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Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North): If it is the Opposition's fault that crime has increased so much, why has crime more than doubled while this Government have been in office, whereas the number of cases that result in a conviction is only one in 50? Convictions are down and crime is up. How can that be our fault?

Mr. Hawkins: The hon. Gentleman has failed to realise that, in the past three years, there has been a significant drop in crime as a result of this Government's policies finally working. Whenever a Conservative Government have sought to introduce tough law and order measures, the Labour party has either opposed them or abstained.

Labour has not supported the increase in tough law and order measures. The acres of empty green leather behind the hon. Gentleman are, once again, proof positive that the Labour party simply does not care. Many of my hon. Friends are here supporting my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point because this is the party of law and order. Every step of the way, Opposition Members have derided the Government's policy.

Even at Home Office questions yesterday, we once again had implicit support for the legalisation of soft drugs, to which the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Sackville), drew attention. At every step of the way, this is the party of law and order, and that is the party of apologists for crime.

Mr. Howarth: The hon. Gentleman really should not be free and easy with the facts. The Labour party's position, as the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, his hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Kirkhope) will confirm, has been consistent. I have been responsible for it for the past couple of years. We are opposed to either the legalisation or the decriminalisation of any form of currently illegal substance. That is the Labour party's policy, and that is what we shall take forward to the electorate. There is nothing between the Government and ourselves on the matter. We have worked hard to establish a bipartisan position on it, and we will maintain that position.

Mr. Hawkins: The hon. Gentleman is giving the Front-Bench position. He ignores the fact that, as recently as last year, about 30 of his colleagues signed an early-day motion, once again calling for the legalisation of soft drugs. The Labour party has never had a consistent position.

Mr. Howarth: If the hon. Gentleman wants to cite individual Back-Bench Labour Members, he might take the trouble to read the book written by his hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan), a senior member of his party, in which he called for the legalisation--

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): Senior?

Mr. Howarth: The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton is the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the

24 Jan 1997 : Column 1183

chairman of the Conservative party, and he called for the legalisation even of hard drugs. Will the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Hawkins) condemn him?

Mr. Hawkins: I condemn any call for the legalisation of any illegal drugs. However, the hon. Gentleman cannot get away from the fact that, as recently as last year, about 30 of his colleagues called for the legalisation of soft drugs. There will not, of course, be any mention of that in the Labour manifesto. The Liberal Democrat conference has more than once passed motions calling for the legalisation of soft drugs.

Mr. Chris Davies: The Liberal Democrat conference has done no such thing. It has passed a resolution calling for a royal commission to look at all aspects of the matter. [Hon. Members: "Oh."] Conservative Members should read the motion we passed rather than their own propaganda.

Will the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Hawkins) accept from me that, whatever the views of some Back-Bench Labour Members, some hon. Members believe that a different strategy needs to be examined if we are to deal with the menace of drugs, and that some of us believe that the hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth) is burying his head in the sand?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes): Order. Before the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Hawkins) continues his speech, I must tell the House that, although the Second Reading debate on this Bill can be fairly wide, it is not all-encompassing. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman addresses his remarks more closely to the text of the Bill.

Mr. Hawkins: I am delighted to do so, Madam Deputy Speaker. However, what we have seen in the past few minutes is a case of Opposition Members trying to defend the indefensible. The electorate will give their judgment on law and order matters at the election in a few months' time.

The Bill is exceptionally important. My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point has drawn attention to the welcome his proposals have already received from police officers. I can tell him that police officers in the world capital of clubland--Blackpool--will also welcome it.

It is important to note, as my hon. Friend has stressed, that the Bill is not a killjoy measure. None of us wishes to damage young people's opportunity to go out and have a good time. The Portman Group has made a proposal, to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention, that young people should be able to carry proof of age on a voluntary basis. My hon. Friend and I would both support the introduction of identity cards, which would make a scheme such as the Portman Group's entirely unnecessary. I hope that, in due course, the Government will be able to pursue that matter.

It is important that, when young people go out to enjoy themselves, they should do so without disrupting the lives of law-abiding citizens. The Bill will help to give the police the powers they need to deal with the serious problem of under-age drinking. The Government have

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rightly increased the number of police constables on the beat. In 1979, when this Government came to power, the police were 8,000 under strength. Police morale was so low as a result of a perceived lack of support from the then Labour Government that there were even threats of a police strike.

