Previous SectionIndexHome Page


Maria Eagle: If police numbers are the only thing that matters, will the hon. Gentleman explain why between 1980 and 1989 police numbers increased but crime went up by 40 per cent?

Mr. Heald: I have never said that it did not take us a long time to turn round the disastrous Labour years of the 1970s. This Government inherited falling crime and rising police numbers. The Home Secretary likes to say that he has had the best start of any Home Secretary since the war. The truth is that he did because we gave it to him. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) introduced tough measures and always, year on year, increased the number of police constables. It was his legacy that the Home Secretary took on, and squandered.

Mr. Straw: There is a serious point about the relationship between police numbers at the margin and overall levels of crime. If the hon. Gentleman seriously examines figures for the past four years, he will see that police forces with the best record in reducing crime are not necessarily those that received the largest increases in budget or in police numbers, of which there are quite a number. Does he accept that the critical issue is not police

29 Jan 2001 : Column 118

numbers at the margin--although of course I want them to increase--but the efficiency and effectiveness of the police service in any area?

Mr. Heald: The right hon. Gentleman and I have debated the issue on other occasions. He knows that I say that if there are two police forces that are efficient, and one of them has more than 1,000 more officers than the other for the same head of population, it will do more. We cannot assume that each police force will for ever remain inefficient here and efficient there. We should be aiming for the best standards for them all. If that is achieved, the force with the more police officers will do more work. That makes sense.

The Home Secretary must recognise that by letting police numbers fall by 2,500 and by allowing the number of special constables to collapse by almost one third, it is no coincidence that we have soaring violent crime. Letting out prisoners early means they are outside committing crimes. The right hon. Gentleman knows that. There is the irony of the right hon. Gentleman saying that we need tougher measures on bail so that those who have not been convicted will be put more regularly into custody awaiting trial, when at the same time he is saying that those who are known to have committed crime--those who have been convicted--should leave prison before serving half their term. How can that be explained? The Government are nonsensical on law and order on so many occasions. There is a great deal of spin but there is not much delivery.

Civil rights constitute an important issue for the House, for Conservatives and for Liberal Democrats. We support measures that make crimefighting easier. For example, we support a wider dissemination of information between the Inland Revenue and crimefighters. However, it is important to uphold the principle that confidentiality should be breached only in circumstances where that is necessary; that is, where there are good reasons and where there is a serious investigation. I would welcome assurances from the Minister that he will not establish a general principle that confidential information can float around government without proper controls being in place.

Mr. Straw: What about benefit fraud?

Mr. Heald: I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position.

I was the Minister who took through the House the Social Security Administration (Fraud) Bill, which allowed data matching. It enabled the information that the Department of Social Security had as to whether people were claiming benefit to be matched with the information that the Inland Revenue had about whether they were working. We were able to find numerous cases of people who were working and claiming. That was a good reason for introducing the Bill, and I make no apology for doing so. The Minister must come up with a similarly good reason for his proposed measures. Given the context, and given that Inland Revenue information would be involved, it would seem that a serious investigation should be in hand.

The Minister must answer the CBI's concern that information that is held by the Office of Fair Trading will be given to overseas authorities for criminal anti-trust

29 Jan 2001 : Column 119

investigations where the same circumstances would not lead either to a criminal or a civil investigation. Is that right? If so, why?

Many issues arise from the Bill. It is good if we can close rowdy pubs, provided that there are proper protections. It is good if we can limit drug traffickers' travel. It is good if we can have better witness protection. It is good if we can stop the importation of obscene and paedophiliac information. It is good if we can strengthen bail laws and it is good also if we can have new powers of arrest for kerb crawling, for example. It is good if we can improve the life of scientists, whose lives are being made a misery.

Against the scale of the challenge on law and order, the Conservative party's contention is that the Bill is a disappointment because it will not meet the challenge of the time. It is a Christmas tree of a Bill, as the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, the Liberal Democrat spokesman, said. It is disappointing when it comes to bureaucracy, practicability, targeting and civil rights. It is no surprise that the Prime Minister is not prepared to debate law and order matters with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition.

9.44 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): I agree with the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) about one thing: generally, it has been a good debate which, for the most part, has not been politically partisan. However, interestingly, there were 17 contributions from Government Members and 10 from Members of Opposition parties, including two from Liberal Democrat Members. I was a little disappointed that the Conservative Benches were often empty during our debate.

