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5.23 pm

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton): Apart from that final peroration and rant, it is disconcerting to follow so bewilderingly reasonable a speech from the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe).

The right hon. Lady ran amok only once or twice--once when she referred to the wave of violent crime sweeping the country. On that point, it is appropriate to quote from a letter that I received last Friday from the chief constable of Greater Manchester, which dealt with the crime statistics for our area. He stated:

We have experienced not so much a wave of violent crime as a wave of statistical reform. However, I do not blame the right hon. Lady for trying to profit from that. When I was shadow Home Secretary, I used what little ammunition I had at the time--she has even less.

That is further demonstrated by the fact that, in her interesting and, in essence, responsible speech, the right hon. Lady failed to refer to the criminalisation of drug use. We were waiting to hear more from her about her proposals on that matter, because the country took such a keen interest in them when she put them to the Conservative party conference last autumn.

I pay tribute to the police force in general and, in particular, to Greater Manchester police, especially the local police who work in my constituency and are so valued by my constituents. I also pay tribute to the concerned constituents of Gorton and elsewhere who do not simply express an interest in such issues and attend meetings about them, but are willing to have a go against criminals and to provide evidence and act as witnesses when there is such fear of intimidation. I am glad that the Bill will help to reduce the fear of intimidation among those who come forward as witnesses, although some fear will, of course, always exist.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary used the phrase "low-level crime" in his speech, but he was careful to say that, although much of the crime that affects our constituents may be described as such, it nevertheless has a serious effect on their quality of life, and on their sense of being safe in their homes, on the streets, in their neighbourhoods and when going about their lawful occasions.

Statistics can be looked at in many ways. The chief constable of Greater Manchester has been good enough to write to me about the statistics in our area and in the police division that covers my constituency. It is interesting that some of those statistics go against the common perceptions about crime. For example, under this Government, there has been a substantial reduction in the burglary of dwellings in Manchester's C division. There has also been a considerable reduction in vehicle crime. Most of our constituents would not believe that that was so from their experience.

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Given that I have been a victim of burglary and vehicle crime during the past few months, I might contribute my own anecdotal evidence, but the fact is that the police are dealing with such crimes more effectively. The number of offences is falling because being caught is the best deterrent. Of course, we want the number of crimes to fall even further. That will happen, we hope, because despite the statistics offered by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald, the Government have, in fact, given a great deal more money to the Greater Manchester police and the number of police in that force has increased.

I am sure that the chief constable and the men and women who work with him would say that the increase is not enough and that not enough people are being recruited to the force. However, Greater Manchester police has received a 15.6 per cent. increase in finance, and the number of police officers is steadily increasing. The chief constable has told me that the projected force strength for 31 March 2002 is 7,242--an increase of 389 officers since 31 March 2000.

Problems are being tackled, but those efforts do not always succeed by any means, and any hon. Member who is complacent about crime and the resources given to the police to tackle it would be ill serving his or her constituents. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the efforts of the police and the efforts of the Government in backing the police are showing results. We want more. My constituents will judge my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and the Government not only by the legislation that they introduce and the will that they show, but by results and by what happens on their streets and in their neighbourhoods. I know that my right hon. Friend would not wish any other criteria to be used.

Of the many provisions in the Bill, I shall refer to only a handful. It should not need to be said, but I shall make it clear that the overwhelming majority of our fellow citizens not only do not commit crime, but would never dream of committing crime. We are talking about a small number of people whose effect on society is out of all proportion to their number.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald referred to this point, and I very much welcome the provisions that will allow the police to designate those areas where drinking in public places disrupts the community. I often go for a quiet drink in my constituency, but not on a pub crawl; and I never have 14 drinks at one time. Most of the people who drink in pubs simply want a quiet night out and a drink with friends, but there is no doubt that behaviour takes place inside and, more often, outside pubs that disrupts local community life. I very much welcome the measures in the Bill that will enable the police to take a firmer grip of that problem.

The measures will give the police the power to close licensed premises. I hope that they will not have to use the power too often, but I have strongly in mind one pub in my constituency--I could, but will not name it--where the people who live nearby would clamour for such a closure to take place if need be.

