HC Deb 25 June 1991 vol 193 cc922-5

Lords amendment: No. 41, in page 18, line 3, leave out second ("the").

Mr. John Patten

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to take Lords amendments Nos. 42, 43, 46, 47, 139, 140, 148 and 170.

Mr. Patten

Taken together, the amendments make a number of minor changes to committal proceedings. In particular, I would bring to the attention of the House one very important amendment—amendment No. 46, which increases the maximum penalties that may be imposed on those found guilty of bomb hoaxes. In the magistrates courts, an offender will now be liable to a maximum sentence of six months—the longest sentence that such a court may impose for a single offence—as opposed to three at present. The maximum sentence that a bomb hoaxer might receive in the Crown courts will increase from five years to seven years—and quite right too. I am sure that I say that with the agreement of the whole House, because a bomb hoax is an irresponsible waste of other people's time and efforts. It can cause great inconvenience to many people. It can also endanger lives by making it harder to identify and respond to genuine warnings.

Let me give one example to show why we consider the amendment so important. The House will recall that, last February, a bomb was discovered at Paddington. In the 24 hours after that bomb was discovered, 84 hoax calls were made by people with sick and demented minds and a further 800 hoax calls were made the following week. In view of that spate of hoaxes, I announced at an earlier stage during the passage of the Bill that I would conduct a review of the maximum penalties to be made available. The new maximum penalties provide a clear indication of the seriousness with which the House regards the offence, and I believe that the general public will welcome the new provisions. I note that increasingly severe sentences have recently been handed down within the old maximum of five years—and quite right, too.

Mr. Sheerman

The official Opposition certainly agree with what the Minister said about bomb hoaxers. I should, however, like to make two points, very briefly.

We all regret not only the terrorism that was responsible for the ghastly events at Victoria station—and, indeed, the recent spate of bombings—but the resulting death and serious injuries. It was because we were in the midst of the Committee stage of the Bill when the Paddington and Victoria bombs exploded that we debated the subject at such length.

We support the Government's determination to deal firmly with the hoaxers, but I should like to introduce a word of caution. Either intentionally or because of a slip of the tongue, the Minister said that a number of hoax calls were made by sick and demented people. The Opposition believe strongly that psychiatric services should be available in courts; we also believe that there are far too many mentally disordered people in prison.

We do not want the amendment to catch in the net even more people who, being mentally disordered, are very suggestible, and may be tempted to commit such stupid crimes. I agree with the Minister that, whoever commits them, they can result in an ineffective response to genuine emergencies and crises, and must therefore be dealt with seriously: we recognise that stringent penalties should be applied. Hoax calls are a dangerous game; indeed, they are hardly a game at all, for they are playing with people's lives. I hope, however, that it will be possible to differentiate between normal hoax callers and mentally disordered people who are sucked into such activity, and thus to deter those who should know better.

Mr. John Patten

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), who picked up my loose use of English. Rather than simply referring to "sick and demented minds", I should have used the words "sick and demented, or evil and bad". I believe that the majority of people who carry out bomb hoaxes deserve the severe punishment that the amendment would provide, because I believe in evil and in the vileness of human nature.

Mr. Sheerman

Many of the amendments that we are discussing are being taken in clusters, but I feel that some that might not otherwise be debated should be "flagged up". On this very day, a ten-minute Bill relating to the abolition of the Vagrancy Act 1824 was passed, having been presented by a Conservative Back Bencher. Given that his party is currently in power, it was an historic occasion. It is, surely, not entirely coincidental that we should now be debating a group of amendments one of which—No. 47—proposes a change in the penalties imposed on those who sleep rough.

The Opposition do not intend to divide the House on the amendment, but we feel that it represents only a tiny step in the right direction. We are disappointed that the Government did not grasp the opportunity offered by Opposition amendments to repeal sections 3 and 4 of the Vagrancy Act. Homelessness is an appalling problem. We believe that the explosion in the number of roofless people sleeping rough in the streets has been generated by three main areas of Government policy: cuts in benefit, the disastrous implementation of the "care in the community" programme—which resulted in the closure of mental institutions—and the discharge of mentally ill people into the streets without any support. A further problem has been the dramatic contraction in the amount of affordable housing.

Only today—ironically—I was telephoned by the prison department of the Home Office. I was asked whether I, as the local Member of Parliament, could give the department the name and address of a prisoner who had been writing to me regularly. The Department did not know where to write to the prisoner, because he had been discharged to "no fixed abode".

