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20 Nov 2002 : Column 669—continued

Mr. Letwin: I am not clear from the hon. Gentleman's remarks whether he agrees that there are worrying signs that that issue, which should be the top priority—I think that the Home Secretary described it as such—is not currently commanding the sense of urgency that some of us believe it should have within the bureaucracy.

Simon Hughes: I shall try to make a careful response. I do not accept that view. I think that the issue is being treated with urgency and commanding the attention of the Government. In the past two weeks, two things went wrong, and the Home Secretary has effectively accepted that both here today and in broadcasts. First, administrative errors were made that did not help. I refer in particular to the error made a week ago last Friday in relation to the release of documentation. Secondly, communication problems therefore arose about whether there was a specific threat. I think that that was a management and communication performance issue.

I accept what the Home Secretary says with regard to a structure in which he chairs a Cabinet Committee that is reporting to the Prime Minister, who is clearly seeking to achieve the careful balance that he explained at the

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Mansion House. That shows that the issue is treated as one of huge importance, as was reflected in the visit made by Tom Ridge and the deliberations about Europe and so on. As my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) implied, the Liberal Democrats occasionally think that the Government overreact not in terms of the politics of administration, but in their legislative response. That is what we hope to draw attention to.

Let me turn to law and order more centrally and deal with a moral question that has not yet arisen and an aspect of our experience of our politics that has not yet been reflected in the debate. The British crime survey shows that, since 1995, crime has been decreasing, yet we are punishing more and more. The Home Secretary has been clear in his personal views about the fact that we risk creating a society in which punishment becomes as central a feature of our criminal justice system as it has tragically and ineffectively become in the United States. If we continue to imprison more people, locking them up and keeping them out of society for longer, we will not reduce crime. Such an approach will probably reduce community cohesion and cause the recurrence of crime among people who enter schools of crime and come out better skilled as criminals. What we need to reduce crime is greater trust in strangers, forgiveness of wrongs, willingness in the community to intervene and willingness among people to be witnesses. We need a sense of community, and lots more imprisonment is not the right road to take.

Crime has increased massively in this country over the past 50 years, but that does not mean that if we have a choice between building prisons and communities, the answer is to build prisons. In the Liberal Democrats' view, the answer is to build communities. If we take the American road, with 2 million-plus people in prison and huge violent crime in inner cities, we risk abandoning our values along the way.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Simon Hughes: Before giving way to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, I shall cite one example to illustrate a view that many others in history have held. While Winston Churchill was Home Secretary, the number of people imprisoned because of debt fell from 100,000 to 2,000, because he believed that it was wrong for people to be locked up for debt.

Mr. Tyler: Liberal.

Simon Hughes: Indeed. The number of young men in prison under the age of majority fell by two thirds, because it was perceived, even at that time, that more imprisonment was the wrong road to take and that there were alternatives. Prison is a simplistic answer; custody is an easy answer, but it is very often the wrong one, apart from in very particular, obvious and extreme cases.

Mr. Mullin: I do not want to dispute the hon. Gentleman's general point, but it is a precondition of building communities that some individuals are got out

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of the way of the rest so that everyone can get on with their lives. That will be as true in his constituency as it is in mine.

Simon Hughes: I accept that. However, as the director general of the Prison Service says every time he makes a public statement, and as the Lord Chief Justice and many others say, prison must be the last resort.

As I said at our party conference, violence to others should carry a presumption of custody. That is in a different league from property crime. One or two other crimes merit custody—for example, interference with the course of justice, which was mentioned earlier, and sex offences against young people. Society should have a clear view on those crimes. Some driving offences that result in death should also result in custody. Motorists who are guilty of bad, reckless driving that results in killing someone have often got off lightly, whereas a person who kills with bare hands is inside for a long time.

I therefore agree with the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin): there comes a time when the regular offender has to go away, and the Prison Service must then be allowed to do its job of rehabilitation and of keeping offenders out of the way.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): Would my hon. Friend add to his list of more heinous crimes white-collar crime involving a breach of trust—for example, preying on the elderly or the effective theft of other people's money by a professional person?

