Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)



  Q40  Mr Clappison: I think many people would agree with that. It is very important that those who are brought to justice receive a sentence which enables them to cease offending in the future. The issues which you have mentioned are long running issues in the criminal justice system and the fact remains that, if only 10% are brought to justice and can therefore have the sort of treatment which you refer to, that is a pretty dismal statistic which the public find unacceptable.

  Mr Blunkett: Yes, it is. I think it is a good thing that gradually detection rates are starting to come back up from a very low level. It is good that the procedures of the police and the handling of the courts have improved. It is good that the information technology has allowed for that to be done in a much speedier fashion so that, for instance, the number of juveniles being in a position of waiting undue lengths of time, again witnesses falling out of the picture, people believing they can get away with it, has been turned around largely so that the 142 days was, on the last statistic, 63 days, which I think is a very substantial improvement. These are all small parts of a much bigger jigsaw. They do not in themselves transform the system but if it is going in the right direction it is our job to accelerate it.

  Q41  Mr Clappison: The street crime initiative did lead to a fall in street crime in the ten areas concerned in the first six months. That was followed by a levelling off. Can you tell us what the latest position is and has the situation improved or worsened since December 2002?

  Mr Blunkett: Over the year it was a 17% reduction which is over 17,000 fewer offences. These are real people who are no longer being mugged, thieved from, and having their lives made a misery on the street. I think it has changed the reaction. If you look back 18 months, there were almost daily in our papers, certainly every other day on our televisions, stories about street crime rising, about the fear of people on the streets, some people feeling that they had to go and live somewhere else. I am very proud that we have turned that round. I am very pleased that the major forces have shown such a massive improvement. I am also very encouraged by the fact that we use this as a learning process. We learned about how to put the criminal justice system together in a much more effective way at local level and we are building on that with the local criminal justice boards. Out of that has come an entirely different approach of working together between those agencies. There is still some work to be done on it and we cannot do it all. I draw attention to the difficulty for us in terms of centralism versus localism. It is right that the Government should not pretend that it can do everything. It is right that government should provide the investment, set the parameters, enable people to have the power, but what does the Government do when, having put those things in place, they take their foot off the accelerator and you then have a reverse of the trend of improvement? That certainly was something I was very mindful of when I was Education Secretary. I want to try and do the same here, to learn the lesson that you have to embed it at local level if it is to work.

  Q42  Mr Clappison: In the light of that can I put specifically part of the original question again? Has the situation improved or worsened since December of last year?

  Mr Blunkett: It has improved in the major areas. It has also improved in those forces, like my own in South Yorkshire, that were struggling in the first six months and are now doing a great deal better. There are still very major challenges. We have to rely on not just the force leaders but the police authorities and the other partners in the criminal justice system to be prepared to do their bit. If we can establish the right level of accountability so that I and my ministers are held to account for what is rightly ours and those at local level are held to account for what is rightly theirs, we would have a much better debate and we could then address the issue of whether there is more we could do to spread this practice and how more effectively to do that.

  Q43  Mr Clappison: So that we can look at all the various things you have described and whether they are successful or not, can you tell us if you are going to have a target to reduce street crime further?

  Mr Blunkett: I have indicated that we should have local level targets. We have asked in relation to each authority, each force area, in terms of what they have already achieved, for them to set those targets. They have been very effective in responding to that and providing that back to us. We hope to hold them to account for matching that.

  Q44  Miss Widdecombe: I wanted to ask a little more about the initiatives against drugs. Everybody would welcome the crack house changes and the efforts which are being made, but I put it to you that the real problem with the supply of drugs is simply its sheer proliferation. Everybody knows what is happening, for example, when you get a house on a council estate and you have people coming and going all day long. Everybody knows what is happening when a car drives up to a kerb and people come out of doorways, gather round and it drives off. Similarly, any taxi driver can point out places in London and say to you, "That guy there is a regular drug dealer." They always add that the police are not doing anything about it. That is the area of supply which is extremely difficult to combat because it involves, I am always assured by the police, surveillance in order to get the necessary evidence. You cannot simply say, "We know what is happening"; you have to supply evidence. It is that area where there appears to be very little real grip being taken. What is your view on that and what do you think the police can do?

  Mr Blunkett: We need to empower the police to be more effective. We also need to spread the best and most effective practice. I do not believe that I can or should be able to order a Chief Constable to adopt a particular method that I want, but I think it is my duty through the Standards Unit and the Inspectorate to ensure that they follow the best practice available, including the use of CCTV for surveillance, mobile CCTV, including the use of professional witnesses, including the way in which they can support, encourage and protect community witnesses who are often intimidated when they come forward with evidence in relation to this; and to change the law so that where intimidation exists when the court case is taking place we can protect people by ensuring that, where in appropriate circumstances those threats exist, we can have judge only trials. By doing that we can assist the police in doing their job. I do not dispute for a moment the scenario that you have painted because it happens day in, day out, in my own constituency.

  Q45  Mr Clappison: Another very serious criminal issue is gun crime, which is a great concern particularly in some inner city parts of the country. What are your thoughts on why this phenomenon has arisen? How are you tackling it?

