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House of Commons

Thursday 10 February 1994

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]


Bournemouth-Swanage Motor Road and Ferry Bill

Sheffield Assay Office Bill

Federation of Street Traders Union (London Local Authorities Act 1990) (Amendment) Bill

University of London Bill

Orders for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 17 February.

Croydon Tramlink Bill


Ordered, That the Committee on the Croydon Tramlink Bill [Lords] have leave to visit and inspect the site of the proposed works and areas affected by the proposed works, provided that no evidence shall be taken in the course of such visit and that any party who has made an appearance before the Committee be permitted to attend by his Counsel, Agent or other representative.-- [The Chairman of Ways and Means.]

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Oral Answers to Questions


Right to Silence

1. Mr. Bates : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on his policy towards the right to silence.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Michael Howard) : In appropriate circumstances, a court should be able to draw propeinferences from an accused person's failure to answer questions before and at his trial. At present, courts are precluded from drawing any inferences of guilt from the failure of an accused person to answer such questions. I do not think that that artificial restriction can be justified and the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill contains provisions to modify it.

Mr. Bates : In welcoming my right hon. and learned Friend's answer, may I ask whether he agrees with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) that no one has anything to fear from being asked reasonable questions? Does he accept that many of our right hon. and hon. Friends are puzzled at the Labour party's failure to support such a modest measure in Committee?

Mr. Howard : I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and, on that matter, with the hon. Member for Brightside. It is a matter of considerable regret that the hon. Gentleman's Front-Bench colleagues have not seen fit to follow his opinion on that question.

Mr. Gunnell : The Secretary of State will know that many of those who have made representations to us on that issue have pointed out that there will be a significant increase in the number of miscarriages of justice as a result of the proposed legislation, especially when it applies to those who have disabilities. Does the Secretary of State agree that, before he makes any changes, it would be better to wait until we have procedures in force to deal with miscarriages of justice, as recommended by the Royal Commission on criminal justice?

Mr. Howard : We should like to put those procedures in place as soon as posssible. The truth of the matter is that those who make disproportionate use of the so-called right to silence are professional criminals and terrorists. They make a mockery of our system of criminal justice and the sooner that we put an end to that abuse the better.

Mr. Heald : Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the Lord Chief Justice said clearly in his Tom Sergant lecture that there is no reason why proper inferences should not be drawn under such circumstances? Does he agree with that statement?

Mr. Howard : I certainly agree. That was also the view of the majority of judges who gave evidence to the Royal Commission on criminal justice.

Mr. Allen : While unemployment and poor housing can never be an excuse for crime, does the Secretary of State accept that 14 years of Government policies on

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unemployment, housing and education could have contributed in any way to the appalling rise in the levels of crime over that same 14-year period?

Madam Speaker : Order. The question is a specific one dealing with the right to silence. I must ask the hon. Member to relate his question directly to the question on the Order Paper.

Mr. Allen : Does the Secretary of State feel that the current Bill will in any way affect those factors?

Madam Speaker : Order. Those factors have nothing to do with the question.

Dame Jill Knight : On the question of miscarriages of justice, will the changes that my right hon. and learned Friend envisages take into account the appalling case, which aroused such public concern, of the parents who undoubtedly killed their small baby and yet walked free from the court because of that right to silence?

Mr. Howard : I very much hope that the changes that we are making will go some considerable way towards remedying the manifest injustice of the case to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention. The whole House will have seen just a moment ago the extraordinary extent to which Labour Front- Bench Members will go to talk about anything other than the real issues affecting law and order.

Wheel Clamping

2. Mr. Spellar : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what action he proposes to take to regulate private wheel clamping.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. David Maclean) : We are currently considering what action it may be appropriate to take. In doing so, our aim will be to ensure that any measure introduced to prevent or to deter irresponsible and heavy-handed wheel clamping on private land does not prevent sensible measures being taken to control genuine parking problems.

Mr. Spellar : Does the Minister accept that that answer is quite unsatisfactory, given that his departmental consultations ended on 31 May last year? Is not it about time that he looked at the issue? The cowboy clampers are still making motorists' lives a misery. An amendment has been tabled to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill. Why does not the Minister do something about it and take some action?

Mr. Maclean : The hon. Gentleman ignores the fact that the consultation did not reveal any clear consensus on the way forward. I am very conscious of the fact that there is a balance to be struck here. We must protect the interests of the genuine landowner and the interests of the genuine motorist. Wheel clamping has proved to be an effective means of deterring some motorists who are parking illegally and causing considerable inconvenience at road access ways, hospitals, retail centres and on other private land.

