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Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): I begin, as always in these debates, by declaring an interest. I am a solicitor by background and I sit from time to time as a Crown court recorder and district judge.
This has been a constructive and positive debate, with a great number of good speeches from hon. Members on both sides of the House. I thank those who have made their maiden speech today. The hon. Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) made an excellent maiden speech and we were pleased to hear all that she had to say. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes), in another excellent maiden speech, made a proper and gracious tribute to his predecessor. Like the hon. Lady, he demonstrated his affection for and familiarity with his constituency, its people and its concerns. He spoke about several issues relating to drugs and rightly pointed out the importance of family support in that connection. We look forward with great interest to his and the hon. Lady's future contributions.
There have been positive speeches from both sides of the Chamber. I thank in particular my hon. Friends the Members for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones), for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke), for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser), for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright), for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb), for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood), for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) and for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) for their valuable and thoughtful contribution to our debate.
Earlier today, my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) rightly highlighted the enormous problem, evident to us all, of rising violent crime and crime associated with drink and
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drugs, which type of crime is almost out of control in many urban areas. The Bill, which has a rather grand title, is designed to address some of those problems. We do not oppose the Billindeed, we support parts of it. It is well intentioned, but it is typical of the Government in this respect: its title is impressive and grabs a headline, but its contents are unlikely to achieve the stated purpose of reducing violent crime. We have lost count of the number of initiatives that Labour has launched in the criminal justice field. Acts of Parliament run into dozens, all of which suggest that we have a Government who are giving the impression of being concerned and of taking action when, in truth, they are barely scratching the surface of the real problems that we face.
Let me give one striking example of a Government initiative that was a shambles and that, I am sure, the Minister would prefer to forget. A few years ago, when there were delays in the court system, Downing street decided that rapid justice was the answer to every problem and set up a system of night-time courts. Defendants arrested in the evening would be dealt with immediately by district judges, who were obliged to sit at Bow street all night with their staff and with jailers present at considerable cost. Those who knew anything about the criminal justice system thought that the idea was ludicrous and said sobut no, the Government and their advisers knew best.
What happened? The Minister knows full well. Predictably, most of the defendants turned up drunk and were not fit enough to enter a plea, and their case had to be adjourned for days. Others said that they wanted an adjournment for legal representation. Others still would not enter a plea until they had received, as was their right, advance information about the case against them. The number of cases actually disposed of was minuscule and each one was dealt with at huge expense to the taxpayer. Hastily, but quietly, that much trumpeted new initiative was abandoned. One more initiative by Labour in the criminal justice field, one more failure.
Let us consider the Bill with the grand title and see what it does. In large part, it addresses problems that are covered by existing law, leaving many of us to suspect that much of it is unnecessary. Part 1 introduces the drinking banning order, which imposes a prohibition on a person to protect others from criminal or disorderly conduct by him when he is under the influence of drink. We have acknowledged that binge drinking among young men and women has rocketed in recent years, leading to an extremely alarming situation. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South referred to the problem. Crime connected to drinking has also rocketed.
Do we have enough laws to deal with the problem? Offences already on the statute book include drunkenness on a highway, the offence of being drunk and disorderly and offences under the Public Order Act 1986 relating to the use of offensive words, behaviour and conduct. The existing law gives the police many options on alcohol-related violence, and they can charge someone with common assault, actual bodily harm or, in serious cases, grievous bodily harm, riot and affraythe list goes on and on. Moreover, the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 makes provision for dispersal
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orders, which give the police specialised local powers to remove people from an area and ban them if they are engaged in alcohol-related antisocial behaviour.
Have the existing powers to ban drinking in designated public areas been forgotten? Courts can impose any conditions in an antisocial behaviour order that are necessary to prevent the conduct that the Bill aims to tackle. In my experience, they impose a great number of wide restrictions and conditions. We are therefore simply adding to the large and complex range of offences and possible orders at our disposal. I only hope that the new measure will not cause even more confusion among the police and courts. Is anyone else troubled by the part of the Bill that calls for the greater involvement of local authorities, and thus more bureaucracy, in introducing drink-banning orders? At best, that will be slow and cumbersome and, at worst, could result in more Government interference.
What is the answer to the undoubted problem that those provisions seek to address? We could and should put the police where they belongon the streets in areas where the problems occurin much greater numbers. We should ask them to stamp out those problems very harshly indeed, and not stay behind their desks completing the paperwork that the Government have made them deal with. In my experience, CCTV is everywhereit can even be found on the walls of the Chamber. In the courts, however, if someone asks whether CCTV was in operation on a particular night, they will be told that it was not working properly. Even when it does work, the quality is so bad that the viewer cannot see who is committing the offence. We should therefore improve the quality of CCTV.
