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Wednesday, 7 February, 2001, 12:32 GMT
Crime: Politicians quizzed

Conservative Shadow Home Secretary Ann Widdecombe and Lib Dem Home Affairs spokesman Simon Hughes answered your questions on crime.


Click here to read the Ann Widdecombe interview.


Simon Hughes interview:

To watch coverage of the Simon Hughes forum, select the link below:

  56k  


Nick Evans, Birmingham, UK
The growth of "yob culture" has been highlighted recently by the debate surrounding curfews. Are curfews sufficient to tackle this problem or should parents who fail in their duty of care and allow their children to go out and behave in such ways be targeted?


Simon Hughes:

The short answer is that it is better to concentrate on the parents and children who offend rather than a community where there are lots of offenders. This month, February, we are about to have the debates in the committee looking at the Bill on the Government's proposals for these very things. I take a view that if curfews hadn't worked for under-11s then they are not likely to work for under-16s. When put to a local pupil of a secondary school in my south London constituency, he said it was like punishing all the class when just a few people misbehave. It also gives a place a bad name - it suddenly means there are no-go estates and no-go areas.

The scheme is also impractical. Firstly, how do you distinguish between a 15 and 16 year-old at midnight in the dark if you are a police officer? Secondly, there are perfectly legitimate activities for 15 year-olds to carry out - coming home from sport or visiting relatives etc. which are perfectly legitimate at that age.


Mark M. Newdick, USA:
I do not believe that sending young offenders to jail is the answer - they will just pick up bad habits - but I do think that boot-camps for these kids would be effective. Why don't we do something like this in the UK?


Simon Hughes:

I have in the last few days been talking to prison governors and visiting prisons, particularly in the North of England, and there are a lot people who get sentenced to short periods inside and there is no time to give them any work - you literally put them in and keep them there and then throw them out again. The prison service can't cope in respect of giving them education, they can't give them training, they can't give them courses to deal with their problems and so they re-offend on a regular basis. So short sentences are often a soft option whereas a community sentence for a longer period would be a much more effective option.

So we ought not to think that a short sharp shock works. Now the boot-camp alternative as such is not one that has ever been appealing. But there are alternatives that are more appealing. Something like voluntary national service - doing something that gives you a regime and discipline. Maybe we ought to offer more offending youngsters a bit of excitement with discipline rather than give them something unexciting. So yes, energetic alternatives to being locked in a cell all the time strike me as worthwhile. But I don't think the boot-camp as suggested is, in the long-term, more effective than other things.


Questioner from Walsall:
Why isn't more done by politicians to ensure that children are taught the difference between basic right and wrong. It would make them less susceptible to involvement in criminal activity.


Simon Hughes:

Children should be taught this - parents should teach it and schools should teach it. There is now provision in the National Curriculum for them to be taught that - I accept that it doesn't always work but it should be taught. One of the things we are getting better at as a society is knowing what the basic rights and wrongs are. France and America have written constitutions - they have set out duties and rights - we haven't had this in our country because we haven't had a written constitution.

I think there is a role for the politicians without being pious, for the teachers being clear and for the faith leaders who often are very good and I hope too will continue to be firm and clear about these things instead of being equivocal and rather wimpish.


Denise Leedham, Bognor Regis, West Sussex, UK:
Will there ever be an effective police force and respect for law and order as once was quite a few years ago, and will elderly people once again be free to feel safe in their homes and outside?


Simon Hughes:

I think we could have an effective police force and the public could have much greater confidence in the police. We ought to raise the number of police significantly - that would help. We ought to have somebody advising the politicians how many police we need as well as how they should be efficient and that would give greater reassurance. The very fact that the moment the police do not have confidence in themselves doesn't give the public confidence.

It is the culture of violence is what we have to deal with - that is the real evil. People very readily turn to violence - a row in the street develops into violence, two cars jostle to get into a lane and you get road rage, a footballer on a pitch missing a tackle and you get a punch-up etc. It needs the video producers, the film producers, the television makers, the computer game producers all to play their part in this to have a less violent culture that is acceptable - we could do but it will take a big effort.


Chris Millbank, London, UK:
I am increasingly concerned that politicians of all parties seem to think that the only way to cut crime is to introduce ever more draconian laws which have the direct effect of restricting or reducing the civil rights of all law-abiding people in this country. I have in mind the latest idea of Jack Straw's to increase police powers by allowing them to retain on file forever all DNA samples taken even if the person was never actually charged or was charged but acquitted.

Do politicians understand that we elect them to solve the crime problem without turning the country into a police state?


Simon Hughes:

I understand that. I think you should never give more power to the state unless it is really necessary. The presumption should be that the individual freedom and the state has minimum power. The Labour Government have been very disappointing in that they have gone down a surprisingly illiberal road in some respects. There is a big issue about whether you keep DNA samples - we have never had a national debate it - I think it is, without a debate and a national agreement, taking a liberty too far and I hope we don't do it.

