Previous SectionIndexHome Page

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): The Home Secretary offers the House yet another crime Bill. Violent crime is a massive problem, but this is a relatively minor and unambitious attempt to deal with it. It is the 11th anniversary later this week of the Prime Minister uttering the immortal words:

How hollow those words must seem to the millions of people who have suffered violent crime and who, unlike the Prime Minister, live with the consequences of his broken promises.

We all remember the examples of the Prime Minister's grandiose promises, such as marching yobs to cash points. What happened to that brilliant piece of inspiration? It never happened. Setting up night courts, where victims are apparently too drunk to be dealt with, has also been abandoned. Then, there was a promise to halve street crime in just five months. If only. Do the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary think that the British people do not remember those promises?

Since the Labour Government took office, violent crime has risen sharply. Britain now suffers more than 1 million violent crimes each year. Offences of violence against the person have increased by 90 per cent. and robberies by 50 per cent.—

Mr. Charles Clarke: If he were fortunate enough to become Home Secretary, would the right hon. Gentleman wind up the British crime survey or start accepting its conclusions that violent crime has decreased by 26 per cent. since 1997?

David Davis: The answer is neither. I would extend the British crime survey to take on board all the things it now misses, such as murder, sex crimes, crimes against under-16s and crimes against retail and other commercial premises. If the Home Secretary made the British crime survey work, we would pay attention to it. Some parts of it are useful, but the right hon. Gentleman should use statistics a little more as useful data, and rather less as excuses, if he will forgive me for saying so.

As I was saying, offences of violence against the person have increased by 90 per cent. on recorded crime and robberies by 50 per cent. on recorded crime. That is what the police are told about, that is what they can do something about, and that is what we should pay attention to. When the Leader of the Opposition was Home Secretary, gun crime fell; since then, under the Labour Government, it has doubled. In addition, the use of cocaine has trebled and persistent youth offending has increased, as has the number of sex crimes.
20 Jun 2005 : Column 559

Just as serious is the fact that, at the same time, detection rates have been falling. Despite all the targets and all the talk of improving police efficiency, there are 900,000 more unsolved crimes each year than there were in 1998.

Stephen Hesford (Wirral, West) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman seek to divide the House on the Bill tonight?

David Davis: I will not give the hon. Gentleman advance whipping advice. He should talk to his own Whips Office if he wants the night off. However, I shall explain what our stance on the Bill will be, both today and in Committee.

In the past everyone assumed that violent offences were a priority for the police and very high clear-up rates gave grounds for thinking so. Under the Conservative Government, almost 80 per cent. of crimes of violence against the person were solved. Now, that figure has fallen to only 50 per cent. What kind of deterrent is that to criminals? What sort of protection does it afford the public? What sort of reassurance does it give the victims of crime? It is nothing short of a scandal and, although the Bill contains some worthwhile proposals, it will not resolve that problem.

We consider some of the measures the Home Secretary proposes useful. They might help the courts or assist the police and we want to do both. We shall not oppose for the sake of opposition: we shall consider what is on offer and try to improve it. Judging by the Home Secretary's remarks, there is scope for discussion and improvement. However, taken as a whole, we consider the Bill to be a woefully inadequate response to the crisis of violence and disorder that the public now face. Seen in the wider context of the Government's measures, the Bill is a qualified admission of defeat. So far, the Government have introduced more than 40 Bills, 200 Home Office initiatives and 350 new regulations, all aimed at quelling the tide of crime. But that tide has kept coming, and Ministers are now scrambling for the lifeboats.

Crime statistics have sometimes—today not least—been prayed in aid of the Government's case that they are tackling crime effectively, but although the statistics are in some respects ambiguous, they offer no way out. In international terms, the picture is dire. According to the international crime victimisation survey, Britain has the second-highest levels of criminality in the industrialised world. Moreover, despite frequent—and convenient—changes to the way in which the figures are collected and counted, the picture of violent crime in this country is not ambiguous at all. It is bad, it is worse than it was, and it is getting worse still.

Recorded violent crime has in fact risen in four of the last five quarters. The Government's first response in such situations is always to deny the facts. Last December, the Prime Minister admitted in one of his disarming bursts of temporary frankness that violent crime has been rising. A few months later, he was keen to point out that, according to the British crime survey, violent crime had not gone up but down. He omitted to mention, however, that the BCS figures are systemically flawed. They are not comprehensive, and they omit murder, sexual offences and crimes against people under
20 Jun 2005 : Column 560
16 altogether. In the case of violent crime, they are contradicted by the recorded crime figures and by everybody's everyday experience.

The Government's second response, once the first has collapsed, is instinctively to reach for the nearest headline-grabbing initiative, of which there are many in the Bill. Nothing comes more easily to hand than the antisocial behaviour order. Not many people have had kind words to say on Europe today, so to make up for that and to prove my inclusive credentials—[Interruption.] Yes, it will cause surprise. I commend to the House the words of Señor Gil-Robles, Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe. He observed of antisocial behaviour orders:

I could not have put it better myself.

