HC Deb 30 July 1997 vol 299 cc341-57 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I wish to make a statement about improving the criminal justice system.

This morning, a major survey of crime victimisation in 11 industrialised countries was published. According to that survey, England and Wales top the league for robbery, for assaults, for burglary and for car crime. The results of the survey confirm the degree to which, in this country over the past two decades, crime has become an everyday experience. Yet, while crime has soared, the criminal justice system has become less effective. Over the past 18 years, crime has doubled, but the numbers convicted of those crimes have fallen by a third.

My overriding priority is to secure the safety of the public. The survey published this morning shows how far we have to go to do just that, but we have already embarked on reform of the Crown Prosecution Service and in this Session we will be putting our crime and disorder Bill before Parliament. The Bill will tackle anti-social behaviour, particularly from young offenders, which makes a misery of the lives of so many law-abiding people of our country. Today, I am announcing other steps in the long-overdue process of establishing an effective criminal justice system.

First, there are delays. Delays clog up the system and currently 12,000 prisoners are waiting on remand. When cases take too long to come to trial, taxpayers' money is wasted and the link between crime and punishment is broken. We have to improve the speed and efficiency of the criminal justice system. In particular, we are pledged to halve the time it takes to get persistent young offenders from arrest to sentence.

Very late in the day, the previous Government commissioned a review of delay. When that review, the Narey report, was published in February, I described it as showing the "neglect and complacency" of the then Government in their running of the criminal justice system"—[Official Report, 27 February 1997; Vol. 291, c. 433.] I will act on the Narey report. One of the most striking benefits should come from implementing new arrangements for case preparation that will enable many straightforward guilty plea cases to be disposed of within a day or two of charge. That will help to revive the concept of summary justice on which the magistrates court system was founded—local justice delivered in a quick, fair and straightforward way.

Further details of my response to the Narey report will be given in a written answer to the House today.

To combat further delay, existing custody time limits will be enforced more effectively and we shall set new statutory time limits for the preparation of both adult and young offender cases. I also want to strengthen the ability of magistrates courts to manage cases more effectively.

We shall introduce tougher bail conditions to deter defendants from abusing their bail.

I intend to implement the provisions in the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996 under which magistrates will hear an indication of plea before deciding whether a case needs to go to the Crown court. That will enable magistrates to deal quickly with defendants who plead guilty.

Our manifesto promised an effective sentencing system … to ensure greater consistency and stricter punishment for serious repeat offenders. We are therefore proposing that judges in the Court of Appeal should prepare sentencing guidelines for all the main criminal offences.

Prison is necessary for those whose crimes and behaviour require it. Before the end of this year, I will implement section 2 of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997, providing automatic life sentences for second-time serious sexual and violent offenders. The crime and disorder Bill will provide for extended supervision of other sexual and violent offenders after their release from prison.

Provisions in the Crime (Sentences) Act setting minimum sentences for persistent burglars and drug dealers were significantly improved by Labour amendments, which will give judges sufficient discretion to avoid injustice. In the light of that, I therefore intend to implement the mandatory minimum seven-year sentence for third-time drug traffickers later this year.

We shall consider implementing the three-year minimum sentence for third-time domestic burglars in the light of resources and the Prison Service's capacity, as the previous Government proposed. The previous Administration's plans meant that this provision was unlikely to have any appreciable effect until some time in 2001.

As promised in our manifesto, courts will be required to explain, when sentencing, what the sentence means in practice. They should state the time to be spent in prison, the period of supervision after release and the period during which the offender might be recalled to prison.

These requirements will allow the victim, the offender and the public to understand the true nature of the sentence. They are superior to the complex provisions in the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997, constructed by the previous Government, which we criticised in opposition and which we do not intend to implement.

On custodial sentences for young offenders, the courts need a more coherent and flexible set of powers to lock up that small group of persistent young offenders who wreak havoc in their communities. As I announced on 3 July, the courts will have available to them from April 1998 the secure training order. We are also proposing to give the youth court the power to order the secure remand of such offenders.

Ninety-four per cent. of convicted offenders are dealt with in the community, and all but a tiny handful of those who are imprisoned return to the community at the end of their sentence. Ensuring the effectiveness of community punishments, and of community supervision for released prisoners, is therefore of the utmost importance.

The courts must have confidence that community punishments are administered correctly. Offenders must receive their punishments in full. If they refuse to comply, they must be brought back to court. Enforcement must improve. The No. 1 priority of the probation service is—and must be—to protect the public.

There should be nothing soft whatever about community punishment. It is absurd that a community penalty requires an offender's consent, and that requirement will be brought to an end.

I also want to strengthen the credibility of probation supervision. I am looking at a number of issues, including the scope to take away the passports of those on community punishments, making it impossible for them to travel abroad for the duration of their sentence. Recent trials of electronic tagging have proved remarkably successful. In order to build on this, the three pilot areas in Norfolk, Manchester and Berkshire will each be extended to neighbouring counties to cover at least twice the population. I shall also pilot tagging for those on bail as well for fine defaulters, persistent petty offenders and juveniles.

