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House of Commons

Thursday 19 May 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.)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 16 June.

Oral Answers to Questions


Identity Cards --

1. Mr. Campbell-Savours : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what further discussions have taken place on the introduction of identity cards.

3. Mr. Gale : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what further consideration he has given to the introduction of identity cards.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Michael Howard) : We keep this issue under constant review. I fully appreciate the widespread support which exists for a national identity card scheme.

Mr. Campbell-Savours : May I suggest that Ministers stop trying to sell a national identity card scheme on the basis that it would be a tool to deal with social security fraud-- [Hon. Members :-- "Why ?"] Conservative Members should wait. Despite the lobby that wants to insert an element of political correctness into the debate, is not the truth that a national identity card scheme could enhance civil liberties, be a major tool in tracking down crime, particularly tax fraud, and also be of immeasurable benefit to people needing emergency medical treatment ?

Mr. Howard : The hon. Gentleman has identified a number of advantages that an identity card could have. As he knows, there are considerable practical difficulties and we are trying to find ways to overcome them.

Mr. Gale : Given that a properly designed identity card could be used as a travel document throughout the European Union, as a passport for pensions and social benefits and to carry medical and banking information, that people in the Press Gallery, hon. Members, servants of the House and many other people in many walks of life already carry identity cards, that the honest person has nothing to fear from carrying an identity card, and that the introduction of such a scheme has the support of the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Superintendents Association and the Police Federation, will my right hon.

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and learned Friend bring forward in the next Session of Parliament the measures necessary to introduce such a scheme ?

Mr. Howard : My hon. Friend makes an even more compelling case than the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours). However, the practical difficulties still need to be overcome. My hon. Friend was not, perhaps, entirely accurate in his description of the organisations which support the introduction of an identity card, but I readily accept that there is widespread support for such a scheme.

Mr. Spellar : Why does the Home Secretary not come clean and admit that the identity card is a political gimmick with a huge cost ? His Department's figures show that a scheme would cost £475 million to set up and £50 million to £100 million per year to run. Will he reflect on the figures produced by his colleagues in the Department of the Environment, which show that council tax registers record a 34 per cent. turnover each year ? Would that not result in enormous administrative problems ? Those are the real practical difficulties and costs of the scheme.

Mr. Howard : I do not conceal from the House that there are practical difficulties. However, the hon. Gentleman would have had a most effective answer to the points that he raised in the early part of his question had he been able to see the number of his hon. Friends shaking their heads as he spoke.

Mr. Batiste : Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that many organisations are now exploring different technologies for smart ID cards ? If the Government act quickly they could co-ordinate that activity and produce a card that would have widespread application in the years ahead.

Mr. Howard : My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point, which I assure him is not lost on the Government.

Mr. Allen : Before the Home Secretary is tempted to snatch at a panacea and cure-all for all the things that are wrong with society, will he heed those who have strong reservations in principle about identity cards, those who feel that they could be discriminatory and those who make the case that professional criminals could easily evade the use of such cards ? Before the right hon. and learned Gentleman goes any further, will he conduct some serious Home Office research ? If he then intends to bring proposals before the House, will he ensure that it is on the basis of an all-party consensus ?

Mr. Howard : Given the difference of views expressed in the past two minutes, it would be difficult to strike a consensus that would satisfy everyone.

Mr. Skinner : It would.

Mr. Howard : I am delighted to have the agreement of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). At the end of the day, we will have to make a decision on the matter, but I can certainly give an undertaking to the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) that we will listen to all the views that are expressed.

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Obscene Publications Branch --

2. Mr. Nicholas Winterton : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department when he last met the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis to discuss the future of the obscene publications branch ; and what view he expressed at that meeting.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Charles Wardle) : My right hon. and learned Friend discussed this matter with the Metropolitan police commissioner on 25 April at one of their periodic private meetings.

Mr. Winterton : Is my hon. Friend aware that speculation about the future of the obscene publications branch will be greeted with glee by the paedophiles and pornographers ? Does he agree that the sooner a statement is made that that branch will continue to do the wonderful work that it has been doing and that it will not be broken up or divided, the better it will be for reducing pornography and other unfortunate things that happen in this country ?

Mr. Wardle : I shall seek to reassure my hon. Friend even now. There is no question of any relaxation in the fight by the Metropolitan police against pornography. The opposite is the case. The commissioner is examining the way in which all his special operations are organised to see whether there are more effective ways of doing the job. It has to be good management sense to see whether the police can crack down even more effectively on obscene publications and paedophilia.