I hope the electorate will see the Labour and Tory party painting themselves into a corner and be able to give us therefore the benefit of being the progressive and intelligent alternative.


Paolo, Manchester, England:
Police officers are under ever increasing pressures and constraints. They do not have the time or resources to investigate from the outset what is required to be a burden of proof. Surely Officers need to be more specialised, trained and financially renumerated?


Simon Hughes:

I think we are going to have a different sort of police force in twenty or thirty years time. The vision we have is that people want a police service locally in their community and our party aim is to persuade government or in government after the election to deliver for every community an officer linked to that community.

However, you also need to be intelligent - a lot of crime is international much more than before - you need effective European agencies to deal with criminals. I think we need stronger police services - London has one but the North West doesn't have one. The police need to be paid well, we need to keep them on for longer and we need to realise that high technology and intelligent targeted work is the thing to do.


Jenny Karling, London
Isn't it time to consider arming police officers, especially in areas where there has been a sharp rise in gun crime like North London? It seems unfair that the royal family and some ministers have armed guards and yet out on the streets, a police officer on the beat has no protection at all. Will it take more police officers to be killed before this move is even considered?


Simon Hughes:

I resist and oppose the idea that we should allow the police generally to be armed. When it is done it should only be done with the police authority's knowledge and in exceptional cases. The reason we need to be very careful going down this road is because we actually have very little armed weapon crime in this country. America have much higher gun crime than we do. I don't think it helps to have more guns around. Of course the police need to be protected and when they need to be armed then they should be when the circumstances call for it.


Ann Widdecombe interview

To watch coverage of the Anne Widdicombe forum, select the link below:

  56k  



Nick Evans, Birmingham, UK:

The growth of "yob culture" has been highlighted recently by the debate surrounding curfews. Are curfews sufficient to tackle this problem or should parents who fail in their duty of care and allow their children to go out and behave in such ways be targeted?


Ann Widdecombe:

The answer first of all to curfews is no they are not effective. Jack Straw introduced child curfew orders - they have been available for 28 months and there has been a single one implemented. He is now trying to impose curfews at a greater age - 16 years and downwards - but all the old practical problems remain. How do you actually enforce a curfew order when you have got as few police as we have? So, no they are not the answer.

As far as targeting parents goes, it is all very well to try to target the parents of young children to try to get them to do things in different ways, but it is very difficult satisfactorily to punish parents who won't keep control of their children. Do you fine them? If so, a lot of them are on social security - how are they going to pay? Do you actually punish them? If you put them in prison, what is going to happen to the children? These things are easy to say but when you start thinking it through it is more difficult.

What I think we should do with the yob culture is that we should take 12 to 15 year-olds - which is where most of the trouble starts - out of the neighbourhoods in which they are causing the problem and into secure training. We would make the secure training appropriate to the young person and then having done that - which is a fairly sizeable stick - you send out the message to that person's peer group that you don't come back laughing from the courts but you can get taken away. Having then introduced that quite sizeable stick, I think you then give a big carrot. You then say, if you complete this training and you reach the targets and stay out of trouble for two years then, unless the crime was very serious, we just wipe the slate clean and you start your adult life with no convictions. This seems to me to be the way to tackle the problem.


Mark M. Newdick, USA:

I do not believe that sending young offenders to jail is the answer - they will just pick up bad habits, but I do think that boot-camps for these kids would be effective. Why don't we do something like this in the UK?


Ann Widdecombe:

We had an extremely successful scheme - we didn't call it a boot camp - in Cheshire. We believe that we had an equally successful one in Colchester. When this government came in, having decried what they described as our boot-camp initiative, they just abolished the one in Colchester without bothering to assess or research the results, but they themselves have been compelled to keep the one in Cheshire because it has been so successful. So the answer is they are successful but they are for a particular age group. My secure training initiative is aimed at a much younger age group by trying to tackle behaviour and education in one.


Questioner, Walsall:

Why isn't more done by politicians to ensure that children are taught the difference between basic right and wrong. It would make them less susceptible to involvement in criminal activity.


Ann Widdecombe:

Hear, hear, hear! The problem is where is the teaching done? Most of it is done in the home. One of the problems that we have got at the moment is that particularly, but not exclusively, on big inner-city estates, you have got the second and third generation of kids who have never seen the pattern of a modestly successful lifestyle around them, who doesn't know what a stable male role model does, hasn't got a father or has got a series of men called uncle. They are also very unlikely now to have male teachers in primary schools and very often the first stable male role model those kids see - heartbreakingly - is the prison officer.

Now of course that correspondent is right. It is teaching right and wrong, teaching that there are absolute standards and that it isn't all a matter of personal choice and subjectivity- that matters but what goes on in the home probably matters even more.


Denise Leedham, Bognor Regis, UK:

Will there ever be an effective police force and respect for law and order as once was quite a few years ago, and will elderly people once again be free to feel safe in their homes and outside?


