Building Safer Communities

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Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): I am delighted to have an opportunity to make a short contribution to today's debate. I was in Swansea last Thursday, and decided to read the South Wales Evening Post. Some of the comments that we have heard today have suggested that everything is rosy and that there is no problem. There is an air of complacency, about which we should be cautious.

That said, I agree with the comments made by the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) about drugs. I am a vice-chairman of the all-party group on drugs misuse, and drugs must be one of the greatest evils to confront society in Britain and the world. Drugs pose a threat to families, and we know that much crime is drug-related. We do not simply have to detect people on drugs and lock them up. We must assist those on drugs who, in the main, want to break the dependency that they have built up, perhaps over many years. We must do what we can to ensure that there are sufficient beds and treatments available for such people, so that they can get off drugs as quickly as possible.

I was struck by how many stories in the South Wales Evening Post were crime-related. Headlines included ``Knife terror in bookie hold-up'', ``Raiders take video recorder'', ``City caught in grip of heroin `disaster'''—that refers to Swansea—and ``Man guilty of assault charge''. The story with the headline ``Early release man in prison'' read:

    ``A Penlan man who committed two theft offences after being released early from prison has been sent back behind bars for more than a year.''

I am delighted about that, as, I am sure, is the community in which he lived. However, many people will question the early release that allowed him to carry out those extra crimes within a month of leaving prison.

Mrs. Lawrence: I represent a coastal constituency, and am interested to hear what impact the hon. Gentleman thinks that the previous Government's cuts in Customs and Excise have had on the import of the drugs that we are all trying to fight.

Mr. Evans: The drugs menace in this country has grown inexorably over many years. The hon. Lady will know that not only drugs but alcohol and tobacco are smuggled into the country, which is leading to further crime throughout the whole United Kingdom. We need to increase the number of Customs and Excise points throughout the UK. We live in an island community, and we should use that fact to help to eradicate crime, which includes the import of drugs, alcohol and tobacco. We should consider Customs and Excise again.

I went to Dover a few years ago, after indicative allowances were scrapped, and saw people in white vans bringing enormous amounts of alcohol and tobacco into the country. I noticed that no cars were stopped, only vans. We must consider the number of Customs and Excise points and their operation, so that we give them proper support. I am certain that Customs and Excise staff want to be more effective.

Much has been said about the reduction in the overall amount of crime in Wales. After a period during which it increased, it has started to dip, and I would be the first to welcome any overall decrease. Although it has decreased in three out of four police areas, it has increased in one. The issue of notifiable offences is worrying. In 1997, there were 17,386 recorded incidents of violence against the person. Today, that figure stands at 37,922. There were 811 recorded incidents of robbery in 1997. That figure stands at 909 today. The total number of incidents of violent crime has risen from 20,071 in 1997 to 40,580. Fraud and forgery have doubled from 5,757 incidents to almost 12,000. The total number of incidents recorded in 1997 was 236,936. For the year 1999-2000, the figure was 255,487. Between 1997 and 2000, that figure has gone up, but I am delighted that we have seen an overall dip in the figures for this year. That decrease must go even further.

I am most concerned about violent crime. Some 13 per cent. of people living in the Newport division have been victims of violence. A BBC Online report states:

    ``Overall figures for England and Wales show that robberies—most of them muggings—increased by 19 per cent. compared with a fall of nearly 6 per cent. over the previous 12 months. The number of sexual offences also rose over the same period.''

I spoke earlier about early release. I have enormous reservations about that. As of 30 November 2000, 29,253 offenders have been placed on the early release scheme. Of those offenders, 62 were convicted of manslaughter, seven of attempted murder, 3,817 of woundings, actual bodily harm and grievous bodily harm, 4,000 of drug offences, 35 of sex offences, 2,732 of burglary and 1,234 of robbery. As of 30 November, 1,019 of those curfews have been breached, and offenders who were on that scheme have committed 1,000 crimes. As the case of the Penlan man has shown, early release causes enormous problems. When people on the scheme commit further crimes, it is thrown completely into question.

Ms Julie Morgan: I accept that the early releases that go wrong are a matter of great concern, but does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the system, including the introduction of tagging, has been successful?

