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The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett) indicated assent.

Miss Widdecombe: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that. The Opposition first proposed those measures more than a year ago and, inexplicably, the Government voted against them on a number of occasions during the last Parliament. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will depart from the approach of his predecessor in that respect and, because he has indicated his assent, I look forward with eager anticipation to what he has to say on the subject.

The Gracious Speech also proposes a police Bill. During the last Parliament, police numbers and police morale plummeted to their lowest levels ever. Despite the repeated promises by the Prime Minister and the right hon. Member for Blackburn, there were many fewer officers at the time of the last election than when the Government came to power in 1997, and police numbers are still below the levels that the Government inherited. The Government must look to improve not just the recruitment rate, which was allowed to fall to dangerously low levels during the last Parliament, but also the retention of serving officers. The strength and status of the job and the attraction of serving as a police officer must be enhanced.

All too often in the past, however, the Labour Government have been all spin and no delivery and have failed to live up to their promises. So if the right hon. Gentleman's proposals mean more targets, more paperwork for the police, more upheaval and measures that stop the police getting on with their job, the Government will have learned absolutely nothing.

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The chairman of the West Yorkshire Police Federation said in March,

We all know what the record of the new Home Secretary was in his previous job: a directive a day from Whitehall for the teachers.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West): The right hon. Lady may have seen the editorial of June's edition of the Metropolitan Police Federation magazine. It says:

To assist new Members, will she tell us what she thought of the decision by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) to set up the Sheehy committee?

Miss Widdecombe: For all that the hon. Gentleman says about recruiting falling off, we left behind 16,000 more police officers than we inherited from Labour. That is a fact of life, just as it is a fact that there are now fewer police officers than the Labour Government inherited from us.

I see from the written answer given on Monday to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) by the Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs that plans for the Home Secretary's much-trailed police standards unit

With the Home Secretary's record in mind, we shall look with interest at the form that that unit takes.

Measures on sentencing were also announced in the Gracious Speech, although I fear that the Government will not introduce greater honesty into the system. Indeed, according to the memo leaked in February from the previous Home Secretary's special adviser, what will be introduced will be

The Government have already made it clear that they intend to retain the special early-release scheme established by the right hon. Member for Blackburn, which at present rates would see another 80,000 criminals released earlier than normal by the end of the Parliament, including 10,000 drug dealers, 10,000 robbers and burglars and 10,000 violent criminals. In answers given on Monday, the Minister for Prisons and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes), also made it clear that the Government will not allow victims to be told about that either when prisoners are released or at the time of sentencing. I call on the Home Secretary to reconsider both of those decisions.

The beginning of any Parliament is a good time to step back, reconsider and examine the overall objectives of policy. I believe that one of the Government's major objectives in this Parliament should be to improve the lives of the group of people whom, and I admit it, successive Governments have let down and who are still ignored by many politicians from all parties even today. I have called them the forgotten decent. They are people like any hon. Member but with only a fraction of our

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resources. All they want to do is to live normally. Instead, their lives are made a daily hell by drugs, thuggery, intimidation and the sheer degradation of the environment around them.

There was some coverage in the media of my recent visit to the Arden estate in Hackney, where I observed yet again how many decent people in this country are, even today, forced to live in conditions that are entirely unacceptable. If we really want to have an inclusive society--a much-overused phrase--we have to revolutionise places such as that, where mothers cannot let their children go out to play without checking for needles first, where gardens are wrecked and windows of people's homes are broken and where the vulnerable are intimidated and every agency shrugs its shoulders. Police leave it to the councils; the councils leave it to police. The courts cannot or will not take effective action, and the pattern continues from one generation to the next.

Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central): Does the right hon. Lady not think it a bit rich to be lecturing Labour Members on those matters when we are the ones who have put an extra 1.1 million people back into jobs? We are spending more than the previous Conservative Government did on housing, and we are lifting people out of poverty, which is the root cause of crime. We have also been investing more in police, whereas Conservative Members were committed to slashing public investment.

Miss Widdecombe: The hon. Gentleman demonstrates what has gone wrong with the debate on this subject and why so many people just do not come out to vote. Rather than having their problems dealt with and their quality-of-life issues addressed, they are treated only to a trading of statistics by politicians. In the discussion of this particular issue I have avoided doing that. I have not talked about the single regeneration budget or all the issues that I could have talked about; I said that those people have been let down by successive Governments and I meant that.