  Mr Blunkett: Again, this is linked to drugs, to organised criminality. It has often been described, on numerous occasions, as imported as part of the organised gangs. We established a round table discussion with the partners last January. It has met twice since and there will be another meeting before Christmas. We set up the voluntary body with representatives of those communities most affected. We funded that organisation to be able to take forward what has to be a change in attitude and culture so that the communities most affected become part of the solution. I am very proud that many of those in the black community in Britain, particularly in London where Operation Trident has been reasonably successful, have embraced the idea that they have to be part of this solution, because it is often their sons and daughters who are the victims. I think we need to work alongside them, increasing the diversity within the police force itself. I am addressing the National Black Police Association in two weeks' time and their concern is that we have made progress in recruitment but we need retention and promotion within the ranks so that people feel confident to go to the police, to work with the police, to be partners alongside the police. Of course we can do some things. We had the gun amnesty which some people were quite sceptical about. We had 43,000 weapons handed in, which is a greater number than after Hungerford and after the tragedy at Dunblane. It was a very substantial success. All these things begin to change the climate and build confidence.

  Q46  Mr Clappison: Amongst the factors possibly driving this is the connection between gun crime and violent lyrics in rap music. Have you any thoughts you wish to share with us about that?

  Mr Blunkett: I was entertained by the debate following my ministerial colleague, Kim Howells, in terms of whether this was a problem. I think that the nature of communication is geared to the receptiveness of young people. It is not the rap itself that is the problem; it is those who are conveying dangerous messages through rap. That is why I welcome people like Charles Bailey who are using rap, encouraging young people and young musicians to use rap, as a force for good. I have come to realise, having occasionally on a lonely evening when I have run out of patience with doing the box switched into Radio 1 for about 90 seconds at any one time, how powerful rap is.

  Q47  Chairman: I wonder if you could describe for us the ministerial responsibilities at present for counter-terrorism work and for work in protection against chemical, biological and radiological attack?

  Mr Blunkett: I hold overall responsibility, combining the necessary responsibilities and accountability for the Security Service, which is unique in terms of developed democracies, the police service, including the counter terror unit of the Met Police and the Special Branch across the country, with the programme of resilience. Beverley Hughes, who was appointed at the last reshuffle as the Minister responsible for working directly to me on this, takes specific responsibility with me for the resilience areas. Between us, we work with other colleagues who have a specific remit, as with the pilot we had last Sunday on the underground where the Department of Transport were clearly intricately involved and where responsibilities lay there and with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, where the Fire Brigade were involved and of course the Department of Health in relation to the ambulance and health services.

  Q48  Chairman: If things had gone badly wrong with the exercise on Sunday and it was apparent that preparations were inadequate which minister would clearly have been responsible for that failure?

  Mr Blunkett: I would have been. Those elements that have been shown to have gone wrong would have been held to account by me and through to the Prime Minister for putting them right. The point of the exercise was to reveal not only where there may have been weaknesses but also to actually show how a more extensive exercise needed to be conducted and what additional resources would be required.

  Q49  Chairman: The Permanent Secretary who is responsible for co-ordinating the areas of work you describe, or many of them, is not in the Home Office, do you think given the responsibilities that you have just accepted you have adequate control over it? Is there adequate accountability to yourself?

  Mr Blunkett: Let me put in to two guises. First of all John Gieve has responsibility with me for reporting to the Prime Minister on the Security Service, the police and the Special Branch and it is important to emphasise that because they are the first line in terms of intelligence and security measures, which are the most critical part of protecting us. At present we are in a Northern Ireland situation. Secondly, they have to respond with me to the Cabinet committee dealing with the funding and the prioritisation for counter-terrorism, and as I Chair that, then obviously my Department is integrally involved in that through the TPU, the Terrorism Protection Unit. On the resilience side, yes, Sir David Omand has responsibility, and this was established when there was a change of structure in 2001 prior to 11 September attack. It was at that point on 11 September when people I think were brought up short we realised that we were not talking about traditional civil contingencies, which we presumed would be flood and fire and occasional acts of God, but we were talking about counter-terror and the organisation round it. Only at that point did we really begin to get our act together and it did take quite a long time to develop the internal structures that ensure David Ellman had the clear authority across Government, the twelve strands that were developed in terms of the Resilience Programme were in place and there was clear reporting mechanisms, including today, as it happens, Sir David Omand reporting to Beverley Hughes. Inevitably we took time, not as much time as it took, it has to be said, to set up the Homeland Security Department of which I am familiar because I have met Tom Ridge many times, including in Washington in March, and I know of the many difficulties they have experienced inevitably in setting up something from scratch.

  Q50  Chairman: Can I turn to border control? This Committee have been interested in border control and recommended that all of the border control agencies should be combined into a single frontier force. You yourself told the House on 3 July that there is a strong difference of opinion, including that between the police and others, as to whether a unified border control taking in Special Branch, Immigration Control, Customs & Excise, et cetera would be more or less effective. Can you say more about what those differences of opinion are or have they now been resolved? Can you tell us clearly whether we are going to have a unified border control system or whether the balance and advantage, in your view, lies with the separate organisations cooperating together, as they may or may not do at the moment?

