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7 Nov 2007 : Column 206

What the Government need to address are the reasons for the poverty of aspiration that exists in too many of our communities. Broken families, welfare dependency, inner-city deprivation and discrimination are all symptoms of a broken society. The Government are appearing to be tough on skills shortages when they should be tough on the causes of skills shortages.

The last Bill to which I shall refer—I shall make it six rather than seven, in view of the time—is the European treaty Bill. I think it is a matter of trust that there should be a referendum on the European treaty. Trust is the paramount reason. Almost every Member was elected on the promise of a referendum on the treaty. The treaty is the constitution by another name and we should, on the grounds of honour and trust alone, have a referendum.

I have another major concern, however. Europe must face up more than it has done to the consequences of globalisation and an increasingly competitive world. I discern in this new treaty all the old instincts of the old Europe, such as the instinct to centralise—to take power away from countries and communities and to impose on them regimes that are not necessarily those required to survive and flourish in a competitive world.

I had hoped to speak for longer on this matter, but I shall truncate my remarks. We need a different kind of Europe. Let me return to my theme of authority. The Government say that we do not need a referendum because this House will decide, but this House has a large Government majority and Members will be whipped to support the Bill—although some brave Labour Members will break ranks and say, “No, we should have a referendum and let the people decide on this important question of a permanent transfer of power away from this House to the European Union.” I fear that by following that course of action the Government will again prove my central theme to do with their authority: the complacency of this Government. Europe needs to change, but the Government are using their authority to ensure that it does not do so.

4.11 pm

Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) (Lab): It is a pleasure to have an opportunity to speak on this aspect of the Gracious Speech.

I made my maiden speech on Second Reading of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, and I am now a member of the Committee on it. I have listened intently to the debates in Committee and, as a newcomer to the House, I have been bemused by the position that Opposition Members have taken on certain aspects of the Bill.

First, I shall address what has been important about this Government’s approach to criminal justice, and especially antisocial behaviour. The Government have a long and proud record on tackling those issues and can boast that they are firmly on the side of the victim and want there to be strong communities that can live in harmony without the fear of crime stalking the streets. They have gone some way towards achieving that. Since 1997, overall crime has fallen by a third. Car crime and burglary rates have more than halved. Adult reoffending rates have fallen. There have also been reductions in people’s fear of crime and perceptions of antisocial behaviour.

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Neighbourhood policing has a key role to play in building confidence in the fight against crime in local areas. That is why every community will by April next year have a neighbourhood policing team working with local people to focus on the crime issues that matter to them. I have seen that for myself in the village of West Cornforth in my constituency. I was recently involved in a neighbourhood policing exercise in that village. Agencies were working together to clamp down on antisocial behaviour blackspots and looking out for signal crimes such as graffiti that they could tackle at an early stage before things got out of hand. The youth project there has also helped to give responsibility to young people, and given them ownership of how they organise and run the project.

As a consequence of neighbourhood policing, proactive local agencies and a community not scared to face challenges, antisocial behaviour has fallen significantly in the area. In Sedgefield, crime is more than 20 per cent. below the national average. Neighbourhood policing is helping to secure that. In West Cornforth, a balance has been struck between providing something for young people to do through the community youth drop-in centre while, at the same time, policing in a firm but neighbourly way.

There is still more to do, however. That is why I am pleased to be involved in the Committee stage of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. Its provisions will help tackle crime on the estates where I grew up in Sedgefield, and elsewhere. Violent offender orders will allow courts to impose post-sentence restrictions on those convicted of violent offences. The Bill will extend the existing crack house powers to tackle premises at the centre of serious and persistent disorder or nuisance, regardless of tenure. There will be new powers to deal with nuisance or disturbance on NHS premises. The creation of youth rehabilitation orders will provide community sentences for children and young offenders. These provisions will, once again, place the Government on the side of the victim and the community. However, our approach to ridding our communities of crime needs to be holistic and to offer a balance—as shown in West Cornforth—between punishing the criminal and providing potential offenders with the opportunity of not offending, stopping them in their tracks, especially when they are young, turning them around and setting them on a different course.

