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Monday, 4 June, 2001, 10:36 GMT 11:36 UK
Simon Hughes quizzed

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Simon Hughes speaks for the Liberal Democrats on home affairs issues - crime, law and order, asylum, and drugs. He answered your questions on Friday 1 June.

Simon Hughes represents the south east London seat of Southwark North and Bermondsey and has been a senior figure on the left of the party for many years.

Mr Hughes stood against Charles Kennedy for the leadership.



Let's just start with Home Affairs - your brief. That was what your news conference was about today, Friday 1st June and the headline promise was thousands of extra police officers.

Simon Hughes:

That is correct. We have responded to what the public are clearly been saying to the politicians. That they want more deterrence of crime - the causes of crime not to lead to crime. They want more detection of crime because we have a very poor clear up rate in this country; on average it is one in four crimes reported are cleared up and only that and that is clearly not good enough and then we want decent dealing with crime afterwards. The key to that - and it is not the only way of dealing with this at all - but one of the keys is more police. So we have what was a three-part proposal. The first is to increase the numbers of full-time paid police officers by 2,000 more than Labour currently plan. So if you take the low point and we had a low point last year - 6,000 more than that if it were net after people have left.

Secondly - and this is an idea the other parties haven't adopted - to have another pot of money to pay for part-time police officers - to give flexibility - people who might be coming up for retirement and want to stay on. Thirdly, and very importantly, to have what we call a community safety force - not police officers - employed by local councils but doing the jobs in the parks on the council housing areas and generally on the streets. To pick up, as it were, crime in the making at a low level - graffiti, vandalism etc. They would be in touch with the police and able to call them. The reason is the public want to see more police and the public want to know that they could get a quicker response - whether it is little rural villages in Norfolk or Somerset or whether it is the middle of urban areas like Sheffield or Liverpool, Manchester or London.

We know that that may not still give us enough police so with that is a proposal we should have as a country what we call the standing conference on policing. So that every year it, having listened to the views of the public, the police at all ranks and the police authorities - would recommend the minimum police levels throughout the country as a whole and separately for each police area as a whole.


Now the point about part-time police officers - there are already special constables who aren't paid. The real difficulty with the special constables is that there just aren't enough people who want to be them. Have you got any evidence to suggest that people would come forward to be part-time police officers if they were paid?

Simon Hughes:

The direct answer is yes to that. I was in Norfolk on Bank Holiday Monday with one of our candidates there - Norman Lamb - talking about this very issue with somebody who is coming up to police retirement age. He wants to stay in the village - he knows the community like the back of his hand. He says he would want to stay on, not necessarily full-time, but he wants to use his expertise to continue to serve the community and the police. He is one type of example. But I have also had written communications from other officers who have heard of the proposal who have said yes we think it is an excellent idea. So it is different from the issue with specials - specials aren't paid. There is a problem with volunteers in life in Britain at the moment generally and we do need more to boost them. But these people would be paid and they would be paid for half the hours that a police officer works at half the rate. So they would be properly paid for the hours they do.


The first e-mail is from Trevor Bell in Lee. He asks: Do you not now realise that trying to blame a political rival for a race riot is one of the worst examples of playing the race card. Now this was an allegation that was actually made against you by William Hague last Sunday following your comments in the wake of events in Oldham when you basically said that the language the Conservatives had used when talking about the issue of asylum had contributed to those problems.

Simon Hughes:

I actually didn't say that and that is why I am cross - I am entitled to get cross occasionally with the media - because I have not only looked back over but have gone over exactly what I was asked and what I answered and I didn't link the two. I was asked - do I think that language used by politicians contributes to tension in places like Oldham - or could contribute to it and I explained first that I thought that the problems of Oldham were much more about disaffected young people, about people with time on their hands, about the actions of the extreme Right which have been very manifest in Oldham. But that, and I wanted to answer the direct question, the language all politicians use does create a climate and does alter people's attitudes and if we use the language that is divisive then what happens is we build up divisions in society.

My view is - and my party's view - and we have said it all of us regularly, that language that has stoked up the anti, to use the cliché, against asylum seekers has contributed to some of the more racist views, indeed there have been some in the Tory Party. Now that is bad news, we don't want that to happen, it shouldn't happen - there are tensions enough as it is. So I understand the question, I understand the criticism but with respect to you and your colleagues, it is ill-informed in the sense that it is not based on actually what I was asked and answered.


Nevertheless though we in the media and William Hague all thought that this was a direct criticism of the Conservatives at what was a sensitive time and do you regret now the answer that you gave?

Simon Hughes:

No I don't regret it because the answer I gave was an answer that is very much in line with what I have said today. If William Hague had read the question and the answer - he might not have liked it because I did say that I thought that the Tory Party had made some unhelpful comments in general and indirectly contributed to some of the tensions on this issue. But it in no way linked to Oldham - I talked to people in Oldham and I know exactly what had been happening. What had been happening is that there had been a build up of tension where the National Front and other Right-Wing organisations had been marching. There had been some aggressive attacks by one community against another and some very horrible anti-Islamic comments which were extremely offensive and to which people then responded. Now the violence was not justifiable - it never is justifiable in a democracy - there are other ways of dealing with it - but young people sometimes don't quite understand that and you have to realise that if you don't seek a more equal society - play down racism, attack racism - then you do risk tensions and tensions on the streets of our towns and cities.