I do not intend to address in detail very familiar discussions about falling crime, rising police numbers, growing police morale and early release issues. We had an Opposition day debate on those matters just a few days ago and on Wednesday this week we shall debate the police grant settlement. Those are full opportunities for addressing what are, I acknowledge, important issues. I do not therefore intend to address them in detail this evening, except to say that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) said, the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and the principle of partnership underlying it are at the core of everything that the Government are seeking to do and of the Bill itself.

I shall deal first with matters not included in the Bill, of which criticism has been made. The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) made a point about victims. There are provisions on witness protection in the Bill, about which my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) spoke eloquently.

A victims' rights consultation paper will shortly be launched, with a series of key proposals, to transform the position of victims throughout the country. It is not, as the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald said, a question of four years; it is a question of 18 years during which nothing was done and four years in which we have been developing a programme of action to support the

29 Jan 2001 : Column 120

position of victims. The way to deal with legislation in that area is to be coherent on the position of victims of a range of crimes.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald has raised the question of changes to the offences against the person legislation, and the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire raised the matter at the end of our debate. The Opposition are right to say that we issued a consultation document on the matter in February 1998. The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald may disagree but, in our view, an overhaul of the offences against the person legislation is best handled in the context of a law reform Bill, which would also include changes to the law on involuntary manslaughter and corporate killing. We are still considering the final shape of our policy in the light of responses to and debates on those matters, but we think that that is the best way to deal with those circumstances.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) raised the matter of graffiti. I can give her the assurance that she sought. We are considering the matter--in fact, I addressed it in a substantive Adjournment debate at the end of last year--and we are looking at introducing measures. However, we did not consider them appropriate for the Bill.

My hon. Friends the Members for Selby (Mr. Grogan) and for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe) addressed the need for fuller reform of the licensing law. Perhaps I can help them by indicating that, as is well known, we are committed to reforming the whole licensing situation as a result of the White Paper. Licensing legislation takes high priority. We have included only certain measures from the White Paper in the Bill because of the need to give the legislation a comprehensive nature. However, I can give my hon. Friends the assurance that they sought: licensing reform remains a high priority, not only for general reasons concerning the civilisation of our country but for the crime reduction reasons discussed in some contributions.

The main matter not included in the Bill that was addressed in debate concerned animal rights and protests on that issue. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire raised that matter, perfectly reasonably, in his winding-up speech. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made the position clear in his opening speech, but we heard excellent speeches on the matter from the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major)--whose speech was outstanding--the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter), and my hon. Friends the Members for Burton (Mrs. Dean), for Peterborough (Mrs. Brinton), for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) and for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman). Those Members focused on the matter, but it was also raised by others.

We will try to table amendments for the Committee stage of the Bill, as requested. We will examine carefully points made in this debate and those made by the Research Defence Society. In response to my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet, we are familiar with the RDS's specific proposals, which have been echoed by some speakers in the House this evening. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), who is dealing with the matter, is already meeting people involved in those areas and will continue to do so. We are happy to have meetings to discuss the issues in great detail.

29 Jan 2001 : Column 121

The right hon. Member for Huntingdon made several specific points, to which he asked for responses. Out of courtesy, I shall give them from the Dispatch Box now. The right hon. Gentleman asked, first, whether the present UK legislation required new medicines to be tested on animals, and whether animal tests were also required by regulatory bodies for agrochemicals, pesticides and so on. The answer is that where manufacturers of medicines and agricultural products have to provide safety data relating to their products, they must find the most suitable tests to provide that data. In many cases, the only suitable tests involve the use of animals.

Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman asked me to confirm that the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 contains the strictest rules governing animal research. Again, I can confirm that he is correct. The Government consider that legislation to be the strictest of its kind in the world. That endorses the various points made in all parts of the House about the quality of the safeguards, which are the best in the world. If we threaten the industry in this country, that will have the direct effect of impairing conditions for animals throughout the world.

Thirdly, the right hon. Gentleman asked whether I could confirm that before animal research is licensed, the Home Office must be assured that tests could not be adequately be carried out without animal experiments. That is indeed the case. If there is a non-animal alternative, a test cannot be licensed. That is a requirement of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act.

I can confirm various points that were made. In the light of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet, I confirm also that any new powers will be directed at intimidating protests outside homes generally. They will not relate only to Huntingdon Life Sciences or only to animal rights protesters, but to other scientists such as those mentioned by my hon. Friend.

As a result of the strong feeling expressed during the debate, I am confident that proposed legislation and Government amendments on the matter will receive widespread support in this House and in the other place. We will consult other political parties about the amendments that the Government intend to introduce. We are keen to carry through the clear feeling of the House this evening, to ensure that the appalling behaviour about which we have heard is isolated and rendered unacceptable in this country.

