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7.56 pm

Miss Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale): Over the past three and a half years, the Government and the police working together have undoubtedly had a considerable measure of success in bringing about significant reductions in those crimes that affect ordinary people most--domestic burglary and car crime. Domestic burglary has fallen by 28 per cent. since the general election, and car crime by 20 per cent. In my constituency, the reductions in the levels of these crimes have been far more impressive, and are well above the national average. I therefore place on record my sincere thanks to Chief Superintendent Stuart Kirby for the superb job that he and his officers do in tackling crime throughout the Morecambe and Lancaster area.

Despite the fact that overall crime has fallen by 7 per cent. nationally since 1997, crime, the fear of crime and violence and disorderly conduct remain a matter of grave concern to me and many of my constituents. I therefore welcome many of the measures in the Bill, because they provide the police with an additional range of tools that will greatly assist them in carrying out their extremely difficult and dangerous task of protecting the public from criminal activity and bringing those who transgress the law to justice.

The introduction of fixed-penalty notices for offences, such as drunken and disorderly behaviour, will provide an imaginative option for the police to deal more effectively with the yobbish behaviour that pervades our towns and cities particularly at the weekends and on Saturday night. The further measures to combat alcohol-related disorder are also most welcome. The ability of the police immediately to close down disorderly licensed premises will prove a potent weapon in dealing with those establishments that are notorious for violent, drunken and loutish behaviour.

The measures that will allow local authorities to prevent the consumption of alcohol in inappropriate public places will certainly receive widespread public support in my constituency, where we faced a problem with drinking in public places. It took about seven years to introduce a byelaw to stop it happening. These measures will speed things up and will enable action to be taken more quickly. I also welcome the toughening up of the law relating to the sale of alcohol to young people under the age of 18.

Further measures to combat crime in this wide-ranging Bill--such as the travel restrictions on drugs traffickers, the measures to prevent the intimidation of witnesses, child curfew schemes, the police's additional powers of seizure, new powers of arrest and detention and the new procedures relating to the taking and retention of DNA samples and fingerprints--all have the common aim of

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strengthening the position of the police and other law-enforcement agencies in their continual battle against crime. As such, they should be welcomed by both sides of the House.

However, the full potential of the measures in the Bill will undoubtedly not be realised unless they are accompanied by substantial increases in police numbers.

The public's confidence in the ability of the police to win the war against crime will not be restored until the police are able to provide a regular, high profile and visible presence on the streets of our towns and cities, particularly in the evenings and at night. There is no doubt in my mind that the vast majority in my constituency feel it essential to have more police on the beat. I make no apology to my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench for saying that I entirely support that view.

Having said that, unlike Conservative Members, who try to give the impression that everything on law and order was fine when they were in power, I do not seek to lay blame on this Government for the situation that they inherited from their predecessors. It is a fact that, in common with the rest of our public services, the police suffered underinvestment under the Tories, and as a result police numbers have steadily declined since 1993.

Mr. Heald: I am sure that the hon. Lady would not want to give a false impression. Surely she is aware that the number of constables on the beat--the people about whom she is concerned--went up every year under the Conservatives. Police numbers rose by 15,000.

Miss Smith: One can say many things with statistics. This Government are committed to additional funding over the next three years--huge Home Office spending. Will the hon. Gentleman intervene to tell me whether his party will match that spending if elected?

Mr. Heald: We have made it perfectly clear that one would have to be a fool to think that the Conservatives would not match the sort of budget that the Labour party has set.

Miss Smith: I am not quite sure whether that was a yes or a no.

If, when they came to power, the Government had been faced only with finding additional resources to fund extra police, I would have demanded that it be made available immediately. However, as all Labour Members know, as do the public, when the Conservatives left office in 1997, virtually all our public services were in crisis and the national debt was spiralling out of control. Such was the Tory legacy. In case Conservative Members should delude themselves that people have forgotten their miserable record on public services, let me assure them that they have not. If any should do so, we shall certainly remind them. Given such a background, the Government's tardiness in dealing with the issue of police numbers is, if not acceptable, at least clearly understandable.

Virtually everyone agrees that those who commit crimes should be caught, convicted and punished appropriately, but what people really want is not to be a victim of crime in the first place. Extra police on the streets can play a vital part in a cohesive crime prevention strategy. Apart from the physical deterrent of a visible

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police presence, the intelligence gleaned by police patrolling on foot cannot be replicated by officers sitting in vehicles patrolling huge areas.

Even if accompanied by a substantial increase in the number of police on the beat, the measures in the Bill are by no means all that needs to be done to address criminal behaviour. The link between criminal activity and high unemployment, deprivation and social exclusion is now almost universally accepted. Although such behaviour can never be condoned, it does not take too much stretching of the imagination to understand how people living in areas suffering from such problems can be drawn into a life of crime.

I am well aware that tackling social exclusion is at the centre of the Government's social policy and that successful delivery of it will make the biggest single contribution to crime prevention. However, there is still a long way to go. In the meantime, areas of severe social deprivation will benefit most from high profile policing. That point was made time and again at recent public meetings that I held in the west end of Morecambe and in Heysham. Although local police have undertaken to do as much as they can to raise their profile in such areas, limited resources will restrict their achievements.

