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Miss Widdecombe: Very accurate language.

Mr. Straw: The right hon. Lady says "very accurate" from a position of complete impartiality, but I think that that is for others to judge. Time and again, her rhetoric, and that of her party, is belied by her actions. We saw that only too clearly on asylum, where Conservative Members' publicly stated approach was belied by what they did on the civil penalty for hauliers and by their support of the retention of cash benefits for all asylum seekers. We have seen it on the mode of trial, where the Opposition appear to believe that the interests of the law-abiding public are best served by persistent offenders working the system by insisting on a jury trial against the decision of an independent court. We have also seen it on

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anti-social behaviour orders, which the Conservatives have pledged to tear up, despite increasing evidence of their effectiveness.

Mr. Clappison rose--

Mr. Howard rose--

Mr. Straw: I will give way in a moment.

Only last week, Conservative Front Benchers in the other place voted against the benefit changes that we are putting in place to ensure that community punishments are better enforced.

Mr. Howard: The Home Secretary seems to have left the subject of custody orders and imprisonment--he may even conceivably be in the middle of his peroration--but I hope that he will not sit down without answering the questions that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) asked about the 4,000 prison places identified by the Prime Minister. We are keen to know about them and whether the Home Secretary agrees with the Prime Minister's figure. Are there 4,000 prison places?

Miss Widdecombe: Where are they?

Mr. Howard: Indeed, as my right hon. Friend asks, where are they?

Mr. Straw: The right hon. and learned Gentleman probably knows better than I do that the right hon. Lady asks so many questions that it is never possible to answer them all at the same time. I had forgotten about that particular question, but the answer is already on the record in the prison service projections. The current prison population is about 65,000 and the capacity is about 69,000--the difference is 4,000. The reason for that change is partly the effect of the home detention curfew, which has reduced the prison population by about 2,000.

Mr. Howard: Will the Home Secretary give way?

Mr. Straw: No, I will not.

The other aspect of that is the effectiveness of the Narey changes, which have made a considerable difference.

Mr. Howard rose--

Mr. Straw: I shall give way to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for the last time in a moment, but now I shall answer his first question. The Narey changes have made a difference of about another 2,000 places.

Mr. Howard: I am grateful to the Home Secretary, who has been generous in giving way, but I am sure that he would like to deal with the question on the basis of the facts. According to Home Office figures, at the end of April this year--I do not imagine that the position has been transformed as dramatically as the Prime Minister might think since then--the prison population exceeded certified normal accommodation by 1,200.

Mr. Straw: The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that the so-called certified normal capacity has usually been exceeded. For example, it was exceeded by 4,500 in the year in which he was Home Secretary.

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What is crucial is the usable operational capacity, which the Conservatives always took account of--[Interruption.] Of course, it depends what is meant by overcrowding. As everybody knows, there is a grave distinction between so-called certified normal capacity, which is now 62,300--the prison population is some 65,000--and the usable operational capacity, which is 69,000. That is the difference.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Straw: I have spoken for 45 minutes. I know that a number of right hon. and hon. Members wish to speak, but--

Mr. Clappison: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way on this point?

Mr. Straw: Oh, come on then.

Mr. Clappison: The Home Secretary brought up the question of mode of trial. May I gently suggest to him that, on this matter, consistency may not be his strongest suit? Can he name one thing that has changed since 1997, when he described the proposal that he is now bringing forward on mode of trial as wrong, short-sighted and likely to prove ineffective?

Mr. Straw: One thing that has changed in my mind--I am sure that we do not want a full debate on this matter, but I have been over it in great detail--is the introduction in legislation of a full right of appeal, so that the final decision will be made by a Crown court judge.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald began her speech by commenting on our record on crime. Crime today is still lower than it was in 1997, and that record compares extremely well with any previous post-war Government, particularly post-war Conservative Governments. Crime is down: home break-ins are down by a fifth and car crime has fallen by 15 per cent. Compare that with the indelible record of the Conservatives, under which crime doubled in their 18 years in office, while the number of people convicted of those crimes fell by a third.

We are delivering the most radical reform of our youth justice system in 50 years and are on track to deliver our pledge to halve the time that it takes to process persistent young offenders through the courts. We are getting on top of the long-term trend in crime--in very sharp contrast to the Conservatives' record. While the Opposition rant, we deliver. I ask the House to support the amendment.

4.48 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): This is an important debate. The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) reminded us, however, that it has a comic side, which was portrayed by the splendid article in yesterday's News of the World about a man from Bridgnorth, Mr. Tony Higgins, who hopped off to the pub

The article was entitled "Out on a Limb".

The subplot to today's debate is that, twice in four days on law and order policy and criminal justice policy, it is the Prime Minister who is out on a limb. Without talking

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to the Home Office, he first announces a new sort of offence whereby people get marched off to the cashpoint, and then cites spare prison capacity. If one tries very hard, as the Home Secretary was doing at the end of his speech, one can almost justify the Prime Minister's figures, but they are inconsistent with all the figures used in recent times. I hope that one lesson that has been learned in Downing street in the past few days is that it is as dangerous for Prime Ministers to make policy on the hoof as it is for leaders of the Tory party. I also hope that we shall see a reduction in that sort of policy making by both.

I gather that the Government fixed some time ago what they now call the crime summit. Even over the weekend, the terminology changed--one newspaper called it a convention and it had become a seminar by this morning.

