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13 Jan 2003 : Column 434—continued

Mr. Letwin: The hon. Gentleman knows that there is considerable agreement between us on these matters, but has he considered the statistics that have persuaded me? Burglary is a premeditated crime and the statistics show that the imposition of custodial sentences appears to have had a very significant downward effect on the incidence of burglary as reported in the British crime survey figures and in the reported crime figures for burglary. How does he deal with that point?

Simon Hughes: I have considered those statistics and I accept that point. Interesting articles appeared in the press this weekend. For example, an article in The Sunday Times by Minette Marrin went through many alternative statistics on what works and what does not. It quoted a set of statistics that suggested that alternatives to custody had a higher success rate than custody. However, other statistics suggest that that is not the case and that the different options have a similar success or failure rate. I accept that there are different rates of success depending on the offence and on whether the alternative to custody was attached to drugs or alcohol treatment, but if we had a clearer idea about what works we would be able to make progress.

I agree with the Home Secretary that we should criticise those who misrepresent the position. I share his view that, last week, the Leader of the Conservative Opposition and, surprisingly but to a lesser extent, his shadow Home Secretary appeared to get so carried away with the thought that this was a good issue for them that they misrepresented the facts. I do not often criticise the Conservative shadow Home Secretary as he is normally meticulous in his approach to these issues, but my one criticism of him today is that he appeared to show total amnesia when he described the figures published last Thursday as truly terrible. It was a total misrepresentation of the figures that have just been produced independently.

I am not here to sell other people's products, but I commend the Home Office's statistical bulletin, which clearly sets out the trends. For example, it shows that domestic burglary reached its peak in 1994 and has since gone down or steadied and has not gone up again. For the Conservative motion to claim that the number of burglaries is going up flies completely in the face of the evidence in the bulletin.

Mr. Letwin: But it is.

Simon Hughes: Not according to the evidence. The right hon. Gentleman and I are not statisticians, but the figures are clear. All that has happened is that the recorded crime figures show a recent increase, but the British crime survey figures, which are more respected,

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show a decrease. I refer the right hon. Gentleman to page 6 of last week's document. He quoted from another part of it, so presumably we agree that the document is authentic.

Mr. Letwin: Of course I agree that the document is authentic, including page 10, from which I quoted. The problem is that the British crime survey is woefully deficient in two significant respects because it fails to deal with retail crime and multiple occupation. As a result, it does not tell us the same story as the reported crime figures, other than on a broad-brush scale over a long period. Is not it clear that even after the adjustments for the new reporting system, the reported crime statistics show a significant increase over the past year in domestic burglary and other burglaries?

Simon Hughes: I am keen to go outside and pore over the documents. I am willing to go by the work carried out by people who produce statistics independently on a regular basis. A big effort has been made to ensure that the statistics are more reliable and produced more frequently. If we want to reassure the public, it is better to concentrate on crimes, such as firearms crime, about which there can be no argument that they have increased. We should not frighten people about crimes, such as vehicle crime, if the evidence clearly shows that the trend is in the other direction.

The right hon. Gentleman's party has an ongoing problem. Violent crime increased every year when it was in government. There were 2.5 million recorded crimes in 1979. That rose to 4.5 million in 1997, an increase of 81 per cent. The figure peaked at 5.5 million when the Conservatives were in government. In addition, the number of police officers, which had increased, decreased in their last five years in office, contrary to their promises. There were 469 fewer police officers in that period although the Government promised 5,000 more. In London, part of which I represent, there were 1,269 fewer officers. The number of convictions also fell from 1.8 million in 1979 to 1.4 million in 1996. In 1985, there was one conviction for every eight crimes; by 1997, there was only one conviction for every 14 crimes.

The right hon. Gentleman will try to reinvent his party's policy on law and order, as he should do, but its record in office shows that it presided over an increasingly lawless society. In its last five years in government, police numbers decreased and crime increased, so he does not stand against the background of an effective alternative record when we judge his party's time in office. That is not his fault and I do not blame him personally, but the electorate need to take it into account. When they criticise the Government, which I am happy to do when they get it wrong, they also need to ensure that they do not forget what happened in those 18 years when the Conservatives got it badly wrong.

Vernon Coaker (Gedling): I am pleased to say that the number of police officers in Nottinghamshire increased by 10 per cent. in the past three years. On statistics, however, does the hon. Gentleman agree that they are most effective when considered on a local basis? We need to make local statistics more easily available to

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local communities so that they can judge the effectiveness of the police or the crime prevention strategies in their communities. Surely the way to make communities more confident is to enable them to see the statistics for their own area.

Simon Hughes: Absolutely. My local police force could tell the hon. Gentleman that one of my beefs is that I perpetually say that it is no good merely producing statistics for the past quarter. It has to compare those with the previous quarter, last year and statistics for surrounding areas; otherwise they are meaningless. I have never understood why it is so difficult for the police to produce comparable statistics on a local basis. I simply cannot understand it. It is a great failing that, in the age of the computer, statistics and technology, comparable statistics cannot regularly be produced.

My final points will, I hope, be encouraging. The Opposition may try to exploit statistics, but the reality is that although crime is far too high, overall crime has been falling since 1995, and violent crime has fallen in some years since then. It is troubling that there was, as the Home Secretary well knows, a huge increase in robberies between 1997 and 2001, and the most troubling statistics are those for reported firearms-related crimes, which is why the Government are right to act, although I am critical of the sequence of their actions.

