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The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): This has been an interesting and unexpectedly lively debate. I am pleased to say that three Conservative Back Benchers were able to speak,
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but that rather more spoke from the Government Benches. [Interruption.] Well, it is unwise to make charges at the beginning of the debate.

I enjoyed the speech made by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert); it must have been the first time that the adjective “tantric” has been worked into a debate on the rather solemn and sober matter of crime and justice. I am grateful to him for his approbation for my second outing in the other place: walking backwards twice in front of Her Majesty. [Interruption.] I am also grateful for that sedentary comment that I looked marvellous. That is what the Home Secretary also said to me, and I shall tell my mother. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman’s claims at the end of his tantric remarks that all would be much improved were there to be a Conservative Government would be slightly more credible were the experience of previous Conservative Governments to be in that direction—the simple fact is that it is not.

I brought this book out earlier, and it is well worth reading—copies are available in the Library, as well as on my bookshelf. I am talking about the 1994 conservative party campaign guide. It is a wonderful source of information, and it makes a central point on pages 413 and 414. The book dates from the time when luminaries such as the shadow Chancellor, the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), and the Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), were fully involved in the Conservative party as advisers or researchers; they were almost certainly writing this book.

The Conservatives were pointing out on those pages, with glowing self-praise, the great value that the party had brought to a wider understanding of crime figures by the then Government’s establishment of the British crime survey in 1981. They said:

They then apologetically said:

I ask my hon. Friends, because sometimes this is disputed, to note the second tire, which says:

So, that is all right then.

During the Conservatives’ 18 years in office, crime rose by 50 per cent. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), the deputy Chief Whip, ought to know that on becoming a Whip he takes not tantric vows—we will tread lightly on that one—but Trappist vows, and he ought not to make interventions. I think that he is paid, unlike any of his Front-Bench colleagues; that was a matter of great resentment when I was doing a proper job on the Opposition Front Bench and remaining silent. I am perfectly willing to concede to him that the BCS and, I believe, the recorded crime figures showed that something of a reduction in crime took place between 1995 and 1997, provided he is willing to concede to Labour Members that the same BCS that the Conservatives established has shown that since 1997 there has been not a 2 or 3 per cent. reduction in crime, but a 32 per cent. reduction. That is paralleled by reductions in recorded crime, too.

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The hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) mentioned violent crime and, as his right hon. Friend the Leader for the Opposition sometimes does, he said expansively that violent crime had doubled in the past 11 and a half years. In 1998, I was presented with a submission that, I suspect, had been around the Home Office for many years. The officials, quite properly, could not tell me that, but it seemed to me to be of an antique nature. The submission stated that the recorded crime figures as they then were did not properly present what was going on locally in reports to the police of crimes that had been occurring in those areas.

A number of proposals were made to me for changing the way in which recorded crime figures were reported and recorded. The consequence of that statistical change, in some series, would have been an 80 per cent. increase in the level of offences recorded—and that was what happened. Against the advice of some people in the Government—I am unrepentant about this—and because I have always been committed to integrity in official statistics, as the record shows, I said that we ought to make the changes, notwithstanding the fact that much mischief would be made with claims that we were increasing crime, which we were not.

A consequence of the change was that common assaults were included within the figures for violent crime as recorded crime. As the hon. and learned Gentleman knows well, such assaults are not only common in description but are the most common offence of violence. The result of the change and of another change in the national crime recording standards has been an increase in the numbers of crimes of violence that are recorded by 100 per cent. That does not in any way represent an increase in the level of violent crime taking place in our society. Proper debate cannot take place unless Opposition parties, as well as Government, are willing to recognise the reality behind the statistics as well as making the kind of points that they do.

Mr. Grieve: I hope that the Secretary of State will bear in mind what I said about the need for a mature debate. I come back to what Sir David Normington said in his letter to the Home Secretary of November 2008:

[ Interruption. ] The Home Secretary is right to say from a sedentary position that that was not a letter to her—it was a briefing document.

Mr. Straw: I was going on to say two things. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary would be the first to acknowledge that we are not suggesting that there are no changes upwards as well as changes downwards in an overall series. There have been, for example, worrying concerns in some parts of the country about rises in knife crime—there is certainly greater community concern about that matter—and about gun crime. My right hon. Friend does not sit on her hands, but introduces changes and improvements with the police. Those measures are now working to show that those levels of crime are going down.

