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House of Commons

Thursday 10 March 1994

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- -- in the Chair ]


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

By Order )

University of London Bill (

By Order )

Orders for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 17 March.

Oral Answers to Questions


Drug-related Crime --

1. Mr. Gordon Prentice : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what action his Department is taking to reduce drug-related crime.

4. Mr. Byers : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what action he is taking to reduce drug-related crime.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. David Maclean) : The Government are committed to tackling every aspect of the problem of drug misuse, including that of drug-related crime. Key elements in the overall strategy include increasing the effectiveness of enforcement, developing prevention publicity and education, and improving the treatment and rehabilitation of drug misusers.

Mr. Prentice : Is the Minister concerned about the easy availability of drugs in prison, as evidenced by Judge Stephen Tumim's report on the privatised Wolds prison ? Has the Minister seen the extraordinary report in The Times today which shows that prisoners are receiving dole payments and other benefits in prison which could conceivably be used to finance their drug habits ? Is not it a national scandal that Ministers have known about it for six years but have done precisely nothing ? Is it not another example of the Minister being all mouth and no action ?

Mr. Maclean : If the hon. Gentleman paid attention to what was happening in the House, he would know that we have tabled a amendment, dealing with drug testing of prisoners, to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill which is currently in Committee. It is the Government's policy that prisoners shall not have access to drugs. I hope that the Opposition will support the measure as fully as the hon. Gentleman says that he will.

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Mr. Byers : Following the drug-related shooting of two police officers in Brixton last night and the murder in Gateshead of Northumbria police officer Bill Forth, does the Minister agree that the greatest social menace facing our country is the expanding drug misuse among young people ? Will the Government now adopt a comprehensive strategy to tackle the escalating problem and, in particular, stop the reduction in the number of drug education officers and employ more customs officers ?

Mr. Maclean : Of course we agree that it is one of the greatest social evils facing us. That is why we have such a comprehensive strategy ; that is why we have the Home Office drugs prevention initiative ; that is why we have the safer cities programme ; that is why we have the toughest penalties in Europe for dealing with drug traffickers and why we have the powers to take their ill-gotten gains from them ; that is why we have effective customs action and why drug education is included in the national curriculum. It is all there ; it is about time that the Labour party stopped telling us that we should have a strategy and supported the strategy that the Government have.

Mr. Shersby : Will my hon. Friend join me in extending to the Metropolitan police the congratulations of the whole House on the way in which they are tackling drug-related crime in the metropolis ? Will he ask my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary to extend the deepest sympathies of all hon. Members to the two officers who were seriously injured in the shooting last night ? What equipment was available to those officers and others on the streets of Brixton and elsewhere to protect them from the shootings and stabbings which they encounter daily while doing their duty on our behalf ?

Mr. Maclean : The whole House will wish to pay tribute to PCs Simon Carroll and James Seymour, the two officers shot last night while on duty. They are two officers in a long line of thousands of police officers across the country who, every day of the week, make themselves vulnerable in carrying out their duty, for which we are all grateful. I understand that their injuries are not life threatening--one will undergo an operation this afternoon. I shall gladly pass on the comments of the whole House to those officers. The protective equipment available to officers is a matter for the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis. I shall of course draw his attention to my hon. Friend's remarks.

Sir Ivan Lawrence : Does my hon. Friend agree that if we were to give way to the calls for the decriminalisation of cannabis, the only effect would be to get more children into the habit of taking that level of drug and that it would not be long before traffickers suggested that they get more of a kick by taking heroin or cocaine ? Would not the result be an increased demand for hard drugs, which could lead only to more crimes being committed ? Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to say no yet again to all calls to decriminalise drugs ?

Mr. Maclean : Absolutely. As I said, the Government have the most draconian penalties in Europe to deal with those who traffic in the more serious drugs--crack, heroin and cocaine. We should be sending out a cloudy message if we were to suggest that not only cannabis but category B and C drugs--we have recently uprated the penalties for

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them ; they had not been uprated since 1977- -did not matter or that taking drugs did not count. Taking any drug is harmful, those included.

Mr. Robert Hughes : Is the Minister aware that the biggest link between drug taking and the use of another drug is the use of alcohol ? Is he saying that he is going to ban alcohol ?

Mr. Maclean : I shall treat that remark with the contempt that it deserves.

Basildon --

2. Mr. Amess : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on his visit to Basildon last year.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Michael Howard) : I visited Basildon on Saturday 20 November last year, when I visited Basildon police station and also attended a large and extremely enthusiastic meeting of my hon. Friend's constituents.

