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Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to participate in this important debate. First, I want to put on record my congratulations to the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) and to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) on their excellent maiden speeches, which were well delivered and enjoyable to listen to.
While broadly welcoming the Bill as a whole, I am worried that there is an over-reliance on control measures, which do little to tackle the deep-seated cultural challenge of alcohol abuse among young people. As a nation, we work hard and play hard and, as a result, our night-time economy is booming. We have heard much in this afternoon's debate about the vast profits being made by some bars and clubs, but let us not forget the number of jobs created by those establishments, or that this is a legitimate business sector. The question was raised earlier how anyone could possibly enjoy themselves at these pubs and clubs, but with all due respect to the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble), that is not a relevant question for the House. The fact remains that in almost every town centre on any Friday or Saturday night throughout the year, crowds of loud excited young people can be seen having a good time enjoying each other's company.
The dark side, however, that merges so seamlessly with the positive side is the nuisance caused to residents by noise; the violence that sees young men being kicked unconscious in street fights; abusive men who go home drunk and punch their wives or girlfriends; and injuries sustained by drunk people through pranks and accidents. It includes vandalism and criminal damage; shop windows broken; urine and vomit in doorways; and the fear and intimidation that so easily engulfs a town centre when, to use the popular phrase, trouble kicks off.
Unfortunately, the Government's response has been to pursue a long list of tough-sounding, headline-grabbing proposals intended to show that something is being done. That is why, as well as CCTV, we have ASBOs, a proposal to march drunken yobs to cashpoints, fixed penalty notices, drink banning orders, dispersal orders, alcohol disorder zones andthe latest, according to one of the broadsheets yesterdaythe idea of deploying the Army on the streets this summer. It is all about control, control, controland I do not believe that it will work. We will not tackle the binge drink culture in this country by imposing martial law on our town centres at night.
Before throwing more legislation on the statute book, should we not instead be looking into renewed enforcement of existing laws? During the numerous nights that I have spent out with my local police force, not one police officer has told me that there were not enough sanctions available to enable them to tackle alcohol-related disorder.
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Without revisiting the arguments of the general election, I believe that we need an increase in police numbers and a renewed vigour in using legislation that is already in place.
For example, local police officers told me directly that they simply do not have the manpower to start arresting everyone who is drunk and disorderly at the weekend. The time and labour required to process any such arrests would divert vital resources away from what they regard as the hotspots at the worst possible time in the evening. That may be one of the principal reasons behind the long-term fall in convictions for drunk and disorderly behaviour across the country. As one officer told me during a recent night shift spent monitoring Haverfordwest town centre at pub closing time, the best that current resources allow is for the police to keep the lid on the problem of binge drink disorder. Until we get to grips with the serious cultural issues that lie behind that behaviour, we will just carry on as a society throwing ever larger sums of money at enforcement and control just to keep a lid on it.
The problem in this country stems from the fact that we have a culture where alcohol abuse is tolerated. In fact, in so many areas of popular culture, drinkingeven drunkennessis celebrated and joked about. That is one of the reasons why we are losing the war on alcohol abuse among young people. The fact isso many studies have confirmed itthat youngsters are being exposed to alcohol at an ever younger age and are drinking more in terms of units and more frequently.
According to Alcohol Concern, by the age of 13, young people who drink alcohol already outnumber those who do not. That comes as no surprise in view of the findings of Professor Paul Willner of the university of Wales, Swansea. His research showed that 16-year-old boys and girls as young as 13 now have little difficulty in buying alcohol from a variety of vendors. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) was right to raise the issue of the sale of alcohol to minors. I await an answer to my written question on conviction rates for off-licences and stores that sell alcohol to young people.
"All children and adolescents have the right to grow up in an environment protected from the negative consequences of alcohol consumption and, to the extent possible, from the promotion of alcoholic beverages."
I hope that I shall be proved wrong, but part 1 seems to provide nothing more than a sticking plaster over our deep-seated problems of youth alcohol abuse. We await further details and further delivery of the Government's alcohol harm reduction strategy, and I look forward to more proposals in the coming months to add to the Bill's provisions.
The Opposition asked whether the Bill was necessary. Yes, it is necessary. It builds on some of the toughest legislation in the world, yet only yesterday my constituency suffered another shooting incident; one person died and two people are in hospital under police supervision: so I say again, yes, the Bill is necessary.
Many measures are needed to deal with our growing gun crime culture. Although preventive measures are not outlined in the Bill, I am sure that my Government will address those issues soon. The Bill offers us a good start, however, by curbing the supply of guns on our streets immediately. I thank my Government for introducing the Bill and for responding effectively to deal with the increase in violent crime and antisocial behaviour that we face.
When victims are confronted by a violent person holding a gun, the last thing on their mind is whether the gun is real. They are wondering whether they will survive the incident or whether they or a loved one will die. They are thinking of the anguish ahead, not whether the gun is real. A ban on imitation weapons is imperative; it should be strong and enforceable.
The Opposition have said that we are trying to grab headlines. Which headlines? That we are tough on crime? I welcome such headlines. The Opposition have referred to other headlines that described the Government as over-zealous and said that we were trying to ban children's toys. That is ridiculous. No reasonable person could mistake a bright blue and yellow water pistol for a gun. That is not what the Bill is about.
Since 2003, there has been a 66 per cent. increase in offences using imitation firearms. The Bill tackles the manufacture, importing and sale of realistic firearms, which is an important and necessary. However, I should have liked to see higher rates of punishment for such offences. A sentence of 12 months is not a strong enough message.
There is also concern about age limits. There should be a universal age limit of 18 for all knives and guns. Anyone who legitimately needs to register at 17I cannot imagine who would want tocould be considered under the exception provisions, as they are for firearms registration. Knife crime has become more prevalent and it is harder to legislate against because people need knives in many professions; for example, carpet fitters, double glazers and chefs. However, the Bill considers carefully all aspects of knife use in our society.
Under the Licensing Act 2003, Brent closed three establishments last year. X-ray machines were used to vet 200 patrons, 100 of whom were detained for possession of firearms, knives and class A drugs. At least two of those people were suspected of being drug dealers, and Brent is investigating with a view to seizing their assetsasset seizure is mentioned briefly in the Bill. The council has complained that the asset seizure procedure is slow, which is a shame because the quicker we seize the assets of criminals such as drug and gun dealers, the quicker we can reimburse that money to society for community projects. If we can show that criminals can be stripped of their assets, it might prevent others from following suit.
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The forfeiture clause in the central crime element of the Bill will ensure that any vehicle can be seized if suspected of being used for shipping human beingswomen and mento go into the sex industry. That is a very important part of the Bill because it will help the police by taking that vehiclewhether a van, a ship or a planeout of circulation.
I shall quickly mention mobile phones. Some 73 per cent. of adults use mobile phones, compared with 33 per cent. in 1999. That is a huge increase in mobile phone use, which is why there has been an increase in theft. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) rightly said, we hope that the Bill will reduce mobile phone theft, by ensuring that the reprogramming of mobile phones becomes an offence.
The Bill has been introduced because it is needed for intelligence gathering, and all parties will agree that that represents good governance. Yes, good governance in itself will not solve the growing problem of violent crime and antisocial behaviourgood housing, good jobs and good policing will helpbut it is needed, and we also need to look at our communities and ensure that they show an interest. Last week was neighbourhood watch week. I welcome the fact that Brent has the highest number of people involved in neighbourhood watch schemes. I opened a scheme last Saturday at Asda, and we need to promote further schemes such as that to ensure people are involved in making sure that our communities are safe.
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