Not only is it a last-gasp Bill, but the Home Secretary could not bring himself to brief the House on some of its provisions. There was not a word
on wheel-clamping, and when I intervened kindly to assist the Home Secretary to comment on wheel-clamping, I was uncharacteristically and uncharitably slapped down.
Fiona Mactaggart: I do not understand why the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) says that nothing was said about wheel-clamping. I recall intervening on the Home Secretary to ask when proposals on wheel-clamping would be introduced. He did exactly what the hon. Gentleman says he did not do.
Chris Grayling: That will be an interesting subject for debate in the Tea Room later. We were so confused by some of the Home Secretary's remarks that I am not entirely surprised that my hon. Friend may have overlooked a comment slipped in. I leave it to him and the hon. Lady to discuss what really happened.
The Government's track record of running the Home Office has been a chapter of disasters. Successive Ministers have struggled to get to grips with the challenges that we face and the briefs that they have had. Time and again they have failed to do so. They even tried splitting the Department in half to make things easier, and still it did not work. We have had fiasco after fiasco-the foreign prisoner releases, yobs to be marched to cash points, illegal immigrants working in the Home Office canteen, and the abortive attempt to merge police forces, yet under the Government's stewardship we have seen Britain become a more violent society.
Last year more than a million violent crimes were recorded by the police. We have seen antisocial behaviour become more and more endemic in communities throughout the country. We have seen our police spending more and more time on process rather than policing. All that has happened while the principles on which our criminal justice system is founded have been steadily eroded. This is a Government who do not believe that someone is innocent until proven guilty, who do not understand how much damage is done to the principles of democracy when traditional freedoms are curtailed in the name of security, and who knowingly allow their tough new anti-terror powers to be used for routine policing. In many ways it is not surprising that the Bill is a collection of odds and sods, combined with yet another failure to understand the importance of civil liberties. There is no vision and no strategy-more evidence of a Government who are out of ideas and out of time.
The Bill has aspects on which we can agree, however. The measures on stop and search are a step in the right direction, and they come after years of pressure from Conservative Members on the scale of police bureaucracies. We do not actually believe that our police officers like spending time in police stations in the warm; we think that they want to get out on to the streets and do the job, but that the bureaucracy that this Government impose keeps them in police stations.
The right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, made a valuable point: a number of changes could be made without primary legislation. The Government have a habit of introducing laws in this House to create a headline-to create a sense that they
are doing something-but what that does is create more and more laws. There is then more and more confusion, and, actually, we add to the bureaucracy that our front-line professionals end up dealing with.
Even the proposals on stop and search do not go far enough, though, because the Bill will only reduce the procedure's reporting requirements. The Home Secretary struggled with, and was unclear about, the issue of four people in a car who are subject to a stop-and-search procedure; in fact, he even appeared to suggest that if there was no car, the form for a car would still have to be filled in. The reality is that the current process is much too complex.
I do not know whether the Home Secretary has ever stood on the street with a police officer who is trying to grapple with current stop-and-search procedures. Why does not the Home Secretary adopt our proposals to scrap the form altogether? Officers could radio in the basic search details, creating a taped or transcribed police log at the centre without the need to fill in official forms. The Bill simplifies an extremely complex situation; it does not make the scale of change that we could genuinely make.
Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman not acknowledge that we introduced stop-and-search recording because the procedure was being used indiscriminately against ethnic minority communities throughout the country, especially in London, and that we still need to monitor how that procedure is being used?
Chris Grayling: The hon. Lady makes a good point. It is one reason why we have been so concerned about the indiscriminate use of section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, which the courts have now ruled illegal. That section included anti-terror powers that had been used for purposes not related to terrorism, and that has happened too many times under this Government. We are not arguing for the lack of any record at all; we are arguing that it is possible to go further than the Government. Our work should be about simplifying the job for our professionals on the street. We put them in a difficult position when we leave them filling out forms on the streets, and we could go further. It is a shame that the Government remain unambitious in that respect.
"bureaucracy dragon had yet to be slain",
and the Bill would barely do anything to change that. Worryingly, there is evidence that things are getting worse, not better. Asked whether officers were spending more time on patrol now than two years ago, Jan Berry, whom the Government brought in as their reducing bureaucracy advocate, said:
"If you talk to police officers they would say it has remained the same or got slightly worse",
which is worrying. She said also that "progress had been slow" on reducing red tape. We already have a clear sense that the Government's efforts are half-hearted, and the Bill will not do much to change that.