By contrast, this Government have increased the number of police constables by 16,000. There will be further increases in the number of police officers on the beat. As a result of this important Bill, when it becomes an Act, the police will have the powers they need to confiscate alcohol and to prevent drinking by under-age drinkers.

10.49 am

Mr. David Amess (Basildon): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) on introducing the Bill. If he does nothing more during his time in the House, he will have achieved a great deal by this measure. My noble Friend Lord Braine of Wheatley represented Castle Point for 40 years and was the Father of the House. I know that he would strongly support the Bill.

It is all very well to have the slogan, "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime", but we need to demonstrate that toughness on crime. This morning, my hon. Friend has received tremendous support from Conservative Members, many of whom are present in the Chamber. I hope that people outside the House will draw their own conclusions from that.

The danger for me in supporting the Bill is that it will be perceived as an Essex problem. Although my constituency and the constituency to which I aspire adjoin that of my hon. Friend, I am convinced that the problem exists throughout the country.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham): My hon. Friend is quite right to say that the problem is not confined to Essex. My constituency is in the north-east of England, which, sadly, is second in the league table for offences of drunkenness--followed by Merseyside and ahead of London. There is a real problem in the north of England.

Mr. Amess: My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham reminds us that there is also a problem in the north of England.

My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point made a splendid speech that leaves his supporters with little more to add. I am proud to be one of the sponsors of his Bill, and I shall mention just a few specific points.

My hon. Friend mentioned the yobbish tendency that we sometimes experience on public transport. Last night, I travelled with my right hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Sir M. Fox) and Mr. Ken Hargreaves, a former Member, on the newly privatised Fenchurch Street line, which is now run by Prism. We enjoyed a most comfortable journey. According to the passengers we met, the service has improved tremendously. We witnessed no yobbish behaviour, and my colleagues were extremely well behaved.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern) referred to his own stature. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point in supporting the proposal by the Portland Group.

24 Jan 1997 : Column 1185

Some years ago, I successfully introduced a ten-minute Bill on identity cards. I am still at a loss to understand how it is that we have to register our births and deaths, but the time between remains unregistered. I hope that the Government will produce plans to introduce identity cards.

I know that my hon. Friend is keen that there should be a wide range of facilities for young people, particularly those in Essex. We have both been privileged to have been associated with the "Bar'n'bus" project. This time last week the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) joined us in Leigh-on-Sea. The bus was brought to the wharf at the end of old Leigh, and we saw at first hand the marvellous achievements of the project. The organisers recognised that meetings in halls are not always successful, so a roving bus visits various parts of Essex. There are facilities for coffee, tea and entertainment, and the project has proved most successful.

We had the opportunity to speak to a number of youngsters, many of whom were victims of drug and alcohol abuse. We also saw a video that had been made on Southend sea front. It contained some pretty appalling scenes. They did not involve residents of Southend, which is famous for attracting holidaymakers, but very young people, who were clearly under age and who were swigging from various bottles. The interviews they were prepared to give on video showed the scale of the problem.

I know that my hon. Friend is keen that we should provide as many local facilities as possible for young people in Essex. I am heartened by the fact that the scouts, the guides, various youth clubs, the cadets, the St. John's Ambulance and a whole range of activities seem to be increasing in popularity, but there is no substitute for parents taking the trouble to spend much more time with their children to set them on the right road in life. That is the key to success.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer increased duty on alcopops by between 7p and 8p. The drinks are marketed to youngsters and are deceptively alcoholic. Many teenagers are well aware of the alcohol content of various drinks and go for the strongest available. I certainly support the points that my hon. Friends have made on the issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point referred to the Evening Echo, which supports his campaign. According to a recent article, £20 million a year is spent on advertising alcohol. However, I am not sure whether it is fully understood that, every year, alcohol kills thousands more people than all the illegal drugs put together. Some 90 per cent. of the population drink alcohol as a normal activity, and I am among them. However, about 25 per cent. of 13 to 17-year-olds get into arguments and fights as a result of drinking alcohol. The heaviest drinkers in the United Kingdom are 18 to 24-year-olds, and nearly 90 per cent. of boys in England have tried alcohol by the age of 13. It must be a matter of national concern.


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