we would not be able to tell the difference between them without picking them up. We will therefore make it an offence to manufacture, import or sell a realistic imitation. Under the definition that we use, an imitation will be caught by the new offence if it is indistinguishable from a certain make or model, or is sufficiently similar to a generic type of firearm.
We know only too well about the problems for the police when armed units are called out in response to reports of people seen with guns. Often, the person is a youngster, brandishing an imitation that they are misusing deliberately, recklessly or with little appreciation of the consequences. A restriction on the age at which any imitation can be sold or purchased will help to reduce the incidence of misuse, and we propose a minimum age of 18.
We have accepted that a total ban on the possession of imitation firearms is impractical for a variety of reasons, which is why we propose to double the penalty for possessing an imitation firearm in a public place without reasonable excuse. We are saying, loud and clear, that messing around in public with anything that resembles a gun is simply not acceptable, and unless people heed that message, they could go to prison for up to 12 months.
The point about airsoft made by my hon. Friend Mrs. James also applies to paintballing, re-enactment societies and use in television and film, where a legitimate case may be made for a certain use—I emphasise the word "may"—so we set out in clause 32 the power for the Secretary of State to regulate exemptions in such circumstances. I will listen to such representations, but those representations would have to make a very powerful case for a certain exemption. That is the criteria that I would use.
On this part of the Bill, will the Home Secretary accept my appreciation in respect of two matters? First, I appreciate the clarity with which he has dealt with the perceived problem of definitions, so that this important and long-overdue measure can become law. Secondly, I appreciate the courtesy and the care with which he has received representations from many organisations that are interested in this matter, not least the Gun Control Network, in which, as he knows, I have a tangential interest. He will also know what a great pleasure it is for me to be able to give wholehearted support to an important Home Office Bill, although he will appreciate that that cannot go on very much longer.
I very much appreciate my hon. and learned Friend's support. The phrase "tangential support" could take me into other entertaining language, but I will not go further down that path.
As my right hon. Friend knows, I very much welcome the direction of the Bill, and I have previously introduced a private Member's Bill on airguns. On the specific issue of replica weapons, there is a slight difference of emphasis between clauses 30 and 31. Clause 30 stresses the need to avoid replicas that can be confused with genuine weapons, whereas clause 31 considers the possibility of allowing such replicas in circumstances that the Home Secretary may specify. He mentions an exemption for airsoft as one possibility. May I suggest that, when a specific club seeks such an exemption, it would be possible to allow some kind of registration procedure, so that people can prove that they are members of a re-enactment society, club or whatever, as a condition for owning such weapons?
My hon. Friend is quite right to say that that is the kind of way to deal with the matter. As I said earlier, when there is a genuine interest—I have more understanding of the interest of the re-enactment societies than that of some other bodies—we should simply look at a regime that will work. My hon. Friend's proposal might well be right, but I do not want to allow a situation in which any such activities can somehow be used as a diversionary path to try to avoid the legislation, which is why I am being cautious in my response.
I appreciate the worries of colleagues who are concerned about societies involved in games and re-enactments, but the majority of so-called Yardie shootings in inner London have long been perpetrated by people using reactivated imitation weapons. I have long argued in the House for a ban on imitation weapons. In the context of falling crime, gun crime has cast a peculiar shadow over communities such as Hackney, Harlesden and other parts of the inner city, so I would like to join those who have welcomed the Bill and especially its clear action on imitations.
My right hon. Friend has produced a clear definition of an imitation firearm. However, I am worried about firearms that are not clear imitations, yet could be taken to be firearms in bad light or during the practical operational work of the police. Is my right hon. Friend happy that he might be introducing a distinction into law meaning that a police officer who fired a shot in such circumstances at someone carrying a toy or wooden weapon could be judged by the courts to have acted badly because the weapon was not a real imitation firearm? He needs to think about the possible knock-on consequences of the definition that he is bringing into law.
I accept what my right hon. Friend says, but this is a difficult area of definition. One of the arguments put forward for a long time against going down precisely the path in the Bill has been that the definitions are so difficult that we should not do so. After careful consideration, I have reached the view with my colleagues that despite the difficulty that he fairly identifies, the ill that we are trying to deal with—the abuse of replica guns and the danger that they can cause—means that we must legislate in such a way. I am willing to look carefully at specific points, whether that is in Committee or through other representations, but I am not prepared to accept that we should not legislate to deal with replica and imitation firearms simply because there is a difficulty with definitions. I do not deny that there is a problem, but we should not allow that to stop us from legislating.
We are still carefully examining that point and the related matter of sales on the internet. The delegation mentioned by my hon. and learned Friend Mr. Marshall-Andrews showed me shocking examples of what can be purchased on the internet, so we are still actively considering how to deal with that specific concern.
I join other hon. Members in applauding the Home Secretary for taking action on imitation weapons. I note that the Home Office consultation paper on the matter ruled out the possibility of taking such action, so I welcome the change of heart. However, the same consultation paper referred to concerns about internet sales and implied that action would be taken. I urge my right hon. Friend to go one step further, otherwise, the measures on imitation weapons will have virtually no effect because people will buy them off the net and bypass conventional sales.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments and pay tribute to his work on this subject. However, I do not accept the phrase "virtually no effect". Even if nothing is done on internet sales, the measures that we propose will have a substantial effect. I accept the thrust of his remarks, though, and we need to look carefully at how we can regulate sales and carry the policy through. As I said, we are doing just that.
What work has been done on how the number of people carrying guns will drop with the increased sentence of just six months? Why six months? What will that do exactly?
People who carry a gun can be given up to 12 months. There is a lot of speculation about what difference the sentence will make and how it will operate. We will keep the situation under review, but the measures will make a significant difference.
If someone uses a gun or firearm legitimately for their recreation and they need a replacement part, such as a barrel or ammunition, how do they overcome the accusation that they are manufacturing a replica?
By pointing to the truth of it. If someone legally holds a firearm in a licensed way and if he has participated in the process that is being developed, he will be able to establish that that new part is needed. Again, if there is an ambiguity, it is reasonable to discuss in Committee how we can eliminate it. I shall be flexible and consider particular proposals.
The fourth element on weapons is the sale of knives. Comprehensive legislation is in place to deal with knives and other offensive weapons, but public concern remains, so we intend to raise the age limit of who can be sold a knife from 16 to 18 to limit the distribution of knives among young people. It is already an offence to carry a knife or offensive weapon in a public place without good reason or lawful authority, with the exception of a folding pocket knife with a blade of less than 3 in, and we have taken other steps to ban the manufacture, sale and importation of certain knives. However, the additional measures will further tighten controls and send the message that we will not tolerate the carrying of knives and other weapons in our streets.
The fifth and final measure on weapons is the introduction of a power to enable head teachers to search without consent any pupil they suspect of carrying a knife or other offensive weapon. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills supports me in that, and although it is the case that there are not many knives in schools, tremendous tragedies have arisen when knives have been in schools, and we want to strengthen the arm of the head teacher to deal with that.
There are a number of additional miscellaneous powers. In summary, they are an amendment to the football banning order provisions, a new forfeiture clause in relation to the trafficking of people, an amendment of section 82 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, and a measure to strengthen our ability to tackle mobile phone theft.
The measures set out in the Bill will go a significant distance to changing the culture of violent crime and, therefore, to reducing violent crime. I commend it to the House.
The Home Secretary offers the House yet another crime Bill. Violent crime is a massive problem, but this is a relatively minor and unambitious attempt to deal with it. It is the 11th anniversary later this week of the Prime Minister uttering the immortal words:
"Being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime is not an empty slogan."
How hollow those words must seem to the millions of people who have suffered violent crime and who, unlike the Prime Minister, live with the consequences of his broken promises.
We all remember the examples of the Prime Minister's grandiose promises, such as marching yobs to cash points. What happened to that brilliant piece of inspiration? It never happened. Setting up night courts, where victims are apparently too drunk to be dealt with, has also been abandoned. Then, there was a promise to halve street crime in just five months. If only. Do the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary think that the British people do not remember those promises?
Since the Labour Government took office, violent crime has risen sharply. Britain now suffers more than 1 million violent crimes each year. Offences of violence against the person have increased by 90 per cent. and robberies by 50 per cent.—
The answer is neither. I would extend the British crime survey to take on board all the things it now misses, such as murder, sex crimes, crimes against under-16s and crimes against retail and other commercial premises. If the Home Secretary made the British crime survey work, we would pay attention to it. Some parts of it are useful, but the right hon. Gentleman should use statistics a little more as useful data, and rather less as excuses, if he will forgive me for saying so.
As I was saying, offences of violence against the person have increased by 90 per cent. on recorded crime and robberies by 50 per cent. on recorded crime. That is what the police are told about, that is what they can do something about, and that is what we should pay attention to. When the Leader of the Opposition was Home Secretary, gun crime fell; since then, under the Labour Government, it has doubled. In addition, the use of cocaine has trebled and persistent youth offending has increased, as has the number of sex crimes.
Just as serious is the fact that, at the same time, detection rates have been falling. Despite all the targets and all the talk of improving police efficiency, there are 900,000 more unsolved crimes each year than there were in 1998.
I will not give the hon. Gentleman advance whipping advice. He should talk to his own Whips Office if he wants the night off. However, I shall explain what our stance on the Bill will be, both today and in Committee.
In the past everyone assumed that violent offences were a priority for the police and very high clear-up rates gave grounds for thinking so. Under the Conservative Government, almost 80 per cent. of crimes of violence against the person were solved. Now, that figure has fallen to only 50 per cent. What kind of deterrent is that to criminals? What sort of protection does it afford the public? What sort of reassurance does it give the victims of crime? It is nothing short of a scandal and, although the Bill contains some worthwhile proposals, it will not resolve that problem.
We consider some of the measures the Home Secretary proposes useful. They might help the courts or assist the police and we want to do both. We shall not oppose for the sake of opposition: we shall consider what is on offer and try to improve it. Judging by the Home Secretary's remarks, there is scope for discussion and improvement. However, taken as a whole, we consider the Bill to be a woefully inadequate response to the crisis of violence and disorder that the public now face. Seen in the wider context of the Government's measures, the Bill is a qualified admission of defeat. So far, the Government have introduced more than 40 Bills, 200 Home Office initiatives and 350 new regulations, all aimed at quelling the tide of crime. But that tide has kept coming, and Ministers are now scrambling for the lifeboats.
Crime statistics have sometimes—today not least—been prayed in aid of the Government's case that they are tackling crime effectively, but although the statistics are in some respects ambiguous, they offer no way out. In international terms, the picture is dire. According to the international crime victimisation survey, Britain has the second-highest levels of criminality in the industrialised world. Moreover, despite frequent—and convenient—changes to the way in which the figures are collected and counted, the picture of violent crime in this country is not ambiguous at all. It is bad, it is worse than it was, and it is getting worse still.
Recorded violent crime has in fact risen in four of the last five quarters. The Government's first response in such situations is always to deny the facts. Last December, the Prime Minister admitted in one of his disarming bursts of temporary frankness that violent crime has been rising. A few months later, he was keen to point out that, according to the British crime survey, violent crime had not gone up but down. He omitted to mention, however, that the BCS figures are systemically flawed. They are not comprehensive, and they omit murder, sexual offences and crimes against people under 16 altogether. In the case of violent crime, they are contradicted by the recorded crime figures and by everybody's everyday experience.
The Government's second response, once the first has collapsed, is instinctively to reach for the nearest headline-grabbing initiative, of which there are many in the Bill. Nothing comes more easily to hand than the antisocial behaviour order. Not many people have had kind words to say on Europe today, so to make up for that and to prove my inclusive credentials—[Interruption.] Yes, it will cause surprise. I commend to the House the words of Señor Gil-Robles, Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe. He observed of antisocial behaviour orders:
"One cannot but wonder, indeed, whether their purpose is not more to reassure the public that something is being done . . . than the actual prevention of anti-social behaviour itself."
I could not have put it better myself.
There are, however, some parts of the Bill that we can support. Subject to the important caveat of making sure that they are both fair and effective, we welcome the greater powers to be given to magistrates, as that will allow them to ban individuals from drinking for set periods of time. There is no doubt that local authorities urgently need powers to control local drinking hotspots, and enabling courts to focus on serial drunks who populate such places may be of assistance. It is important to clarify the way in which we enforce such proposals, but we can discuss that in Committee. The proposal is not much, but it is something. We also agree with other proposals. The Bill will create the offence of using an accomplice to conceal weapons, as the Home Secretary mentioned at the end of his speech. There is evidence that a number of cases are not prosecuted successfully for lack of a weapon, so the provision may help to bring such criminals to book.
Finally, we support the extension of the age limit for the purchase of air rifles, which is a sensible tidying-up of existing provisions. I look forward to reviewing the effect of the proposal on airsoft activities in Committee. So far, so modestly good. We also agree with the Government that there is a problem with replica firearms. Some of them can easily be converted into lethal weapons, but they are already illegal. They can be used to terrorise the public, they make life difficult for the police, and they can even lead to tragedy. We remain to be convinced, however, of the need for the measures in the Bill. It is already a criminal offence to carry a replica gun in a public place without a reasonable excuse, and the burden of proof lies with the person who carries the replica. Furthermore, the courts already sentence individuals who rob banks and shops with replica guns as severely as individuals who commit such crimes with real guns. There are no obvious gains to be made from further legislation in that respect. There also remains the age-old problem of definition that plagues measures to ban almost any dual-use object.
Such problems are not necessarily prohibitive, but they should give legislators pause for thought. Mr. Denham, who chairs the Home Affairs Committee, made a good point about such problems, and said that replicas could be viewed in two ways if they provoke a police response. The Bill offers a complex definition of replicas that can also be toys. It will certainly be good for barristers but, equally, I am not at all sure that it will be bad for criminals. The most important requirement, however, is action to prevent the import and sale of replicas that can be converted into guns that fire—the so-called Brococks. More effective controls need to be exercised by police and customs at our borders, particularly on internet sales—a matter on which we have called for action several times in the past 18 months and which was raised by at least two Labour Members.
The Bill also deals with weapons of a different sort—knives. There has been a sharp increase in knife killing since 1998, and the number of offences has gone up by 17 per cent. That clearly has to be tackled, but how? There is a basic point to be made here. One does not prevent crime by banning the weapons with which it is committed, though one may be able to limit the incidence and its effects. Rather, one prevents crime by detecting, punishing and, in the case of violent crime, incarcerating those responsible. On none of these has the Government been at all effective.
There is no reason to believe in the effectiveness of what is now proposed, which is to increase the age at which knives can legally be bought. There is no shortage of knives in circulation, and with or without the Bill, there is unlikely to be a shortage in the future. A MORI poll carried out last year revealed that a quarter of children aged between 12 and 16 admit to carrying a knife. Almost one in five of them say that they have attacked someone, intending to do injury. Let us hope that that is an exaggeration, but even if the figures are inflated, they still reveal the inadequacy of what is being proposed.
If we want to stop knife crime, we must focus on those who use the knives, not necessarily on those who originally buy them. To that extent, I agree with the Prime Minister, who in his former capacity as shadow Home Secretary—I quoted him—argued for toughness on the causes of crime. First, we must know what we mean if we seriously mean what we say on the subject. No one is condemned by their genes, background or social class to a lifetime of crime. Plenty of people come from disadvantaged backgrounds and overcome those disadvantages, often heroically so. It is patronising and flatly wrong to suggest the opposite.
We can and should isolate two sets of causes of crime, upon which the Government exert an influence. The first relates to the kind of behaviour that leads to criminality. At the very top of the list is the abuse of alcohol and drugs. Half of violent crime is known to be drink-related, and there has been a 10 per cent. increase in the number of people who think that drunken and rowdy behaviour is a problem in their neighbourhood. That is a disturbing trend. Some limited action through the so-called alcohol disorder zones is proposed, but if it is effective at all, its effects will be limited and slow in coming. Meanwhile, the Government's answer is to allow more drinking in more places more of the time. That is no answer. It is the reverse of a solution. More drink will mean more violent crime.
As for drugs, hard drug use is rising sharply. The number of people frequently using class A drugs is up by more than 60 per cent. since 1998. Cocaine use among young people has doubled. The price of drugs has fallen, so cocaine is cheaper than cappuccino and ecstasy can be bought for less than a pound. That is because, although demand is increasing, the supply is soaring ahead still faster—obviously, one of the lessons of free market economics that the Government have not yet mastered. Drugs are coming through our porous borders because the controls are too weak and because they are undermanned.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that a large percentage of drug users picked up the habit while in prison? Does he agree that the Government have done far too little to combat the abuse of drugs in our prisons?
My hon. Friend is right. That is one of the reasons—only one of the reasons—why one of our policies is to divert a large number of youngsters who are subject only to drug offences into residential rehabilitation, rather than putting them in prison and creating a life of crime, and to have similar programmes inside prison and continuing after prison, to ensure that people who get into criminality get off that track.
The Government prefer to rely on drug treatment and testing orders, yet more than two thirds of those orders end without being completed in full. The reconviction rate for those failing to complete was over 90 per cent. That is a terrible indictment of the system. Rising drug use is not inevitable. I have seen for myself in the United States how the President's drug strategy is working. It has reduced teenage drug use by 17 per cent. in just three years. That was done by working through schools, by prevention—not just attempted cure—and by giving young people the will and the inner strength to say no when drugs are offered, as they often are. Less drug use will mean less violent crime, and this is a violent crime reduction Bill.
That brings me to the second way in which a Government can tackle the causes of crime. Most young people who slip into criminality and who then stayed mired in it do so because it seemed the easiest option at the time. Of course, they should decide to change, but they do not do so—it is too hard and too much effort. To alter that situation, they must know that the benefits that they expect from offending will be reduced and that the penalties will be magnified by a rigorous criminal justice system.
Such young people also need something else—hope. A Government can generate a culture of hope that truly favours individual and voluntary initiative, that genuinely writes off no one and that determinedly empowers people rather than trapping them at the bottom of the pile. However, they can easily do the opposite of that by creating, allowing or perpetuating a culture of utter and bitter hopelessness, which is the case in too much of Britain today.
British society is blocked: the country is less socially mobile than it was 30 years ago and one third of households now rely on the state for more than half of their income. Living in deprivation is not easy or pleasant, and people get the worst of everything, including crime. The figures confirm that point: if someone is unemployed, they are twice as likely to be a victim of crime; and if someone lives in the most deprived areas, they are three times as likely to be a victim of crime. The figures are even worse for violent crime.
I am very interested in the right hon. Gentleman's speech, which is obviously a leadership bid to the new, cuddly, friendly Conservative party, and I actually agree with many of his remarks. However, does he agree that former mining villages in my constituency have lost hope because of the previous Conservative Government?
That question barely justifies a response, but I shall give it one. The hon. Gentleman's opening remark was thoroughly unworthy, and he went on to mention the problems in mining villages, which nobody doubts. However, nobody doubts that problems also exist in other parts of the country where manufacturing is collapsing—he should visit MG Rover. We stand for a society in which everybody has an opportunity, and I am not just talking about stacking the shelves in Tesco.
The worst thing is when people find that they cannot break out, however hard they try. The Government's social policies have deprived poorer people of the two things that they need most in the world—personal dignity and the hope of improvement. Their criminal justice policies have left the most vulnerable in our society exposed to the rule of the thug and the bully. And their planning and housing policies are repeating the failures that condemned an earlier generation to growing up in crime-stricken communities. Those are the causes of crime.
It is plain common sense that where a child grows up is a formative influence on how he or she comes to see the world. If people live in an environment strewn with burnt-out cars or on an estate with broken and boarded-up windows, or if people walk through stair wells littered with syringes and filth, they start out with a jaundiced view of life. The peer pressures are enormous, particularly for children from broken homes, and those pressures are nearly always bad in such conditions. In one sense, one can never remove the causes of crime, because those causes are locked into the deepest recesses of human nature, but one can let in the light, give people a chance and offer opportunity.
I agree with the Prime Minister's aspiration, but I deplore his lack of achievement. This Bill is a minor response to a massive problem. It is called the Violent Crime Reduction Bill, but in truth it will not reduce violent crime, although it may limit its increase in some cases. The Government's criminal justice strategy, of which the Bill is a modest and undistinguished part, fails to engage with the roots of the problem. The Bill fails to attack the causes of crime, while again pursuing a plethora of headline-grabbing initiatives that attack the symptoms of crime. It is time to prevent drunk and disorderly behaviour, not merely to manage it; it is time to stop the plague of drugs that afflicts our youngsters, not merely to cope with the consequences; and it is time, at last, to be tough on the causes of crime, rather than, as in this Bill, merely treating the symptoms.