We have only to look at the Government's damp squib of a policing White Paper to see the extent to which they have run out of ideas and direction. After all, they do not really believe in the existence of excessive
police bureaucracy. Has the Home Secretary, unlike the Justice Secretary, ever been into a police station and gone through their filing cabinets, which are full of the forms that officers have to fill in to deal with cases? Information is duplicated, and they have to write down the same things time and again. If the Home Secretary has not, I suggest that he does, because he will be genuinely shocked at the burden that we place on our police officers. That really needs to change, and he certainly needs to tell his friend the Justice Secretary before he makes comments that, frankly, I found insulting to our police officers.
The Bill contains a provision requiring a court to impose a parenting order when a young person is found to have breached their antisocial behaviour order. When will the Government realise that more of those top-down solutions is simply not good enough. The courts can already impose a parenting order on the breach of an ASBO. The problem is that ASBOs themselves do not work. The process of getting an ASBO is so complicated. They take months to introduce, a huge amount of time is spent by local officials, there are multi-agency meetings, and, for many persistent offenders, they end up being a badge of honour. Almost two thirds of under-16s breach their ASBOs. What we need in this country is a fresh approach to tackling antisocial behaviour-
Chris Grayling: I shall be delighted to. I hope that the Minister's Government will call the election soon, that there will be a change of Government and that we can get on with the job of making the changes that Britain needs. What we need are instant responses to antisocial behaviour; we do not need to let offenders get away with it again and again. [Interruption.]
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I say to Members on both Front Benches, particularly the Government Front Bench, that interjections from a sedentary position are not allowed. If Ministers want to intervene, they should get to the Dispatch Box and do so in the normal way, so that we can have a sensible debate. I think that the Secretary of State was about to intervene.
Chris Grayling: I suggest that at some time the Home Secretary go and look at the detailed statistics behind offending. He will know that the peak age for antisocial behaviour is 15; the age of onset for antisocial behaviour is 12. The right hon. Gentleman's Government came up with an option to march yobs to cash points. Most of us who are parents know that 15-year-olds do not have cash cards.
The Government might get their policies right if they did the detailed work and did not come up with ideas utterly unrelated to the lifestyles of the young people who commit these acts of antisocial behaviour. When
we publish our detailed proposals, the Home Secretary will see that our approach will make a difference, unlike the record of the Government in the past 12 years. Their approach has made very little difference to communities up and down this country. In some cases, it has led to a shocking abuse of the lives of innocent people.
The Bill also seeks to create a new offence of possession without authorisation of a mobile phone, or parts of one, in a prison. We support that measure, but why has it taken so long for the Government to realise that they need to address the problem? Yes, phones are banned from prisons, but thousands have been found in the past year, hundreds in high-security prisons. The number of phones found in prisons has more than tripled; in 2008, more than 8,000 mobile phones and SIM cards were confiscated in prisons in England and Wales, compared with just over 2,000 in 2007.
In 2007, a convicted al-Qaeda supporter was caught using a mobile phone to build a website from inside a high-security prison. A report by the counter-extremism Quilliam foundation wrote that in 2007 Tariq al-Dour, jailed for running jihadist websites from London, was caught accessing the internet from Belmarsh prison using his laptop, provided by the Prison Service, and a smuggled mobile phone. Furthermore, the extremist cleric Abu Hamza is thought to have got an audio message out of Belmarsh that may have been recorded on a mobile phone and passed to supporters outside. [Interruption.] Government Ministers- [Interruption.]
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Perhaps Government Front Benchers did not hear what I said a moment ago. They listened to the Secretary of State with respect, and they should do the same for the Opposition spokesman.
Chris Grayling: The Minister for Borders and Immigration is very excited this afternoon. He is particularly excited to find out what we will do to tackle those problems, and I hope to give him the opportunity to ask questions from the Opposition Benches after 6 May, or whenever it is. At that point, we will be delighted to set out our policies. For now, however, we are scrutinising his Department's record, which is lamentable in this area. If he thinks that these cases are isolated, he should talk to some of the families involved in some of the highest-profile criminal acts in this country in recent times, including brutal murders. Those families have been at the raw end of bullying from within prisons, on Facebook and other networking sites, and have been extremely distressed as a result. There are things happening in our prisons that are not acceptable, and it is for the Ministry of Justice, to which I hope they will be making representations, to take stronger measures to prevent prisoners from gaining access to electronic equipment in prison to perpetrate activities of a different sort.
David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): I am sure that most people in the House agree that the measure is a very good idea. However, is not the real problem the fact that at the moment prisoners carry out assaults on prison officers and are very rarely prosecuted for it? If they are, the amount added to their sentences is so minimal that it makes no real difference in overall terms. What on earth is the point in passing this legislation if no real sanction is to be applied? Does the shadow Secretary of State agree that sanctions must be heavily applied to those who are caught?
Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. He will know that I have also expressed the view that how we treat assaults on our police officers is shamefully lax. In many cases, such assaults are dealt with using virtually no penalty at all. That sends out all the wrong messages. It is not acceptable not to protect our criminal justice professionals against the actions of those who would attack them.
The Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism (Mr. David Hanson): Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that in the past two years, when I was prisons Minister at the Ministry of Justice, we signed with the Prison Officers Association an agreement on zero tolerance on attacks on prison officers? I will not take lessons on that, because there has been co-operation on the issue. The Government will not tolerate attacks on prison officers. Furthermore, they have put massive investment into the mobile phone problem, with body orifice security scanner-BOSS-chairs and extra security measures. They have looked at blocking measures and security with police forces at a local level.
Chris Grayling: There are only two points to make in response to that. First, will the Minister then explain why the Government have not taken steps to provide greater protection to our police officers? Secondly, if the Government have such a good record, why do they need to introduce measures in this Bill at all? Why have they not already succeeded in dealing with the problem?
Mr. Hanson: On the first point, attacks on police officers are intolerable. On the latter point, we have acknowledged that there is a loophole. Having looked at blocking measures and considered investment in BOSS chairs in prisons, and having taken security measures, including with the police, this is another measure to help to tighten up a difficult situation. I cannot guarantee that no mobile phone will ever be smuggled into prison, but there will be an extra penalty for people who are found in possession of one.
Chris Grayling: The point that the Minister misses is that we are 12 years into a Labour Government. They have had year after year to deal with this problem, and now they are trying to do so in a last-minute Bill in the last hurrah of their third term. Nobody will take them seriously when they say that this is a big priority, given that they have missed all the opportunities they have had over the years to do something about it before now.
Mr. Hanson: Will the hon. Gentleman accept that mobile phone technology changes year on year, and that the mobile phone that he used in 1997 is slightly different from the one that he uses today and will be slightly different from the one that he uses next year? The technology changes and we have to keep on top of it; this offence will help to support that initiative.
The reality remains that this Government have been in power for 12 years. Year after year, the number of mobile phone seizures in our prisons has risen rather than fallen. It is all well and good the Government saying, as a last hurrah three years after some of these things happened, that they are introducing
these measures. That does not create the sense that they have sought to stamp out something that has been a problem for many years.
We will have to look carefully at how the proposed domestic violence protection notices and domestic violence protection orders will work in practice. Concerns have been raised about the proposed breadth and scope of those civil measures. It is important that they are not used as inappropriate substitutes for pursuing proper sanctions in the courts against perpetrators of domestic violence. None the less, there is agreement across this House that domestic violence remains an issue of very great importance, and it is right and proper that we should take measures to try to deal with it.
We welcome measures to clamp down on wheel-clampers. I am not usually one to argue for greater regulation of business, but this business deserves everything that is coming to it. While no industry is ever all bad, the wheel-clamping sector has acted with little regard for the public and often in a way that is not far short of the tradition of the highwayman. It is time that those who impose swingeing charges on the public, with little or no accountability in doing so, face tough restraints on their activities. Not all companies involved in the sector are bad, but there are enough to have brought it discredit and for there to be a genuine need for tougher regulation.
Those are measures that we would happily see passed into law, but none of them is of sufficient significance to get us to back away from the key point of principle that divides us from the Government-the DNA database. The current system is all wrong. I am seldom a fan of the European Court, but on this matter it has clearly got things right. We have, for years, been storing the DNA of innocent people on our national DNA database. People who go into a police station voluntarily to help with an inquiry, like my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands), find themselves on the list. People who are briefly questioned in a police station about a crime that they did not commit find themselves giving DNA to be stored for the future. People who are arrested on one of those occasions when the police hugely overreact, as in the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), find their DNA being taken, and few succeed, as he did, in having their DNA removed.
Indeed, data that we recently obtained revealed that innocent people trying to have their DNA removed from the database face a postcode lottery. Some police forces refuse to remove any records at all once a case is closed and the person declared innocent, while others comply with 80 per cent. of requests for deletion. On average, only 22 per cent. of requests to have DNA removed are granted.
Keith Vaz: The shadow Home Secretary is probably aware that tomorrow the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) is giving evidence to the Select Committee on this very issue. Whatever system is proposed, it is better that one authority, rather than 43 chief constables, should deal with applications for removal. There is a lack of clarity at the moment, and that is part of the problem. However, does the shadow Home Secretary agree, and will he confirm whether this is Conservative party policy, that instead of leaving it to local discretion, there should be national guidelines, with one authority, not 43?