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There must be, for public policy sake if nothing else, a serious and substantial debate about criminal policy, conducted responsibly by both the Government and Opposition parties, but sadly this is not it. We need a debate about who should be in prison, and who should not. There must be a debate about how we deal with many low-level, but still deeply destructive, crimes for our communities, through the use of fixed penalty
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notices, summary justice, ASBOs, and dispersal orders, which do work. We need to ensure that ever more serious, persistent and violent offenders are put where they belong, and we are doing so.

We do not need lectures from a party that tells us that dispersal orders offend their sensibilities. The Liberal Democrats could not care less what dispersal orders do to alleviate the difficulties for our communities; they are against them, so that is the end of it. They do not like fixed penalty notices, but they do not explain why to our communities. They, with their stratospherically pseudo-intellectual sensibilities, do not like fixed penalty notices, so they do not matter, whatever they do for our communities. Liberal Democrats do not like the notion of giving the police powers to close crack houses, although that relates to the very point that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam made about how to allocate houses on estates. We offer the power to close crack houses, and the Liberal Democrats vote against it. We offer— [Interruption.] I am afraid they did vote against police powers to close crack houses. What else would we expect, given that on one local authority a Liberal Democrat councillor wants the police to be charged £400 every time they knock down a door in a drug raid? She thinks it is appalling that the local council should have to pay to refit the door if, for operational reasons, the police had to knock it down. Even her local colleagues called her stupid and rushed to distance themselves from her suggestion.

The Liberal Democrats would end all sentences for drug possession, as we heard. Time after time, we are told that all of a sudden they are tough on crime. The debate should not be about tough v. soft. It should be about practicalities, substance, making a difference in the criminal justice system both for those who offend and those who are offended against, and getting that balance right across the piece. Being very bad at being tough, as evidenced by such a weak and flaccid record, is not good enough.

The debate should have been a chance for the Liberal Democrats to set out a shining, substantial policy for the way forward. I have no idea what their policy is, save for two features. First, their previous shadow Home Secretary said—I think this gets closer to the reality:

No difference, no distinction is made. On another occasion, one of their much vaunted ex-leaders said that it was important to him that Ian Huntley, among others, should be able to vote and take part in our democratic process.

Liberal Democrats are all over the place, as the motion shows, in their proposals for the way forward for themselves, let alone for the country and for tackling crime. Let us have the substantive debate. Let us discuss where the Government need to do more and where the emphasis should be in penal policy. That discussion is necessary, but we cannot have it wrapped around a silly little motion proposed in a rather sub-intellectual way by the next leader of the party, who will remain where he is, not on the official Opposition Front Bench and certainly not on the Government Front Bench.

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5.47 pm

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I agree with much that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) said. I welcome his conversion to the principle of honesty in sentencing. We have said that judges should specify a minimum and a maximum number of years for an offender to serve in prison, with a minimum sentence being served in full. We have said that the early release scheme should be scrapped. We made those pledges at the last election.

It would be churlish of me not to welcome the hon. Gentleman’s belated recognition that we were right, but we have some important differences with the Liberal Democrats. They support community sentences instead of prison for many crimes, but I cannot agree that prison sentences are not appropriate for serial shoplifters, vandals or fine defaulters. Custodial sentences are sometimes the only option for courts when offenders are serially abusing the criminal justice system. Some call these offenders petty, but their actions can make people’s lives a misery and blight communities.

The failure or improper use of many non-custodial penalties has gravely undermined the public’s confidence in ill thought-through alternatives to prison. Over 4,000 prisoners released early under the home detention curfew scheme have reoffended, committing more than 7,000 crimes. More than 1,000 of those were violent offences, including a murder, woundings and assaults. The hon. Gentleman says that there should be no soft options. I agree, so I have been reading the Liberal Democrats’ “We Can Cut Crime” website with great interest. I am surprised that so much Liberal Democrat policy has been left out—the generous pledge to give prisoners the right to vote, their plan to downgrade the classification of ecstasy, and their long-standing commitment to the legalisation of prostitution. The party’s new campaign appears to be the latest incarnation of what was briefly called tough liberalism, a notion best epitomised by the proposal to send teenage joyriders to race cars or learn car maintenance. In the words of the party’s former home affairs spokesman:

Alternatively, maybe they will learn to fix the cars that they steal and drive them faster.

It would be a shame if the full complement of Liberal Democrat policies were not promoted more effectively. We cannot rely on, so I have done some research, and I can tell the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam that is still available— is also available, if he prefers it.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister told the Liaison Committee:

It is safe to say that the Prime Minister is not literally living on a different planet from the rest of us, even if many in his own party would like that to be the case. When it comes to the Government’s claims on tackling crime, however, the Government appear to be living in a parallel universe. The Government amendment

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Reduction? Only on a measure that excludes crimes against under-16s and commercial property, drug dealing and murder. If one adds in the crimes that have been left out, there are not 10 million crimes a year—the figure is more like 30 million.