Over the past few years, the Government have achieved significant success in reducing crime overall, but there is no doubt that the perception that violent crime has risen, or is rising, mars their overall achievement and has an impact on their confidence. It is therefore not surprising, but welcome, that they have introduced the Bill.
I use the word "perception" in relation to violent crime because it is often difficult to get a grip on exactly what is happening. When one considers, for example, that well over half of all recorded violent crime did not involve any injury to the victim, one can see that the statistics are hard to understand. That happens to be the case, although it is not quite as daft as it sounds. There has certainly been an increase in the recording of non-injury crimes that would never have been recorded by the police 10 years ago; that is why the recording system has been changed. The statistics also tell us that there has been an increase in certain types of crime that are at the more violent end of the spectrum—gun crime or knife crime—or are in more public places and involve a greater risk of crime from strangers or acquaintances.
The sense that the number of such crimes is rising generates the current public concern. Some of us are not necessarily happy with that. Those of us who worked for years on domestic violence have never entirely bought the idea that violence from someone one knows is in some way better or more acceptable than from someone one does not know. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the fear of violence in public places from strangers has a greater resonance with the public and makes a greater contribution to public concern.
The Bill has some potentially useful measures, but they will be so only if they are put into practice alongside many others. It has measures that essentially close loopholes, cover gaps or nuance existing policies—for example, the difference between a banning order and an antisocial behaviour order—and measures in areas where the pressure to be seen to act has become overwhelming. I am not yet convinced that the measures on imitation firearms will reduce the number of victims of firearm crime, but I understand why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary believes that it is necessary none the less to be seen to act against what the public generally regard as a scandal—the widespread marketing of such weapons.
Let me deal with a couple of issues that should have been acted on previously. The measures on alcohol disorder zones are overdue. I wish that it had been possible to incorporate that approach in the Licensing Act 2003. The current proposals reflect the debate that raged within Government at that time between the argument that the whole industry, responsible or not, is plying people with alcohol in town and city centres and needs to pick up the cost, and the argument that we have to deal with badly run premises. It is welcome that my right hon. Friend has moved towards saying that the industry as a whole, not the relatively small number of badly run premises, has to pick up the costs of policing, late night transport, street cleaning and so on. The Bill potentially takes us a long way in the direction of ensuring that the costs lie where they properly should. However, I have a couple of caveats about that; it will be important to scrutinise the Bill carefully as it goes through Committee.
I take my right hon. Friend's answer to my earlier question straightforwardly. He clearly wishes that the statutory scheme of an alcohol disorder zone, with fees set in Whitehall, should be applied locally in as few places as possible, and hopes that the threat of an action plan or the putting in place of an action plan will lead to better, locally tailored schemes that suit the needs of each area. I share that view. I have no desire to see a national scheme imposed willy-nilly on every single town and city centre. Equally, let us be blunt about this, if the Bill does not result in a much more substantial contribution from the drinks industry to the costs of policing and maintaining our town and city centres, it will fall short of what is needed. At the moment, the costs of policing those town and city centres is borne by council tax payers who by and large do not live in them—they pay their bills but do not see a police officer on a Friday or Saturday night because they are all down at the town centre policing the binge drinking. We must ensure that relatively low-scale voluntary schemes are not put in place as an alternative to a proper charging regime. Although I commend, and have seen, many of the voluntary schemes that have been mentioned today, most of them fall well short of the level of contribution that is required towards the costs of policing our town and city centres.
I hope that we will be able to see the guidance that comes from the Home Office before the Bill completes its passage in this House, because that will be crucial in determining the threshold of the problem that one must have before one can initiate an action plan or have an alcohol disorder zone. If that threshold is set too high, the measures in the Bill will apply in too limited a number of circumstances.
I want to turn briefly to the measures on knife crime.
Before my right hon. Friend moves on to knives, I should like to bring him back to his observations on imitation guns. Does not he accept that one of the principal causes of crime is a culture of crime, which may of course come from deprivation but may also come from many other sources—the media and the like? One of the essential cultures of gun crime is the existence of freely available replica weapons which are identical to lethal firearms and which are available in newsagents and shops that are close to schools for virtually nothing. Is not the creation of that culture something that we in the House should take seriously and outlaw?
That may be true, though I have yet to see the evidence that makes it believable. It is certainly an argument in favour of my right hon. Friend's proposals.
I want to address another issue of crime and culture in relation to knife crime. We know that the way to deal with many kinds of crime is to get to the root causes of the problem, to identify the perpetrators or gangs of perpetrators, to target them, to deal with them effectively and to have a multi-agency approach to tackling the problems. However, we have not yet applied that approach to the problem of knife crime. The Bill addresses the particular issue of taking knives into schools, yet, as we all know, the reality is that schools and local education authorities are often not engaged in wider crime reduction activities or wider measures against antisocial behaviour. The measures that schools take internally to deal with gangs and bullying often do not link up with those being taken in the wider community to deal with the same young people who are causing a problem—the same bullying, the same violence and the same gangs.
Unless we can introduce into the area of knife carrying and knife use the targeted approach that we have used in relation to antisocial behaviour and are using in gun crime, we will not be effective in dealing with knife crime. I do not yet see an approach to dealing with the carrying of knives by young people that begins to be as coherent as our approach is becoming towards, at one end of the scale, antisocial behaviour, and, at the other end, guns. I can see little evidence that the Government's idea that we should consult and discuss with young people before we introduce policies that affect them has been brought into play in developing effective strategies for dealing with the carrying of knives by young people. Ironically, the Government have accepted for some time that we will not deal with gun crime unless we engage with young people in these communities, not only on guns but on a whole range of wider issues. The same needs to be true in relation to young people carrying knives. I fear that the measures in the Bill will be a little limited unless we take a broader approach.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that there is a culture whereby young people start to carry knives because they are concerned that other young people are carrying knives and that that perpetuates the problem? For example, one group of people is believed to carry knives. Consequently, a second group begins to carry them and then a third group starts carrying knives. As a result, the first group, whose members were perhaps not carrying them, also begins to do so. The culture is a self-sustaining spiral into despair.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. There is little published evidence to tell us why knife carrying and knife use has grown.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be familiar with the Home Office report that was published in January. It made several important points about knife carrying and knife use. It said that the group most likely to carry knives comprised those young people who have been excluded from schools. Those, including David Davis, who belong to a party that calls for children to be excluded from schools at every opportunity, need to recognise, if they wish to tackle the causes of crime, the links between excluded young people and knife carrying. We must deal with that.
Fear and peer group influence are reasons that young people give for carrying knives. However, I want to stress one of the points in the conclusions of the Home Office research, which states:
"Although the problem of young people carrying knives and other weapons appears, by common consent, to be growing, few dedicated public awareness or educational programmes have been developed or delivered. Similarly few dedicated programmes working with young people at risk of carrying and using knives have been developed. As a consequence, there are relatively few examples of good practice. Those that there are have not been widely disseminated or shared."
I stress to my right hon. Friend the Minister that the challenge for the Government is not to change the Bill—I do not believe that the measure should contain a different bit of law—but to develop a strategy for tackling the causes of knife crime and ensuring that schools link with outside agencies to identify the gangs where it predominates. If we are to be effective, the Government should also ensure that there are proper strategies and punitive measures for dealing with the ring leaders and that proper educational approaches exist for tackling young people who carry knives. The Government are trying to do that with gun crime at one end of the spectrum and antisocial behaviour at the other. A systematic, root-and-branch approach to young people and knife carrying needs to be developed.
I met a group of students from my constituency this afternoon who happened to be in Westminster on an educational programme. I—and, I suspect, their teachers—was surprised not by their saying that there was not a problem in their school but by the fact that they regarded carrying knives as a significant issue for young people in our society. We need to build an awful lot around the Bill if we are to change a serious and developing culture in our country.
I welcome many of the Bill's provisions. There is no doubt that violent crime is a serious problem in this country and it is not helpful to get into a statistical debate about whether it is marginally up or down. There is a responsibility on all hon. Members to ascertain whether we can do more to reduce the incidence of violent crime.
Violent crime has many causes and the Bill tackles two of the key pillars behind the causes of violent crime: alcohol and access to weapons. Drugs are clearly another factor. However, the combination of access to weapons and alcohol is a main reason for the increase in violent crime. We shall decide whether to support the Bill—we are minded to support it—by the following yardsticks: whether it grossly infringes civil liberties, whether it creates too many offences and whether the provisions will be effective. We have concerns, which we shall raise in Committee, but our judgment on those three key tests is that the measure contains provisions that constitute a step in the right direction and deserve our support.
I want to comment on the important matter of tackling the causes of crime. As the former Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, Mr. Denham said, the Bill tries to deal with some of our current problems and we need to do more to tackle the causes. Frankly, I am not prepared to take a lecture on that from the shadow Home Secretary, who has now left his place. Over the years, he has criticised my party when we have presented such arguments and been more than happy to portray us as soft on crime when we have argued for more creative solutions to try to tackle the causes of crime. I understand the need for the Conservative party to reinvent itself, but Conservative Members could at least acknowledge that some parties have argued strongly for such provisions for many years and been strongly criticised for doing that.
Alcohol is an important factor. I am critical of the Government because they—and probably all political parties—have been chasing the problem, which has run ahead of us. I met members of a residents association in Winchester in my constituency this morning. They raised anxieties that will be familiar to all Members of Parliament. Those concerns apply not only to inner-city areas but to market towns in rural areas. We know the statistics: 25,000 admissions a year to accident and emergency departments and 50,000 violent offences are the result of people drinking too much, let alone—we have not discussed it in a Home Office debate—the implications for the health of our nation.
It took a long time for the Government to respond. We had to wait many years for an alcohol strategy, which is regrettable because joining health and the consequences of crime in a fully thought-out strategy should have been done many years ago. Powers are in place but some have been difficult to enforce. We heard earlier that only 11 landlords a year have been prosecuted for allowing drunken or riotous behaviour on their premises. That raises two questions. First, is it simply a matter of ineffective policing? Secondly, and more worryingly given the Government's intentions in the Bill, are the prosecutions hard to achieve and is it hard for the police to identify the publican or premises responsible for allowing the serving of alcohol that led to such behaviour? If that is the case, it raises serious questions about the Government's proposals.
We have long argued for the imposition of some sort of levy. We believe that it is wrong that many communities, especially in rural areas, experience the removal of police, so that, on Friday and Saturday nights, they are tied up in city centres. Local taxpayers ask why they should fund clearing up the mess for an industry that makes a great deal of money from alcohol. We therefore support the concept of imposing some levy or charge.
We also want to support voluntary action by the industry, which is a sensible way forward. A couple of weeks ago, the industry made positive announcements, such as a willingness to end the practice of happy hours. However, that brings consequences. If part of the industry behaves well, wants to be responsible, signs up to join an association and is prepared to act by reducing happy hours, other parts of the industry that do not belong to the association will simply fill the void. Indeed, they could benefit financially because part of the sector was not holding happy hours. We cannot simply rely on the industry, because there will always be those who do not join industry forums and try to make a profit out of any action.
In Committee, we need to establish clarity about who will be affected by the alcohol disorder zones and the related provisions. I take the Home Secretary's point about not believing what it is written in the Daily Express and other newspapers. However, if nightclubs can avoid the provisions by arguing that entertainment and dancing, not selling alcohol, are their main focus, it would cause disquiet because late-night entertainment in our city centres is often concentrated in them. We therefore need to be clear about who will be affected.
I should also like more clarity about what the levy will be spent on. Simply giving it to the police might prove effective in reducing the cost to taxpayers of police on Friday and Saturday nights. However, let us also consider other forms of support for our night-time economy. Could we invest the levy in more CCTV? Could we consider having better trained doorkeepers for pubs and nightclubs? Could we use the money to contribute towards ensuring better late-night transport so that the problem of the cab queue outside the kebab shop where everybody waits can be resolved through creative schemes, such as that which operates near me in Salisbury, and provides publicly funded ways in which to get people back out of the city centre to their homes? We should consider using the levy not only for policing but for a wider range of matters so that we can help the night-time economy.
What will happen if one lives in an alcohol disorder zone? What will be the impact on the price of people's property? What will be the impact on someone trying to sell their house when everyone in the community is saying, "Hang on a minute. No. 14 Burble walk is in an alcohol disorder zone"? The measures could have a considerable impact on people living in the zones. They might welcome attempts to clear up the problems there, but we must also understand the implications for property prices.
What does the hon. Gentleman think is more important: speculating about a possible impact on property prices because a problem is being dealt with or leaving the poor individual to deal with the problems that they experience every night of the week? Surely he cannot argue that property prices should take priority over tackling those problems.
I am not arguing that at all. It is the job of the Opposition to ask such questions in Committee and to ensure that we understand what the consequences of the Bill will be. If these zones are set up, a string of people will come into our surgeries saying, "We are in a zone and are now blighted." We need to think the consequences through. My priority is to ensure that we solve this problem and turn those areas into pleasant places for people to live and enjoy their lives in. Let us recognise that, by putting these zones in place, rather than creating zones in which the public believe we are tackling a problem, we could by default create zones that the public think are unsafe to visit at night or to live in. They could become no-go zones because they had had that label put on them, and I do not want that to happen. The measure could represent a sensible way forward, but let us be sensible about recognising the possible consequences of creating such zones, which I assume will be very publicly identified.
Surely the hon. Gentleman is missing the point. Do not people who live in such areas already have the problem of depressed house prices precisely because of all the trouble that is going on? The whole point of putting an alcohol disorder zone in place is to address the problem, rather than to create one. The whole community would already know that it was a problem area, and these measures are about tackling that problem.
I do not think that we are disagreeing on this issue. I am simply trying to think through the consequences of creating the zones. It is in all our interests to ensure that people regard them as a way forward, so let us make sure that we get the legislation right and that we do it properly. If we get this wrong, the zones will be regarded by the community as areas that have been written off, and we do not want that to happen. There is also the issue of how people can appeal the question of whether they should be in the zone. In Committee, we need to ensure that proper measures are in place to enable people to argue whether they should be in a designated zone.
A more fundamental question relates to how the so-called voluntary period will operate. If it is the intention to create a system in which the local authority and the police can come together and produce a local community plan—which, if put in place and operated fully, would mean that an alcohol disorder zone did not have to be created and that the financial levy would not have to be put in place—I am not clear where the incentive would be for people to go along with such a voluntary scheme. Some organisations would probably prefer to operate under a compulsory scheme, because other organisations would have to contribute through the levy. Will the Minister help us, either today or in Committee, to understand how the funding will operate under the voluntary scheme? Who will fund a voluntary plan? Or would we get action only if we moved to a full scheme after a voluntary one had failed, because that is when the money would come through?
The answer might be hidden in the regulatory impact assessment, which we received quite late. It states that the consequences of the alcohol disorder zones to business would be a £6.2 million voluntary cost, and a £2.4 million compulsory cost. It is not clear whether that means that the Government envisage most of the costs being paid by businesses under the voluntary scheme and the £2.4 million compulsory cost being triggered only if the voluntary scheme failed and the area became a designated zone. We seem to be in danger of creating a system in which there is no real incentive to improve. A business creating problems in an area would know that it might as well pay its levy because the gains that would result from people coming into the area would be great. It would also know that another 10 premises in the area were going to contribute towards clearing up its problems. We need to tackle this issue.
Has the hon. Gentleman considered the fact that at least one midlands police force has estimated that the excess cost of policing one city centre for a year would be £1 million? Is he suggesting that the amount that the Government are planning to raise through this scheme would represent only a tiny proportion of the policing costs that currently apply in our major towns and cities?
Absolutely. The cost of dealing with the problems caused by this kind of behaviour is enormous. The Government rightly point out in their regulatory impact assessment that, by making this investment, we could help to reduce those costs by creating a better night-time economy, but this is not a clear-cut issue. I have seen examples of city centres with problems, where businesses could benefit in the long term by making a small contribution because more customers would come in if the problems were dealt with.
The provision to introduce drinking banning orders will create a new form of civil order and I am worried about whether it is appropriate to create yet more offences. I asked the Home Secretary earlier what the difference would be between these banning orders and the provisions that deal with drunk and disorderly behaviour, and I was not convinced by his argument. He seemed to suggest that the new orders were designed to deal with problems of disorder created by drink. I thought that that was drunk and disorderly behaviour. I am nervous about creating many new offences.
I am also concerned that the Bill would remove the reporting restrictions on cases in which an individual was served with a drinking banning order. In cases involving 16 and 17-year-olds, that would mean that their cases would automatically be reported. I am not necessarily against the reporting of cases in which it is appropriate for the public to know about the individual concerned, but surely the presumption should be that it would not be appropriate. Otherwise, we might create a situation in which a person is automatically named and shamed, although that might not be the most appropriate thing to do, particularly if they were only 16.
This point might need further exploration in Committee, but does the hon. Gentleman at least recognise the value of the distinction between an order that restrains someone from doing something that might become an offence, and their actually committing an offence, which would go on to their criminal record?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, because that issue will certainly have to be considered in Committee, but I am concerned here about the presumption that everyone should be named and shamed. Rather than make that assumption, it would be better to judge in each case whether it would be more effective to name and shame someone.
We support many of the measures in the Bill and would like to see them work, but would it not be sensible to pause in regard to the other changes in the licensing regime? Many of these measures will not be in place when the new 24-hour licensing regime is implemented. At the very least, the Government should delay that implementation until these measures are in force, because the two sets of provisions should work together. We seem to be running ahead with one before the relevant control mechanisms are in place.
On gun crime, various points have been made about the offences outlined in the Bill. The number of offences relating to possessing a firearm has been reduced, which suggests that some progress has been made in tackling offences relating to how and when a person carries a firearm. However, there has also been a big increase—from 13,000 to 24,000—over the past few years in crimes involving guns. Many of the Government's proposals on airguns have our support. We have heard about the awful cases in Scotland and Darlington in which youngsters sadly lost their lives in incidents involving airguns and we support what the Government are trying to achieve, particularly in relation to the measures on shooting over a boundary.
There is a muddle over raising the age at which a person can buy an airgun from 17 to 18 and over all the various ages involved in such regulations. I am not convinced by the evidence that changing the age from 17 to 18 will make an enormous difference. At the moment, we have a minimum age of 15 for shotguns, 17 for rifles and now 18 for airguns. That is three different ages for three different kinds of weapon. I hope that the Government will use this Bill as an opportunity to clarify these provisions, because they must be a nightmare to enforce. The fact that someone can purchase a shotgun, but not an airgun, at 15 suggests that we need to examine the age limits.
There has been a large increase in cases involving replica guns, which cause enormous difficulties for the police. In some areas, the police estimate that half their armed police call-outs are a result of the sighting of an imitation firearm. That is a waste of police time, but, sadly, it is often the cause of a tragedy as well. The Government are right to want to deal with that and we support their wish to tackle two problems with replica guns: they are used because they look like real guns and they can be converted to carry live ammunition. The Home Office and the Home Secretary have said that it will be difficult, and it will, but we will help the Government over the definition in Committee. I thought that the Home Secretary made a good first attempt, but we need to test and probe the definition. We shall also need to take account of the point made by the last Home Affairs Committee. What should be done if someone in a dark alley has a wooden table leg hidden under a blanket? What should be done in similar instances? I believe that the police shot someone because he had what they thought was a gun, but was in fact a cigarette lighter. I am sure that such cases are not the majority, but they will need to be considered in Committee.
I hope that the Government will deal with representations from the sport industry. Of course, the priority must be making our country safer, but we must listen to what that industry says. It is estimated that 4 million people use air weapons. Target shooting is an Olympic sport. Sensible discussions are needed and it is encouraging that the Home Secretary is engaging in some. I have spoken to representatives of the industry and they support much of the Bill, but they take issue with technical points involving the making of ammunition and the link with primers. Simple adjustments could be made that would probably allow them to go on making ammunition at home while meeting the Home Secretary's requirements. I hope that we can discuss such issues positively, along with airsoft weapons and re-enactment societies
We support what the Government are trying to do about knives. They are certainly a problem in London. Apparently 361 incidents involving knives are recorded each week and, in January alone, there were 15 murders that have been attributed to stabbing. The importance of the issue should not be underestimated. The problem of children carrying knives was mentioned earlier. A quarter of the boys who were asked about it admitted having carried a weapon and nearly all of them specified a knife. Although some may have been young lads boasting, it is a frightening statistic.
The Government have suggested solutions, but I am not convinced about all of them. I am particularly worried about the proposal to raise the age at which a knife can be legally purchased from 16 to 18. It will be hard to enforce. Already, half the shops break the law by selling knives to under-16s, according to spot checks carried out by the Trading Standards Institute. If that is happening now, how will it be possible to enforce the increase in the legal age? It is ridiculous that a couple can marry at 16 and put a kitchen knife on their wedding list. We must discuss silly situations like that in Committee.
