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Steve McCabe: What does the hon. Gentleman think is more important: speculating about a possible impact on property prices because a problem is being dealt with or leaving the poor individual to deal with the problems that they experience every night of the week? Surely he cannot argue that property prices should take priority over tackling those problems.
Mr. Oaten: I am not arguing that at all. It is the job of the Opposition to ask such questions in Committee and to ensure that we understand what the consequences of the Bill will be. If these zones are set up, a string of people will come into our surgeries saying, "We are in a zone and are now blighted." We need to think the consequences through. My priority is to ensure that we solve this problem and turn those areas into pleasant places for people to live and enjoy their lives in. Let us recognise that, by putting these zones in place, rather than creating zones in which the public believe we are tackling a problem, we could by default create zones that the public think are unsafe to visit at night or to live in. They could become no-go zones because they had had that label put on them, and I do not want that to happen. The measure could represent a sensible way forward, but let us be sensible about recognising the possible consequences of creating such zones, which I assume will be very publicly identified.
Mr. Flello: Surely the hon. Gentleman is missing the point. Do not people who live in such areas already have the problem of depressed house prices precisely because of all the trouble that is going on? The whole point of putting an alcohol disorder zone in place is to address the problem, rather than to create one. The whole community would already know that it was a problem area, and these measures are about tackling that problem.
I do not think that we are disagreeing on this issue. I am simply trying to think through the consequences of creating the zones. It is in all our interests to ensure that people regard them as a way forward, so let us make sure that we get the legislation right and that we do it properly. If we get this wrong, the zones will be regarded by the community as areas that have been written off, and we do not want that to happen. There is also the issue of how people can appeal the question of whether they should be in the zone. In Committee, we need to ensure that proper measures are in place to enable people to argue whether they should be in a designated zone.
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A more fundamental question relates to how the so-called voluntary period will operate. If it is the intention to create a system in which the local authority and the police can come together and produce a local community planwhich, if put in place and operated fully, would mean that an alcohol disorder zone did not have to be created and that the financial levy would not have to be put in placeI am not clear where the incentive would be for people to go along with such a voluntary scheme. Some organisations would probably prefer to operate under a compulsory scheme, because other organisations would have to contribute through the levy. Will the Minister help us, either today or in Committee, to understand how the funding will operate under the voluntary scheme? Who will fund a voluntary plan? Or would we get action only if we moved to a full scheme after a voluntary one had failed, because that is when the money would come through?
The answer might be hidden in the regulatory impact assessment, which we received quite late. It states that the consequences of the alcohol disorder zones to business would be a £6.2 million voluntary cost, and a £2.4 million compulsory cost. It is not clear whether that means that the Government envisage most of the costs being paid by businesses under the voluntary scheme and the £2.4 million compulsory cost being triggered only if the voluntary scheme failed and the area became a designated zone. We seem to be in danger of creating a system in which there is no real incentive to improve. A business creating problems in an area would know that it might as well pay its levy because the gains that would result from people coming into the area would be great. It would also know that another 10 premises in the area were going to contribute towards clearing up its problems. We need to tackle this issue.
Mr. Denham: Has the hon. Gentleman considered the fact that at least one midlands police force has estimated that the excess cost of policing one city centre for a year would be £1 million? Is he suggesting that the amount that the Government are planning to raise through this scheme would represent only a tiny proportion of the policing costs that currently apply in our major towns and cities?
Mr. Oaten: Absolutely. The cost of dealing with the problems caused by this kind of behaviour is enormous. The Government rightly point out in their regulatory impact assessment that, by making this investment, we could help to reduce those costs by creating a better night-time economy, but this is not a clear-cut issue. I have seen examples of city centres with problems, where businesses could benefit in the long term by making a small contribution because more customers would come in if the problems were dealt with.
The provision to introduce drinking banning orders will create a new form of civil order and I am worried about whether it is appropriate to create yet more offences. I asked the Home Secretary earlier what the difference would be between these banning orders and the provisions that deal with drunk and disorderly behaviour, and I was not convinced by his argument. He seemed to suggest that the new orders were designed to deal with problems of disorder created by drink. I thought that that was drunk and disorderly behaviour. I am nervous about creating many new offences.
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I am also concerned that the Bill would remove the reporting restrictions on cases in which an individual was served with a drinking banning order. In cases involving 16 and 17-year-olds, that would mean that their cases would automatically be reported. I am not necessarily against the reporting of cases in which it is appropriate for the public to know about the individual concerned, but surely the presumption should be that it would not be appropriate. Otherwise, we might create a situation in which a person is automatically named and shamed, although that might not be the most appropriate thing to do, particularly if they were only 16.
Mr. Clappison: This point might need further exploration in Committee, but does the hon. Gentleman at least recognise the value of the distinction between an order that restrains someone from doing something that might become an offence, and their actually committing an offence, which would go on to their criminal record?