One other point that came from those public meetings was concern about the small number of antisocial behaviour orders issued to date. Although antisocial behaviour is a real problem in my constituency, only one such order has been issued. There appears to be a reluctance and lack of enthusiasm in the police and on the local council to pursue that course of action. They say that it is because of the time and resources required to collect the evidence. I am well aware that that is not unique to my constituency; indeed, many Members have mentioned it in the debate. What measures are in place to audit the operation of antisocial behaviour orders legislation, and what remedial action can be taken if it is not properly applied?

For far too long, the quality of life of many has been wrecked by the fear of crime, especially of violent crime. They have become virtual prisoners in their own homes because they feel that it is no longer safe for them to walk the streets, visit their friends, use public transport or undertake a whole host of other activities that would constitute a normal life.

I quote as an example one of my constituents, Mr. Kenneth Appleby, who came to see me about the serious problems with antisocial behaviour in the Kingsway area of Heysham. He has been the victim of repeated attacks of extreme vandalism, believed to be by children. His car was covered in black paint on two occasions, even when it was on his drive and the gate was locked--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order.

8.6 pm

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): I welcome the opportunity to make a brief contribution to the debate. I should like to follow the path of responsible opposition taken by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) in welcoming some of the Bill's provisions, subject to appropriate scrutiny. Such a course was not always taken by the then Opposition prior to 1997, but is appropriate for a criminal justice Bill containing a variety of measures.

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In my comments on the generality of the Government's policies on law and order, I would not want to be taken as opposing some of the individual measures which deserve a fair wind, subject to appropriate scrutiny. I am thinking of two provisions. The provisions relating to DNA could be an important step in assisting the administration of justice, making it more efficient, and in helping the police investigate crime and the courts avoid miscarriages of justice. They will also help in cases such as the tragic one of Louise Smith, properly raised by the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb).

The Government's provisions on animal rights protests also deserve a fair wind. Indeed, to go a little further, I very much endorse the Home Secretary's approach on the matter. He was clearly speaking for Members on both sides of the House in taking such a robust approach. People who are engaged in research on animals are doing very important work. They deserve recognition for the importance of their work and certainly deserve the full protection of the law. I should like to add one more point to those already made in the debate.

Besides the illegal protests, threats and intimidation, we have seen in the name of the animal rights protest in recent times some serious and horrific acts of violence against innocent members of the public. That was brought home to me some weeks ago when, in the village where I grew up, a member of a well-known local family who was working as a secretary in an estate agents' office opened a parcel only to find it explode in her face, damaging one of her eyes. I know that that was a terrible experience for that lady. It must be deprecated. The full weight and force of law and order must be brought against those who participate in criminal offences of that general character, so I shall give a fair wind to anything that helps to deal with such problems.

I now turn to more controversial matters--in particular, child curfew orders. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald was good enough to mention the amendment that I tabled to the Crime and Disorder Bill two years ago which would have extended the age range up to 16. The amendment was rejected out of hand by the Government. I am pleased, however, that the Government have now adopted the proposal. I am slightly surprised because, notwithstanding the Government's attitude originally, in recent weeks and months I have seen the proposal being trailed as the centrepiece of the Government's legislative programme and one of the flagship measures in the Queen's Speech. It has been trailed across newspaper front pages as one of the Government's principal so-called solutions for the problem of low-level disorder.

I am surprised that the Government have placed such weight on the proposal, but perhaps the change was inevitable. The success of the order in its original form--it was restricted to children of up to 10 years of age--was not entirely self-evident because no such order was made. In addition, the number of antisocial behaviour orders made was pitifully small. Against that background, the Government tried initially to argue that the number of orders made was not the measure of success. Instead, they tried to argue that the orders were a success because knowledge of their existence deterred youngsters from taking part in the activities that the orders were directed against. That assumes a knowledge of the law and a

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degree of sophistication that is beyond most under-10s. I am pleased that the Government have abandoned that line of argument.

The Government are still clinging to antisocial behaviour orders. These orders were the flagship of the Government's Crime and Disorder Act 1998. In their original form, the child curfew orders were only the supporting act. The star turn was the antisocial behaviour order. It was trailed by the Labour party when in opposition and it was included in amendments to Bills. It was highlighted as being the linchpin of the "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" campaign. It led to many visits by Ministers to inner-city risk estates and to the launching of many press releases and initiatives. It was to be the answer to disorder.

The order may have been the flagship, but it was beached long ago. There have been numerous attempts to relaunch it, none of which has been successful. At first, the Government tried to argue that antisocial behaviour orders had been successful. When so few were made, the Government began to try to find someone to blame. By implication, the Government tried to blame magistrates. When it became apparent that magistrates were not imposing the orders because so few applications for them were being made, by implication the Government tried to blame the police and local authorities.

The Home Secretary even tried to blame civil liberties lawyers, one of his favourite targets. The right hon. Gentleman should be careful in that direction. There is no evidence that they have had anything to do with the failure of antisocial behaviour orders. The Minister of State, who has taken his place on the Government Front Bench, even tried to blame the Opposition. He said that we should not have opposed the orders in Committee. He missed the simple point that the Opposition did not oppose them. We simply said that they would not be of much use. That has not been entirely disproved.

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