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6.39 pm

Ross Cranston (Dudley, North): This is a little Bill, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson) has said, it will work only in association with other measures. I take the point about adequate enforcement made by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve). I also take the obviously very important point about the European dimension made by him, and by the hon. Members for Lewes (Norman Baker) and for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), who mentioned it in interventions.

The Bill creates a new criminal offence of reprogramming, without authority, a mobile phone's unique identifier, and associated offences such as having or supplying equipment that can be used for reprogramming. As hon. Members have said, it is important to try to stamp out such unauthorised reprogramming, because once it has occurred, the only information showing that a mobile has been stolen is eradicated. If mobiles cannot be reprogrammed, there is less incentive to steal them.

I want to focus on other parts of the story. The first point, which was raised by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, concerns the common knowledge that

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the theft of mobiles, often from young people, has become prevalent, especially in urban areas. My right hon. Friend quoted the Home Office report, "Mobile Phone Theft", published earlier this year, which showed a significant increase in the number of phones being stolen. Clearly, it is too simple to adopt a mono-causal opportunity theory of criminal behaviour because complex processes are involved in explaining why people commit crimes, but in this context the opportunity factor has a high explanatory force. Mobiles are easily stolen and, with reprogramming, can be easily reused or resold.

Moreover, given the ownership patterns, it is not surprising that half of mobile phone-related robberies involve victims under 20. The Home Office study found that most of the offenders involved in phone robbery were young, with a peak age of 16 for those being accused of the crime. Over two thirds of the incidents involved offenders working in groups, which is, no doubt, a more frightening experience for the victim. Mostly the crimes were male on male, and very disturbingly, at least 90 per cent. of the offenders were black, with the vast majority of the victims being white.

It is important not to get carried away. I am not trying to down-play the fact that it must be, at the very least, upsetting and, most probably, traumatic for any person to have their mobile stolen on the street or in a public place, even if both victim and offender are young. Indeed, it is a matter of great concern that over the past 10 years, there has, in robbery offences, been a marked increase in the number of young victims and young offenders. However, it is wrong to think that the increase in mobile phone robbery, or in robbery generally, is representative of a plague of violent crime in this country.

The recently published Home Office statistical bulletin reported the British crime survey finding that the number of violent incidents had increased by 2 per cent. compared to 2000, but that increase was not statistically significant. In fact, the estimate for violent crime has fallen by 22 per cent. since 1997 and by 17 per cent. since 1999. The British crime survey is a better indicator of crime patterns than are recorded crime statistics because it does not turn on police recording practices and, of course, it extends to crimes not reported to the police.

By contrast with the British crime survey figures, an increase in violent crime is being recorded by the police, but the authors of the Home Office statistical bulletin say that it

In the case of robberies, however, which are one category of violent crime, there is an increase of 28 per cent. That does not seem to be caused by increased recording by the police, although the authors of the bulletin say that

Apart from the numbers and the way in which they have to be treated, it is crucial to appreciate that in 50 per cent. of violent incidents there is no injury, with around two thirds of robberies and common assaults involving no injury.

Mr. Grieve: I have been listening carefully to the hon. and learned Gentleman, and I apologise for my unavoidable absence from the Chamber for a brief period when he was speaking. Robbery does not involve violence, but it is a

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serious offence because it involves the threat of violence, as I am sure he will agree. I hope that he will forgive me for saying, therefore, that to suggest that one should not be too troubled by robbery merely because the victim has not been injured is not the best point.

Ross Cranston: Obviously, I appreciate that whether or not one is injured, the threat of violence is traumatic. My point is that the hysteria that we sometimes see in the media does not accurately reflect what is happening in the country.

There is undoubtedly an unacceptably high concentration of robbery in urban areas, and I welcome the street crime initiative, which was launched earlier this year and includes the west midlands. The 10 areas that are part of the initiative account for 83 per cent. of recorded street crimes. Like the youth justice pledge, the initiative will be instrumental in getting criminal justice agencies working together and fast-tracking offenders.

Earlier this year, in the cases of Q, L and S, the Court of Appeal sent out a very strong signal to the effect that custodial sentences would generally be imposed in cases of street robbery involving mobile phones, whatever the age of the offender. I know that the chairman of the youth justice board has expressed concern about that, saying that it has set back his attempts to tackle the causes of crime and boosted the number of young offenders in custody. The court was trying to draw together the principles involved in certain cases without laying down new guidelines, and when the problem of mobile phone theft is brought under control, it may need to reassess the matter. Perhaps guidelines are needed and the advice of the sentencing advisory panel should be sought.

My second point concerns the passage in a judgment in which the Court of Appeal

There is now considerable learning about the relationship between design and crime, which can take a variety of forms.

Earlier this year, for example, the metropolitan borough of Dudley and the West Midlands police published a superb community safety supplementary planning guidance, the first such document published in the west midlands. It set out how, with good design and the lay-out of the physical environment, crime, the fear of crime and antisocial behaviour can be reduced. Those measure are often quite simple. To reduce street robbery, for example, lighting is important, and other, longer term measures may be taken to create better connecting networks of streets and public spaces and more mixed use areas in town centres.

The other example of preventing or reducing crime by design concerns car theft. Car manufacturers have dragged their feet in that regard, but the introduction of immobilisation devices can reduce car theft. The same is true of mobile phones. I was somewhat disturbed to find that some of the networks were rather slow on the uptake. Even when mobile phone theft was becoming prevalent a couple of years ago, some of the networks did not take the necessary steps. Until early this year, Vodafone UK and BT Cellnet were still refusing, once a phone had been reported as stolen, to take action to blacklist the IMEI number. They have now come on board, and I

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congratulate them on doing so, and the industry generally in trying to introduce measures to reduce the incentive for theft.

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston): What does my hon. and learned Friend think of the recent invention of chips for mobiles that will self-destruct on a signal from the network providers? Would not their introduction end, in one fell swoop, the attraction of stealing a phone?

Ross Cranston: Such technological advances can certainly help. I acknowledge that some of the industry finds it more difficult, because it entered the market early, to introduce some of those changes. However, with the new generation of mobile phones, it is possible to introduce devices such as those mentioned by my hon. Friend.

My point is that manufacturers and others should design their products and provide services in a way that minimises opportunities for crime. Sometimes, the Government have a lever to ensure that that happens: in the case of mobile phones, for example, the networks depend on Government for permission to operate.

Coupled with the measures introduced by the industry, the steps taken by the police and education measures such as those mentioned by the hon. Member for Lewes, this little Bill should ensure that many more stolen mobile phones will be useless in the UK. The problem of export remains, however, and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will address that. I can assure the House that the penalties under the Bill are consistent with those for comparable offences, such as copying or reprogramming of credit cards. To pick up the point made by the hon. Gentleman for Lewes, judges will of course vary the penalty imposed according to whether a professional is involved or the offence is a casual one. I support the Bill.

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