29 Jan 2003 : Column 261WH

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 29 January 2003

[Mr. John McWilliam in the Chair]

Gun Crime

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Gillian Merron.]

9.30 am

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Before I call the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), I draw Members' attention to the fact that we have some problems with the sound system, so if it goes off, there is a contingency plan. I shall suspend the sitting for a very short time to enable the radio microphone to be brought in.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington): As we move into the 21st century, the inner cities of our country are falling under the shadow of gun crime. There is no single aspect of crime and criminality that causes so much fear and anxiety among ordinary people as the use of guns, including air guns. We have recently had the announcement of statistics that show the rise in gun crime nationally. I know that gun crime, including incidents involving air guns, is a big problem in many of our city centres. Some of my colleagues will speak to that fact.

The national figures mask a particularly steep rise in our inner cities. In London in 2000–01 gun crime incidents stood at 2,817, but in the past year gun crime incidents have gone up to 4,192—a rise of 49 per cent. In the Greater Manchester area in 2000–01 gun crime stood at 964, but in the most recent period for which statistics have been collected, it has gone up to 1,361—a rise of 41 per cent. In the west midlands, the site of the tragic shooting of those young girls that was in the papers over Christmas and new year, gun crimes went up from 887 in 2000–01 to 1,289—a rise of 45 per cent. Handguns were used last year in more than 5,871 incidents, the highest number ever recorded. That represents a 46 per cent. increase since the previous year. I remind the Chamber that in the whole of 1954—the year after I was born—there were only four armed robberies in the whole of London. Now, four armed robberies take place in London every single day.

Those are the statistical parameters of the problem, but as a Member of Parliament for the part of London—the Hackney and Tottenham area—which has the highest level of gun crime in the country, I need to draw to the attention of colleagues what it is like for people to live in an area, a residential area, much of it with highvalue residential housing, where they can wake up in the morning and find that there has been a shooting at the end of their road, where they can look out of the window and see a vehicle with a dead person in it, where people queuing at bus stops have been the victims of drive-by shootings, and where an innocent young person at a club or a party can get caught up in a gun crime incident.

This is not a type of criminality that affects only those who move in criminal circles. As the wave of gun crime engulfs our inner cities, more and more innocent people,

29 Jan 2003 : Column 262WH

just like those young women in Birmingham, are being caught up in it, and more and more innocent people are witnessing it on their doorstep, on their streets and in their communities, and feeling terrorised.

It is important to stress that gun crime is not just a black crime. It is certainly the case that 80 per cent. of the incidents reported to the Metropolitan police involve black-on-black crime, but we saw just before the new year a terrible outburst of gang shootings among the Kosovan community in Green lanes in Haringey, we are seeing increasing numbers of Asian-on-Asian gun crime incidents in west Yorkshire connected with the drug trade, and the Albanians are increasingly figuring in gun crime statistics. Where there are hard drugs and a particularly toxic mix of poverty and social alienation, we will find gun crime. We need not think, as a society, that it is confined to particular communities, and use that as an excuse to look away.

I first spoke in the House about gun crime more than a year ago. One of the points that I stressed was the extent to which gun crime in recent times had become almost a lifestyle crime. It is one thing to take out a gun to carry out an armed robbery and then take it home—that is utterly deplorable and very wrong—but what we have seen in recent years is a rise in gun crime as a lifestyle crime. It is worth drawing to the attention of the Chamber that the proportion of robberies involving firearms has remained steady at 4 to 5 per cent. over the past five years.

However, as I have said, there has been an explosion of gun crime as a lifestyle crime—people shooting people because of disputes over territory, people shooting people because of disputes over money owed, people shooting people because of petty squabbles in nightclubs, and people shooting people because of squabbles over girlfriends. In Hackney we have even had people shooting people because they believed that somebody had made a disrespectful remark about their clothes or their hairstyle. What is new about the phenomenon of gun crime as a lifestyle crime that is engulfing London, Moss Side and parts of Birmingham is when a section of young people—it may be a tiny section, but it is still a section—feel that they are not properly dressed for a night out unless they are carrying a gun. Unless we understand that, we cannot understand the importance of combating the problems underlying the phenomenon.

