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Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth): I welcome the emphasis on victims in the Home Secretary's statement. Does he agree that many communities throughout the country experience the occasional relief of seeing an individual or a small group of people consigned to prison and a consequent reduction in crime in their area, but fear a fresh wave of crime when those people emerge from prison? Does he agree that the strong message must be, first, that if people reoffend, punishment will be strict and will follow quickly; and secondly, that there will be the hope of rehabilitation--not least through a job--for those who chose an alternative way of proceeding?
Mr. Straw: I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. We have to tackle the causes of crime. We have to provide convicted offenders with a better opportunity to get out of their life of crime, but as my right hon. Friend makes clear, we must also raise the game against persistent criminals. That is what we propose to do by ensuring effective supervision of short-sentence prisoners.
The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) asked me about the number of prisoners who were released early. Last year, 95,000 prisoners were released early under her sentencing legislation.
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): No Opposition party can fail to welcome a Government who take an interest in trying to deal with crime and its causes--to that extent the Home Secretary's statement is welcome. However, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the launch of the plan comes after we have followed a four-year road that has been paved with failed intentions and full of falsely raised expectations? The Labour party still has a long way to go before it can persuade people throughout the country that it is effective in dealing either with crime or with the causes of crime.
On the deterrence and detection of crime, will the Home Secretary admit that it was a terrible mistake to let police numbers fall by 2,500 over the past two years? There should be a target, with a Government guarantee, that, within a few years at most, there will be no community in the country that does not have enough police officers to do the job.
On conviction rates and the prevention of reoffending, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we must do much better than we have done over the past year, when convictions dropped by 60,000? We must do much better on constructive activity in prison than at Pentonville, which he visited this morning, where such activity dropped from 24 to 20 hours a week under the previous Tory Government, and from 20 to 17 hours a week under the Labour Government. There should be a guarantee that every prisoner--not just young offenders--will have a full working week of constructive activity with, in addition, a full system of continuing rehabilitation for as long as they need it when they leave prison.
On victims, especially the victims of the alcohol and drug-related offences that are such a terrible scourge, will the Home Secretary reconsider the Government's refusal thus far to accept the establishment of a permanent advisory body, like a royal commission, on the abuse of alcohol and drugs? Victims should have the right not only to give written statements--that is welcome--but to appear before the court after conviction and before sentence if they choose to do so. Such initiatives would be much more effective than either the gimmick of curfews or the attempt to get rid of the right to choose jury trial on which the liberties of many people depend.
Mr. Straw: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his constructive approach to the proposals. I do not accept what he says about our record. He would be hard-pressed to find another incoming Administration in the past 50 years who have had a better record in reducing crime. Crime increased by 40 per cent. in the first three and a half years of the Major Administration and by 20 per cent. in the first three and a half years of the Thatcher Administration, but in the first three and a half years of the Blair Administration, crime has decreased by between seven and 10 per cent. That is the truth of our record.
I regret the fact that police numbers had fallen until about a year ago, just as I regret the fact that they fell, from 1993, under the previous Administration. However, I regret very much more the fact that there were boom-and-bust policies in place that would have led, and would have continued to lead, to an even larger reduction in police numbers under the previous Administration's published spending plans. That is the truth, and the simple fact is that we have put more money into the police service than the previous Administration had planned to do. In many cases, chief constables chose to spend the money in other ways, and the number of civilian officers has increased by 1,000 while the number of uniformed officers had decreased by 2,500, but that is now turning around. There is a 75 per cent. increase in the number of new recruits going to the training schools, and the number of police officers will rise to record levels within two to three years.
I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman is correct to say that convictions dropped by 40,000. The figures, which I looked at this morning, show that convictions increased from 300,000 in 1996 to about 340,000 last year.
We want a clearer definition of purposeful activity. At the moment, it includes, for example, time spent seeing visitors, which is important but does not stop people reoffending. We are doubling the number of places in education available to prisoners and doubling the number of opportunities for prisoners to go straight from prison to work, and I think that that will work.
The hon. Gentleman is right to talk about the problems of alcohol abuse. I do not think that a royal commission would solve that problem at the moment, but I am willing to consider the matter. I believe that, although people are increasingly aware of the problems of hard drug abuse in this country, we are only beginning to understand how serious is alcohol abuse, which is linked not only to violent crime, but to many other crimes. We are doing a lot in the Criminal Justice and Police Bill, which is currently before Parliament, but I know that there is a lot more that we should do.
Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton): Will my right hon. Friend tell the House more about the plans to deal with those who reoffend and commit further crimes when out on bail--a matter of intense frustration to the police in Greater Manchester? Is he aware that the Greater Manchester police--whose numbers have risen, are rising and are programmed to rise still further--are being caused great offence by posters scattered around Manchester from the Conservative party that describe the police as paper shufflers? Given that civilianisation has reached 90 per cent. among the Greater Manchester police, is it not time that the Conservative party supported the police instead of insulting them?
Mr. Straw: Yes, I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. Only last week I had the privilege of discussing the problems, especially that of bail bandits, with Mr. David Wilmott, the chief constable of Greater Manchester, and his colleagues. I am pleased to say that, last weekend, the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) announced changes, which will be included in the Criminal Justice and Police Bill, to make it easier for courts to place on remand young offenders who break their bail. That is long overdue. We strongly support the change, which is suggested in "Criminal Justice: The Way Ahead", to the way in which the Bail Act 1976 is drafted so that there should be a presumption against bail wherever bail or its conditions are broken. My right hon. Friend and I hear far too many stories from police officers about cases where courts have granted bail--often on certain conditions--but where, when the offender has been brought back before the court for breaching those conditions, instead of immediately remanding him into custody, which is where he should be, the court has either continued the bail with conditions or, in far too many extraordinary cases, has abandoned the bail conditions altogether. That is simply an invitation to those offenders to continue spree offending, and it must be ended. That requires changes to the law, but we already expect changes in practice by the courts.
I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton about paper shuffling. The police do not take kindly to the near insult that they have received from the Conservative party about their work. The simple truth is that, under our Administration, we have cut by a third the paper burden on the police. We introduced the Narey reforms and they are reflected in the indicators of police morale, which show that sickness rates have gone down very significantly and that assaults on the police have dropped by a quarter.
Given the unprecedented rebuke that Lord Justice Auld administered to the Government last week, may I also press the Home Secretary on the relationship between his proposals and the Auld report? In view of the Lord Chancellor's assurance that no final decisions would be taken on anything within the terms of reference of the Auld report until the report had been received and considered, how many of the proposals that have been issued with such a fanfare today should have been marked "purely provisional"? Would it not have been better to wait until the Auld report had been received and considered?