Ann Widdecombe:

That is my aim and my ambition. I believe that a combination of an adequate sized police force and being able to police - not pen push in stations - and to get on the frontline against crime as well as the sort of measures towards young people that I have outlined, with honesty in sentencing and victim-oriented justice, I think will start again to create that sort of society. But it is going to take time and the one thing I have never done as a politician is say "I have this wand up my sleeve" - I haven't - but I do share that aim and I do have some solid proposals as to how we start to get them.


Chris Millbank, London, UK:

I am increasingly concerned that politicians of all parties seem to think that the only way to cut crime is to introduce ever more draconian laws which have the direct effect of restricting or reducing the civil rights of all law-abiding people in this country. I have in mind the latest idea of Jack Straw to increase police powers by allowing them to retain on file forever all DNA samples taken even if the person was never actually charged or was charged but acquitted.

Do politicians understand that we elect them to solve the crime problem without turning the country into a police state?



Ann Widdecombe interview:

Yes I do and that is why we opposed the restriction of the right to trial by jury. We said no - this is a civil right. That is why also we have raised very serious questions over the retention of DNA for persons who have not been convicted. We introduced the retention of DNA for the convicted population and I believe that to be right. This government has introduced it for the arrested population and I believe that to be right too but the question mark arises whether you should, without consent - with consent I think is a different matter - hold onto the DNA of people who have never been convicted of a crime. Now that debate will be had as this Bill goes through and I have already flagged up these concerns.


Paolo Dale, Manchester, England:

Police officers are under ever increasing pressures and constraints. They do not have the time or resources to investigate from the outset what is required to be a burden of proof. Surely Officers need to be more specialised, trained and financially remunerated?


Ann Widdecombe:

I don't think it is a question that they are inadequately trained, it is question that they inadequately manned at the moment. You therefore have a situation in which the police are continually prioritising and can't always give the attention that they would wish to give, and certainly the victim would wish them to give, to particular individual complaints.

What I am saying is that not only do you get the numbers back up but you get their time more wisely dispersed - not for example processing somebody for five hours through custody which is a complete waste of time etc. If you can actually get them policing then you will once again get a coincidence of their priorities and the public's priorities which at the moment are not always seen to be the same.


Kirk, UK:

What exactly are the Conservatives going to do with the police and crime? Will they be increasing pay for the police? Will they ignore the recommendations from the Macpherson report? Will they put a policeman/woman on every street corner?


Ann Widdecombe:

We can't promise a policeman/woman on every street - and if I said that I would be a liar - it can't be done and we are not promising that. What we are promising is a vast increase in the visibility of policing, which is to say not only should there be more policemen but they also must not be stuck in the police station doing paperwork - they must be out there and visible. So there will be a huge increase in visible policing and a really measurable increase but not a policeman/woman on every street corner.


Jenny Karling, London:

Isn't it time to consider arming police officers, especially in areas where there has been a sharp rise in gun crime like North London? It seems unfair that the royal family and some ministers have armed guards and yet out on the streets, a police officer on the beat has no protection at all. Will it take more police officers to be killed before this move is even considered?


Ann Widdecombe:

There are some areas of the country in which the police do go armed quite regularly - I think Nottinghamshire was one that caused a fair amount of publicity recently - but I wouldn't want to see us have the police routinely armed wherever they might be. I think that is not in the nature of British policing, but more importantly it would just escalate the violence stakes because if the police were going regularly armed then the criminal would go regularly armed.

There will always be areas of the country where it probably is right that the police quite often bear arms but it should be under extremely strict supervision and regulation.


Darren Hector, Poole, Dorset:

When it came before the House of Commons last year, did you vote for proposals to end the early release from prison of thousands of convicted robbers, thieves and drug dealers? If not, why?


Ann Widdecombe:

We have consistently moved in the House and called upon the Government to end that and we have that promise in our manifesto. We will scrap the early release of prisoners.

We do believe that this scheme should end - we believe in honesty in sentencing being that the sentence given should be the sentence served, bar a little bit for remission because prison governors must always have tools of discipline.


Mr Harry Wentworth, Torquay, UK:
Over 70 per cent of those questioned for a recent crime survey said they would welcome a return to capital punishment and corporal punishment. Why not hold a referendum and let the people decide?


Ann Widdecombe:

I personally am in favour of capital punishment - I have always been so and I have always voted that way in Parliament. I believe it at least should be available to the courts - it doesn't mean to say I want to see it used every five minutes - but at least it should be available to the courts.

However, there are two things to consider. Firstly, it is very doubtful now whether we any longer have self-determination on that under the incorporation of the Human Rights Act that power has probably gone to Europe rather than stayed with us.

Secondly, every time there has been a vote on capital punishment the numbers voting in favour of it, including myself, have declined. Now if it is not a free vote then you are going to have a very serious problem about implementing the outcome of any referendum. So I think it is probably not appropriate to have a referendum but I do sympathise with the view and certainly as Home Secretary I would prefer that capital punishment should be available rather than not, regardless of the horrid responsibility that would then be put on me.

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16 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Sharp rise in violent crime


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