Mr. Alexander : Does my hon. Friend agree that the activities of some companies are excessive? Does he agree that women in particular are put in fear and great anxiety when they have to redeem their cars? Although I accept all that he says, may I stress as a matter of urgency that those excesses should be removed?

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Mr. Maclean : I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. We have consulted on the issue and we are currently considering what we need to do. It would be wrong of the Opposition--I know that my hon. Friend did not seek to make this point--to conclude that there is a simple, easy explanation and way forward or to conclude that all the fault lies clearly on one side. It does not. Before the House rushes in and creates new criminal laws to deal with the problem, we must ensure that we protect the legitimate interests of both sides of the argument.

Police Authorities

3. Mr. Pickthall : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what recent representations he has had about his proposals for change in the method of appointment of police authorities.

5. Mr. McFall : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what further discussions he has had with the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Association of Chief Police Officers (Scotland) regarding the Criminal Justice Bill and the Police and Magistrates Court Bill [Lords].

Mr. Howard : I have received many representations from organisations, members of the public and hon. Members. Last week, I announced measures that we propose to include in the Police and Magistrates Courts Bill to reinforce the independence of local police authorities. We have had a number of discussions with representatives of the Association of Chief Police Officers about that Bill and about the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill.

Mr. Pickthall : I am amazed at the effect that my tabling the question had on the Home Secretary. Does he realise that his generous and ungrudging U-turn on the appointment of chairmen and chairwomen, and on the numbers in police authorities, has delighted most Members of the House, most members of the other place, members of police authorities and the police forces themselves? Will the Home Secretary now take one more U-turn towards democracy and remove his most distasteful proposal : to add five or more placemen or women to police authorities?

Mr. Howard : No. Independent local people who do not have the time or the inclination to become magistrates or councillors can make a valuable contribution to the working of the local police authorities. I do not believe that local police authorities should be denied the benefit of their service.

Mr. Streeter : Did those representatives reflect the growing public concern that some police authorities had been tardy in introducing modern management techniques and information technology? Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree, therefore, that it is extremely sensible to have on police authorities people who bring management, financial and IT skills, which can only assist the police in doing their duty?

Mr. Howard : I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The Police and Magistrates Courts Bill will provide strong local police authorities to reflect the interests of local people, greater freedom for chief constables to manage

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their forces and a clear framework for setting priorities and measuring performance. The measures will contribute to more effective policing.

Mr. Blair : Now that the Secretary of State has accepted that it is wrong to appoint the head of the police authority, what possible justification is there for proceeding with appointing one third of the members, thus ensuring that his national objectives for policing should override local priorities and forcing smaller police services to amalgamate, even where local people do not want that? As the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers said last week, after the Secretary of State's U-turn, that the proposals were still ill-conceived and publicly unacceptable, what possible support does he have for proceeding with them?

Mr. Howard : I have just explained to the House the purpose of my measures. It is for this House and the other House of Parliament to decide what measures we should take ; it is not even for the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers. We must set in place the proper framework for policing in this country. We must have slimmed down and effective police authorities to which there will be proper local accountability. That is what my measures will achieve.

Legislation (Police Consultation)

4. Mr. Clifton-Brown : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what response he has received from police representatives since the publication of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill.

7. Mr. David Martin : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what response he has received from the police to his announcements of new measures to tackle crime ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Howard : Representatives of the police service have expressed strong support for the Government's new measures to tackle crime, particularly the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill now before the House. We have had a number of discussions with representatives of the Association of Chief Police Officers about the Bill.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that reply. In the fight against crime and on law and order issues, the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill is one of the most important Bills ever to come before the House. Does my right hon. and learned Friend recall the statement of the Opposition spokeseman on law and order, the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), that we should not hesitate to applaud the Government when they introduce measures that are correct? Will he now take the opportunity to invite Her Majesty's Opposition to support the Bill in all its remaining stages? If they do not, what conclusion can people draw from the Opposition's stance on law and order?

Mr. Howard : The only logical conclusion that people can draw from the Opposition's reaction to these measures is that they cannot make up their mind about them. When the measures came before the House for Second Reading, the Opposition could not make up their mind whether to vote for or against, or whether to say yes or no--they simply abstained. Since then, in the Standing Committee,

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we have seen a series of attempts to weaken the measures in the Bill--to neuter them and make them have as little effect as possible.

Mr. Trimble : May I direct the Home Secretary's attention to the provisions in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill dealing with computer-generated pornographic images of children which were introduced as a result of a successful campaign by the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton)? Has he received any representations about the fact that those provisions do not extend to Northern Ireland, bearing in mind the ease with which computer material can be transmitted from one part of the kingdom to another? Is not it essential that the loophole be plugged as soon as possible, preferably this afternoon?

