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10.11 pm

The Minister for Criminal Justice, Sentencing and Law Reform (Mr. Keith Bradley): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) on obtaining this debate and on raising such important issues. Her description of Reading, East very much reminded me of my constituency of Manchester, Withington: it contains many students and young people and there is much activity on the streets at night because of the range of facilities that are available. As a Minister and local Member of Parliament, I recognise my hon. Friend's concerns and I welcome the way in which she described the problem to us. I know that the whole House is united in wanting to prevent crime, in wanting offenders to be brought to justice and in wanting to ensure support for victims.

In responding to my hon. Friend's points, I particularly want to focus on what we are doing for victims. But I first want to outline the measures that we are taking to reduce violent crime and to increase public confidence in the criminal justice system. My hon. Friend provided a range of statistics that reinforce the need to tackle these issues.

Increasing confidence is particularly important because, as my hon. Friend has highlighted, far too many crimes go unreported. The 2000 British crime survey revealed that only a quarter of young male victims reported crimes to the police. Those young men accept being a victim as a way of life—as something about which they can do nothing, or in some cases about which they are afraid to do anything. If they are not prepared to report crimes against themselves, it is not surprising that they are unwilling to come forward to make a statement or give evidence when others are victimised. That makes our fight against youth crime all the more difficult. However, it remains one of our key priorities to tackle the problem.

Let me outline some of the many measures that we have implemented across government. First, we have focused on the family, with initiatives such as sure start to improve the life chances of pre-school children.

Secondly, we have focused on factors that can lead to crime, and we are spending £600 million to tackle school truancy and exclusion.

Thirdly, we are tackling deprivation, with the £900 million that we are investing in England's most deprived neighbourhoods where we know that crime and delinquency are particular problems.

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Fourthly—my hon. Friend mentioned this—we are transforming the youth justice system, with the establishment of the Youth Justice Board and a network of local youth offending teams to co-ordinate efforts against youth crime as never before. I join my hon. Friend in congratulating those teams on the work that they are doing in local areas. They are making a difference and are pulling agencies together as we try to find solutions to the problem.

Fifthly, we are introducing other measures and programmes such as the intensive supervision and surveillance programme, which will focus on the hard core of young offenders and help to tackle youth offending more effectively.

We have also provided substantial investment to address the problem of robbery, most of which, as my hon. Friend rightly explained, is committed by young men against other young men. We have provided the five metropolitan forces with an additional £20 million to develop and assess initiatives. We want them to establish and share good practice with other forces such as the one that covers my hon. Friend's constituency. We have set them the challenging target of reducing street robbery by 14 per cent. by March 2005.

The recent surge in the theft of mobile phones will make that target even more challenging, but that is not just a problem for the police; it concerns us all. We are working with the mobile phone industry to find ways to make phones more secure. We have considered measures that United Kingdom phone operators can take to make stolen phones unusable and therefore worthless. Parents and teachers also need to provide better advice to young people about how they can avoid becoming the victims of such crimes.

When a crime takes place, it is right that there should be a robust sentencing policy. The guidelines issued by the Lord Chief Justice last week related specifically to robbery rather than theft. Robbery is an offence that involves the use of force and, frequently, violence, threats and intimidation. It is a serious offence that deserves a serious punishment.

It is essential, however, that more cases get to court so that magistrates and judges can give appropriate sentences to offenders who appear before them. For that to happen, we obviously depend on victims and witnesses being prepared to trust in the criminal justice process so that they participate in the actions of the court. The sad fact is that most victimised young men have no such trust. Whether consciously or not, they weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of reporting the crime, and nearly three quarters think that it is not worth the bother. If they know the offender, and many do, they fear retaliation. If they have offended previously themselves, and some have, they fear the police will not believe them. They might think they will not receive support as the case progresses, and could be daunted by the prospect of giving evidence in court.

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Since we took office, we have implemented a programme of measures which in time should begin to allay those fears. We have more than doubled the grant to the voluntary organisation, Victim Support. The £25 million it now receives annually ensures that it offers a wide range and better quality of service in every part of England and Wales.

The previous Government established a victim and witness support service in the crown courts. From this April, we will have extended that to every magistrates court. Support will be available from the very beginning of the process, and cases will be less likely to fail or collapse.

The police now routinely inform victims when a suspect has been charged, and the Crown Prosecution Service is implementing a system to ensure that it communicates its decisions about cases to victims. With the witness support service, it ensures that the victim receives all the required pre-court support—consistent, of course, with the need to, safeguard a fair hearing or trial. Through the victims personal statement scheme, implemented last October, we have ensured that victims are able to make a written statement outlining the effect of the crime on their lives, which includes an opportunity for them to let the criminal justice agencies know if they fear further victimisation so that effective preventive measures can be put in place.

The package of measures that I have highlighted tonight demonstrate, I hope, the priority that we are giving to tackling crime and supporting victims. It is essential that they feel empowered and not marginalised by the criminal justice process. That is a long-term strategy that depends on every agency working closely together and, in turn, every agency fulfilling its responsibilities to victims. We need to convince the public generally and young male victims in particular that justice can be secured if they take positive and constructive action.

We have made a start, but I have listened carefully to my hon. Friend, and support the need for more police on the streets; the use of CCTV cameras; and her views about the way in which crime reduction officers could be used more effectively in schools and colleges to address young men's fears and problems with the system. My hon. Friend brought those issues home to us effectively tonight. She clearly recognises that work has been done, but we all accept that much more needs to be done if we are to tackle the problem of street crime; people not reporting crime; people not wishing not participate in the criminal justice system; and, in this case, the sad but impressive statistic of the number of young people, particularly men, suffering from the problem of street crime. I welcome the debate, and shall look carefully at my hon. Friend's contribution to see what more can be done to ensure that the problems in Reading, East and throughout the country are addressed more effectively.

Question put and agreed to.

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