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24 Feb 2009 : Column 177

Opposition Day

[6th Allotted Day]

Law and Order

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): I advise the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

5 pm

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): I beg to move,

Let me start, Madam Deputy Speaker, by telling you a story about life in Britain today. It was told to me by the father of one of our soldiers serving in Afghanistan. The soldier was home on leave and out in his local town centre when he became the victim of an unprovoked attack from behind by two youths. He was able to hold them off and the police were called, but he was left badly bruised by what had been an unpremeditated attack. The two young men were arrested, but then, extraordinarily, they were let off with a caution. After 11 years of this Government, we have become a nation that appears so used to a violent assault of that kind that the police deem it fit only for a caution; we have become a nation in which such attacks are sadly routine and not a rare exception. There can be no clearer example of the fact that our society desperately needs change.

Once upon a time, a few years ago, a now well-known politician used the phrase “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” to great effect. Now, 12 years after that man, Tony Blair, became our Prime Minister—12 years since this Government took office—that phrase is a hollow memory. We have a Government who have simply failed to deliver; they have been soft on crime and soft on the causes of crime. We have another snapshot of a broken society, where antisocial behaviour is endemic, violence has become a norm, offenders do not seem to give a damn, carrying weapons is just routine, families can be terrorised by teenage gangs and many of our older people are in fear for their safety. [Interruption.] I am glad that the Minister for Borders and Immigration agrees with me and that he recognises the problems that we face. I am glad about that, because I think it is important to come and make some key points to this House—not a habit that the Government are used to.

For the past 10 years, we have had a whole string of initiatives from the Government; there have been more in the past few weeks. All are designed to create a sense of activity and action to tackle the problem, but they have simply not worked.

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): Does my hon. Friend share my dismay that so many Ministers are laughing and sniggering at this most serious issue when they have presided over an enormous rise in crime, whether it is measured by the British crime survey, as
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recorded crime or by any other means? The fact is that one person is being stabbed on the streets of this country virtually every day. Does my hon. Friend think that that is a laughing matter?

Chris Grayling: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend. Through his work as a special constable, he knows better than most in the House the real nature of the challenge that we face on our streets; it is only a shame that our Ministers do not also understand the nature of that challenge as well.

The reality is that the things that disrupt our society are just treated as the norm. I do not think that that is good enough, and it is time that we did something about it. That means dealing with the root causes of a broken society, in which, I am afraid, so many of these things are all too often unchallenged. It also means being tough when they happen.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): On being tough when things happen, does my hon. Friend agree that it is unacceptable that so many people sent to prison are let out earlier and earlier? Recent figures show that whereas two years ago as many as one in six people were let out earlier than halfway through their sentences, last year more than one in three were. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is totally unacceptable?

Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That has been endemic under this Prime Minister. Many of those former offenders let out on to our streets simply go back and offend again, and that is a sign of the Government being soft on crime.

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): I was as upset as no doubt the hon. Gentleman was to hear about the case that he mentions of violence against the person leading to a caution. Given that within the offence of violence against the person there are several offences such as harassment and assault without injury, for which I imagine that he thinks that a caution would be appropriate, can he tell us what offence was perpetrated?

Chris Grayling: A young man was attacked from behind, completely motivelessly, by two youths. I may be alone in this, although I am sure not on my own Benches, but I rather believe that in our society we should not tolerate a situation where somebody is out for the evening and gets beaten up on spec by two people who happen to be walking down the street as well. A caution is an unacceptable response to such a crime.

The reality is that we can see many of the root causes that the former Prime Minister talked about back in the 1990s. We have disaffected young men growing up in broken homes, in an environment where there is little structure in their lives and little sense of responsibility in their upbringing. We have endemic educational failure, with these young men often playing truant as they grow up. We have generational worklessness in their families. There is often the growing problem of addiction to drugs or alcohol, which destroys family life and immunises the consciences of many of those people out on our streets when they come to cause the trouble that they do.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree—I think that he will—that in the case of many young people there is a link between crime and school exclusions, with literacy and numeracy problems leading to frustration and bad behaviour on the streets?

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Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend, with all his legal experience, knows more than most the root causes of many of the law and order problems that we face among our young people. He is absolutely right. Yesterday, I visited Feltham young offenders institution. What comes over loud and clear is how many of the people who end up in such institutions have profound educational failings in their background. That is certainly an issue that we need to address. It is a scandal that after 12 years of this Government’s rhetoric about all the things they were going to do—“My priority is education, education, education”—one in five young people still leave school barely able to read and write. That is not a satisfactory output for years of extra spending in our education system.