As the whole House knows, there is a clear link between crime, drugs and disorder. Areas with high levels of disorder have four times the level of violent crime as other areas. That is why we shall bring in community safety orders in the crime and disorder Bill to provide tough, effective sanctions against such neighbourhood disorder. Moreover, a new drug testing and treatment order will be a further powerful community punishment to help break the vicious circle of drug dependency and crime.

We are already reviewing the probation service and its relationship to the Prison Service. Those two services should work together more effectively to protect the public through integrated programmes both in prison and in the community. I have also announced a new diploma in probation studies, focusing on the vital role of the probation service in protecting the public and reducing crime. The probation service is a profession in its own right. Probation training should therefore no longer be linked to social work education.

The use of the fine has declined in recent years, despite its good record on discouraging reoffending. Concerns about current enforcement procedures are being addressed by a working group led by the Lord Chancellor's Department. We will consider any changes that might be necessary to ensure that the fine retains its proper place in the courts' sentencing armoury.

We shall also do more to help victims of crime. The Prime Minister announced an extra £1 million a year for Victim Support, making the total £13 million. We are reviewing ways of protecting victims and vulnerable witnesses from defendants who try to bully them into silence.

As I said, the present high levels of crime and disorder will take time to reverse. We are making a start by tackling crime at its roots. We must intervene early to change the behaviour of young offenders. We shall make it clear that the aim of the youth justice system is to protect the public and reduce reoffending. A national network of youth offender teams will implement much tougher regimes of community interventions. A new national board for youth justice will oversee change.

The whole House knows that crime breeds when individuals are left without a stake in society. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor's welfare-to-work programme for the young and long-term unemployed should reduce both the temptation and the opportunity for crime. Getting a job is the best thing that any ex-offender can do. I am therefore pleased to announce that all young people leaving prison will have direct access to our new deal for the young unemployed. After an initial gateway period starting immediately they leave prison, during which they will receive intensive job search assistance, ex-offenders will be guaranteed a place on one of the four new deal options.

In the 18 years since 1979, crime has doubled, yet the number of criminals convicted by the courts has dropped by a third. Such a record of failure cannot easily be reversed. This afternoon, however, I have outlined the first steps towards building a criminal justice system which the public have a right to expect—a system that is fair, swift and effective in tackling crime and disorder. I commend the proposals to the House.

Dr. Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire)

I thank the Home Secretary for his courtesy in letting me have an advance look at his statement. It is a long statement, full of detailed proposals and, in the time available, he will understand if I do not touch on all the points that he raised, not least because I do not want overly to burden the House. I assure him, however, that when he produces a Bill, we shall examine it in great detail.

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's acceptance of large parts of Conservative Government policy. May I tell him, as he would not have been able to see, that, judging from the expression on the faces of many hon. Members behind him, his proposals will get a warmer reception on the Opposition Benches.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the crime rate rose faster in each decade between the end of the second world war and 1979 than in the past 18 years? Will he publish the appropriate figures? Does he also agree that the crime rate has dropped by 10 per cent. over the past four years, reversing a trend of 40 years under both Governments? Does he recognise that a reduction of about half a million crimes a year means millions fewer victims? Why can he not welcome that?

Is the Secretary of State aware that the last international crime survey in 1992 covering 20 countries found that there was less chance of being murdered or violently or sexually assaulted in Britain than in many other western countries? Why did he not refer to the survey of 18 OECD countries in 1993–95, which showed that England and Wales had the largest fall in recorded crime?

Although I welcome much of what the right hon. Gentleman has announced, is he aware that the public will be disappointed that he is taking such a relaxed and disinterested stance on house burglary? Why does he not recognise that burglary is an invasion of privacy and possessions and frequently a destroyer of peace of mind and quality of life?

Why does the Secretary of State not think that burglars who commit three offences should not be given a minimum sentence of three years, or is his criminal policy simply being dictated by the Treasury? Instead of dithering, reviewing and contemplating, will he now commit to introducing that sensible measure on the sentencing of repeat burglars by 1999, as we were committed to do?

Even on tagging, the right hon. Gentleman equivocates. What has caused him to accept the principle of tagging, when the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), a Front-Bench Labour spokesman on the Criminal Justice Bill, said in Standing Committee A on 18 December 1990: Electronic monitoring is a dangerous and irrelevant concept. It is wrong in principle … It has enormous implications for civil liberties"—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 18 December 1990; c. 274.] Given Labour Members' objection "in principle" to tagging, why should the House now believe the Secretary of State's latest plans? Is this just another Labour policy likely to be jettisoned?

