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It is our strong belief that, under the current mode of trial system, many defendants who are almost certainly guilty never get to trial. As anyone who is familiar with the magistrates courts or the Crown court knows, the offences involved are typically regarded as too trivial for the Crown court. Many Crown court judges have written to me to assert that point. Such cases often drop off the list or a bind-over is accepted at Crown court.
As we are talking about a change for the future, it is difficult to calculate with any precision how many more defendants are likely to be convicted. On the best judgment available, I contend that more defendants who are guilty would be convicted and would probably plead guilty at an earlier stage, to the huge convenience of victims. There is no evidence to suggest that magistrates are less capable than the Crown court of coming to a just decision on relatively simple issues.
At the general election, we wrote our manifesto against the background of a doubling of crime under the Conservative party. We are now delivering on the commitments that we made. We were committed to a root-and-branch reform of the youth justice system, which the previous Administration had left in decay. We promised to halve, within five years, the time that it takes to get persistent young offenders from arrest to sentence. When he was Home Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) described that as undeliverable, yet we have already reduced the average time by seven weeks and we are on target to meet that promise.
We promised to replace repeat cautions with a single final warning, to establish youth offending teams, to streamline youth courts and to create new parenting orders. All those measures are working successfully.
We promised to decentralise the Crown Prosecution Service. The previous Government introduced a fundamentally flawed CPS system in 1985. We promised to provide tougher punishment for repeat violent and sex offenders, and greater protection for victims and witnesses in court. All those things have been done.
The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald asked me about victims. Since we took office, the grant to the victim support scheme has increased by 50 per cent. and there are now witness services in all Crown courts, as there will shortly be in all magistrates courts. That is what we are doing for victims. We are not just talking about victims; we are acting on their behalf. Victims impact statements will be introduced next year. The latest report from the British crime survey indicates that victimisation levels are at their lowest since 1983.
We promised to get tough on anti-social behaviour and to introduce anti-social behaviour orders. More than 140 are in place and, with the support of police and councils, are working well. Many more are in the pipeline. Police officers have told me that in, for example, the London borough of Islington--I could cite many other
Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury): The clerk to the justices at Banbury has told the local superintendent of police and the chief executive of the district council that, unless an ASBO is applied for in respect of a persistent offender, his advice to the justices is that they should not grant it, as that would be in breach of the human rights legislation. As a consequence, not a single ASBO has been applied for or granted in north Oxfordshire. I merely ask the Home Secretary and his officials to investigate why clerks to the justices, who I am sure seek to do an honourable job, seem to be so confused by guidance that I suspect was issued by the Home Office.
Mr. Straw: I apologise for not being familiar with the magistrates in north Oxfordshire on a personal level, but it seems that they have misdirected themselves. The advice is clear. I believe that the Lord Chief Justice delivered a judgment only last week or the week before, the details of which I shall be happy to give the hon. Gentleman. The court, quite properly, concluded that the procedure for obtaining an ASBO was a civil procedure, and was not affected by the claims made by the applicants--in respect of article 6 of the European convention on human rights--that it was a criminal procedure.
I suggest that the clerks to the justices and the police and local authorities look carefully at the protocol on application for ASBOs, which we drew up--or others drew up on our behalf--very carefully with the Justices Clerks Society, the Magistrates Association and others. That protocol is being applied very helpfully.
By definition, a new order means that people must do things that they have not done before; but where ASBOs are being used, they are being used successfully. They have certainly been used successfully in my constituency, and in Preston, where three have been made, they have helped to reduce crime and persistent disorder to an extent that earlier measures did not achieve.
There was another promise in our manifesto--interestingly, not a word was said about it--that we said we would implement, and we have done so. We promised to create new offences of racial harassment and racially motivated violence. To their great shame, the Conservatives rejected those proposals in government; they specifically voted them down. Yet, after all their mocking of child curfews--I could parry that by citing any number of measures to deal with offences created when the right hon. Lady and the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) were in office, which have not been used at all--the new offences of racial harassment and racially motivated violence had led to 921 convictions by the end of last year alone. They have been hugely important in ensuring that, at last, we give members of the black and Asian communities some confidence that, where they are subject to vile crimes of racial harassment and racially motivated violence, they can get redress.
We promised tough action on drugs through new drug treatment and testing orders, which again were dismissed by the previous Administration. They are now in place. The number of prisoners testing positive for drugs has almost halved from about a quarter in 1996-97 to 12.5 per cent. this October.
One reason why the programme--yes, crime and disorder is still too high--is working is that we are tackling not only crime and disorder itself but something that the Conservatives did not even understand, still less deal with: the causes of crime. We are taking action to deal with the immediate and the underlying causes of crime. We are dealing with the immediate causes of crime through our crime reduction programme and the new deal, which, as my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer often said when we were in opposition, is as much an anti-crime policy as it is an economic policy. That has helped to halve long-term unemployment among the young.
If we want to stop someone offending it is critical that we provide that person with the prospect of a job at some speed. The right hon. Lady witters on about prisons. I do not think that she wants to go too much into her record on prisons. Otherwise, I will remind her of her complacency when pregnant women prisoners were chained to radiators. I remember, too, in early 1996, her wriggling for two weeks trying to defend the indefensible. Her right hon. and learned so-called Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe had to come to the House to bail her out of that huge embarrassment.
Miss Widdecombe: Will the right hon. Gentleman remember the ending of slopping out? Will he remember that purposeful activity rose to a peak under the previous Government and has been declining ever since under his Government? Will he confirm that slopping out has returned in some prisons, that the suicide rate has risen and that purposeful activity has declined? His record is generally one of complete shame on that issue.
Mr. Straw: I think that the right hon. Lady was a bit hyperbolic at the end, but, on the implementation of the Woolf recommendations, which go back to Lord Hurd, progress was made when she was at the Home Office, but she is remembered distinctively not for progress on the Woolf reforms but for, in a completely bone-headed way, seeking to defend the indefensible and allowing pregnant women prisoners to be chained to radiators. Instead of saying that that was a disgrace, she came to the House to defend it.
What we are doing, which the right hon. Lady failed to tackle, is to ensure that prisoners are properly educated. Three quarters of prisoners are educated to below level 2. They cannot get 95 per cent. of jobs, which require a basic minimum of education. We are putting that education in--