At the heart of this challenge is a simple fact in the lives of many young people: nobody really says no to them, so the misdemeanours of youth go unpunished, and they get away with it and do it again and again. The other consequence of people turning against society and becoming ghettoised is a haemorrhaging of the values that once kept crime in check, particularly violent crime. Too many people just do not care and cannot tell the difference between good and bad, and the Government do not know what to do about it.

Mr. Edward O’Hara (Knowsley, South) (Lab): Would the hon. Gentleman therefore applaud this weekend’s Operation Staysafe, which was pioneered by Merseyside police, although I understand that other police forces followed suit? They picked up young people on the streets who were at risk of becoming victims of crime or on the slippery path to becoming criminals themselves. Some 60 children were picked up, 29 of them in my own borough of Knowsley, and taken to safe places—some of them were even taken to hospital because of their consumption of drink—and their parents were involved. Is not that something practical that the Government are doing to address the issue that he mentions?

Chris Grayling: I will be in Liverpool tomorrow meeting the chief constable of Merseyside, so I look forward to finding out about what he is doing. It is right and proper that we should give our police greater freedom to do their job properly, and the hon. Gentleman describes good work on the ground from our police. However, they tell us all too often that they cannot do the job that they would like to do because this Government have wrapped them up in red tape and left them sitting in police stations filling in forms.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): On that point, one of the things that Government and Opposition Front Benchers have talked about over the last few years is a reduction in bureaucracy. Is the hon. Gentleman satisfied that his proposals for grounding orders will not lead to more bureaucracy? The police would have to visit the youngsters’ homes in order to check that they were still there once they were subject to such orders. Has he considered that possible consequence of what he has suggested?

Chris Grayling: The right hon. Gentleman refers to my proposal on grounding orders, and I will happily deal now with that issue, about which I have talked
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extensively to police officers. The big problem is that there is nothing between a police officer meeting a gang of young people on the streets and the criminal justice system except for the Government’s clumsy system of antisocial behaviour orders, which take months, and multiple agencies, to deliver. Police officers say that they want something simple and straightforward that gives them some power to deal immediately with the problems that they face. They do not have such powers today, and I believe that my proposals will grant them in a way that is quick, simple and not bureaucratic.

The Government’s record speaks for itself. There has been a decade of failure to get to grips with law and order problems. Violent crime is up almost 80 per cent., robbery is up 27 per cent., criminal damage is up past 1 million offences, with nearly 3,000 committed every day, fatal stabbings are up by a third, and gun crime has nearly doubled, with injuries from gun crime up almost fourfold—and the Government’s response has been to be soft on crime. They have let people out of prison early, as my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) rightly said. Since the Prime Minister came to power, 47,000 people have been released early from prison, including 9,000 convicted of violent offences. Nearly 1,000 crimes have been committed by criminals who have been released early—and they are only the ones who have been caught. Five out of six offenders convicted of knife possession get off without a jail sentence. More and more offenders are let off with penalty notices, half of which are not even paid.

The Government have also been soft on the causes of crime. A culture has been allowed to grow outside society’s mainstream, somewhere alienated and with no hope; it is

Those words are not mine, but those of the former Prime Minister Tony Blair, speaking back in 1993. He was right to say what he said then. This Government have utterly failed to get to grips with those challenges.

We are still waiting for real action on welfare reform 10 years on. On family policy, this Government have made it more financially attractive for some couples to live apart. The Government have thrown billions at our education system, but utterly failed to tackle truancy, indiscipline and endemic educational failure.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): On the question of education, does my hon. Friend not agree that in the context of our proposal to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998, there is a considerable opportunity for us to consider reintroducing some form of physical punishment in schools to ensure that discipline is carried out, and indeed, to consider doing so outside schools, when we are dealing with thugs who are victimising the elderly and people who cannot help themselves?

Chris Grayling: I know that my hon. Friend has strong views on these subjects and on what could be done. I am not sure that I agree with all of them, but none the less, we share the aspiration of coming up with the right way of saying no to young people who step out of line without criminalising them.