We all hear in our constituencies of young people who might be causing problems on estates, standing on street corners being a nuisance. We hear of young people on the streets, in back alleys and elsewhere, drinking illegally. However, this is not an issue for public houses; rather, it must be addressed by shopkeepers and supermarkets, where it is perhaps possible to buy 20 cans of beer for £10. On occasion, young people get somebody aged over 18 to go into a supermarket to buy £10-worth of beer, so that they can drink it outside.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Durham constabulary, which in my constituency—and perhaps in his—is using laws that this Government have given it on test purchasing in order to take a proactive stance and prevent the illegal sale of alcohol to youngsters?

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Phil Wilson: My hon. Friend is right—Durham constabulary has a very good record on this issue, including in my constituency. However, the responsibility needs to fall on shopkeepers and supermarkets, as well. There has to be a combined initiative in cracking down on this problem.

I have always thought that, before we start criticising young people, we as a community must offer them the opportunity to do something else other than stand on street corners. That is why the Bill introduced in the Gracious Speech to use money from dormant bank accounts to invest in our communities, especially in youth services, is a tremendous idea. Giving young people something to do in their spare time is surely more productive than their becoming frustrated and taking out that frustration on local communities. My approach is this: if young people want to use youth centres, that is fine; if they do not, that, too, is fine. However, if they choose the third option—being disruptive in their community—the police and local agencies should have the powers to ensure that that disruption is stopped.

However, it would be wrong to give the impression that all of today’s young people want to cause trouble—they do not. Just the other day, two young people, Grant Parker and Georgia Howe, came to my constituency office to ask for support in starting a youth forum in Newton Aycliffe. I will support them. They want to gather together a group of young people to talk about the changes that they would like to see in their area, and to get across the very valid point that a lot of young people do a great deal of good in the local community.

Last week, I visited 1407 air cadet squadron in Newton Aycliffe, which consists of 54 young people between the ages of 13 and 20 from Newton Aycliffe, Chilton and elsewhere in the constituency. They are commanded by Flying Officer Karin Scott, and they have won the Lindisfarne trophy in two out of the past three years because they are seen as the most outstanding air cadet squadron in the north-east. Their squadron is one of many throughout the country. They learn to fly, sit for a diploma in public service—equivalent to four GCSEs—and take part in the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme. Many of them wear the millennium volunteer badge because of the work that they do in the local community. Their funding arrangements are fragile, and they are not treated the same as Army cadets. That is an issue for another day, but I wanted to highlight the work that they do as an example to us all. I am proud that they are a part of my constituency.

The Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill will be another laudable addition to the statute book and it will make sure that the police have the powers to ensure that our communities are safe. Given the activities undertaken by the communities themselves, I believe that great progress can be made in securing a safe environment for all our people. I must add at this juncture that the Bill is yet another piece of legislation protecting our people that the Opposition voted against. They talk tough—and then vote soft. They voted against the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and the Police and Justice Act 2006. When they were in government, crime doubled, violent crime rose by 170 per cent., robberies
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increased by 400 per cent. and convictions fell by a third. It gets worse. They cannot even make up their minds on whether they want to punish offenders. As for the Liberal Democrats, they have said that they definitely do not want to punish offenders.

In Committee on the afternoon of 25 October, the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and their colleagues moved an amendment to clause 9 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. The clause was on sentencing. Their amendment addressed the purpose of sentencing and proposed to delete the phrase “the punishment of offenders”. They saw the purpose of sentencing not as being to punish offenders. I had been an MP for just three months at the time and was amazed to be sitting in a room with legislators who were seriously considering removing from a Bill on criminal justice the fact that the main purpose of sentencing an offender was to punish him or her.

