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Mr. Straw: I know of the right hon. Lady's anxiety to start ranting, but will she hang on for one second? Despite the fall that occurred in the last two years of the Major Administration, all the evidence which has been published was that crime was likely to rise if we did not do something about it. I am pleased to say that we have done something about it.
Miss Widdecombe: Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm the following facts: over the last four years of the previous Conservative Administration, recorded crime fell by 16 per cent., and on the same measurement, the latest fall in crime is only 0.2 per cent? Could he listen? Since he is so fond of the British crime survey, will he please confirm that the fall measured by the most recent survey is less than that measured by the previous survey? Whereas we left steeper falls, he has presided over at best a slowing up and at worst a reverse.
Mr. Straw: I am answering the question. The right hon. Lady asks a question, usually at great length, and before one has the chance even to take a breath, she always twitters, "Answer the question." She sometimes may not like the answers, but I always do my best to answer the questions put to me--especially if I can follow them.
We are about a major programme of reform and investment in the criminal justice system in order to ensure that the progress that we have made--as I say, crime is still far too high--continues at a greater pace.
We are investing 20 per cent. in cash terms over the next three years--a real increase of 12 per cent.--in policing. It will be the greatest increase for 15 years. However, with that investment, we need reform. The goal behind the Bill is to strengthen and to modernise law enforcement. The Bill contains a wide range of measures that will provide the police and others in the criminal justice system with improved powers to enable them better to enforce the law and to protect the public.
Part I deals with one of the most unpleasant aspects of modern life--the antisocial behaviour of a yobbish minority, which can all too often impinge on the quality of life of the law-abiding majority.
The Bill gives the police new powers to issue penalty notices for a number of offences which are antisocial and which in some cases make life decidedly unpleasant for others. These offences, which are set out in the Bill, include being drunk and disorderly, and wasting the emergency services' time by making fraudulent 999 calls. Part I also targets the misuse of alcohol, especially by young people, in our society. The Bill includes a series of measures that will make it easier for local authorities to ban drinking in designated areas where it causes public nuisance or annoyance. These measures will give the police the necessary enforcement powers.
There are examples of innovative local authorities--not least Coventry and Liverpool--that have made use of existing byelaw powers to ban on-street drinking. However, as I discovered when I received representations about 18 months ago from an individual police officer who is responsible for drafting byelaws, the current process for obtaining clearance is rather convoluted.
We have therefore sought to establish a clear framework of powers that devolves decisions to local authorities. They will not have to go backwards and forwards to the Home Office to check whether the drafting is in order. If they wish in this context to designate an area within their town or city centre and to make use of on-street alcohol bans, they will be able to do so without going through the bureaucracy of coming back to the Home Office. I think that that will be widely welcomed.
Mr. Straw: That is an absurd remark. The use of antisocial behaviour orders is working in my constituency, as it is in Hyndburn and Preston. More than 150 orders have been issued in large cities and in smaller shire districts. The hon. Gentleman asked a more serious question when we last debated ASBOs. Some local authorities said, "We cannot use them because they involve the criminal process." The Lord Chief Justice-- I took the trouble to write to the hon. Gentleman about the decision--has made it clear in an important judgment of the divisional court that the process for obtaining antisocial behaviour orders is, as Parliament intended, a civil process, and one which is there to be used.
Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth): At a conference that I chaired and at which my hon. Friend the Minister of State spoke the other week, the enthusiasm of people within the system--the police, local authorities and others--for getting on with the job and using the tools provided in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 was palpable. People were keen to understand why antisocial behaviour orders had not been sufficiently used, and recognised that they now need to be used properly.
There are new provisions to deal with under-age drinking, which require those selling alcohol to check the age of young people who may be, or appear to be, under 18. The police and local authorities will also be permitted to use young people to test-purchase to check that the law is being obeyed.
Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): I want to ask the Home Secretary about test purchases. Many of my constituents feel that under-age drinking is fuelling much of the yob behaviour in my constituency. Just how soon will the police and trading standards officers have those new powers to authorise test purchases?
Mr. Straw: As soon as the Bill goes on the statute book, which I very much hope will be within a matter of months. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. There is little doubt in my mind that much--although not all--of the serious antisocial behaviour that takes place in our
Measures aimed at ensuring responsible behaviour by those selling alcohol will extend to all those working in pubs, rather than simply the licensee. I shall give way to the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins).