We must ensure that if we do these things properly and allow jury trials, for example, the security services can exploit the fact of people being intimidated by spotting the intimidators, tracking them down and dealing with them. I should be very reluctant to contemplate the abandonment of jury trials in respect of any criminal activity, including terrorism, on the mainland. Such action would be a significant step away from what we hold sacred, and it would be in exactly in the direction that the terrorists and the Mr. Bigs behind them would like us to go.
Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk) (Con): It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), who always, absolutely without exception, has something original to say, and I hope that those on the Labour Front Bench have listened carefully to his strictures.
A number of speakers have already made it clear that many of the measures in the Gracious Speech are welcome. I myself would, rather ungraciously, say that they would be even more welcome if more than a handful of them stood a chance of reaching the statute book before the date on which The Sun newspaper has said the election will be held. It would be instructive to hear from Ministers which measures they expected to stay the course and which, after all the hype, were only soundbites.
I remind Ministers that eight Bills in the Gracious Speech have implications for police resources; admittedly, three of them are draft Bills. I draw Ministers' attentionI need not draw the attention of
29 Nov 2004 : Column 409
the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety, because she was thereto a useful debate that took place in Westminster Hall on 10 November, when hon. Members from all parties pointed out the serious funding problems already faced by police authorities across the country. The Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety said that
Obviously, we all realise that announcements on police funding are due to be made shortly, but unless substantial additional funds are made available, it would be beyond the ability of many police authorities, including my own, to cope if any of the eight Bills were to reach the statute book.
The number of police officers in Norfolk has increased, which is welcome; less welcome is the fact that the council tax increase over the past four years to pay for that growth is nearly 66 per cent., and this year's budget alone accounts for a 13.5 per cent. increase in council tax. Norfolk police authority faces a particular problem in funding its pension obligations. The Government have made it clear that they will cap council tax increases, and Norfolk only narrowly escaped capping last year.
In the Westminster Hall debate, hon. Members from both sides of the House acknowledged that most police authorities needed about a 5.5 per cent. increase just to stand still. In Norfolk, if we are lucky, the calculation is that we shall have an increase of between 3 and 4 per cent., so we will be adrift by around 1 per cent. of meeting the obligations in existing legislation. If the Government are serious about the Gracious Speech, Ministers must convince us that they will make available to police authorities the means to bring about the improvements that they claim they wish to see in place; otherwise, it is only talk.
I want to comment on a specific measure in the Gracious Speech that the Home Secretary did not mention, perhaps because the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is dealing with it; namely the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill. The Bill was helpfully trailed in The Times on 29 October by the Prime Minister himself, with a headline claiming "Yobs face parish council fines". Everybody welcomes the measures in that Bill. Most hon. Members will find that the problems of fly-tipping, graffiti, yobbish behaviour, noisy neighbours and other kinds of antisocial behaviour such as abandoned cars are among the most intractable, even if they are not the most serious, in their postbags. Although ASBOs have the right intention, they have probably not been as effective as Ministers had hoped; fewer have been issued than expected and 36 per cent. have been breached. They have been criticised as too complex because they require police case conferences, consultations and all the rest.
I am enthusiastic because the Bill will give more local authorities, and indeed the police, powers to deal with those various nuisances. I understand that powers that
29 Nov 2004 : Column 410
have already been given to district and unitary authorities will be extended to parish councils. Ministersthe Minister who replies this evening may want to respond to this pointmight give some thought as to how practical those proposals are for average parish councils.
Norfolk has 550 parish councils, and the average parish council has an annual income of about £7,000 a year. When one takes into account what that must be spent ongrass cutting, street lighting, the clerk's payment, a car scheme to pay volunteers to drive people to hospital, water rates, insurance, repairs, sundries and other thingsthere is not an awful lot left to pay a member of staff to issue on-the-spot fixed penalty fines.
Mr. James Booty, chairman of Northwold parish council in the centre of my constituency, thinks that the clerka lady of at least my agemight not welcome that addition to her duties. The average income, which is painfully extracted and meticulously accounted for, would not stretch to employing a new kind of parish constable.
