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We have three main areas of concern. The first relates to what the Bill does not do. That is especially important, because this will certainly be our last opportunity to enact criminal justice legislation in the current Parliament.
The Bill is devoid of measures to tackle the wave of violent crime that is sweeping the country under this Government. It contains little to improve the rights and position of victims in the criminal justice system. [Interruption.] Labour Members think violent crime is funny: perhaps their constituents will note that.
The Bill contains nothing to improve the morale of the police, which is at rock bottom. The Home Secretary--no doubt at the Prime Minister's request--has included what he describes as headline-grabbing measures, but the approach, mirroring that of the Prime Minister, is more spin than substance.
We know from recent events that Ministers cannot remember everything, but the Home Secretary clearly takes pride in his own powers of recall. He will therefore doubtless remember his flagship consultation on the reform of the law against violent crime, a document issued as long ago as February 1998. The Home Secretary cannot claim to have undersold those proposals, describing them at the time as
That brings me to the first major issue in the Bill--fixed-penalty notices, which are there to spare the Prime Minister's blushes after the disastrous reception that his £100 cashpoint fines idea received in July 2000. The House will know that I am not opposed in principle to fixed-penalty notices--
We shall want detailed consideration in Committee of the way in which it is proposed that those fines will operate. In particular--this is our second major concern about the Bill--we must ensure that the system does not add to the bureaucratic burdens on police, and also that it is properly targeted.
Clause 8 appears to require the constable issuing a fixed-penalty notice to take the offender to a police station and provide a full witness statement with that notice, which will obviously have implications for police time. In that respect at least, the proposals are not similar to tickets for minor parking or speeding offences. I know that the Police Superintendents Association and the Police Federation have concerns about that particular point. The Justices' Clerks Society has also highlighted difficulties, not least with identification and the giving of false details to police.
Those are some of the procedural issues that have been raised already about the Bill's contents. How is a police officer going to know whether someone to whom he has given a fixed-penalty notice has had perhaps 10 or a dozen notices issued for the same offence in other parts of the country? Will there be a central record of such notices? What recourse will victims of criminal damage have if offenders are given fixed-penalty notices rather than being prosecuted? Will they still be able to obtain compensation through the courts?
As far as the proposals for alcohol-free zones are concerned, they appear, at first glance, to be little more than an extension of what is available to councils at the moment in the terms of byelaws. I would be grateful for clarification on that point. What is new about this? What is the power that is not already available to councils? We have concerns about the proposed procedures for imposing those bans, which are not specified in the Bill. Would an elected mayor, an individual executive member or even a council official with delegated authority be able to impose such a ban, perhaps by using the "behind closed doors" provisions of the Government's legislation, which encourages more secrecy in local decision making? Surely decisions such as that are best left to an open and accountable forum.
Perhaps the most crucial element in deciding whether or not the measure is effective will be the number of police officers putting it into effect. Given that the chairman of the Police Federation says that there is
Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston): Does the right hon. Lady accept that the experience in my constituency is not that police officers are not present when disorder occurs, but that they do not have the relevant powers to deal with some of these issues? It is primarily not a matter of police numbers but of what officers can do when they come across problems.
Miss Widdecombe: I must disagree with the hon. Lady, although I appreciate what is behind her point. If the police are dealing with one thing, they cannot be dealing with others. I went out recently with police in central London on a Friday night patrol, and the issue was not that they did not have the powers. It was that there were simply so many things that they might have investigated that they had to prioritise because there were too few officers. If extra powers are given to the police, will they be used if there are not enough officers, or if any extra numbers are deploying their time not on the streets, but in bureaucracy at the station? That is a valid point.
Mr. Michael: Does the right hon. Lady acknowledge that the police spend a great deal of time re-dealing with the same issue time and time again because they are not able to nip things in the bud? That is why the targeted
Miss Widdecombe: Theoretically, giving the police extra powers is usually helpful; in fact, it is nearly always helpful. However, the issue is whether there are enough officers and whether they have the time to be able to use their powers effectively. A clear example is the child curfew power; there has not been a single such order in the 28 months that they have been available. Yes, extra activity may be available to the police, but will it be possible, given the numbers we have at the moment?