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7.21 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) on achieving the debate. It is clearly a matter of great importance to her constituents in Hackney, North and Stoke Newington, to people across London and, unfortunately, beyond as well: we are beginning to see similar problems in cities such as Bristol.

My hon. Friend has left me a little short of time. I shall try to reply to all the main points that she made, but if I do not manage to do so, I am sure that she will understand. I shall certainly write to her and I shall be happy to have the meeting that she suggested about how to deal with stuffers and swallowers coming in on Air Jamaica flights.

It is worth reminding ourselves of the extent of the use of firearms in London. Operation Trident alone last year dealt with 18 incidents involving 21 murders and 135 incidents of non-fatal shootings. Already this year there have been five murders and 26 other shootings. My hon. Friend is obviously familiar with the work of Operation Trident. I met Commander Brown, who heads the operation, at the beginning of the month, and we discussed how such crimes could be countered more effectively.

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My hon. Friend graphically explained that the Metropolitan police cannot be expected to deal with the problems entirely on their own. In the case of Operation Trident, they are often dealing with young men who carry firearms as part of a macho gun culture, and who are willing to use them to settle disputes over drugs and in other situations which on the face of it seem minor—for example, when disrespect has been shown. We have for many years prided ourselves on the comparatively low level of crimes involving firearms, and we are determined to counter the upward trend.

The Met have our full support in their efforts. Last year Operation Trident resulted in 442 arrests, mainly relating to firearms and possession of drugs with intent to supply, and recovered 130 firearms and associated ammunition. As a result of his worries about the level of gun crime, the Commissioner recently seconded a further 30 officers to Operation Trident and a further 20 officers to work within the shootings team of the serious and organised crime group.

Underlying much of the use of firearms is the market for drugs and especially crack cocaine. Customs, the National Criminal Intelligence Service and the National Crime Squad are working together to try to reduce the amount of cocaine that is reaching the UK. Part of that work involves reducing the flow of cocaine from Jamaica, and Customs has had recent successes in preventing passengers from smuggling cocaine through Heathrow and Gatwick airports. However, I share some of my hon. Friend's concerns and I intend to examine with CIDA—Concerted Inter-agency Drugs Action—whether we are giving appropriate weight to that form of smuggling.

I know that that is neither the only nor the main method of entry for cocaine into the country. None the less, it is controlled by, and far more closely associated with, the crack cocaine market. The gun culture is also associated with that market, and it would be a little more difficult for such criminality to link in with some of the other supplies of cocaine in the country than with the small supply that is being brought in from Jamaica. As my hon. Friend said, it is brought in using women who are often as much victims as those who find themselves on the receiving end of the consequences of the drug trade in our cities. I want to explore further with the appropriate authorities whether we have got our thinking exactly right in terms of the recognition of the proportionate damage done by this form of entry of cocaine into the country.

Much more needs to be done to prevent the couriers from travelling in the first place. We are considering measures that might be taken to achieve that, including discussions with the Jamaican authorities. We also need to consider how to prevent Jamaican criminals from travelling to the UK. There is police co-operation between our jurisdiction and the authorities in Jamaica.

I understand and accept my hon. Friend's concern about terminology. I heard also what she said about the fact that a great number of these people are British-born blacks rather than Jamaicans. However, I am being told by the Metropolitan police authority—I hope that her information is the same—that a considerable element has close relations with Jamaica and is constantly returning there, and that association is a real problem. As she said, it is not the sole problem—there are other, far deeper issues—but it is a considerable part of the problem that

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we face. I am planning to meet the Jamaican Minister of National Security and Justice when he visits the United Kingdom early next month.

Of course, we must do everything we can to reduce the opportunity for criminals to obtain firearms in the first place. We already have some of the toughest gun controls in the world, but we are committed to improving them to maintain public safety if that is necessary, and we have been working with the police to ensure good security of legally held weapons to prevent them from being stolen. We are also considering the need to establish strict controls on the deactivation standards. We want the same standards to apply throughout Europe, and we have been working closely with the European Commission to that end. Anybody who is minded to misuse guns should be left in no doubt that there are heavy penalties for these offences, including life for the most serious ones.

My hon. Friend was suggesting not necessarily that the maximum penalty was a problem in that regard, but that we might need to consider whether we should introduce minimum penalties in respect of some of these issues. I shall consult colleagues in the Home Department about the points that she made, and I agree to come back to her having thought about the consequences and the potential for some action.

Reference is often made to guns flooding the country. However, I have consulted the police, Customs and Excise and NCIS, and there is no evidence of organised or large-scale smuggling, and there appears to be no single main source of firearms held by criminals. Those sources in recent years include theft from legitimate owners, smuggling individual weapons, conversion of deactivated and replica weapons, and trophies of war brought back by service personnel.

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My hon. Friend mentioned the Brocock. I do not know whether she realises that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs talked to the company responsible for importing the weapons. It has agreed to stop that. We must examine the regulations that affect the ability to convert weapons. It is as illegal to carry imitation weapons as to carry real ones in the sort of circumstances that my hon. Friend described. We are actively considering whether we can do more.

My hon. Friend was right to say that if we are to be effective, we cannot leave the police to struggle with the problem on their own. I know that she has not done that, and that considerable effort has been made in Brent, where community safety partnerships have been at the heart of steering a targeted policing initiative to reduce violent and drug-related crime. It is important that people such as my hon. Friend and local people work with the police to give the community maximum confidence so that it can co-operate. However, I fully understand the issues that she raised such as intimidation and the problems that arise from it.

Operation Trident was created to establish links with the community, to work with it and to bring the police closer to it in tackling problems, and in considering whether appropriate protection is offered in all cases. There is clearly a problem with getting people to come forward to give the evidence, but that is essential if we are to take effective action.

My hon. Friend called for the ability to confiscate cash. The Proceeds of Crime Bill contains strong powers to give the police and Customs and Excise the same ability to confiscate cash that is found in-country as they currently have only at the border. We have been told for a long time that that is a problem—

The motion having been made after Seven o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

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