I also welcome the Bill's provisions for the protection of witnesses. Some very tough people in my constituency are ready to come forward. For example, Irene Thorp--

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who lives in Craig road, Gorton--is not very tall, but she is a giant in her courage and readiness to combat criminals even though she herself has been violently assaulted. She and other groups of concerned citizens in different parts of my constituency would be assisted if people were able to come forward with greater confidence that they would not be intimidated and that their houses would not be attacked. Therefore, I am very pleased with the measures that will enhance the protection of witnesses.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet): Before my right hon. Friend moves on from the issue of alcohol-related crimes, does he agree that many of them take place not where the alcohol is purchased, but at the sites of others businesses, such as the local kebab shop or taxi rank? The introduction of on-the-spot penalties is important to deal with such crimes.

Mr. Kaufman: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, with one proviso. One stretch in my constituency--it is near where I live--has so many kebab shops that, if there were an outbreak of violence there, we would not be able to contain it however strong the curry. None the less, I agree with my hon. Friend's point.

I welcome another provision that my constituents have asked me for again and again in the meetings about crime that we hold all over the constituency. In that regard, I thank the priest of the Sacred Heart church who makes his church hall available. Numerous requests have been made for the extension of curfews to cover teenagers. The readiness of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to extend curfew provisions to people below the age of 16 will be greatly welcomed. I say again that we want not only the powers but for them to be exercised. I therefore very much welcome the ability of the police, on their own judgment, to impose curfews, if they believe that to be appropriate.

There is one provision among all the others that I welcome and which the police in my area will greatly welcome: clause 128, which requires reasons to be given for granting, as well as for declining to grant, bail. I recently had a meeting with the chief constable of Greater Manchester and Superintendent Brinnand, who is responsible for much of my constituency. The police are frustrated when they take effective and efficient action and get culprits to court, but the courts are excessively lenient not only in sentencing but in the way in which bail is handled. That deeply exasperates the police and therefore those whom they exist to serve. I shall give three examples of the way in which the police in my constituency do their job, but with the best will in the world, the courts are not backing them up as they ought.

I am sorry to say that in certain parts of my constituency large gangs of youths commit numerous violent street robberies and other antisocial offences. In one area, the problem was so serious that the police mounted an expensive operation specifically targeted at a gang of street robbers. Earlier this very month, the police observed four members of the gang assault a lone male and attempt to rob him. The offence was extremely violent and was observed in its entirety by several police officers--bearing out what my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) said. There was no question, therefore, of poor identification.

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All four were charged with assault with intent to rob and remanded in custody until a court hearing was available. Two of the four were bailed by the court and robberies have since continued in the area. Both of those bailed were 21 years of age, with previous convictions for violence, and both are being investigated concerning further robbery offences in the area.

I give another example. A youth, whom one might almost call a child, since he is only 14 years old, is one of the two still in custody for the offence about which I have just talked. He has been arrested for more than 50 offences since 1997, when he committed his first robbery at the age of 11. Most of the offences are street robberies and others violent crimes. Most of them have been committed while he has been on bail. On numerous occasions, he has been remanded in custody or in the care of social services only to be released on bail to commit further offences.

Finally, I refer to another individual, whose name I have. I will not name him; I do not in any way want to violate police activity or any sub judice rule. The man is a prominent member of a gang that has been involved in numerous shooting incidents, including several murders. He was arrested and charged with numerous offences, including conspiracy to supply firearms and drugs, rape and kidnapping. Three female witnesses are under protection such is the danger from him and the gang. He is still being investigated for several murders and shootings. He was remanded in custody by the police but granted bail by a judge in chambers at the end of 2000. He was set stringent bail conditions, none of which he complied with.

Such were the fears of the police that a large police operation was set up to recapture him. He was eventually arrested at a cost of £30,000 of police money. The man remains in custody. He was one of 14 members of his gang who have been arrested and charged with firearms and drug offences since last year. Despite the best efforts of the police, the serious nature of the charges and continuing problems in the area in which the gang was operating, 11 of the 14 gang members, including the man to whom I am referring, were given bail by the courts. Ten remain at large.

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