The amendment was put to a vote. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome and his one Liberal Democrat colleague voted against punishing the offender. The hon. and learned Member for Harborough and his colleagues abstained; they could not make their mind up whether they wanted to punish the offender or not. The voting patterns of the Opposition on that day took talking tough and voting soft to a new dimension. They have now entered the realm of not only voting soft, but talking soft. Their approach to criminal justice is bizarre and bears no relation to the needs of the community that we represent. I, like the rest of my Labour colleagues, voted to keep punishment as an integral part of the criminal justice system. We now know that no matter how much the Opposition parties talk about crime in future, they either do not want to punish the offender or cannot make up their mind about whether or not they want to do so.

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): I am listening to what the hon. Gentleman says with great interest. Is he aware that we are now on 29 criminal justice Bills since 1997? Does he feel that plenty of talk has gone on in this Chamber over the past 10 years and that legislation has been used as a proxy for real action to tackle the serious problems faced in the streets in his constituency and in mine?

Phil Wilson: One need only examine our good record on crime over the past 10 years to see the results of those Bills. The number of crimes has been cut by a third over that period. We have a proud record, and if something takes five, 10 or 20 Bills, that is the approach we should take.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Does my hon. Friend agree that on most of those occasions, the Liberal Democrats have voted against measures, including a measure to disperse teen gangs that has been used successfully in his constituency?

Phil Wilson: That is right, and the Liberal Democrats are now saying that they do not want to punish someone who has committed a crime. It is also fair to say that we need reform; part of sentencing must be reform and rehabilitation to protect the public and ensure that the offender makes reparations. However,
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let us remember that for every crime there is a victim. If we say that punishment plays no part in the criminal justice system, the British people have every right to laugh in our face, and the offender is given every reason to reoffend. I am pleased that Labour Members are on the right side of the argument.

4.23 pm

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson). I am sure that all the emotions that he has expressed could be reflected by all of us in our constituencies, but perhaps in slightly different ways.

I want to talk exclusively about the Government’s proposals to increase the maximum period that terrorist suspects can be held from 28 days to 56 days or beyond. May I start by asking the Minister exactly what has changed since we went through this difficult, painful and unnecessary process 18 months or two years or so ago, when the Government, apparently supported by elements of the police force and the security services, were saying that we needed to hold terrorist suspects for 90 days, rather than for the 56 days that is now being discussed? Has the threat changed? Has it diminished? Are we likely to be investigating less complex cases in future? I do not think so. When I listen to the head of MI5, the Home Secretary or the Government generally, or to my rhetoric, it is clear to me that the threat is just as complex. It is thus hard to understand why the Government can reject accusations that this is a political issue rather than one that is bent upon the protection of this country.

The issues of plea bargaining, post-charge questioning, and the use of holding charges and intercept evidence have arisen. I declare an interest, because I have been involved in all of those activities practically in fighting the IRA, albeit a few years ago. I understand all of these matters and have employed them. But none of them is particularly significant. I respect the words of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) about the use of intercept evidence, but if one talks to practitioners about any of those measures, they will say that they are certainly useful, but they are not a silver bullet that can put terrorists away without further reference. If such evidence becomes suddenly admissible in court, it will not mean that charges and accusations can be cleared up with the snap of the fingers. They are useful tools, but they are not the pre-eminently important issue with which we are dealing.

I therefore ask the House not to be distracted. Whatever the Government say—I am totally on side in trying to reach some consensus on this difficult subject—about post-charge questioning and the like, they are but placebos when compared with the main issue of the extension from 28 days to 56 or beyond.

I have been involved at the sharp end of a similar sort of problem and I have railed against the windbags, the bureaucrats and the politicians—those who do not daily face criminals and terrorists or deal with the problems that arise from their activities. It is hard for police officers and members of the security services to understand why a bunch of card-carrying civilians do not say, “Yes, you can have whatever powers you need. If you say you need them, we will grant them, because
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the one enduring liberty that stands above everything else is the ability to live in peace and without threat.” It is therefore hard to understand why Parliament stands in the way of granting those powers.

