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20 Nov 2002 : Column 712—continued

7.49 pm

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): In the short time available to me, I wish to address my remarks to the issue of violence against women, particularly domestic violence.

I am pleased that the Government have given a priority to domestic violence, because under-reporting and under-recording are major issues when it comes to that type of violent crime. It is well known that one woman in four will experience domestic violence. The facts are starkly laid out in the White Paper XJustice for All"—on average, a woman will be assaulted 35 times before reporting it to the police; the police receive a 999 call every minute about domestic violence; and a quarter to a third of victims of homicide are killed by a partner or ex-partner. We are beginning to realise the extent of the problem.

It is therefore right that the Government have put an emphasis on tackling domestic violence. I warmly welcome their commitment to a consultation on it, as announced by the Prime Minister last week and reaffirmed today in Prime Minister's questions. However, it is important that the consultation moves

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towards a specific end. We are all aware of the need for action. Indeed, the Government have already introduced many measures to tackle the issue, such as the national network of domestic violence specialists in the Crown Prosecution Service to improve the prosecution process and the domestic murder reviews.

The White Paper XJustice for All" has already consulted on issues such as anonymity for victims of domestic violence. Will the consultation announced by the Government lead to draft legislation, with pre-legislative scrutiny? There is a strong case for having a draft Bill on domestic violence, and I feel strongly that if we are to embark on another consultation process in the new year, it must lead to a tangible form of legislation.

The Home Office has already shown its commitment to tackling domestic violence by funding a number of pilot projects throughout England and Wales which are aimed at tackling domestic violence. The women's safety unit in Cardiff, which I chair, and which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones), is one such project. It brings together seconded staff from key agencies such as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the probation service, Women's Aid, the Black Association of Women Step Out and the police to provide a one-stop shop for women and children suffering domestic violence. The unit works closely with the Crown Prosecution Service, the courts, the housing departments and social services to provide a service to women and children in Cardiff. A recent independent evaluation of the project has shown that the unit has made a difference in the service provided to women and children suffering domestic violence in Cardiff. We have factual evidence to back that up: the number of persons who have been charged with offences of domestic violence has increased significantly from 27 to 40 a month; the number of victims refusing to make a complaint has decreased significantly from 99 to 79 a month; the number of repeat victims has decreased significantly from 58 to 39 a month; and the number of concern for children reports has more than doubled from 22 to 50 a month. So we have had increases where we wanted them and decreases where we wanted them.

The project has clearly shown that a concerted, planned effort to change the tide of domestic violence can succeed. However, it was funded by a one-off, one-year grant from the Home Office of #300,000. The women's safety unit is waiting to hear whether it will receive mainstream funding from the Home Office. The funding runs out in February and I want to take this opportunity in debating the Queen's Speech, much of which has to do with violent crime, to urge the Home Office to make a favourable decision soon on this and similar projects throughout the UK. We have the hard data to show that the project is working in Cardiff, and I am sure that there is evidence for other such projects throughout the country. There is not much point in talking about a consultation on domestic violence if we do not look at what has happened in the projects that have been funded by the Home Office. The Government have given a commitment to action against domestic violence and they should, I strongly believe, follow that through by looking at these successful projects.

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I welcome the proposals on domestic violence, and I welcome the consultation. However, to make it all meaningful, the consultation should lead to draft legislation that draws together the various strands for which the Government have already been responsible, and the projects that have been funded by the Home Office should be considered for long-term funding.

I welcome the plan to increase the number of fixed penalties for minor crimes and disorder offences and believe that these should be extended as far as possible. I am also pleased that the Government are taking the needs of the victim more into consideration. I have some concerns, however, about the proposal that the previous convictions of defendants will be revealed to courts in certain circumstances and I hope that its implications will be carefully considered.

It is difficult to make an objective decision on one particular crime if the previous convictions of the accused are revealed. I have no doubt that some of the miscarriages of justice that have occurred have been due to the police picking up suspects who have a previous history. The revelation of previous convictions is in many ways bound to influence a jury and could result in a defendant being convicted on his or her past crimes rather than on the facts of the crime considered by the jury. Although the White Paper says that the judge will decide whether previous convictions are relevant, that is putting power into the hands of one person. I am concerned that we do not open the way for people to be judged on their past history rather than on the crime that is being considered.

7.56 pm

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West): In common with other right hon. and hon. Members, particularly on the Labour Benches, I welcome the priority in the Queen's Speech given to crime and to tackling antisocial behaviour. In particular, I endorse the comments of some Members about the legislation on air weapons and fireworks. In common with many other Members of Parliament, at every surgery I have complaints from people pleading with me for the Government to do something about antisocial behaviour. It is the No. 1 issue in my constituency, particularly among the elderly.

The failure of laws and law-enforcing agencies to curb antisocial behaviour has two consequences. First, when people see illegal and antisocial activities going unchecked, it undermines their faith in the law and reinforces those tendencies within society to act lawlessly, so the problem snowballs. Secondly, as others have said, it undermines people's faith in democracy. If elected representatives cannot make laws that improve their constituents' everyday quality of life, the incentive to participate in democracy is removed. That is a profoundly dangerous development.

The agenda, which is difficult and profound, may go beyond legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) talked about the way in which people's behaviour towards each other has changed. We are trying to implement a programme that will in the long run change the way in which people behave towards each other. I support the proposed legislation's underlying philosophy of rights and responsibilities. However, we must recognise that such

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ideas start in the home, with good parenting, are continued in school and must be backed up and supported by the legislative framework.

People who commonly evade the law are often those who are most aware of their rights. Perversely, they use those rights to exploit deficiencies in our legal procedures to evade justice. The proposed legislation will go some way to redress the balance. Legislation must change the balance in favour of the community.

Mr. Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bailey: I am sorry that I cannot give way as time is limited.

I hope that the proposed fixed penalty system will be used so that certain antisocial elements are prevented from exploiting the legal system to evade being brought before the law. Although curbing crime is pre-eminently the responsibility of the police, the courts and the law enforcement agencies in general, it is not theirs alone: many local authority services also have a vital role to play. Education has already been mentioned and the youth service, housing departments and even environment departments are also important. They must all work together.

Comments have been made about the link between truancy and crime. It is important for education authorities to be clear about the law and about their obligations in implementing it if they are to have an impact on crime and antisocial behaviour in their area.

I welcome the proposals on tackling graffiti and fly tipping. They may seem only minor infringements of the law, but when people see graffiti and fly tipping in an area, it reinforces the impression that the prevailing standards are those of the antisocial minority rather than of the law-abiding majority and acts as a deterrent to decent people to move into the area.

Tackling drugs is vital to deal with crime. In my local authority, a community against drugs programme was implemented as part of the crime and disorder partnership. It is working. Funding for four police operations has already resulted in 45 people being charged with the supply of class A drugs, and money from the drug trade, as well as heroin and cocaine have been recovered.

Sandwell borough council wants to continue the campaign, as there is considerable evidence to show that heroin use is being checked and there is much greater community resistance to the drugs trade. I hope that funding for the programme will be continued.

My authority and others in the west midlands pioneered the use of antisocial behaviour orders, but they have found that court processes work against them. Common complaints are that derisory action is taken on breaches of ASBOs, that there are long waits for court appearances, and the general culture of the courts suggests that ASBOs are not an important part of their responsibilities.

Crime must be tackled at all levels, starting with good parenting, continuing throughout education and within a legal system that reinforces rights and responsibilities.

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I hope that local co-ordination will be specified in legislation to ensure that local authorities, the police and other agencies work in partnership to deliver it.

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