I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he approach the subject seriously and consider that none of the factors that he has mentioned, however worthy they might be in their own right, have dealt with the problem of those people experiencing that menace as a daily, living reality. For them, the menace is not the odd headline in a tabloid but a daily, living reality.

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North): Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Miss Widdecombe: I shall make some progress with my speech.

Five months ago in the House, I challenged the Home Secretary's predecessor on the plight of an elderly resident on one such estate. That man was being terrorised in his own home by gangs of youths. He actually had to put--it would be farcical if it were not so tragic--the local police station number on to his friends and family discount scheme because he was making daily calls for help. He said:

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Is it people like that who are the victims of Government failure. The challenge of the next few years is to ensure that their concerns are heard and dealt with.

Mr. Hughes: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Miss Widdecombe: I am going to finish this passage. Moreover, having given way before, I was not entirely enlightened by the comments that were made.

Dealing with those concerns is the challenge, and it is a challenge that I shall continue to take up as long as I am in this place.

It is not politically correct to talk about zero tolerance, about taking problem children off the streets and into secure training or about evicting troublemakers entirely. But unless a Home Secretary gets to grips with those problems--with, if I may put it this way, a Guiliani-style will--then not only will decent people continue to suffer, but we shall continue to produce generation after generation of disaffected youngsters who have seen no better, have been taught no better and know no better. It is not just the victims who have been let down, but the miscreants themselves. Recent events have brought home to all of us the necessity for ensuring that youngsters do know better. The murder of Damilola Taylor late last year was an appalling crime, but as charges have now been brought and the case is sub judice, I shall not comment further.

However, there is one such case that is no longer before the courts and has dominated public debate in recent days, namely, the release on parole of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, the killers of little James Bulger. I am sure that the whole House will join me in expressing the deepest sympathy to Denise Fergus, Ralph Bulger and the rest of James's family at what must be another incredibly difficult time for them.

The House knows that I fully support the position taken by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), namely, that Thompson and Venables should have served at least 15 years, rather than eight. I do not find it readily comprehensible that the Lord Chief Justice should have taken the decision to cut the tariff in the way he did.

However, I believe that there are now a number of important issues that arise from the handling of the case, issues to which I hope the Home Secretary will respond either in his remarks today or at some stage in the near future. First, there is the question of Thompson and Venables's anonymity. It can be in nobody's interest for some kind of vigilante society to be created as a result of that case. We must all hope that the media will exercise restraint, even if it is true that Thompson and Venables probably did not help themselves by ensuring that their cases were kept in the public eye through a succession of appeals. It might have been better to do as Mary Bell did: put their heads down, get on with the sentence and give the public time to forget.

I hope that the Home Secretary will look closely at the comments last October by the Lord Chief Justice about whether or not it would have been a good idea to send Thompson and Venables to a young offenders institution. I have to say that his concerns on that score evoke some sympathy in me. However, I believe that if it was not right to send them to a YOI, we should not have been faced with a stark choice between that and freedom before an

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appropriate time, and that other arrangements could, and almost certainly should, have been made for their secure detention.

We would all hope that we do not get a repeat of this sort of case in the future, but it may happen. I hope that the course of action taken by the Lord Chief Justice will not become a dangerous precedent in that respect and that the Home Secretary will give some thought--I do not ask for an instant solution--as to whether we can avoid a choice between adult imprisonment and inappropriate early release.

Finally, there is the wider question of tariff setting for juvenile killers. As a result of the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights, these matters are now wholly in the hands of the judiciary. However, I hope that the Home Secretary will comment--and, I hope, reassure us in his speech--about the reports that have appeared in the press that dozens of killers, including the killer of the headmaster Philip Lawrence, may soon also have their tariffs cut by the Lord Chief Justice and be released inappropriately early. While the recent judgment on the European Court stands, as do the adjustments made to our domestic legislation, I urge the Home Secretary at least to look at the arrangements that are now in place and see if they can somehow be improved.

The Gracious Speech completely failed to mention prisons. The previous Home Secretary ignored the issue of prison conditions, and the previous Minister responsible for prisons appeared uninterested. I hope that the Home Secretary will reverse that trend and will make conditions in our prisons a priority.

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