Speaking of jettisoning principles, does the right hon. Gentleman recall the Prime Minister describing secure training orders as "a sham"? Whom are we to believe? Who is trying to make the public feel good, without being willing to act in the public interest?

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that I welcome his new commitment to tougher sentences for violent and sexual offences? Is he aware that we will also support him as he advances our proposals for repeat drug offenders?

In 1995, the right hon. Gentleman called our proposals a bizarre mixture of complacency and desperation". Is he aware that his hon. Friend the present Minister of State claimed in 1996 that they were "a farce"? Is he also aware that we welcome the Government's conversion to the public interest, which we have long promoted, but that we shall closely monitor his application?

Does the Secretary of State accept that we will support any new, useful attempts to tackle delay, and that it was the previous Government who introduced custody time limits and set up the Narey inquiry, on which he is to act?

Parts of today's statement will give some encouragement to the public. However, does the right hon. Gentleman recognise also that it will be widely welcomed by burglars, from whom a threat has been lifted? Does he realise that he may soon be deemed partially responsible by the victims of burglars, whose experience of that crime the right hon. Gentleman refuses to take seriously?

Mr. Straw

The right hon. Gentleman shows the same levels of competence in dealing with this statement as he demonstrated as chairman of the Conservative party in taking it to its greatest defeat this century. He talked about the reception given to our proposals. The proposals that I announced today are based on our manifesto, which was overwhelmingly endorsed by the British people—not least because of its law and order measures.

The right hon. Gentleman asked several questions, and I shall do my best to answer them. He made some ridiculous claims about the provisions of section 4 of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 relating to repeat burglars. He implied that his Administration were committed to bringing that section into force by October 1999. They did nothing of the kind—indeed, the commitment went backwards.

In April 1996, in the White Paper "Protecting the Public", the Government gave, as "an example" of how their plans might be achieved, taking account of … the need to provide additional prison places and the resource implications"— exactly what I said—that the proposals for minimum sentences for domestic burglars might be introduced "in October 1999". However, those provisions would not have had any effect until 2001.

By March 1997, the Government's commitment had been reduced even more. I have the official Home Office press statement that was issued when the Crime (Sentences) Bill received Royal Assent on 21 March 1997. It states: Notes for editors. None of the provisions of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 have immediate effect. No dates have yet been set for implementation. The right hon. Gentleman skips about with a series of figures, trying to suggest that the public's understanding of the record of the previous Administration from 1979 regarding the doubling of crime and the great increase in victimisation is somehow wrong. He reminded me of Pol Pot—trying to set year zero at the date that suited him. I shall be delighted to publish all the figures to which the right hon. Gentleman referred—many are already in the Library, and others I published when I was in opposition.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the OECD report. That report shows that, of 16 western countries, England and Wales had the largest increase in crime between 1987 and 1994. I shall put that report in the Library. There can be no gainsaying the survey published today that shows that the people of England and Wales are more likely to be the victims of burglary, robbery, assault, theft from cars and theft of cars than those in any of the other 11 countries mentioned.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman referred to delays. I am very glad that he approves of our plans to reduce delays in courts. However, he did not acknowledge—and he should—that, despite the fact that the number of people convicted by the courts has fallen by a third in the past 18 years, thanks to the incompetence of the previous Administration, delays have worsened by five weeks. It took nine weeks to get a case to court in 1984, and it now takes 14 weeks. That is scandalous.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Many of us are appalled by the overcrowding in prisons, and are therefore attracted by the arguments of the Offenders Tag Association. Against the background of the very constructive letter written to me on this subject by the Minister responsible for prisons, will my right hon. Friend comment on the view that, in Manchester, Reading and Norfolk, probation service care is received only spasmodically and surreptitiously, and that through-care is important? What is the Government's policy in relation to tagging in the field of back-end release—that is, curtailing the sentences of first-time offenders under the supervision of the night curfew?

Mr. Straw

We have no proposals on my hon. Friend's last point at present, but we are certainly ready to consider proposals.

My hon. Friend asks about the practice of tagging. The analysis of the experiments in the three pilot areas shows that they are 80 per cent. successful and, whatever original concerns there may have been about tagging, there is no question—I am happy to say this—but that they have proved more successful than many expected and can make community punishments much tougher and more effective.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Does the Home Secretary realise that we will welcome measures to reduce the delay in court procedures and to strengthen community sentences, including tagging where that can be part of an effective programme for the offender concerned? But how many additional prison places will be required for the sentencing proposals to which the right hon. Gentleman has committed himself, and do the figures that he will produce assume that one in five criminals will be deterred by the existence of mandatory sentences, given that there is no objective basis for that assumption which has been made by the Home Office since the time of the previous Government?

Is the right hon. Gentleman now beginning to regret joining in the hue and cry for longer prison sentences, which was led by the previous Home Secretary, which was based on no commitment of resources? There were no prison places for all these people and were the 20 new prisons to be built, that would be at the expense of the policing and crime prevention which saves victims from suffering crimes in the first place.

