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13 Jan 2003 : Column 460—continued

6.47 pm

Mr. David Cameron (Witney): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). He can speak for many hours without a note, to which it is always good to listen, but he has given me a couple of minutes to raise a particular constituency case to which I would like the Minister to listen.

Many residents in my west Oxfordshire constituency have been terrorised by a particular criminal gang of violent burglars, who are believed to live in Cheltenham, next door in Gloucestershire. They have been

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responsible for dozens of burglaries. To illustrate, the Heyworth family, who live in the Cotswold wildlife park, said:

Another lady from Bampton told me:

Clearly, this gang are causing great distress to all concerned.

The police have had some success, but there are problems, which I would like to share with the Minister. One problem is that, while the clan or group believed to be responsible for these burglaries live in the Cheltenham area, they rarely commit offences on their own patch. John Liversidge, the area commander concerned in the Thames Valley police force, has written to me:

His second point is about the difficulty of calling on central resources when there are so many other calls.

I have met the chief constable of the Thames Valley force and have visited, with Lord Hurd—my predecessor but one—the assistant chief constable of Gloucestershire. One issue arose, which I would like to raise in the remaining minute. I am concerned that some of the crime is falling between what the regional crime squads used to do and what is done now , on the one hand, by the National Crime Squad—which was set up to replace the regional crime squads—and, on the other, by the county forces. If we look at the National Crime Squad's mission document, we see that it is focused very much on class A drugs, organised immigration crime and high-tech crime. There is very little about cross-border burglary and I hope that the Minister will consider that point. The report refers to a

The crime has been identified, but an answer to it has not been found.

I wish to make three quick pleas to the Minister. First, will he not give forces too many targets that mean that they cannot deal with crime outside their own area? If he does, they will not deal with such crime. Secondly, will he ensure that the national crime squad deals with burglary because that is a serious problem? Thirdly, after this debate, will he also give the attack on burglary a much higher priority than it has had so far?

A huge problem has not been mentioned sufficiently in the debate. The Lord Chief Justice's sentencing guidelines overturn what the sentencing advisory panel recommended and, God knows, that was weak enough in the first place. Ministers say that the Lord Chief Justice is talking only about not imprisoning a few first-time burglars, but they should read his judgment in the cases of Regina v. McInerney and Regina v. Keating. In two instances, which include aggravating circumstances and in which people could be put in fear and victims experience a dreadful burglary, Ministers will see that he is saying that the starting point should not be custody. Conservative Members firmly believe that it should be.

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6.51 pm

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): We have heard a great deal in the debate about statistics. Several Labour members, including the hon. and learned Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston) and the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), made the point that it was possible to be blinded by statistics. I entirely agree with them. Statistics should be approached with the knowledge that we all get from our constituencies, from what people tell us and from the experience of our lives. In that context, I point out to the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) that the suggestion that the Conservative party does not take an interest in neighbourhood and community issues in respect of crime is bunkum. I was the vice-chairman of a police community consultative group in Lambeth and those of us who have been involved in groups dealing with local crime prevention will find that a startling assertion.

I always start not with the statistics for what has happened over the past five years but with the statistics for what has happened in this country over the past 50 years. Although those statistics may be misleading in their detail, the picture that they paint is horrific. I receive from septuagenarian constituents angry letters telling us that this country is an entirely different place in terms of crime from that they remember from their childhood, and they are absolutely right.

I take as just one example the offence of wounding or other acts endangering life. In the year in which I was born, 1956, 1,227 such offences were committed. In 2000–01, the figure was 15,662 offences and, even under the old rules, there was a consistent upward trend in the late 1990s. Burglary has been spoken about at great length in the debate. In 1956, 85,000 burglaries were committed and we know that the figure peaked at 1.3 million. By 2000-01, the figure was more than 800,000 and surely the most significant thing about the latest statistics is that they strongly suggest that the bottoming out and gentle reduction have now been lost. If that is not the proper basis for an Opposition to initiate this debate, I cannot think what is. We should also consider the statistics for violent crime. The figure was as low as 3,000 in 1942, but it is now at an enormously high level.

The Government say that things have not got so bad over the past five years. They are entitled to be judged by their performance and, over the past five years, it has been extremely poor. They came to office committed to building on the improvements of the previous four or five years of Conservative Government in matters of crime. They told us that they would be tough on crime and tough on its causes, and they have had five years in which to show their mettle. As has been pointed out in the debate, the statistics for burglary—but, above all, those for violent crime—show that, in the past 10 years and particularly since the Government came to office and notwithstanding a rising tide of national prosperity, the willingness of people to resort to casual violence, to violence for the sake of gain and to graduate from the punch-up to the use of the knife and to the use of the gun is one of the most worrying aspects of our society. I would have thought that the Government would agree with us on that. I also assume that the Government would agree with us about burglary in the mid-1990s. That is an example of what happens when a particular crime is targeted.

