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and it describes reoffending rates as one of the Government’s “most conspicuous failures”. How has this dismal state of affairs come about, given that this Prime Minister has made tough talking his political trademark for the past 10 years? It is this Government who have launched one barrage of illiberal new legislation after another. There have been 63 Home Office Bills, and we are about to debate the 24th criminal justice Bill. More than 3,000 new criminal offences have been shoved on to the statute book—two new offences for every day that this Parliament has sat since 1997. Frankly, if new offences, laws and legislation really could cure crime and antisocial behaviour, ours would be the first crime-free society in the history of this planet.

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Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. If he is so concerned about antisocial behaviour, can he explain how his party’s policy of allowing alcohol to be sold to 16-year-olds will improve the situation? People in my constituency would like to know how that would assist them.

Mr. Clegg: I will ignore that, if I may. [Interruption.] Does the hon. Lady seriously think that an arcane debate about what the precise drinking age limit should be would provide the simple catch-all solution to antisocial behaviour? If I look at the estates in my constituency where there are serious antisocial behaviour problems, what do I find? The greatest cause of complaint from residents is the lettings policy, in that new residents are coming on to the estates whom the sitting residents feel are not appropriate for those estates. The idea that this problem can be solved by a single solution or by a particular change in legislation is absurd and fatuous.

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): I am greatly concerned about the Government’s never-ending attack on, and demonising of, young people. Does my hon. Friend think that the suggested curfews for young people are inappropriate, and that we should invest in more facilities and activities for them, so that we can get them off the streets and stop their drinking?

Mr. Clegg: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I am frankly surprised by the gall of the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) in talking about alcohol-related antisocial behaviour, given that such behaviour has rocketed under this Government; it takes some brass neck to do that.

The Government live in an Alice in Wonderland world of their own, trapped in an unthinking faith in their own tough rhetoric, and oblivious to the fact that the public want not tough talk, but competence and effective policies that work and do not simply catch headlines.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Clegg: I want to offer some relief to agitated Labour Members. I want to suggest four ways in which the Government can get themselves out of this mess. First, they should stop digging when they are in a hole. They should abandon this headline-grabbing frenzy that has disfigured their approach to the criminal justice system for the past 10 years. The omens, of course, are not good. Do we all remember the headlines generated by the new Home Secretary in November, just in advance of the Queen’s Speech? Let me remind those who do not. On 12 November 2006, the Sunday Express ran the headline, “Reid: the gloves come off”. On 16 November, The Independent headline ran, “John Reid: ‘Why I’m called a thug’”. On 15 November, the Liverpool Daily Post headline was, “Only Labour tough enough”. Even that sensitive newspaper The Guardian ran the following headline on 16 November: “Queen’s Speech: Tough on crime, again”.

Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab): I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Given that we should judge political parties by what
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they do, rather than what they say, will he comment on the performance of the Liberal Democrats in government in Liverpool? They failed to support youth services, closed youth clubs and reduced the other services that are necessary in assisting the police in ensuring order. They also take every opportunity to attack the police on every public platform for their inability to be effective. It is not good enough for the Liberal Democrats to seek to present themselves here as the defenders of the police, when the police in Liverpool know that the situation is quite different.

Mr. Clegg: I can only go by the discussions that I have had myself with the police in Liverpool. The right hon. Lady will know about the Matrix team which works to combat serious and organised gun crime in the area. The leader of Liverpool council and I spent the day with that team recently, and its members were full of praise for the support that they had received from Liberal Democrats on Liverpool city council. Liverpool Liberal Democrats have done pioneering work in introducing alley gates, which have cut domestic burglary rates in Liverpool by an unprecedented amount.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Clegg: I will not give way as there is very little time in this debate. I am sure that there will be other opportunities to intervene.

Another recommendation would be to stop legislating when the ink is barely dry on previous legislation that has been rammed on to the statute book. Why are we about to debate another criminal justice Bill when the 50 sections of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 have not even been applied yet?

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): Does my hon. Friend share my concern, and that of my constituents, that somebody convicted of murder has still not had his tariff set under the 2003 Act? Hundreds of people are in the same situation. The implications for their families are a symbol of the Government’s incompetence. Legislation is not a proxy for action.