Mr. Amess : Following the highly successful visit of my right hon. and learned Friend to Basildon, will he tell the House what progress has been made on the 27 points contained in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill ? Will he join me in congratulating Basildon police, whom he has met, on their increased detection rate and on their efforts to unite the community in the fight against crime ? Does my right hon. and learned Friend recognise that, following the launch of my road show and meet the people campaign, the six yobs whom I accosted on Saturday after complaints from local residents, would be taken to a centre of detention

Madam Speaker : Order. We are not in the middle of debate. I want a question for the Minister so that he can give a direct answer.

Mr. Amess : Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that such adolescents who are out of control should be taken to secure centres if their parents are not prepared to accept the responsibility for their behaviour ?

Mr. Howard : I agree with my hon. Friend. Secure training units are essential if we are to bring persistent young offenders under control. I congratulate Basildon police on the substantial increase in their detection rate. Progress on the implementation of my 27-point programme is excellent.

Mr. Mackinlay : What measures does the Home Secretary intend to take to lift the low morale of police officers in Basildon and throughout the county of Essex which has been conveyed to him by their Police Federation ?

Mr. Howard : I have to disagree with the hon. Gentleman on the basis of my encounter with the police in Basildon, to which I referred in answer to my hon. Friend. When I met the police in Basildon, morale was excellent and they were looking forward to continuing the excellent progress that they have made in increasing their detection rate.

Mr. Blair : Does the Home Secretary agree that in Basildon, as elsewhere, the battle against crime simply cannot be won unless we fight drugs and drug abuse ? Will

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he undertake now, as a matter of urgency, to wake up to the seriousness of that situation and combine measures-- [Interruption.] Drugs and drug-related crime is a serious issue. Will he wake up to the seriousness of that issue and combine measures that drive the drug dealers off our streets with measures that educate and teach our young people of the dangers of drug abuse ?

Mr. Howard : Yes, of course I shall do that. Of course, drug misuse is a very serious matter. Of course, it plays an important part in crime. Of course, we must take it seriously. However, when we consider what the hon. Gentleman says, we find, as so often, that his words are long, but his action is extremely short. He made a long speech on drugs recently in which, at the end, we found a piffling three paragraphs on Labour strategy, most of which relates to things that we are already doing.

Life Sentences --

3. Mr. Nicholls : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what representations he has received that for particular categories of murder a life sentence should mean life.

Mr. Maclean : I have received a number of representations to that effect. Under the present arrangements, those convicted of the worst sorts of murder will normally serve a minimum of 20 years in prison. Some will serve longer and some may never be released. A life sentence is a sentence for life, because those released are released on licence and can be recalled to prison at any time.

Mr. Nicholls : Does my hon. Friend agree that although the public overwhelmingly want the restoration of capital punishment, it is now abundantly clear that Parliament will always deny them that ? If Parliament is not to be brought into disrepute, must not we come up with something that matches the gravity of those aspirations ? Will my right hon. and hon. Friends at least consider the proposition that, for those who commit the most serious forms of murder, that of police officers and prison officers, life sentences should really mean life until death ?

Mr. Maclean : We have those powers already, and for some people that is exactly what life will mean. The option is not limited to those who kill police and prison officers. No one who receives a mandatory life sentence should expect that to mean eight, 10 or 12 years. The sentence served could be very long indeed. For the most heinous killers, it will be a minimum of 20 years and some will probably never be released.

Mr. Trimble : The Minister referred to his policy that the murderers of policemen and prison officers should serve at least 20 years in prison. Why does not that policy apply throughout the United Kingdom ?

Mr. Maclean : That is a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I think that the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) would object if Home Office Ministers sought to impose policies on Northern Ireland without the consideration of the members of the Government responsible for policy there.

Mr. Sweeney : Does my hon. Friend accept that the fact that people serving life sentences for murder emerge from

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custody after 12 years, and that people serving sentences for offences such as burglary also come out long before they have served the nominal sentence imposed, brings the law into disrepute and makes people more likely to offend ?

Mr. Maclean : I am sorry to disagree with my hon. Friend. Of course, there are systems of parole whereby some people may be released before they have served their full sentence, but it is wrong for my hon. Friend to suggest that in all cases of murder the offender will serve about 12 years. The advantage of the mandatory life sentence for murder, with discretionary release at the end, is that it can cover a great many gradations of murder. Some people will serve shorter sentences, but I repeat that some people who are sentenced for murder may never be released.