There are, however, some parts of the Bill that we can support. Subject to the important caveat of making sure that they are both fair and effective, we welcome the greater powers to be given to magistrates, as that will allow them to ban individuals from drinking for set periods of time. There is no doubt that local authorities urgently need powers to control local drinking hotspots, and enabling courts to focus on serial drunks who populate such places may be of assistance. It is important to clarify the way in which we enforce such proposals, but we can discuss that in Committee. The proposal is not much, but it is something. We also agree with other proposals. The Bill will create the offence of using an accomplice to conceal weapons, as the Home Secretary mentioned at the end of his speech. There is evidence that a number of cases are not prosecuted successfully for lack of a weapon, so the provision may help to bring such criminals to book.

Finally, we support the extension of the age limit for the purchase of air rifles, which is a sensible tidying-up of existing provisions. I look forward to reviewing the effect of the proposal on airsoft activities in Committee. So far, so modestly good. We also agree with the Government that there is a problem with replica firearms. Some of them can easily be converted into lethal weapons, but they are already illegal. They can be used to terrorise the public, they make life difficult for the police, and they can even lead to tragedy. We remain to be convinced, however, of the need for the measures in the Bill. It is already a criminal offence to carry a replica gun in a public place without a reasonable excuse, and the burden of proof lies with the person who carries the replica. Furthermore, the courts already sentence individuals who rob banks and shops with replica guns as severely as individuals who commit such crimes with real guns. There are no obvious gains to be made from further legislation in that respect. There also remains the age-old problem of definition that plagues measures to ban almost any dual-use object.

Such problems are not necessarily prohibitive, but they should give legislators pause for thought. The right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), who chairs the Home Affairs Committee, made a good point about such problems, and said that replicas could be viewed in two ways if they provoke a police response. The Bill offers a complex definition of replicas that can also be toys. It will certainly be good for barristers but, equally, I am not at all sure that it will be bad for
20 Jun 2005 : Column 561
criminals. The most important requirement, however, is action to prevent the import and sale of replicas that can   be converted into guns that fire—the so-called Brococks. More effective controls need to be exercised by police and customs at our borders, particularly on internet sales—a matter on which we have called for action several times in the past 18 months and which was raised by at least two Labour Members.

The Bill also deals with weapons of a different sort—knives. There has been a sharp increase in knife killing since 1998, and the number of offences has gone up by 17 per cent. That clearly has to be tackled, but how? There is a basic point to be made here. One does not prevent crime by banning the weapons with which it is committed, though one may be able to limit the incidence and its effects. Rather, one prevents crime by detecting, punishing and, in the case of violent crime, incarcerating those responsible. On none of these has the Government been at all effective.

There is no reason to believe in the effectiveness of what is now proposed, which is to increase the age at which knives can legally be bought. There is no shortage of knives in circulation, and with or without the Bill, there is unlikely to be a shortage in the future. A MORI poll carried out last year revealed that a quarter of children aged between 12 and 16 admit to carrying a knife. Almost one in five of them say that they have attacked someone, intending to do injury. Let us hope that that is an exaggeration, but even if the figures are inflated, they still reveal the inadequacy of what is being proposed.

If we want to stop knife crime, we must focus on those who use the knives, not necessarily on those who originally buy them. To that extent, I agree with the Prime Minister, who in his former capacity as shadow Home Secretary—I quoted him—argued for toughness on the causes of crime. First, we must know what we mean if we seriously mean what we say on the subject. No one is condemned by their genes, background or social class to a lifetime of crime. Plenty of people come from disadvantaged backgrounds and overcome those disadvantages, often heroically so. It is patronising and flatly wrong to suggest the opposite.

We can and should isolate two sets of causes of crime, upon which the Government exert an influence. The first relates to the kind of behaviour that leads to criminality. At the very top of the list is the abuse of alcohol and drugs. Half of violent crime is known to be drink-related, and there has been a 10 per cent. increase in the number of people who think that drunken and rowdy behaviour is a problem in their neighbourhood. That is a disturbing trend. Some limited action through the so-called alcohol disorder zones is proposed, but if it is effective at all, its effects will be limited and slow in coming. Meanwhile, the Government's answer is to allow more drinking in more places more of the time. That is no answer. It is the reverse of a solution. More drink will mean more violent crime.

As for drugs, hard drug use is rising sharply. The number of people frequently using class A drugs is up by more than 60 per cent. since 1998. Cocaine use among young people has doubled. The price of drugs has fallen, so cocaine is cheaper than cappuccino and ecstasy can be bought for less than a pound. That is because,
20 Jun 2005 : Column 562
although demand is increasing, the supply is soaring ahead still faster—obviously, one of the lessons of free market economics that the Government have not yet mastered. Drugs are coming through our porous borders because the controls are too weak and because they are undermanned.

Next Section IndexHome Page