Mr. Clegg: I am grateful to my hon. Friend because I can think of no better example of the gap between rhetoric and bluster, and what the public actually want—competence and effectiveness. The public do not want the endless headline-grabbing legislative gimmicks: they just want Government to work.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): The hon. Gentleman mentioned effective policies that work and he also mentioned gun crime. Given that 58 per cent. of all firearms offences in Scotland involve air weapons, why did his colleagues on the Committee considering the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 refuse to support measures for a purchaser licensing scheme and instead back the weaker vendor licensing scheme?

Mr. Clegg: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, of all hon. Members, would not wish me to short circuit an issue that is clearly a devolved matter—

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Stewart Hosie: No, it is not. It is reserved. That is why I mentioned it.

Mr. Clegg: In that case, I shall get back to the hon. Gentleman when I have researched the matter a little more.

The Government should stop blaming others. The new Home Secretary had barely walked through the doors of the Home Office when he started blaming his predecessors. He then blamed civil servants, the Opposition and the judges—when they said things that were not to his liking—and, most recently in an interview on Radio 4, he blamed the redecoration problems of some fictional house in the Home Office. Peeling away the wallpaper apparently reveals one problem after another, as if the Home Secretary is Bob the Builder. People want the Home Secretary to get to grips with issues, not continually shuffle blame on to others.

It is high time that the Prime Minister and the latest Home Secretary showed some contrition and apologised to the British people for promising so much and delivering chaos, and for talking tough and creating systematic incompetence.

My second suggestion is that the Government should have the courage to do the hard work to change the behaviour of offenders. They should not simply perpetuate the carousel or revolving door of repeat crime. That means thinking radically about what is happening in our overcrowded, over-burdened, dysfunctional prison system. The Government need to admit that it is not possible to build their way out of the prison overcrowding crisis. The 8,000 new prison places that will be built at an expense to the taxpayer of £1.5 billion will not come on stream until 2011-12, by which time every objective observer accepts that prison numbers will have increased far in excess of those extra places.

Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) that prison is a complete and utter waste of time? Can he guarantee that that will be in the next Liberal Democrat manifesto?

Mr. Clegg: No, I do not agree and it will not be in the next manifesto.

Clearly, there is a role for prisons, but more difficult questions need to be asked. Why is one prisoner in 10 identified as functionally psychotic? Why not invest the money being put into the prison building programme in expanding the secure and semi-secure mental health facilities that are necessary to keep offenders with serious mental health problems out of harm’s way? That money could also be used to rehabilitate and treat them, and so help them avoid falling into the pattern of repeat offending on release.

The present paid-work schemes in prison are patchy, so why do we not expand them? We advocate that the numbers of prisoners doing paid work should be tripled, and that some of the earnings that they accrue should be passed to a consolidated victim compensation fund.

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): Is my hon. Friend aware that Buckley Hall prison in my constituency had two empty places last week? It has changed from a prison for women to one for men, and the result is that the mental health services there have been stripped out.
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Moreover, the retraining promised when the men’s prison was set up has not been delivered. The prisoners face intolerable circumstances, and their families and the governor are very worried about it.

Mr. Clegg: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have spoken to countless prison governors, and they are tearing their hair out because they simply do not know what to do. The tough rhetoric, new legislation and growth in new offences are causing prisons to be overcrowded and making it impossible for governors to do their proper work.

If the Government simply stuff prisons with more and more offenders while doing nothing about drug addiction and the serious mental health conditions that afflict many prisoners, the result will be increased reoffending and crime. That will be the pattern, and the British public will suffer.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clegg: In a moment. With the numbers of crimes and of prisoners rising at the same time, the result is a revolving door of madness. The Government should have the courage to tackle the problem more vigorously.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD): My hon. Friend referred to work in, and associated with, prisons. Is he aware of the really impressive scheme involving the Prince’s Trust and Transco? Under the scheme, prisoners worked outside prison on gas pipelines and so forth, and the result was that reoffending rates fell dramatically. That demonstrates precisely what my hon. Friend is saying—that work projects such as I have described can have a real effect on reoffending rates.