I shall touch briefly on what I believe to be the causes. I begin by saying what I do not think is the cause. With the greatest respect to Ministers, I do not believe that it is helpful to speak about rap music as the cause of gun crime. I find the lyrics of much rap music utterly deplorable. I dislike the misogyny, the glorification of violence, the hatred of homosexuals and so on. I find it all deeply shocking, but the music of young people has always been intended to shock middle-aged ladies like me. If it did not shock middle-aged ladies like me, young people would feel that something was seriously lacking in their culture. To say that we do not like the lyrics, that they are deeply shocking and that things were better when we were young is not the same as saying that that music is the cause of the gun crime. The music is a symptom of the youth culture. What we need to do as politicians is not to give people the benefit of our personal opinion on young people's music, but to identify the underlying causes and the law enforcement issues with which we need to engage.

29 Jan 2003 : Column 263WH

I believe that the root causes of gun crime are related to an arms race between gangs and gangsters, to hard drugs, to the huge amounts of money to be made out of hard drugs, which incites people to use the ultimate weapon to protect their profits and their territory, and more broadly to social alienation. Hon. Members will forgive me if I say that I believe that in the long term, one of the underlying causes of the social alienation and the gun crime that we see in our inner cities is educational under-achievement among our young men, especially young black men. This is not a matter for Home Office Ministers, but I would not be doing the subject justice if I did not touch briefly on that.

Nationwide, 42 per cent. of young men aged 16 get five GCSEs at grades A to E, but in Hackney and many other inner-city boroughs, only 9 per cent. of black boys aged 16 get average grades in GCSE. What is happening to the other 90 per cent.? I have long argued that it is not good enough to lump in what is happening to black children with general figures and programmes applying to ethnic minorities. Some ethnic minorities in our inner-city areas are doing better than white children. In particular, however, it is Afro-Caribbean boys who are failing.

As I have said many times, we need to focus on the underlying causes of under-achievement. Those causes are complex and relate not only to young people's attitudes and parenting, but to factors in schools and teachers' expectations. Until the Government have a strategy for black under-achievement in schools that is similar to their strategy on literacy and numeracy, not only will we find it very hard to raise overall standards in inner cities, but social alienation, whose many negative aspects include gun crime, will continue.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): I have followed the hon. Lady's argument carefully. I believe that educational under-achievement is an important aspect of the situation. However, will she enlighten the House as to which party has for many years been running the LEAs in most of the inner-city areas to which she is referring, where children have been mortally failed by the education system?

Ms Abbott : I am happy to enlighten hon. Members: most of those LEAs are run by Labour authorities, especially in London. The hon. Gentleman may not remember, however, that it was a Tory Government who dismantled the Inner London education authority. Londonwide policy issues such as the under-achievement of black children have suffered ever since because of the lack of an overarching strategic focus.

It was inevitable that individual boroughs such as Hackney would struggle when they were left on their own to deal with multiple issues of social deprivation and their effect on education. I welcome the Government's appointment of a London commissioner for education, which may allow us to return to some of the best aspects of the Inner London education authority, which could stand back, consider the issues and support weaker boroughs. It is no good talking about the failings of an individual borough such as Hackney. I am no apologist for what is happening to

29 Jan 2003 : Column 264WH

black children in boroughs such as Hackney, but many of today's problems in the area date back to the abolition of the Inner London education authority. In my view and that of many Conservative Members at the time, that was a criminal act of educational vandalism.

Before I deal with specific issues relating to gun crime, I want to mention a few related questions. I live in a borough that has a very high proportion of public authority housing, and one of the things that my constituents complain about bitterly is crack dens, which are sometimes situated on the same estate, floor or landing as their homes. I ask hon. Members to think about how it must feel to be a young woman struggling on her own to bring up decently two or three children and having every day to take her pushchair across a landing where a flat has been taken over as a crack den. Some local authorities, including Hackney, are doing a lot of work to try to close crack dens and they work closely with the police.

