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All these measures add up to an unprecedented attack on my constituents. They are paying much more in stealth taxes and now they are getting much less. Let us face it: they contribute so much to our society that surely they deserve some respite from the relentless march of this over-regulating, over-taxing and under-performing Government.
I am sure, because he is very good at it, that the Minister will give the usual smooth answers in a speech honed by spin doctors, but as I said, we in Buckinghamshire are not taken in by appearances, and only real solutions will do. I hope that he will provide some tonight.
Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan). I would like to see the real facts and figures on investment in police, the health service and social services in her constituency. I fully appreciate that there are pressures, as there are in many areas, but there is no question but that there has been huge additional investment in social services, for example, with a real terms increase to date of 3.3 per cent. a year under this Government, compared with 0.1 per cent. under the Toriesand it will be up to 6 per cent. over the next three years.
Mrs. Gillan: I am sorry that the hon. Lady has chosen to start her speech by attacking me. The figures for the reduction in special constables are from a parliamentary answer that the Home Office gave on Friday, and they are a disgrace.
I want to refer to bids for Home Office action in the Gracious Speech, following serious concerns that have been brought to me by constituents. In proceedings on the Police Reform Bill I raised the question of being able to impose antisocial behaviour orders in county courts as well as magistrates courts for behaviour associated with prostitution. I was pleased that there was cross-party support for that. I appreciate the fact that the Government did not want to respond, because antisocial behaviour orders are very new and more guidance is to be issued, but I hope that they will keep the matter under consideration and, if it is seen to be necessary, introduce the changes soon. Antisocial behaviour associated with prostitution blights the quality of life of many of my constituents, especially in central Swindon, and they see this as a possible solution.
Last week, I introduced a ten-minute Bill on rape reform that was well supported in the House. It is essential to get the current laws on consent, which mean that many rapists still walk free from our courts every year, off the statute book.
Home Office action is also needed on fireworks, a subject about which I get an increasing number of letters. People are worried about the increasing number of fireworks being discharged and the dangers that they pose to people and animals. The initial response to a survey that I am conducting makes it clear that the majority of people want public firework displays to be controlled only by qualified people. They want fireworks to be allowed only at certain times of the day and sold only at certain times of the year. Current legislation does not give the authorities enough powers to deal with fireworks.
There is another matter that is increasingly raised in the House and that crops up repeatedly in my postbag and at constituency advice surgeries. The increasing number of incidents involving airguns and replica guns is an issue that has been raised in this House before, but it deserves to be raised again because such guns are causing an increasing number of injuries to animals and people. In South Swindon in the past 12 months, there have been 80 incidents involving the use of ball-bearing guns and replica guns, 36 of which involved shootings at people or at animals. Shots have also been fired at vehicles, houses and shops, there have been threats to kill, and three robberies were committed using such guns. In one case, a nine-year-old boy was shot at by teenagers. It is clear that a real problem exists, and something must be done to address it.
The Government banned handguns in 1997, but it is clear that far too many are still in circulation. Indeed, the number of incidents involving handguns has increased, which shows that more action must be taken to get them out of circulation. However, in doing so, we must ensure that the problems to which they give rise are not repeatedand that the good work is not underminedthrough the proliferation of airguns, ball-bearing guns and replica guns.
People in South Swindon have made it clear to me that they want this problem to be addressed. I have heard from bus drivers who have been threatened with such guns, and I have received many letters from concerned people. They are concerned either because they have already experienced suffering as a result of such guns, or because they are scared of doing so. Police officers have visited my local surgeries and called for a ban on these weapons, not only because they have front-line experience in dealing with such attacks and the associated problems, but because they are genuinely concerned that, one day, someone will get hurt by the police themselves. The police might have to decide to take action because they cannot distinguish between a replica gun or a ball-bearing gun, and the real thing.
It is police officers in particular who have told me about the escalation in gun-related incidents, albeit involving ball-bearing or replica guns. That escalation is placing a huge demand on our specialist firearm officers. Toys and hobbies involving ball-bearing and replica guns put the police in an impossible position. Too often, they are unable to tell whether they are confronted with an airgun, a replica gun or the real thing. At some point, to protect others, an armed response unit will have to consider shooting someone who is carrying a gun, and the result could be a tragedy. For example, an armed response unit was called out in Swindon after two boys threatened passers-by with an air pistol. The unit had to make a difficult judgment as to whether it was a ball-bearing gun, or the real thing. I do not want a child or adult to be shot, only to find out later that they were merely playing, but that is getting very close to happening.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): Is my hon. Friend aware that there have already been several cases of people being shot? In a recent incident, a man carrying a table leg in a plastic bag was killed because it appeared to the officers concerned that he was carrying a deadly weapon.