Will the Government also think again about sentences? The maximum sentence for carrying a knife in public is currently only two years, whereas for carrying a gun it is seven years. Both weapons are killers and there is a strong case for enabling judges to impose a similar maximum sentence for knife carrying. When I raised the matter in Home Office questions a couple of weeks ago, the Home Secretary said that he was prepared to think about it. I hope that we can press the Government again in Committee.
I am instinctively uneasy about allowing school heads to carry out checks. I realise that there is a problem over guns and, particularly, knives in schools, and I know that, as the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen said, it is a key issue in exclusions. Indeed, 62 per cent. of children are excluded for carrying knives. But do we really want to give teachers and heads that responsibility? How exactly will it work? Which classes will they pick on? Do I feel comfortable about my child being at a school where she is automatically searched to establish whether she has a knife on her? We must ensure that checks are carried out sensitively and establish that teachers consider what they are doing appropriate. Again, the intention is right, but we must not "turn off" the teachers' unions.
Clause 35 states:
"A person who exercises a power under this section may use such force as is reasonable in the circumstances".
It is not clear that that does not mean teachers wrestling with defiant pupils suspected of carrying weapons. Do we not need clear guidelines so that legal and physical dangers can be avoided?
My hon. Friend is right. It will be necessary to tie down the guidelines, to work with teachers' unions and to ensure that there is proper training. It is a sensitive issue and we must tread with caution.
Controlling the way in which guns and knives enter the country has been mentioned. I am worried about the purchase of such products on the internet. I have been able to print out some extraordinary information from the internet that troubles me enormously, involving not just replicas but working guns. I hope that the Home Secretary will speed up his work on that. We are introducing a number of measures, but it would help the Government a great deal if we could prevent ownership of such weapons, especially through the internet.
We will not oppose the Bill. We will try to deal with some of our worries in Committee. We hope that the Bill will make a difference, but none of it will make a difference unless we establish why individuals get drunk and carry knives or guns in the first place. That is a fundamental problem that we must resolve.
Mr. Oaten complained that his party was depicted as being soft on crime. His party voted against the whole of the Anti- social Behaviour Act 2003, and members of his party on Manchester city council opposed it on the grounds that there was already too much antisocial behaviour legislation. The hon. Gentleman was worried about the Bill's effect on civil liberties. We are all champions of civil liberties, but my constituents value one civil liberty in particular: freedom from crime and from antisocial behaviour. If the Liberal Democrats had their way, we would not be dealing with that. My constituents in the Chapman street and Platt lane areas who are victims of antisocial behaviour will not be impressed by that nitpicking approach.
Of course there are huge issues involving crime. As statistics demonstrate, no one could claim that the Government's war against crime is anywhere near wholly successful. The fact is, however, that the introduction of antisocial behaviour legislation—pioneered in Manchester and, indeed, in my constituency—is one of the most important advances in this regard that any Government have achieved. This Bill will deal with the sale of drink to minors, and that could have a huge impact. In Gorton, particularly in the Chapman street area, we have heard repeated complaints about retailers selling drink to minors. The police are acting, and are prosecuting in one case, but the Bill will strengthen the process.
My constituents want to be able to live in peace. They want to be free from antisocial behaviour and from knife and gun crime. The Bill will help in that regard. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who pioneered antisocial behaviour legislation, has introduced to the dictionaries a new noun, asbo, and a new verb, to asbo. It is talked about in the streets. When the original legislation was introduced eight years ago, I told him, "The Bill looks good, but only when my constituents tell me that it is working will I be satisfied." My constituents, although they have many misgivings and want much more to be done, say that it is working. That is why they want more to be done. That is why they want action to be taken on houses that are being used illicitly as shabeens and for other purposes.
This legislation can help on that. That is why people are delighted with the drink-banning elements of the Bill. It is not necessarily gangs that are causing the problems; collections of small numbers of young people are doing so. Let me make it clear that the overwhelming majority of young people would never dream of behaving badly, but a small minority can make life hell for ordinary people, who just want to live their lives in peace. This legislation will assist in giving them the increased tranquillity that they have the right to ask for.
When I have constituents who are brave and decent enough to provide information to the police, I want the backing of the law and that is what this legislation increases. I pay tribute to Miss Irene Thorpe, who lives in Gorton and was given the MBE in the birthday honours list. She is a brave woman who has fought crime in the area. People are ready to do that provided they have legislative backing, and the Government will give them that backing.
I pay tribute to the police in our area. Of course, their response is not always what my constituents want, but the police are implementing our legislation, which they welcome. When the police and the public work together—members of the public in Fallowfield, Gorton and elsewhere in my constituency do work together—it increases tranquility, makes life better, and increases property values, which the Liberal Democrat spokesman was complaining about. Where we have good community development, as we have in the Longsight area of my constituency, property prices are rising. My hon. Friend Mr. Flello is right. People know that, if there is a lot of crime in the area, designation of the zone helps to deal with that crime. It does not decrease property values; it increases them.
I therefore say to Ministers that the measures that they have introduced, including this Bill, are making life better. The Liberal Democrat spokesman says that he is worried about naming and shaming people. A young woman in my constituency called Lorraine Ogden had ASBOs imposed on her. She went on offending. She was named on leaflets and indeed in the House. She has now said that her life has improved because she has been given the opportunity to improve her life and become a constructive citizen.
In Gorton, we have had the on the streets project. Young offenders who have who had ASBOs imposed on them are now constructive citizens thanks to the wardens who created that system in their spare time. We want to make sure that innocent people are protected and that young people do not ruin the whole of their lives when they make mistakes. The provisions in the Bill on replica knives and binge drinking will be better for those people, because they will help them to stop behaving in an antisocial way. Heaven knows they will be far better for my constituents, who have had to put up with such behaviour all around them.
Although the Bill deals with city centres, I hope that Ministers will consider extending it to district centres because, in a large city such as Manchester, not only the centre of the city but other parts are oppressed.
The shadow Home Secretary talked about the statistics of crime. Let me give him the latest statistics for Greater Manchester. In the year to March, there were 42,000 fewer offences, an 11.5 per cent. reduction. There were 2,000 fewer violent crimes, and 67,752 offences were brought to justice, an increase of 21.9 per cent. Domestic burglary was down by 10,616 offences, a fall of 28.1 per cent. The number of robberies was down 1,731, an 18.7 per cent. fall. Vehicle crime, which is one of the worst scourges that people have to put up with, fell by 9,280 offences, a reduction of 15.6 per cent. In April, the figures have improved still further.
It is not paradise. Far too many people are still putting up with crime and with antisocial behaviour. The Bill is not a panacea, but heaven knows it will help my good, brave and decent constituents to come forward to fight crime and to ensure that antisocial behaviour, gun crime and knife crime are reduced. That is what my constituents want. That is what they have the right to want. That is what they have the right to work for and to vote for, and that is what Ministers are helping them to do.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me the privilege of making my maiden speech today. I begin by declaring an interest as a solicitor. It is a welcome opportunity to speak in this debate, given that violent crime is of major concern to my constituents.
First, as is customary, I pay tribute to my predecessor, Stephen Twigg. However, I do so less as a matter of custom, and more out of a personal respect for his record of hard work and service to an area we both grew up in and care deeply about. I am sure that his talents will continue to find a prominent place in public life—but with respect, I trust not in Enfield, Southgate.
Before addressing the subject of the debate, I would like to describe the constituency that I now represent as Member of Parliament and the borough that I still represent as a councillor. It is long-established and distinguished, not least by its names. Enfield was literally the end field in the old county of Middlesex. Southgate was the "South gate" to the royal hunting forests.
The words "Enfield, Southgate" are rarely uttered by political pundits without being preceded by the word "leafy". Indeed, the constituency is green, with tree-lined streets, and an abundance of parks and farmland to boot. It is also suburban, in the best sense of the word, straddling the area between London and Hertfordshire. The green belt is the natural check on development and is cherished, particularly by its nearest neighbours in Hadley Wood. It needs, though, to be protected by the vigilant eyes of the active local residents associations and councillors.
The constituency includes Cockfosters, which is where I grew up. Some will know of it simply as being the end of the Piccadilly line, others for its being the subject of adverts for alcohol beverages, and others for more cerebral reasons, since it is the home of Sir John Betjeman and Trent park.
The park has been home to the Sassoon family, prisoners of war and Middlesex university. It is described, rightly, as the jewel in the crown of the constituency. Indeed, Trent park has royal links, being known by locals as the secret childhood playground of Her Majesty the Queen and Princess Margaret. Her Majesty was known to be partial to the chocolate cake cooked by the housekeeper, Mrs. Gubby. Sadly, the recipe has not stood the test of time, but Trent park certainly has. The university is due to submit plans to increase development in the park. I will oppose any plans that inhibit future generations from fully enjoying our wonderful country park.
Another significant part of the constituency is Palmers Green, which is well known not only for being the backdrop to the last Harry Potter film but for Green lanes. The street boasts a diverse collection of shops, small firms, cafés and restaurants and a diverse community. Only this weekend, the active Green Lanes Business Association, championed so admirably by Costas Georgiou, celebrated the vibrancy of the area with a successful shopping festival.
It is now traditional for the newly elected Member for Enfield, Southgate to include in his maiden speech the north circular road, which runs through the constituency. I should choose my words carefully, as I would not want to suggest that this clogged-up artery is the site of any significant movement. It does not so much run though as pass through, and usually its traffic does not even do that. Sir Anthony Berry, in his maiden speech some 40 years ago, and, after him, Michael Portillo, expressed hope that the road would be widened shortly.
Even now, with the London Mayor's latest and inadequate road plans exhibiting in the constituency, there is an unmet need for a full widening scheme properly to tackle congestion. I sincerely hope that this will be the last maiden speech in which this issue needs to be raised.
The constituency still retains its local heritage as a collection of villages—Southgate Green, Oakwood, Grange Park and Winchmore Hill. During the election campaign, it was clear that constituents felt an increasing sense of powerlessness over what happens in their community. They want their local voice to be louder on issues as varied as the proliferation of mobile phone masts and local policing. I wish to amply the voice of Enfield, Southgate. I believe that my role is not to rely on the powers of the state being used on their behalf, but to return those powers to the people who make the real difference.
A true description of my constituency needs to include mention of some fine people who give the local community its strength. Enfield, Southgate is the proud home of the oldest woman in England, Judy Ingamells, who is 111 years old. One of the highlights of the election campaign was to visit Mrs. Ingamells and experience what she says is the secret of her long life: a good sense of humour. Her motto for life will no doubt meet with approval from Labour Members; "Never look back, always look forward." Was she the originator of that motto? Mrs. Ingamells was born during the Administration of Lord Salisbury, has lived through the Administrations of many other great Prime Ministers and still lives in hope.
Enfield, Southgate has many public servants, none more so than Malcolm Hudson, the head teacher of St. Paul's Church of England school in Winchmore Hill, who is retiring next month after 12 years of excellent leadership, backed up by years of distinguished service to education. I have come to appreciate the ethos of service that is displayed by many local people in education, health, transport and the police. The challenge is to provide the necessary freedom and opportunity for these people to flourish, and to enable local solutions rather than their being smothered by the heavy hand of government.
The heart of the constituency is to be found in its voluntary and local associations. Two in particular come to mind, from whose services, respectively, 1,000 people each week benefit. The first is TAB centre plus, situated in Bowes ward in a pocket of deprivation. The local church, under the compassionate leadership of David James, has reached out to its neighbours and its premises provide the base for countless diverse community activities. The second is the well known Chicken Shed theatre company, which has its home in Southgate and has provided theatrical excellence throughout the last 30 years, working with and being accessible and available to a complete cross-section of young people. Both these organisations shine out as beacons in the local community. Neither benefits significantly from state funds, but their strength is the voluntary commitment of dedicated people.
I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to indulge in a tour of my constituency. Some hon. Members may question how the subject of today's debate could be relevant to leafy Enfield, Southgate. That question was shockingly answered nearly 12 months ago, when a local young man was brutally and senselessly murdered on his way home in Southgate Green. Sadly, this is not an isolated incident. Within a mile there have been other murders, serial rapes, stabbings, shootings, an armed robbery and an abduction.
I believe that we will not significantly reduce violent crime until we have seriously tackled drug abuse. I saw for myself during the campaign how drug dealing was openly taking place on the residential streets of Enfield, Southgate. I have been to our local prison, HMP Pentonville, on many occasions; only, I hasten to add, in my professional capacity as a criminal solicitor. I am told by inmates that the prison is awash with drugs. It is apparently easier to obtain crack cocaine and heroin on the inside of prison than on the outside. This madness has to stop.
Tackling drug abuse requires action on many different levels, and I await with interest the Government's review of cannabis classification and trust that good sense will return. For the last 11 years, most of my clients, sadly, have been drug addicts. I have seen the crucial role that strong families play in rehabilitation. When a drug addict is serious about rehabilitation, we need to be ready with a compassionate response. Effective treatment is required, as is practical support for the family.
Reducing violent crime and making our streets safer is the priority for me as Member of Parliament for Enfield, Southgate. I am committed to work with the council, local people, the police, families and other agencies to combat crime and to turn back the worrying tide of drug abuse which is now lapping at our borders and threatening our children.
It gives me great pleasure, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to make my maiden speech and to follow Mr. Burrowes. I congratulate him on his speech and look forward to further debates with him in this Chamber on this and many other subjects.
I am especially grateful to be given the opportunity to speak on violent crime reduction as there is much to tell and celebrate about the decline in crime in Stourbridge since my party came to power in 1997. I am very proud of the fact that Stourbridge is one of the safest places to live in the west midlands. Together with the local police and council, a large number of partners and agencies are working together to ensure that Stourbridge is a safer place for everyone who visits, lives or works in the constituency.
Over the past seven years, the safe and sound community safety partnership has been successful in reducing crime across the constituency. Indeed, last year's figures show a reduction in robbery of 59 per cent., a fall in vehicle crime of 31 per cent. and a 41 per cent. fall in burglary. Contrary to the claims of the Conservative party, there has been a fall of 8 per cent. in violent crime, which, incidentally, has continued over April and May. In addition, there has been a significant rise in the numbers of people receiving treatment for drug and alcohol misuse and waiting times for this treatment have been reduced. I am pleased that domestic violence and hate crimes are high on the partnership's agenda, and that there are two new domestic violence courts in the Dudley borough as well as a variety of support services on hand to help.
Tackling antisocial behaviour is a key priority and, since 1999, a community safety team has co-ordinated local council, police and other partners to ensure a consistent and successful approach. In addition, the local council funds a co-ordinator to ensure that work is going on to reduce racially aggravated incidents and those motivated by religious or ethnic hatred or homophobia.
Many of my constituents are impressed by the work of the police community support officers who have been assigned to communities and by their effect in reducing low-level antisocial behaviour. They provide a great deal of reassurance to all residents. Of course the excellent work done by our neighbourhood watches across the constituency cannot be ignored.
I should like to mention here one particular co-ordinator, Mr. Peter Timmins of New Farm road watch, with whom I was privileged to spend an hour or two patrolling the area. Mr. Timmins knows every house and householder, co-ordinates with the residents, police and local agencies and was able to give me a breakdown on every problem and situation on his estate. We really do owe a great deal to these residents who do such a professional job in an entirely voluntary capacity.
Of course it would be entirely remiss of me not to mention the local Stourbridge police force, led most ably by Inspector Mark Thomas, with whom I spent a night on patrol duty only last Friday night. The massive reduction in crime figures in Stourbridge to which I referred earlier is a particular success, not just because of the actual fall but because of the circumstances in which Inspector Thomas and his team managed to achieve them. For those who have not visited Stourbridge—to be fair, I think the majority of my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench did visit at some time or other during my campaign; at least, it felt like it—to appreciate that achievement fully, one needs to understand that Stourbridge town centre is encircled by a ring road, which somewhat cuts it off from other parts of the town. There are subways, but for the most part they are detested by my constituents as smelly, forbidding places, and there is only one surface crossing.
In the last two years, a number of new large wine bars and pubs have opened up. As a result, and given the presence, too, of a popular nightclub, on most Friday and Saturday nights up to 4,000 young—and merry—people might be decanted into the town centre within an hour, penned in by the ring road and dependent for their dispersal entirely on the supply of taxis and minicabs. In many areas, that could have meant disaster, but not in Stourbridge. Inspector Thomas has redesigned the police team patterns and set up a successful pubwatch group, comprising the main bar owners and managers and other traders in the town.
On my tour of duty, I witnessed excellent community police work and was really impressed by the professional and calm manner in which all situations were dealt with. I did worry, however, that I might wake up to a bad headline when a reporter from my local newspaper saw me being accompanied out of a bar by two burly officers and ushered into the back of a squad car.
However, I might be knocking on the door of the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety, my right hon. Friend Hazel Blears, at some point, given the cramped conditions in which the police are working. Such conditions are causing some problems, not the least of which is the lack of adequate cell space for offenders. As a result, officers are often taken out of the area and asked to make use of cell space as far afield as Sutton Coldfield and Coventry. That puts undue pressure on the rest of the policing team, and sometimes leads to a reduced response time for other incidents.
I am grateful to have some conventions to honour today. They are conventions in a good cause, and I can think of no better place to start than with a celebration of the achievements of my predecessor, Debra Shipley. Stourbridge has been well served by Debra Shipley, and it was a great shock to us all when she announced her decision to stand down due to ill health. Debra's work on child protection, domestic violence, care standards for the elderly and children's diets—long before that became a focus for celebrity attention—has changed the lives of many people and raised awareness across the UK of what are serious issues. It is a testament to her hard work and dedication that at virtually every door on which I knocked during the campaign—believe me, I knocked on thousands—the resident either knew Debra, had been helped by her, or knew of somebody whom she had helped. She was a very determined and hard-working Member of Parliament, and I hope that one day, I will be deemed a worthy successor.
The past 10 weeks or so have been something of a blur to me. I was selected only a week before the election was called, so to say that I have been on a steep learning curve is something of an understatement. But I am very conscious of the fact that I am here not just because of my efforts, but because of those of a vast army of people—party organisers and staff, members, volunteers and supporters—all of whom encouraged and sustained me during the campaign. I am especially indebted to Alderman John Simpson—often referred to as "Mr. Stourbridge"—Barbara Sykes, Joan Kendrick, Chris Hale and Joe Payne, chairman of my constituency party, who, in his 50th year of party membership, masterminded the campaign to retain Stourbridge for Labour.
Anybody who searches for Stourbridge on the internet will no doubt be directed to a variety of unflattering descriptive terms such as "unremarkable", "average" or "not a picture-postcard destination". I am afraid that I cannot agree. It is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and when I first arrived in the town in the early 1980s, it seized my heart and has grown more beautiful to me each year. It is the town in which I married, and in which I chose to teach and to make my home. It is the place where we chose to bring up and educate our children, and in which we aim to stay. It is also the constituency that I am so proud to represent.
Stourbridge owes its name to an ancient bridge erected across the River Stour, which until recently formed the boundary between Worcestershire and Staffordshire. It was part of the manor of a powerful Norman Lord, William Fitz Ansculf, who supervised his estates from his hilltop castle in Dudley—a fact not lost on my constituents, many of whom to this day resent the fact that Stourbridge is governed and supervised from Dudley by the metropolitan council.
The excellent grazing land led to the growth of a thriving wool trade, which is still represented, by a fleece, on the town's coat of arms. The rapidly expanding iron industry soon caught up and overtook the wool trade. Fortunes were made by the mill owners, and forges were powered by water-wheels on the Stour. Local coal, limestone and fireclay fuelled development in the 16th and 17th centuries, giving birth to the area known as the black country. The area became famous for the production of iron work and nails, chain making, bricks and heavy engineering. One of the most famous works was that of John Bradley and Co., which had the distinction of producing the Stourbridge Lion—the first locomotive to run on rails in America. Sadly, the works now lie idle. There is a campaign to restore them, which I am proud to support.
Stourbridge is noted for its fine glass and crystal ware, although the rise of cheap imports has caused the industry to decline to a few specialist firms and studios that produce individual and short-run items. However, visitors can still take a stroll around the glass quarter, where the Ruskin glass centre may be found, which houses many skilled crafts people and some leading British studio designers. Some of my honourable female colleagues travelled on the excellent Labour women's campaign bus to visit me during the campaign. Having spent some time in the shop outlets that contribute to the local economy, they will, I am sure, attest to the centre's quality.