Mr. Evans: I have enormous reservations, even about tagging. I will go on to support the Home Secretary's recent remarks. I hope that the hon. Lady will appreciate what I have to say. Many, if not all, members of the Committee will know that over the Christmas period, somebody came into my business in Swansea and stole a case of beer. When I chased the thief, I was punched in the face. That led—[Interruption.] I can hear the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. O£pik) making a joke of it, but this happens to many people, perhaps in his own constituency, and they may not find it funny. I certainly did not, when it happened to me.

Mr. Öpik: As the hon. Gentleman knows, I take the issue very seriously. I was making a gentle aside, and I apologise to him if he thought that I was making a serious point.

Mr. Evans: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's apology. When I was punched in the face, the police were quick to arrive on the scene. Thanks to certain information, the person was apprehended. When he appeared before the court he was released on unconditional bail, and then went on to commit a further crime. We must all question that sort of justice. By a further crime, I mean that an elderly person—at least, someone older than me—was injured badly and needed medical treatment. We must question the sort of society that gives rise to such crimes. Despite the publicity that was given to the theft at my business, two more thefts have taken place. Only last week, someone brazenly walked in, stole a mobile telephone from the shop display and threw it to an accomplice; they ran off together. We have reported that theft to the police, but we know the two people involved and we shall give the police every assistance.

My greatest concern is that people going about their normal daily work are confronted by people who are completely brazen and who do not have the same standards as us. The right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth spoke about unruly yobs being fined on the spot, but I think back to my days in Swansea when thousands of people were pouring out of night clubs at 2 am. It would be wrong to expect the police to approach them, and it would be wrong to expect offenders to be rational about paying fines on the spot. Indeed, I wonder whether, in trying to impose such fines, the police would lay themselves open to attack.

Mr. Michael: A common-sense approach is needed. People who are given a notice need time to decide whether to accept what they have been accused of. It may help, in advance of that outpouring from the night club, if a policeman dealing with a fairly small incident can impose an on-the-spot fine and therefore remain available to patrol the streets for the rest of the evening. Otherwise, he has to return to the police station to complete the paperwork—and also lose a day when appearing before the court a few weeks later.

Mr. Evans: Instant justice sounds fine, but the theory will be completely different from the reality. An on-the-spot notice means that the police officer has to communicate with the person, who may be drunk or on drugs, and take his name and address. The police officer who confronts someone like that would soon be crowded by others, who would take an interest in the questioning of their friend. We need to think about it. If the Government insist on going down that route, they must pilot the scheme first. They need to know what is likely to happen when those clubs start to empty.

Mr. Michael: Obviously, piloting has much to commend it. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the police would not be compelled to make such decisions on the spot if it was not appropriate? We can trust the common sense of the police not to use on-the-spot fines in those circumstances.

Mr. Evans: I know what can happen at 2 am. Licensing reform may assist by spreading the times at which people pour out of night clubs on Friday and Saturday nights over several hours. I remember that Swansea police used to pray for rain because it made the crowds disperse more quickly. I have enormous sympathy for the police. There is always a police presence in Swansea on busy nights. I know that the police will use their common sense in such situations, but piloting would throw up possible problems and calm people's fears.

I spoke to the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan) about my fears of early release and tagging. The Home Secretary himself had a difference of opinion with Lord Woolf, but I firmly backed the Home Secretary. In a Prison Reform Trust lecture, Lord Woolf said that, rather than opening more prisons, he would prefer prisons to close and more people to do community service. I heard what the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) had to say about that.

The Home Secretary said that he would prefer to see such criminals in prison, and I agree. Indeed, he spoke of the 100,000 offenders who are responsible for about 50 per cent. of crime. We know, as do the police, which individuals are plaguing our communities. People who live in decent communities pray that those who commit those crimes will be sent to prison. Even if they are put on remand, it is at least some respite for the communities. I would welcome any Government measure that ensured that persistent offenders were removed from the community, that they were given custodial sentences when appropriate and that they had to serve the time for which they were put away.

At Christmas, my car windscreen was smashed; and I have been told that it has happened to others who live nearby. It defies logic that someone can pick up a brick, walk down the street and, at will, smash the windscreens of cars whose owners are unknown to them. However, those who live in the neighbourhood often know who is committing crimes. Any assistance that can be given to the police to get those criminals off the streets must be welcomed. I sometimes feel sorry for the police, because they spend many man-hours detecting criminals, who are taken to court and then let out, or given soft or lenient sentences. That is wrong.

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Prepared 13 February 2001