Simon Hughes: My hon. Friend has often raised that matter, which we do not debate sufficiently. Sometimes such crime should also mean custody. We must separate the breach of trust cases from those in which someone simply takes advantage of a happy chance, resulting in benefit to a white-collar criminal. The matter should be on the agenda for our debates on the criminal justice Bill; they will begin later this week with the publication of the Bill. White-collar crime is significant, not least to our country's economy, giving rise to the perception in constituencies such as mine, and probably in my hon. Friend's, that well-off people sometimes get off lightly compared with the less well-off, who are punished severely for relatively minor infractions.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): The hon. Gentleman managed one example of offences for which it was wrong to imprison: property crime. He drew back from that when the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) intervened with an example of a heinous property crime. Which sort of property crime, for which imprisonment is currently common, does not require it?

Simon Hughes: I shall repeat my earlier comments in a different way. The criminal justice system would be much better if there were two simple presumptions: that those who commit violence against another person will go inside for a period, and that those who commit a different sort of crime will not automatically go to prison. Those should be the presumptions, and the court should then judge each case on its merits and ensure that

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the punishment fits the crime. I shall not provide a shopping list. We shall have plenty of opportunities to debate those matters when we consider the criminal justice Bill. [Interruption.] In case Labour Front Benchers assume that Liberal Democrats endorse the Home Secretary's campaign to free the Archer One, I should stress that my views on interference with the course of justice make that case a clear example of when someone should be put away.

We shall hold a proper debate on antisocial behaviour, but we must be careful that we do not automatically link it to violent, serious crime. Much antisocial behaviour falls short even of criminality. Much behaviour that people find irritating is not criminal. Young people who hang around, make a noise or congregate in inconvenient places are in a different league from those who commit serious crimes. We must be careful that, when dealing with antisocial behaviour, we do not place it in the same league as serious and violent crime, because often it is not. Of course, if antisocial behaviour is not checked and is allowed to develop, it can gradually lead to serious and violent crime. Indeed, that can often become inevitable.

Mr. Hawkins: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that his rather extraordinary presumptions about those who commit violent offences and those who commit non-violent offences run counter to a great deal of the thinking that has been advanced by experts such as the senior judges on the Judicial Studies Board? In the light of his legal experience in the criminal courts at the beginning of his career, I invite him to reflect on the difference between, for example, a case in which someone with no previous convictions throws one punch in a pub under provocation—an offence of violence—and one in which someone steals thousands of pounds of their employer's money, bringing the business close to bankruptcy. Does not such a distinction undermine his rather extraordinary presumptions?

Simon Hughes: No, it does not. A presumption is where we start from, not where we end up. Let me give an example. The Liberal Democrats have long argued that there should be no mandatory sentences, even for murder. If a murder were committed as a result of 30 years of marital provocation at home, we do not think that the person would deserve the same punishment as someone with no previous history of provocation who commits a terrible crime. I accept the need for different solutions for different crimes, and I do not think that the hon. Gentleman would disagree with that.

There are, of course, two drivers of crime—alcohol and other drugs—and unless we deal with them society will never make progress. The Hackney study released by the Metropolitan police today shows that, of all the people arrested for any offence, 66 per cent. did not show free of drugs, and 32 per cent. showed traces of cocaine. Unless we deal with the problems of drug and alcohol abuse, most of the people in our prisons will continue to return to them. I was in Cardiff prison 10 days ago, and both the people to whom I spoke in the first block were there because of abuse—the first because of drugs, the second because of alcohol—and they had been imprisoned several times. Unless they are dealt with properly, they are likely to be imprisoned again.

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Those are the big issues: violence, alcoholism and drug addiction. We have to work out how we should respond to them.

