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Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham): May I say to the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir P. Beresford) that I do not intend to rise to some of his more controversial comments about the GLC? I merely point out that its abolition was opposed consistently by a great majority of Londoners; it was an act of political vandalism that owed everything to ideology and nothing to the sort of local government efficiencies about which he was talking.

I welcome the proposals on home affairs in the Gracious Speech. Many political journalists mocked the legislative programme that we have introduced, but I would expect them to do so. Most political journalists have no great connection with the realities of street life, such as that in the area of London that I represent. Indeed, the most dangerous thing that most political journalists experience is being hit by a wayward champagne cork at a good dinner.

I listened to yesterday's statement by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on the Nice summit. There has been enormous concentration--on television and in the media--on the euro, national vetoes and qualified majority voting, which are all very significant subjects. However, not one person has ever stopped me on the streets of West Ham to talk about national vetoes, the euro or QMV. They are not subjects of debate for my constituents. I am not saying that they are unimportant, but they are not the kind of thing about which the people whom I represent are overly concerned. That is not surprising. When I listened to the Leader of the Opposition yesterday, even he did not seem to know what those issues were all about. That was certainly the impression that he gave. Those are not the issues discussed by the people I mix with in the pubs in my constituency.

Much of the talk in my constituency is about the very issues that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary referred to in his speech. I want the Labour party to make law and order a central part of our election strategy. Of course it will be electorally popular because it is socially necessary. Any party that could guarantee safe streets would win an election hands down. However, it is not possible to give a cast-iron guarantee of safe seats [Hon. Members: "Safe streets."] Yes, safe streets, but I am very glad to say that I have a safe seat. I hope that all my colleagues feel the same about their constituencies. They certainly look safer by the day, when we consider the performance of the Leader of the Opposition.

There are many things that we can do to make our streets safer, such as providing more police, more CCTV cameras, more information hotlines and, of course, better street lighting. However, the most important thing that we need to do is to mobilise our local communities. Peer pressure is the strongest pressure needed to cut crime in our areas.

I have not lost sight of the need to deal with the causes of crime. There is little point in addressing the symptoms and ignoring the causes. However, I must make an important point. One understands that unemployment, poor education, bad housing and a lack of facilities can generate crime, but none of those factors excuses crime.

I had a pretty bad experience in my constituency recently. It was certainly the most dangerous--although not the first--incident that has happened to me in 17 years of representing the area. Ironically, it took place on the

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eve of the "Respect" campaign that was being launched by the local authority in Forest Gate. Indeed, it is a very good local authority, which was voted council of the year in 2000. If the incident demonstrated anything, it was that there is a need for respect on the streets of Forest Gate--certainly, as far as the local Member is concerned.

As I left Forest Gate station, I was trailed by four yobs who assaulted me. A knife was held in my side and I was robbed. At that point, I did not want to hear about their personal problems or to be told that they were the real victims. What I wanted was a posse of police to come screaming down the road to give them all a good truncheoning. Unfortunately, that did not happen and I was deprived of 50 or 60 quid. I was, and remain, very angry, but I am looking on the bright side--at least I will not have to canvass those yobs; I have worked out that I can mark them down as Labour doubtfuls, assuming that we ever find out where they live.

The incident received a great deal of national publicity because it involved a Member of Parliament. If that helps the community and the authorities to focus attention on the problems of street safety, it will have been a worthwhile experience, but not one that I would wish to repeat every week. The reaction to my experience was interesting. All too many of my constituents have had similar experiences, but they do not get the coverage that I received. A large number of people have written to me, sent me cards and stopped me on the street to express concern. Every child in a class in Selwyn road primary school, which I had recently visited, wrote me a lovely letter with a picture. It was very touching. Interestingly, the letters revealed that one in three of all those kids in a primary school in the east end had experienced a similar incident through a member of their family.

We have to wake up to that fact. Such a crime focuses the attention of people who have experienced it. I exchanged a few jokes with Harry Redknapp, the manager of West Ham, when he saw me coming out of the ground. He asked whether I wanted him to walk me home so that I would be safe. I said, "I think I can survive, Harry. I might run into a few Chelsea supporters, so it's best you don't walk with me." Then he said, "My mother is frightened to go out after dark." When it gets dark at a quarter to four in the afternoon, many of our elderly citizens are imprisoned indoors. That is an appalling indictment of what is happening in our communities.

The response and follow-up actions of the police at Forest Gate and Plaistow stations were superb, but the uncomfortable fact remains that in an area such as mine, the police simply do not have the resources to deal with the amount of street crime that they face. It is not a party political issue; it should unite us across the whole House because all our communities suffer from the effects of street crime.