Drug Abuse --

4. Mr. Hendry : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what steps his Department is taking to reduce the growth of drug abuse.

Mr. Howard : The Government's strategy for tackling drug misuse is aimed at reducing both the supply of, and the demand for, drugs. Key elements in the strategy include increasing the effectiveness of enforcement, developing prevention measures, publicity and education, and improving the treatment and rehabilitation of drug misusers.

Mr. Hendry : I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that clear answer. Has he seen the evidence from parts of the world where cannabis has been legalised ? It has resulted in a rapid increase in the consumption of both hard and soft drugs, a massive increase in health costs and an escalation of crime out of all proportion to that which existed before. Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure the House that he will have none of the nonsense peddled by some Opposition Members that cannabis should be legalised in Britain ? It sounds as though they have been taking it.

Mr. Howard : I can give my hon. Friend that assurance without equivocation. I entirely agree with the points that he has made.

Mr. Stevenson : Is the Home Secretary aware of the specific dangers attributed to the continued use of so-called poppers ? Is he further aware of the research done in the United States which clearly shows that the free use of so-called poppers reduces the effectiveness of the immune system ? In the light of representations made, for example,

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by Staffordshire county council and other authorities, what action does the Home Secretary envisage taking to ban the use of these dangerous substances ?

Mr. Howard : I am aware of some of the incidents which have occurred in Staffordshire and elsewhere involving the misuse of substances such as that to which the hon. Gentleman refers. We are considering carefully whether the action he suggests as appropriate should be taken.

Mr. Butler : Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that in dealing with drugs, as with other crimes, it is not sufficient simply to talk about being tough on crime and the causes of crime, but it is necessary also to be tough on criminals ?

Mr. Howard : Yes, Madam Speaker.

Mr. Blair : Does the Home Secretary agree that it is horrific that children, sometimes as young as 11, are gaining access to drugs even within the school gates ? Does he accept, as the police say, that the problem is likely to get worse with the introduction of highly violent and organised crime rings from the former eastern Europe ? Does he agree that if we do not put in place the proper strategy to fight drug abuse, the fight against crime will be hugely hindered ?

Mr. Howard : I of course agree with the hon. Gentleman that some of the instances of supply of drugs to young children are horrific. I also agree that we have to be on our guard to ensure that the problem is not aggravated by the influx of either drugs or weapons from eastern Europe. We have a strategy in place which adopts a comprehensive approach to the problems relating to drugs and we are examining it to see to what extent it can be improved.

Secure Training Centres --

5. Mr. Coe : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department when he will publish details of the proposed secure training centres for young offenders.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. David Maclean) : I intend shortly to place in the Library of the House a copy of the operating specification for the new centres.

Mr. Coe : I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. He will be aware that people in my constituency, as in all other constituencies, are angry and tired of having their homes broken into, their cars stolen and often burnt out and their hard-earned property burgled. Does he recognise that the need for secure centres is more important than ever before and that the thrust of activity in those centres must concentrate on rehabilitation, education and training, but above all on counteracting offensive and offending behaviour ?

Mr. Maclean : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why the experts at the sharp end--the police--have given a complete and total welcome to our proposals that action can be taken against 12 to 14-year- olds who are currently outwith the law. My hon. Friend is also right that in the special centres for young persistent offenders we intend to concentrate on training, rehabilitation and addressing the offending behaviour. We can do that only if

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we take the offenders away from the street corners and get them into specialist centres where specialists can give them the training that they need.

Mr. Gunnell : As the professionals dealing with young people are generally opposed to the proposals, which will separate children from their families by great distances, and as the centres will not be able to offer the national curriculum, how does the Minister intend to overcome those defects ? Does he accept that in the past other methods have proved much more effective than the Government's experiments to combat youth crime ?

Mr. Maclean : I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says. Nothing like this has been tried before. That is why it is wrong for certain people to give the impression that the centres are mini-prisons ; they are not that at all. I must tell the hon. Gentleman, in the nicest possible way, that I should be more willing to listen to his point were it not for the complete inconsistency shown by the Opposition recently. In this Chamber, there was no all-out assault by the Opposition against the provisions in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill dealing with young offenders, but in another place, the whole Opposition Front Bench tried to remove entirely the clauses dealing with young offenders.