The new power is good, and it may be possible for larger parishes and town councils to provide that service at a cost. However, no parish council of an average size anywhere in my county will be able to provide it. Given travel costs and the distance between communities, joining forces to provide such a service is not a practical proposition.
I know that the constituency represented by the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety is in Greater Manchester. Will she carefully examine communities that are different from the one that she represents? Such communities are just as bothered by graffiti, fly-tipping and abandoned cars as those represented by Labour Members. I hope that she will give some thought as to how the proposal, which is good, might work in a rural area such as mine, otherwise hon. Members who represent rural areas will be forced to conclude that the new powers are not for us.
I broadly support the Government's outline programme in the Gracious Speech. I certainly enthusiastically support the Home Secretary in the way in which he goes about his job; he is an outstanding politician.
May I give a brief account of an incident that took place recently and that very much concerns me? At 2.45 am on Friday 26 November, I was woken by the police; fortunately I was in bed with Mrs. Banks at the time. I was asked whether I had heard any gunshots earlier. We had heard gunshots at about 10.50 pm on Thursday, when about five rounds were fired. The only remarkable thing about that account is that we did not find the incident a remarkable event in itself. I realised that I have become accustomed to such incidentsalmost inured against themin my particular area. When people who are broadly law-abiding start to give up being shocked by events, the alarm bells ought to be ringing.
29 Nov 2004 : Column 411
Most of the murders and the street crimes that take place in my area are associated with drugs. I must question the drugs Bill and say something unpopular; this is a minority view in the House, but the war against drugs is not being won, and I do not think that it ever will be. We could make the penalties so harsh that people are terrified. In some countries, they chop off people's hands and hang people for drugs offences, which does not appeal much, even to a curmudgeonly old loony such as myself. We should perhaps think what many people in this House and elsewhere consider unthinkable, which is to broaden the legalisation of drugs; not all drugs, but certainly those that are generally considered to be recreational.
I can see many advantages to such an approach, but this short speech does not allow me to develop them. Legalisation would provide many advantages with regard to reducing violence and criminal activity. I do not know the answer, but, at the very least, we should have a proper public debate, and a royal commission could study the matter. We cannot keep saying that we need more legislation in order to wage war on drugs, when we are manifestly not winning that war. When one is not winning a war, one should examine one's tactics and strategy.
During my years as an MP in this House, I have become cynical about human behaviour. Perhaps it is right and appropriate that I should be leaving this place, because I find myself becoming more angry about what is going on, not less so. I could very well be losing my sense of perspective, but I do not think so. I believe that we are moving inexorably towards an increasingly violent society where the response by Government and law enforcement agencies will become commensurately harsher.
Many factors have contributed to this depressing state of affairs. We appear to have more freedom, choice and prosperity, but undoubtedly have fewer values that are common to us all. Respect for institutions has been undermined, especially vital institutions such as our own. There is a culture of blame; it is always someone else's responsibility. Few seem ready or able to blame themselves if something goes wrong or to take responsibility for their own actions. People are bombarded with trivia until the trivial, the soulless and the empty-headed become the norm.
People are saturated with images of violence and contempt for human and animal life through television, magazines and newspapers; indeed, even through the very toys that we buy our children. At about this time of year, I do my usual tilt against the windmill by proposing a Bill or tabling an early-day motion on banning the sale of war toys. If people want to know where the gun culture starts, it is when we give realistic toy weapons to our boys. [Interruption.] Conservative Members may not agree, but it is a theory that needs examining. If we do that, or assume that there is no harm in violent Playstation games, we lessen people's resistance to violence. I honestly think that that is a root cause of many of the problems that we face in our society.
I do believe in personal freedoms and liberty, but for some that seems to mean licence. That is unacceptable, because in the end the greatest personal and civil right must be the right to go about our lawful business without fear of violence and intimidation. It takes only
29 Nov 2004 : Column 412
a small minority of individuals in our communities to destroy those rights, and we must deal with those people. Unfortunately, as is evident from the proposed legislation, there is a price that we must all pay in order to establish a framework of discipline and control within which we can continue to enjoy and operate the greater freedoms.I welcome the proposals on ID cards