It is a privilege to follow Lynda Waltho and I congratulate her on her maiden speech. Those of us who knew her predecessor, Debra Shipley, will recognise that the hon. Lady is in every sense living up to her reputation and ability. I also congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Burrowes, all three of whose predecessors I had the privilege of knowing. Tony Berry was an absolute star, I admired Michael Portillo, and I respected Stephen Twigg. My hon. Friend has shown every sign of being able to follow in their footsteps. I wish him well in his north circular campaign, but as a fellow London MP, I advise him not to hold his breath.
This Bill is timely. According to today's edition of The Times, a ferry in Devon that has operated for more than 1,000 years is having to suspend service on Saturday nights because its operators cannot cope with the binge-drinking hooligans who use it. That illustrates the need to do something about this issue, but it remains to be seen whether this Bill is the answer. It is by any measure a modest Bill, and with the exception of the alcohol disorder zones, I remain slightly sceptical as to whether it will make much difference. There is a rising tide of crime; indeed, recorded violent crime has risen by 83 per cent. since 1998. However, one feature that I do welcome is the Bill's looking beyond deterrence through punishment to another way of addressing the problem. Conservative Front Benchers are right not to oppose the Bill.
My main concern in representing the borough of Croydon in this debate is alcohol use, but I want also to mention the very serious problem of real and imitation firearms being used by young kids as fashion accessories, which they show off to others. If the Bill goes even a small way towards addressing that problem, it is to be welcomed. But a lot of violent crime is caused by alcohol, and whatever the Home Secretary may say, there is an inconsistency in introducing legislation to combat excessive alcohol use and violent crime, while at the same time introducing legislation to promote 24-hour drinking. When I intervened on him, he said that it is a question of personal use, and that one should not confuse such use with 24-hour drinking. That is no answer. There is an inconsistency here, and no less a person than Sir John Stevens says that the move to 24-hour drinking has to be slowed down.
Many Members have spoken about the impact of alcohol-related disorder on the night-time economy. The British crime survey has pointed out that 30 per cent. of city-centre arrests are related to alcohol use. There is no doubt that dealing with alcohol-based problems imposes a huge burden on police resources, as it is expensive as well as time consuming. A recent survey showed that 70 per cent. of police officers were diverted from dealing with other crimes in order to cope with alcohol disorder and that 88 per cent. of police sergeants found that alcohol was the most significant disorder problem. The Prime Minister's strategy unit, referring to the Police Complaints Authority, said in a study of 58 deaths in custody that alcohol was a factor in two thirds of them—a quite staggering statistic. We now face the situation where the PCC is actually suggesting that it is inappropriate for police officers to take drunken detainees into custody because of the difficulties that such action causes. The Prime Minister's strategy unit estimates the cost to society and the country as a whole at some £7 billion.
In the borough of Croydon, the largest in London, alcohol-related problems are very serious indeed. There is a successful night-time economy at the centre of the town. It is a great place to go and it pulls in people from all over south London to enjoy a night out, to indulge in social drinking and to have a good time—but that brings its problems. A youth lifestyle survey showed that 39 per cent. of 18 to 24-year-olds now go binge drinking and binge drinkers are far more likely to offend.
Some will remember the riots in Croydon town centre during the last World cup, when so many people came out of the vertical retail outlets to protest when England got knocked out of the competition. However, it is not just an occasional problem that happens only on such special occasions; it is a daily regular occurrence in Croydon. The British crime survey showed that more than half of all alcohol-related violence is between strangers and acquaintances and that it occurs in and around pubs, clubs and discos. The Home Secretary was right to say that we need a new approach to deal with that problem.
The challenge is deciding how best to respond to the problem. Croydon police responded by putting on an extra shift of police officers—amounting, if we include all the trainees, to 18 extra officers. The problem is that that means 18 police officers are not out in the rest of the borough dealing with all the other crime going on—and, believe me, there is plenty of it. There is a fair amount of dissatisfaction within the borough about that. Securing adequate resources is the main problem.
The industry is making substantial sums out of these vertical retail outlets. Anyone going into any of them on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night will see hundreds of people drinking away like mad, smoking and having a good time. The vendors and owners of these outlets are making huge sums of money, which poses the question why they should not be paying for the extra security demands. That is why I support the alcohol disorder zones in the Bill.
The Prime Minister said in his press conference that the alcohol disorder zones were a last resort. I have to say that that smacks of uncertainty and I would ask Ministers to approach the Bill with greater confidence in its positive outcomes. A consultation document before the election spoke of these outlets contributing towards the cost of disorder, but I have to say that I do not like the word "contribute" and I am worried that local authorities will be too timid. They have to operate in relation to the conditions of nuisance, annoyance and disorder, which are highly subjective.
The explanatory notes say that authorities will be
"likely to cover the costs of initiatives to tackle the problem over and above the normal level of public services".
I would like to see the right to charge in force whenever extra police are needed and I do not want a "contribution" or a "likely" recovery, but a definite one—and at a 100 per cent. level. That is what happens when specials are employed at football matches at Crystal Palace, for example, so why cannot these retail outlets pay for the costs of extra police in places such as Croydon town centre? I foresee rows if extra police are used but there are no alcohol disorder zones. There may be no problems, but if extra police are used, the retailers must pay.
On the banning orders for persistent offenders, I am not convinced, frankly, that they will make much difference. I am glad that the Government have dropped the "three strikes and you're out" policy. Powers already exist in respect of the ASBO legislation, but if someone is banned from an area, all they will do, frankly, is go to Brighton—though I wish Brighton well, of course!
The Bill gives the impression of action being taken, but so did the Licensing Act 2003. We are not talking about incremental legislation in which measures are progressively building up. It looks like it is just another stab or another go at trying to solve the problem. The Government's main difficulty is that they have raised expectations, but will the Bill make a difference? Frankly, the jury is out, but I wish them well in their objectives.
I welcome the Bill and I gain the sense that many of us have been sent here by our constituents because they want to know that someone will do something about the problem of violent crime and drunken yobbish behaviour. People are fed up with it and they want us to do something about it.
I received a letter the other week from a constituent, Mr. Smith of Sunderton road. This elderly gentleman wrote me a letter that is probably similar to many that we all receive. He was particularly upset by a report in a newspaper that a bunch of yobs had attacked a funeral cortege. They actually managed to break the window of one of the vehicles carrying a group of 60-year-old ladies who were mourning a lost relative. Mr. Smith rightly asks in his letter what kind of world we are living in and how we can tolerate such behaviour. My answer is that we cannot and will not tolerate it, which is why we need the Bill.
I particularly welcome the proposals for dealing with weapons in general and imitation guns in particular. Many people have campaigned for these measures: rank-and-file police officers throughout the country will be relieved; and the Police Federation will be relieved, as will officers in armed response units. We must recognise that we are in danger, as was mentioned earlier, of developing a fashion culture about guns, particularly among some of our young people for whom guns end up being a sort of fashion accessory. That is one of the reasons why we should be concerned about imitation weapons, which are becoming part of a violent and aggressive culture. That is one good reason for tackling them.
I acknowledge that my right hon. Friend Mr. Denham expressed some concerns about the problem of imitation guns, but it cannot be an accident that imitation weapons are prohibited devices in Canada and that controls are in force against them in places as far and wide as Australia, Malta and the Netherlands. Even in gun-loving California, there are massive restrictions on imitation weapons. We are certainly doing the right thing in the Bill.
I intervened on the Home Secretary earlier to say that without tackling the internet, the measures in the Bill would be virtually pointless. That may have been a slightly inappropriate choice of words, but I would say to Ministers that the effect of the Bill will be severely diluted if we do not tackle the availability of weapons on the internet. I was struck the other week when the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend James Purnell wrote to eBay about the disgusting spectacle of Live 8 tickets, which were originally free, being traded for profit. The response was prompt and eBay closed it down. Would Ministers be prepared to write to the organisation about its trade in weapons in order to secure a similar response?
I have some recent examples from the internet site, deactivated-weapons.co.uk. The problem is that we do not know whether those weapons are deactivated as there is no reliable test when they are put on the site. One can buy an MP40, an M4 carbine, a P38, a 226, which comes in a nice black, we are told, or a Chinese 7.6 rifle. Any kid can buy those guns on the net, so there is no point in taking steps to control weapons unless we tackle the internet business.
I do not understand how we can have reached a situation where there are strict controls on reliable dealers yet people can flog anything they want on the internet. When they are tackled about that, they say that they are not actually responsible for the sale but that they merely facilitate the transaction. They certainly pocket the profit, which in some cases is massive, and it is often a profit on crime and death. I hope that I can persuade my right hon. and hon. Friends to reconsider the matter.
Other Members have mentioned alcohol disorder zones. On balance, they are probably a good idea, although my preference is that people should be able to deal with the situation in a voluntary and co-operative way. I read a story today about Broad street, which is a large regeneration area in Birmingham city centre. By bringing together the police, the council, businesses and, interestingly, the hospital, money was raised to deploy extra police in the Broad street area. There have been two effects. The first is that crime has dramatically reduced. The police report that 18 months ago 40 per cent. of violent crime in the city centre occurred in the Broad street area. Due to that extra policing, the figure is now 10 per cent. Secondly, Broad street is bringing a large amount of money to Birmingham city centre.
I am not as worried as Mr. Oaten about constituents running to me bleating that the price of their house will be affected because we are tackling violent crime, but I agree that there could be problems about the way that the police and local authorities impose alcohol disorder zones. We must take care that we do not damage good regeneration initiatives by using such zones as a substitute funding mechanism. We should look at positive voluntary experiences and I hope that Ministers will reassure us that they will monitor the introduction of alcohol disorder zones so that problems do not arise.
I want to make one more bid to my hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench. As well as tackling violent crime, we must make it clear that we do not condone those who have been convicted of it. I do not know whether my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety has been following the case of Mr. Lorworth Hoare, the convicted rapist who bought a lottery ticket when he was on weekend leave from his open prison and won £7 million. He has now left jail and it is reported that it costs about £10,000 a week to protect him. It is not much incentive to hard-pressed, decent, law-abiding citizens to know that money that could be spent on something else is being spent on protecting that rapist thug. Is there scope for an amendment whereby there would be an assessment of the services we provide for such people? A rapist worth £7 million who has to be protected by the police and probation services should be subject to a financial assessment so that we can recover some of those costs. If we cannot do that, why do not we simply keep him in prison? Then he will be perfectly safe—well he might not be, but he certainly would not cost us what we are paying at present. If we were to impose a financial assessment on that chap, the money could be channelled back to the victims of crime and on tackling other aspects of violent crime instead of wasting it on him.
It is a pleasure to follow Lynda Waltho and my hon. Friend Mr. Burrowes, both of whom made excellent and accomplished speeches, including well-justified tributes to their predecessors. I am sure that the House looks forward to hearing them again in future and that my hon. Friend, who is a near neighbour, will fight for many of the same causes as MPs in neighbouring Hertfordshire.
The Bill contains some worthwhile measures. There are new developments in some fields and incremental changes in existing legislation and, as the Home Secretary conceded, there is some closing of loopholes. However, taken as a whole, the Bill's title is rather flattering to its contents. Although the Home Secretary has been more restrained than some of his predecessors in introducing legislation, even he oversold this measure. That has been a problem throughout Labour's period in government. There has been overselling of legislation since the beginning, with the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. At that time, Ministers would have dismissed out of hand the criticism that in eight years' time we should need a Bill on violent crime reduction; yet after eight years of one piece of oversold legislation after another, we had the spectacle of the Prime Minister appearing on the steps of Downing street just after the general election telling us that he had been taken aback by what he had heard during the campaign. He described the problem of yobs in society and talked of the need to rebuild respect.
Where the Bill assists in rebuilding respect and tackling the yob culture it should be given support, but we should never lose sight of the fact that we need to do much more. Nowhere is that more true than in the field of firearms legislation. One of the most worrying developments of the past eight years has been the rise in gun crime, which has doubled in the past five years alone. No interpretation of the statistics—no sleight of hand—can make them appear better. However we try to divide the categories of firearms legislation, as the Home Secretary was tentatively trying to do during his speech, we must keep in view the fact that there is a grave problem of crime involving the use of firearms. It is concentrated in certain communities and has blighted some inner-city areas. Many police officers believe that there is a risk that it will spread to many other communities.
The provisions in part 2 will require careful examination. We need to ensure that they give as much protection to the public as possible while not losing sight of the desirability of safeguarding the interests of people who use weapons legitimately. The provisions must make some difference in practice, but above all we must remember that much more needs to be done, as the crisis is urgent.
Similarly, much more remains to be done about alcohol-related disorder, although the problems are different. I commend much that was said by Mr. Denham. I had the pleasure of serving under his chairmanship of the Select Committee on Home Affairs when we conducted our inquiry into antisocial behaviour and considered the problem of alcohol-fuelled disorder. I was struck by the scale of the phenomenon of drinking in our cities and indeed our towns—we have heard from hon. Members about the problems in communities of various sizes.
The chief constable of Nottingham gave evidence to the Committee and told us that on the previous Friday between 80,000 and 100,000 people had been in Nottingham city centre, policed by only about 40 officers. He also told us that the licence capacity in Nottingham was 61,000 people in 1997 but that by 2004 it had risen to 108,000.
Clearly, the vast majority of those who go for an evening out in Nottingham are well behaved—those of us who remember the film "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" will know that this has happened from time to time in the past in Nottingham—but the sheer scale of the phenomenon and the atmosphere that it engenders must be addressed, and there are many ways to do so, other than just by enforcement alone, although that has a part to play, and by the marginal improvements in enforcement that the Bill will produce.
I wish to refer to one of the ways in which we could tackle the problem of bad behaviour, antisocial behaviour, the decline in respect and so on. There was some talk before the publication of the Bill that the Government would consider giving extra protection to public servants. I was disappointed to find nothing in the Bill about that, and I understand that there are no other such proposals—if the Minister has any, I shall be pleased to hear about them.
Public servants are often in the front line of those who face violence and antisocial behaviour. In many cases, they are not treated with the respect that they deserve, and which they once received. I think particularly of the lack of respect shown to and, sometimes, the offences committed against teachers, doctors and nurses, those in the emergency services, those who serve the public in local and central Government and those who provide transport for the public in many different ways. All those people serve the public.
I believe that there is a case—I hope that we will be able to explore it in Committee—for considering providing extra protection to those servants of the public in the form of more serious sentences for those who commit offences against public servants. That can be justified in theory. Such things should be treated as aggravated offences because all the people whom I describe serve the public, the nature of their jobs requires them to come into contact with the public and the service that they provide to the public is interfered with by the offences that are committed against them.
Even those in the emergency services can sometimes be the victim of such offences. Since these ideas came to mind, during last week in my constituency, there has been a serious report of how such things can arise. The fire service was called to deal with a report of a neon sign malfunctioning outside a pizza parlour in Borehamwood at about half-past 10 in the evening. As a fireman examined the sign to find out whether it was safe, he was shot in the forehead by a pellet fired from an airgun. Another man was shot in the arm. Both men were taken to hospital. Thankfully, their injuries turned out not to be serious; but, as the police said afterwards, it was an incredibly reckless action.
I do not know—no one can know at this stage—whether the measures in the Bill on air weapons would have covered that offence, related to it or helped in any way. It is too early to say; we do not know enough about the circumstances of the offence, but we clearly know that it was an attack against a public servant acting in his very important line of duty, protecting the public—someone who puts himself in the way of enough risk already, without being exposed to more by members of the public committing offences against him. Someone who goes out to work on behalf of the public should receive additional protection.
Although some of the individual measures in the Bill may be worth while, I hope that during its consideration there will be an opportunity to consider giving much stronger protection to those who serve the public. Such measures would do far more to rebuild respect in our society, as well as doing justice to our public servants and giving them the protection that they deserve, than the measures that are currently in the Bill. Frankly, much more needs to be done by legislation and in many other ways. As we all know from our constituencies, and as the Prime Minister found out during the election campaign, there is a serious problem today with disorder, and we have not yet reached the right scale of dealing with that disorder to meet the needs of our constituents.
I join the tributes to the two hon. Members who made their maiden speeches. In particular, my hon. Friend Lynda Waltho paid an elegant tribute to Debra Shipley, and I am sure that many hon. Members who have been friends with Debra very much appreciated her words.
One reason why I particularly welcome the Bill—I take issue with Mr. Clappison in this respect—is that it deals with the type of violent crime that my constituents experience most and that causes them most concern. Mercifully, most of them are not the victims of some of the very serious crimes, such as murder, but many of them experience crimes that result from alcohol, or if they do not experience them, it is because they are frightened by them and keep out of the town centre. Tackling alcohol-related crime will have a huge impact on the quality of life of many of my constituents and, indeed, on the environment that they enjoy. I want to talk about the measures on binge drinking, but I also want to ask my right hon. Friend the Minister whether she might say something about so-called happy slapping. The Bill contains a measure about mobile phones, but it is very restricted and I want to ask her some questions about that.
I shall deal first with binge drinking. I warmly welcome the proposals on alcohol disorder zones. I have been convinced of the need for such zones since going out on the beat with the Northamptonshire police in the town centre a good number of years ago, when I saw huge pressures on the police as a result of the weak management of late-night drinking in the town centre. One night, there were 13 or 14 arrests, which is probably the equivalent of a small riot, and young people suffered serious injuries. Of course, the town centre becomes a complete no-go area for anyone over the age of 25, in a family group or not either very drunk or interested in getting drunk.
The issues that have arisen in many of our town centres have been caused by weak approaches by the drinks industry, sometimes a lack of thought in town-centre design by the local authority—my hon. Friend referred to that in discussing her constituency—and, of course, the attitudes of young people to drink. Quite a few hon. Members mentioned the issue of fashion in crime. All those issues need to be tackled.
On the drinks industry, a number of hon. Members talked about the state of the insides of venues and the fact that there is nothing to do other than stand up and drink. There is a lack of mix in entertainment and, in particular, a lack of food. Going around some of the venues that must make provision for eating as part of their licence, one commonly finds that the restaurant is shut for one reason or another. Richard Ottaway talked about people standing and drinking. He struggled to think of what else they were doing and then said that they were enjoying themselves. In some venues, one wonders how much of what is going on is enjoyment and how much is just drinking for the sake of it.
The management of young people by club staff is also a major issue. Young people go into such places, have as much alcohol poured down their throats as possible and are then chucked out on to the street, thereby creating an immediate problem that the police must deal with. It seems completely inappropriate that the police should have to manage that, which is one reason why alcohol disorder zones are so important.
I take issue with hon. Members who have criticised the new licensing laws. Although I probably err on the side of wanting to see less drinking, the new licensing laws give local authorities more flexibility to think carefully about how they will stagger the opening and closing hours, thus raising issues that they have not considered before, such as the mix of business and how to provide licences.
Roads and transport are also serious issues. I am pleased that the explanatory notes specifically mention the use of income from such zones for transport schemes, which will, of course, also have a major impact on improving public safety, given that drink-driving is a fairly logical consequence of too much drinking if there is no other form of transport.
Alcohol has an impact on crime and several hon. Members have talked about its impact on policing. It leads to increased costs if policing is funded by overtime, while police resources are drained if that is managed by routine rostering. One often wonders why burglars do not wait until Friday and Saturday nights to operate because they know that all the police are safely in the town centre dealing with alcohol-related problems.
I am sure that my hon. Friend is right.
We do not realise the profound impact of crime arising directly from the use of alcohol. The British crime survey produced a good special report on alcohol-related assaults—I am not sure whether that is the report to which several hon. Members have referred. The most recent figures, which are for 1999, projected that 1.2 million incidents had occurred, although not all were reported to the police. Although those incidents involved a small proportion of the population, the report showed some serious profiles.
More than half the assaults left the victim with a form of injury. There was a strong link with age, with the group most at risk of assault being 16 to 19-year-olds. There was also a strong link with gender because some 90 per cent. of alcohol-related assaults were committed by men only. Five per cent. of assaults were committed by women and 5 per cent. by mixed groups. The biggest single group on which assaults were committed was strangers. About 320 alcohol-related assaults represented domestic violence, which is a major problem. Although men are more likely to be hit by a drunken stranger, women are twice as likely to be hit by a drunk whom they know. We must think about how we can cut violent crime, and especially domestic violence, by dealing with problems involved with drinking.
When the Bill's provisions come into force, we must avoid the situation that occurred with antisocial behaviour orders when local authorities were slow to take up their powers. I hope that local authorities will be encouraged to take up the powers in the Bill to ensure that people can reclaim their town centres from the drinking venues and the behaviour that we have seen.
I have written to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary about the problem of so-called happy slapping. I am worried about the way in which that horrible new craze of a crime is being treated, especially because of incidents that have been raised with me in my constituency. It is not the case that only young people and school kids are doing it, because there is evidence that older people are committing the offence to get pictures of children on their mobile phones. I wondered whether guidance can be issued so that such an action is treated as not only an assault, but a form of child abuse, which would mean that its seriousness could be reflected by the way in which it was treated by the police and the courts.