7.45 pm

That telephone call brought home to me very starkly how much more needs to be done to improve the prison system, and to implement the recommendations of the Woolf report. The prisoner in question—a Mr. Sheehan —used to be one of my constituents; he used to write to me. Following his release, no one knows where he is. I shall, of course, try to track him down: I shall refer to all the addresses that I have on my file. None the less, he may be one of the vagrants who will sleep rough tonight in central London. In any event, I wish him well; I hope that he has a job, and a roof over his head.

The Government's response to the problem has been to provide some accommodation in London this winter—and to use the criminal law to sweep the streets clean of homeless people. They still see homelessness as a crime.

Mr. John Patten

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene in what I expected to be a short and uncontentious speech.

The hon. Gentleman said that, during the winter, the Government provided some accommodation and then proceeded to use the criminal law to sweep the streets clean. At that time, my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning provided more than an adequate number of housing places in central London for anyone who wanted to take them. I am sorry to say—it does the hon. Gentleman's argument no good at all—that some people simply refuse to take such places even when they are available.

Mr. Sheerman

I am tempted to break into a song called, I believe, "The Streets of London", and to ask the Minister not exactly to walk down those streets hand in hand with me, but to meander down some of the streets that I visit regularly in the evenings on the way back to my flat. I should like to show him all the homeless people who are still living on the street.

The Opposition do not believe that the Government's response has been adequate so far. Some extra places have been provided to shelter the homeless, and the Metropolitan police have tried harder to move people away from the city centres. Part of the Government's response, however, has been to clean up the streets so that homeless people are not visible, because of the volume of public protest about them.

Even if they are not visible, the homeless are still there. Although none of us likes it, begging is a manifestation of poverty and homelessness. Young people who are denied employment, benefits and housing often have no alternative. They must beg to survive. An amendment tabled in the other place would have denied the courts power to fine people who were sleeping rough and begging peacefully, and left them power to deal with professional beggars. After the Napoleonic wars, many returning soldiers were considered a nuisance, but surely we have no place for such laws today. Young people are often denied the power to free themselves from the streets.

As I have said, the Government had a perfect opportunity to throw out the Napoleonic statute and to accept that homelessness is a social problem. They seem, however, to be rather confused about the issue. They have introduced some measures to tackle homelessness in London, but they have done too little, too late. This was yet another desperate attempt to ameliorate some of the worst consequences of the past 12 years of Conservative Government.

Independent experts estimate that between 1,000 and 1,500 people still sleep rough in London—two or three times as many as the Government estimate. I challenge the Minister to dispute that. Although Government policy has not gone far enough, there appears to be some recognition that homelessness is a social problem and that social solutions are necessary to resolve it.

The Minister thought that I would be non-controversial, but I shall quote the comments of Earl Ferrers in another place. He has the measure of the problem and understands its underlying nature, although he was unwilling to accept the logic of repealing the Napoleonic code. He said: It is important to get one issue absolutely straight. Homelessness and poverty are social matters of great concern. They should be tackled. One likes to think that that has been done albeit not hard enough or successfully enough under other legislation … The fact that there may be more beggars coming on to the streets is a matter for great regret. It is also something which we are all greatly concerned about"—[Official Report, House of Lords, 18 April 1991; Vol. 527, c. 1635.] If homelessness is not a criminal problem but a social one, the Vagrancy Act should be repealed. The amendment goes but a little way towards doing so, but it is typical of the Government to sit on the fence. They should visit a London court in the morning and see the lot of the vagrant. The way in which we use the Vagrancy Act, which could have been swept away, is shameful. The greatest pressure to get rid of the Act is coming from barristers and solicitors who work in the courts of London and other big cities because they know what a ghastly travesty it has become.

Question put and agreed to.

Subsequent Lords amendments agreed to.

Madam Deputy Speaker

We have now reached Lords amendment No. 56. I am satisfied that the Lords amendment imposes a charge upon the public revenue, such as is required to be authorised by a resolution of the House and that such charge has not been so authorised, and accordingly, pursuant to paragraph (3) of Standing Order No. 76, the Lords amendment is deemed to be disagreed to.

Lords amendment No. 57 disagreed to.

Lords amendment No. 58 disagreed to.

Government amendments (a) to (c) made to the words so restored to the Bill.

Lords amendment No. 59 agreed to.

Lords amendment No. 60 disagreed to.

Lords amendment No. 61 agreed to.

Lords amendment No. 62 disagreed to.

Lords amendment No. 63 agreed to.

Lords amendment: No. 64, after clause 39, to insert the following new clause—