In 2001–02, firearms were used in 10,000 recorded crimes—a rise of 35 per cent. Airguns were used in more than 12,000 crimes, which is a rise of 21 per cent., and handguns were used in nearly 6,000 crimes, which is a rise of 46 per cent. We have to deal with knives and guns, but people are now terrified by guns, either because of an encounter with one or because of the fear of an encounter. That is partly why the figures show that so many adults, 35 per cent., believe that crime has increased a lot, and 34 per cent. believe that it has increased a little. Locally, they do not see sufficient police officers, and they do not yet see sufficient numbers of other people, such as neighbourhood wardens and community support officers, doing a policing job, so they do not yet feel that the system has law and order under control.

Vernon Coaker rose—

Simon Hughes: If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I will continue; otherwise I will never get to the end of my speech and he will not have his chance to speak.

When MORI, a perfectly reputable opinion polling company—it is based in my constituency, so I would probably have had to say that anyway—did its two-yearly survey of my borough, it asked people what they were most concerned about. The poll went through all the usual crimes, beginning with low-level antisocial behaviour, and asked people about their responses and planned reactions to those crimes. One problem, which is now apparent to us all, is that the public have lost confidence in the system's ability to deliver. When asked why they had not reported a crime to the police, 50 per cent. of people said that there was no chance of catching the criminals.

Until we make the public believe that reporting a crime to the police will deliver a result, they will not have confidence that the criminal justice system works.

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I accept what the Met say they have done, although they have not done what they are represented as having done, but if somebody's home is burgled, a police officer should attend. The least that people can expect is that their home will be subject to proper policing and police support and advice. To send out someone who is not a police officer, or to send nobody, strikes me as an unacceptable response.

Having made it clear that statistics must be true, I have also, I hope, made it clear that it is for Parliament to set maximum sentences but not specific sentences. Judges should do that, and just as judges must be autonomous if we are to have confidence in the judiciary, so the police must be autonomous. I share the Home Secretary's view expressed today on that, which is why Liberal Democrat Members have fought to resist Home Secretaries' interference with police authorities, commissioners and chief constables. There should be different responses in different places. What may work in Nottinghamshire, South Yorkshire or Dorset, may not work for the Met, and we have to allow the police to respond to their local community. Judges may be criticised, but in my experience politicians command less respect than judges, and if we tried to usurp their role, we would be in trouble.

I turn now to an idea in which I believe the Home Secretary will be interested, although I understand the personal difficulties in pursuing it. One reason that our justice system is dysfunctional is that we have three Departments running it—the Home Office, the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Law Officers Department. My party has long argued that we ought to follow the model of other countries and have a Ministry of Justice with a Secretary of State or Minister responsible, in the House of Commons, to elected representatives. There would then be a considerable chance of achieving a more co-ordinated set of policies, and we would not hear the Lord Chancellor saying something on the radio one day, followed by a Home Office Minister saying something different the next.

I have argued that we must not have mandatory sentences. I think that they are wrong in all circumstances, but I hope that I have been clear in saying that we should debate the guidelines. I have also argued that we should very clear about the presumption of what should happen regarding gun use and about the sort of burglaries in respect of which people should expect to lose their liberty. However, the real danger of the war cry of the tabloids is that they are increasingly calling for prison for everything. Prison is the last card that can be played in the criminal justice system; there is no other. Once somebody has gone to prison, no bigger penalty can be used. When that card has been played, by definition, it loses its strength and efficacy.

Alternatives can work. In Committee, the Solicitor-General has been proposing conditional cautions, with support from the Opposition parties, as an additional weapon in the armoury at the bottom of the scale of punishment. Where there are enough officers to do the job, the probation service is often very good at ensuring that alternatives work in the community. Earlier today, I was at Snaresbrook Crown court, which is the largest such court in England and Wales. The resident judge told me that Snaresbrook regularly has one probation officer for its 18, 19 or 20 courts. One day recently, however, it had no probation officer at all. If the

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Government do not proceed more quickly with the Chancellor's help to beef up the probation service, all the outside prison work will be at risk of being highly ineffective, instead of much more effective.

I should like publicly to commend the Youth Justice Board. The Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport are right to draw attention to the programmes that it has been running in my constituency and elsewhere, which can divert energetic young people from criminal activity in the holidays and include all sorts of alternative activities that young people can do well, whether they involve drama, music or sport. We need more of those diversionary activities throughout the country.

As Mr. Giuliani said in New York, one can make a difference, and a difference was made there. However, that requires more police, and I hope that the Home Secretary is now big enough to admit that one of the biggest mistakes that the Labour Government made after their election in 1997 was not to increase police numbers from the beginning. It is not only me who is saying that. The XNarrowing the Justice Gap" document produced by the Government states in very small print, under the title XRecent performance in bringing offences to justice",

I commend the Home Secretary for having record police numbers, which need to increase further, as he knows. However, it was a big mistake—it was not made under his stewardship of the Home Office—to let them decrease for the first three and half years of Labour government. If they had not done so, not nearly so many offences would have been committed and there would not be so much worry about crime.

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