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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I am afraid that the hon. Lady has had her time. I call Richard Ottaway.

6.56 pm

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) and I congratulate her on her maiden speech. Those of us who knew her predecessor, Debra Shipley, will recognise that the hon. Lady is in every sense living up to her reputation and ability. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes), all three of whose predecessors I had the privilege of knowing. Tony Berry was an absolute star, I admired Michael Portillo, and I respected Stephen Twigg. My hon. Friend has shown every sign of being able to follow in their footsteps. I wish him well in his north circular campaign, but as a fellow London MP, I advise him not to hold his breath.

This Bill is timely. According to today's edition of The Times, a ferry in Devon that has operated for more than 1,000 years is having to suspend service on Saturday nights because its operators cannot cope with the binge-drinking hooligans who use it. That illustrates the need to do something about this issue, but it remains to be seen whether this Bill is the answer. It is by any measure a modest Bill, and with the exception of the alcohol disorder zones, I remain slightly sceptical as to whether it will make much difference. There is a rising tide of crime; indeed, recorded violent crime has risen by 83 per cent. since 1998. However, one feature that I do welcome is the Bill's looking beyond deterrence through punishment to another way of addressing the problem. Conservative Front Benchers are right not to oppose the Bill.
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My main concern in representing the borough of Croydon in this debate is alcohol use, but I want also to mention the very serious problem of real and imitation firearms being used by young kids as fashion accessories, which they show off to others. If the Bill goes even a small way towards addressing that problem, it is to be welcomed. But a lot of violent crime is caused by alcohol, and whatever the Home Secretary may say, there is an inconsistency in introducing legislation to combat excessive alcohol use and violent crime, while at the same time introducing legislation to promote 24-hour drinking. When I intervened on him, he said that it is a question of personal use, and that one should not confuse such use with 24-hour drinking. That is no answer. There is an inconsistency here, and no less a person than Sir John Stevens says that the move to 24-hour drinking has to be slowed down.

Many Members have spoken about the impact of alcohol-related disorder on the night-time economy. The British crime survey has pointed out that 30 per cent. of city-centre arrests are related to alcohol use. There is no doubt that dealing with alcohol-based problems imposes a huge burden on police resources, as it is expensive as well as time consuming. A recent survey showed that 70 per cent. of police officers were diverted from dealing with other crimes in order to cope with alcohol disorder and that 88 per cent. of police sergeants found that alcohol was the most significant disorder problem. The Prime Minister's strategy unit, referring to the Police Complaints Authority, said in a study of 58 deaths in custody that alcohol was a factor in two thirds of them—a quite staggering statistic. We now face the situation where the PCC is actually suggesting that it is inappropriate for police officers to take drunken detainees into custody because of the difficulties that such action causes. The Prime Minister's strategy unit estimates the cost to society and the country as a whole at some £7 billion.

In the borough of Croydon, the largest in London, alcohol-related problems are very serious indeed. There is a successful night-time economy at the centre of the town. It is a great place to go and it pulls in people from all over south London to enjoy a night out, to indulge in social drinking and to have a good time—but that brings its problems. A youth lifestyle survey showed that 39 per cent. of 18 to 24-year-olds now go binge drinking and binge drinkers are far more likely to offend.

Some will remember the riots in Croydon town centre during the last World cup, when so many people came out of the vertical retail outlets to protest when England got knocked out of the competition. However, it is not just an occasional problem that happens only on such special occasions; it is a daily regular occurrence in Croydon. The British crime survey showed that more than half of all alcohol-related violence is between strangers and acquaintances and that it occurs in and around pubs, clubs and discos. The Home Secretary was right to say that we need a new approach to deal with that problem.

The challenge is deciding how best to respond to the problem. Croydon police responded by putting on an extra shift of police officers—amounting, if we include all the trainees, to 18 extra officers. The problem is that that means 18 police officers are not out in the rest of the borough dealing with all the other crime going on—and,
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believe me, there is plenty of it. There is a fair amount of dissatisfaction within the borough about that. Securing adequate resources is the main problem.

The industry is making substantial sums out of these vertical retail outlets. Anyone going into any of them on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night will see hundreds of people drinking away like mad, smoking and having a good time. The vendors and owners of these outlets are making huge sums of money, which poses the question why they should not be paying for the extra security demands. That is why I support the alcohol disorder zones in the Bill.

The Prime Minister said in his press conference that the alcohol disorder zones were a last resort. I have to say that that smacks of uncertainty and I would ask Ministers to approach the Bill with greater confidence in its positive outcomes. A consultation document before the election spoke of these outlets contributing towards the cost of disorder, but I have to say that I do not like the word "contribute" and I am worried that local authorities will be too timid. They have to operate in relation to the conditions of nuisance, annoyance and disorder, which are highly subjective.

The explanatory notes say that authorities will be

I would like to see the right to charge in force whenever extra police are needed and I do not want a "contribution" or a "likely" recovery, but a definite one—and at a 100 per cent. level. That is what happens when specials are employed at football matches at Crystal Palace, for example, so why cannot these retail outlets pay for the costs of extra police in places such as Croydon town centre? I foresee rows if extra police are used but there are no alcohol disorder zones. There may be no problems, but if extra police are used, the retailers must pay.

On the banning orders for persistent offenders, I am not convinced, frankly, that they will make much difference. I am glad that the Government have dropped the "three strikes and you're out" policy. Powers already exist in respect of the ASBO legislation, but if someone is banned from an area, all they will do, frankly, is go to Brighton—though I wish Brighton well, of course!