I know that the matter does not lend itself immediately to legislation, but I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety will say something about the way in which the offence should be treated. Unfortunately people abuse new technology in all sorts of extraordinary ways. It seems that the crime has come out of nowhere to become a problem not only in schools, but because older people are hitting children and compounding that by taking pictures of the incident, which I regard as a form of child abuse.
The Bill will substantially improve many of my constituents' quality of life by dealing with crime, and especially crime involving 16 to 19-year-olds. It will do a lot to reduce some of the worst crimes experienced by women and make it possible for people like myself, who are no longer under 25, to take our families into town and enjoy a night out without having to worry about the behaviour that has unfortunately marred too many of our towns.
I give a general welcome to the Bill, but there is a lot of devil in the detail, so much careful work will be required in Committee. There seems to be consensus in the House about the problem, but not complete consensus about the cure proposed in the Bill.
I have some concerns about drink banning orders because they will once again move the problem on instead of dealing with the cause. I would like a study of why people drink themselves silly on Friday and Saturday nights, as has been suggested.
I accept that people drink themselves silly to get to last orders, but they also do so during happy hours, so the hon. Gentleman's point does not fully explain why that happens. There should be a pause for thought about 24-hour licensing, although the extension is a good idea for those who behave in a civilised manner. The hon. Gentleman's point does not address the reason why people drink themselves into oblivion early in the evening before continuing on their journey by going clubbing.
Does the hon. Lady agree that last orders is not the heart of the problem? There is something distinctive about the British drinking culture because the British go out to drink themselves into oblivion, while people of other countries and cultures drink more for pleasure.
I agree with the hon. Lady that there seems to be a British malaise. Additionally, people seem to have an inability to feel the cold when inebriated because they often go round in very little clothing at such times.
I understand the idea behind alcohol disorder zones because Hornsey and Wood Green has good voluntary organisations called clubwatch and pubwatch that work together to create exactly what I think that the Government are after. I think that the Home Secretary misunderstood what I said before about this matter. I am worried that, although the law treats good and bad landlords differently, alcohol disorder zones will not do so. Although I agree with the principle that the polluter pays, the charge will be levied equally across the board. I wonder whether the local authority should be able to vary the levy according to the behaviour of individual landlords. Will the local authority be able to use the money for purposes such as cleansing, because males seem to have a technical problem when there is a lot of alcohol involved?
I welcome the Government's proposals on imitation weapons, which are an abomination. I have served on the Metropolitan Police Authority for the past five years and visited SO19, where I saw a room containing a range of exact and precise imitations. No police officer should have to make a split-second decision about whether such weapons are genuine. The police have a training video that puts people in a crime scene so that they can make such a decision, but I would not know which way to choose, so I welcome the innovation.
I questioned the Home Secretary earlier about why the Government propose to change the penalty for carrying an imitation firearm from six months to 12 months, because, unless that extra six months leads to a measurable difference, the proposal becomes gesture politics. Is that increase correct or should it be greater? The carrying of imitation weapons is serious, especially if they are used to frighten the public or commit robbery or crime, so we need to examine the matter more closely.
There were three stabbings between 1 and
In summary, I admire the Government's attempt to send a cultural message to shift society, if that is what they are doing. Some of the great social shifts have been achieved as a result of legislation, such as the drink-driving laws and laws on wearing seat belts in cars. However, legislation was not enough on its own. It worked in conjunction with a huge effort on campaigning and advertising. I am old enough to remember "Clunk-click every trip." It is unacceptable to get drunk in a pub and step into a car without people looking askance and I feel loose if I drive off without my seat belt on because using it is embedded in my behaviour.
If the Government are sending a message that people drinking themselves into oblivion is wrong, there has to be an enormous campaign to back that up. One of the difficulties that they wander into is that too many laws and too many changes from what is a civil law to a criminal law mean that there are too many messages. They have to be clear, specific, targeted and focused on how they change society for the better. We are talking abut twin evils. They need addressing, which the Government are doing.
Along with the Tory and Labour parties, I co-hosted a public discussion with the author Michael Jacobson, who has written a book on downsizing prisons. The basic thesis is that, as we reduce the prison population by finding other mechanisms for dealing with crime—rehabilitation, justice panels and so on—the corresponding effect is that crime drops, which means that the prison population drops again. Sir Gerald Kaufman said that the Liberal Democrats were against the Anti-social Behaviour Bill. At the discussion, both Tory and Labour Members said how much we needed to deal with the causes of crime. We were attacked for saying that the best way to treat a woman for a first offence of shoplifting was not to put her in prison, but that is not being soft on crime.
The Bill will reduce the number of incidents only temporarily if we do not deal with the causes. We are not soft on crime. We are tough on crime, but we are also interested in helping people. Tougher laws, more laws and longer sentences are a failure of the administration of justice. It is a cry for help from the people whom we represent to do more than just create additional laws.
Every hon. Member has said that tackling violent crime and intimidatory antisocial behaviour is a priority for our constituents. My hon. Friend Steve McCabe was right when he said that people want to know not just that we are concerned about such things, but what we are going to do about them. The Bill is an important step along the road in tackling alcohol-related crime and antisocial behaviour.
I want to address part 2. The link between replica firearms and violent crime is clear. The statistics have been mentioned and are widely available. We must tackle that problem and do something about replica firearms. Although the Bill will probably contribute to that, I share some of the concerns expressed by my right hon. Friend Mr. Denham. I hope that the Committee will consider the problems of definition, because they could give us problems. It is only right that the Bill covers possible exemptions, but jumping too far one way will drive a coach and horses through our legislation while jumping too far the other way will outlaw collectors' items. We need to consider that in detail.
I want to concentrate on selling guns and knives. My hon. Friend made a good point about internet sales. I have concerns about holes in existing legislation and its implementation as it relates to existing retail outlets. According to the Knives Act 1997,
"A person is guilty of an offence if he markets a knife in a way which . . . indicates, or suggests, that it is suitable for combat; or . . . is otherwise likely to stimulate or encourage violent behaviour involving the use of the knife as a weapon."
That is relatively clear. Looking at some of the retail outlets in my constituency and other places, however, I find it difficult to relate what is on sale, and how it is marketed and advertised, to that legislation.
A market stall in my constituency is called Guns and Knives, and it is a bit like the ad that says "It does what it says on the tin", because it has an array of everything from crossbows to ninja knives, to all kinds of blades and BB guns. Today it advertised an Uzi sub-machine gun at cut price, although I do not know whether it was a replica or BB gun. I am not suggesting that the retailer is breaking the law or selling knives to children. The evidence is that he is not. It is also true to say that he has signs up saying "For collectors' use only".
However, residents are concerned about how the products are marketed and the fact that they are in their face when they walk past the stall. In fact, they are so concerned that when the local Labour party organised a petition a month or two ago on the marketing of guns and knives in the open, people queued up to sign it. There was no doubt about the concern. I pay tribute to my constituent, Lucy Seymour-Smith, who brought the petition together and presented it to the local council, which is considering it. I am pleased to say that the local paper, the Birmingham Evening Mail, has taken up the problem and did a fairly major piece on the stall. It has raised some of the concerns felt by my constituents. The article brought out the suggestion that a blade from the stall was used in a violent incident not far from the constituency.
There is a problem with how knives are marketed. Bearing in mind what the 1997 Act says about blades not being marketed in a way that suggests they are used for combat, it is significant that another shop in my constituency is called Combat. It sells things to do with legitimate martial arts—kendo and forms of unarmed martial arts—but there are also various forms weapons or imitation weapons in the window. I am not suggesting that the trader does not draw a distinction between selling equipment for kendo and having a Samurai sword purely for ceremonial purposes. Perhaps he does. If we are trying to counter the culture of violence, we need to be a lot firmer and more focused on breaking the link between legitimate martial arts and the glorification of violence that is all too often associated with the marketing of imitation guns, blades, crossbows and so on.
Where blades are concerned, it is not just a case of new legislation; the issue is one of enforcement. However, retailers have a responsibility not simply to put up a sign saying "For collectors' use only" and then to market and advertise the items in a way that runs counter to the message that that sign gives. If they advertised their goods on television or in the press, they would be covered by an Advertising Standards Authority code of practice that would severely limit the way in which they did so. Yes, it is a system of self-regulation, but there are ASA rules. However, a retailer selling from a market stall or a shop can put what they want, how they want it, in their shop window as long as they can point to their sign saying "For collectors' use only". They are under little obligation to adopt reasonable standards and to market their items in a way that indicates that they are for collectors' use, rather than in a way that glorifies violence. There is a link between the way in which such items are marketed and the culture of violence that can lead to people seeing guns or knives as attractive fashion accessories and, further down the line, to the committing of violent crimes.
As well as giving the Bill its Second Reading and examining it in detail in Committee, I ask the House to think about how we can be more proactive about ensuring that the provisions of existing law—in particular the Knives Act—are enforced. Ministers should also consider negotiating and drawing up with the retail trade a code of practice similar to the ones relating to print and electronic media, so that there is some oomph behind the legislation. In that way, police and trading standards officers will have an extra tool to use when they visit retail premises. We must have some means of ensuring that marketing to the legitimate collector—the person who wants to have a ceremonial dagger on their wall, for example—is not used as a cover for the glorification of violence and weapons.
I congratulate those hon. Members who have made their maiden speech today. Lynda Waltho demonstrated an impressive love of her constituency. My hon. Friend Mr. Burrowes showed all the abilities of his two immediate predecessors, both of whom advanced swiftly to the Front Bench. I am sure that he will do the same. I note that, like many other members of the new intake of Conservative MPs, my hon. Friend referred to Sir John Betjeman: if many hon. Members in the next Parliament follow that example, in addition to a tribute to one's predecessors and a guide to one's constituency, a reference to Sir John Betjeman in a maiden speech will become one of the conventions of the House.
This is not my maiden speech, but I shall say a word or two about my constituency. South-West Hertfordshire is a green and pleasant land—a largely prosperous area containing a number of strong communities. Yet, like many other areas mentioned in today's debate, it suffers from violent crime and antisocial behaviour. This week, my local newspaper mentioned a mugging in Rickmansworth and a shooting in South Oxhey. This time last week, an incident occurred in the road where I live in Chorleywood, which was described as one of the happiest places in Britain only a year ago, but which suffers from antisocial behaviour.
Often where antisocial behaviour is prevalent, a place feels no longer under the control of the authorities and violent crime can arise. My local newspaper also mentioned the neighbouring constituency, Watford, where violent crime increased by 38 per cent. on last year's figures. We have heard many references to statistics: the Government tend to refer to the British crime survey and Conservative Members to recorded crime figures, and conclusions differ according to which figures are used. However, Mr. Denham rightly said that there is among the public a perception and a real fear of violent crime and antisocial behaviour—hence the Bill, no doubt.
The Bill appears to me to comprise a modest set of proposals, to none of which I strongly object. Like many other hon. Members, I have been contacted by airsofters concerned about its impact, so I welcome the assurance that a way forward will be sought that accommodates concerns about replica weapons but maintains airsofting. Such an approach is desirable and I shall support those efforts. However, as I said, there is little in the Bill to which Conservative Members fundamentally object. There is great concern about drunken behaviour, which I see throughout my constituency, in Tring, Berkhamsted, Rickmansworth and Chorleywood. All suffer from that problem and, although I doubt that any of them would fall within an alcohol disorder zone, any measure that might change the culture relating to alcohol would be welcome.
Considering the broader question of how to reduce violent crime, I do not believe that the Bill will make a substantial difference, and I doubt that many hon. Members think it will. Some of the offences will be useful for the authorities' efforts to assert law and order, but there is little that will be greatly helpful. If our aim is to reduce violent crime, we should be paying more attention to international comparisons, in particular the example of New York. During the 1990s, violent crime in New York fell by 60 per cent. and there are clear lessons for us to learn from that city and the policies followed there.
First, we should implement a policy of high-visibility policing. That means reducing the bureaucracy with which the police have to deal, with the result that they spend a lot of time in the station. We also have to increase police numbers; that worked well in New York, which has much greater density of policing than a comparable city such as London. We should set out tough sanctions, whether imprisonment or some other measure. My local police are concerned that when youths are convicted of antisocial behaviour offences, nothing happens to them to prevent their going out and offending again—indeed, their first experience of the criminal justice process emboldens them to commit further crimes, because they feel that the authorities can do nothing to them.
We need more community policing—a point on which there is consensus across the House. Calls for more community policing are not uniquely Conservative, but we need police who are known within their area and who have good contacts. They should be based there, and should not be hauled off to large cities or towns, as happens to the police in Berkhamsted and Tring, who are hauled off to Watford on Friday and Saturday evenings as a matter of course.
How do we bring all those proposals together? There is a clear distinction to be made between arrangements in New York and in this country, where local accountability is entirely lacking. Police authorities are regarded as having little importance and are not thought to represent fully the views of local people. My constituents are frustrated that there is nothing that they can say or do to influence the police in their area. Rightly or wrongly, the police are often regarded as distant and out of touch. The people of Britain need greater control over the police in their locality, which is why many of us advocate the establishment of directly elected police commissioners or, to use a more catchy word, sheriffs. The police need to be in contact with the communities that they serve, but at the moment there is distance between the people and the police, who do not necessarily respond to ordinary people's priorities. Giving them another piece of legislation with which to enforce their presence may be helpful, but until we change fundamentally the culture of our criminal justice system to make it more responsive to local public opinion I fear that we will continue to face violent crime at record levels.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I should like to focus on the issue of gun crime and the steps in the Bill that, I hope, will help us to tackle that scourge. As I said in an intervention, gun crime casts a peculiar shadow over communities such as mine in Hackney. I remind the House that when those of us who live in the inner city talk about gun crime we are talking about something very different from the criminal use of guns down the ages. Guns have always been used in crime, including, for example, the great train robbery. In the past decade in inner-city Hackney, however, I have witnessed the growth of a specific gun culture, in which young men do not feel properly dressed for a night out unless they are tooled up.
People may talk about guns as replicas or collectors' items, but individuals who want guns as ornaments on their dining-room table or on their walls are feeding the gun culture. Another feature of Hackney's gun culture is the random nature of shootings. Once, unless people were armed robbers or security guards, they were unlikely ever to find themselves face-to-face with a gun, but in my constituency there have been drive-by shootings in which people were killed while waiting at a bus stop. At a party, people have been killed by a bullet from a gun fired in another room that passed through the wall. In the past two weeks, people were shot up in a Turkish restaurant in Dalston by people travelling past on a motorbike. Imagine the terror experienced by people in a restaurant, at a bus stop or walking up the street when they see two guys go past on a motorbike spraying bullets.
The random nature of gun crime in the city and its international nature give Hackney's gun culture a specific character. Disputes about drugs and payment may originate in Mountain View, Kingston in Jamaica but they are resolved on the streets of Dalston in Hackney. Just as business and labour have gone global, so has crime. Hackney is involved in the traffic of criminals between New York, London, Jamaica and elsewhere. There is therefore a distinct and unnerving phenomenon in an area where high-value housing lies cheek by jowl with what is commonly known as murder mile. For many years, I have urged Ministers to take tough action on imitation firearms. In Hackney, such firearms are not ornaments like vases or a piece of china. They are one step away from real firearms. The majority of what are misleadingly described as Yardie-type shootings in London—most of those involved do not come from Jamaica or have not travelled there—are perpetrated with activated imitation firearms. That is why I take a tougher line than colleagues who regard such guns merely as ornaments.
The problem is not just a media scare. The publication of annual crime figures show that gun crime has risen by 10 per cent. and the use of imitation weapons by 66 per cent. Last Monday, a 22-year-old was shot in Dalston, and he is still in hospital. In the past 10 days, a 20-year-old who was trying to stop a friend being beaten up was shot in the face. As I said, bullets were sprayed into a Turkish restaurant by a gunman on a motorcycle in Dalston. Gun crime is a tragedy not just for the people who are shot but for their family and the community. What can it be like to be a mother who says goodbye to her son in the morning or the afternoon only to receive a call from the police saying he has been shot and may be dying?
I welcome the Government's action, including tougher sentences for people carrying imitation firearms. I particularly welcome the creation of a new offence for using other people to hide and carry guns or knives. For many years in Hackney, 11, 12 or 13-year-old children have been used to keep guns, because the owners know that when those children are discovered they will not receive the sentences given to adults. The Bill's clear intention to bear down on the carrying, sale and use of imitation firearms is welcome, and my constituents will be grateful that the Government are listening.
We must make it clear, however, that the glorification of guns and firearms is not unique to youth culture or even black youth culture. Recently, promotions for the film "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" featured the gimmick of a glamorous couple—Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie—handling guns. Sometimes people assume that gun culture is specific to inner-city areas such as my constituency, but guns have been glorified in American culture since the days of Wyatt Earp. I welcome the measures in the Bill on imitation weapons, for which the police have been calling for many years. I do not want those measures to be watered down by people who consider such guns to be merely ornaments.
Measures in the Bill, however, will not wipe out the menace of gun crime in the inner city. We need to look at a number of underlying issues, including education. I have spoken many times in the House about the underachievement of black boys. I am not claiming that every child who underachieves at school joins a criminal subculture and goes on to become involved in firearms, but there is a direct link between criminality, whatever one's colour, and underachievement. If we are serious about beating gun culture in the Hackneys and Harlesdens of our country we must look at educational underachievement and the need to create routes into employment. Someone can stand in the middle of Dalston in my constituency a few hundred yards from the scene of various shooting incidents and see the towers of the City of London, including the gherkin and the NatWest tower. For most of my young male constituents, however, those towers might as well be on the other side of the world, so remote is their opportunity to find a job in the City, one of the biggest employers in Europe.
We must therefore look at education and routes into employment for my constituents. We must also look at witness protection. In Hackney—I do not know about areas outside the M25—by and large the identity of individuals carrying out the shootings is not a mystery. The gangs and perpetrators are well known within their communities. The problem is that people are terrified to come forward because we still do not have adequate witness protection. If there is a big gangland investigation, people can have their identity changed or whatever, but I have spoken to middle-aged ladies who have gone to court and been witnesses in the trials of gun criminals and have had to move two or three times to get away from the fear of retribution. Witness protection is extremely important.
We also need to look at better control of the illegal importation of weapons and at the issues that colleagues have raised in relation to the sale of weapons on the internet. Of course we do not have anything like the level of gun crime that exists in the United States, and of course only a fraction of our young people are involved in the kind of gun culture that I described, yet that has cast a terrible shadow over my constituents because of its random, international and cultural nature. I am glad that in the Bill the Government are taking important steps towards dealing finally with the menace of gun crime in our inner-city communities.
Here we have the 41st or 42nd Home Office Bill in the history of this Government. Once again, I am afraid, the most effective part of the Bill is the title, which bears little relation to the contents. Richard Burden said earlier that if existing legislation with regard to knives were put into effect properly, we would not need any reference to knives in the Bill. However, I welcome part 2.
With respect, I did not make the comment that the hon. Gentleman attributes to me. The point that I was making was that there is existing legislation on knives which needs to be enforced properly. I did not say that we do not need the provisions of the Bill.
I apologise if I misunderstood the hon. Gentleman. I accept what he says, of course.
The offence of minding a weapon is an excellent step forward. From my experience of the courts, it has been needed for some time. The Government have got that right. The provisions on firing beyond premises are also right. I welcome the provisions on imitation weapons, a subject on which I have campaigned long and hard. I am pleased that something is being done. With regard to airguns, a licensing system would have been preferable. Those can be extremely dangerous, and we know that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, for example, reports many garden birds being killed year on year. There are also several examples of domestic animals being shot with airguns. The Government have rejected the idea of licensing, but in the spirit of the Home Secretary's opening remarks, I hope that there can be a dialogue on the matter in Committee and further consideration of the matter.
My hon. Friend will know that in Scotland there is a great deal of cross-party consensus on the need for tighter legislation going beyond the Bill. That was supported by the First Minister before he was slapped down by the Home Secretary. Given that consensus, does my hon. Friend agree that there is an opportunity to trial a licensing scheme in Scotland?
Definitely. Clearly, if such a scheme works in Scotland, it can be emulated south of the border and in Wales and introduced as best practice. I hope there will be a dialogue on the subject.
On knives, I do not know whether raising the legal age for buying a knife will be a great step forward. We shall have to wait and see.
What causes me greatest concern is the various provisions concerning drunkenness. I am the first to admit that there is a problem; I would be foolish to deny it. We know that in 2002–03 44 per cent. of violent offences were committed by people who were drunk. However, we are still shy of examining the causes. I have said many times before and I will say again that drinks companies market alcopops to youngsters. Youngsters enjoy themselves, and why not? They drink the stuff and within a short time get terribly drunk. The problems follow from there.