Mr. Straw

The detailed answers to the questions which the right hon. Gentleman asks were given in "The Audit of the Prison Service" and its annexe published last Friday by me and placed in the Library of the House. It contains detailed analysis of the methodology used by the research and statistics section of the Home Office to make its assessment of the rise in the prison population. I speak from memory, but I do not think that he will find included in that the rather arbitrary assumption—he is quite right—that one in five prisoners would somehow be deterred by some of the provisions.

The effects during the next few years of the provisions that I have announced to implement sections 2 and 3 of the Crime (Sentences) Act are limited, because those offenders are likely to expect custodial sentences in any event. The issue is how long those sentences should be and, in respect of serious violent and sexual offenders, if they are released from their life sentence whether they should be subject to life licence.

The right hon. Gentleman makes the general point about the hue and cry in favour of longer prison sentences. I and my party are in favour of the appropriate sentence. We disagreed about this in opposition and we may still disagree, but it is fair and appropriate that if sexual and violent offenders offend a second time, they should be subject to an automatic life sentence, bearing in mind the fact that the tariff will be set by the trial judge and the release date by the Parole Board. For traffickers in class A drugs, a seven-year minimum sentence is, in normal circumstances, appropriate.

Mr. Lawrence Cunliffe (Leigh)

First, I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement and I assure him that Labour Members, and certainly the British people, will receive it with acclamation. Having said that, let me be more specific in my question. Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House that his measures to tackle disorder and anti-social crime, especially in industrial areas, will be fairly specific? Can he assure me that his measures will, in the main, resolve most of the torment and misery that have been inflicted on our neighbourhood communities by such crime?

Mr. Straw

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he says. Like him, I believe that the proposals will be widely welcomed throughout the country. While I was making my statement, there was muttering from the Opposition Benches to the effect that all the proposals had been invented by the Conservative party when in government. I wish that they had. Had the Conservative Government accepted our proposals on, for example, youth justice and disorder instead of dismissing them as irrelevant and unnecessary, persistent young offenders would now be dealt with and the misery that our voters suffer in estate after estate would have been ended.

The proposals that we will bring forward in the crime and disorder Bill, in respect of both youth justice and disorder, will be specific, and I am in no doubt that, once they have been brought into force, they will help to relieve the terrible burden that many of our communities now suffer as a result of such disorder.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald)

Does the Home Secretary acknowledge that the fall in crime over four consecutive years is real? If so, will he congratulate the former Home Secretary? If not, will he tell the House what alternative measures he proposes to adopt? I listened carefully to him. Will he confirm that he does not intend to implement our "honesty in sentencing" proposals? If that is so, what will be the effect on the prison population? Will there be a decrease?

Will the Home Secretary give the British people an assurance that the question of resources will not prevent the Government from keeping in prison those whom the courts judge deserve a custodial sentence, regardless of the fact that that may lead to an increase in the numbers in prison? Will he make sure that there is an adequate prison building programme under the private finance initiative to deal with that increase?

Mr. Straw

I am not sure why the right hon. Lady invites me to congratulate her right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) on any issue, given that such words of approbation never passed her lips.

I made it clear when the crime figures were published that I was pleased that recorded crime was going down rather than up. However, the previous Government must be judged on their overall record. Year zero was not 1992: it was 1979. The facts are reflected in the defeat that the Conservatives suffered at the election, not least as a result of their complacency on law and order. The public did not believe the complacent words that they heard from Ministers, because they collided with their own, very different, experience.

The right hon. Lady is right that we are not implementing those sections embedded in the Crime (Sentences) Act that deal with the Conservatives' "honesty in sentencing" proposals. I made that clear when we were in opposition. She asked me about the effect on prison numbers. The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), sitting two along from her, made it clear, as did the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe, that the "honesty in sentencing" proposals were supposed to have a neutral effect on the prison population. They said that in their White Paper, and the right hon. and learned Gentleman said it on Second Reading. Those proposals were so immensely complicated that they had to be changed again and again.

I share the view of the Lord Chief Justice. I made it clear two years ago that the public and victims should be much clearer about the effect of a sentence. That can be done in a much simpler way under the proposals that I have announced.

The right hon. Lady said time and again when she was in government that any public service must be paid for. The Government stand ready to meet the increased demand on prison places. For that reason, I announced last Friday additional spending on the prison population of £43 million, and I have already agreed plans to build two further new prisons, which were in train under the previous Administration.

Ann Keen (Brentford and Isleworth)

May I first comment on what the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Dr. Mawhinney) said? My colleagues were quiet while we were listening to the Home Secretary. We do not engage in anti-social behaviour: we are mature Members of Parliament.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the initiative to help young people who leave prison to enter the jobs market, which is crucial to crime prevention. Does the survey refer to confidence in the British police?