We have big challenges ahead if we are to deal with the causes of crime, but we also have to be tough on
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crime itself. We have to tackle youth antisocial behaviour. Plenty of teenagers stray off the straight and narrow sometimes, but today there are no consequences when they do so. That is what has to change. All too often, when we look at the case of a 15 or 16-year-old who is starting to commit serious offences, we find a story of years of minor misdemeanours that have gone unpunished. That cannot be right. At the moment, things are moving in the wrong direction. In 2007-08, more than 93,000 youngsters aged between 10 and 17 received their first caution or conviction, which is up from 78,000 just five years ago—a big jump in the wrong direction.

ASBOs have become a badge of honour for some, and they take months to impose. The Government’s section 30 orders just move young gangs from the streets that they are on to the next potential hot spot. In the police Bill currently being considered, the Government are even talking about moving 10-year-olds on to the next street. I think that 10-year-olds out on the street causing difficulties should be sent home, not just moved on to the next street. That is where my thinking about grounding orders comes from, because they would give the police a power to send an immediate message to such young offenders that they cannot get away with causing trouble on our streets.

Chris Huhne: Taking on board the point made by the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee about the need to minimise police bureaucracy, would the hon. Gentleman perhaps consider an alternative to his proposal for grounding orders? Penalty notices could be given by police officers or police community support officers asking young people to clean up things such as graffiti immediately. That would not require the constant supervision that is arguably suggested by the grounding order, and it would be clear and easy to apply.

Chris Grayling: There is some logic in having tougher community sentences for young offenders, but the simplicity of the grounding order makes it deliverable quickly by the police and local magistrates. It would be a powerful weapon in the armoury of individual officers in trying to deal with such problems.

The second thing that we need to change is the licensing regime. We should be much more robust about binge drinking in our towns and cities. There is a strong case for reviewing Labour’s 24-hour drinking regime, which has not created the continental café culture that we were promised. We should deal systematically with retailers who break licensing laws and clubs that allow drug taking on their premises, and there should be powers to do so simply and quickly. We need to take steps to stop unacceptable practices in the sale of alcohol to young people. I have come across the case of an organisation delivering alcohol to a local park, which cannot be sensible or acceptable.

Keith Vaz: So would the hon. Gentleman agree with the Home Affairs Committee’s unanimous recommendation that there should be a floor price for alcohol sales at supermarkets?

Chris Grayling: That is a different point, and I have not had a chance to read the Committee’s report, but I am aware that it has made that recommendation. I do not think that the matter is as straightforward as the
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Committee suggests, but I will happily read the recommendations and talk to the right hon. Gentleman about them at some point.

The third thing that we need to do is deal with the caution culture that I mentioned earlier. Issuing a caution should not be a case closed, a tick in the box and an extra notch on the list to be sent to the Home Office for the Home Secretary to review. That is not good enough. Giving someone a caution should not be a way of scoring an easy win in the case-closed league table. That has to be a thing of the past. Someone found carrying a knife in a city centre should end up in the courts and then behind bars, not get a caution. Unbelievably, I was told recently of someone getting a £65 penalty notice for carrying a 3 ft-long samurai sword around a city centre. All that has to stop. Someone who attacks a stranger in the street should end up in court and then behind bars, not get a caution and simply be sent on their way.

The fourth change that we desperately need is that oldest of political chestnuts, which we have been promised year after year by this Government: more police on the beat. Still only about 14 per cent. of police officers’ time is spent on patrol, compared with about a fifth on paperwork. If we walk into any police station and ask the officers what is their biggest bugbear, despite all the reports, reviews and announcements, they still tell us that it is the paperwork.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): I am sure that my hon. Friend must therefore be as dismayed as I am to read about the cuts in police force numbers. Indeed, 49 police officers will be lost in Hertfordshire alone. I do not think that that can possibly be conducive to being tough on the causes of crime.

Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend is right. The reality, as we saw in the most recent crime figures, is that there has been a big jump in the number of robberies with knives and a worrying increase in burglary. Because this Government have wrecked our public finances, we will end up with fewer police on our streets, which is not acceptable.

What we have today is a Government who have lost their way. They do not realise that all the criminal justice Bills that they have passed in the past decade have just wrapped up the police in yet more bureaucracy. They do not realise that Acts of Parliament introducing more and more crimes do not actually solve crimes, or that their inability not to interfere is holding the police back. They look like a tired Government who have run out of ideas, and they seem to have little idea of how to solve the problems that we all face. To my mind, that is always a pretty clear sign that what we need in this country is change.

5.18 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Jacqui Smith): I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:

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