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9.29 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Alun Michael): What a contrast there was between the sad effort of the former Home Secretary to look like a

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leadership contender and many of the contributions made to this serious debate. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) on his opening speech, because he was gracious in defeat. I cannot imagine a more exciting challenge than my present role as deputy to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, nor a finer team to work with. I look forward to the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border offering constructive amendments to our positive legislation and such help as I have given him in recent years.

Conservative Members should revisit the mantra that crime has fallen dramatically in recent years. Has the shadow shadow Home Secretary not noticed that violent crime increased by 11 per cent. last year alone? There may have been dramatic falls in some offences, such as bicycle theft, but it is patronising for the shadow shadow Home Secretary to tell the elderly that they do not need to worry about crime, because they know the reality behind the fear and the statistics of crime. Even if the risk of attack, as the right hon. Gentleman suggested, is greater for a young man than it is for a pensioner, the risk is too high for both. That provides a political imperative for this Government. During the debate, my hon. Friends, old and new, and from every part of the country, underlined our priority to tackle crime.

There are so many hon. Members to congratulate. The hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) told us of the beautiful conservation areas in his constituency. He implied that they contain endangered species: I thought that he was talking about animals, but perhaps he was referring to the rarity of a large Conservative majority. He offered a bizarre recipe for success when he encouraged hon. Members to concentrate on winning the support of convicted murderers as a way of tackling crime.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) gave a short and powerful speech dedicated to his constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor) also referred to his home area. He, like me, is a Labour and Co-operative Member of the House, and I welcome him to it. They were two of many speeches that looked beyond party loyalties to civic and local pride and a sense of community. That is the essence of what is best in the House of Commons, and the essence of the message that we must get across if we are to tackle the problems of crime and disorder.

I endorse the tribute paid by my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington, East (Mr. Kemp) to Roland Boyes, who was a former Member. He was a fine representative of his constituency and a good friend to many hon. Members on both sides of the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) paid tribute to John Bowis, who has left the House. He was rare among Conservative Members in that he took an interest in the plight of the Somalis before the hidden war in the north of Somalia became a matter for press and media comment. I also pay tribute to him. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea showed his ability to bite back when he was harassed by the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Sir M. Spicer) in a controversial intervention.

I join my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and the shadow Home Secretary in paying tribute to Sir Michael Shersby, whose death shocked and saddened us all. With Sir Michael, I and a few others took the first steps to establishing an all-party group on the police. The role of

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the police is central not only to catching criminals, but to the larger objective of keeping the peace and creating a decent society. We need a balanced dialogue with the police. I recall that such an approach was encouraged by the late John Smith and by the then shadow Home Secretary, now the Prime Minister, when we formed that group. Such dialogue led to my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), serving as a consultant to the Police Federation. That role was previously played by my predecessor, Lord Callaghan. I am delighted to have my hon. Friend as a colleague in the Home Office now.

This is an example of the way in which new Labour has rediscovered the art of listening. We have listened not only to the federated ranks, but to chief constables and superintendents. I suggest to Opposition Members that they will have to rediscover the art of listening, for in the past few years they have not listened to the police, they have not listened to the public and they have not listened to the anger that there is out there about the way in which crime has impacted on communities. It is dialogue of that sort that has led us to our determination to build a partnership with the police and others to tackle crime.

I was pleased to hear the comments of the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis), who explained that he would have to leave before the winding-up speeches. He expressed a wish to work with the Government on matters of common interest, referring particularly to the need to tackle drugs and the scourge of drug-related crime. We shall welcome his and his party's input on issues such as drugs policy, and I assure him and all parties that we shall always be prepared to listen with respect to the contribution of other hon. Members. The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of bullying in schools and the workplace--which needs to be tackled--and issues relating to the marches in Northern Ireland, which I shall draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

My hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) did sterling work in Committee on legislation earlier this year. Now that Stirling is a Labour seat, we are allowed to say that. I agree with him about the importance of a ban on handguns. Like every Member of Parliament, he illustrated the importance of so many of our proposals. We all have a street here or a village there in which the atmosphere of the community has broken down into disorder. That is why the policies that we are adopting--the proposals for community safety orders; the proposals to nip things in the bud with young offenders--are so important.

We heard a maiden speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond), one of eight new Kent Members. Over the years, he has been a distinguished voice, working for equality outside Parliament. He described graphically the concern of his constituents, especially the elderly, about youth crime and disorder. Indeed, I think that he showed the appropriate balance of care and determination to tackle those problems. He has a distinguished record on low pay and poverty, but he also recognises that crime hits the poor even more than the rich, and that the two are not alternatives: both are problems in society that need to be tackled.

