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13 Jan 2003 : Column 438—continued

Vernon Coaker: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. He is right to point to the welcome increase in police numbers and the fact that that should put more police on the street. Does he agree that we could consider how many extra police are on the street in relation to particular police forces? One police service with 2,000 officers might get 1,600 of them on to the street, while another with the same number might get 1,300 on to the street. Should not we consider that difference in performance and tell people how many operational officers they have got, as well as how many police officers?

Simon Hughes: Absolutely. Like the hon. Gentleman, all my hon. Friends with all their different police forces know that we need auditing, comparisons and the sharing of best practice. The reality is that merely having more police does not deliver results. It is what they do that counts. I have suggested, including to the Police Federation—it did not like my doing so—that civilians should be allowed to do any jobs that they are capable of doing. That could even include taking witness statements. Volunteers can work on the desk in a police station during the night. As I discovered when I stopped in Exeter once, a volunteer was perfectly able to do the job and could call a police officer if that were needed.

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Lots of jobs can be done in such a way. It is a question not only of more numbers, but of more numbers and more effective use.

I am proud that we had an early neighbourhood warden scheme in Bermondsey. It has been in operation for a year and a bit and has been hugely effective in reducing graffiti, vandalism, antisocial behaviour, environmental damage and racist attacks. Members of the scheme have been able to do the work on the ground, thus releasing the police for other activities. That means that we are more effective across the board. Although I have argued about powers, I have always supported the family of the police.

It is important that we do not change Ministers every two seconds and I therefore hope that the Home Secretary remains in post for the remainder of the Government's term of office. [Interruption.] I am serious about that. We need continuity.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): We do not say the same about the Lord Chancellor.

Simon Hughes: That comment does not need to be made more than once. But I ask the Home Secretary not to believe that an initiative a day keeps the criminal away. It does not. I hope that he will ensure that we aim for medium and long-term solutions, not short-term quick fixes. If the Prime Minister draws up an idea on the back of an envelope to catch people on a Friday night outside the pub, and delivers it in a lecture to academics in Tübingen, I hope that the Home Secretary ensures that it is examined, piloted and tested before it becomes policy—

Mr. Cameron: And is subsequently ignored.

Simon Hughes: Indeed. If we had half the schemes and they were twice as effective, we would have done better than the record of the past four years shows. Labour Members and people outside share that view with Liberal Democrat Members.

I hope that we can agree about statistics because we must take on the media distortion. I hope that we can agree about what works—that would be productive. I also hope that we can agree about good alternatives to custody and give them the necessary resources. I hope that we all realise that if young people get constructive things to do from their primary school, and if there are more male teachers, mentoring, good role models and much more sport, they have a much better chance of a productive life.

My colleagues and I are not going to subscribe to talking up the crisis. The Conservative party is trying desperately to rescue itself and it therefore wants to make matters sound worse than they are. However, the weekend poll shows that eight out of 10 members of the public do not believe that the Government have law and order or crime under control. I hope that, from now on, the Government will lead the debate and therefore the media rather than following the media. There is a danger of government by headline; that is not the way to reduce crime.

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5.22 pm

Ross Cranston (Dudley, North): My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has no case to answer on the motion. I commend the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) for his dispassionate approach to the problem in his 36 minutes. I hope to adopt the same approach in my 10 minutes.

Let me begin by dealing with the figures because the Opposition tabled their motion on that basis. The recorded crime figures involve what the police set down about crimes. Any first year criminology student can say that that depends on the way in which the figures are recorded and the recorders' behaviour. For example, it depends on whether control staff deal with calls in a specific way, the behaviour of the police and the public. The number of victims with insurance policies might drive up the reporting rate.

The new national crime recording standard, which was introduced in April last year, tries to take a more objective view. It adopts a prima facie approach to reports from the public and takes what a person reports at face value even if there is no sound evidence that an offence has occurred. None the less, grave problems are attached to recorded crimes. Page 342 of the most recent edition of the XBritish Handbook of Criminology" states that

As I said, the recorded crime figures have been used by the Opposition. There is no doubt that the figures for the 12 months until September 2002 show a 9 per cent. increase on those of the preceding 12 months, although when the changes introduced by the national crime recording standard are taken into account the increase is only 2 per cent. The figures for the quarter between July and September 2002 show a 1 per cent. fall if the NCRS changes introduced in April 2002 are taken into account.