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Before I make my main point on the issue of statistics, I want to draw the attention of the House to something else that I have noticed as I go around the country. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was with me this time last week when we were listening to an interesting presentation in north Leeds, in west Yorkshire—in Calverley. I have noticed that Opposition Members are happy to take the credit locally on behalf of the police or local Conservative councils, and I have noticed this in my constituency, too, for the fact that crime has come down across the country—

The Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing (Mr. Vernon Coaker): They publish it everywhere.

Mr. Straw: As my hon. Friend says, they publish it everywhere.

If that is the case, as it is in both Opposition Front Benchers’ constituencies—crime has decreased in Beaconsfield by 6 per cent. between 2002-03 and this year, and by 9 per cent. in Arundel—the aggregate must also show a similar pattern of crime coming down, not going up.

The point was made by the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) that we should ensure that the British crime survey and the recorded crime statistics are regarded as national statistics under the control of the national statistician and nothing to do with Ministers. They are national statistics and they are under the control— [ Interruption. ] They are fully under the control of the national statistician. I have checked that point, not with the Home Office—not that I distrust the Home Office in any sense—but with the oracle, the House of Commons statistician. I wanted to be absolutely sure that those statistics are official statistics under the control of the national statistician.

In answer to a further question raised by the hon. Member for Eastleigh and by the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield, the United Kingdom Statistics Authority—I am proud to say that I had a great deal to do with the establishment of that entirely independent body and that it is one of our many major constitutional reforms—is studying barriers to trust in crime statistics as part of its 2008-09 programme. It is considering precisely the issue that concerns all of us. Notwithstanding the fact that the data are robust, there is a sense in the country that crime is going up and not down. That should be of concern to all parties, especially those that aspire to government.

Chris Huhne: The reality is, as everybody knows, that the Office for National Statistics reviews the figures, but it is not directly responsible for them as it is, for example, for the census or other figures. That is the key distinction. If the Government want to put trust back into those figures, the ONS must be given direct responsibility for them.

Mr. Straw: We are dancing on the head of a pin. The census is sui generic; it is conducted by the national statistician, for obvious reasons. When monetary data are collected for the purpose of producing national statistics, the ONS has to go to others to collect the data, and it then has to validate them. That also happens with crime statistics. The British crime survey does not
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have to depend on the intermediation of police authorities. There are issues with the recording of some crimes, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has addressed them. Such issues will continue to arise, so the more robust we make the system the better. I addressed those issues as Home Secretary, as did my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), and little thanks have we had, because the numbers for recorded crimes went up, not down.

I shall briefly run through the issues raised by hon. Members in the debate and then make some more detailed remarks, especially in response to the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs. The hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) and the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) both raised the issue of the Marper judgment in the European Court of Human Rights, and I will come back to that.

I apologise for not being in my place for the speech by the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), although I saw some of it, and he raised several wider issues about the economy and matters of profound concern to his constituents, as well as to the major financial institutions in his constituency. I will personally draw his speech to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor so that he can make reference to it when he responds in the economic debate.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) made several points about the coroners Bill. I understand that he also suggested national funding for the coronial system, and again I apologise for not being here for the major portion of his speech. I understand the concerns raised by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs, because two Bills have been put into one, but they are still effectively two Bills, and the new Bill will do the same job as the two Bills would have done. I shall deal with the issue of parliamentary time as some important points were made.

Our view is that it is better to leave the funding and appointment of coroners as it is, not least because, although some changes are taking place, local authorities are attached to the idea that they play a role in the appointment of their coroners. There is no great demand for changing that aspect of the system and my view is if it ain’t broke, don’t change it.

The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) and the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield raised the issue of piracy. The law on piracy has not changed. Piracy on the high seas used to be a capital offence, and under the Merchant Shipping and Maritime Security Act 1997, which made the law of nations the United Nations convention on the law of the sea, it is still a serious one, with a maximum penalty of life. The hon. and learned Gentleman suggested that our Royal Navy officers might be impeded in arresting people committing piracy on the high seas because such alleged pirates could apply for asylum. People can apply for anything they want, but they would not be given asylum. Article 1F of the 1951 refugee convention states that it does not apply to a person

There is no question about the matter. Pirates could not conceivably have an application for asylum entertained. However, I shall ensure that my right hon. Friend the
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Secretary of State for Defence writes, either directly or through me, to both Members in more detail about the matter.

