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5.16 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): I am delighted to have this opportunity to discuss the Government's record on crime. In her closing remarks, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) made a slip, for which we should forgive her. She said that I was seeking to put right the failures of a previous Government. I am sure, however, that she was referring to the failure of the previous 18 years of Conservative Government.

Our record speaks for itself, not least when compared with that of the Conservative Government. In their first three years, crime rose by 20 per cent. In the first three years of the Administration of the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), it rose by 40 per cent. In the first three years of the current Administration, it fell by 10 per cent. The Opposition cannot gainsay those figures because they do not happen to like the truth. The figures come from the British crime survey, which was established by the previous Administration in 1981 as the single most authoritative survey of overall levels of crime--recorded, reported and unrecorded--in the country.

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The president of the Association of Chief Police Officers said that

He also said:

I look forward to the right hon. Lady coming to the Dispatch Box to welcome that good news.

Miss Widdecombe: Will the right hon. Gentleman admit that that decrease applies to 1997-98 and not to the current period? Will he further admit that his figures--not ours--show that crime rose last year?

Mr. Straw: The right hon. Lady is wrong in her first point. The survey compares the two years 1997 and 1999. The sample published in October covered 1999. The only difference from the recorded crime figures is that the British crime survey charts all crime reported by individuals to the surveyors, rather than merely that which is reported at the time to the police.

I do not mind if the right hon. Lady wants to trade recorded crime figures. As I said, they show that crime rose by 20 per cent. between 1979 and 1982, in the first three and a half years of the Conservative Administration. In the first three years of the Major Administration, it rose by 40 per cent. In the first three years of the current Administration, it will have risen by 7 per cent. However, the British crime survey shows a 21 per cent. reduction in burglary, a 15 per cent. reduction in vehicle crime and a 4 per cent. reduction in violent crime. Moreover, the right hon. Lady seeks to create, almost out of nothing, the suggestion that there is some crisis in law and order. Crime is too high but, thanks to the measures that we have put in place during the past three and a half years, it is coming under control. We should compare that with the situation over which she and her colleagues presided, when crime was out of control.

Other evidence shows that people feel safer. The English housing survey, which was published just two weeks ago, involved a huge sample. It was established, I believe, under the previous Administration. Respondents were asked whether they thought that crime was a serious problem in their neighbourhood. Again, we should compare the figures, which in this case are for 1997-98 to 1999-2000--they are up to date. The number of people in a neighbourhood who thought that crime was a serious problem dropped by a third in those two years. In some areas, the drop was more than half. The reason for that is that the measures that we put in place are working, as I shall explain.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): Does the Home Secretary understand that my constituents and, I suspect, those of most other hon. Members do not live their lives comparing this survey with that survey or this crime figure with that crime figure? Their daily lives and daily experiences are entirely different from that. Will he please address the concerns of our fellow citizens? The Queen's Speech and his approach to it are entirely erroneous and completely outside our daily experience.

Mr. Straw: Of course we have to deal with the figures. Indeed, any Opposition seek to dine out on figures, and I

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do not particularly blame them. However, the Opposition try to avoid the point when the figures show the reverse of what they assert. Of course I am aware that concern about crime and disorder is still far too high. How could I not be aware of that as one who seeks to be assiduous in representing his constituents? It will take us some years before we get levels of crime and disorder back to those when Labour was last in office during the 1970s, although I certainly shall not rest there either, when they are at half the current level. The measures that we are putting in place are working.

On the question of whether we will help victims, who is saying that a persistent criminal who has been charged with the theft of a Mars bar or a can of Tennents lager should have the automatic right to claim trial by jury? People like the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier). Who is saying that that right should be exercised by the courts, on the merits of the case, which would bring us into line with every other sensible jurisdiction? The police, the Magistrates Association and a great many victims of crime, who have suffered from the way in which persistent criminals have run the criminal justice system that the hon. and learned Gentleman supports absolutely ragged.

Mr. Garnier rose--

Sir Nicholas Lyell rose--

Mr. Straw: I give way to the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell).

Sir Nicholas Lyell: On the Home Secretary's point about the jury trial Bill, he is aware, and will he kindly acknowledge, that the Bill's drafting will not allow the courts to look, one way or the other, at the reputation of the person seeking jury trial?

Mr. Straw: We could have a debate on the Bill's exact drafting. We could also discuss whether the precise recommendations of the royal commission back in 1993 are the most appropriate or whether those that I inserted in the Bill are preferable. I did so on reflection because of the concern expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House that the royal commission's proposals could have been discriminatory where the circumstances of the defendant--including, for example, the colour of his or her skin--might be taken into account. However, the starting point for that discussion must be an agreement that the current arrangement is simply unacceptable and needs to be changed.

Miss Widdecombe rose--

Mr. Straw: I shall give way in a moment.

The truth, as the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire knows, is that he opposes any change. No matter how much we changed the Bill's wording, he would still believe that the persistent petty

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criminal who steals a Mars bar or a can of Tennents lager has a right to claim jury trial, whatever the inconvenience to the police, magistrates and, above all, victims.

Miss Widdecombe rose--

Mr. Garnier rose--

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) rose--

Mr. Straw: I give way to the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald.

Miss Widdecombe: If the case is so utterly compelling, why did the Home Secretary, the Prime Minister and Lord Williams of Mostyn oppose the reform until a few months before the Home Secretary introduced the provisions for the first time?

Mr. Straw: I shall answer the question if the right hon. Lady will stop whining and just listen for a change. By God, as I listened to her going on about early release, I prayed for that facility to be made available to hon. Members, condemned as we are week by week to listen to her speeches.

As it happens, this matter came up in the House once in the previous Parliament. It was not an election issue. I am perfectly prepared to say, as I said years ago, that on reflection and having looked further at the evidence I changed my mind. I am willing to acknowledge that. The more I considered the issue, the more I came to the view that changing the law to bring it into line with what happens in Scotland and almost every other jurisdiction is sensible and just, especially to the victims but also to defendants.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): The Home Secretary knows that my colleagues and I will oppose the proposed abolition of anyone's right to choose jury trial as strongly in this Session as we did in the last. He selected five Home Office Bills as part of a programme of only 15 Bills--the Hunting Bill and four others. He is determined to reduce crime. Do objective figures show that the abolition of the right to choose jury trial will significantly reduce crime or increase the number of guilty people being properly convicted? Where is the objective evidence, because the rhetoric of the past three years has so far not revealed it?

Mr. Straw: I shall answer the hon. Gentleman's question in detail, but in coming to this issue he can properly claim to be a member of the liberal establishment, which was so roundly condemned by the Leader of the Opposition in a speech earlier this year. It is astonishing that the only people whom the Opposition now pray in aid in support of their position on the mode of trial Bill are members of the liberal establishment--not only the Liberal Democrats, but the Criminal Law Solicitors Association, the Law Society and, I do not mind saying, the Society of Labour Lawyers, which has a view with which we happen to disagree. At least we have the courage of our convictions.

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