Mr. Straw

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her remarks. Indeed, the survey refers to confidence in the British police. Although confidence in the criminal justice system has fallen, confidence in the police remains high, both historically and by international standards.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

The House will welcome any effective steps that the Home Secretary takes to reduce the delay in matters coming to trial. Until we see the right hon. Gentleman's response to the Narey report, it will be difficult for us to judge how effective his proposals are likely to be. Does he accept, however, that he could take at least two steps? First, he could appoint more full-time or part-time stipendiary magistrates. Secondly—this was canvassed in the Narey inquiry—he could contemplate a reduction in the number and categories of cases that are tried before a jury in the Crown court.

May I revert to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe)? Does the Home Secretary accept that there will be widespread disappointment about his departure from the proposition that sentences should mean what they say? That is what is meant by the phrase "honesty in sentencing". Is the right hon. Gentleman's objection to that policy one of principle, or is it based on his fear that it will lead to an increase in the prison population for which there is no Treasury cover?

Mr. Straw

I am grateful for what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said about our proposals in respect of delay. He made two suggestions. Increased use of stipendiary magistrates—which was indeed canvassed in the Narey inquiry—is principally a matter for the Lord Chancellor, but we are considering it. The right hon. and learned Gentleman also suggested a reduction in the number and categorisation of cases. That, too, is a sensible proposal, to which we are giving further thought.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman was wrong to suggest that I had said that we were not proceeding with proposals to make sentences mean what they say. One of our objections to the Conservatives' version of honesty in sentencing is that we would have ended up with very confused sentencing. The Conservatives sought to introduce a new system in which two years would mean two years, but—as the Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) could tell the House at length— our consideration in Committee established that the reality would be nothing like that. There would be discounts for this, and premiums for that.

It would be a waste of time and effort to introduce such a system; it would be far better to build on the existing system—I believe that the right hon. and learned Gentleman played a part in its introduction when producing the Criminal Justice Act 1991—and say, by way of practice direction, that the courts should spell out exactly what a sentence means. That is what we intend to do.

Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)

I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on his excellent statement. His proposals will be warmly welcomed by the electorate, especially on housing estates that suffer greatly from crime—such as the one in Leicester that he visited recently.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important not just to have more effectiveness and consistency in sentencing, but to monitor that effectiveness and consistency? It is no longer good enough merely to have guidelines; we need to ensure that those guidelines are followed properly.

Mr. Straw

I agree with my hon. Friend and thank him for what he has said. As a great deal of evidence from the Home Office and the Prison Reform Trust showed recently, considerable and rather inexplicable data show substantial inconsistency between courts in respect of similar offences and offenders. That is something which the whole system—including the Home Office—needs to address.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

I assure the Home Secretary that I would not dream of comparing him to Pol Pot. Following his performance this afternoon, it would be infinitely more appropriate to compare him to St. Paul on the way to Damascus.

I warmly welcome the bulk of the policies that the Home Secretary has announced and his apparent conversion to policies that my colleagues and I have espoused in the Home Office during the past three years. He said, however, that he was going to implement the important Narey report. Can he tell us whether there are any significant threads in this seamless robe that he intends to unravel—any proposals that he intends not to implement?

Mr. Straw

As far as I know, we are implementing nearly all the Narey report, consistent with what I told the House when the report came before us in February. There is already a detailed answer in the Vote Office—I would detain the House for probably half an hour if I read it out—which gives further information about each recommendation, and I think that it will have the right hon. Gentleman's approval.

Ms Christine Russell (City of Chester)

As one who has been a magistrate for the past 17 years, I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the measures that he has outlined. I must say that I listened with amazement to what the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Dr. Mawhinney) had to say. From my 17 years personal experience of such service, particularly in youth courts, I know that the current system is costly and not very effective. More than anything else it is slow. It is not at all unknown for a young offender who has been arrested at Christmas not to arrive in court until the summer holidays. Exactly what measures does my right hon. Friend have in mind for speeding up the system in the youth courts?

Mr. Straw

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her remarks. As she knows, the policies that I have announced were partly informed by an important conference that was held in Chester, in her constituency, last August. At that conference, she and many other colleagues brought to my attention many of the serious defects in the current system of youth justice as it operated under the previous Administration.

Our crime and disorder Bill will contain a series of proposals to speed up the way in which the youth justice and adult justice systems operate. It will do that by setting much clearer and enforceable time limits on the various stages, by implementing the proposals in the Narey report and, for example, in respect of persistent young offenders, by including a definition of such offenders and by ensuring that, having been identified, they are fast-tracked through the courts.