The Conservative party has understandably chosen to use an Opposition Day debate to highlight the early release of prisoners. The Prime Minister responds by announcing in Germany his policy for dealing with thugs, then the police spend the weekend saying what a silly idea it is.

All that apart, we are glad that at last violent crime and the influence of alcohol on violent crime is on the agenda. Ever since I took over this job, I have repeatedly asked that we prioritise that problem. We have spent a lot of time in this Parliament talking about the effect of the misuse of drugs on crime and have spent far too little time discussing the effects of the misuse of alcohol, and I am glad that we are correcting that imbalance.

I hope that we are learning how to make better policy on difficult issues such as sentencing and penal policy. The right way to create policy in a democracy is fairly well established. The Government should establish what research has been carried out, and if there is not enough they should commission it. They should discuss possible ways forward with people who know what they are talking about. They should seek the advice of colleagues in Parliament across the parties who have relevant experience and interest, and a desire to express their view--we have the Select Committee system for that. They should have a discussion with the political parties. When they are ready and have tested the ideas they should legislate. Careful legislation after careful deliberation often produces good results. The experience of all of us who have been in the House any length of time is that hasty legislation after little or no deliberation is often useless and not used either.

I gently suggest to the Prime Minister that it is usually a good idea to have a discussion with the experts before announcing policy proposals, rather than announce policy proposals and talk to the experts afterwards. We should now get rid of this new item on the agenda, because new offences and new punishments--let alone offences and punishments for which the same person arrests, charges, tries and finds the accused guilty--require careful political consideration, especially if they go in a direction in which we have not gone before.

Like others, I have looked back to see how much Home Office law and order legislation there has been over the years since the Home Secretary and I entered the House. Although this year is a bumper year for Home Office initiatives, some of which are understandable and entirely appropriate--I think that there have been more than in any other year--there has not been a year since we entered Parliament without many Home Office Bills. That does

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not mean to say that they have always been successful, lasting or good. When I consider the legislation that has been passed and look back over the press coverage and ministerial speeches, I see that the road of law and order policy has been littered with failed criminal justice initiatives launched sometimes with good and sometimes with less honourable intentions. We need to stand back from all that.

Today's debate is the first debate we have had this year on penal policy. That is a wider issue than the early release of prisoners. I want to flag up five issues that Parliament should address once a year more coherently and better than we do at the moment.

We should discuss how to reduce criminality--the propensity to crime. My hon. Friends and I believe that the initiative that the Government announced today is a good one. We should provide young people with constructive activity so that they are not bored and thus prone to criminality, which they may otherwise not get into. The more the youth service, schools, the education and training system and the Employment Service can do, the more positive the role young people can play in the community, and the more likely it is that they will not commit offences. I commend the Youth Justice Board's initiative, and the Government's and the Prime Minister's support for it.

We should have a debate about how to prevent crime and detect crime. They are two separate parts of the process. We should have a debate about clearing up crime. We had a debate in the House recently, in which we highlighted the fact that there are only three convictions or cautions for every 100 British crime survey registered offences. The last debate we should have is the one we are having today about how to reduce reoffending, including how effective punishment is and what punishment works. Unless we try coherently and regularly to consider all those five issues, we are unlikely to have a more orderly and less criminal society.

We are happy that the Conservatives have chosen this subject for debate. It is a perfectly proper issue to consider, but I wish it had been a wider debate on penal policy. I hope that we can have that wider debate later in the parliamentary year.

The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 for the first time permitted home detention curfews. That Act became law two years ago this month, although it was another six months before home detention curfews were permitted as a result of the phased implementation of the legislation. It is entirely proper for us to review how it has worked 18 months or two years later, and we welcome the opportunity to do so. To their credit, Conservative Front Benchers--notably the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington)--have tabled numerous questions about the issue, and the Government have supplied answers without seeking to hide the facts.

We should review regularly all five priority areas--the effectiveness in reducing the propensity to crime, in preventing crime, in detecting crime, in clearing up crime and in reducing reoffending. The more we can do that on the basis of the evidence, the better.

Let me say something about an issue that is relevant to the set of factors that put people in prison in the first place. I said a word or two about the need to reduce the

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propensity to crime; let me now say a topical word about reducing crime itself--preventing crime. Perhaps at this very minute, chief police officers are having tea with the Prime Minister up the road. It is to their credit that, ever since the Government were elected and before, they have kept on saying that they need enough colleagues to do the job. Whatever else we do later in the cycle of criminal justice measures, we need to ensure that the police service is adequate to prevent crime in the first place.

When anti-social behaviour takes place on a Friday night outside a pub in Brent, Southwark or anywhere else in the country, the lay person can do some things and the publican can do others, but if crime is to be prevented there must be enough police patrolling the streets. I hope--as do my colleagues, whether their seats are in the north-west, the south-east or anywhere else--that, when the Chancellor announces his comprehensive spending review conclusions later this month, we shall find that representations made by the Home Office, Opposition Members and the police themselves have been heeded. I hope that there will then be enough in the kitty to allow the police to recruit the number of full-time, retained part-time or special police to do the job--if they can recruit them, of course. That is a separate issue.

New York's policing has been more successful recently, and people apparently feel more confident in Paris than in London, because--as the Minister will note from the figures--those cities have considerably larger police forces than our capital has. Of course, more police do not necessarily mean less crime; but, as I have said before in this place, I have never heard anyone argue that fewer police provide a better chance of preventing crime.

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