Police And Magistrates' Courts Bill [ Lords ] --

6. Mr. Ainger : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department how many representations he has received on his proposals set out in the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill [ Lords ].

Mr. Howard : I have received about 250 representations from organisations, members of the public and hon. Members since the Bill was published on 17 December.

Mr. Ainger : As the Home Secretary is aware that Dyfed-Powys police and Gwent police are the most successful forces in terms of clear-up rate, will he do another U-turn, or another climbdown, on the provisions in the Bill for ending or amalgamating police forces, especially as such action would be against the wishes of local people and of the local police authority ?

Mr. Howard : I do not need to change the Bill to agree with the hon. Gentleman's proposal. The Bill merely changes the procedures for amalgamations and I have made it clear that I have no hidden agenda of compulsory amalgamations. I congratulate the police of Dyfed-Powys on their excellent results, including most impressive crime clear-up rates and the award of a chartermark.

Mr. Jonathan Evans : Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that if he had the power to appoint an accountant to the South Wales police authority, the authority might have been able to discover somewhat earlier that it had made a £3 million mistake in its adding up ?

Mr. Howard : My hon. Friend's point is extremely persuasive and it is a matter for great regret that the South Wales police authority has been responsible for such large mistakes. Of course, there is a place, and there will be a place on the new police authorities, for local and independent members who do not happen to be councillors or magistrates. I hope that they will make an effective contribution to the working of those authorities.

Mr. Michael : If the Home Secretary has no hidden agenda for merging police forces--unlike his predecessor, who offered a threat to 39 of our 43 police forces--will he withdraw the power that he seeks in the Bill to merge police forces without being restrained by the wishes of local people ?

Mr. Howard : The procedures, for which provision is made in the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill, make proper provision for giving full weight to the views and

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wishes of local people. What they change are the extremely cumbersome procedures that have been in place until now, which are long, expensive and unnecessary.

Police Bail --

7. Mr. Richards : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on his plans to give the police a new power of arrest for breach of police bail.

Mr. Howard : A provision to create such a power is contained in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill as part of our package of measures to cut down the abuse of bail. It has been widely welcomed by the police.

Mr. Richards : Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that in Clwyd, North-West there is wide support for the fight against crime ? Has he received any support for his proposals to crack down on bail bandits from the Labour party, especially the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) ?

Mr. Howard : No, I am sorry to say that a number of amendments were tabled in Standing Committee that would make it much more difficult for the courts to refuse bail. Each year, some 50,000 offences are committed by people while on bail. The proposals that we have included in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill are designed to deal with that mischief.

Mr. Bennett : If the Home Secretary is so keen to increase the number of people in prison as a result of such actions, where will he find the space for them ? Is he aware that, following the Strangeways incident, during the whole of Operation Container in Greater Manchester, the police were reluctant to arrest people for breaches of bail because they did not have anywhere to put them ? If the Home Secretary is to carry out the proposals--the police cells in Manchester are overcrowded now--what steps will he take to find somewhere to put people when they are arrested ?

Mr. Howard : I am delighted to tell the hon. Gentleman that we are progressively increasing prison capacity in the north-west. The new Manchester prison is already open and taking an increasing number of prisoners all the time. We have plans to ensure that further increases are made to the prison estate in the north-west.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree with a lady in my county whose daughter was murdered by a suspect who was out on bail for a string of serious sexual offences ? She wrote to me saying that she wanted the provisions in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill to be implemented as soon as possible. If they had been implemented, her daughter would be alive today. Are not the amendments tabled by Labour Members to weaken the provisions--which are wanted by the public and would be effective on those criminals--further evidence that they are soft on law and order ?

Mr. Howard : I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who reminds the House that behind the charges and countercharges that are exchanged across the Chamber lie real human tragedies with which we are trying to deal as effectively as we can in the proposals that we put before Parliament. It is a matter of deep regret that we do not get the support of the Labour party for those proposals.

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Crime, London --

8. Mr. Austin-Walker : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what plans he has to reduce crime in London.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Charles Wardle) : Metropolitan police strength has increased by22 per cent. since the Government took office and successful local partnerships have been formed throughout the capital in a co-ordinated effort to tackle crime.

Mr. Austin-Walker : Has the Minister seen the recent studies carried out by the Association of London Authorities which show that more than 50 per cent. of Londoners indicated fear of crime as their major concern and more than two thirds of Londoners expect the situation to get worse ? Does he agree that his tough words have not been matched by action ? What will he do to restore the morale and confidence of the Metropolitan police, who are unable to respond to the needs of their communities ?