One specific change that we shall make will be to reverse the judgment in R. v. Khan, which has the perverse effect of requiring courts to delay proceedings in respect of a case that is ready first in time until all the other cases are ready. That is one of the reasons for the ludicrous situation that the worse the crimes an offender commits and the more often they are committed, the longer it takes to get him or her to court.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking)

The Home Secretary has rightly said that he is concerned about delays, which are a big problem in our courts. I should like to make four, I hope helpful, suggestions from the point of view of somebody at the sharp end. The Home Secretary will know that I have more criminal judicial experience as a stipendiary and as a recorder than many others.

There are three problems at magistrates court level. The first is the ability of defendants to get more and more adjournments without good reason. The second is the delay involved as a result of introducing the right to advance information and the Crown Prosecution Service not producing it for weeks. The third is that after the mode of trial is determined, the current requirement by the Crown Prosecution Service is for a gap of six weeks before it serves papers. Those three matters need to be looked at.

Finally, the Home Secretary knows, as we all know, that it is ludicrous that some petty theft and petty assault cases are currently going to the Crown court at defendants' election at a cost of £8,000 a day. That clogs up the Crown court system immensely. In addition to what I have said, there is a powerful argument for restricting the right to a Crown court trial and, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) said, for the appointment of many more metropolitan "stipes". There is plenty of research material in the Lord Chancellor's Department, with which I hope the Home Secretary will liaise carefully, to show that "stipes" get through business very quickly. I hope that those suggestions are slightly helpful.

Mr. Straw

They are indeed, and I shall deal briefly with each of them. There has been a substantial increase in the number and average length of adjournments. I think that they have been encouraged by perverse incentives in the legal aid system. It is also noteworthy that stipendiaries deal more briskly with requests for adjournments than some lay magistrates, and I am sure that matter will be taken on board by the Lord Chancellor's Department.

The hon. Gentleman is right about advance disclosure. In my judgment, those rules, too, have sometimes been abused by legally aided solicitors who try to milk the system. There are inefficiencies in the mode of trial system, including some by the Crown Prosecution Service. They are being addressed by the review which my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General has established and which is being conducted by Sir lain Glidewell.

The hon. Gentleman invited me to agree to one of the proposals of the Narey report that was not accepted at the time either by the previous Government or by my party—a proposal for a restriction on the right to elect for trial. My own view, which was also the previous Government's view, was that we should wait to see how the implementation of section 49 of the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996, on plea before venue, worked out before revisiting that matter. Two thirds of the transfers of cases from magistrates courts to Crown courts are made not by election but by decision made by magistrates before election.

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

May I assure my right hon. Friend that his statement will receive a warm welcome in my constituency, especially in King's Lynn? The remarks made to me since my election lead me to believe that that applies in particular to the clarity that my right hon. Friend brings to his intention to deliver on our promises to tackle the problems of disorder and anti-social behaviour. Can he reassure the House that in doing that, he will take account of the real difficulty in bringing prosecutions and other actions in that connection, because of the major problems involved in persuading witnesses to give evidence when they can so readily be threatened by those among whom they live?

Mr. Straw

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. From what he has told me, I know about the serious problems that exist even in a relatively peaceful town such as King's Lynn. I know that his constituents have encountered those problems and are looking forward to the changes that I have announced today.

Witness intimidation is serious and is getting worse. We shall set up a review to consider changes in the law and in practice to protect witnesses better. My hon. Friend has drawn our attention to a major problem, which we all have to tackle carefully.

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester)

Looking at Government policies as a whole, what would the Home Secretary consider a measure of success in being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime? Would it be fewer people in prison or more people in prison? If more, how many new prisons does the right hon. Gentleman expect to be required for his millennium project?

As for youth sentencing, does the Home Secretary intend to provide more boot camps such as the one in Colchester, bearing in mind the fact that the average cost per inmate per year is £31,500, as opposed to £17,500 in a typical institution? My question is: is it money or is it sentencing that the right hon. Gentleman is after?

Hon. Members

Guilty or not guilty?

Mr. Straw

With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, I have to tell him that I do not see issues of law and order in quite such an eccentric way. My purpose, as I told the House earlier, is to secure better safety for the public. It is on that outcome that we shall be judged. The number of people who end up in prison is a function of how many commit crimes and how many are caught, and of entirely independent decisions made by magistrates and judges. I am not arguing with those decisions. I should like a world in which fewer people appeared before the courts who needed to be sent to prison—and I should like to be judged on that, too.

The hon. Gentleman asked for figures. Future projections of the prison population can be found in "The Audit of the Prison Service", which I laid before the House last Friday. I should be happy to send him an autographed copy, if that would assist his reading.

The hon. Gentleman also asked me about the young offenders camp, the military prison at Colchester. As we made clear at the first Question Time that I took, we have accepted the idea that the experiment ought to run for a year. It would be absurd to abandon it halfway through, and would waste money without producing any information. We shall assess it after it has run for a year.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. Having in the past few weeks spent an evening on patrol with officers from the Edlington police in Don Valley, I am sure that they will welcome what he has said about consistent sentencing policy and stiff penalties for those who commit second offences of a violent or sexual nature.