Ms Drown: I am very aware of those incidents, which show the huge dangers that we need to address. Such guns should not be regarded as toys or as some form of hobby; they are very dangerous, and they put the public at risk.
There are several different measures that the Government could adopt. Countries such as France and Belgium have banned uncertified look-alikes and toys, and have demanded that airguns be suitably differentiated from the real thing. That would certainly reduce the chance of a fatal accident involving the police, and it would minimise the use of such guns in robberies. However, it would not address the other problem: the injuries that such weapons canand doinflict on our constituents by being legally and freely available. The Government should listen to the Association of Chief Police Officers, which says:
Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford): Compared with other hon. Members, I shall keep my remarks brief, but they are relevant as the House is about to enter its long summer recess. It will come as no surprise that I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate on the future of the Belfast agreement, if only to point out that the Government are deluding themselves with the pretence that it can survive in its present form. It is already fatally holed below the water line and will sink.
The Government need, therefore, to spend time over the summer considering the process of negotiating an alternative agreement that can command widespread support throughout the community from Unionists as well as nationalists. For as long as I can remember, the essential component for any constitutional proposal to win Government support was its ability to achieve cross-community support. Repeatedly, proposals proffered by Unionists were rejected by both Conservative and Labour Governments, because they did not enjoy nationalist support. In more recent times, the unspoken benchmark was that any proposal had to be capable of gaining Sinn Fein-IRA support.
Nobody would quibble with the need to have sufficient support for new institutions. No structure will have the necessary stability to last without the support of both sections of our people, but if this condition was an imperative when it was used to ensure that proposals had nationalist endorsement, it must be equally appropriate that any proposal has Unionist support.
The Belfast agreement does not have such Unionist support. Only a minority within Unionism, represented by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and half of his party, supports that republican agenda. The majority of Unionist votes cast in every election since the agreement was signed have been cast for candidates opposed to it. That is true of the last election for the Northern Ireland Assembly, the European election and both the local government election last June and the general election. Indeed, eight out of the 11 Northern Ireland Unionists returned here were elected on an anti-agreement ticket.
While the Government would never dream, or dare, to run a proposal that did not have the support of a majority of nationalists, they are quite prepared to thumb their nose at the democratically expressed voice of Unionism. The policy is shortsighted because the Government cannot dodge the electorate for ever. If the policy of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is built upon the hope that the process will be bedded down by the passage of time, he has not been reading the collective mind of Unionism very well. There is more opposition to the agreement today than when it was first signed.
My opposition does not stem from the way in which the agreement has been implemented. It is being implemented in precisely the manner that I expected. Those Unionist leaders who now bemoan the way in which the agreement is operating only expose their own lack of political judgment and foresight. For trusting the IRA and being prepared to buy a reduction of terrorism at the cost of their heritage, future generations will curse them. Indeed, they will not have to wait for future generations. The truth is that the IRA always saw the agreement as a transitional process, whose purpose is to divest Northern Ireland of every shred of Britishness and Unionism, and convey it in a steady and relentless process towards a united Ireland.
During this period of transition, Unionists will have to stomach the elevation of murderers and their still active terrorist organisation. Every concession demanded by the IRA is granted and every wrongdoing is ignored. The House has forced on Northern Ireland standards and procedures that it would not have accepted in any constituency outside Northern Ireland. The evidence of the IRA's continuing terrorist involvement is too legion to list. Its enormity makes it all the more preposterous that the Government refuse to acknowledge that the IRA has broken its ceasefire. They immorally attempt to defend closing their eyes to IRA activity while still rewarding it with more concessions.
Later this week, the Prime Minister is scheduled to tell the House what he intends to do about the many and continued breaches of the IRA ceasefire. Sinn Fein-IRA still enjoys the fruits of the Belfast agreement without feeling obliged to conform to the rules of peace and democracy. My judgment tells me that the Prime Minister will refuse to take any action that punishes Sinn Fein-IRA for these terrorist activities and will merely, as the BBC put it at the weekend, show it the yellow card again.
The Government have lost their credibility and have no policy that is capable of delivering good government and providing stable political structures in Northern Ireland. The Government cannot deliver that goal without Unionism, and they cannot bring Unionism along with the present policy. Change is needed, and should not be resisted by any politician who believes in democracy. The Government might find democracy awkward and it might obstruct their carefully laid plans, but the duty of us all is to find a way through.
Without wishing to sound confrontational, the truth is that, like it or not, the time is not long off when the Government and the House will be faced with the reality that a renegotiation is unavoidable. The balance of the process will have to be redressed, to be capable of providing the one ingredient that is demonstrably absent and palpably needed, which is Unionist consent.