I ask the Government to consider the effectiveness of current legislation. I believe that we have legislation on the books that enables the police to close down the crack dens. When will it be activated? It is illegal to run an opium den, but as I understand it, it is not illegal to run a crack den as such. When the police raid the dens, people drop the crack on the floor and cannot be done for possession, and no individual can be done for running a crack den as such. I stand to be corrected if my understanding of the law is faulty, but that is how I have been briefed by local police. If the legislation is not on the books, we need to introduce it, but if it has not been activated, we need to ensure that it takes effect. In the 21st century, when we know about the menace of crack in our communities, which relates not only to gun crime, but to the robberies that people carry out to feed their habits, it is absurd that the law is not fully effective in helping the police to close down the crack dens.

Drug mules are tied to the same gangs that are using guns to enforce and protect their territory. Hon. Members will know that the largest group of foreign nationals in Holloway prison for women are Jamaican women who were drug mules. I have visited those women, whose situation is tragic. Those who act as drug mules swallow lots of bags of crack and come through customs. They are told that they will not go to prison if they are caught, but that if they do, British prisons are easy. Such women have often left their families in Jamaica, where there are no social services as we know them and they were in a desperate situation.

I know that the Government have acted against the drug mule trade and that the Jamaican Government are co-operating well. For instance, the British Government have helped the Jamaican Government to install special ion scanners to test whether people getting on to planes have handled cocaine. When I discussed the issue with Ministers last year, they told me that every single person boarding a plane in Kingston, whether it was a British Airways aircraft or a Jamaican one, would be tested for handling crack cocaine. I visited Jamaica last year, and although it was a private trip, I made a point of visiting the airport and meeting the Jamaican drug squad, British customs officers and Metropolitan police officers. I stood and watched them testing people as they boarded the planes, but they were doing so at random. We do not need to be criminal specialists or intelligence experts to understand how easy it is to subvert a testing

29 Jan 2003 : Column 265WH

regime that works on a random basis. Ministers told me last year that every single person was being tested, but I saw with my own eyes last May, when the system was introduced, that people were being tested at random.

I want to make a very simple point about drug mules: we must work with the Jamaican authorities and the airlines to ensure that every person who gets on a plane in Kingston, Jamaica, is tested for crack cocaine. That will benefit my constituents, who are suffering as a result of the crack trade, the reputation of the island of Jamaica and also the poor girls who act as drug mules and are the victims of the trade.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): The hon. Lady is making an extraordinarily important point about the Jamaican drugs trade. Does she also accept that, even if the random nature of the search is not subverted—I think that was the word she used—the fact that not everybody is being tested means that the dealers and traders who are paying the women to be drug mules can build in a wastage factor? In other words, cannot they afford to lose some of the mules, because of all the others who will get through a random test?

Ms Abbott : Exactly. I have worked closely with Operation Trident officers on this issue, so I can describe the process. Heathrow has eight cells and the drug gangs know that that is the case. Early in the week, they send over a certain number of girls. Once they know that all those girls have been held, they flood the flights.

There are ways of closing down drug mule trafficking from Jamaica. They involve testing everybody and establishing more cells and more police activity at Heathrow. I want the practice to be stopped not only for my constituents, but for the island of Jamaica and the poor girls who get caught up in it.

I turn now to specific issues relating to guns. On arms traffickers, we need to consider action to curb the supply of illegal firearms into the UK from countries in the Balkans and central and eastern Europe. Those countries are also the main source of guns entering African war zones. As I said, although the majority of gun crime is black-on-black, other nationalities, notably the Albanians, are entering the market. If we do not act to check the flow of firearms from eastern Europe, we will reap a very bitter harvest.

Most black-on-black gun crime is performed using reactivated replica weapons, but the Albanians and other groups have access to top-class weaponry that is available in eastern Europe and the Balkans. Surely, it is better for Ministers to check the trade now than very shortly to see gangs settling their differences on the streets of London with AK47s and military-style weapons. We need to increase the funding that is given to the police and intelligence services to combat firearm tracking. I believe that the police have been under-resourced in that area.

I applaud the Government for taking steps to ban the possession of replica weapons, but we also need a ban on their sale, importation and manufacture. Action must also be taken against weapons that are not replica weapons as such, but that can be used as firearms. It is a fact that 80 per cent. of black-on-black gun crime is undertaken using replica weapons, and although I applaud the increased penalties for possession, we need to stop such weapons flooding the market; we need to ban their sale, importation and manufacture.