Mr. Oaten: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, because that issue will certainly have to be considered in Committee, but I am concerned here about the presumption that everyone should be named and shamed. Rather than make that assumption, it would be better to judge in each case whether it would be more effective to name and shame someone.
We support many of the measures in the Bill and would like to see them work, but would it not be sensible to pause in regard to the other changes in the licensing regime? Many of these measures will not be in place when the new 24-hour licensing regime is implemented. At the very least, the Government should delay that implementation until these measures are in force, because the two sets of provisions should work together. We seem to be running ahead with one before the relevant control mechanisms are in place.
On gun crime, various points have been made about the offences outlined in the Bill. The number of offences relating to possessing a firearm has been reduced, which suggests that some progress has been made in tackling offences relating to how and when a person carries a firearm. However, there has also been a big increasefrom 13,000 to 24,000over the past few years in crimes involving guns. Many of the Government's proposals on airguns have our support. We have heard about the awful cases in Scotland and Darlington in which youngsters sadly lost their lives in incidents involving airguns and we support what the Government are trying to achieve, particularly in relation to the measures on shooting over a boundary.
There is a muddle over raising the age at which a person can buy an airgun from 17 to 18 and over all the various ages involved in such regulations. I am not convinced by the evidence that changing the age from 17 to 18 will make an enormous difference. At the moment, we have a minimum age of 15 for shotguns, 17 for rifles and now 18 for airguns. That is three different ages for three different kinds of weapon. I hope that the Government will use this Bill as an opportunity to clarify these provisions, because they must be a nightmare to enforce. The fact that someone can purchase a shotgun, but not an airgun, at 15 suggests that we need to examine the age limits.
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There has been a large increase in cases involving replica guns, which cause enormous difficulties for the police. In some areas, the police estimate that half their armed police call-outs are a result of the sighting of an imitation firearm. That is a waste of police time, but, sadly, it is often the cause of a tragedy as well. The Government are right to want to deal with that and we support their wish to tackle two problems with replica guns: they are used because they look like real guns and they can be converted to carry live ammunition. The Home Office and the Home Secretary have said that it will be difficult, and it will, but we will help the Government over the definition in Committee. I thought that the Home Secretary made a good first attempt, but we need to test and probe the definition. We shall also need to take account of the point made by the last Home Affairs Committee. What should be done if someone in a dark alley has a wooden table leg hidden under a blanket? What should be done in similar instances? I believe that the police shot someone because he had what they thought was a gun, but was in fact a cigarette lighter. I am sure that such cases are not the majority, but they will need to be considered in Committee.
I hope that the Government will deal with representations from the sport industry. Of course, the priority must be making our country safer, but we must listen to what that industry says. It is estimated that 4 million people use air weapons. Target shooting is an Olympic sport. Sensible discussions are needed and it is encouraging that the Home Secretary is engaging in some. I have spoken to representatives of the industry and they support much of the Bill, but they take issue with technical points involving the making of ammunition and the link with primers. Simple adjustments could be made that would probably allow them to go on making ammunition at home while meeting the Home Secretary's requirements. I hope that we can discuss such issues positively, along with airsoft weapons and re-enactment societies
We support what the Government are trying to do about knives. They are certainly a problem in London. Apparently 361 incidents involving knives are recorded each week and, in January alone, there were 15 murders that have been attributed to stabbing. The importance of the issue should not be underestimated. The problem of children carrying knives was mentioned earlier. A quarter of the boys who were asked about it admitted having carried a weapon and nearly all of them specified a knife. Although some may have been young lads boasting, it is a frightening statistic.
The Government have suggested solutions, but I am not convinced about all of them. I am particularly worried about the proposal to raise the age at which a knife can be legally purchased from 16 to 18. It will be hard to enforce. Already, half the shops break the law by selling knives to under-16s, according to spot checks carried out by the Trading Standards Institute. If that is happening now, how will it be possible to enforce the increase in the legal age? It is ridiculous that a couple can marry at 16 and put a kitchen knife on their wedding list. We must discuss silly situations like that in Committee.
Will the Government also think again about sentences? The maximum sentence for carrying a knife in public is currently only two years, whereas for carrying a gun it is seven years. Both weapons are killers
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and there is a strong case for enabling judges to impose a similar maximum sentence for knife carrying. When I raised the matter in Home Office questions a couple of weeks ago, the Home Secretary said that he was prepared to think about it. I hope that we can press the Government again in Committee.
I am instinctively uneasy about allowing school heads to carry out checks. I realise that there is a problem over guns and, particularly, knives in schools, and I know that, as the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen said, it is a key issue in exclusions. Indeed, 62 per cent. of children are excluded for carrying knives. But do we really want to give teachers and heads that responsibility? How exactly will it work? Which classes will they pick on? Do I feel comfortable about my child being at a school where she is automatically searched to establish whether she has a knife on her? We must ensure that checks are carried out sensitively and establish that teachers consider what they are doing appropriate. Again, the intention is right, but we must not "turn off" the teachers' unions.
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