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Gillian Merron (Lincoln): I welcome the Bill as another step on the way to refining our approach to tackling and preventing crime. It confirms to me and to many of us the effectiveness of a partnership approach in which the Government are prepared to take a pivotal role in meeting their full responsibility in preventing and solving crime and--crucially--in reducing the fear of crime that blights the lives of many of our constituents.
Under the Labour Government, crime in Lincolnshire has reduced by a fifth--twice the national reduction. Lincolnshire police have confirmed to me that, by April, their officer strength will be 1,240--the highest-ever in our county. It is important to talk up the above-average effectiveness of the Lincolnshire police force, because I am concerned that many of the comments made by Opposition Members serve to paint a somewhat inaccurate picture of policing and of crime rates. That stirs up the fear of crime and is irresponsible.
Lincolnshire police are to be congratulated on their above-average performance in the following matters. They are among the top ten forces in solving crimes of violence. More than nine in 10 phone calls are answered within the 10-second target time. They have reorganised the force by putting more officers in the front line and by reducing the burden of management. We should pay tribute to them for their first-rate efforts in policing our county.
In my constituency and throughout the country, it is unacceptable that an elderly lady cannot go to bingo with her friends; that a young man has to steel himself against the possibility of a fight while he is in a city centre on a Friday night; or that neighbours act in a less than neighbourly fashion--terrorising people both inside and outside their homes. Some people might regard those matters as minor nuisances. I do not. No one should be frightened to go about their daily life in peace. We are all entitled to be and to feel safe.
I shall focus on the child curfew scheme--one of the many down-to-earth provisions that offer opportunities both to prevent and cure problems of public disorder. My constituents look to the Government for such provisions. I welcome the proposal to improve the scheme by applying such curfews to people up to and including the age of 15. That was proposed in a ten-minute Bill--of which I was pleased to be a sponsor--introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker). I pay tribute to him for championing such proposals.
The overwhelming majority of young people are law abiding and have a sense of community. In my experience, they want that sense of community and responsibility to be supported and protected by measures such as those in the Bill. Child curfew schemes involve designating a particular area--for example, a park, an alleyway or shop fronts--for a specific, fixed period between 9 pm and 6 am as being out of bounds to young people of a particular age unless they are accompanied by a responsible adult.
I thought that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) was somewhat alarmist in his explanation of what he believed child curfew schemes involve. Indeed, the purpose of the schemes is to take the very action that worried constituents say that they want. They want to protect themselves in certain areas where children may gather and engage in threatening and/or criminal behaviour. However, the schemes are also intended to protect the children themselves. They may be at risk from their older peers, who may encourage them to offend, or from adult drug dealers or pimps--something about which every parent has a fear. The changes will make child curfew schemes more useful; they will certainly be taken up more widely. Extending the age range will recognise the fact that intimidating groups of children often comprise young people of different ages, and we need to tackle that problem.
The Bill is intended to give the police, as well as local authorities, the practical tools needed to do a practical job, which many of our constituents want to be done without criminalising children. Of course, we all know that peace and order in many local communities can be thrown into disarray by just a few people or households, and they cannot be allowed to continue to keep their unhealthy hold on a community. That is why the extension of witness protection to those giving evidence in cases involving antisocial behaviour orders is also to be welcomed.
There is an urgent need to promote the use of the numerous new measures in the Bill. They are very much what people in Lincoln want, but we must continue to work in partnership with the police, local authorities and local communities to ensure that people, such as those in Lincoln, see the measures working to protect them.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): We have had an excellent debate with some moving contributions, as well as some thoughtful ones. I should like to highlight the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), who in representing a constituency interest, expressed the concern that we all feel about what is happening with Huntingdon Life Sciences and other companies. My constituency is about equidistant from Huntingdon, Cambridge and Peterborough, and some of my constituents are being treated in the way that has been described. We must all feel their sense of terror when they experience fire-bomb incidents; cleaning fluid is thrown in their eyes; they receive hate mail; and their children are threatened.
My right hon. Friend described incidents such as that in which undertakers were called to a house to take away someone's child when, of course, the child was alive and well. The distress caused by such behaviour has been recognised on both sides of the House, and by the hon. Members for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), who has worked in the industry, and for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) and others. So it is right to concentrate on that issue.
The Home Secretary said that he is prepared to consider amending the Public Order Act 1986 to protect people in their houses and to curtail protests outside houses. That is welcome. He has told us that he is prepared to consider the way in which the Malicious Communications Act 1988 works and to consider an objective rather than a subjective test.
Is the Minister still considering what other measures might be possible? Some of the incidents that have been described do not fall into a clear category, but they were very threatening. It would help if the Minister were to make a commitment on issues such as secondary action and to give the clear statements that my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon wanted. The Minister should point out that United Kingdom legislation demands tests on animals; animal tests are required by regulators; the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 has the strictest requirements for animal research anywhere in the world; and the legislation demands that animal tests should not be available if other non-animal testing is possible. It would be good if the Minister could give such clear statements tonight. This important issue is worrying the country, but all Members agree about it.
The same cannot be said of all the other matters that have been debated. Although the Opposition take the view that this is a crimefighting measure that will give powers to police officers and others to help in the fight against crime, we have the important reservations that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) and other Conservative Members have highlighted in their contributions.
First, we are concerned by what the Bill has left out. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) painted a picture of a Christmas tree with empty baubles on it and the Minister rushing from the Home Office to each Department to ask, "Have you got anything on the shelf that we can trot out in this pre-election period?"
The country faces important challenges. Violent crime, street crime and the incidence of robbery are rising. Yet, when the Home Secretary and the Minister have the time available to consult on the offences against the person legislation and the means to provide modern laws to strengthen the fight against violent crime, they do nothing. They have had the opportunity to reform the early release scheme so that those who assault police officers in the execution of their duty are not released before they have served half their sentence, and we have managed to convert the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey on that point. He used to take the same line on this as the Minister, but he is now a convert. Come on, Minister--we want him to decide that the police should be protected in that way.
As one of the largest reviews ever of the criminal justice system is about to report, it is curious that the Minister is putting before the House a set of slighter measures simply because an election is in the offing. They are slight measures by comparison with the challenge that the country faces in terms of violent crime, falling police numbers and all the problems that he and I have debated on many occasions.
The Bill raises concerns about bureaucracy. The Police Federation and the Police Superintendents Association wonder whether the fixed penalties notices will save any of their time so that the police can have a more visible presence on the streets. The worry is that clause 8 seems to require a police statement to be prepared in every case, so where will the saving be made? It would be helpful if the Minister could assure us and the police that the new procedure will serve to save police time and give them a greater ability to do the job that they and the public want them to do.
It would be helpful if the Minister addressed some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), who explained, given his experience as a recorder and a stipendiary magistrate, the difficulties of distinguishing between an 18-year-old and an under-18-year-old who are drunk in the street. He described the difficulties of finding out how many times a person had had the benefit of fixed-penalty notices. Will notice after notice be served without the person ever ending up in court?
One thing that victims of criminal damage want is some compensation, but it is available only on conviction. Will the Minister give victims some consolation? Will they be able in some way to receive compensation if their fence is kicked in or other criminal damage is done, for example, to their vehicle? There is a range of practical issues to do with fixed penalty notices on which we are looking for answers.
The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) was generous about my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald and considered the issue of non-drinking zones and closure orders. [Interruption.] No, he was generous--for him. There are questions about how non-drinking zones will be implemented. Will councils decide such issues in full council, or under the new system will one Cabinet Member be in charge of designating the zones? That concern has been raised with me by councillors, and it would be helpful if the Minister reassured us that there will be a proper debate in full council on the designation of zones.
We heard important comments from my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter), who pointed out that it is all very well introducing measures such as child curfew orders, fixed penalty notices and so on, but there is not much point to them if there are not enough police officers to enforce them. Many Labour Members proudly read out how burglaries and car crime have fallen in their areas, which is good news. [Interruption.] That is good news, but they also said, "But we are very worried about street crime, robberies and violence." They might like to ponder the fact that intensive police operations targeting known car thieves and burglars use a lot of manpower that could be providing a visible presence on the streets. If there are enough police officers to go round, both can be achieved. At the moment, however, assigning police officers to particular campaigns makes the streets less safe.