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House of Commons

Monday 2 December 2002

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Young Offenders

1. Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): What plans he has to extend the use of intensive supervision and surveillance programmes for young offenders. [82302]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Hilary Benn): The intensive supervision and surveillance programme is a Home Office-funded Youth Justice Board initiative. It is the strongest community sentence for serious and prolific young offenders, and it is aimed at the 3 per cent. of young people who are responsible for 25 per cent. of juvenile offences. The scheme has just been extended to cover all 10 areas covered by the street crime initiative. It now covers four fifths of England and Wales, including all the big conurbations.

Dr. Cable : In the light of Friday's court ruling pointing to the inappropriateness of prison for children, will the Minister now agree to extend completely, to all youth areas, this valuable programme, which has been shown to be much more effective than prison in deterring reoffending and which costs the taxpayer only one quarter as much as a young offenders institution place?

Hilary Benn: I welcome the hon. Gentleman's support for the intensive supervision and surveillance programme. Early indications are encouraging, but we must wait for the full assessment, which is to be undertaken by Oxford university, with the results available in 2004. One of the reasons that we introduced the programme was to minimise the chances of young people having to go into custody, although we recognise that that may be necessary for a small proportion of offenders.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North): Is my hon. Friend aware that one of the best ways to supervise young offenders is to have a vigilant police authority, but that police authorities in many areas are composed of people who do not come from high-crime areas? I do not expect him to answer off the cuff today, but will he

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undertake to examine the balance of representation on police authorities, especially in areas such as mine, where there are very few people representing the city of Nottingham, but where the majority of the shire's crime takes place?

Hilary Benn: I agree that it is important that police authorities should be representative of the communities they serve, not only in dealing with young offenders, but in dealing with all types of crime. I am happy to write to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): Does the Minister agree that for that minority who have to be imprisoned, the key to rehabilitation lies in structured programmes both while they are in custody and on their release? In that context, should there not be concern if the early release programme under tagging of 60 days, extendable to 90 days, is leading to young offenders being released part way through programmes undertaken while they are in custody?

Hilary Benn: The hon. Gentleman is aware that when applying the early release programme under home detention curfew, prisons will, in anticipation of prisoners coming out, take account of that in their programmes. On his first point, he is absolutely right: structured programmes are important to tackle the problems created by young offenders. That is precisely why in recent years we have invested £50 million in improving those programmes under the auspices of the YJB.

Air Weapons

2. Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South): What plans he has to change the age limit at which air weapons can be used; and if he will make a statement. [82303]

11. Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough): What plans he has to amend legislation on possession and use of airguns. [82313]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett): The misuse of air weapons is a serious problem. We are considering a number of options for dealing with the difficulties that people have faced, and I intend to introduce proposals in the new year under the new antisocial behaviour legislation.

Mr. Mullin : I am grateful for that reply, but had hoped that the Home Secretary would be able to go a little further and say precisely what he had in mind. Will he confirm that among the options he is considering are raising the age ban on ownership to 17 and increasing the powers of police to confiscate the weapons; and whether he has any plans to deal with replica weapons?

Mr. Blunkett: I am deeply sympathetic on all three counts. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry,

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North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), has been pulling together a package of measures for me, and I hope to be able to announce some of those very shortly.

Jeff Ennis : I thank my right hon. Friend for his response. Further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), is the Home Secretary considering the introduction of a licensing system for the use of airguns? That would be popular with many local councils, particularly in Barnsley and Doncaster, but I know that it would be difficult to achieve given that about 4 million unlicensed air weapons are already in circulation in this country.

Mr. Blunkett: My hon. Friend has identified a real problem in both the bureaucracy and our ability to enforce the law. He will be aware of the way in which the categorisation works at the moment—the six foot-pounds, as they are known, which are already prohibited under the handgun ban. Obviously, there are a number of ways in which the use of handguns can be dealt with as an offence, including firearms offences. I am sympathetic to the problem, and am seeking a way forward that will not bog everyone down in a bureaucratic nightmare but will result in a solution.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): I thank the Home Secretary for his final remark about not seeking to trap everyone in a bureaucratic quagmire, but does he agree that tens of thousands of young people handle airguns extremely responsibly and learn a great deal about the art of target shooting and rifle shooting, particularly the basic rudiments of weapons safety, from shooting with airguns? Does he agree that it is extremely important that they should not be prevented from enjoying the perfectly legitimate and wholly satisfactory use of their weapons?

Mr. Blunkett: I would agree, but that is primarily because they are properly supervised and trained, and understand the nature of the weapon that they are handling. If that can be done in properly supervised surroundings, so much the better.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): May I emphasise to the Home Secretary the fact that the ban on handguns, to which he referred just now, demonstrates clearly that banning does not necessarily reduce the criminal use of handguns? I remind him of the Prime Minister's public pledge not to place further restrictions on shooting sports. In that spirit, and in the spirit of the Home Secretary's own remarks on the record that he wants any changes in airgun legislation to have cross-party support, I urge him to reject proposals on licensing and raising ages because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) said, they will penalise the vast majority who participate in the lawful, sensible and safe use of airguns. Will he consider simply extending section 16 of the Firearms Act 1968, which would make it an arrestable offence to carry an airgun in a public place unless someone could prove that they had good reason for doing so? That would have our party's support.

Mr. Blunkett: I am prepared to consider the hon. Gentleman's proposition, but I want to make it clear

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that there is an enormous difference between holding, owning and using airguns for sport and using them to maim, terrorise and undermine the order that we expect in our communities.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington): On the question of weapons in general, the Home Secretary will be aware of the rising tide of gun crime in London. Is he aware that the Metropolitan police aim to get the minimum sentence for carrying a weapon raised to at least five years? Will he also do something about the production of Brocock replica weapons?

Mr. Blunkett: I am aware of representations. There is good reason for treating the issue seriously and considering whether we should add it to the Criminal Justice and Sentencing Bill.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): Like my hon. Friends, I very much welcome the moderate approach that the Home Secretary has outlined this afternoon. However, will he clarify something? Rather puzzlingly, he told the Select Committee on Home Affairs that he would examine why people under 17 could purchase air weapons. Is he not aware that that is already illegal? Between 14 and 17, people can borrow and use air weapons—we all agree that that is sensible—but they have to be over 17 to buy them.

Mr. Blunkett: You can be under 17 to own one—that is an interesting anomaly. We can banter about the niceties across the Dispatch Box till kingdom come, but in the spirit of our earlier discussion, we are all trying to find a genuine solution.

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