  Mr Blunkett: Before I do that can I just say I do want to make an offer this afternoon to the Home Affairs Select Committee that on the resilience and counter-terror front, and obviously because it relates to this in its broadest sense, the protection of borders, I am very happy for the Committee to be briefed by officials in private. I am very keen that other committees of the House should not believe they alone are able to draw down on the expertise that exists, and I welcome you doing that. We have already had two investigations, firstly in relation to taking a look at the organisation of the Special Branch and secondly in establishing a co-ordinator for border protection, who started last January. Since then the Prime Minister has decided, in my view very correctly, to establish a Cabinet committee which will endeavour to pull together the various strands of border control and of organised crime, because the two go hand-in-hand. My own view is that there will have to be change. We have not yet agreed that change. There will be further meetings before the end of the month on this. We will have to square the circle of those who believe that their activity is integral to their wider work. The Kent Police believe that their Special Branch activity on the issues of border control and immigration are crucial to their wider role and should be integrated. We want to ensure that we do not lose that. We want a more cohesive structure so that the objective is matched by the structure rather than the other way round, we do not want to set up something which works on paper but does not actually work in practice. I am very sympathetic in trying to ensure that where there are glitches we iron them out and make sure that people not only feel but know that people are working in tandem.

  Q51  Chairman: Can I take it from your answer that this is now being approached with some urgency?

  Mr Blunkett: Yes, you can. I hope with the review of other agencies and the way they are working we can get this right. We are dealing with a whole range of agencies here from Her Majesty's Customs & Excise to the National Crime Squad, the National Criminal Intelligence Service, the Special Branch policing, even down to those actually chugging up and down our coasts who often do not get into the picture, including the coastguard.

  Chairman: Thank you. That is helpful, as is your offer of briefing the Committee.

  Q52  David Winnick: Is it not important, Home Secretary, that the Anti-terrorism Act 2000 should be used for combatting terrorism and not for dealing with demonstrators who appear to have absolutely no relationship with terrorism at all?

  Mr Blunkett: I think if people display no discernible threat of terrorism and there is no belief they are in any way to be concerned with terrorism then we should use Public Order legislation.

  Q53  David Winnick: In which case why is it that those who were demonstrating, and surely they had every right to demonstrate, at the Arms Fair were in fact being faced with police who were using anti-terrorism legislation?

  Mr Blunkett: We distinguish between those who do pose a threat beyond public order and those who do not.

  Q54  David Winnick: Are you justifying what the police were doing?

  Mr Blunkett: Actually we need to be very clear about this, it is not my role to justify what they have done, it is my role to request from them and to hold them to account if they get it wrong which is why I have asked them to report to me quickly on the use of Section 44. Initial findings overnight indicate that two non-British nationals were picked up and that the police believed that they were justified in doing so under the Terrorism Act and under Section 44. I need to know whether other people on whom the Act was applied were justified as opposed to public order.

  Q55  David Winnick: When do you expect the police to report to you?

  Mr Blunkett: By next week.

  Q56  David Winnick: Home Secretary, earlier this year those who were demonstrating at RAF Fairford were also apparently being confronted by the police who used the act which I mentioned, so what happened apparently at the Arms Fair this week was not the first time that this has occurred.

  Mr Blunkett: No, but I would entirely support—having investigated their actions—the use of the counter-terror legislation in relation to preventing people with potentially dangerous weapons and with intent from achieving their goal without being stopped and searched and dealt with appropriately. The information on websites and on the network news on the intent and objective which was displayed by some of those on their way to Fairford was a dangerous situation which could have got out of hand, not least in terms of obviously having to protect not just those on the base but the materials and equipment that were being dispatched at the time.

  Q57  David Winnick: Home Secretary, would you recognise there are Members of Parliament as well as many public at large who do support, as I have done, and as I have stated in the House of Commons, for obvious reasons the Anti-terrorism Act but nevertheless are at this moment somewhat concerned that such an act can be used against those who are claiming their right, and in my view rightly so, to protest against what they see as a wrong and, if I can say, in no way connected with terrorism?

  Mr Blunkett: I have agreed with you already. I think the balance is crucial if people are to have confidence when we do use the legislation, either the Terrorism Act on the Anti-terrorism Crime and Security Act, and we need to use it. I talked about this in the Commons on a number of occasions, it is important that those in charge of the operation have operational responsibility. There has not been a Home Secretary in history—there have been one or two who gone to events in top hats—who has actually believed that they could take operational responsibility, nor should they, because nobody would be able to take a single measure without referring back.

  Q58  David Winnick: Can I just ask you in conclusion on this aspect, do you think there is a danger that the Anti-terrorism Act will be discredited if indeed it used in the way I have described? Liberty are very concerned about this.

  Mr Blunkett: If it were repeatedly used in a way that was subsequently found to be inappropriate then yes it would.

  Q59  Chairman: For the benefit of the Committee, the public and the press you refer to weapons taken to RAF Fairford.

  Mr Blunkett: I am talking about cudgels and swords, I am not talking about machine guns and ground-to-air missiles.

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