I hope that we shall not leave these debates without also realising how many good initiatives there are for dealing with antisocial behaviour and prospective disorder among young people. I shall give hon. Members an example. Last week there was a press launch in the House for a scheme called INaura, based in Slough, the aim of which is to ensure that youngsters who are excluded from school have somewhere to go, rather than being out on the streets. Intervention at an early stage, as many good examples show, can prevent people from going into a life of crime. Acceptable behaviour contracts appear to work well, as do parent control agreements. There are many forms of intervention that do not involve the use of the criminal law.

Something that does not appear to work, however, is to punish families financially if their child has become out of control. That is why we have argued strongly against the idea of taking housing benefit away from those whose children misbehave, which seems discriminatory and entirely misjudged. It is also why we resist the idea of adding to the prospect of fining the parents of truanting kids. That might work occasionally, but it is the wrong road to go down in correcting the family failures that have been presented as the cause of the problems.

There is agreement, however, that, of all the things that work, putting people on the street to deter and prevent crime is the most successful. That is why we are grateful to the Government and glad that, in the last Parliament, they increased police numbers, halting the downward spiral and starting to build the numbers back up. We are glad that the numbers are higher, and we congratulate the Government on that. I believe that the numbers will have to go higher still. We shall need objective evidence and advice on how to achieve that, and on how many police are needed in, for example, Somerset and Avon, Devon and Cornwall, Northumberland or the Metropolitan police area.

I know the view in my borough. The MPs—two Labour and one Liberal Democrat—and the Greater London Authority member have, on advice and according to experience, worked it out with the police that we need 1,000 officers at minimum, although we have fewer than 800. I am sure that many other communities take a similar view. We also need special constables, and we shall be happy to use community support officers. Neighbourhood wardens can do an enormous amount to deal with antisocial behaviour.

A year ago last month, we set up a neighbourhood warden scheme in Bermondsey that involves just half a dozen people in uniform. They have dealt with 754 abandoned vehicles, 225 cases of graffiti, 269 cases of defective or non-functioning lighting, nearly 500 cases of fly tipping and nearly 500 hazards. Much more importantly, they have made 1,000 community contacts and offered victim support to between 50 and 100 people. Racist attacks have gone down and security has gone up.

People on the street make a difference, and they are the most effective way, in our judgment, to ensure that our communities feel safer. I have a simple view:

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every community needs policing and every community will rightfully go on fighting until it has its own policing and its own police, whether it is a village, a town or a city.

I share the Home Secretary's view that one defect of the criminal justice process is the number of people who never make it into the process at all, because they are frightened off as witnesses and sometimes frightened off even if they are the victim. I understand that, last year, 30,000 cases never went the course because people did not come to offer proof—they were not willing to say what had happened or to give their evidence. A real problem is not what happens once the case gets to court, but the fact that it never gets there in the first place. I hope that we concentrate on that.

I say to the Home Secretary that, although I anticipate us having disagreements on a few issues to do with the main criminal justice Bill, the real failure of the system is not that all the people who go to court get let off. They do not. Most plead guilty, and most of those who do not are convicted anyway. The problem occurs before people get to court: either they are never apprehended or, if they are, the witnesses do not turn up to give evidence.

I must say a word about the big issues for the criminal justice Bill. We are not persuaded that there is a case for reducing jury trial in, for example, serious fraud cases. There may be ways to assist the jury and there may be ways to empanel a more appropriate jury, but juries have the public's confidence because the public think that people who are more or less like them are deciding the case. That is also why they think that lay magistrates who do not do the job full-time are, by and large, preferable to professional judges and district judges.

We shall be very reluctant to support a proposal for retrospective changes in the double jeopardy rule, which would mean that everybody convicted of the most serious offences that may be retried would suddenly become provisionally guilty or only provisionally acquitted. The case might always come back. The argument for future cases is different, but the big question, which nobody has answered yet, involves trials such as those in the Stephen Lawrence case in south London and the Damilola Taylor case. If a second jury were asked to try people who had already been tried in relation to either case, would it not be fairly clear, given the rules, that they were trying the case only because the Crown Prosecution Service and the Court of Appeal had said that there was a very good case to answer. Given the media backdrop, would not that inevitably mean that it would be extremely difficult to have a fair trial the second time around?

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