29 Jan 2003 : Column 266WH

Perhaps the single most important issue that I want to raise with the Minister is witness protection. In respect of gun crime incidents in London, Birmingham and across the country, the police have a big problem—certainly initially—with community co-operation. The point about the type of gun crime that I am discussing is that it is no secret in the community as to who is committing these crimes. Somebody is washing their shirts and cooking their dinner, and they are boasting about their actions, so people know. The reason why they are not brought to book is not a failure of detective work, but the difficulty in getting people to be witnesses.

Some colleagues may find this point difficult or unacceptable, but in communities such as Hackney, we have to remember the context in which we are asking for community co-operation. Hackney is an east-end borough of London, and I should remind Members that people in the east end do not grass other people up. It is not a black thing—it is an attitude that has characterised the east end since the 18th century. In fact, as accounts of the time show, in the 18th century there was, if anything, a more visceral hatred of the forces of law and order in the east end.

In the recent past, stations such as Stoke Newington have had a very unfortunate record in terms of deaths in custody and assault. However, I give great credit to Stoke Newington's current leadership, and Chief Superintendent Benson in particular. In the 1990s, there was a very serious corruption scandal at Stoke Newington, which was investigated by the Met through Operation Jackpot. The essence of that operation's findings was that the police in Stoke Newington were running their own drug dealers on the street. If they confiscated £10 worth of drugs, they would book £1 worth in at the station and give out £9 worth to their own drug dealers. This was not an assertion by the community; this was the conclusion of an investigation, and most of the police involved had to move on. That is the context—it is not an excuse—in which people are reluctant to come forward and give evidence. I am working locally with the black community to encourage them to come forward and work with the police. We need to be aware of that context, and the fact that similar contexts exist in some other inner-city areas.

The real problem is fear. Witnesses are frightened to come forward because they believe that the gunmen and their associates will come and get them. Only two weeks ago, I met a very nice, respectable, church-going, middle-aged black woman at one of my regular advice sessions. She had been one of a number of witnesses to a gun crime, and had gone to court. The guys concerned went down, and since then she has had to move five times out of fear of those gunmen. For someone who is a witness to a high-profile gangland crime, the Metropolitan police lay on a very good witness protection scheme. They can change such people's identity and move them around the country. However, the protection that is available to a witness to a regular gun incident or shooting is not adequate. This is a particular problem in London. In London, a witness to a gun crime who wants re-housing goes to their borough, which re-houses them within that borough. That means that, in boroughs such as Hackney, such a person is perhaps half a mile away from the gunmen and their associates.

29 Jan 2003 : Column 267WH

The Home Office, in co-operation with other Departments, needs to consider an intermediate witness protection programme in London that is co-ordinated not at borough level, but, for example, by the Metropolitan Police Authority. Under it, registered social landlords would have to allocate to the authority a certain amount of housing every year. The police could nominate people for that programme, and they could get re-housed as a matter of priority into decent quality housing. We also need a package of counselling and support for witnesses after the trial is over. The same woman to whom I referred told me that, when she telephoned the police station to speak to the sergeant about her housing problem, threats and so on once the trial was over, he refused to come to the phone.

I understand why, once a crime is solved, policemen have to move on to solving the next one, but that example shows why we need a comprehensive witness protection programme. It could be a step down from what is offered to witnesses to major gangland killings, but people must be offered such protection. They are not going to come forward if they believe that, afterwards, they will be in fear of their lives. This practical step does not have massive resource implications. Until the Government do more about witness protection, things will continue to be very difficult for those, such as me, who are genuinely encouraging people in the community to co-operate further.

I welcome the steps that the Government have taken against replicas, and to increase the minimum penalty for the possession of firearms, but there is still further to go. With the support of other Members, I am setting up an all-party Back-Bench committee on gun crime. It will involve MPs from all the inner city areas in which this is an issue, and they will take evidence and make suggestions to Ministers later in the year.