Mr. Howard : The hon. Gentleman makes an important point which I shall certainly draw to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Mrs. Peacock : Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware of the great concern expressed by the police not only in my constituency but in other areas about the violent crimes being committed by many young people? Will he assure the House that his tougher measures will be implemented as soon as the Bill becomes law?

Mr. Howard : I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that we will implement the measures at the earliest possible moment because we understand how urgently necessary they are to protect the public.

Mr. Michael : Will the Home Secretary read the report of the Committee considering the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill and admit that the Opposition have been trying to make effective a Bill that he has admitted will do nothing to cut crime? With crime up more than 124 per cent. under the Tories, and with only one crime in 50 ending with a punishment in the courts, when will the Home Secretary accept Labour's advice to be tough on crime and the causes of crime by providing a legal framework for a local partnership between the police, local authorities and the community to cut crime and protect the victims of crime?

Mr. Howard : I thought that the hon. Gentleman would be the last person to want me to read the reports of the proceedings of the Standing Committee. He has been comprehensively routed by my hon. Friend the Minister of State and by other hon. Friends on the Committee whenever he has dared to raise his head above the parapet.

Mr. Stephen : Will my right hon. and learned Friend join me in condemning the appalling murder of Police Sergeant Robertson in Croydon? Will he give careful consideration to the amendment that I have tabled to the Criminal Justice Bill which would ensure that, when the persons responsible for that murder are caught, life imprisonment would mean exactly what it says?

Mr. Howard : I heard with great regret of the tragic death yesterday of Sergeant Robertson. The House will share my sense of outrage that it should happen to a police officer who was bravely doing his duty. The House will want to join me in extending the deepest sympathy to his

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widow and children. His death reminds us again of the enormous debt which we as a society owe to our police officers.

As to the specific point raised by my hon. Friend, I will, of course, consider his amendment. He will know that one of my predecessors, Sir Leon Brittan, announced that the minimum sentence served for the murder of a police officer--I emphasise the word minimum--would be 20 years. I have indicated my desire to follow that practice.

Madam Speaker : Order. As the hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) was not told that his question was to be linked, we shall now take Question 5.

Legislation (Police Consultation)

5. Mr. McFall : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what further discussions he has had with the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Association of Chief Police Officers (Scotland) regarding the Criminal Justice Bill and the Police and Magistrates Courts Bill [Lords].

Mr. Howard : May I immediately apologise to the hon. Gentleman for the fact that he was not informed, as he certainly should have been. I have received many representations from and have had discussions with the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Association of Chief Police Officers (Scotland) regarding the Criminal Justice Bill and the Police and Magistrates Courts Bill.

Mr. McFall : I thank the Home Secretary. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is responsible for clause 45 of the Police and Magistrates Courts Bill, which covers Scotland. This morning, I talked to two Scottish chief constables, who expressed their concerns to me about the interest that the Secretary of State for Scotland can now take in operational matters as a result of that clause. That will interfere with the independence of the police, and they are so concerned about it that they would like to pass their concerns, through me, to the Home Secretary. Will a meeting take place with the relevant Minister to assure the police that their optional independence will be maintained following the passage of Bill?

Mr. Howard : I can certainly give the assurance for which the hon. Gentleman asks in relation to the operational independence of chief constables. That is essential and it is written into the Bill in exactly the same language as is on the statute book at present in the Police Act 1964.

Sir George Gardiner rose--

Hon. Members : Two minutes!

Madam Speaker : Order.

Sir George Gardiner : Since an obvious concern of the police authorities is the safety of their officers, may I say how much Mrs. Christine Robertson--a constituent of mine--will be comforted by the sympathy which my right hon. and learned Friend has extended this afternoon on behalf of the House? Does he agree that it is only the courage and dedication to duty of officers such as Sergeant Robertson which provides the shield to protect us all?

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Mr. Howard : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the first part of his remarks and I entirely agree with the rest of what he had to say.

Crime Reduction

6. Mr. William O'Brien : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what consultations his Department has had with the local authority associations regarding reducing crime ; and if he will make a statement.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Charles Wardle) : The Home Office has from time to time sought the views of the local authority associations on crime-related matters, including their contribution to local crime prevention schemes.

Mr. O'Brien : Does the Minister accept that the local authority associations are worried about some of the proposals in the Police and Magistrates Courts Bill? They are worried that the reduction in the number of local authority members on police committees will reduce the impact that it is necessary for local authorities to have if we are to reduce crime. We must have corporate organisation between the community, the local authority and the police committees. Will the Minister prevail on his colleague to rethink the Bill to allow greater representation of local authorities on police committees?