I can sympathise, and even empathise, with the stand that many in the police are taking. I respect the fact that the Government have advanced some sensible solutions for judicial review for those being held without charge every seven days, and other forms of review, including debate in Parliament, of those being held for longer periods. That is sensible, liberal and laudable. Any of those solutions should work, but if we look at the lessons of history, we will see that they will not work.

Whatever we do and whatever we say, if we extend the period of detention before charge, our enemies—wrongly, in my view—will label it internment. Would it be internment? Would it bear any resemblance to what went on during the war years, when Italians and Germans were held? Would it bear any resemblance to what I saw in the 1970s in Northern Ireland, when it was predominantly Catholics who were held? Of course not. It bears no resemblance whatever. But would that stop our enemies claiming that it was internment? Absolutely not.

If we hand that weapon to Islamist fundamentalists, those who would damage this state not just physically, but morally and politically, we would do ourselves a grave disservice. We would immediately lay ourselves open to further alienating the community from which the majority—although not all—of the problem stems. It is crucial that the British Muslim community is kept on side in its entirety—or as close to its entirety as we can get. If we consider what happened in the 1970s in Northern Ireland, we see that the one word “internment” would—I believe, having listened to the evidence given to the Home Affairs Committee—alienate good, honest, loyal, properly religious and truthful Muslims.

Secondly, and probably even more damagingly, anything we do to damage the flow of intelligence from the relevant communities will turn off our only important weapon in fighting the people whom I am talking about. We can rely on information, observation and analysis, but none of that equates to proper, hard intelligence. Believe me, anything that we do that damages our touts, informers or resources, or that alienates people who are giving information, will damage the fight against terror.

My next point harks back to what I saw being done in Northern Ireland. The more we take technically innocent people and allow them to be locked up for up to, let us say, 55 days before being released without charge, the more opportunities we will give our enemies to contort the truth, exercise black propaganda against us and twist facts. There is plenty of precedent for that sort of thing; some would say that a number of incidents from the past two years already fall into that category. Once such things happen, those individuals who have been held without charge for that lengthy period will become recruiting magnets for Islamist fundamentalists and totems for radicalisation, just as the IRA used its ex-internees for such purposes in the 1970s in Northern Ireland.

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My message is simple. I understand why we want to do such things. I understand any policeman or security service person who says that he or she needs such powers, and I empathise with them. However, we must learn the lessons of history. Once we are labelled yet again as a nation that intends to intern its people and as an illiberal tyrannical society and not a democracy, the terrorists whom we are trying to defeat will have dented us—and dented us badly.

4.32 pm

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I support the Gracious Speech. Like the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff), I shall touch on a number of constituency issues. The first is the welcome inclusion in the speech of the commitment to affordable housing.

I have described my constituency as a rural one with urban problems. It covers a rural area with two medium-sized towns and a number of former mining communities. Since the late 1990s, there has been a problem in those former mining communities: it has been difficult for young people to get on the property ladder, given the restricted social housing. If people want to stay in those villages, as many do, there is a real problem, as they can no longer afford to do so.

Although I welcome the commitment on affordable housing, I question whether—and I shall return to this theme in another context—the answer is to set up something called the homes and communities agency. My heart sinks when the Government announce another initiative whose answer to a problem is to set up an agency to sort it out. As one proud to have been a local councillor for 12 years, I think that we need to give more powers back to local government to tackle affordable housing. We do not need to try to reinvent the wheel by setting up an agency that will try to sort out all the problems.

I have been critical of some local government in Durham and I continue to be so when it does things wrong. However, it is accountable to local people and, if new local housing is to be built, councils should be the vehicle not only for providing that directly but for doing so in partnership with housing associations and the voluntary sector. There are some good examples of where that can be done. I would rather it were spearheaded by local councils, along with local Members of Parliament, than yet another agency be set up, which, if it is anything like what we have had so far as regards a Whitehall-centred view of the world, will take little interest in what local people want. Moreover, local councils are democratically accountable, whereas another agency will not be. Nevertheless, the commitment to affordable housing is very welcome.

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