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Thursday, 14 November, 2002, 17:18 GMT
The Queen's speech: Ask Minister of State John Denham

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    Plans for a crackdown on crime and anti-social behaviour are at the heart of a Queen's Speech which also includes controversial plans on hospitals, jury trials and licensing laws.

    Three bills from the Home Office - on criminal justice, sexual offenders and anti-social behaviour - are being pushed by ministers as the centrepiece of the plans.

    The Queen said the aim of the proposals was "to reform and rebalance the criminal justice system to deliver justice for all and to safeguard the interests of victims, witnesses and communities".

    The plans include moves to make it easier to evict anti-social tenants, increase on-the-spot fines for minor offences and a crackdown on graffiti, fly-tipping and the use of airguns.

    The Sexual Offences bill is aimed at protecting the vulnerable, updating laws to take account of paedophile use of the Internet and strengthening the sex offenders register.

    Are these measures a coherent response to anti-social behaviour? Do you think any such anti social-behaviour legislation will work?

    The Rt Hon John Denham, Minister of State for the Home Office answered your questions in a LIVE forum


    Hello and welcome to this BBC news interactive forum, I'm Andrew Simmonds. Big changes to the criminal justice system were formally announced by the Queen today at the State Opening of Parliament. Greater emphasis on justice for the victims of crime, measures to tackle antisocial behaviour and retrials in certain cases all feature in the government's plans for the coming year.

    We're taking your questions and putting them to Home Office minister John Denham, joining us from his studio at the Home Office headquarters in central London. Mr Denham thanks very much for joining us.

    Firstly to a question from Patricia Vanderveer from Wallasey. "Do you believe that any new law can truly bring about a change in social or antisocial behaviour? Has there ever been a law in the recent past that can be demonstrated to have brought about a change in social behaviour?"

    John Denham:
    Yeah I think that laws can underpin social behaviour and they can help bring about changes in the way that people and communities respond. I agree that laws on their own don't achieve all of that but if you look at the areas where we've been using antisocial behaviour orders effectively over the last few years we have seen real success in setting down standards of behaviour, particularly by young people, and showing that with a willingness to enforce that and with the willingness of the community to stand up and say we won't tolerate this type of behaviour you can bring about an overall improvement in behaviour in the communities. So the law is a very important signal and a very important tool but we of course have to work with communities and local people to bring about changes in attitude as well.

    This next question is from Tom. "Will the plans to erode the right to trial by jury, the erosion of the presumption of innocence by admitting previous convictions at trial and the abolition of double jeopardy be considered a breach of the right to a fair trial enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights?"

    John Denham:
    We're sure that any proposals that we bring forward will be compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, indeed one of the obligations that will be there on the Home Secretary will be to sign any legislation saying that he believes that it is compatible. So I think we're on safe ground there. But let's be quite clear about what we want to do. We want to make sure that the justice system, criminal justice system, provides real justice, that it's effective and efficient at establishing the truth so the guilty are convicted and so that it works in the interests of victims and witnesses of crime. All of which are real question marks you have to have over the system at the moment. We believe that by enabling the magistrates courts to sentence to higher levels, to deal with a wider range of offences, that will help to speed up justice but not to lead to injustices, we believe that if you guess - I don't think it'll be many - but cases where evidence comes to light well after, for example, somebody is acquitted of murder, perhaps new DNA evidence or something of that sort, that it should be possible to have a retrial. I think that is helping to achieve justice, not to sweep away justice.

    Now Paul Grice from Lincoln, he's a law student and he wants to know: "I can understand the government overhauling the criminal justice system, as it is now getting old and needs updating, but surely the Prime Minister should be also attacking the problems that cause crime. What is the government's current stance on dealing with people on low incomes, poor housing, educating the young not to offend, the last one being the most important?"

