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20 Nov 2002 : Column 742—continued

9.47 pm

The Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety (Mr. John Denham): I am very pleased to wind up the Queen's Speech debate and to be the final speaker after five days of debate. It has fallen to me to wind up for the Government because the Opposition decided that the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), rather than the shadow Leader of the House, should reply to the debate. With all due respect to the hon. Gentleman—he and I respect each other—neither of us have any illusions about where we stand in the pecking order. As far as I can see, this is the first Queen's Speech for five years not to be concluded by the shadow Leader of the House. That says something about the state of the Opposition—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Hon. Members should let the right hon. Gentleman speak. He is in order. Take my word for it.

Mr. Denham: The truth is that the Opposition have reached the last day of the Queen's Speech debate only to realise that they have run out of shadow Cabinet members capable of making a competent winding-up speech. I had thought that the reason that the Conservative party had chosen to structure today's debate in such a way was that they were determined to highlight home affairs. What a shame, therefore, that at 7.41 pm, the Opposition ran out of speakers, and they had to scour the bars, restaurants and cafes of the House to find someone. That tells us everything we wish to know about the Opposition's approach to this matter.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): Will the Minister tell us why the Labour party ran out of speakers last Thursday?

Mr. Denham: It was the Opposition who chose to break with a time-honoured tradition to devote the entire day to home affairs, and ran out of speakers at 7.40 pm.

I cannot reply to every speech made, but let me pick out a few highlights. First, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said that, in the view of the Liberal Democrats, crimes such as burglary and car theft should not be met with custodial sentences. I trust that that will be repeated on every XFocus" leaflet that is put out. If not, the rest of us should take on that responsibility, because Liberal Democrat voters would like to know what the hon. Gentleman thinks.

I have taken good note of the calls for action on fireworks, air weapons and alcohol-related antisocial behaviour. I will clearly want to consider those calls carefully when we draw up the Bill on antisocial behaviour.

I was reassured by the remarks made about extradition, and not because I believe that the criticisms were well placed, but because I believe that we will be able to reassure the House on the points made by Conservative Members. People will not be dragged off to Spain for writing articles in London that are legal here. The introduction of extradition without prima facie evidence was, of course, introduced for Europe by

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the previous Conservative Administration in 1991. Although I cannot respond to all the points that have been raised, we will be able to deal with them in detail when we discuss that Bill.

I welcome the broad support for the proposals for sex offenders that were outlined yesterday. Some details points were raised tonight and we should reflect on them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) asked about domestic violence and the forthcoming consultation paper. I can confirm that the paper will consult on changes to legislation, building on the approach taken in the White Paper XJustice for All" and with a view to legislating when parliamentary time allows.

There was a good debate to which Members on both sides contributed about the importance of drugs. It underlined the essential investment that we are making to double the number of drug treatment places that are available up and down the country.

Simon Hughes: The Minister has misrepresented our position on burglary and car crime, but I can deal with that point later. Can he clarify the Government's position on custody and the use of prison? Is the Home Secretary's view that we should seek to reduce the number of people in prison in England the prevalent one? Or is the Prime Minister's view that we need to build more prisons because the numbers going to prison will continue to rise the prevalent one? What is the Government's real view?

Mr. Denham: The Government's view consistently has been that we need to have prison for serious and persistent offenders. When, as we are doing for young offenders, we can develop sentences such as intensive supervision and surveillance programmes, which give us sufficient control over young people without custodial sentences, we shall develop those sentences where appropriate. What we should say to the people of this country is that we want the right sentences for the right criminals, and should not chase after particular numbers and targets and go in whichever direction they happen to take us.

Mr. Letwin: In the light of his last remarks, will the Minister tell us why 17 per cent. of prisoners are today subject to early release?

Mr. Denham: If that is appropriate and it is the judgment of prison governors that it is right, we will support them. The policy is working; that is the answer.

As we have set out in the debate, the Government will take forward their programme of fundamental reform of the criminal justice system. That programme began with the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, which introduced crime reduction partnerships and youth offending teams and established the Youth of Justice Board. It has already achieved a 14.6 per cent. of decrease in the rate of reoffending by and reconvictions of young people. The measures that we have taken so far have helped to contribute to the fall of 20 per cent. in the overall level of crime.

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This year, we took through the House the Police Reform Act 2002, which created the framework for improving the performance of every police force in England and Wales. In the coming year, we will reform sentencing, court procedures and put witnesses and victims at the heart of the criminal justice system. Step by step, the criminal justice system is being reformed from beginning to end.

The Opposition have largely carped and criticised tonight, but I am no wiser about what they would do. They are still dogged by their record. Let us remember that, 10 years ago, the Conservatives thought that the police service needed reform. What did they do? They looked for somebody to reform it. Where did they look? They looked where any Conservative Home Secretary would look: not to the police service or the police authority, but to a man who made cigarettes. We remember the history. Sheehy came. Sheehy went. The Conservatives gave up on police reform and filed it under Xtoo difficult". But we have not filed it under Xtoo difficult". Instead of asking a tobacco manufacturer how to do it, we worked with the police service on the reforms in last year's legislation. That is why they will work and support our police officers in the work that they need to do.

Not everyone agrees with every part of the reforms. Any reform worth having will be opposed by people who do not want change. The same will be true of our changes to the criminal justice system. Not all of them will be popular with people who do not want change, but the ideas that we will introduce will come from the experience of victims, witnesses, police officers, lawyers, judges and magistrates.

Having abandoned police reform, the Conservative party never tried to reform the criminal justice system in their 18 years in government. It allowed the system established under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, which was right and proper when it was introduced, to become inflexible and bureaucratic. It allowed the Crown Prosecution Service—a necessary initiative—to become too distant from the police with whom it needed to work closely. The Conservatives promised in 1992 to increase police officer numbers by 5,000 and ended up cutting them by 1,000. We have increased the number by 5,500 in the past two years and that will rise by an extra 2,500 by 2004. We are making the changes that the Conservatives failed to make.

The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire was elected when recorded crime in his county stood at 34,097. By 1997, it had risen under the Tories to 69,513. He will be pleased that it has fallen since Labour came to power in 1997 because that was not the case when he was a Minister. However, I hear hon. Members say that Labour cannot live off old Tory failures anymore. Apparently, the Conservative party is refreshed. It is reborn. It has a new leader, untainted by the past, and a new shadow Home Secretary, who is only marginally tainted by missing #20 billion a couple of years ago. The problem is that they are still getting it wrong.

The Conservatives said that no one would want community support officers, but 27 police forces will have them next year. They condemned the Government for not dealing with neighbourhood policing, but every time we discussed the Police Reform Act last year and said that we wanted measures to improve the quality of

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policing across the country, the Conservatives said, XNo. You can't do that. That's not the job of the Government."

Let us consider how the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) reacted to the street crime initiative. He said:

By the end of September, street crime was 16 per cent. below the level at which it stood at the start of the campaign. The Conservatives said that the street crime initiative would drive up other crimes. In fact, in the 20 basic command units in which street crime fell the most, burglary and car crime fell too. In London and the west midlands, not only were there dramatically fewer young victims of crime, but there were fewer young people committing crime too.

The Conservatives said the street crime initiative was a gimmick. They were wrong. They got it wrong last time they were in power, they got it wrong this time and everyone knows that they would get it wrong again. Of course, a month ago in the House of Lords, when we said that asylum seekers who commit crimes—

Question, That the Question be now put, put and agreed to.

Question put accordingly, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 152, Noes 372.

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