Right to Silence --

6. Mr. Streeter : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what priority he gives to reform of the right to silence ; and if he will make a statement.

7. Mr. Page : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what progress he has made on his plans to abolish the right to silence.

Mr. Maclean : Current restrictions on drawing proper inferences from a suspect's silence are repugnant to common sense and open to exploitation by experienced criminals. I attach a high priority to our reforms of the so -called right to silence rules.

Mr. Streeter : Does my hon. Friend think that our reform of right to silence is one of the measures that the chairman of the Police Federation had in mind when he said yesterday :

"Our Home Secretary is more in tune with the Police Federation than any other Home Secretary for 30 years" ?

Mr. Maclean : Yes, I am aware of that remark. I am sure that in the spirit of fairness the hon. Member for Warwickshire, North (Mr. O'Brien) intended to make that quotation available to the House as well. In addition, the Police Federation has written to me about the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill saying :

"If the measures contained in this Bill are implemented, they will enhance the stature and ability of the criminal justice system to reduce crime, successfully bring criminals to justice and significantly reduce the fear of crime, thereby improving the quality of life for many members of society."

That is the police view ; it is the Government's view as well.

Mr. Page : Does my hon. Friend find it rather odd, as I do, that a person accused of serious fraud has to provide information under threat of a penalty while a person accused of a criminal offence can remain silent ? Does he

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agree that the guilty are the only people who are worried and frightened about the removal of the right to silence and is it not common sense to see it go ?

Mr. Maclean : My hon. Friend is absolutely right, but it is not merely the police who agree that those changes to the so-called right to silence are essential. The Lord Chief Justice confirmed that our proposals are absolutely right, saying :

"I do not think the proposed measures are unfair. On the contrary I think they introduce an element of common sense and realism which has been sadly lacking hitherto."

And so say all of us.

Mr. Gerrard : How can the Minister justify his proposals to allow an adverse inference to be drawn if a person remains silent when questioned not by police officers but by people who may be completely untrained, such as private security officers or store detectives ? Is that not guaranteed to lead to more miscarriages of justice ?

Mr. Maclean : I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says. Nor did the House accept it, as I seem to recall that on Third Reading the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill received a majority of 176 votes in this Chamber. If the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends--I know that some of them voted against it, including the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and others--and the Opposition Front Bench had thought that that part of the Bill was so reprehensible I am sure that they would have voted against it.

Mr. Trimble : May I refer the Minister to the speech in another place by the former Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland ? In relation to the Northern Ireland provisions on which the measure is based, he said that he had heard no complaints from the Bar in Northern Ireland about its operation ? May I also refer the Minister to the report published this week which shows that the operation of the legislation in Northern Ireland has made very little impact on the system there, thus disproving the alarmist stories put about here and reinforcing our point that his proposals are modest ? What should be done is seriously to address the right to silence, properly so called, to ensure that it is modified for certain persons in certain categories.

Mr. Maclean : I do not entirely accept that the proposals are modest, but they are not so draconian or radical as some people who are trying to damage the Bill make out. A lot of crystal ball gazing has been going on about the so-called right to silence, which I find quite unnecessary because if one looks at the Northern Ireland experience one can read the book, and it is a book that has worked. We should be guided by what the Lord Chief Justice said, based on the experience in the courts there.

Crime (Departmental Policy) --

8. Mr. Ian Bruce : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what progress he has made in implementing his 27 points to tackle crime.

Mr. Howard : Nineteen of those 27 measures are being taken forward in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill. Five do not require legislation and are being implemented administratively. I hope to legislate on the remaining three as soon as a suitable opportunity is available.

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Mr. Bruce : I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on that record so far and add to the congratulations expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter) on the remarks made by the chairman of the Police Federation. May we have a war on the thugs and criminals who attack our police officers and believe that they can get away scot free ? May we also ensure that every police officer has adequate protection and offensive weapons to stop the attacks ever taking place, because thugs will know that the treatment that they receive will be much harsher than the treatment that they hand out to police officers ?

Mr. Howard : I entirely agree and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. I am determined to ensure that our police officers, who face the gravest dangers and risks on our behalf, day in and day out and night in and night out, are properly equipped to face those risks. That was why I authorised the extra measures that the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis announced on Monday and why at the Police Federation conference yesterday I made an announcement about the progress of our trials in relation to batons. I am determined to do what is necessary to ensure that our police officers are properly equipped.