In some ways, gun crime is an endemic and global issue that reflects the culture in which we live, and its materialism and brutality. The associated problems are deep-rooted, and will take a long time to solve, but the law and order elements need to be put in place now. The administration of the system, witness protection and action against drug traffickers can be done in the here and now. In the past, there may have been a sense among certain authorities that, because this was a crime confined to certain communities that involved criminals killing other criminals, they could perhaps afford not to give it their full attention. However, for a year or more some type of gun crime has taken place every weekend in areas such Hackney. I welcome what the Government have done, but there is great deal more to do. I urge Ministers to realise that if a Labour Government in the 21st century cannot guarantee all our communities freedom from fear, we will be failing in our responsibilities to them.

9.57 am

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster): The hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) made a marvellous speech, and I am only sorry that more people were not here to hear it. I congratulate her on drawing our attention to this very important issue, but in a moment I want to talk about gun control, rather than just gun crime.

29 Jan 2003 : Column 268WH

As the hon. Lady knows, I am also an inner-London Member of Parliament; indeed, I suspect that at the nearest point our constituencies are only two and a half or three miles apart. I do not wish to extol all the virtues of her constituency—she can doubtless do that—but I want to point out that, although many people will assume that Hackney, North and Stoke Newington is a horrible, inner-city hell-hole, nothing could be further from the truth. For example, one can take a walk along Stoke Newington's historical Church street. Some 400 years ago, when Stoke Newington was a village, much of the rest of the land between the City of London and that area was open fields. Likewise, even today, parts of Stamford Hill are very suburban in outlook. Like much of inner London, it is made up of people who work very hard to make their way in life

What the hon. Lady said, especially on witness protection, was very valuable. I wish I could articulate things in that way—I suspect that she has more knowledge of those matters—but I should like to reiterate my support for what she said, and I hope that the Home Office will pay close attention.

Hon. Members are perhaps lucky; we can go through our day-to-day life without that sense of fear. Perhaps things are even easier for me as a man; when I walk home at night from the House or, indeed, from a tube station in my constituency for five or six minutes in the middle of the night, I do not fear that I will be mugged or attacked in any way. Likewise, in our day-to-day life, there is no fear of who is living across the corridor or whether they might be trying to extort money from us or just making our lives a misery by playing music and causing disruption at 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning, but perhaps all Members of Parliament can appreciate those fears; it is certainly a state of affairs that many of our constituents are unfortunate enough to suffer.

What the hon. Lady said about witness protection, and the context in which she made her remarks, was also valuable. I suspect that those long-standing concerns are true in parts of my own constituency, as it includes parts of Bayswater and Pimlico that would not necessarily be typical in a relatively safe Conservative constituency. Having spoken to my constituents, I am aware that there are certainly some very real problems.

The hon. Lady rightly talked about the drugs problem. She said that drugs were very much at the forefront of gun crime, and she discussed the issue at some length. There seems little doubt—I entirely endorse what she said—that it is not simply a black-on-black crime. In my constituency, we have found that gangs of eastern Europeans are fighting turf wars, particularly around Soho and in the vicinity of the Edgware road. It is easy to say that they are Kosovans or Albanians, but there is no doubt that a whole raft of people from eastern and central European ethnic groups have looked to gain in that area—in relation not just to drugs, but prostitution, protection rackets and a vast array of other problems—and they are using guns daily.

However, as I said, I want to say a few words about gun control. The hon. Lady rightly pointed out that the new year started with one of those very brutal acts that still has the capacity to shock the entire nation. The savage gunning down of two teenagers at a party in Birmingham by young men who were armed with automatic sub-machine-guns brought home to many people the growing violence that exists in parts of our

29 Jan 2003 : Column 269WH

inner cities—not just in London—and has already expanded into several of our city suburbs and now seems to be threatening, in a minor way, even some of our rural towns.

Since the Government declared a total ban on handguns some six years ago in the aftermath of the Dunblane tragedy, it has become clear that ever more guns are being used by criminals in our society. However much the police in Birmingham or, indeed, London try to make out that that new year incident was somehow an out-of-the-ordinary event, it is clear that it was only the gender of the victims that made it so startling. From speaking to local residents, councils and residents associations virtually every day, I am fully aware that, even on the streets of London, gangs of young men are involved in the illegal drugs trade, prostitution and protection rackets, and they think nothing of brandishing firearms to protect their patch.

Ms Abbott : I want to confirm what the hon. Gentleman says. Just like him, I feel that, tragically, that shooting got on to the front pages because girls were involved. That is very sad because, as he says, such things are happening all the time.