In November, a leaked document from the Prime Minister’s own strategy unit admitted that 80 per cent. of the claimed decrease in crime was due to economic factors. As the centre for crime and justice studies at King’s college London has pointed out, the Government easily achieved their crime targets, because those targets were

The fact is that almost 500,000 more crimes were committed last year than in the year in which the Government entered office. Far from the “lasting reduction” claimed in the amendment, the strategy unit document tells us that the Home Office prediction is that crime will begin to rise—in fact, crime rose in last week’s figures. Not surprisingly, that page in the strategy unit’s document did not appear in the final version—another dodgy dossier, and another inconvenient truth hidden from the public.

Frankly, no one believes the Government’s claims on crime any more, because, as the Statistics Commission has said, the Government routinely spin the figures. The Government claim that the chances of being a victim of crime are at “historically low levels”, but people in this country have a higher chance of being a victim than people in any of our peer group countries, bar one. Home Office spending has risen by £6.2 billion a year under this Government, an increase of nearly £290 per household. We now spend more on law and order as a proportion of GDP—2.5 per cent.—than any other OECD country. Yet only this week, the European crime and safety survey showed that the UK has the highest rate of burglary and assault in the European Union. We have the highest spending and the worst performance. Have the Government not stopped for one second to ask themselves why that is the case?

The second claim from planet Marsham street is that new and innovative powers to tackle antisocial behaviour are working. How exactly are they working, when more than half of ASBOs are breached? The Youth Justice Board has said that young people treat ASBOs as a badge of honour. The Government say that ASBOs are working. It is not hard to decide who to believe. How do the Government know that ASBOs are working, when the National Audit Office has said that there has been no formal assessment of the programme? There is no serious programme to deal with antisocial behaviour; all we get is a series of gimmicks. We have had “Respect handbooks” and “Respect rocks” parties on beaches, and we have had together plans and action plans, yet antisocial behaviour still plagues our communities—in particular, it affects the poorest communities in the country.

What action has there been? There has been action to keep offenders out of court. Thousands of offenders, including sex offenders, are now receiving cautions for their crimes. Serial shoplifters are being rewarded with penalty notices, which can be less than the value of the stolen goods. Those actions all count as offences brought to justice, but half the fines are not
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paid, so the offences are not brought to justice at all. The only effect has been to hit a Government target.

The Government’s amendment claims that the introduction of identity cards will combat immigration abuse and illegal working. How will ID cards prevent illegal immigration when foreign visitors, of whom there were 28 million last year, will not be required to have one unless they plan to stay in the UK for more than three months? I notice that in the midst of the constantly shifting justifications for ID cards, the amendment does not claim that they will prevent terrorism. As the previous Home Secretary admitted, they did not prevent the bombings in Madrid and would not have prevented the 7/7 bombings either. If the Government were serious about dealing with immigration, they would reintroduce proper border controls, but the UK Borders Bill no more does that than it deals with the 10,000 foreign nationals in our prisons, more than half of whom still will not face automatic deportation under its measures.

The Government congratulate themselves on the provision of extra prison places, but there is nothing to congratulate them on as regards prisons. As Professor Rod Morgan, the former chairman of the Youth Justice Board who resigned, warned last week, we are standing on the brink of a prisons crisis. Prisons are full. Unsuitable police cells are being used to house inmates. Unsuitable offenders have been transferred to open jails, and prisoners, including murderers, have been walking out of the doors at a rate of two a week from Ford prison in my constituency. Drugs are rife in prisons—institutions that are meant to be secure. Reconviction rates are rising. Nearly 80 per cent. of young male prisoners reoffend within two years. I agree with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam that we have to do more to ensure that prisons work effectively and to provide alternative secure places for prisoners with serious drugs problems. Seventy per cent. of adult prisoners have a reading and numeracy age of under 11. The amount of purposeful activity in prisons is appalling, be it work, education or training. We cannot possibly hope to rehabilitate prisoners in the current crowded conditions.

The Government proclaim that record numbers of police officers and police community support officers are on the streets helping to make communities safer. Where are all those officers? They are spending less than a fifth of their time on the beat. They are in stations filling in multiple forms to process arrests. They are in court spending hours waiting for cases that are cancelled when witnesses do not turn up. Some 8,000 of them are on restricted duties—on full pay but doing as little as an hour’s work a day, at a cost of £243 million a year. Police stations have been closed. The Government have reneged on their manifesto promise to deliver 24,000 PCSOs by next year. They have shelved their manifesto promise to introduce the national non-emergency 101 number. The police national database that was promised in the wake of the Soham murders has been delayed by three years, and costs have more than doubled. Perhaps by Home Office standards that counts as a reasonable performance.