What emerged from that evening was the fear among my constituents of people who have stolen from their homes, yet who then come out into the streets and walk around bold as brass, as if they had got away with it. The survey clearly shows a lack of confidence in measures such as community safety orders and other community punishments. In moving towards community punishments, which have a vital role, how can we ensure that victims feel confident that they would be best served if such punishments were imposed?

Mr. Straw

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her remarks. The purpose of community safety orders is to provide swift and effective ways of securing injunctions against those who commit persistent disorder and the kind of intimidation that she describes, who are not dealt with effectively by magistrates or Crown courts at the moment. The establishment of community safety orders, with more intensive policing of the kind she has described and other provisions of the kind I have announced this afternoon—including, for example, parental responsibility orders, which may be attached to community safety orders—should enable law-abiding people and the police to regain control of their areas. Those people who try to wreck the peace and quiet of those areas will be put where they belong if they continue to do so—in prison.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford)

While joining my right hon. and hon. Friends in welcoming the vast tracts of the Home Secretary's statement which build on the policies implemented by the previous Government, may I urge him a few more feet down the right road? When will he finish his review on mandatory minimum sentences? Will he implement mandatory minimum sentences for repeat burglars? Is he aware that, if he cannot give a completion date for the review, many will regard his tough talk—regrettably—as a mere sham?

Mr. Straw

The position that I have announced today is the same as that announced by the previous Government in their White Paper, presented to the House in April 1996, which said: The Government's objective is to implement the various proposals, taking account of the Parliamentary timetable, the need to provide additional prison places and the resource implications. It is a question not of a review, but of whether it is appropriate to take action, bearing in mind those considerations.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

Does my right hon. Friend realise that, as the fear of crime and of anti-social behaviour is, regrettably, one of the worst problems in this country in the 1990s, his statement will be very much welcomed? He also knows that a large proportion of crime is drug related. How can we find out the true percentage of crimes which are drug related? What steps can we take to tackle the root causes and stop the wide misuse of drugs, which is growing throughout the country?

Mr. Straw

Drugs lie behind a large amount of crime—not just drug crime specifically, but burglary and theft. The Home Office has conducted a study to try to ascertain the precise relationship between drug and alcohol abuse and those who commit crimes. The preliminary results are alarming and will be published in due course. We are taking other active steps to strengthen the arrangements which the previous Government commendably set in place to improve co-ordination in the fight against crime. A UK drug director will shortly be appointed and, as I have announced this afternoon, we intend that a drug treatment and testing order should be available to the courts as a community punishment to take account and make use of mandatory drug testing.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

May I congratulate the Home Secretary on many of his familiar proposals? Could he say more about the removal of passports from young offenders? There can be few things more distressing to victims of crime and others than to read in a newspaper that a young thug or young offender on probation has been taken on safari to Africa or a cruise in Egypt. Taking away his passport would stop such schemes. Will he look also at domestic probation "punishments" with particular reference to an incident in which a lad was taken to Butlin's for two weeks with a probation officer—during which time the young offender was stealing from other residents' chalets?

Mr. Straw

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his approbation of my proposals, which are familiar because we made them before the election. The proposals were voted for. It is also familiar that our proposals for youth justice and disorder were dismissed by the Conservative party as unnecessary at the time. I am glad that it has made a Damascene conversion.

As for passports, at the moment, those who are subject to community supervision are not supposed to go abroad except in "exceptional and compassionate circumstances", but I have discovered that there are no arrangements for enforcing that. That is why I have asked for urgent work to be put in hand to ensure that when people are subject to such punishments, they literally cannot go abroad without breaking many other laws.

I entirely share the hon. Member's view about the inappropriateness of sending those who are subject not only to treatment but to punishment on what appears to be a pleasure holiday. Nothing has damaged confidence in community punishments more than that and I want an end to it.

Gillian Merron (Lincoln)

I welcome the statement and I know that it will be very much welcomed by my constituents, whom it will show the true determination to act which they believe is long overdue. My experience is that fear of crime is one of the most insidious features of our current daily lives. Many people are kept prisoners in their homes because of it. It is unacceptable that my constituents have to approach me with their fears of constant harassment in their homes, rubbish thrown over the back yard, verbal abuse, shopping bags snatched and, most recently, an elderly gentleman being knocked to the ground and his glasses trodden on.

Does my right hon. Friend feel that we need a comprehensive approach to the conditions in which crime breeds, in an attempt to tackle crime? Is it a comprehensive approach that we need?