Mr. Field : Drug dealers need to ensure a monopoly of supply in their own districts if they are to maximise their profits—I suspect that that is a basic rule of economics in the drugs trade—and the territory is fought over. Those gangsters have no fear of the police; their only equals are those in other gangs whom they know will be similarly armed. Until we support the police in their endeavours to enforce the law to diminish the power of those gangs, the use of firearms will increase.

Unfortunately, in the immediate aftermath of the new year incident in Birmingham, the response of many politicians and, indeed, many people in the media in Birmingham and beyond was predictable and somewhat illogical. The call for the existing handgun ban to be further enforced by handing out the new mandatory five-year jail sentence to anyone possessing a firearm seems to be just grandstanding. I appreciate that, for the first time, I diverge from the hon. Lady's path. Even a moment's reflection should have persuaded everyone that such a mandatory ban was neither a sensible nor a practical way forward. The police may find it impractical to enforce, and there may be legal problems because it is mandatory and discretion has not been left in the hands of the judiciary.

The fact is that the criminals on our streets are already refusing to obey the existing laws—the total ban on handguns—so there seems little point in passing even more new legislation for them to ignore with gay abandon. Until the current total ban on handguns is properly enforced in this country, we shall continue to see a greater increase in gun-related violence.

In the immediate aftermath of the new year incident, I discussed the entire issue of handgun control and gun crime with a good friend of mine who lives in leafy Hertfordshire. He told me, with an entirely straight face, that he is now so fearful of crime that, if he were living, rather than simply working, in London, he would seriously contemplate procuring a firearm for his family's self-defence, although he has never fired a gun before in his life.

29 Jan 2003 : Column 270WH

My great concern is that I am not sure whether that response to such incidents is totally out of the ordinary in what has traditionally been a very gun-adverse society, in great contrast to the United States. We are now very much at a crossroads in public policy on the issue. Obviously, we in politics have to play a part, but it is important that such things are discussed with a cool head, especially in the light of what seems to be an escalating murder rate involving the use of firearms.

In a sense, the problem is straightforward. We have failed to enforce our current, already relatively strict gun laws. We should not stand by and wash our hands of the problem by passing yet more laws. The police already have sufficient powers, and all that is now required is the political and judicial will for them to use those powers properly.

I fear that, all too often in recent years, we have handcuffed our police by removing their ability to stop and search. I appreciate that political correctness considerations were part and parcel of that. In essence, no-go areas have been created in our inner cities, partly as a result of political correctness, but I reiterate that this is not just a matter of black-on-black crime; we are looking at those in a range of different ethnic groups in our society who are playing a part in using guns for the purposes of protection rackets and drugs and prostitution.

I therefore gained little pleasure from listening to community leaders who spoke about the Birmingham incident and said that the police had become too lenient in the area. It was very much an eye opener that a number of those community leaders felt that the police had simply turned a blind eye to a problem that they knew was getting ever worse. All too often, if a vacuum of social order is created, it will be filled by violence, anarchy and the indifferent destruction of human life.

In a way it is fortunate that we can still be stunned by the manner of the loss of those teenagers' lives in Birmingham, but I fear that in a few years' time—perhaps rather like in the United States of America—such things will no longer be headlines but will simply be small pieces on page 3 or 4 of the newspapers, rather than something that shocks the entire nation for days. Unless we reverse the anarchy and social disorder in parts of our nation—in particular, in our inner cities—I fear that such horrors are likely to recur.

I hope that the Minister will be able to take on board the points that have been made about witness protection, as that is very much the way forward in any attempt to address the problems that have already arisen, as well as ensuring that the police have the necessary support and are encouraged to enforce the laws that are already in place. The knee-jerk reaction of introducing a new array of laws does not seem to be a sensible way to try to counter the gun crime problem.

10.8 am

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) on initiating this debate. This issue is certainly of huge concern to many hon. Members, and I am pleased to be able to make my contribution to the debate. I share all the concerns that she raised and recognise the huge increase in gun crime that she described. Such crime is of immense concern to residents, and not only those in inner cities.