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The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe)--a number of Kent Members seem to have taken part in tonight's debate--referred to the return to the Home Office of responsibility for the voluntary sector. I thank him for his kind words. I found his speech entertaining, but slightly barmy. Let me make it clear that it is not for us to tell the voluntary sector what to do; our task is to nurture that sector and work with it. I assure the hon. Gentleman that, far from being inclined to be a dead hand, the Home Office welcomes back responsibilities for the voluntary sector with enthusiasm--an enthusiasm which is felt by those working in the Home Office, as well as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and me.

I must tell the hon. Gentleman--who is clearly developing a massive pessimism--that the reason for that is that the Home Office should not be the Department for doing nasty things to people. It should complement the work of fighting and preventing crime--and doing nasty things to those who need to have nasty things done to them--with the work of rebuilding our damaged communities, and encouraging citizenship through volunteering and voluntary action.

In his engaging way, the hon. Gentleman painted a picture of post-election Britain that I do not recognise. He seems to be suffering from some classic symptoms of depression, but I ask him to look at the faces of people in the streets since Labour won the election. What we see in their faces is a sense of relief and liberation. Far from being a dead hand of puritanism, Labour is a promise to a population who feel released by hope. People are already smiling more under a Labour Government.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) rose--

Mr. Michael: It is a pleasure to give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Duncan Smith: I congratulate the Minister on his appointment. He spoke about hope; his party was supposedly elected on the basis of great hope. One of the Government's targets is to reduce the number of people who are incarcerated. If he has not reduced that number in a year, will he resign?

Mr. Michael: Our aim is to attack crime and its causes so that there are fewer offenders and fewer victims. That is the target. Locking people up when that is necessary is a punishment and protects the public. It is an instrument to give the community the security that people have lacked during 18 years of Conservative rule. I was speaking about the positive side of rebuilding the community, but it seems that the hon. Gentleman does not want to hear about that.

The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent said, pessimistically, that he could see no way in which we could bring unemployed people back into work. He seemed hopeless on that front, but success was being achieved in the late 1970s and into the early 1980s until the destructive force of the Thatcher era destroyed hope and opportunity for young people and, incidentally, made me angry enough to stand for Parliament. In a powerful, short speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Etherington) also emphasised the need to offer hope to young people.

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The hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon), another Kent Member, this time a retread, seems to have learnt nothing during his enforced exile. How on earth can it be social authoritarianism at its worst--which I think were his words--to require parents to meet their responsibilities and help them to be good parents? Do not the Conservatives believe in that? He criticised the Conservative Government for the Children Act 1989 and the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. He said that they were too centralising and state interfering. He deplored the incorporation of the European convention on human rights despite the fact that, as has been said more than once, it was written by a man who became a distinguished Conservative Lord Chancellor. The absurdity of that was highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) in his short but pungent intervention.

By contrast, my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) said that, in effect, he was joining a family business. He told us about his colourful predecessors, Edwina Currie and George Brown. The Chief Whip wants me to inform him that there is no need to keep up that tradition. Wearing such a lurid tie and supporting Gresley Rovers is quite enough, thank you very much.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Dr. Brand) made a thoughtful speech after we ran out of Conservative Members. It is interesting to note that Conservatives who have wandered in lately do not seem to have noticed that the Conservative Benches were virtually empty during large parts of the debate and the party ran out of people who wished to contribute.

My hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Ms Blears) demonstrated her roots in her community and constituency. Hon. Member after hon. Member, and especially my hon. Friends, spoke about the problems of crime and the need to tackle them. They highlighted why this issue is so high on the new Government's agenda.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) made a powerful contribution to the debate. I do not intend to go into the detail of the dispute between members of the previous Government, but the right hon. Lady acknowledged that there is a need for the relationship between Ministers to be sorted out. We take note of what she says, but I can tell the House that a significant step has already been taken by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who has decided that Ministers will take responsibility for answering questions on the Prison Service instead of effectively using officials as scapegoats. I have frequently disagreed with the right hon. Lady on all sorts of issues, but no one could doubt the strength of her conviction or the seriousness of her criticism in today's debate. She criticised the waste involved in the £250,000 cost of sacking Derek Lewis. I reflect merely that local authority councillors would have been surcharged for such behaviour, but the former Home Secretary escaped penalty, at least until today.

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