Mr. Wardle : As the hon. Gentleman will have noticed, local authority representatives will account for half the membership of police authorities. As he knows, the police Bill will place a requirement on police authorities to consult locally and to draw up locally focused policing strategies and report on them. The local authorities are part of the partnership against crime. In several schemes up and down the country, the co-ordinator has been appointed by the local authorities. Equally, in many other successful schemes the co-ordinator has been appointed by other sources.

Mr. John Townend : Has my hon. Friend had any demand for the restoration of some form of physical punishment? Does the enormous increase in crime among young people of school age suggest that we are paying the price, after a decade of abolition of the cane, of lack of discipline in schools and in the home?

Mr. Wardle : My hon. Friend's powerful plea will have been heard by the House. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary will always consider any representations put to him. My hon. Friend will also be aware that the House will shortly have the opportunity to debate the issue of capital punishment.

Mr. Redmond : The Minister must be aware of the Prime Minister's "back to basics" campaign. Will he ensure that there are sufficient policemen on duty in villages? We do not want any crap about there being more policemen. There is no doubt that communities are demanding more policemen. Will the Minister also ensure that they have sufficient technology to combat the current crime wave?

Mr. Wardle : The hon. Gentleman will know that there are more police officers now--128,000--than at any time in the history of the police. He will know that spending on the police is almost £6,000 million. I am sure that he will have welcomed my right hon. and learned Friend's

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announcement that the number of special constables should increase to 30,000 in the next three years. He will also have welcomed the parish constable initiative.

Madam Speaker : Order. As the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin) was not informed that his question was linked, I am prepared to call it separately.

Crime Reduction

7. Mr. David Martin : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what response he has received from the police to his announcement of new measures to tackles crime ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Howard : My announcement of the measures that I am taking to fight crime have been warmly welcomed by the police.

Mr. Martin : I strongly support my right hon. and learned Friend's reforms. Has he received any representations about arming the police in this capital punishment-free era when any Tom, Dick or Harry can go out on to the streets armed with a knife or a gun, use it to kill police officers or members of the public in furtherance of crime and, if caught, not receive an appropriate penalty? They do not face much risk in carrying out the crime.

Mr. Howard : I do not accept the latter words of my hon. Friend, especially in view of the answer that I gave earlier on the sentences that are available. The question of arming the police is a difficult one. At present, it is for chief officers to decide in what circumstances their officers should be armed and how many should be armed. I do not believe that there is any middle course between that and arming every police officer in Britain--a course which I believe most people in Britain and most police officers would not want us to adopt.

Mrs. Ewing : Given the increased concern among the public and police authorities about crimes related to specifically to drugs, is the Home Secretary prepared to introduce specific measures to deal with drug-related crimes and to provide our police authorities with additional resources to tackle that problem?

Mr. Howard : We have a comprehensive strategy in place to tackle the very serious problem of drug misuse and we are pursuing that strategy vigorously. I hope that the country will take note of the vote on the decriminalisation of drugs that is being held in the European Parliament today, which is expected to be supported by the majority of socialist Members of the European Parliament both from this country and from the rest of Europe.

Sir Ivan Lawrence : Further to the last supplementary question, is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that during the years of Conservative Government we have had a strong attitude towards drug-related crime, but that the police are nevertheless very concerned that the proportion of such crimes has risen to something approaching 70 per cent. So the measures that we have taken hitherto have simply not been sufficient to deal with the problem. As he can see, the view is shared across all party lines in this House, so will he redouble his efforts to ensure that in the years ahead the proportion of drug-related crimes falls instead of rises?

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Mr. Howard : I share my hon. and learned Friend's concern and I can assure him that we lose no opportunity of examining our policies to find out in which ways they can be made more effective. I entirely understand and share his concern.

Racial Violence

8. Mr. Winnick : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what recent representations he has received over legislation affecting racial violence.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Peter Lloyd) : We continue to receive representations from a wide range of organisations and from hon. Members. The Commission for Racial Equality made a number of recommendations for changes in the law in its second review of the Race Relations Act 1976, which we are considering. The Select Committee on Home Affairs is also examining the issue, as part of its inquiry into racial attacks and harassment and we await its recommendations with interest.

Mr. Winnick : I deplore all forms of violence, including the horrifying murder of a police sergeant in New Addington, Croydon. Has not the Minister given evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs in which he estimated that racial attacks could be as high as 130,000 a year? In view of continuing racially motivated attacks--in the main carried out by fascist gangs--on totally innocent people because of their origins or the colour of their skin, has not the time come to amend the law and to ensure that such attacks become an offence, in addition to offences under existing criminal legislation?