Mr. Clegg: That is certainly the experience in Reading. Toyota is running a very successful scheme in Aylesbury, where prisoners are trained to be specialised car mechanics. In addition, the Howard League is running an extremely interesting pilot project in a prison—I think that it is in Suffolk, although I stand to be corrected—where prisoners run a printing press operation at commercial rates. Those are examples of the sort of innovative thinking that has been lacking in the past 10 years. The Government have been so blinded by the need to capture headlines claiming more prison numbers, offences and offenders that they have done nothing to change offenders’ behaviour.

Ms Keeble: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clegg: I want to make one more point, and then I shall give way to the hon. Lady.

As I said earlier, 92 per cent. of young men who go to prison to serve a sentence of three months or less reoffend within two years of release. We have no rational or moral reason to accept that, because the result is that there is more crime and there are more victims. Could we not think more creatively about ways
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to hand out community sentences that are more visible and demanding? We suggest that they should be no less than twice the length of time of short custodial sentences. The evidence shows that such sentences provide a better way to cut crime, and that they do not create it.

Ms Keeble: Will the hon. Gentleman say which offenders he would not send to prison? Does he support the probation service and probation hostels? If he thinks that people should be held in psychiatric hospitals instead of prisons, will he support the Mental Health Bill? That Bill will make it possible to hold people in such hospitals more easily.

Mr. Clegg: That is just a diversion. The Mental Health Bill, in effect, treats as criminals people who have committed no offence. It once again blurs the boundary between innocence and guilt, and that has been a trademark of legislation over the past 10 years.

The Minister will be relieved to hear that my third point is the penultimate one. My kind and benevolent suggestion to the Government for getting themselves out of the mess is that they should get their priorities right. Why are they spending £100,000 of taxpayers’ money every day on an unworkable, illiberal and unnecessary scheme to introduce ID cards, while they are slashing the promised number of community support officers who really make a difference by quelling public fear of crime and antisocial behaviour in our communities? Why indulge in the endless merry-go-round of new legislation and debating points in this place when the public want basic leadership and management competence in the Home Office?

Fourthly, and finally, the Government should be honest. Why do they continue to dupe the public? For instance, they have sustained a false rhetoric about sentencing that has left the public utterly confused and bewildered. Life sentences are nothing of the sort. The average life sentence is 11 years; 53 so-called lifers, given life sentences in 2000, have already been released. That is not just an insult to the English language—it is an insult to the British public to suggest that they should accept the woeful double-speak so beloved of the Government.

Helen Jones: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clegg: I want to pursue my argument and conclude so that other Members can speak.

Why did the Government introduce, in the Criminal Justice Act 2003, automatic sentence deductions that make an utter mockery of the sentences handed down in court?

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clegg: I am just about to conclude so that others can speak.

I look forward to the Minister’s response. I am sure that it will be characterised by the good grace and absence of personal vitriol for which he is known in the Chamber. I ask him to do one thing: will he at least accept that the populist mix of tough rhetoric and frenzied law-making over the past 10 years has undoubtedly failed and must stop?

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5.21 pm

The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety (Mr. Tony McNulty): I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) and his nine colleagues—it is nice to see them all—for choosing a debate on this serious subject. It should be discussed seriously, although that did not happen much just now. If we are to have a proper, serious and focused debate on crime, the sort of rant we have just heard is not terribly helpful.

Shona McIsaac: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. McNulty: Of course.

Shona McIsaac: If we are to have a serious debate, has my hon. Friend noted the complete absence of Conservative Back Benchers when we are debating such an important—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. Mr. Speaker does not like references to who is or is not in the Chamber.

Mr. McNulty: I wholly concur with Mr. Speaker and admonish my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac). What a disgraceful thing to say! Of course, I welcome the three Conservative Front Benchers, who make up in quality for what is absent in quantity behind them.

We need to look at the context for the debate. The Government have much to be proud of—certainly not to apologise for—in our record of tackling crime. The 2005-06 British crime survey shows that, compared with 1997, all crime is down by 35 per cent: burglary is down by 55 per cent., all vehicle-related thefts are down by 51 per cent. and violence, measured by the BCS, is down by 34 per cent. In stark terms, those figures mean that there are 5.8 million fewer offences overall than in 1997, as estimated by the BCS, and that the risk of householders experiencing crime is at an historically low level—24 per cent., down from 35 per cent. in 1997.

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