Mr. Wardle : The hon. Gentleman knows that in the Plumstead division, which covers his constituency, burglary was down 11 per cent. last year. He will know that in the year to June 1993, recorded crime was down fractionally for the Metropolitan police district. He will know that 15,000 fewer houses were burgled last year. He will be aware of the wide variety of crime prevention measures throughout the Metropolitan police district. For example, in Southall, Ealing, Wandsworth, Westminster, Hounslow, Croydon, Brent and Sutton crime prevention is at work, and most effectively.

Mr. John Marshall : Will my hon. Friend confirm that many crimes in London are committed by boys and girls under the age of 16 who commit a multitude of crimes and historically have not been put in secure units ? Does he agree that the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill will address that problem ?

Mr. Wardle : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why persistent juvenile offenders will be given secure training orders by means of the Bill's provisions.

Ms Ruddock : The Minister will be aware that 40 per cent. of racial incidents recorded by the police occur in the Metropolitan police area and that few of those responsible for those crimes can be arrested, and even fewer convicted, under the present law. Will the hon. Gentleman join the Opposition in recognising that the law needs to be strengthened in relation to racial incidents ? Will he give a clear commitment this afternoon that he and the Home Secretary will support the Bill on racial hatred and violence which is being brought to the House tomorrow by the hon. Member for Finchley (Mr. Booth) ?

Mr. Wardle : The House will know that my right hon. and learned Friend will consider the Select Committee proposals, for which he is waiting. The House will also be aware that the Government support police efforts to tackle racial crime. We are encouraging reporting and the increase in the number of reported incidents may well be a result of that encouragement. There has been fresh training and multi-agency guidance on that most important problem.

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Police Accountability --

9. Mr. Alan Howarth : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what plans he has to make the police more accountable to the local community.

Mr. Howard : The Police and Magistrates' Court Bill will establish strong independent local police authorities and a clear framework for setting priorities and measuring performance. Local people will be better informed about what their local force is trying to achieve and how well it is doing.

Mr. Howarth : Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we have enjoyed immense benefit from our tradition of policing by consent ? That consent has been in important measure established and expressed through locally controlled watch committees, historically and by police authorities in more recent times. Will he therefore continue to seek the fullest measure of local accountability for police forces, consistent with efficiency and with appropriate operational independence ?

Mr. Howard : Yes, I can certainly give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks. One of the new responsibilities of local police authorities will be that of preparing a strategy for a local partnership between the police and the public. Unless we can strengthen such partnerships, we shall never make real progress in the fight against crime. I agree with my hon. Friend that policing by consent is an essential element in that partnership.

Mr. Maginnis : Has the Secretary of State received any reports on the effect that the anti-terrorist cordons in London have had on the level of ordinary crime in the area ? What lessons are to be learnt from that and has the community been informed of the benefits ?

Mr. Howard : I understand that crime has been reduced in the area in which the measures are in force and the City of London Corporation is assiduous in bringing the results to the attention of those who live and work in the City. The future of the scheme is under review and certain procedures must be satisfied. I think that that is the answer that the hon. Gentleman wanted.

Sir Anthony Grant : Would not it be a good idea to make local authorities more accountable to the police ? In Cambridgeshire, for example, the Lib-Lab coalition regime has flatly refused to apply to the police the £1.2 million that has been made available to it for that purpose.

Mr. Howard : My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. As usual, there is a complete contrast between the words from those on the Opposition Front Bench and the deeds of Labour local authorities which, up and down the country, refuse to give the police money that the Government have made available for policing purposes.

Mr. Maclennan : Will the Home Secretary accept my congratulations on scrapping, in the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill currently in the House of Lords, almost all the proposals made in the White Paper that would have eroded the local accountability of police ? If the right hon. and learned Gentleman is prepared to look so objectively at Home Office matters in future, he will command more support than he has done up to date.

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Mr. Howard : I do not wish to sound in the slightest churlish in reply to the hon. Gentleman's congratulations, but they seem to have been offered under a misapprehension. The changes that have been made to the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill are changes of detail. The principles are intact and they will deliver us the objectives that we have always sought to achieve.

Mr. Harry Greenway : Will my right hon. and learned Friend take account of the concern of many police forces that they are unable to deal with noisy neighbours who cause great anxiety to people by disturbing them with parties all night, noisy radios and televisions, and the rest of it ? Will he seek powers to enable the police to deal with that disturbing and annoying problem ?