Mr. Lloyd : I am at one with the hon. Gentleman in deploring all assaults and attacks. I am glad that he has given me the opportunity to correct his misunderstanding of the figure that I gave to the Select Committee on Home Affairs. I referred to 130,000 racial incidents. Only a very small proportion were physical assaults. The hon. Gentleman is barking up the wrong tree if he thinks that the law needs to be changed to make physical attacks an extra criminal offence ; they clearly are a criminal offence at the moment. Whether the victim or the perpetrator is white or black, the sentence for grievous bodily harm can be life imprisonment. The important thing is to get evidence and a conviction.

The hon. Gentleman should be concerned about smaller incidents and harassment. Although each incident is not very significant, with repetition they become corrosive, deeply hurtful and destructive. That is where we should study the law to find out whether changes are needed.

Mr. Dickens : Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is one certain way to cut out racial violence, or violence of any description? If someone is put in prison for five years they should serve five years. Let us stop all this nonsense about remission, rehabilitation and parole--let offenders serve five years. If the Prison Officers Association says that prison officers have no control over prisoners, let us make prisoners serve extra years if they misbehave.

Mr. Lloyd : Many people will have a great deal of sympathy with my hon. Friend's remarks. However, he forgets--but the judiciary does not-- that the law enables a

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prisoner to be released half way through his sentence and so the judiciary imposes sentences with that in mind. Release at half time, which is allowed under the Criminal Justice Act 1991, makes it possible for offenders to be supervised and at risk of being returned to prison. That is a better guarantee of their reintegration into the community and a better sanction for their good behaviour.

Ms Ruddock : The Minister will be well aware of the fact that the Labour party has tabled an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill that will effectively deal with racial harassment. The amendment is in a form that the hon. Gentleman has suggested may be acceptable to the Government, and we hope that they will accept it. Does the Minister realise how black people in this country feel? Does not he understand that when they are subjected to racial attack they become victims twice over--first, because of the violence itself and, secondly, because they know that they have been picked on as a result of their race. Surely it is time for the Government to take these matters much more seriously and to accept the amendment that we have tabled.

Mr. Lloyd : I am not sure that the hon. Lady is quite clear about her own party's amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill. My understanding is that it deals with racial violence rather than harassment. On the question of harassment, I have nothing to add to the points that I have just made. We are looking at the public order legislation, and we want to see the report of the Select Committee before finally making up our minds about what changes should be made. I believe that the pressure from the hon. Lady's party relates to a separate crime of racial violence, which would do nothing to secure the conviction of those who perpetrate racial violence and would, in the long term, be bad for community relations.

Mr. John Greenway : I promise my hon. Friend that the Select Committee will ensure that Ministers receive its report as quickly as possible. In the meantime, may I ask whether he agrees that what we require is not necessarily more legislation but better police practice? Does he share my admiration for the racial violence unit at Plumstead police station, which, over many years, has painstakingly built up a very good relationship with local ethnic communities? Does my hon. Friend know that much of that good work was undone by the Anti-Nazi League's march through south-east London a few months ago?

Mr. Lloyd : I believe that these marches do nothing but heighten tension. I agree with my hon. Friend that the police have made enormous efforts to establish good relationships with the ethnic minority communities and, thereby, encourage the members of those communities to report any crimes against them. My hon. Friend will know that we have recalled the racial attacks group to consider improvements in the practices in this area and to decide whether these could be improved further.

Police Injuries

9. Mr. Hardy : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department how many police officers were injured in the performance of their duties in 1993.

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Mr. Charles Wardle : Information on the number of injuries is not held centrally. In 1992, in England and Wales, 14,946 police officers were assaulted while on duty. Figures for 1993 are not yet available.

Mr. Hardy : Does the Minister agree that it is not all that long since policemen could expect, or at least hope, to complete their service without sustaining serious criminal injury? The dreadful incident yesterday and the figure that the Minister has just given the House suggest that policemen can no longer hold such a hope. Will the Home Secretary, the courts and the Crown Prosecution Service accept that they have an obligation to consider this matter urgently with a view to securing the improvement that is so desperately needed?

Mr. Wardle : My right hon. and learned Friend has made it clear that he will ensure that the police have the necessary equipment to protect themselves from attacks and assaults. The House has already made known its deep regret at the tragic murder of Sergeant Robertson yesterday. In fact, the number of assaults on police officers dropped in the last two years for which information is available, as did the number of serious assaults and fatal assaults. The police scientific and development branch keeps the question of body armour under review all the time, and chief officers are able to issue ballistic vests when that is considered appropriate.

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