Mr. Simpson : If the Home Secretary is concerned about crime prevention, why does he insist on taking funding out of projects such as the Nottingham wheelbase project which, at a cost of less than £50 per young person per week, has a high success rate in deterring young people from crime ? Why does he withdraw funding from preventive projects and divert it, leaving the community-based approach ill prepared and underfunded ?

Mr. Howard : We have always made it clear that the safer cities programmes would not be permanent in any particular place. We wanted to show what could be done in particular cities and then to move on and demonstrate that elsewhere. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, given his concern for these matters, will be the first to congratulate the Government on the fact that spending on crime prevention increased to £240 million last year from £200 million the year before--an increase of no less than 20 per cent.--without taking into account any part of the £6 billion per year spent by the police on crime prevention.

Mr. Shersby : Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the new stop and search powers in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill represent a major breakthrough after 10 years of argument as to how best the police can tackle the difficult problem of knives and sharp pointed weapons ? Does he agree that it is a triumph for the whole House to have recognised that difficult problem and given the police the powers that they need to deal with it ?

Mr. Howard : I agree with my hon. Friend and I pay particular tribute to the part that he played in drawing the need for extra legislation to the attention of the House. I am satisfied that the additional powers are needed and that they will prove an effective reinforcement of the powers already available to the police. If we are determined to make progress in the fight against crime, we must ensure that our police have the powers that they need. That is something that I am determined to provide.

Mr. Hoon : Will the Home Secretary be bringing forward a list of the number of policy U-turns he has been forced to make since announcing his 27 -point plan ?

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Mr. Howard : The answer is none whatever. If the hon. Gentleman cares to go through the 27 points, he will find that there have been no changes in any of those 27 points save in one very minor respect relating to the right to silence.

Pornography --

9. Mr. Ottaway : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department how he intends to combat the trade in computer-generated pornography ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Maclean : We are taking a number of steps in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill to ensure that the legislation to control pornography can keep pace with changing technology.

Mr. Ottaway : Does my hon. Friend recognise the need to stay one jump ahead of criminals who seek to exploit technology for their own advantage ? Will he confirm that the proposed measures will take into account the latest developments in computing ?

Mr. Maclean : Yes. I believe that the measures that we have taken in the Bill, many of them within days or weeks of the Select Committee on Home Affairs reporting, will deal with all aspects of computer pornography. We are still turning our attention to two issues : international transmission from foreign countries, and advertising. Apart from those two, however--and they are not germane to dealing with the main problems of computer technology--the measures in the Bill will deal with all aspects of computer pornography in whatever shape or form that vile trade takes now or in the foreseeable future.

Mr. Mike O'Brien : If the Minister is so anxious to quote the chairman of the Police Federation, why did he not accept the federation's proposed amendments to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill to strengthen the laws on computer pornography ? Does he accept that the comments made by the chairman of the Police Federation yesterday about the Home Secretary ended with a reference to what the chairman perceived as the greatest threat to policing in a generation in the current inquiry into the core functions of policing, which the general secretary of the federation said could lead to a reduction in the number of police officers from 126,000 to 80,000 by the end of the decade if the Government get their way ?

Mr. Maclean : The hon. Gentleman is trying to make bricks without straw, but I congratulate him on his courage in being the only Opposition Member to stand up and quote the police today. The Opposition have been quoting the police for the past 12 months, but since the chairman of the Police Federation said yesterday that the current Home Secretary is more in tune with the police than any Home Secretary in the past 30 years, I suspect that the Opposition will be dropping the idea of such quotations like hot bricks.

I am confident that, before the Bill leaves the Palace of Westminster, all the concerns about computer pornography will be addressed and we shall have a comprehensive measure to deal with that vile trade.

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Cautioning Guidelines --

10. Mr. Sykes : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what response he has had to the new guidelines on cautioning ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Howard : The new cautioning guidelines have been widely welcomed. The early indications are that they are already starting to have the intended effect.

Mr. Sykes : Will the Home Secretary promise that his welcome statement marks an end to the scandalous string of cautions that have only encouraged crime ? Is he aware of the widespread support for adopting some of the measures used in Singapore for successfully dealing with crime ?

Mr. Howard : I very much hope that the cautioning guidelines will have the effect to which my hon. Friend referred, but the measures taken in Singapore go somewhat further than the cautioning guidelines that I have so far authorised.