    John Denham:
    I think Paul's absolutely right, I mean our slogan, as people remember, was "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime". Billions of pounds are being invested now in our most deprived communities, through neighbourhood renewal and other regeneration programmes. We've developed brand new programmes for the under 5s, like Surestart, which in a few years time will reach a third of all the children who are growing up in deprivation. We're developing new children centres, we're investing heavily in schools and we're putting more money than ever before into parenting support. So a huge amount is going on to help to tackle poverty, of course we've taken over a million people out of poverty, million children out of poverty, through measures like the working family tax credit. So we are tackling those underlying causes. And I think it's quite important to say that the changes that we're making to the criminal justice system go hand in hand with the measures that we're taking to reduce offending behaviour. And at the moment we're working very hard on a new Green Paper on children at risk because we recognise that there are a significant number of young people whom, if you like, you can predict that in five or six years time they're going to be in trouble, they're going to be in young offenders institution. We do believe that if we got support for those children earlier we could prevent them offending and actually indeed both improve their lives and the lives of the communities. And we'll be publishing that Green Paper in the spring because we recognise we can improve services in that area.

    Now this e-mail's just in from Graham, he says: "These measures have been introduced before and didn't have any positive effect."

    John Denham:
    Well I don't believe that that is true. We've brought in quite a lot of measures over the last five years which are having a positive effect, we've established, for example, crime and disorder reduction partnerships in each area, which taking the title away means the police sit down with the council, the health service and other services and work out where the crime hotspots are, where the antisocial behaviour problems are and work out how to tackle it. That's one of the reasons that we've had a significant fall overall in crime over the last five years. We've had success with measures like antisocial behaviour orders but we've recognised they're not perfect and we're overhauling them. We've just introduced fixed penalty notices, we're piloting it in four areas, over 900 have already been issued, usually either for drunkenness or for antisocial behaviour. And there's a lot of pressure on us now, which we want to look at in the new bill, to roll out fixed penalty notices more quickly. So there's a lot of things that we have introduced which are having an effect.

    Right, well about this from Mark. He asks: "Isn't there a danger that all the criminal justice reforms will do is turn us into a police state while having no effect on criminals? Double jeopardy has been kept for a reason, aren't we taking away closure of a criminal offence and instead the threat of being retried could hang over the head of an acquitted defendant for the rest of his life?"

    John Denham:
    I think you can be certain that when the Bill is introduced there will be safeguards in there about the circumstances when a case can be retried.

    Well what sort of safeguards because Liberty, for example, want to know what sort of guarantees can you make?

    John Denham:
    What we will have to see in the Bill is what sort of rules, procedures, discretions, guidances in there - who's allowed to take the proposals - the trial - who's allowed to reopen the trial and so on. All of that will be set out in the Bill. But I think the underlying issue is this: we didn't 20 years ago have DNA evidence, we didn't have the ability to match samples that were taken after a rape or a murder to an individual. To say that if we now know that somebody was, beyond any reasonable doubt, a murderer or a rapist that they should go free because the science wasn't available at the time doesn't seem to me to be a principle of justice, that seems to be more about making the system a matter of luck. So I think there will be a number of cases where everyone will recognise it is right that there should be a proper retrial.

    Peter Cox has been watching you and he's from Exeter, he's just mailed in and he wants to know: "Credit where credit's due, Mr Denham, zero tolerance of so-called antisocial behaviour has long been a Conservative policy which you appear to have poached. Are you prepared to acknowledge your debt to the Tories?"

    John Denham:
    Well of course crime doubled under the Tories and you always have to look at the difference between what was said and what actually happened. And what actually happened under the Conservatives was that crime doubled and when we came into office police numbers had been falling for several years. We're now in a position where we have record police officer numbers in England and Wales, we've had a fall overall in crime of about 20 per cent over the last five years, although we are the first to acknowledge that in particular antisocial behaviour and street robbery have been areas of concern. And what I would say is let's get behind the rhetoric - we have actually been delivering on the things that we're talking about and in today's Queen's speech we're taking these measures a stage further.