That is not the responsible sale of alcohol. I do not believe that it is right to leave the Portman Group in charge of operations in that regard. At some point some form of legislation will be needed. I do not want to prevent youngsters enjoying themselves, but the vast majority of young people in our town centres are probably far more drunk than they want to be, because alcopops are so easy to drink.
I note that the Bill deals with another hobbyhorse of mine—the existing offence of selling alcohol to a person who is drunk, and an increase in the fine. Good. Let us hope that from now on the provision will be enforced, which has not been the case up till now.
Let us consider the existing provisions on drunkenness. It is an offence to be drunk and disorderly. Dispersal orders were provided for under the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 introduced antisocial behaviour orders. Community or suspended sentences may have an exclusion requirement among their conditions. If all those were properly used, would we need a drink banning order? We often speak about legislating when there is not strictly a need for it. No doubt I will be corrected if I am wrong, but I pose the question whether there is a need for further legislation. If we are to ratchet up the penalties for public drunkenness, there must be a real need for it. We should not find a need simply because we are not enforcing the existing law.
I am sure there is a need for alcohol disorder zones, but I hope the provision will not be used as a blunt instrument. The British Beer and Pub Association is extremely concerned—it would be, wouldn't it—about the provision. I believe that the "polluter pays" principle is fine, but many responsible licensees will be tarred with the same brush as those who are not. I am not sure that that is acceptable. There is an argument that there are already plenty of laws in place to achieve the desired aim. The problem may be that there are not enough police officers out on the streets. We heard earlier that police were called from one place to another on a Friday or Saturday night. Maybe the answer is more policemen on the streets.
I would be wary of declaring a city centre to be an alcohol disorder zone, thereby blackening the reputation of that city centre in toto and tarring responsible businesses with the same brush. The Association of Chief Police Officers is worried and stated in its evidence that the zones may well be a problem because of the links between longer drinking hours and yob behaviour, the cost to the taxpayer and the fact that more officers would spend time in court rather than crime-fighting. ACPO also says that the zones will
"allow the police and local authorities to take action against pubs and clubs whose customers cause problems after closing time."
That is fine. However, the ACPO document makes it clear
"that the police have serious doubts about whether the proposals will prove effective. ACPO is concerned that the proposed zones will be routinely challenged through the courts at considerable cost to the public sector, in terms of time and money."
ACPO goes on to warn:
"Defending our position in the courts diverts our resources away from where they should be and does little in the meantime to reduce crime, disorder and anti-social behaviour".
The Local Government Association welcomes the opportunity to consider the provision and points out that it deals with a sensitive matter. I hope it will be used sensitively, with the caveats that I have mentioned.
I was not in favour of the introduction of ASBOs, because I thought that they were a blunt instrument, but, to the Government's credit, they are working in some areas. ASBOs are most effective when stages 1, 2 and 3 of the process are used in partnership, and north Wales is a beacon of good practice in that regard. The fact that fewer ASBOs are used in north Wales does not mean that North Wales police has failed. North Wales police has succeeded because such matters are being dealt with at stages 1, 2 and 3 rather than at stage 5, which involves applying for an ASBO. I hope that that sensitive, thinking attitude is adopted on alcohol zones, too.
The Local Government Association has raised the concern that the name should be changed to "alcohol management zone", which would be more salubrious and less offensive to the good people who live and work within a particular zone. Zones are necessary, but the requirement for them would decrease if we were able to secure more police on the streets. The Home Affairs Committee has considerable reservations about the zones. Although it accepts in principle that clubs and pubs should contribute more to the cost of disorder, it is concerned about proposals in the Bill that may be difficult to operate. Those proposals rest on the premise that individual licensed premises must be at fault for surrounding disorder, which cannot be right. As I have said, the matter must be dealt with sensitively.
There is room for dispersal orders, provided that they are used sensitively, but Liberty is concerned that the police will be both judge and jury in their own court, which might have unfortunate consequences for a person who is effectively banned without any real recourse to the law. The existing offences relating to public order and drunkenness are adequate to deal with those matters. The Bill introduces an offence that may not be necessary, but if it is necessary, I hope that it is employed rarely, sensitively and properly. I have nothing but faith in the police, but it is always dangerous to put a police officer in a position in which they make a judgment whether a certain course of action is right or wrong.
Parts of the Bill commend themselves to the House, but large parts of it would be—to use a parliamentary word—otiose, if we used the existing legislation and spent more on putting more police officers on the street.
Order. As a significant number of Members are still seeking to catch my eye, in accordance with the order of the House of
It is a great pleasure to follow the two hon. Members who have made their maiden speeches tonight. It is also a great pleasure to support this Bill, and in particular the clauses that deal with alcohol-related crime and antisocial behaviour, which I have raised previously in this House and which are matters of great concern to my constituents.
I want to address the civil liberties elements of the Bill, which have been discussed by Mr. Llwyd and a number of pressure groups. Mr. Oaten also said that he wants to examine the civil liberties elements of the Bill. He is right to do so, because our civil liberties are vital and precious, but that includes victims' civil liberties, too. When I hear some pressure groups and think tanks discuss such issues, I wonder whether their members have ever visited some of our towns at weekends or whether they have ever seen what happens on some of our big estates.
The Bill protects the civil liberties of people such as the pensioner in my constituency whose life was made a misery by young thugs tanked up on alcohol and who has the right to enjoyment in his own home. It also protects the vast majority of young people who want to go out in the evening without being hassled or attacked by idiots who have had more drink than they can handle, so we must consider their civil liberties, too.
Like many other towns, Warrington has experienced serious problems in its town centre with people drinking to excess. I commend the police and the local council on the steps that they have taken to tackle that problem, such as high-profile policing and arranging better public transport at night.
The drinking banning orders and the alcohol disorder zones will be vital in the future, not least because the only way in which to convince licensees to abandon the drinks promotions and happy hours that fuel binge drinking is to make them pay for the resulting disorder, because I regret to say that persuasion has not had much effect, so far.
Many problems in my constituency are caused not by pubs and clubs, but by young people who obtain alcohol from off-licences. I am pleased to see that the Bill contains penalties for persistently selling alcohol to a minor. As I have said to the Home Secretary, however, we must examine the penalties for buying alcohol for a minor. I have had many discussions with the police and trading standards officers in my constituency, and, by and large, our problem is not retailers selling to minors, although that happens. The problem is people who go into off-licences to buy goods for young people, usually for a share of what they buy.
We must also tackle the promotion of alcoholic drinks that are deliberately aimed at young people, which is an issue that the Bill does not cover. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy is a bit out of date, because the key issue is not alcopops, but strong ciders. It is clear that drinks with names such as Zeppelin and White Lightning are deliberately targeted at youngsters. Another such drink is called Frosty Jack—it is a strong cider; it is 8 per cent. proof and you can buy a 3 litre bottle for £1.99. It contains 22.5 units of alcohol, which is more than is recommended for average adult male in a week, and it is drunk by kids on the streets and in the playing fields of my constituency and other constituencies like it.
Although the suspension of licences and closure orders are welcome, they are not enough. We must act to tackle the marketing of alcohol to the young and those adults who are complicit in antisocial behaviour by buying supplies for young people.
I hope that Home Office Ministers will discuss with other Departments the increasing sale of smuggled alcohol, which is another issue not mentioned in the Bill. Trading standards officers have also told me that counterfeit products are sold on the estates, and such products are important because they lower the cost of getting drunk. People go round taking orders and delivering those goods, and we must convince the public that alcohol smuggling is not a victim-free crime and that it contributes to disorder on our streets.
Another issue that I should like to raise is that of resources. The Bill imposes extra duties on police and trading standards officers. While I hope that it will ultimately reduce the disorder that the police have to cope with, there is a great deal of work in it for trading standards officers, too, in dealing with the sale of alcohol, airguns and imitation firearms. Although I have a very high regard for trading standards officers in my area, they are woefully under-resourced. I hope that Home Office Ministers will discuss with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister ways in which resources can be made available to ensure that the provisions in the Bill are implemented. Bringing in laws that cannot be implemented on the ground destroys people's faith in the system, and we need to ensure that that does not happen.
The Bill tackles the immediate problems of alcohol and binge drinking, but not their long-term causes. I hope that at some point we will have an opportunity to debate on the Floor of the House why so many people, particularly younger people, behave in this way. We hear a lot about the need for respect, but we should turn that question on its head and ask where we have gone wrong, as adults, in the society that we have created and for which we are ultimately responsible. If we allow our young people to be exposed to a culture in which they are told that they can instantly have everything that they want, we should not be surprised when some of them grow up to disregard the effect of their behaviour on other people. We must talk far more about how we invest in our young people, support their families, and give them worthwhile activities. The Government have already taken steps in that direction with programmes such as Sure Start and extended schools, but we need to do much more. We need the thorough review of the youth service that we have been promised for so long so that we can put in place not only worthwhile activities for young people but other activities that engage them in the community and allow them to interact with and contribute to it.
One of the worst things that we can do when we talk about such issues is to stigmatise all our young people because of the actions of a few. Having spoken about young people, I want to put on the record, as the mother of a teenager, that most of the young people I meet are decent, well meaning and well behaved. Sometimes they are noisy; if children are not noisy, they are ill. Sometimes they do not think of the effect of their behaviour on other people and have to be taught proper consideration for others. That is not criminality, but a normal part of growing up; we should not confuse the two.
I welcome the Bill. I hope that we will see it as part of a package by which we not only tackle the problems that we face but look at their longer-term causes. We must put in place a system whereby our young people have more on offer than binge drinking. They need to be able to contribute to society, and we need to see them not as a problem but as the future of our society—only in that way will we ultimately succeed.
I agree with a great deal of what Helen Jones said. I add my congratulations to Members who have made their maiden speeches today—my hon. Friend Mr. Burrowes, with whom I share a profession in the criminal law, and Lynda Waltho, on behalf of whose constituents I have, sadly, often practised that profession.
I welcome a great deal of the Bill, particularly its focus on alcohol-related disorder, which, as many hon. Members said, is a problem in many parts of the country—not only in cities but in smaller towns such as those that I represent. Like many hon. Members, I have seen for myself the effects of such disorder. With the night shift of Rugby police, I have watched, with, I suppose, hope and despair in equal measure, the behaviour of young people who go out specifically with the intention of getting drunk and thereafter causing trouble—although of course I agree with the hon. Member for Warrington, North that such young people are merely a minority. I have also watched the compassion and unfailing politeness of highly professional police officers who then have to deal with those problems. Of course, there are wider costs, not only economic but social, which have also been discussed. In our town centres—I include Rugby—we begin to witness a cycle of despair whereby those who are out simply for a good time leave the town centres to those who cause trouble. That leaves a vacuum to be filled by yet more of those who are out to cause trouble. I hope that the Bill will begin to deal with that problem.
In that context, perhaps alcohol disorder zones are the Bill's most significant proposal. My only concern is that perhaps we view the matter too narrowly. Of course, it is correct that a great deal of alcohol-related disorder happens just outside the pubs and clubs but we all know that it spills into residential areas that are slightly further afield. We all receive many letters from constituents, as I did only this morning, who live in residential areas not too far away from the town centres and find that people who drink too much and cause trouble make their lives a misery in the middle of the night. We must therefore consider ways in which to deal with alcohol-related disorder not only in the alcohol disorder zones but outside them.
It is important to consider those who sell alcohol to children, not only the licensees of public houses and clubs but those who sell from off-licences. In my constituency, there is a serious problem in the town of Kenilworth with one particular licensee, who regularly sells to minors whom he knows, so test purchases do not work. Those minors, fuelled by the alcohol that he has sold them, go on to cause trouble in public areas and private streets. Perhaps Ministers would like to examine that problem more carefully.
The Home Secretary batted away a point that I raised earlier but I hope that other Ministers will consider it. We must think about the resources that we provide to our police officers to fulfil the obligations that the Bill imposes on them. We must remember that police officers are overworked, overburdened with paperwork and do not have the time to deal with an arsenal of further obligations. I am all in favour of extra orders and extra measures that give the police and the courts the power to deal with those who cause alcohol-related disorder but there is no point in adding more and more orders and more and more measures to the arsenal of the police if they do not have the manpower, resources or time to make good use of them. I urge Ministers to consider that and I hope that the Bill can be further improved.
Like most hon. Members, I support many if not all the Bill's provisions. There is some consensus among all the parties on the measure. I support the stronger new powers to deal with drunk and violent criminals and ensure that pubs and bars sell alcohol responsibly.
I want to concentrate on the provisions that specifically refer to airguns. As the Minister knows, I have taken a great personal interest in the matter since January 1999, when 10-year-old Adam Yoxall was blinded in one eye by an airgun pellet in Grimethorpe in my constituency. My first Adjournment debate on
The Secretary of State said in his opening remarks that he had held discussions with many agencies, including the Gun Control Network. In the past few months, two boys lost their lives in airgun incidents, including Alex Cole from Conisbrough near Doncaster, which is close to my constituency. Many other victims of airgun attacks have been lucky to escape without serious injury. The Gun Control Network advocates a licensing system, which has exercised the minds of hon. Members of all parties. I share the interest in the licensing system, especially in light of the fact that the Scottish First Minister is considering introducing such a system. I hope that we can explore the matter further in Committee.
I realise that there are many pitfalls involved in introducing a licensing scheme for airguns. There are already between 4 million and 7 million airguns in circulation, and most do not have a unique serial number. Perhaps ensuring that they did have such a number would be a move in the right direction. We might also want to consider restricting the sale of airguns to authorised dealers, which would have the distinct advantage of reducing the number of outlets for such weapons. Members have already mentioned the problems relating to internet and mail order sales of air weapons. It is far too easy to buy weapons on the internet. I know that this is a difficult issue, but we must consider it very seriously in relation to restricting future sales.
I understand that, under the present powers of confiscation, the courts have the power to confiscate air weapons on the recommendation of the police. Might we, however, consider giving the power of confiscation to the police in their own right? We ought seriously to consider such a measure in Committee.
I should like to highlight two further points on airgun safety that I mentioned in my Adjournment debate in June 1999. They relate to the two Es: enforcement and education. I fully support the move to raise the minimum age for purchasing an airgun to 18, but an even greater impact on airgun safety would be achieved by having better enforcement by the police to cut down on the level of abuse and misuse of airguns. The practical problem related to better enforcement is that many incidents involve very young children. In many cases, the incidents are also first offences. We need to focus on the fact that the penalties imposed on those children are often very light, perhaps involving no more than a caution.
Better education is essential if parents and children are to realise that airguns are not toys but potentially lethal weapons, and that they need to be treated as such. Parents must ensure that airguns are kept securely, and never in a place that could be accessible to young children. This has been an excellent debate, and I hope that the Bill's Second Reading will be uncontested tonight.
It is clear from many of the contributions from both sides of the House that this is an important subject. That is certainly reflected in the feedback that we are getting from the public, whether on policing, binge drinking, the trafficking and use of drugs, or the sale and use of hand weapons.
It was interesting to hear how all the parties laid out their stalls during the election, making major promises to tackle the growth in violent crime. The public are certainly right to be concerned. Let us take my constituency as a yardstick. In 2000–01, there were 1,402 violent crimes recorded there. That figure has now doubled to 3,257, which is a worrying change in three years. This is now a major issue that affects more people in our communities, town centres and schools. After all the debates during the general election and all the promises that were made, there is disappointment that this flagship Bill to challenge the rise in violent crime has failed to meet expectations.
We should not dismiss the many good parts of the Bill. They were well covered by other hon. Members and I shall not allude to them further owing to time restrictions. However, the Bill fails to go to the heart of the problem. Why, for example, does a pupil feel the need to take a weapon into school in the first place? Why do young men—and, indeed, young women—drink as much as possible in the shortest possible time on Friday and Saturday nights? How can police resources be strengthened to cope with the challenges of the night-time economy?
The Government should look more at the causes of crime and less at the punishment. The Bill arguably focuses on the challenges created by a younger age group in society, namely violence in schools and binge drinking. All those issues together reflect a cultural change in society that requires more than a sticking-plaster approach to solving the problem. We need an in-depth, concerted attack on what unites all these issues: a growing lack of respect for our community, our laws, our rules and our values, and for those who enforce them, whether they be police, teachers or even parents.
I want to focus on the part of the Bill that deals with binge drinking, which is a huge issue in Bournemouth, although it is clear from what we have heard today that it is a problem throughout the nation. Unfortunately, the limited power of councils prevents the growth of pubs and clubs, which encourages the drinking culture. Hogarth's picture "Gin Lane" is re-created on every town centre CCTV monitor on Friday and Saturday nights as lads and ladettes stagger and stumble on the pavements and roads, threatening the world around them as the alcohol blurs their judgment, turning a truck driver, a postman or a banker by day into an ill-tempered, aggressive, irrational and often tribal animal by night.
Local residents—certainly in Bournemouth—are deterred from visiting the town centre. Almost half the police on duty are deployed to an area measuring a quarter of a square mile where the pubs and clubs are located. Police concentrate on maintaining law and order in the heart of the town, and the rest is not given the coverage that it deserves.
The Bill covers many issues connected with binge drinking, but it will need considerable scrutiny in Committee. The imposition of a drink banning order on individuals would have limited effect, as most drinkers—certainly in Bournemouth—tend to be visitors or revellers. Following a banning order, they would simply move somewhere else. The same applies to spot bans on troublemakers. As for closing licensed premises, who would police it? Premises are not checked thoroughly enough as it is. The setting up of alcohol disorder zones would take 28 days, during which time the cause of concern might have moved. Moreover, it would label the area and other, well-run, restaurants and pubs might be caught in the zone and given a bad name. I shall not cite the two examples in the explanatory notes, but Members should look at them. We should be acting now, rather than waiting for another Bill.
Mr. Oaten spoke of enabling councils to impose a levy on pubs and clubs. I think that, rather than an area being labelled, councils should have that power. The extra police required for big football matches are not paid for by the taxpayer but from ticket sales—in other words, by those attending the matches. The same principle should apply to pubs and clubs.
Despite being described as a flagship Bill intended to make our communities safer, the Bill fails to deal with important election issues. There is no mention of simplifying police paperwork, strengthening the role of special constables or giving councillors powers to limit the number of clubs in an area—or, indeed, giving them a say in how the community grows. The Bill does not challenge the drinks industry's approach to drinks promotion. It does not suggest giving the specials a salary, which would be a commendable way of increasing the number of people who join the specials rather than becoming community support officers.
It is easy to see what the Bill will do, but it will not challenge or reduce the amount of violent crime, and it will not deal with the very British problem of binge drinking.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Lynda Waltho and Mr. Burrowes on their maiden speeches. Let me also say how pleased I was to note that the soft-on-crime, criminal-friendly wing of the Liberal Democrats has a champion in Lynne Featherstone.
I welcome the Bill. I shall concentrate on two aspects. I particularly applaud clause 27, which makes it an offence to fire an air pellet beyond the boundaries of a property. That is also welcomed by my constituent Ms Rachel Fernie of Chester Moor, who contacted me recently about a group of youths who were using her land to fire rifles and, in one particularly nasty incident, seriously injured her neighbour's cat. Such irresponsible behaviour, often leading to the injury and even death of pets and wildlife, must be stamped out.
In addition, I welcome the provision to increase the age at which someone may acquire or possess an air weapon without supervision from 17 to 18. I congratulate the Evening Chronicle in Newcastle on its campaign to restrict the use of air weapons following the tragic case of 16-year-old Nicola Diston, who lost sight in one eye after being hit by an airgun pellet. The newspaper presented a petition signed by some 21,000 readers to my right hon. Friend Mr. Blunkett when he was Home Secretary. Those readers will be pleased with the Bill. It would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to the former Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West, Joyce Quin, who did a tremendous amount of work in raising the issue in the House.
I turn to the part of the Bill that deals with the reprogramming of mobile phones. Right hon. and hon. Members may be aware that, in the previous Parliament, I was drawn sixth in the private Member's ballot, a feat that I managed two years running—it is either a bonus or a burden, depending on one's point of view. I introduced a Bill to amend the Mobile Telephones (Re-programming) Act 2002. Unfortunately, due to the general election, it ran out of parliamentary time. I am pleased that its provisions are incorporated in this Bill. I am sure that it will receive cross-party support. Early-day motion 601, which I tabled in the previous Parliament, received support from over 100 Members on both sides of the House.
Tackling mobile phone theft is key to reducing street crime. Mobile phones are taken in half of all robberies. In 30 per cent. of robberies, they are the only item stolen. Victims are targeted for their mobile phones, which are then sold or used in a lot of illegal drugs sales.