Mr. Straw

Yes, it is. My hon. Friend's description of the problems that some of her constituents face underlines the need for a strategy of zero tolerance that tackles disorder as well as crime. A recent Home Office survey showed that, in areas of instability of the sort she described, there is not only more disorder, but a four times greater chance of people being the victims of violent crime. Disorder leads to crime. Both have to be tackled.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

While I welcome much of the Home Secretary's statement—leaving aside his Pauline conversion, which I do not want to go into—to pick up on what has just been said, there appears to be ample evidence that the seeds of delinquency are sown in early childhood. A number of surveys, particularly in the United States, have shown that provision targeted towards those most at risk at a very young age produces substantial knock-on effects 10 years down the road.

The last person to take an interest was the then right hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon when he was Home Secretary, but because that subject does not necessarily enjoy immediate electoral appeal, it is often bypassed. I have always been convinced that a twin-track approach on both those problems will be necessary if the causes of crime are to be tackled. I urge the Home Secretary to consider that and, in particular, whether any money can be made available through a Home Office budget as well as through other services to deal with that issue.

Mr. Straw

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right and makes some important remarks. The evidence from the headstart programme analysis in America shows that effective nursery education is better at deterring offending behaviour later in the teenage years than anything else. That is one reason why we are committed to expanding nursery education. I have no doubt about that. He is also right to say that it is inevitable, perhaps, that Governments of both persuasions have had to go for more short-term solutions because there is a problem of juvenile crime there now that we have to deal with, but I accept what he says.

As for money, that would fall to the Department of Education and Employment and I regret to tell him that, since we are following the previous Administration's public expenditure survey control levels for the next two years, there is no money available for that project.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)

I think that it was the chief constable of Cornwall who said, "If you cure the drug problem, you can halve your crime problem." I am interested in the introduction of the seven-year sentence, but it is the drug traffickers who worry me. Drug dealers will certainly always take the chance of seven years, and the traffickers, who will put up the price, will make them do it even more. I am worried about the trafficking side in the light of my right hon. Friend's statement. Has he anything to say about that?

Mr. Straw

Drug traffickers are among the most evil people in our society. As I have seen as Home Secretary in the past three months, their ruthless ability to break every law in the land, intimidate and commit acts of violence in pursuit of their trade has no limits. It is appalling and such people need the most severe punishment. I can reassure my hon. Friend that the seven-year sentence that I announced today, which will be implemented later this year, is a minimum. The maximum for drug trafficking is, I believe, life.

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

Will the Home Secretary go slightly further than he did in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) in respect of prison places? I ask not least because Lewes prison is in my constituency. I hope that, in the new spirit of co-operation between our parties, he will be able to respond positively. How many new prison places will be required as a consequence of his statement this afternoon? Is the £43 million to deal with existing overcrowding or is it intended also to cover the consequences of the statement?

It is absolutely right that criminals who need to be locked up to protect the public should be in prison, but what steps is the Home Secretary taking to ensure that those who should not be in prison—fine defaulters, for example—are released into the community, providing space for those who should be there?

Mr. Straw

The £43 million that I announced last Friday is to deal with existing overcrowding. We hope that the proposals that I have announced today will come into force quickly, but that will not happen in the next few months, which is the time that that money is intended to cover.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the effect of my proposals on prison places. All the detail is in "The Audit of Prison Service Resources", which was published last Friday. I thought it right to publish it well in advance of this statement so that right hon. and hon. Members would have time to study it beforehand. From recollection, the prison population is estimated to rise to about 68,000—an extra 6,000 places—by early 1999. I should be happy to send the hon. Gentleman a copy of the audit.

The previous Government did a great deal of effective work in reducing the number of fine defaulters who were detained in prison, and we supported them in that. In any one day, there are now usually fewer than 100 prisoners who are there for fine default. I should like to put in place other measures for fine defaulters that we supported in the previous Parliament, but it must also be acknowledged that if people carry on defaulting, they will have to be sent to prison, because there is no ultimate alternative.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. Obviously, justice hinges on catching criminals and convicting them, and a critical issue, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) said, is that of obtaining witnesses and ensuring that they feel secure in giving evidence.

To do that, we must ensure that court facilities are appropriate, so that, for example, witnesses can be separated from offenders and their friends; that is a problem in Derby, and I should welcome my right hon. Friend's comments on it. Local justice is also important. Having to travel significant distances to court at inconvenient times of day is a disincentive to witnesses.

A critical issue in Derbyshire is the inequity of resources between it and the neighbouring constabularies. In Derbyshire, 20 per cent. more people have to be covered by a typical officer than in neighbouring counties.

Mr. Straw

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the problem of witness intimidation. All Crown courts are now covered by witness services, but many magistrates courts are not. Some magistrates courts are, however, taking steps properly to separate prosecution from defence witnesses. For example, at Redditch there is a locally funded witness service that has been doing effective work. I hope that that example can be followed elsewhere.

The police grant is a new, mystical science which produces winners and losers. It is probably a better way of allocating resources than the system that went before, but, since resources are limited and will remain so under this Administration, for every winner under the police grant system there will be some losers, and I cannot but apologise for that.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. We must now bring the statement to a close.