In November, the Government said that they were going to publish a vision for policing. Like the 101 number and the promised PCSOs, the vision has been shelved. After the collapse of the mergers, the
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Government have nothing to say about policing. Ministers are giving no direction at all but merely call lamely for a debate. The Government’s sole remaining vision of policing is the prospect of Scotland Yard officers marching up Downing street. Where are the big ideas? What happened to the tough action on the causes of crime? Like the Minister’s advice to members of the public who see a mugging, all the Government can do is put up their hands.

But let us be fair to the Home Secretary. He has one big idea—to split his Department in two. Of course we agree that there is a major security challenge facing the country, and that the Home Office ministerial team needs strengthening to confront that challenge—frankly, it would be hard to disagree with that. Splitting the Home Office would be disruptive and would dislocate the criminal justice system by separating the police from the penal system at a time when justice so clearly needs to be joined up. However, it would not solve the real problem, which has been successive Home Secretaries under this Government and the strategic errors that they have made. Ministers took the decision to relax immigration controls, and the decision was wrong. Ministers were warned four years ago that the minimum level of the prison population would be higher than it is now, but they ignored the advice, took the decision, and the decision was wrong. Officials are not to blame, and it is not the Department that is unfit for purpose, but Ministers. Why should splitting a Department result in Ministers who can make better decisions? What we need is a Home Secretary who prefers responsible, long-term decisions to grabbing the next headline, but we have not had that for 10 years. Instead, the criminal justice system has been deluged with legislation. Sixty-two Home Office Bills have been introduced since 1997—six in this Session alone. Twenty-three measures have subsequently been wholly or partly repealed. Out of 3,000 new offences, 430 have been created by the Home Office.

There has been equally frenetic spinning. The Government Communication Network is currently advertising a vacancy for a news editor for the Home Office website. The job specification is candid. It states:

that will be news to the Home Secretary—

I wish the news editor well on planet Marsham street. Back in the real world, people have had their fill of spin.

After 10 years and billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, there is no one else for the Government to blame. The failure to tackle crime is their record. Failures in the Home Office are their responsibility. The 27,500 files on criminals that sat for years on a Home Office desk are their responsibility. The failure to jail sex offenders because the prisons are full is their fault. They promised the public tough action, they failed to deliver and they will be held to account.

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6.1 pm

Margaret Moran (Luton, South) (Lab): I listened with great interest and some amusement to the speech of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg). I waited for answers to some of the knotty problems that the Government are tackling. Alas, I heard none. I filleted two main themes from the hon. Gentleman’s speech: we should all be honest about crime and antisocial behaviour and we should focus on prevention. In so far as the Liberals can be honest, we should examine the reality—not the windy rhetoric—of their hare-brained proposals for people’s lives, for example, in my constituency. From the perspective of my community, the Liberals are much more interested in the rights of the perpetrators than those of victims. My constituents pay the price for that woolly Liberalism.

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): You’re the Government.

Margaret Moran: The hon. Gentleman smirks and laughs but my constituents pay heavily for Liberal-Tory controlled Luton council, which has voted against using any antisocial behaviour measures. Liberals and Tories oppose those measures not only in this place but in practice in Luton.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that dispersal orders constitute one of the most popular measures? On estates in my constituency, they have been used to disperse the plague of youths that hang around street corners. Yet the Liberal Democrats voted against them when they came before the House.

Margaret Moran: I agree. The Liberals oppose not only dispersal orders but fixed penalty notices for drunken louts. They claim to deliver greater public safety but they voted against police powers to break up unruly gangs of teenagers and so on. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), one of only a handful of Liberal Democrats present, chunters, but he should come and talk to people in Farley and Bury park in my constituency who are still waiting for gating schemes. The Liberals claim that they are leading the way on that issue nationally. Luton has areas with major problems of crime and drug addiction, yet the Liberals will not enforce gating schemes in places such as Farley.

In areas such as Brook street, there are major problems of prostitution, drug dealing and drug taking, and action is not effective, not because the police do not want to act but because the Liberal council tells them that it does not want to get involved in that partnership approach. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam must explain to constituents in areas such as Brook street why the Liberals oppose measures to tackle crack houses and drug possession and why they believe in liberalising prostitution. All those problems plague my constituents in that area and the surrounding area of High Towne.

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