Mobile phone theft is a particular problem for the young. More than half of phone robbery victims are under 18 and more than half the offenders are aged between 15 and 17. Such crimes can have tragic results, as was demonstrated in June 2004 with the killing of Kieran Rodney-Davis in Fulham.
The Bill will reduce the ability to sell on mobile phones. I congratulate the industry on setting up the database in 2002 that allows phones that are reported as lost or stolen to be blocked across the United Kingdom, so that the network can no longer be used, and on its national campaign to tell the public that stolen mobiles can be made useless by reporting the theft to the network provider.
The Bill will close a loophole in the 2002 Act. In effect, it will make it an offence to offer or to agree to reprogramme a mobile phone or to have a mobile phone reprogrammed. Introducing that offence brings the legislation into line with drug dealing legislation, under which it is an offence to offer to supply a controlled drug. It will enable the police to clamp down on reprogrammers and disrupt what is a lucrative market.
In short, I believe that those measures will lead to more people being brought before the courts for the offence of reprogramming. They are not controversial but they will make a real difference to street crime. Added to the tough measures in the Bill, we can be proud that we have a Government who will ensure that the criminals are not the ones who benefit and that victims have a voice at last.
Much in the Bill deserves to be looked at carefully, whether one represents an urban constituency or, as I do, a rural one. We all desire a crackdown on gun culture, binge drinking and the rising tide of violent crime, but we cannot forget the context of the Bill, which is the Government's failure to deal with violent crime, gun culture in our towns and cities, knife crime, drugs, the importation of illegal weapons and the mayhem caused by binge drinking.
On violent crime, the simple fact is that people in my part of Norfolk are just like others across the country: they will need a lot of convincing that the measures in the Bill will make a difference. We must not forget that 1.1 million violent crimes were committed last year across England and Wales and that recorded crime has risen by more than 800,000 from 1998–99. Recent crime figures show increases in violent crime in Norfolk above the national average, which should be of concern to the Home Secretary, who is also a Norfolk Member. Violent crime in my area has risen by 14 per cent. in the last year. My constituents and all law-abiding people desire to feel safe and secure in their homes, communities and streets.
The fact that mine is a rural constituency means that it has its particular problems. We all remember the case of Tony Martin, who lives in west Norfolk, and who shot a burglar entering his property. Members will recall that that case revealed the fear and anxiety of the rural population in areas where the police presence is too thinly spread. My constituents do not want headline-grabbing initiatives from the Home Office and they can only hope that the Bill will have an impact that previous Home Office policies have not had. For example, I should like to ask the Minister, while she is guffawing on the Front Bench, how many child curfew schemes have been established since 1998? What proportion of fixed penalty notices for disorder have been paid within the required period? What proportion of antisocial behaviour orders have been breached?
The success of the Bill is not dependent on whether it makes headlines but on whether it tackles violent crime at its source, by which I mean particularly guns and binge drinking.
Like all Members of Parliament, I believe that there should be a crackdown on gun crime but the Government's record is poor. Firearms offences in England and Wales have risen every year since 1997 and, by 2002–03, there were over 24,000 such offences, more than double the number in 1997. A gun crime is committed every hour and it is no surprise that successive Home Secretaries have convened umpteen summits on the issue. We want action, not talk. Guns, drugs and violent crime are intimately linked. If we make an impact on one, we must make an impact on them all.
I wish to put on record my concerns about shooting associations. I am sure that I am not alone in saying that I have received many letters and comments from constituents about this part of the Bill. In dealing with the real problem of gun crime, we must not end up penalising the law-abiding majority of people who go about their business of legal shooting. Lawful shooting is an essential part of many areas of rural life and the rural economy and I want to be sure that the Bill, while its motives are well intentioned, will not prejudice the interests of constituents in that respect.
Finally, I turn to binge drinking, which is a serious problem. The British crime survey showed that the number of people worried about people being drunk or rowdy in public areas is up by 10 per cent. on last year, despite the Government's various crackdowns on alcohol-related violence. Half of all violent attacks are alcohol-related and the cost to the taxpayer of alcohol-fuelled crime is £12 billion a year.
This Bill has a lot of initiatives but I have grave concerns about the Government's new licensing regime, which threatens a reckless surge in late licensing and, in turn, alcohol-fuelled violence and yobbish behaviour. The Bill has made headlines, but it remains to be seen whether it will work in the face of the Government's rushed 24-hour drinking initiatives. If this Bill is to have any impact, it must be true to its title and reduce crime on the ground. My constituents need that, as do others, and they deserve it after eight years of the Government not addressing the problems.
I want to focus on alcohol and on some of the work being done in Stafford. The backdrop is Staffordshire police reporting an 8 per cent. fall in crime overall this year, which is the latest in a series of consecutive falls. House burglaries are down by 24 per cent., vehicle crime by 18 per cent. and robbery by 27 per cent., but violent crime is up by 4 per cent.
It is also important to see the Bill in context. We now have an alcohol harm reduction strategy and the Licensing Act 2003 is about to come into force. It gives more powers to the police and more rights to local communities, and public safety is at the heart of its four licensing objectives. We in Stafford have already made use of previous Labour legislation in this regard. An order designates the town centre as an area in which people may not drink alcohol in public and a further order provides for the dispersal from the town centre of those engaged in disorderly conduct.
The police and the council have already taken a professional approach to managing so-called binge drinking in Stafford town centre, and they are not alone. Our licensees, led by Chris Lewis of the Swan hotel, have come together in a very strong pubwatch. Licensees in Stafford are given radios that provide a direct link to the police, community support officers and the closed circuit television control centre, so that when one is alerted, everybody is alerted. We are already using effectively everything at our disposal and, when drinking banning orders come into force, they will be a useful complement to existing practice in Stafford. The overriding aim of our pubwatch group is, "Banned from one, banned from all." Once it is possible to obtain court orders, they will reinforce the voluntary scheme and tie in those licensees who are not already participating.
On the introduction of alcohol disorder zones, I can tell the House that the concept of the police asking for contributions from licensees to the cost of policing is not new in Stafford. Licensees at Zanzibars, the Litten Tree and what used to be called Props have all made voluntary contributions already. The police in Stafford sign and publish service level agreements so that there is no suggestion of any impropriety in their using their influence to sign people up to that arrangement. Perhaps we will not need an alcohol disorder zone in Stafford because such a policy has already been adopted voluntarily. That will not be so in some areas, in which such zones will therefore be necessary. In others, the very existence of that power will persuade people to behave reasonably.
The situation in Stafford was born of a working partnership involving the police, the councils, CCTV and the licensees themselves. We should also remember trading standards, to which reference has been made and which have played an important role in dealing with the selling of alcohol to under-age people. Such partnerships also involve transport groups, such as minibus and taxi drivers, and night-time economy workers such as the security staff at pubs and clubs.
Looking beyond the Bill, it is true that we need to support parents in the tough job that they face these days in bringing up youngsters. We need effective and timely treatments for alcohol and drug abuse, and better education and information. We need to build on the work that the Portman Group and alcohol groups throughout the country—such as ADSIS, the Alcohol and Drugs Service in Staffordshire—already do.
Much is already being done. I agree that some of the cultures developing in this country are undesirable, but I want to join those who have sought to provide a counterbalancing view of our young people and our hope for the future. Just yesterday, I spent several hours with 600 Air Training Corps cadets on a field day in Stafford. Those young people, aged between 13 and 21, showed great ambition and talent and a responsible attitude to life. Just last week here in Parliament, I chaired a debate involving 60 year 8 pupils upstairs in Committee Room 10. Some great talent for the future was on display, and all 60 behaved very responsibly. The previous week, I worked alongside six volunteers who are developing an allotment for use by disabled adults in wheelchairs. We have an important choice to make about the cultures that we want to develop in this country. It is up to ourselves, the politicians, the media, the celebrities who have so much influence, and our community leaders to back the right horse.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to participate in this important debate. First, I want to put on record my congratulations to Lynda Waltho and to my hon. Friend Mr. Burrowes on their excellent maiden speeches, which were well delivered and enjoyable to listen to.
While broadly welcoming the Bill as a whole, I am worried that there is an over-reliance on control measures, which do little to tackle the deep-seated cultural challenge of alcohol abuse among young people. As a nation, we work hard and play hard and, as a result, our night-time economy is booming. We have heard much in this afternoon's debate about the vast profits being made by some bars and clubs, but let us not forget the number of jobs created by those establishments, or that this is a legitimate business sector. The question was raised earlier how anyone could possibly enjoy themselves at these pubs and clubs, but with all due respect to Ms Keeble, that is not a relevant question for the House. The fact remains that in almost every town centre on any Friday or Saturday night throughout the year, crowds of loud excited young people can be seen having a good time enjoying each other's company.
The dark side, however, that merges so seamlessly with the positive side is the nuisance caused to residents by noise; the violence that sees young men being kicked unconscious in street fights; abusive men who go home drunk and punch their wives or girlfriends; and injuries sustained by drunk people through pranks and accidents. It includes vandalism and criminal damage; shop windows broken; urine and vomit in doorways; and the fear and intimidation that so easily engulfs a town centre when, to use the popular phrase, trouble kicks off.
Unfortunately, the Government's response has been to pursue a long list of tough-sounding, headline-grabbing proposals intended to show that something is being done. That is why, as well as CCTV, we have ASBOs, a proposal to march drunken yobs to cashpoints, fixed penalty notices, drink banning orders, dispersal orders, alcohol disorder zones and—the latest, according to one of the broadsheets yesterday—the idea of deploying the Army on the streets this summer. It is all about control, control, control—and I do not believe that it will work. We will not tackle the binge drink culture in this country by imposing martial law on our town centres at night.
Before throwing more legislation on the statute book, should we not instead be looking into renewed enforcement of existing laws? During the numerous nights that I have spent out with my local police force, not one police officer has told me that there were not enough sanctions available to enable them to tackle alcohol-related disorder. Without revisiting the arguments of the general election, I believe that we need an increase in police numbers and a renewed vigour in using legislation that is already in place.
For example, local police officers told me directly that they simply do not have the manpower to start arresting everyone who is drunk and disorderly at the weekend. The time and labour required to process any such arrests would divert vital resources away from what they regard as the hotspots at the worst possible time in the evening. That may be one of the principal reasons behind the long-term fall in convictions for drunk and disorderly behaviour across the country. As one officer told me during a recent night shift spent monitoring Haverfordwest town centre at pub closing time, the best that current resources allow is for the police to keep the lid on the problem of binge drink disorder. Until we get to grips with the serious cultural issues that lie behind that behaviour, we will just carry on as a society throwing ever larger sums of money at enforcement and control just to keep a lid on it.
The problem in this country stems from the fact that we have a culture where alcohol abuse is tolerated. In fact, in so many areas of popular culture, drinking—even drunkenness—is celebrated and joked about. That is one of the reasons why we are losing the war on alcohol abuse among young people. The fact is—so many studies have confirmed it—that youngsters are being exposed to alcohol at an ever younger age and are drinking more in terms of units and more frequently.
According to Alcohol Concern, by the age of 13, young people who drink alcohol already outnumber those who do not. That comes as no surprise in view of the findings of Professor Paul Willner of the university of Wales, Swansea. His research showed that 16-year-old boys and girls as young as 13 now have little difficulty in buying alcohol from a variety of vendors. Mr. Llwyd was right to raise the issue of the sale of alcohol to minors. I await an answer to my written question on conviction rates for off-licences and stores that sell alcohol to young people.
The World Health Organisation's European charter on alcohol, to which the UK is a signatory, states:
"All children and adolescents have the right to grow up in an environment protected from the negative consequences of alcohol consumption and, to the extent possible, from the promotion of alcoholic beverages."
I should welcome the Minister's thoughts on how well she believes the Government are discharging their responsibilities under that charter.
I hope that I shall be proved wrong, but part 1 seems to provide nothing more than a sticking plaster over our deep-seated problems of youth alcohol abuse. We await further details and further delivery of the Government's alcohol harm reduction strategy, and I look forward to more proposals in the coming months to add to the Bill's provisions.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the Second Reading of this important Bill.
The Opposition asked whether the Bill was necessary. Yes, it is necessary. It builds on some of the toughest legislation in the world, yet only yesterday my constituency suffered another shooting incident; one person died and two people are in hospital under police supervision: so I say again, yes, the Bill is necessary.
Many measures are needed to deal with our growing gun crime culture. Although preventive measures are not outlined in the Bill, I am sure that my Government will address those issues soon. The Bill offers us a good start, however, by curbing the supply of guns on our streets immediately. I thank my Government for introducing the Bill and for responding effectively to deal with the increase in violent crime and antisocial behaviour that we face.
When victims are confronted by a violent person holding a gun, the last thing on their mind is whether the gun is real. They are wondering whether they will survive the incident or whether they or a loved one will die. They are thinking of the anguish ahead, not whether the gun is real. A ban on imitation weapons is imperative; it should be strong and enforceable.
The Opposition have said that we are trying to grab headlines. Which headlines? That we are tough on crime? I welcome such headlines. The Opposition have referred to other headlines that described the Government as over-zealous and said that we were trying to ban children's toys. That is ridiculous. No reasonable person could mistake a bright blue and yellow water pistol for a gun. That is not what the Bill is about.
Since 2003, there has been a 66 per cent. increase in offences using imitation firearms. The Bill tackles the manufacture, importing and sale of realistic firearms, which is an important and necessary. However, I should have liked to see higher rates of punishment for such offences. A sentence of 12 months is not a strong enough message.
I have some concerns about funding. Other Members, too, have expressed concern about how the measure is to be funded so that it can be enforced.
There is also concern about age limits. There should be a universal age limit of 18 for all knives and guns. Anyone who legitimately needs to register at 17—I cannot imagine who would want to—could be considered under the exception provisions, as they are for firearms registration. Knife crime has become more prevalent and it is harder to legislate against because people need knives in many professions; for example, carpet fitters, double glazers and chefs. However, the Bill considers carefully all aspects of knife use in our society.
Under the Licensing Act 2003, Brent closed three establishments last year. X-ray machines were used to vet 200 patrons, 100 of whom were detained for possession of firearms, knives and class A drugs. At least two of those people were suspected of being drug dealers, and Brent is investigating with a view to seizing their assets—asset seizure is mentioned briefly in the Bill. The council has complained that the asset seizure procedure is slow, which is a shame because the quicker we seize the assets of criminals such as drug and gun dealers, the quicker we can reimburse that money to society for community projects. If we can show that criminals can be stripped of their assets, it might prevent others from following suit.
The forfeiture clause in the central crime element of the Bill will ensure that any vehicle can be seized if suspected of being used for shipping human beings—women and men—to go into the sex industry. That is a very important part of the Bill because it will help the police by taking that vehicle—whether a van, a ship or a plane—out of circulation.
I shall quickly mention mobile phones. Some 73 per cent. of adults use mobile phones, compared with 33 per cent. in 1999. That is a huge increase in mobile phone use, which is why there has been an increase in theft. As my hon. Friend Mr. Jones rightly said, we hope that the Bill will reduce mobile phone theft, by ensuring that the reprogramming of mobile phones becomes an offence.
The Bill has been introduced because it is needed for intelligence gathering, and all parties will agree that that represents good governance. Yes, good governance in itself will not solve the growing problem of violent crime and antisocial behaviour—good housing, good jobs and good policing will help—but it is needed, and we also need to look at our communities and ensure that they show an interest. Last week was neighbourhood watch week. I welcome the fact that Brent has the highest number of people involved in neighbourhood watch schemes. I opened a scheme last Saturday at Asda, and we need to promote further schemes such as that to ensure people are involved in making sure that our communities are safe.
It is clear from the contributions from hon. Members on both sides of the House that violent disorder is a concern for hon. Members from all parts of the country. Certainly, violence on the streets of the towns in my constituency is regularly raised. In the time available to me, however, I should like to concentrate on two aspects of the Bill.
First, under clause 34, the age limit for the purchase of knives will be raised from 16 to 18. I represent a semi-rural constituency in a relatively tranquil part of north Wales—at least, it was tranquil until quite recently. During the past 12 months or so, we have experienced something of an explosion in knife crime. Sadly, there have been three fatal stabbings in my constituency during that period. One of them involved a young man called Ben Jones, a student with everything to look forward to, who was making his way to the local skate park. He was stabbed, quite gratuitously, by an older man, not by a young man, and to that extent, I echo the remarks of Helen Jones. It is not always the youths who are responsible for crimes of violence.
Simply to raise the age limit for the purchase of knives from 16 to 18 will add nothing to the legislation that is currently in place. Even the most moronic apprentice thug would realise that his mother's cutlery drawer in her kitchen contains an arsenal of knives that could be used for the purpose of inflicting serious injury on other people, and to that extent, I echo the remarks of Mr. Llwyd. What we need is far more proactive policing, possibly by more officers, and, quite frankly, no compunction at all about stopping and searching people whom those officers suspect may be carrying knives.
The other aspect that I should like to focus on is clause 35, which contains the powers for head teachers to search pupils for concealed weapons. Many hon. Members may be astonished that such powers do not already exist. Certainly, they are long overdue. In my constituency, I was recently informed by a head teacher that one of his pupils assaulted another with a blunt instrument, putting that pupil into casualty with a fractured skull. Subsequently, the head teacher immediately expelled the boy in question. The boy's parents appealed to the local education authority, which reinstated him, thus undermining the head teacher's authority irreparably and, of course, causing extreme concern to the parents of the boy who was so badly assaulted. The measure is certainly called for, so I compliment the Government to that extent, but it should be backed up with a power to allow head teachers immediately to exclude pupils who are found carrying dangerous weapons. Such pupils should have no right of appeal to the LEA, because the matter should be entirely at the discretion of the head teacher.
I am worried that the Bill is modest in its execution, although lofty in its ambition. Although several of its measures might do something to quell the rising tide of violence on our streets in the evenings, overall it is really only tinkering with existing legislation. It would be far more appropriate to put more police officers on the streets, properly equipped to enforce the laws that we have now. To that extent, I am pessimistic that the Bill will achieve the objectives that it tries to secure.
I have only six minutes in which to speak, so I shall curtail what I was going to say. I welcome this important Bill, for which I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety, who recently visited my constituency and saw at first hand some of the good work that we are doing locally.
I wondered whether several Opposition Members were being somewhat disingenuous, because I did not recognise some of their comments as being in keeping with what community support officers and my local area commander are able to do when policing alcohol-related incidents and disorder in my community. However, we can of course always do more, which is what the Bill is designed to do.
As several hon. Members have said, the Bill is an attempt to build on the culture of respect that the Prime Minister described and to reintroduce that into our communities. I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister not to listen to the siren voices that seem to criticise the Government on the grounds that they are introducing yet another Bill, because I do not see it in that light at all. I reject the so-called Lord Woolf view that we are simply stacking up legislation; I think it somewhat disingenuous. The Bill will deal with the issue rather than just exploiting it, which is what my constituents want to happen.
I do not know how many other hon. Members wish to speak, so I shall concentrate on only one element of the Bill. Hon. Members who served in the last Parliament will have read the early-day motion that I tabled on the use and possession of ball-bearing guns, which received the support of more than 150 Members. I tabled it because of the case of my then constituent, David Hazel. He was simply talking to his wife outside the front door of his house on one of our estates when a car pulled up which was completely unknown to Mr. Hazel and his family. The incident was probably a case of mistaken identity, but after a short exchange of words about nothing in particular, the driver got out of the car and shot Mr. Hazel in the back with a BB gun.
I have written to the Home Office about banning the sale of BB guns, which was the subject of my early-day motion. It touches on two aspects of the Bill. BB guns can be frighteningly realistic and they are certainly cheap, yet they can be lethal. Unfortunately for Mr. Hazel—a healthy young man in his prime with a young family—the ball-bearing that was fired out of the gun entered his spine and crippled him. That was a senseless act and he was blameless. The type of gun used in the offence is freely available. From my reading of the Bill, it seems that those guns will be as easy to obtain after its enactment as they are now. Perhaps we can debate that in Committee.
I agree with the comments on air weapons. I ask the Minister to consider adding to clauses 26 and 27 and stiffening up their provisions. Other hon. Members mentioned licensing. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary talked about the difficulties that it might bring. I ask the Minister to reconsider this aspect of the Bill. I believe that that is important, as do the family and friends of my former constituent, David Hazel.
I want to concentrate on measures to tackle alcohol-related violence and disorder. Thankfully, Hartlepool experiences little crime in relation to firearms, imitation firearms and knives. However, regretfully, the town knows all too well the problems associated with crime fuelled by drink.