Police should use the existing laws that give them many options to deal with such crime and enforce them with vigour. We should encourage the courts to punish hard where punishment is deserved, and that should be linked to the prosecution of far more pubs and clubs that sell to under-18s or drunks. That wicked practice is on the increase, but the number of prosecutions of immoral pubs and clubs is pathetically low. There should also be a linked increase in prosecution of retail outlets that sell alcohol to under-18s, which is already an offence, although one would not think so from the Bill. We need much greater education about alcohol, and we should think again about 24-hour drinking. If we do so, we may begin to turn the tide.
Anyone who spends time in the criminal courts as an observer or in any other capacity will know that the number of crimes involving the use of a knife is increasing. More and more young people are carrying knives in a public place. I have recently tabled a parliamentary question about the number of pupils who carry knives, to which I received the reply that a survey last year showed that 1 per cent. of children aged 11 to 16 in England and Wales
That means that thousands of our children are taking knives into school, and it is a horrible statistic. How do the Government approach it? In two ways. First, they raise the age at which knives can legally be purchased, to which we cannot object, but I am not sure it will be effective. Next, they introduce powers for teachers to search pupils in school for knivesnot unwelcome in itself, but fraught with potential difficulties.
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Does not the House realise that there is existing law to cover a knife on school premises? Section 139B of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 makes it an offence to have a knife or any other weapon on school premises, and a constable already has power to enter a school premises to search any person for any such article and to arrest them. An interesting question for the MinisterI wonder whether she will be able to answer it tonightis this: how many times in the past couple of years have constables, acting on information received from a school, entered the school premises, searched a pupil and brought a prosecution against that pupil which has resulted in a conviction and a meaningful punishment under section 139B of the Criminal Justice Act 1988? If thousands of children are taking knives into school, as the evidence suggests, but only a few have been charged under that section, what does that say about existing law enforcement? If, on the other hand, they have all been charged and convicted, how does that point to the need to introduce yet more law?
Finally, a word or two on the issues surrounding airguns and imitation firearms. Yes, we welcome clause 27. It is important that we have the offence of firing an air weapon beyond premises. It could have been introduced in an earlier statute but was not. In the context of imitation firearms, the point about the overselling of legislation, which was well illustrated by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere, can be made. Referring to the use of realistic imitation firearms to threaten others, the Government state in the notes to the Bill:
The use of firearms and imitation firearms in pursuance of crime is increasing and it is a very disturbing trend indeed, but the Minister should remember that there are already a dozen existing statutes that allow the police to deal with those who commit offences with both real and imitation firearms. We need point only to the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, which has been law for over a year and is intended to deal precisely with the problems of possession of imitation firearms in a public place. Why not give it time, to see how it works out?
Let there be no confusion. Using an imitation firearm in the course of crime is treated very harshly by the courts, and rightly so. It is a subject for another day, but the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) put his finger on some interesting points about replica guns and the difficulties involved. We must discuss the matter again in the House.
The Government should address the problem of why the number of prosecutions against offenders with imitation firearms is so woefully low, compared with the number of such crimes that have been reported. I fear that those responsible people who carry out lawful activitiesthose who collect and deal in replica weapons as their hobby, those youngsters who play innocently with their BB gun, their cap guns and their cowboy guns, those many thousands who enjoy the
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sport of airsoftmay be punished under the Bill. Damaging them and their lawful activities will not alter the mindset of one single criminal. Who suffers most as a result of crime? Not us in the Chamber, not those who earn well and live in decent areas. Rather, it is the poor and the vulnerable, who are condemned to live in poor quality estates in our urban areas wracked with crime, who are the victims.
If the Government really want to cut crime, they should not simply listen to their advisers and pass more laws. They should listen to those at the sharp end of crime whose advice is simple: put more police on the streets; introduce a genuine zero-tolerance policy on all crime, including low-level crime; free the police from bureaucracy; maintain discipline at school; improve our appalling detection rates, which get worse by the year; and punish heavily those tens of thousands who regularly skip bail and who laugh at the court system and reduce it to chaos. None of that advice involves more legislation; it is all about proper law enforcement.
Let politicians listen to the decent, law-abiding people who live in lawless communities that are fractured by crime. Those people look to us to restore harmony and peace to their lives, which have got worse and worse in the past seven years. They do not look to us for more legislation, more headlines and more initiatives. They want practical action and real enforcement. In short, they need our help, and we must never fail them.
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