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Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): I thank the Home Secretary for coming to the House to make a statement this afternoon. On behalf of the Opposition, may I associate my right hon. and hon. Friends and myself with his condemnation of the violence and the criminal attacks on both people and property in Bradford over the past few days? Does he agree that the fact that no fewer than 164 police officers were injured is a stark rebuke to those people who now allege that the police were in some way the perpetrators of the violence, rather than the service trying to restore order to the streets of Bradford? On behalf of the Opposition, I should like to offer support to the police, Bradford city council and others in Bradford who are working to restore order and the city's reputation for good community relations.

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Will the Home Secretary consider the part played by extremists of both right and left? Does he agree with several people in Bradford and some Labour Members that militant extremists from the self-styled Anti-Nazi League were out to inflame rather than heal divisions in Bradford last weekend?

A couple of days ago, the Home Secretary talked about the possibility of equipping the police with water cannon and tear gas to cope with future riots. Is he still considering that? Have the police in West Yorkshire or elsewhere requested the provision of such equipment? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is too simplistic to brand events in Bradford the product of racial tension? I agree with him that the social problems that he described—poor education, lack of skills and poor opportunities—afflict young men from British Pakistani and British white homes alike. Those problems must be tackled but they do not for a moment justify the behaviour in Bradford on Saturday night and more recently.

Will the Home Secretary launch an urgent inquiry into policing pressures in Bradford and elsewhere in West Yorkshire? Surely he knows that police numbers in the West Yorkshire force are nearly 400 lower than when the Government first took office. Even last year, the West Yorkshire police force lost more officers through resignation than it was able to recruit. Is he aware of local anxiety in Bradford that the police are too stretched to deal promptly and effectively with minor disorder, drug dealing and racist abuse on the streets? That encourages criminals and political extremists to be bolder.

I assure the Home Secretary that if he takes the necessary steps to bolster the strength and effectiveness of the police force, he will deserve support from all parties.

Mr. Blunkett: I welcome the first part of the hon. Gentleman's response. I am sorry that the second half degenerated into the party politics of police numbers. I want to make it clear that a lack of police did not contribute to the prolonged disorder on Saturday night. The number of police available was that requested from West Yorkshire police and neighbouring authorities throughout the north of England. Those numbers remain available; there are approximately 300 police on the streets. We are determined to ensure that they are there when needed.

Under the crime fighting fund, we had already planned for 292 extra police, with 92 being appointed immediately. The local police authority was also contributing through the police grant and local resources so that the total increase this year was to be 400 extra police officers—far more than 200 when we had netted off any losses through those leaving.

Last weekend was not caused by a lack of policing or police numbers. As I said earlier, we must deal with issues such as how to make the best use of experience, including that in the Metropolitan police. It is a question of how we can do that quickly and effectively when police commanders on the ground need it.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about particular police methods and equipment. I want to make it clear—on a lighter note, the shadow Chancellor might share this belief—that we should not always believe what we read in The Guardian. Although plastic baton rounds and

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CS gas are available, I have never mentioned gas of any sort either publicly or privately to colleagues or journalists; so they made it up. I am interested in how we can use methods that are less of a risk than plastic baton rounds, which are available on the British mainland, but about which I have doubts in terms of public safety.

I am prepared to consider other methods that would allow the police to deal quickly and effectively with mass disorder and a threat to life, limb and property. I shall receive reports and we will consider the issues carefully, but in the end, good intelligence and preparation, and the willingness of the local community to be part of the solution, will be the way forward. I think that the House will join me in wanting to find ways of preventing, predicting and then dealing quickly with any further incidents of this sort.

Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North): I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. We must bear in mind the fact that what happened on Saturday was pure, wanton, mindless and criminal violence, but notwithstanding that, we can see the similarities between what has happened in Bradford, Oldham and Burnley. The common thread is the presence on the streets of far-right groups: the National Front and the British National party. Those organisations exist purely to foment racial hatred. We in Bradford have believed for many years that there is no place on the streets for fascists and Nazis. Is it possible to call on the full powers of the National Criminal Intelligence Service to track and control the movement of these fascist thugs? I believe that the time is coming when Parliament must seriously consider proscribing those organisations and removing that blight from our society. Communities such as Bradford will never feel safe as long as these people are about.

Mr. Blunkett: I thank my hon. Friend, and I want to say to the people of Bradford how sorry we all are that they have had to endure these disturbances and have their well-being undermined and destroyed by others who came from outside to do so or threaten to do so, who were part of the cause. There is no question but that if the National Front had not sought a march and demonstration in Bradford, and if the reaction that led to the curtailment of the Bradford Vision festival had not been provoked, people would on Saturday have been living not only in peace and quietude but in racial harmony. They would have been enjoying themselves as part of that multiracial festival, which is drawing people together and building on the lessons of 1995.

Yes, I am unequivocal in my condemnation, but I also ask those who seek to combat fascism to hold their hand carefully. I ask them to allow us to deal with public order and not to take it into their own hands. I agree that the National Criminal Intelligence Service and our security services will need to consider all those who threaten our democracy. If we can develop intelligence to know where and when they intend to destroy our community and racial harmony, we can take effective measures to stop them.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I thank the Home Secretary for his statement, which I endorse. I want to share with him from the Liberal Democrat Benches the feeling that, whatever the problems in the urban communities of our country, resort to violence, racism and intolerance of the sort that we saw

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at the weekend is an unacceptable response, wherever it comes from. I happily join with him and the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) in sending our support to the police and the elected representatives of the city of Bradford—the two groups that are most accountable for good order in that great city.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with me that the city council, which I understand has already commissioned some work and some reports which are due out later this week, must receive the support that it needs and for which it has asked in dealing with the problems that it is aware of and is seeking to address?

Slightly more broadly, I ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider that the responses that he proposes through the working group and the performance and innovation unit may before long be better dealt with by the Government's doing for urban policy what they sensibly did for rural policy after the election? That would involve finding a Cabinet Minister—it may be the right hon. Gentleman or a colleague—who would be responsible throughout the country for pulling together policy in urban and suburban areas. As the right hon. Gentleman rightly said in his statement, these matters are not only about law and order but about education, community relations and other factors.

There is an important supplementary question that follows on from the remarks of the hon. Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney). As part of the review of policy—I do not go down the road of proscribing far-right or far-left organisations—can we consider the intelligence that relates to what has happened in recent months throughout the country, the links between the far right and occasionally the far left and community disorder, and the way in which we might be able to review public order legislation to make it less frequently possible for people to "exercise their rights", when actually they are seeking to provoke difficulty, tension and racism in urban communities? We must deal with those who have committed offences through the law.

The other common thread is that many young people have taken to the streets, misbehaving and demonstrating clearly that they are willing to participate. Can we ensure that what they want to say about the future of their city and of their communities is listened to as much as what anyone else says, so that the next generation feels empowered in the process of developing their future? Wherever they come from and whatever their race, let us ensure that they do not feel that they are disengaged from, or have no stake in, the city or the town in which they belong and to which I am sure they want to contribute.

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