The Bill could have been drafted specifically to deal with the problems facing Hartlepool. Overall crime is down markedly—by something like a quarter in the past 12 months. Of the 17 wards in my constituency, more than half have crime figures below the national average. Hartlepool district is considered the most improving basic command unit in the country by the police standards unit and Her Majesty's inspectorate. That has been achieved by a passionate embracing of partnership working by multiple agencies. Yet I have to acknowledge that town centre violence in Hartlepool is still far too high. Of its 17 wards, the two that make up our town centre suffer from a crime rate that is more than twice the national average. Those two wards account for nearly 40 per cent. of all offences of violence against the person. Up to 70 per cent. of that violence is alcohol-related.
The message that the statistics provide is clear: overall crime is falling in Hartlepool directly as a result of the Government's legislation. The persistent problem, however, is violence and disorder arising from alcohol use in the town centre. Deal with that problem in legislation and the benefits will be huge. I sincerely believe that the Bill will play a decisive role in tackling the problems that my constituency faces. The introduction of alcohol disorder zones, where licensed premises will be required to contribute to the costs of dealing with alcohol-related disorder, are massively welcomed by me and my constituents. I will continue to push for all licensed premises to act responsibly and to avoid the need for compulsion, although I accept that that might be necessary.
Environmental legislation and regulations are based on the "polluter pays" principle, whereby the organisation or individual responsible for inflicting damage on the environment bears the financial costs of clean-up. It is entirely right and proper that the principle should be extended and that the premises seen to be responsible for fuelling the drink-crazed mayhem in our town centres should be financially liable for the costs of policing the area. Time and time again officers in my area tell me that police resources on Friday and Saturday nights are focused almost exclusively on the town centre at the expense of estates and local neighbourhoods, where antisocial behaviour invariably occurs. Requiring premises to pay for policing will allow town centres to be safer while ensuring that other areas receive appropriate police attention and coverage.
I am anxious and impatient to see the Bill on the statute book so that its measures directly benefit my constituents. I hope to do all I can to ensure that it is implemented quickly. I fully support the Bill.
I begin, as always in these debates, by declaring an interest. I am a solicitor by background and I sit from time to time as a Crown court recorder and district judge.
This has been a constructive and positive debate, with a great number of good speeches from hon. Members on both sides of the House. I thank those who have made their maiden speech today. Lynda Waltho made an excellent maiden speech and we were pleased to hear all that she had to say. My hon. Friend Mr. Burrowes, in another excellent maiden speech, made a proper and gracious tribute to his predecessor. Like the hon. Lady, he demonstrated his affection for and familiarity with his constituency, its people and its concerns. He spoke about several issues relating to drugs and rightly pointed out the importance of family support in that connection. We look forward with great interest to his and the hon. Lady's future contributions.
There have been positive speeches from both sides of the Chamber. I thank in particular my hon. Friends the Members for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones), for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke), for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser), for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright), for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb), for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood), for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) and for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) for their valuable and thoughtful contribution to our debate.
Earlier today, my right hon. Friend David Davis rightly highlighted the enormous problem, evident to us all, of rising violent crime and crime associated with drink and drugs, which type of crime is almost out of control in many urban areas. The Bill, which has a rather grand title, is designed to address some of those problems. We do not oppose the Bill—indeed, we support parts of it. It is well intentioned, but it is typical of the Government in this respect: its title is impressive and grabs a headline, but its contents are unlikely to achieve the stated purpose of reducing violent crime. We have lost count of the number of initiatives that Labour has launched in the criminal justice field. Acts of Parliament run into dozens, all of which suggest that we have a Government who are giving the impression of being concerned and of taking action when, in truth, they are barely scratching the surface of the real problems that we face.
Let me give one striking example of a Government initiative that was a shambles and that, I am sure, the Minister would prefer to forget. A few years ago, when there were delays in the court system, Downing street decided that rapid justice was the answer to every problem and set up a system of night-time courts. Defendants arrested in the evening would be dealt with immediately by district judges, who were obliged to sit at Bow street all night with their staff and with jailers present at considerable cost. Those who knew anything about the criminal justice system thought that the idea was ludicrous and said so—but no, the Government and their advisers knew best.
What happened? The Minister knows full well. Predictably, most of the defendants turned up drunk and were not fit enough to enter a plea, and their case had to be adjourned for days. Others said that they wanted an adjournment for legal representation. Others still would not enter a plea until they had received, as was their right, advance information about the case against them. The number of cases actually disposed of was minuscule and each one was dealt with at huge expense to the taxpayer. Hastily, but quietly, that much trumpeted new initiative was abandoned. One more initiative by Labour in the criminal justice field, one more failure.
Let us consider the Bill with the grand title and see what it does. In large part, it addresses problems that are covered by existing law, leaving many of us to suspect that much of it is unnecessary. Part 1 introduces the drinking banning order, which imposes a prohibition on a person to protect others from criminal or disorderly conduct by him when he is under the influence of drink. We have acknowledged that binge drinking among young men and women has rocketed in recent years, leading to an extremely alarming situation. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South referred to the problem. Crime connected to drinking has also rocketed.
Do we have enough laws to deal with the problem? Offences already on the statute book include drunkenness on a highway, the offence of being drunk and disorderly and offences under the Public Order Act 1986 relating to the use of offensive words, behaviour and conduct. The existing law gives the police many options on alcohol-related violence, and they can charge someone with common assault, actual bodily harm or, in serious cases, grievous bodily harm, riot and affray—the list goes on and on. Moreover, the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 makes provision for dispersal orders, which give the police specialised local powers to remove people from an area and ban them if they are engaged in alcohol-related antisocial behaviour.
Have the existing powers to ban drinking in designated public areas been forgotten? Courts can impose any conditions in an antisocial behaviour order that are necessary to prevent the conduct that the Bill aims to tackle. In my experience, they impose a great number of wide restrictions and conditions. We are therefore simply adding to the large and complex range of offences and possible orders at our disposal. I only hope that the new measure will not cause even more confusion among the police and courts. Is anyone else troubled by the part of the Bill that calls for the greater involvement of local authorities, and thus more bureaucracy, in introducing drink-banning orders? At best, that will be slow and cumbersome and, at worst, could result in more Government interference.
What is the answer to the undoubted problem that those provisions seek to address? We could and should put the police where they belong—on the streets in areas where the problems occur—in much greater numbers. We should ask them to stamp out those problems very harshly indeed, and not stay behind their desks completing the paperwork that the Government have made them deal with. In my experience, CCTV is everywhere—it can even be found on the walls of the Chamber. In the courts, however, if someone asks whether CCTV was in operation on a particular night, they will be told that it was not working properly. Even when it does work, the quality is so bad that the viewer cannot see who is committing the offence. We should therefore improve the quality of CCTV.
Police should use the existing laws that give them many options to deal with such crime and enforce them with vigour. We should encourage the courts to punish hard where punishment is deserved, and that should be linked to the prosecution of far more pubs and clubs that sell to under-18s or drunks. That wicked practice is on the increase, but the number of prosecutions of immoral pubs and clubs is pathetically low. There should also be a linked increase in prosecution of retail outlets that sell alcohol to under-18s, which is already an offence, although one would not think so from the Bill. We need much greater education about alcohol, and we should think again about 24-hour drinking. If we do so, we may begin to turn the tide.
Anyone who spends time in the criminal courts as an observer or in any other capacity will know that the number of crimes involving the use of a knife is increasing. More and more young people are carrying knives in a public place. I have recently tabled a parliamentary question about the number of pupils who carry knives, to which I received the reply that a survey last year showed that 1 per cent. of children aged 11 to 16 in England and Wales
"had at some time in the last year carried a knife in school for offensive reasons, and 2 per cent. for 'defensive' reasons."
That means that thousands of our children are taking knives into school, and it is a horrible statistic. How do the Government approach it? In two ways. First, they raise the age at which knives can legally be purchased, to which we cannot object, but I am not sure it will be effective. Next, they introduce powers for teachers to search pupils in school for knives—not unwelcome in itself, but fraught with potential difficulties.
Does not the House realise that there is existing law to cover a knife on school premises? Section 139B of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 makes it an offence to have a knife or any other weapon on school premises, and a constable already has power to enter a school premises to search any person for any such article and to arrest them. An interesting question for the Minister—I wonder whether she will be able to answer it tonight—is this: how many times in the past couple of years have constables, acting on information received from a school, entered the school premises, searched a pupil and brought a prosecution against that pupil which has resulted in a conviction and a meaningful punishment under section 139B of the Criminal Justice Act 1988? If thousands of children are taking knives into school, as the evidence suggests, but only a few have been charged under that section, what does that say about existing law enforcement? If, on the other hand, they have all been charged and convicted, how does that point to the need to introduce yet more law?
Finally, a word or two on the issues surrounding airguns and imitation firearms. Yes, we welcome clause 27. It is important that we have the offence of firing an air weapon beyond premises. It could have been introduced in an earlier statute but was not. In the context of imitation firearms, the point about the overselling of legislation, which was well illustrated by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere, can be made. Referring to the use of realistic imitation firearms to threaten others, the Government state in the notes to the Bill:
"There is a range of existing offences and controls in relation to firearms but they have not proved sufficient to halt this trend".
Of course they have not. Legislation on its own does nothing. It is a matter of proper enforcement of existing legislation.
The use of firearms and imitation firearms in pursuance of crime is increasing and it is a very disturbing trend indeed, but the Minister should remember that there are already a dozen existing statutes that allow the police to deal with those who commit offences with both real and imitation firearms. We need point only to the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, which has been law for over a year and is intended to deal precisely with the problems of possession of imitation firearms in a public place. Why not give it time, to see how it works out?
Let there be no confusion. Using an imitation firearm in the course of crime is treated very harshly by the courts, and rightly so. It is a subject for another day, but Mr. Denham put his finger on some interesting points about replica guns and the difficulties involved. We must discuss the matter again in the House.
The Government should address the problem of why the number of prosecutions against offenders with imitation firearms is so woefully low, compared with the number of such crimes that have been reported. I fear that those responsible people who carry out lawful activities—those who collect and deal in replica weapons as their hobby, those youngsters who play innocently with their BB gun, their cap guns and their cowboy guns, those many thousands who enjoy the sport of airsoft—may be punished under the Bill. Damaging them and their lawful activities will not alter the mindset of one single criminal. Who suffers most as a result of crime? Not us in the Chamber, not those who earn well and live in decent areas. Rather, it is the poor and the vulnerable, who are condemned to live in poor quality estates in our urban areas wracked with crime, who are the victims.
If the Government really want to cut crime, they should not simply listen to their advisers and pass more laws. They should listen to those at the sharp end of crime whose advice is simple: put more police on the streets; introduce a genuine zero-tolerance policy on all crime, including low-level crime; free the police from bureaucracy; maintain discipline at school; improve our appalling detection rates, which get worse by the year; and punish heavily those tens of thousands who regularly skip bail and who laugh at the court system and reduce it to chaos. None of that advice involves more legislation; it is all about proper law enforcement.
Let politicians listen to the decent, law-abiding people who live in lawless communities that are fractured by crime. Those people look to us to restore harmony and peace to their lives, which have got worse and worse in the past seven years. They do not look to us for more legislation, more headlines and more initiatives. They want practical action and real enforcement. In short, they need our help, and we must never fail them.
We have had an excellent debate with contributions from 27 hon. Members, which tells us that the subject is popular and that it resonates in hon. Members' constituencies.
I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend Lynda Waltho and Mr. Burrowes on their excellent maiden speeches. My hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge discussed her trips out with local police officers and neighbourhood watch—Mr. Timmins from Stourbridge will remain in my heart. She also paid tribute to her predecessor, Debra Shipley, whose work, particularly in relation to children, will be remembered by many hon. Members on both sides of the House. My hon. Friend said that Stourbridge has seized her heart; she seized our hearts tonight, and I am sure that we will hear more from her.
The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate paid a generous tribute to his predecessor, Stephen Twigg, for whom we all have the greatest respect for his contribution to his community, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will make a similar contribution.
I am delighted that hon. Members from both sides of the House support many of the provisions in the Bill. David Davis welcomed drinking banning orders, the offences concerning concealed weapons and the work on imitation firearms. Along with a number of hon. Members, he raised the issue of the causes of crime. I gently remind him that the state of this country's economy when 3 million people were unemployed was a major contributor to some of the problems experienced by our poorest communities. We have heard a lot tonight from Conservative Members about the poorest communities, but I ask them not to have collective amnesia and to remember our economy's current success.
My right hon. Friend Mr. Denham raised some important points. He is a particular champion of trying to get the hospitality industry to contribute to the extra costs of policing, and I have no doubt that we will discuss some of the issues that he raised about definitions in Committee.
I welcome the broad support of Mr. Oaten for many of the provisions in the Bill. He discussed how we can encourage voluntary activity. We want to see voluntary action, which is currently happening in a number of areas, on binge drinking in addition to the clear-cut alcohol disorder zones. He is right to raise the issue of sales on the internet, and we will continue to work on that matter over the summer and to debate it in Committee.
I am delighted that my right hon. Friend Sir Gerald Kaufman raised the work that has been done in Manchester on tackling the whole range of antisocial behaviour. I commend the police and others in Manchester, who are pioneers in being on the side of the decent people in their community. On those issues, local people support action against the minority and the protection of the rights of the majority.
Mr. Clappison raised the important issue of extra protection for those who serve the public. We have not gone down the path of creating a separate criminal offence, but we are determined that attacking people who serve the public will be an aggravating factor, and we want to work on that matter with the Sentencing Guidelines Council. The definition "public service worker" is very narrow, because some people who work in the private sector actually serve the public. I think that the question should be, "Is someone serving the public?", rather than focusing on their particular employment.
My hon. Friend Ms Keeble raised some important issues. I was delighted to visit her during the election. I know that she regularly goes out with her police service. She is right to mention planning in town centres. We need a wider mix of premises—not just premises targeted at 18 to 25-year-olds—so that perhaps some of us older people will feel comfortable in our town centres as well. Happy slapping can be dealt with under existing offences about actual bodily harm, but my hon. Friend is right to say that it is a worrying phenomenon and we have to take it seriously.
I welcome the general support of Lynne Featherstone for the proposals. She talked about differentiating between good and bad licensees. I am sure that she knows that we have been working on an accreditation scheme like Manchester's best bar none scheme whereby people get credit, endorsement and acknowledgement for running their premises in a proper way. We will look carefully into whether we can incorporate that into the Bill.
My hon. Friend Richard Burden referred to the way in which knives and guns are marketed. Many Members will have seen such information in leaflets and on the internet. It is already an offence to market knives in a way that could encourage combat. I share my hon. Friend's concern about whether that is being enforced properly and ensuring that we crack down on it. Some of the advertisements that I have seen are of great concern. I am pleased that he raised the issue.
Mr. Gauke said that we have a modest set of proposals none of which he has any real objection to. That is fairly grudging support, but I welcome it none the less. He talked about the need for more police. He is relatively new to the House, but I am sure that he knows that under Labour we have an extra 13,000 police officers while under the Tories we had 1,100 fewer. I am sure that he will find that figure imprinted on his brain as we have these debates on a regular basis.
I was delighted to hear the contribution by my hon. Friend Ms Abbott. She has an excellent record on campaigning against imitation weapons, and I am pleased that we have been able to deal with that in the Bill.
Mr. Llwyd—I have got better at saying that as time has gone on—raised the important issue of enforcing our existing law. I am pleased to say that the number of offences that are being enforced has gone up in the past year to 18 months. We have had some massive enforcement campaigns, and we are right to press the police to enforce. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the marketing of alcopops. The issue of advertising and celebrities will be important in taking this forward.
My hon. Friend Helen Jones raised an issue that she has raised on several occasions—ensuring that penalties are right for people acquiring alcohol that is then passed on to young people. As she will know, it is now an offence as we have made it a fixed-penalty notice. However, we will continue to press forward in that respect.
Jeremy Wright talked about resources for policing. He will know—or if he does not now, he will over the next few months—that under this Government we have had a 30 per cent. increase in funding for police officers; that is a 21 per cent. real-terms increase after inflation.
My hon. Friend Jeff Ennis has had a tremendous record on campaigning on airguns for several years now; I pay tribute to him for that. We have put measures in the Bill, and we are in discussions, particularly with Scottish Ministers, about whether there is further work that we can do. My hon. Friend has made a genuine and significant contribution to work in this area.
I was delighted to visit my hon. Friend Mr. Jones just a few months ago. At last we have the measures on mobile phone reprogramming that will help to crack down on mobile phone theft.
Mr. Fraser asked about fixed-penalty notices. About 100,000 have been issued of which 75 per cent. have been paid. They are a great success. They save the police a huge amount of time in terms of bureaucracy and paperwork and have been welcomed enormously.
I was pleased to meet my hon. Friend Mr. Kidney, as well as the licensee of the Swan hotel, during the general election. I did not have the pleasure of going to Zanzibar, but perhaps I might be able to visit him there on a future occasion. He mentioned pubwatch schemes, which are very important in tackling these issues. There is an excellent pubwatch scheme in Workington, where the police are working tremendously hard with the local council in making a difference.
Mr. Jones told us about some very worrying events that had taken place in his constituency, particularly the three fatal stabbings. The measures on knives in the Bill build on some pretty serious legislation that we already have in place. We have banned 19 different kinds of bladed weapons. We recently banned stealth knives, flick knives having been banned for a long time.
I was pleased to visit the constituency of my hon. Friend Stephen Hesford during the election campaign. I saw at first hand the reassurance that the police provide on the ground and the fact that local people feel much better for it. He asked us to look again at air weapons and we will continue to take the matter forward.
On the speech of Mr. Malins, I want to put paid now to the idea that thousands of children are carrying knives in our schools. That is not true. Only a tiny minority carry knives but we want to ensure that we protect the majority of young people who could be put at risk.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Steve McCabe for his work, especially on highlighting the problems with internet sales of knives and guns. He was working on that before many others and he has helped to push our policy making on the subject. I reassure him that we do not want alcohol disorder zones to undermine in any way the excellent regeneration projects throughout the country. They will ensure that we get a grip on the problem and help our regeneration to have even more impact.
I want to set the debate in a little context. Although we have said a great deal about violent crime tonight, it is in the context of a 30 per cent. reduction in crime in the past eight years. There are 500,000 fewer people getting burgled than under the previous Conservative Government. Vehicle crime is down by 30 per cent. and robbery is down by 25 per cent. from its peak four years ago. All that has been tackled by direct, focused action from the police, using intelligence, targeting the hot spots and the prolific and priority offenders—very smart policing. The police are working ever closer with their partners, especially in local government. They work together to protect elderly people, provide better street lighting and more CCTV.
However, it is true that crime trends are changing. We are moving from acquisitive crime—burglary and robbery—to more crime that revolves around behaviour, involving drink, drugs and violence. That is the reason for the Bill.
The measure will help the police and local authorities. It will give them the powers that they need to make another step change in the fight against crime. The Government are determined to keep ahead of the criminals and ensure that we are on the side of the decent, law-abiding majority, especially the decent young people who are often the victims of antisocial behaviour and violent crime. As well as giving the police the powers to do the job, we are trying hard to do one of the most difficult things that Government ever have to do: try to change people's behaviour. We want people to think twice and know that it is simply not worth it to carry on behaving violently towards others.
We want people to realise that it is not cool to carry a gun and to know that there are ways to resolve conflict other than using knives or being violent. That is why we are working with the Department for Education and Skills, why we have projects such as the Connected Fund and why we are working with Mothers Against Guns. The educational and preventive work is important to us because we are trying to change behaviour. It is difficult but we managed it on drink-driving and wearing seat belts. Some of those measures were fought tooth and nail—people said that they would never work. I therefore genuinely believe that we can help to change behaviour.
We have witnessed two of the best examples of changing behaviour in the Chamber today. I listened with increasing fascination to the speeches of the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden and the hon. Member for Winchester. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden used to have a reputation as the hammer of the right but tonight, we saw caring, compassionate Conservatism. He talked about the causes of crime and championing the poor. Tonight was a revelation to me. I am not sure to which audience he is trying to appeal—perhaps it is not Labour Members but has more to do with the hon. Gentlemen who are sitting behind him. However, we have seen a tremendous change in the right hon. Gentleman's behaviour.
We have also witnessed behavioural change in the hon. Member for Winchester. He used to be the voice of civil liberties and the defender of individuals' rights, but today he was talking tough on crime. We heard him supporting our measures to tackle violent crime. We heard his comments on drinking banning orders, alcohol disorder zones and good behaviour.
I do not want the waste of life that happens through knife attacks, gun crime and alcohol. The Bill will help us to tackle that and I welcome hon. Members' contributions.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.