Mr. Howard : A range of powers are available at present. They are mostly local authority and civil law powers. They are not used as effectively as they should be. I should be happy to have a word with my hon. Friend about the matter.

Mr. Allen : Now that the Home Secretary has been forced to back down on some of the more ridiculous and wasteful proposals on police accountability, does he accept that, rather than pressing ahead with the rest of his package, it would be far better to put the money available into boosting the pathetic 76p per family per year that the Conservatives spend on crime prevention ? The police and local communities do not want well- established relationships tampered with. They want to know when the Conservatives will get serious about crime prevention.

Mr. Howard : The hon. Gentleman's figures are absurd. Apart from the £200 million a year that we spend across Whitehall on crime prevention, the police spend a substantial part of their £6 billion-a- year budget on crime prevention. We take crime prevention extremely seriously. Contrary to the point made by the hon. Gentleman, the Bill that is at present in the other place will make a substantial contribution to crime prevention.

Crime, London --

10. Ms Eagle : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department how many representations he has received from the London SW1 postal district about the relationship between law enforcement and rising crime.

Mr. Charles Wardle : Records of representations are not kept by postal district.

Ms Eagle : Does the Minister agree with the gracious Queen of Belize, who is normally resident in SW1, who recently said that increasing levels of crime

Madam Speaker : Order. I have to remind the hon. Lady that we do not invoke the name of the Queen in debate. Can she rephrase her-- [Interruption.] The Queen of Belize is also a member of a royal family.

Ms Eagle : Does the Minister agree with the comments made by a well- known resident of SW1 that increased crime prevention will not solve rising crime levels unless it is accompanied by a look at the root causes of the disease ?

Mr. Wardle : I am sure that the hon. Lady will be pleased to know that recorded crime in London SW1 has dropped by 8 per cent. in the past two years. As for the

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reasons for crime, the hon. Lady will also be pleased to hear that sub-groups of the National Board for Crime Prevention are examining precisely those matters. One in particular that will command increasing attention is the problem of repeat victimisation.

Mr. Heald : Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the crime issues in SW1 is terrorism ? Would he care to pay tribute to the police who have protected us in SW1 in recent years ? Has he received any message from the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) to the effect that he is now prepared to fight for the measures that the police want to fight terrorism- -the emergency powers legislation that we passed last night, particularly in the light of the Heathrow bombing incident ?

Mr. Wardle : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The pattern of voting in the House yesterday will undoubtedly command wide attention. As for the terrorist action, the terrorists achieved nothing yesterday and they will achieve nothing other than futile suffering.

Mr. Madden : Will the Minister tell the people of SW1 whether tomorrow the Government will support or oppose the Bill being sponsored by his hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mr. Booth) ?

Mr. Wardle : As I said in response to an earlier question, the Government will consider the response of the Select Committee in due course.

Offenders (Bail) --

11. Mr. Evennett : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on his plans to deal with those people who offend while on bail.

12. Mr. Hawkins : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what plans he has to deal with those people who commit crimes while on bail.

Mr. Howard : We are introducing in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill a series of measures designed to tackle the problem of offending on bail and to improve the bail system more generally.

Mr. Evennett : I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that reply. Does he agree that most people in the country are fed up with reading about people who offend and commit other crime while out on bail, and they want the Government to take tough action, so they will be grateful for what my right hon. and learned Friend proposes ? However, what would be the consequences if the courts were required to consider the defendant's health before recommending putting the defendant in custody ? The Labour party believes that that would be a good thing. Many Conservative Members are fearful that fewer people in custody means more trouble for people on the streets of our country.

Mr. Howard : I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The amendment to which he refers is but one of a number tabled by the Labour party which would restrict the powers of the court to refuse bail. It is a remarkable fact that, of those people arrested in the course of the remarkably successful Operation Bumblebee, which has done so much to reduce burglary in London, no fewer than 40 per cent.

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were on bail. That simply cannot be allowed to continue. That is why we are taking new powers in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill.

Mr. Hawkins : Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that one of the most important steps that we have taken is in the Criminal Justice Act 1993, which made offending on bail an aggravating factor when passing sentence ? Does he further agree with the cab driver who brought me back to the House this afternoon, who said that, as a result of the Labour party's inability to support the Government on law and order measures, the least convincing Member of the House, in his view, was the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) ?

Mr. Howard : Out of the mouths of cab drivers comes wisdom of a very high order and I would be the last person to disagree with it.

Crime --

13. Ms Lynne : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what discussions he has had with local authorities in the north- west regarding measures to reduce crime.

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