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Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con):
The Home Office knows that every week more than 2,000 people commit for the first time a serious criminal offence. I
hope that the Home Secretary will at some stage find a way of publishing those figures and showing whether there have been changes. If we are to have fewer victims, we need to have fewer people committing serious crimes. Is there any possibility of setting an ambition of needing not more prison places but fewer, either because offenders have been treated more adequately, reformed and put back into society, or because fewer people commit crimes in the first place, which must be the ambition of both the Government and the Opposition?
John Reid: Of course we want ultimately to have fewer people committing crimes. That would have the consequence that the hon. Gentleman seeks, which is fewer people in prison. However, as long as there are people committing crimes, we will need prison places. Overall, according to the British crime survey, crime is down by 35 per cent. since 1997, which is a fairly significant reduction. It has been accompanied by an increase in the number of those in prison and the length of sentences because we believe that, while we should reduce crime, we should treat those who commit violent or serious sexual offences in a more fitting manner by giving them tougher sentences. That is the view that we have tried to take in a balanced and sensible fashion.
The views that the hon. Gentleman expresses do not concur entirely with those expressed by his Front-Bench spokesmen. [ Interruption. ] He is right. They do not necessarily concur with mine either, but then we are not in the same party. One would expect some sort of relationship between the members of one party. The discovery of the Conservative partys feminine side has impressed us all, but I have no plans to hug a hoodie or to hug a thug or to go any further than the plans that I have announced today.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): Next Wednesday, when everyone is going off on holiday, I shall be in Blackfriars crown court starting jury service. We changed the law three or four years ago. I have been reflecting on the experience that is to come. Has any systematic work been done to canvass the views of the thousands of people who have served on juries on how delays can be minimised and on other changes that might be made to the system?
John Reid: My hon. Friends commitment to public service appears to know no bounds. We are all, I am sure, duly impressed with that. It is with delight and surprise that I come to the Dispatch Box without my usual riposte to my hon. Friend, which is to distance myself from his suggestions. I hope that it will not go against me in my career, but I agree with him. We ought to carry out a wider public consultation on a number of the measures that we are putting forward here today. The public want to and ought to feel that all of us in this House make decisions after listening to them.
Some people mix up populism with listening to the views of ordinary people. Therefore consultation on many of the proposals that we have outlined, which go further than the changes to which we have committed ourselves today, ought to be a good idea. We should go into communities. I hope that other members of the criminal justice system will do that alongside us. Part of
that might be to listen to former jury members and, indeed, to my hon. Friend himself.
Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): The Chahal decision was in 1996, a decade ago. When do the Government expect to mount an effective challenge to that? What are the Government going to do if they fail to overturn the decision?
John Reid: I think that the hon. Gentleman understands that, as in our own judicial system, things do not always move as quickly as we would like. We are already engaged along with European colleagues in a challenge to that decision through another case that is before the European Court of Human Rights. I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman for definite when that case will end, but I think that it will be in the next 12 months. That is not a prediction but an estimate. I have found from long experience that when pursuing one course of action it is wise not to start outlining to all sorts of people, including those who sit in judgment, what we would do if we did not achieve our objective. We should pursue our objective.
Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): If the Home Secretary is intent, as I know he is, on making sure that society and my constituents are protected from the most violent criminalsthose who kill and seriously maimwill he address the important issue of witness intimidation? There is no doubt that those who intimidate witnesses can escape justice and terrify the very victims whom my right hon. Friend wants to protect.
John Reid: That is absolutely true, which is one of the reasons why we have been exploring and introducing prevention orders against organised crime, to prevent that and a number of other offences before they happen. I agree with my hon. Friend that the issue is important. We are already acting on it, but we will keep it under review, and if it is necessary to tweak or rebalance the system to counter it we will do so.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): The Home Secretary referred in his statement to the perception of the way in which the criminal justice system works, although the unfair criticism of Judge John Griffith Williams in the Sweeney case did nothing for that perception. However, I welcome the reference to drugs intervention and hope that a lot of resources will be allocated to it; as the Home Secretary knows, two thirds of property crime is drugs-related. I commend to him the good work on drugs intervention at Altcourse prison in Liverpool.
I thank the hon. Gentleman and join him in his last comment. On the leniency of sentences, I hope that people will separate personalities from objective outcomes. I do not regret for one minute that I criticised the unduly lenient nature of a sentence. Today, I have announced measures to make sure that such sentences are not unduly lenient in future. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan), who spoke about the case earlier, recognised that we are moving towards changing the system. There
is common agreement about that, so I think I should confine my remarks to the nature of the sentencing, not the personalities involved.
Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): A recent survey that I carried out among my constituents on policing and law and order issues showed that their priorities were for more visible policing and tougher sentences. They also wanted more protection from antisocial behaviour and street crime and a better response to it. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that in carrying out his welcome proposals he will meet the priorities of my constituents?
John Reid: I am glad to confirm to my hon. Friend that the priorities independently identified by her constituents are precisely mine: a visible, accessible, responsive police service is what people want in their communities. When I was speaking earlier, I received criticism from Opposition Members; I merely remind them that we have more police than ever before and more police on our streets and on the beat than ever before, accompanied by community support officers and neighbourhood wardens. They are developing neighbourhood teams, and are empowered to counter antisocial behaviours as never before. That we are doing all that reflects the fact that our priorities are the same as those of my hon. Friends constituents.
Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I welcome the direction taken by the statement, although it represents an admission of failure because the Government have been going in the wrong direction for nine years. To rebalance the criminal justice system in favour of the victim, may I suggest that the Home Secretary reintroduce some honesty in the sentencing system to make sure that prisoners serve their sentence in full? Will he also make a commitment to scrap the Human Rights Act 1998, which in the publics mind has done so much to entrench a culture in which people believe that the system favours giving rights to criminals, prisoners and illegal immigrants at the expense of the ordinary, decent, law-abiding citizens of this country? Both those measures would meet with huge public approval.
John Reid: That does not seem to be the view of the leader of the hon. Gentlemans party, who has resiled from any commitment to leave the European convention on human rights and instead has promised us the undoubted bonus of yet another Bill of Rights to add to the convention. Rather than asking me to do what his own party leader will not do, the hon. Gentleman would do better to start a little closer to home, as we are trying to do with our antisocial behaviour measures to protect people in their homes, on the streets and in their communities. The vast majority of people want effective policing and security and a reduction of fear.
Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab):
Can my right hon. Friend assure me that money for new prison places will not direct resources away from existing prisons, especially their education, training and mental health services and other measures
designed to reduce reoffending? Can every effort be made to identify the vulnerable women and others for whom prison is not suitable and to direct them to more appropriate services?
John Reid: Yes, I will try to do that. In another place, Lady Corston is carrying out a review. My noble Friend Baroness Scotland, the Minister in the other place, takes a great interest in the matter and my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods), who has three prisons and a young offenders institution in her constituency, takes a particular interest, too. I shall rely on all of them to help me move in the direction she suggests.
Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): My constituent was left in a coma after an assault by a young thug who, 10 days earlier, had been released with a three-month supervision order for a similar crime. The maximum sentence for his crime was five years, but the guideline was 15 months, so because he had already served six months in custody the judge had no alternative but to let him free to go back on the streets. The sentencing guidelines are part of the problem. What does the Home Secretary propose to do about them?
John Reid: As I told the House earlier, the Attorney-General, the Lord Chancellor and I will be consulting our colleagues, including those who make up the bulk of the Sentencing Guidelines Council, on a number of issues. I hope that the outcome of those discussions will reassure the hon. Gentleman that some of the things he raised are being addressed.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I look forward to the Home Secretarys consultation with former jurors, as, like my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), I was summoned for jury serviceat the Old Bailey, last week. It was a bit of a damp squib; 120 of us were summoned and we sat in a cramped room for three hours before we were released without having to serve the rest of our two weeks. Do not we need radical changes in the way courts are run? The sittings should not simply be in the interests of the lawyers and at the convenience of the judge. There should be programmed times for cases so that trials are not as long as they are at present, and jurors and witnesses should not be treated as some kind of necessary evil.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friends comments. That is why our priorities included not only protecting the public from violent crime and prolific offenders, putting victims and communities first, building public confidence in sentencing and gripping offenders to protect the public, but also simple, speedy summary justice, with things such as live TV links between police stations and courts to speed processing, the expanded use of conditional cautions and the bulk processing of regulatory offences. Recently, I visited a court in the Liverpool area where there is a degree of pre-consultation between all the parties involvedfrom the prosecution right through to probation and policing. The driving dynamism of the judge in that court has greatly expedited efficient treatment and fairness, and diminished inconvenience and cost to
everyone. I hope that example of bringing the parties together more efficiently, which has already spread to Manchester, will spread throughout the country.
Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): In welcoming much of what the Home Secretary has announced today, I urge him to have an early discussion with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland so that people in my area, too, can benefit from a greater sense of fairness in the sentencing regime and so that they can have a sense that the criminal justice system is both fair to, and meeting the needs of, victims. He will know from his previous experience that we already lag behind in many areas, such as ASBOs, unlimited sentencing, the life sentence tariffs and so on. He is the man who can have a word with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Will he do it quickly and ensure that we get action on these areas?
John Reid: I am always willing to have discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Irelandformally and informallybut I would much rather that the rapid progress in this area was made by the people of Northern Ireland themselves, and together, wherever that is possible.
John Reid: If this is an area that is not devolved to the Assembly, of course I will share my views with the Secretary of State. He will be aware of them, because these details are shared with my Cabinet colleagues before I share them with the House.
Mr. Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is absolutely right when he says that, for many people, the world begins outside their front door. At the beginning of the week, I was on Goldenhill road in my constituency, with the elected mayor, talking to local residents about crime and antisocial behaviour from a park behind their houses. My right hon. Friend has said that he is going to propose a number of things to tackle groups of young thugsfor want of a better worddriving their motorbikes up and down the park. Can he give any further indication of what other measures may be in the pipeline specifically relating to motorbikes and their misuse, and of how the existing fantastic improvements to the law can be toughened up even further?
John Reid: Yes, I can tell my hon. Friend that we intend to bring forward and implement measures that are intended to be directed at that specific area. They are to back up and complement the powers that we have already introduced in relation to local policing and local people. Those powers enable the quick closure of crack houses, which are a cancer on many estates. There are also dispersal orders for antisocial elements. I mentioned a new parental compensation order being brought in.
The question is important. I remember when we started to deal in the House with antisocial behaviour issues. On one occasion, we were laughed out by Opposition Members, who regarded it as somehow demeaning that we were dealing with burnt-out cars, graffiti, muggings and needles in the street. We were
mocked as being interested in chewing gum on the pavements. Not for the first time, Opposition Members were completely and utterly out of touch with the feelings of the vast majority of people in this country.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): May I tell the Home Secretary that there is a site designated on the Isle of Wight for a fourth prison? He owns it, it has planning permission, and my constituents would welcome the investment and jobs. When are the new sentencing guidelines going to come into effect and when will the new prison places be available?
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): According to the Home Secretarys statement, the Government will end the requirement that judges should automatically halve the minimum term when setting the earliest release date for those serving unlimited sentences. Am I right in thinking that the vast majority of sentences are not unlimited sentences, and does that mean that the majority of sentences, say for 18 years, 14 years, 12 years, will still
Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): I can reassure the Home Secretary that, despite being in touch with my feminine side, I will not be hugging a hoodie, in case he stabs me in the stomach. On a serious point, how can we best use sentencing to persuade young people that the simple act of carrying a knife is a serious crime in itself?
John Reid: We do that by making sure that the maximum sentence for carrying a knifewhether it is classified as an offensive weapon or an object with a point, which are the two classifications in legislationis long enough to denote the seriousness of that act. That is why I have announced today, as part of my measures, that I intend to extend the maximum sentence for carrying an object with a point or a blade to four years.
Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con):
I welcome the Home Secretarys comments about low-level offending and the fact that more police officers should be on the beat. However, in Wellingborough, yob culture is growing. The chief constable has interpreted Government policy by getting rid of the basic
command unit in my area, removing my chief superintendent to outside the constituency and moving police officers outside the constituency. It would appear that the chief constable has misunderstood Government policy. Will the Home Secretary have a word with him to reverse those decisions?
John Reid: Although I am always willing to try to help hon. Members, especially on the Opposition Benches, I will observe the proprieties of allowing chief constables to make their own decisions on those mattersunless the issue is of such strategic and national importance that the hon. Gentleman thinks that I would legitimately be entitled to intervene.
I am glad that we agree on one thing. Where there are young thugsthis does not apply to the vast majority of young people, who are as unenamoured of yobs and thugs as the rest of populationhugs do not always provide a way of tackling them. I am glad that he is with our side of the House on that. I thought for a moment that he was going to add shouting Yo! to a yob, or something of that nature, to the idea of hugging a hoodie. I am glad that he refrained from doing so.
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