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9.47 pm

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Marjorie Mowlam): May I echo what other right hon. and hon. Members have said about the excellent maiden speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (Mr. Robertson)? It was very impressive--the content was good, it was well informed and he gave a wonderful performance. I think that the House will hear more from him in the future. We all join him in the tribute that he paid to his predecessor, Donald Dewar, a well-respected man of integrity whom the House misses.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary opened the debate by setting out very clearly what the Government are doing to fight crime and the important legislation proposed in the Gracious Speech to help to achieve that. As a Government, we have always maintained--and this relates to the last point of the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman)--that there are two sides to that coin. We said that we would be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime.

To address some of the causes of crime, we are not only making major investments in policing, CCTV and other crime reduction projects but are putting equal emphasis on a comprehensive programme of action to help communities blighted by crime, unemployment, poverty, poor health and a poor quality of life.

When we came to power in 1997, we faced tremendous challenges. As a result of 18 years of Tory Government, crime had doubled, communities had been ravaged by nearly two decades in which long-term unemployment doubled, homelessness and poverty had more than doubled and child poverty had tripled. It was a poisonous legacy fuelled by serious under-investment in places and in people. Many communities were destroyed--one has only to look at what happened to the mining communities in Yorkshire and elsewhere in the 1980s to realise that that is so.

The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells says that social measures are lacking in the Queen's Speech. Yes, they are, because we are working in parallel. Bills match each other. We have already introduced the new deal. We have provided an extra £5 billion for local authorities to tackle the scandalous housing repair backlog that we inherited. We shall provide an extra £250 million over the next three years to help key workers buy houses in our major towns and cities--houses for nurses, teachers, police officers and others.

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We are starting to rebuild our roads and railways. We have set up the new deal for communities. We have committed £350 million, over three years, to regenerate coalfield communities. I shall not continue the list because it goes on and on, but I have mentioned the things that we are doing. [Hon. Members: "We want more."] We have begun to modernise central and local government and to reform the civil service and service delivery. We have established regional development agencies to drive forward economic growth and regenerate the regions in partnership with local communities.

Many of those threads have been drawn together by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and published in the White Paper on urban policy, "Our Towns and Cities: The Future". We have set explicit targets for improvements in the delivery of those services. To help to take that forward, early next year we shall publish our action plan for neighbourhood renewal, building on months of extensive consultation and discussion.

Hon. Members present in the Chamber tonight will have heard many hon. Members, who are expert in the subject, talk about their local communities and the nature of the problems that they face. That has been reflected in many contributions. I should like to respond to some of the points that have been made. My hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) and for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) agreed that the yob culture must be taken on and that trust must be built between the police and communities to tackle violence and crime where people are threatened.

On curfews, we do not want to discriminate against kids. I was struck by the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central said that he viewed curfews as a child protection proposal, which is a positive and clear way to express it. Curfews are intended to protect children and their communities. They will apply to 15-year-olds and under--children of statutory school age. It is not a blanket proposal. We will not pick every 14 or 15-year-old off the streets.

Curfews will be used by local authorities in conjunction with the police, and they will have to go to the Home Secretary for ultimate authority. They represent a thoughtful way in which to help children who are under threat. Alongside that proposal, we are tough on the causes as well as on the crime. We are helping to keep kids away from crime, with summer schools and youth inclusion schemes, which have cut crime rates and kids have better opportunities as a result.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) argued that we need to achieve sustainable communities and that we need to abolish allocation policies to achieve that. I am pleased to let him know that the Homes Bill, which was presented today, will reform the way in which local authorities allocate housing. The Bill will be published tomorrow.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Mr. Best) was disappointed that the Queen's Speech did not include proposals to license houses in multiple occupation--HMOs, as he referred to them. I am afraid that, unfortunately, we have not found it possible to find time for to license HMOs in this Session, but the Government remain committed to introducing such legislation when parliamentary time allows.

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My hon. Friends the Members for Manchester, Central and for Leeds, North-West, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones), asked whether the Government should look further at licensing landlords in the private rented sector. In the housing Green Paper, which was published in April, we consulted on possible approaches to tackle the worst practices in the private rented sector. We shall announce our conclusions later this week and will then address that issue.

The hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) wanted a draft leasehold reform Bill, and one will be published, as well as the Homes Bill. The hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) suggested in an intervention that we would miss out Committee and Report stages. I assure him that any Bill that the Home Office introduces will be taken through all the relevant stages, as will all the other Bills.

Several hon. Members, including the right hon. and learned Members for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) and for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell), raised the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) (No. 2) Bill, which will benefit victims, and the criminal justice system generally, by ensuring that cases are not delayed and do not waste the time of the Crown court unnecessarily. The right to elect jury trial has been used by many defendants in criminal cases to cause delays in the courts. Research shows that in the majority of cases in which a defendant elects a jury trial he will change his plea from not guilty to guilty once the case goes to the Crown court.

Several Labour Members argued that defendants in Scotland have never had the right to choose which court will try them, and I have never heard anyone in either House of Parliament complain that that has led to inferior justice over the border. Any change of this kind needs to be alive to the need for safeguards. That is why we are providing a right of appeal to a senior judge against decisions by magistrates that they should hear a case.

My hon. Friends the Members for West Ham (Mr. Banks) and for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) spoke of the relationship between crime, drugs and alcohol. I assure both my hon. Friends that we are working hard to do what we can on what is not a short-term problem but a complicated issue. We have programmes on prevention, education and treatment. We need more on that front. We have gone a long way, but we still have an awful long way to go. We are working in Europe and south America to try to stop the supply of drugs, or at least to cut it down. This is not an easy issue, but I can assure those who have expressed concern about the impact of drugs on their communities that we are doing all that we can to ensure that the problem does not get worse. We hope that it will now get better.

The hon. Member for Torbay raised the question of housing legislation. We are grateful for his support for our proposals. The Homes Bill was introduced today and it will be published tomorrow. It will cover issues such as reform of the house-buying system and the strengthening of the safety net for those made homeless. I do not have time to go into detail now, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be satisfied in relation to many of the points that he raised this evening.

Several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), raised the question of police numbers. I shall not go into the arguments that we have already spent some time discussing. Suffice it to say that

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there was agreement that decline has been steady since 1993. It is worth noting what the Police Federation blames for the decline in police numbers. Its chairman, Mr. Fred Broughton, said in 1990:

We have boosted the pay of the 1994 recruits to the Metropolitan police by about £3,500 to compensate for that Tory mistake. More will be given, year on year, to increase police numbers, aiming at an increase of 9,000 over the next three years.

On the points raised about the urban White Paper, I want to make it clear that many of its proposals do not require legislation. For example, new planning guidance, PPG1, new millennium communities, more urban regeneration companies and the £180 billion, 10-year transport plan do not need legislation. We have already legislated in some areas--for example, on the new powers for councils to improve the economic, social and environmental well-being of their areas. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor will introduce--

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