    Okay, Lee Hendricks from Bracknell wants to know: "In a year where citizens attempting to report crimes at their local police stations have been met with closed doors and unmanned facilities it would seem mute to pass such legislation were it not supported by an increase in spending on community policing. Can you talk about this?"

    John Denham:
    We certainly want to see more police officers out in frontline positions in the community where the public can see them, where they reassure them and we're they're engaging in tackling antisocial behaviour and criminality in the local community. And one of the reasons why we commissioned a report ourselves, which was published a few weeks ago, on bureaucracy in the police service because our own surveys in response to questions that I and David Blunkett asked showed that 43 per cent of police officer time is spent in police stations, much of that on paperwork and bureaucracy which are not or shouldn't be essential as part of the criminal justice system. As over the next few years we not only increase police numbers overall but we tackle the bureaucracy that ties officers to the police stations then we will be able to produce more officers out there in the community, on the beat, being community policemen in just the way that your caller wants.

    Tim from London wants to know: "What will the legal profession make of this new offensive by the government against crime?" Well we know that one of the legal profession's aren't very happy. What can you say on this?

    John Denham:
    Well I think the legal profession are clearly a very important integral part of the criminal justice system, whether they are appearing normally on behalf of the defence, whether as members of the legal profession they're serving as the judiciary or whether they're part of the prosecution service. I think it's in everybody's interest, including the legal professions in the long run, to have better systems, for example, for preparing for trials, so that less time of the trial is taken up with adjournments, with sorting out rows over admissible evidence and so on. So what we want to do is we want to make sure that the prosecution, including the police with the crime prosecution service, brings forward better cases, we want to have better preparation before the case comes to court, so that all the disclosure, as far as possible, is sorted out before you get into court and we want to have efficient, fair and effective trials themselves. Now I think that's in the interests of the legal profession, whether they're normally representing defendants or whether they're working for the prosecution.

    Right, this one from Richard Harris from Farnham, he's 20 years old: "Surrey has one of the lowest investments in the youth service in the whole of the UK, there have been six youth clubs which have been closed down in the last months because of the youth service budget being cut and that's the result of youth workers leaving as councils can't afford to pay them. Would you agree that providing more funding would help the ongoing problem of youth crime and antisocial behaviour?"

    John Denham:
    I certainly agree that the youth service and activities for young people are very important elements in diverting young people from criminal behaviour. We've expanded considerably over the last two years the work of the Youth Justice Board and the Victim Youth Inclusion programmes which are targeted diversionary programmes - sports activities, arts activities, educational activities - aimed directly at those young people who've begun to get involved in offending or who are at risk of getting involved in offending. The government centrally have put a lot of money over the summer into diversionary activities in high crime areas. So we recognise the importance of it but there's a partnership here and the responsibility for funding the youth service lies with local authorities and local educational authorities in particular and so I think some of the answers to whatever may be happening in Surrey must lie with the local authorities in that county.

    Okay. Now Alex Fox-Ford who's from Liverpool wants to know: "The pupils in my Year 4 class think that having tougher laws would make people think twice about acting in an improper manner - do you?"

    John Denham:
    Well I think what people want to know is that if people commit crimes they're likely to be caught and they're likely to be dealt with effectively. I think that we need to have a range of sentences and we need to have sentences that are going to reduce the chance of somebody offending later when they've completed their sentence. So we need to make sure that for a start more offenders are brought to justice, at the moment too few crimes that are committed end up with anybody being arrested and charged, let alone being committed. So that's the first thing that we're going to tackle as part of the reforms. Secondly, we need to make sure that prison is there for those people for whom the act deserve that as a punishment or from whom the public want protection. And thirdly, we need new types of sentences which actually increase the chances of somebody being rehabilitated. So the new bill will introduce sentences that mix custody in prison with much more intensive supervision in the community than you get at the moment but that's been shown in other countries to make it more likely that somebody will then keep to the straight and narrow.

    I'm afraid we'll have to end it there. Many thanks to John Denham for all his contributions to this programme. And thank you to all of you for your questions. From me Andrew Simmonds that's all for now.

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