The Bill gives the impression of action being taken, but so did the Licensing Act 2003. We are not talking about incremental legislation in which measures are progressively building up. It looks like it is just another stab or another go at trying to solve the problem. The Government's main difficulty is that they have raised expectations, but will the Bill make a difference? Frankly, the jury is out, but I wish them well in their objectives.

7.5 pm

Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab): I welcome the Bill and I gain the sense that many of us have been sent here by our constituents because they want to know that someone will do something about the problem of violent crime and drunken yobbish behaviour. People are fed up with it and they want us to do something about it.

I received a letter the other week from a constituent, Mr. Smith of Sunderton road. This elderly gentleman wrote me a letter that is probably similar to many that
20 Jun 2005 : Column 584
we all receive. He was particularly upset by a report in a newspaper that a bunch of yobs had attacked a funeral cortege. They actually managed to break the window of one of the vehicles carrying a group of 60-year-old ladies who were mourning a lost relative. Mr. Smith rightly asks in his letter what kind of world we are living in and how we can tolerate such behaviour. My answer is that we cannot and will not tolerate it, which is why we need the Bill.

I particularly welcome the proposals for dealing with weapons in general and imitation guns in particular. Many people have campaigned for these measures: rank-and-file police officers throughout the country will be relieved; and the Police Federation will be relieved, as will officers in armed response units. We must recognise that we are in danger, as was mentioned earlier, of developing a fashion culture about guns, particularly among some of our young people for whom guns end up being a sort of fashion accessory. That is one of the reasons why we should be concerned about imitation weapons, which are becoming part of a violent and aggressive culture. That is one good reason for tackling them.

I acknowledge that my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) expressed some concerns about the problem of imitation guns, but it cannot be an accident that imitation weapons are prohibited devices in Canada and that controls are in force against them in places as far and wide as Australia, Malta and the Netherlands. Even in gun-loving California, there are massive restrictions on imitation weapons. We are certainly doing the right thing in the Bill.

I intervened on the Home Secretary earlier to say that without tackling the internet, the measures in the Bill would be virtually pointless. That may have been a slightly inappropriate choice of words, but I would say to Ministers that the effect of the Bill will be severely diluted if we do not tackle the availability of weapons on the internet. I was struck the other week when the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell) wrote to eBay about the disgusting spectacle of Live 8 tickets, which were originally free, being traded for profit. The response was prompt and eBay closed it down. Would Ministers be prepared to write to the organisation about its trade in weapons in order to secure a similar response?

I have some recent examples from the internet site, The problem is that we do not know whether those weapons are deactivated as there is no reliable test when they are put on the site. One can buy an MP40, an M4 carbine, a P38, a 226, which comes in a nice black, we are told, or a Chinese 7.6 rifle. Any kid can buy those guns on the net, so there is no point in taking steps to control weapons unless we tackle the internet business.

I do not understand how we can have reached a situation where there are strict controls on reliable dealers yet people can flog anything they want on the internet. When they are tackled about that, they say that they are not actually responsible for the sale but that they merely facilitate the transaction. They certainly pocket the profit, which in some cases is massive, and it is often a profit on crime and death. I hope that I can persuade my right hon. and hon. Friends to reconsider the matter.
20 Jun 2005 : Column 585

Other Members have mentioned alcohol disorder zones. On balance, they are probably a good idea, although my preference is that people should be able to deal with the situation in a voluntary and co-operative way. I read a story today about Broad street, which is a large regeneration area in Birmingham city centre. By bringing together the police, the council, businesses and, interestingly, the hospital, money was raised to deploy extra police in the Broad street area. There have been two effects. The first is that crime has dramatically reduced. The police report that 18 months ago 40 per cent. of violent crime in the city centre occurred in the Broad street area. Due to that extra policing, the figure is now 10 per cent. Secondly, Broad street is bringing a large amount of money to Birmingham city centre.

I am not as worried as the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) about constituents running to me bleating that the price of their house will be affected because we are tackling violent crime, but I agree that there could be problems about the way that the police and local authorities impose alcohol disorder zones. We must take care that we do not damage good regeneration initiatives by using such zones as a substitute funding mechanism. We should look at positive voluntary experiences and I hope that Ministers will reassure us that they will monitor the introduction of alcohol disorder zones so that problems do not arise.

I want to make one more bid to my hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench. As well as tackling violent crime, we must make it clear that we do not condone those who have been convicted of it. I do not know whether my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety has been following the case of Mr. Lorworth Hoare, the convicted rapist who bought a lottery ticket when he was on weekend leave from his open prison and won £7 million. He has now left jail and it is reported that it costs about £10,000 a week to protect him. It is not much incentive to hard-pressed, decent, law-abiding citizens to know that money that could be spent on something else is being spent on protecting that rapist thug. Is there scope for an amendment whereby there would be an assessment of the services we provide for such people? A rapist worth £7 million who has to be protected by the police and probation services should be subject to a financial assessment so that we can recover some of those costs. If we cannot do that, why do not we simply keep him in prison? Then he will be perfectly safe—well he might not be, but he certainly would not cost us what we are paying at present. If we were to impose a financial assessment on that chap, the money could be channelled back to the victims of crime and on tackling other aspects of violent crime instead of wasting it on him.

7.14 pm

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