Mr. Ellwood: The Secretary of State does not need to write to me; he needs to write to the Navy and members of our armed forces, who need clarification. Despite all the Jack Sparrow films, piracy is not glamorous; it is an act of war. In an act of war, the armed forces are allowed to shoot at pirates, but if it is not an act of war but a criminal act, they are not allowed to shoot at them. The Navy is struggling with that confusion, which is why we need clarification from the Secretary of State.

Mr. Straw: That point runs into the whole issue of rules of engagement, but I will follow it up.

Andrew Mackinlay: My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) and the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), who are both in the Chamber, and I held discussions with the Kenyan Government last week. On behalf of my colleagues may I tell the House how the Kenyan Government collaborated with the United Kingdom in bringing to trial in Mombasa pirates captured in the Indian ocean? That important collaboration should be acknowledged by the House and the Government. There is great strain on the Kenyan Government, who are the one beacon of justice and democracy available to the Royal Navy and the Indian navy in bringing pirates to justice, and the House should acknowledge that.

Mr. Straw: Of course I acknowledge that and I am grateful to my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) raised a number of important issues. One was her concern about what she described as a cottage industry in certification that those seeking British citizenship had sufficient facility in the English language. I have discussed the matter with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and we will of course follow it up.

My hon. Friend made an interesting point about madrassahs. I am sure she accepts that the vast majority of people of Asian heritage—certainly in my constituency—are concerned about having proper facility in the English language. They do not want bogus certificates, because they recognise that the English language is an important precondition for proper integration. Just because people can speak English does not mean that their community will be fully integrated, but I am in no doubt at all that there must be that facility and that they want that facility and the proper availability of classes in English as a second language. I have a number of madrassahs in my constituency, and the vast majority of them are properly moderated, properly checked and work satisfactorily, but I will follow up with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary the issue that my hon. Friend raises about whether there is, in general, a proper requirement for the same kind of Criminal Records Bureau check that she referred to in respect of herself.

My hon. Friends the Members for Keighley and for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) both referred to concerns about electoral registration and the need for it to be improved, and the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) is actively considering that matter in the context of the Political Parties and Elections Bill.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Slough also raised concerns about visa fees. I am afraid to say that I do not quite share her view, but, again, I will draw that to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) raised the issue of justice week and the concerns of trade unions about what they say are cuts in criminal justice budgets. There is some irony, because it was only in the summer that the Policy Exchange, in a report endorsed by the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield issued an attack on the Government for spending too much on criminal justice and the law and order system, saying that we now spend more as a proportion of our GDP on that than any other OECD country does. We spend a great deal; we spend more on legal aid and policing—I am very glad that we do—and as a part of that, there has been a 67 per cent. real-terms increase for probation. Where those people got the idea that there would be a 25 per cent. cut in probation funding I just do not know, because it is completely and utterly untrue. However, because of the impact that the world economic downturn has on Government revenues, spending on all public services will not rise in the near future as it has done in the past. So we must search more vigorously for efficiencies in the probation service, the Prison Service and the Court Service. I happen to know from my rather lengthy service as a Minister that it is surprising how efficiencies can be found if someone starts to search them out.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock raised the issue of Zimbabwean refugees, and whether they should be allowed to work—I will pass that on to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary—as well as commenting on the chair of the Electoral Commission. The appointment of the chair of the commission is made by Mr. Speaker, on the advice of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission. I happen to be a member of that Committee, but in a minority. It is an appointment entirely within the purview of the House, unlike, for example, that of the Information Commissioner, which required the endorsement of the House—at my behest, as it were, in this case.

Let me deal with the Marper judgment in respect of DNA. As my right hon. and hon. Friends will have seen from the wires, the European Court of Human Rights said about the holding of DNA, fingerprint and other samples by the criminal justice system in England and Wales that it was

It therefore declared that retention outwith article 8 of the European convention on human rights.

I make first a preliminary point, which is germane to the issue of Bills of Rights and responsibilities—a subject to which I shall return later. [Interruption.] The Conservatives have asked a lot of questions, and I am trying to answer them. This matter was considered under the Human Rights Act 1998 by the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the Law Lords. On each occasion, the British courts found in our favour, so the Human Rights Act was not to blame—in fact, it provided important evidence about the margin of appreciation. The decision was made by the European Court of Human Rights.

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