I asked for a snapshot of an eight-hour period of duty in Newham in my constituency for Friday 8 December. There were three unexpected deaths--a two-day-old baby was found in Newham college and the bodies of a 17-year-old and a 20-year-old were found within three hours in Winsor terrace in south Newham--and a security guard was stabbed in McDonald's on Barking road. Those events were in addition to normal policing. There were also seven robberies, a number of burglaries and 45 motor offences in those 24 hours, and there have been 24 murders in Newham since December 1999.

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Having said that, it is interesting to see that crime in Newham is falling this year as a result of close co-operation between the London borough of Newham, the police and local communities. However, as the regeneration of the community is extended through City airport, the Exel exhibition centre and the new university, more demands will be put on our police force. The Home Office must recognise that. On the current method of allocation, we are 70 police officers short and the force is desperately trying to recruit.

The vast majority of my constituents are decent and law-abiding, but there is a sizeable number of criminals and anti-social yobs who must be dealt with. I know that I speak with the full authority of the great majority of my decent constituents in the east end in saying that we want the Government to pursue their initiatives and to ensure that the police are given adequate resources in order to turn such good initiatives into reality on the ground. We can pass as many laws and initiate as many different schemes as we like, but unless we give the police resources to effect those laws and schemes, we shall leave ourselves open to ridicule and criticism.

I should like to make two suggestions in conclusion. First, I believe that most street crime is associated with drugs. It is so easy to get drugs on the streets of my constituency. People are openly rolling spliffs on street corners. I have consistently argued that the war against drugs is simply not being won. If a strategy for war is not working, it is best to try to change that strategy rather than persist with it. I firmly believe that we should decriminalise the personal use of cannabis and set up a commission of inquiry into the legalisation of all drugs. [Interruption.] It is an interesting and controversial point, but we should at least be prepared to consider it. If we were to decriminalise certain categories of drugs, it would lead to the most dramatic fall in criminal activity in this country in peacetime.

Secondly, we in this House do not fully understand the yob culture. Many factors have led to the yob mentality, and they are attitudinal as well as social. We should consider a compulsory scheme of national community service. I shall develop that point at some other time--obviously, not in this debate. I have not turned into some Colonel Blimp from Tunbridge Wells, I just think that we should look radically at what is going on in our society and come up with some radical solutions.

8.47 pm

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks). Either he is getting wiser in his old age or I am going soft in the head, because I confess that I agreed with a great deal of what he said. It is refreshing for a Member to bring original thinking and some passion to the House. We all share in his tribulation with the yobs. He experienced what so many of our fellow citizens have had to put up with, and I salute his courage.

I know that others want to speak, so I shall try to be brief. I want to make three key points. The first does not concern the principal subject that we are debating, but we are entitled in debates on the Queen's Speech to discuss other matters. I want to put on record that I am concerned about the proposal in the Gracious Speech that

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I turn to the issues specifically before us. The Home Secretary tried to paint far too rosy a picture of the Government's achievements since the election. The figures do indeed speak for themselves. I cannot conceive how the Government can possibly hope to present a credible picture on police recruitment. The Home Secretary told us earlier that he wants 9,000 extra police by 2003. However, on the basis of figures with which he has provided us, we are already 2,700 or 3,000 short, so reaching the figure that he suggests does not seem realistic. Even if we were to recruit such numbers, where would we find the capacity to train them? I believe that the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer), has heard from the Manchester area, whose bid for 30 recruits was cut back because training places are not available. It is therefore not possible to achieve those figures.

My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) spoke about difficulties, and I wish to draw the attention of the House to those faced in Hampshire, which are the same as those in the Thames valley and Oxfordshire. Recently, there was a meeting of 700 members of the Police Federation in Winchester guildhall, about which Alan Gordon, the chairman of the Hampshire Police Federation said:

Mr. Gordon was referring to the Hampshire force, which is 80 under strength. I dare say that the money is there, but the force cannot obtain the men to do the job. So far this year, 96 officers have resigned, against an expected target of 70. The chairman of the Hampshire Police Federation reported that nearly 130 officers were on long-term sick leave, which is an increase of more than 20 per cent. on last year's figure, and a further 120 officers were on restricted duties. As Mr. Gordon said, those figures amounted to nearly 10 per cent. of the force being unavailable for front-line duties before taking account of annual leave, rest days and court attendance.

Throughout the land, the police force is in crisis. It is no good the Home Secretary coming here and telling us what a fantastic job the Government have done because that has not been reflected on the ground, as one Member after another has testified. The hon. Member for West Ham said that he needed a load of bobbies to come to his rescue, as does every other victim of crime. However, they are simply not available. From everything that I have been told by Norman Brennan of the Victims of Crime Trust and the chairman of the Hampshire Police Federation, there is no doubt that morale is at rock bottom. It is partly a question of pay, and partly one of conditions. No fewer than 60 police officers in Hampshire have

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decided against making contributions to their pension funds because they cannot make ends meet if they commit themselves to making those payments.

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