As the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey pointed out, the British crime survey involves asking people what crime they have experienced. I accept the shadow Home Secretary's point that that will not always represent all crime experienced—it may not take account of commercial burglary, for instance—but the important aspect is the 7 per cent. drop in all crime during the 12 months to September 2002. The BCS figures also show a 2 per cent. drop in violent crime, a 7 per cent. drop in domestic burglary and a 14 per cent.drop in vehicle theft. That is very good news. Nevertheless, even those figures show problems.

As my time is limited, I will concentrate on firearms offences, especially in the light of the tragic deaths of Charlene Ellis and Letisha Shakespeare in the west midlands conurbation. Fortunately my constituency does not experience gun crime, but—like your constituency, Madam Deputy Speaker—it is part of that conurbation, and it is worrying that those tragic deaths occurred in our region.

According to the figures I have, firearms, excluding air weapons, were used in 9,974 recorded offences, an increase of 35 per cent. on the previous year. In 24 per cent. of those offences, the firearm was fired. Those statistics should be seen in perspective, and should be

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compared with what happens in other jurisdictions. The number of firearms deaths per 100,000 of the population varies from 26.6 in South Africa to 6.2 in the United States, 0.4 in Australia and 0.13 in the United Kingdom—although that last figure must be adjusted in the light of last week's figures.

I have acknowledged that the total number of firearms offences has risen in each of the past four years, although I should point out to the Conservatives that the current figures are only slightly higher than an earlier peak in 1993. 100 deaths and 558 serious injuries in crimes involving firearms represents a serious problem. The deputy chief constable of the west midlands struck the right note the other day when he said, according to the Birmingham Post,

I want to talk about three factors. The first is the guns themselves. We banned handguns, which obviously has not worked. According to a National Criminal Intelligence Service report picked up by some of the newspapers, many of the guns are coming from eastern Europe. Many are made in small back-street factories in Bulgaria, Croatia and Slovenia, and some have been bought on the internet.

There is also the problem of replica firearms. Hon. Members will have read that the Manchester police recently seized nearly 1,800 replicas in a raid on three Manchester shops. The guns had been imported mainly from Italy. They fired blanks but could readily be adapted to shoot real bullets. There is also a problem of illegal firearms coming into the country through the post. Customs and Excise has found weapons hidden in parcels from a range of countries. Most are concealed alongside drugs. I welcome the measures taken by the Government to address the problem of guns. The national forensic firearms intelligence database will enable the Forensic Science Service to track the provenance of guns and ammunition more effectively, and there is also the possibility of an amnesty. We must, however, address the problem of guns getting into the country and being sold either by rogue dealers or through the internet.

Who is using the weapons? Last week, I appeared on a media programme with a community activist in south London, Charles Bailey, who is also a producer of rap music. Charles explained to me that there had been an influx of people coming from Jamaica over the last 10 years, and that

His explanation was that, whereas in the past local criminals might have targeted banks or building societies, they are now targeting drug dealers, because drug dealers have cash. So the dealers arm themselves and those committing an offence by trying to get money from them are arming themselves as well. The shadow Home Secretary rightly pointed out the other day that the drug culture is an important contributory factor in the gun culture, so we also have to address the problem of drugs.

My third point relates to culture. There has been some discussion about violent video and computer games, and about rap music. I do not want to make a point

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about how they might contribute to the gun culture, but rap music can be used, as Charles Bailey explained to me, to counter the gun culture among young people. He is working with local authorities round the country to try to get young people away from the notion that violence is a good thing. I would commend to my hon. Friend the Minister Charles's latest rap CD, XDon't Shoot!". The Home Secretary will be as agitated as he was when he returned from Sheffield Wednesday's performance at the weekend when he listens to it, but I commend efforts such as this, in which young people can get the message that the violence associated with weapons is not a good thing.

In conclusion, I agree that crime is a major social problem. Freedom from crime and from the fear of crime is as important for our constituents as improving standards in our schools and in the national health service. The figures demonstrate, however, that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and the Government are doing a good job, and the assertions in the Opposition motion are largely fantasy.

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