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20 Nov 2002 : Column 651—continued

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Letwin: I shall give way in a moment. We are nowhere near achieving that in this country, although I join the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), who has done good work in this field, in hoping that we can move to a position under which we try wide experiments with many kinds of rehabilitation that work.

John Mann: I totally endorse a wide menu of treatment. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the

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Netherlands, but a written report presented last week by the Netherlands Government to the European Observatory on Drugs makes no reference to residential rehabilitation. Indeed, the Netherlands approach outlined in that report does not incorporate residential rehabilitation.

I do not dismiss a small role for residential rehabilitation, but I ask again, precisely what is the evidence base on which the right hon. Gentleman makes his criticism of the Government by suggesting that a large amount of residential rehabilitation is needed? Which Netherlands evidence is he quoting?

Mr. Letwin: I have, perhaps unlike the hon. Gentleman, visited residential treatment centres in the Netherlands and I have spent time with the Ministry of Public Health and Hygiene. I have talked to drug addicts who are and who have been in treatment and I have repeatedly visited residential treatment centres in other countries, including Sweden and this country. If he seriously denies that residential treatment is required for a considerable proportion of those who are seriously addicted to heroin and cocaine, I fear that he is living in a fool's paradise.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Letwin: I wish to make progress.

There is a problem, which is how we are meant to take seriously the Prime Minister's promise to be tough on the causes of crime when his Government have failed to take serious and radical steps to lift young people off the conveyor belt to crime. How can we take seriously his statement that he will be tough on crime itself when his Government have not been serious about neighbourhood policing? The prospective criminal has a 97.5 per cent. chance of not being caught and convicted, so the need for such neighbourhood policing is acute. If antisocial behaviour is to be tackled seriously, that will not be done by legislation. If low level disorder is to be tackled seriously, that will not be done by legislation. It can be done only through neighbourhood policing. That means police on the streets, police officers proactively sniffing out low level disorder and crime, and police officers who are not hampered by vast reams of bureaucratic requirements and national policing plans. That means police officers being present where and when disorder and crime occur, seeing and being seen, protecting and being seen to protect the public, and recapturing the streets for the honest citizen.

We are five years into a Labour Government, yet a BBC poll reveals that 28 per cent. of the population cannot remember when they last saw a police officer. Of course, the Government tell us that they have reached record levels of policing. Once again, we are facing the airbrushed theory of history. What the Government mean is that they have very recently, and very slightly, exceeded the number of police officers that they inherited from the previous Conservative Government. Between 1993 and 1997 there were, on average, 127,000 police officers in England and Wales. In the five years of this Labour Government there have been, on average, about 126,000 officers in England and Wales. We should note that 126,000 is fewer than 127,000, not more. At a time when my own county of Dorset is under threat of losing 270 of its police officers from a force that is

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already ludicrously overstretched, no one in rural areas is going to believe that this Government are serious about neighbourhood policing.

Mr. Blunkett: I should like to give the right hon. Gentleman some very good news, which I gave to the conference of the Association of Police Authorities in Harrogate this morning. We have decided not to withdraw the rural policing element, so I am sure that he will stand up and say how pleased he is that Dorset's force has been saved from the vagaries of changes in the formula.

Mr. Letwin: Hallelujah! If the Home Secretary would like to add that he will withdraw and reconsider the national policing plan, and that he will engage in serious neighbourhood policing, we would be genuinely very grateful.

Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire): Before my right hon. Friend gets too carried away by the Home Secretary's announcement, will he reflect on what sort of Government would even contemplate removing rural policing funding?

Mr. Letwin: I fear that my right hon. Friend underestimates the effectiveness with which he and other Conservative Members may have determined the Home Secretary's position. The Home Secretary wanted to do something that was necessitated by the fact that he could see no other way of fulfilling certain targets that he had set. Now he has discovered that enough of a fuss has been made, he undoes that effort.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir Brian Mawhinney) knows, it is not unusual for Governments to try to find the easy way out. Thank goodness that this particular easy way out has been blocked. The fact is that this Government have no real regard for rural areas. They are perfectly willing to lunge for that easy option if they think that they can succeed, but when a fuss is made, thankfully, they retract.

Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Letwin: I will not for the moment, but I shall later.

I cannot find it in me wholly to blame the current Home Secretary for all these problems.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Oh, go on.

Mr. Letwin: No, I shall resist that temptation.

The sad truth is that the current Home Secretary appears unable effectively to deal with his right hon. Friend the Chancellor. It was once said in Russia—where the main newspaper used to be called Xthe truth" and the main news agency was called Xthe news"—that there was no truth in the news and no news in the truth. I fear that, in its presentation of its spending plans, the Home Office has clearly been following that pre-glasnost pattern.

Internal Home Office papers, revealed by The Guardian, show that Home Office civil servants admit that

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which is one of the objectives. Home Office officials are also quoted as admitting that they have signed Xthe death knell" for this Government's aim of

Indeed, the muddle on finances is so great that this toughest of all tough Home Secretaries finds himself making 17 per cent. of offenders subject to early release.

Wherever we look, we fail to see coherent, focused, long-term programmes to take young people off the conveyor belt of crime. We fail to see coherent, focused, long-term programmes to recapture the streets for the honest citizen through true neighbourhood policing. We fail to see properly organised finances that can support delivery of ambitious programmes. Instead, we see targets, units and initiatives.

In 2000, the Home Office set a target to increase the number and proportion of recorded crimes for which an offender is brought to justice. So far, the number has reduced, not increased. In the same year, the Home Office set a target to reduce the proportion of people under the age of 25 reporting the use of class A drugs. There has been no reduction, and the use of cocaine has risen. In 2000, the Home Office set a target of reducing robbery in our principal cities: since that date, robbery in our principal cities and elsewhere has increased.

I referred earlier to the Home Secretary's energy, which is prodigious. We have so far counted 95 initiatives since he came to office. Nor, over five years, have the Government lacked legislative energy. We have had the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, the Criminal Justice Act 1998, the Magistrates' Courts (Procedure) Act 1998, the Human Rights Act 1998, the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, the Football (Offences and Disorder) Act 1999, the Terrorism Act 2000, the Football (Disorder) Act 2000, the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000, the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000, the criminal justice Bills of 1999 and 2000, which were withdrawn, the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 and now, of course, five new Bills.

The legislative ambitions have been vast and, mostly, laudable, but have they delivered? The Home Secretary prefers to forget that when the present Foreign Secretary was the Home Secretary he said that

He was right. The sad truth is that the present Home Secretary does not think—any more than I do—that his right hon. Friend delivered such a criminal justice system. That is why the Home Secretary said in March that

He is not the only person to have noticed that. The Minister for Criminal Justice, Sentencing and Law Reform recently and rightly told us that people

The Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis recently told us that, after five years of this Government,

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The chairman of the Victims of Crime Trust told us this year:

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