Now lets move on to another part your brief - sentencing. Miss Kay Willerby from Rochester asks: Can you guarantee that your party will increase sentences on violent crimes?

Simon Hughes:

We can't generalise if I may say so Miss Willerby. The answer is some sentences in our view ought to go up and some ought to go down. But the most important principle is that it shouldn't be politicians who set the sentence. You should have a proper process - firstly you need to make sure that we catch more people then we need to make sure that when we punish them we are more effective. As mentioned earlier this morning - more than half the people that get sent to prison reoffend within two years and that is hardly a big success rate and then you need punishment that works. It might be in the community - it might not be imprisonment. It might be a short time inside - it might be a long time inside.

We have some changes as part of our proposals - one is that if you commit the most serious offences and there is a risk that you would be risk to society, you don't know in advance and the judge shouldn't decide in advance, when you are let out again. So that you can have that protection of society. Another measure would be if you assault police officer or an ambulance worker or a health service worker then you should not be entitled to some of the discounts which at the moment you are entitled to because it is an assault against the safety of us all. So we have views about that. At the other end of the spectrum we say, for example, that you ought not to have mandatory sentencing and that no punishment should carry an automatic sentence because there are cases that are very different and the judge should decide.

Can I add one thing for you and Miss Willerby. We have had a society where the defendant gets a say in court but the victim doesn't and we are very clear that the victim ought to have a better chance to have say - victim or, if tragically the victim can't, somebody on their behalf. Therefore in all trials when there has been a conviction and before sentence, if a victim wants it, they should be able to appear and make a statement to the judge and the judge should be able to ask them questions. So that before sentence there is an understanding by the judge and by the defendant of the effect of the crime and the victim has a chance to say what it meant to them because victims have far too often been silent.


This is a system they have in some parts of America - they call them victim impact statements.

Simon Hughes:

They do and the Labour Party and the Conservative Party have moved to some extent on this issue. They allow people to write a written statement and it is put in the court papers. My personal experience is that people want to be able to say something and be heard. I have been with families who have been sitting on the benches in the public gallery and feeling totally excluded and this would be a way of dealing with that.


Now onto a topic that is very much, if you like, your topic - it is something that you raised at your autumn conference. This is a question from C. Deacon in Derbyshire about disestablishment. The conference as we know voted on your motion to disestablish the Church of England. We are an English-speaking, Christian country and what do you hope to achieve by removing the Queen as the head of the Church?

Simon Hughes:

I will start with the point that I am and English-speaking Christian so I don't come at it in an anti-Christian or anti-English way. I take the view firstly constitutionally as a politician that Parliament and the country needs to be placed separate from the faith groups. We need to have a Parliament that can have people of any faith - governments with people of any faith and we ought not to be particularly allied - although we do of course have a predominately Christian inheritance - to one denomination of the Christian Church. Of course, to take our questioner's point, we don't have that alliance in Wales where there is no established Church. We don't have it in Northern Ireland were there is no established Church and we half have it in Scotland we have a different part of the Christian Church.

Our view as a party is that it would be better that the Church of England didn't have a protected status for a practical reason. If under the hereditary system, the monarch decides that they don't want to be a Protestant or they want to have another faith or no faith - they are disentitled from being the monarch. Isn't it better to be honest and say they should be entitled to choose the faith of their vocation rather than pretend they are something when they are not. Lastly, we also believe it is important to treat all faiths equally in our society and not give advantage to the Protestant Church of England in England. I actually believe as a postscript that as a member of the Church - the Church would be advantaged by not being overly allied with the establishment. I would say to the questioner, I don't think the person who founded the Church, namely Jesus Christ, was very keen on ties with the establishment - certainly not according to my reading of the Gospels.


Moving now to tuition fees - a controversial subject. Joe in Surrey asks: When you boast about scrapping tuition fees in Scotland isn't it a lie because all you did was merely defer it? Now it is debt whereas under the system in England at least the people who are means-tested can have part or all of their fees paid by the state?

Simon Hughes:

We have four things in our proposals - one of which deals directly with tuition fees. In a way the questioner is right in that what we do is scrap tuition fees up front and the reason they will be scrapped up front is that they can be and are a deterrent, on all the evidence, to people making the application and going ahead with it. The numbers in Scotland have gone up considerably more than the numbers in England and Wales. So yes you would have to pay that later - you pay back according to income, the ability to pay and it is not an upfront system. But the other three things which are part of the same package to make students more representative and to make going to university and college more accessible. Firstly, that we would put grants back for poor students. Secondly, that we would raise the level at which loans are repaid to a level above the average salary - again dealing with some of the debt issues. Thirdly, allow students in the long holidays to be entitled to benefits if they don't have any other income. So there is a package and it is about taking students out of debt and getting more students into the system.

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