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What has been the Government's reaction? There has been plenty of discussion in the debate about two examples that show the Government's muddled thinking. The first example is the so-called mandatory sentence for gun crime, and the second is the message that they have put out about burglary. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) made a powerful speech about the way in which the mandatory three-year sentence for the repeat offender was implemented by the Government. They did not need to implement it if they did not want to, but its implementation has led nowhere.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) pointed out, the judicial guidelines have been tailored and transformed to meet the immediate crisis in prison numbers. There is no other explanation and the public are entitled to question the new guidelines when they do not appear to have any other basis and when the evidence is that the introduction of tougher guidelines in the mid-1990s was the very thing that brought about the one reduction in crime for which the previous Government and this Government could claim some credit. The Conservative Government could claim credit for initiating that policy and the present Government at least maintained it. I fear that that policy has now been almost totally abandoned and we will rapidly see the consequences of that. They are already manifest in the rising rate of burglary.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) made the same point and made a plea for flexibility in the sentencing guidelines. He is absolutely right. Mandatory sentences in themselves very rarely work, so what happened at Prime Minister's questions 24 hours after the Home Office had accepted that the mandatory sentence for gun crime was nothing of the kind beggars belief. In answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk), the Prime Minister said:

He was referring to someone carrying a gun. In one of the most unpleasant passages that I have heard in the House, the Home Secretary suggested that my right hon. Friends the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) and the leader of the Conservative party were—he used an unparliamentary expression—being misleading, so what on earth are we to make of a Prime Minister who, 24 hours after the Home Office had corrected a wholly mistaken impression, decides to reinforce that impression in the House because he believes that that will make good copy? That was a disgrace. [Interruption.] The Home Secretary only has to read Hansard or to have it read to him to discover what was said. It was a wholly misleading statement, and quite deliberately so.

The Home Secretary has also told us how things will improve in future. For example, he told us that the Halliday report on sentencing would be implemented in the Criminal Justice Bill and that we would have custody plus, custody minus and greater flexibility. In fact, that will not happen. He knows that, although the Bill will introduce many changes—including the possibility of custody plus and custody minus—the Government have

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already indicated that the changes cannot, at present, be implemented, presumably because the resources are not available. I have to say to the Home Secretary that that was another extremely misleading comment.

The remedies that the Government have come up with are a series of ersatz ideas. We have talked about the 100 initiatives and mandatory sentences, but all the Government do is make headlines saying that they will attack and undermine the principles of jury trial—we will consider that tomorrow in the Committee considering the Criminal Justice Bill—when the number of people affected by that in terms of reducing crime is totally irrelevant. Yet the Government's proposal is an illiberal measure characteristic of their approach.

Then the Home Secretary told us about Mr. Braddon's visit. That fascinated me. He came over to tell us how New York has achieved its lowest violent crime rate—indeed, its lowest crime rate overall—since 1900. That is a complete contrast to this country and the Home Secretary seems to have accepted that we should study that example. This Home Secretary's tenure, however, has been characterised by a period of maximum police demoralisation because they are unable to carry out the task that they want to do. It is small wonder, therefore, that the crisis is so marked in my area of Thames Valley and no surprise that the Dyfed-Powys police force has the highest clear-up rate for crime. Dyfed-Powys police has the highest number of police officers per head of population; Thames Valley has one of the worst clear-up rates and one of the lowest number of police officers per head of population.

The Home Secretary has been unable and unwilling to tackle that issue. It is ultimately a matter of priorities. So let us consider the Government's priorities. At the moment, they are happy to spend #2.5 billion per annum giving us bureaucratic structures for regional government. If they had different priorities, that could be used instead to provide 25,000 police officers. The choice is theirs. They know from our Committee work that they will have reasoned support from us for sensible measures, but they have chosen to hide behind a series of spins and deceits to conceal the fact from the general public that they know, just as much as the public do, that there is a serious problem with violent crime. The Home Secretary is like a raging bull in a china shop: he can smash the crockery and smash civil liberties in the process, but he produces limited results for his exertions. He would do well to step back, consider the matter carefully and embark on sensible and long-term policies rather than a series of gimmicks.

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