I shall deal with the matters that are included in the Bill, but which are controversial. The first is the issue of DNA sampling and testing. I was delighted by the general agreement about the need to include legislation on that. I except from that the comments of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) and, to some extent, those of the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), who expressed doubt.

The hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) made a powerful and moving speech from his own experience, and indicated--I hope I am not misinterpreting him--his strong support for legislation on the matter, for reasons that he identified from his constituency experience, with which many hon. Members would agree. He is correct to say that under the Bill, consent to retain samples cannot be revoked. No doubt that will be debated in Committee.

We believe that the provision will not deter volunteers from giving informed consent, whereas allowing consent to be withdrawn would lead back to the problems of the

29 Jan 2001 : Column 122

current law, which were exposed in the R. v. B. case, to which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary referred. If a match were made in the context of a serious crime after a person had withdrawn his consent, what would be the situation? Our proposal is intended to cover that case. I acknowledge the seriousness of the hon. Gentleman's argument, and we are prepared to consider the matter in detail in Committee.

I asked the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey to be clear about his party's position on the matter, but I do not think that he was clear. Given the feeling in the House on the DNA issue, it is important that the hon. Gentleman's party should make its position clear by the time the Bill reaches Committee. The Government's proposal will undoubtedly bring benefits to crime solving.

The second issue on which there was controversy concerned fixed-penalty notices, about which we heard comments from the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, my right hon. Friends the Members for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) and for Cardiff, South and Penarth, the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), and my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) and for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Miss Smith). Many of those speeches were strongly in favour of the Government's proposals and set out clear arguments for improving the weapons available to the police to deal with low-level disorder. Some doubts were expressed, and the issues will be debated in Committee. The hon. Member for Woking asked about the logic behind the list of offences, and suggested, in an uncharacteristically insulting way, that insufficient thought had been given to the matter. Several offences on the list were originally proposed in our consultation paper for inclusion in the scheme. A range of other possible offences were suggested by those who responded to the paper. The list covers a wide range of offending behaviour. The Government consider that some examples of the behaviour covered by each offence would be suitably dealt with by means of fixed penalties.

The organisations whose views we requested provided a substantial response. They include the Justices' Clerks Society, the Magistrates Association, the Law Society and a wide range of other organisations. Of course, they had different opinions, which I am sure will be reflected in Committee. I said in answer to a question asked by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire that the responses would be placed in the Library for hon. Members to consider before they participate in Standing Committee debates. There will be full debate on the points that have been made, which will be considered in great detail.

Curfew orders were the third controversial issue in the debate. They were dealt with in the powerful speeches made by my right hon. Friends the Members for Manchester, Gorton and for Cardiff, South and Penarth, and by my hon. Friends the Members for Lincoln (Gillian Merron) and for Warrington, North (Helen Jones). I associate myself with the praise given by my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln to my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker) for his consistent campaigning to ensure that the matters with which the Bill deals featured properly on the statute book.

29 Jan 2001 : Column 123

I have some key points about the concerns expressed. First, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth referred to the critical importance of partnership. Indeed, all the measures are products to be used in partnership. That is the approach that we are trying constantly to build, as it is critically important in achieving our aims. Secondly, the measures must be targeted at the troublemakers and the people who are creating the difficulty. They do not ensure a universal curfew for everyone. They are intended to be targeted on particular individuals who are making other people's lives a misery. It is important to have power to deal with such people.

Thirdly, Opposition Members did not appreciate that the purpose of the range of measures--the antisocial behaviour orders, curfew orders and so on--is as much to prohibit and prevent antisocial behaviour as to punish it. There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that our measures are achieving that purpose in a wide variety of ways. My hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet rightly referred to parents. In Islington, police and housing services are working together exceptionally closely and involving parents in the conduct of their children. That is an excellent example of such activities. The threat of antisocial behaviour orders and other measures is available to ensure that other arrangements can be properly enforced--an important factor to which sufficient attention has not always been paid.

The final point of controversy in the Bill is the range of alcohol measures, which will again be considered in Committee. The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald asked about the difference between the Bill and current local arrangements and the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire asked about council approvals. Many local authorities already have alcohol byelaws. The Bill provides a uniform and comprehensive set of powers, as it is vital for such powers to exist. The police will be able to direct people not to continue drinking and to confiscate glasses and bottles that might otherwise be used as weapons. The council need only designate the area and the police powers will apply, which is a far less bureaucratic arrangement than the current byelaw procedures.


Next Section

IndexHome Page