Mr. Michael : Will the Home Secretary join me in reminding the House that the first caution has had a remarkable success rate, in that some 87 per cent. have not re-offended after a first cautioning ? Will he also remind the House of the pressure from the Opposition for a reduction in the number of inappropriate second and subsequent cautions ? Why has he not also accepted the constructive proposals that we have put forward to deal immediately with the causes of offending and nip things in the bud as soon as a second offence is committed ?

Mr. Howard : I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the first caution has an important part to play, and nothing in my new guidance detracts from the first caution in appropriate cases. I confess that I do not recall being under great pressure from the Opposition to issue revised cautioning guidelines. Perhaps that appeared in the 10th footnote to page 103 of one of the hon. Gentleman's briefing notes. We must of course take the causes of crime seriously and take action to deal with them, but it is action, not slogans, which matter, and the Government are taking the necessary action.

Mr. Brazier : Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that his measures to review the guidelines for cautioning are welcome, as the public are sick of seeing hardened youngsters being cautioned again and again ? Do not the courts also have a role in the cautioning of parents ? Should not we remind the courts of the considerable powers that they have enjoyed for some time now to bind over parents whose children persistently offend ?

Mr. Howard : The formal caution normally takes place in the presence of parents, so they see the extent to which their children are at risk if they continue to offend. As my hon. Friend knows, we have taken a number of measures, including those in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, to increase the responsibility that parents must bear for the offences of their children, and which make them responsible in certain circumstances for the failure of their children to comply with the requirements of supervision orders.

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Prisoners --

11. Mr. Bennett : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what steps the Government are taking to reduce the number of prisoners being held in police cells.

Mr. Charles Wardle : Refurbished accommodation at Manchester and Durham prisons has been brought back into use and other measures have been taken. Those have helped to reduce the number of prisoners in police cells from 540 in mid-March to 142 on 16 May.

Mr. Bennett : Welcome though that reduction is, does the Minister accept that the use of police cells is totally inappropriate for remanding convicted prisoners and reduces the efficiency of the police force ? Given that the past three Home Secretaries have promised that the practice would stop 12 months ago, is not it appalling that it is still going on ?

Mr. Wardle : I am astonished that the hon. Gentleman should ask that question without alluding to the fact that the problem arose in the north- west because of a prison riot in Manchester four years ago, when 1,600 places were destroyed. I hope that he and his hon. Friends will concentrate on the fact that Manchester prison's population is building up again, locked out prisoners are being taken in at the rate of 60 a week there and Doncaster prison will open next month with an extra 779 places. So the use of prison cells for that purpose should shortly be unnecessary.

Mr. Matthew Banks : Will my hon. Friend give the House the assurance that he will press ahead with the utmost vigour with the prison building programme ? Without more spaces, we shall not be able to put behind bars people of the type that the British public want to see there.

Mr. Wardle : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It will not have eluded him that on a number of occasions in recent months my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has made telling speeches in which he has said that prison works. At the same time, the prison population has been going up, and crime figures have been coming down a little.

Ms Ruddock : Will the Minister admit that the peak figures he has given for the use of police cells--those for March--were occasioned by the fact that the Prison Service tried to meet the Home Secretary's target of 31 March for ending the practice of having three prisoners to a cell ? Does he accept that the number of prisoners being doubled up in cells is rising relentlessly month after month and that prison officers are now expressing deep concern about the fact that current levels of overcrowding undermine the rehabilitation regime for prisoners and endanger the safety of prison officers ?

Mr. Wardle : It would no doubt have been helpful to the House if the hon. Lady had reminded us that in 1987, 5,000 prisoners were held three to a cell, whereas none are now. Thus, progress is being made. The hon. Lady is right in that in some cases additional accommodation can be used--a further 3,700 places, I think--on the basis of operational maximum usage.

Mr. Garnier : May I invite my hon. Friend to visit Gartree prison, which is in my constituency. There he will see that money is being well used to expand an

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establishment where the prisoners are not overcrowded, where Prison Officers Association staff enjoy good working relations with the management and where many Opposition Members might have a happy stay.

Mr. Wardle : I am sure that if I do not get an opportunity to take up my hon. Friend's kind invitation, my hon. Friend the Minister of State will. My hon. Friend is absolutely right : the prison building programme has worked, we have got rid of the problem of three in a cell, as we were advised to do, and the system is working far better than before.

Mr. Maclennan : In the light of the Minister's optimism about the prison building programme, may I ask whether he is now prepared to sink his plan for prison ships ?

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