29 Jan 2003 : Column 271WH

Swindon—only two hours outside London—is a prosperous town, but it contains areas of deprivation. We have had 280 reports of firearms incidents in the past year, mostly involving airguns and replica guns. However, because it is so hard to distinguish between airguns and replicas and the real thing, a significant number of those incidents have to be dealt with as though they involve real firearms. The police thus have to make a huge effort in terms of resources, risk assessments and so on. They have been called out 96 times in the past year to such incidents, resulting in 28 airguns, pistols and replica guns being recovered.

Animals have been injured in the town. People have been shot at, and one man was almost blinded by an airgun. Bus drivers have come to talk to me about their concerns because they have had guns fired at their buses. That is not only a danger to the people on the bus but a major issue for anybody around that bus, in the street, on the pavement or cycling past. It becomes a major issue of public concern and safety. Not only have bus drivers and residents come to me to raise their concerns but pet owners and wildlife carers—who have seen an increase in injuries to wildlife—say that more needs to be done to tackle this real problem.

I have been most concerned, however, about the police who have come to me regularly to raise their concern that they do not have enough powers to deal with the problem. I have met the police on several occasions to discuss not only proposals for what we can do in Swindon but proposals that we can put to the Government on action at a national level to improve the situation. For example, I have written to a number of local schools to raise with parents the problem of the wide and increasing availability of airguns, pointing out the dangers and encouraging parents to get them out of circulation because of the problems that they can potentially cause to everyone in our communities.

One of my overwhelming and worrying memories is of the police sitting down with me and saying that they have a real fear that, because of the wide availability of replica guns and airguns, one day they will end up having to shoot somebody because they could not tell the difference between an airgun, a replica gun and the real thing; the incident will turn out later to have been not so serious, but they will have had to take that action.

Ms Abbott : I was shown a video by the police in Brixton involving a young teenager who had what turned out to be a replica weapon. He pointed it at a policeman, who took a split-second decision and kicked the gun away. The policeman would have been within his rights, however, to shoot that youngster down.

Ms Drown : That is absolutely right. I am sure that that is of concern to all right hon. and hon. Members, and it demonstrates the real need to address the problem of airguns and replica guns. The police brought to me a case of guns, replica guns and airguns. I looked at them and could not tell the difference between a genuine gun, a replica gun and an airgun. Even an expert would have

29 Jan 2003 : Column 272WH

had difficulty distinguishing between them when they were right in front of their eyes, let alone somebody looking at them from 10 m away. That is a real problem.

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): Does my hon. Friend therefore agree that we should consider a ban on the sale, import and manufacture of replica and imitation guns?

Ms Drown : Yes. That is something that is supported by the Gun Control Network and by several members of the police to whom I have spoken in Swindon.

I have talked through with local police the Government's proposals for action so far. They certainly welcome the plans, and want to see them in place as soon as possible. I was not clear whether the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) was disagreeing with both the minimum five-year sentence and the legislation to ban replica and air weapons in public places. Perhaps he will clarify that.

Mr. Mark Field : Just the former.

Ms Drown : Just the five-year sentence. Obviously, there will be exceptions if there has been a genuine misunderstanding about what was happening, and I would support that. The hon. Gentleman's argument against the proposal was that existing legislation needs to be enforced, and I agree. We need to make sure that existing legislation on handguns is enforced. The problem is that it is so difficult to distinguish between handguns, replica guns and so on, and we will make the job easier for the police if we ban all guns in public places without good reason. The police will therefore be able to stop people without having to assess what sort of gun they have.

Similarly, raising the age limit for using an air weapon will start to address some of the culture change that is needed to show this is not about toys. It is a serious and potentially lethal game, as some might describe it, in which people are getting involved. I am pleased that the Home Office is examining a ban on the sale, manufacture and import of tandem air cartridge systems, such as the Brocock, as they can so easily be converted to fire live ammunition. Those are all welcome initiatives, but I would push for even more to be done, as it is important that we get on top of the problem and that all areas of the country do not become as bad as the picture painted by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington. I appreciate her concerns. The level of crime with which she must deal in her constituency is far in excess of what I must deal with in South Swindon; nevertheless, the fact that it also exists in Swindon shows that it will affect all of us across the country unless further steps are taken.

The police made four further suggestions to me about what action should be taken. One proposal that seems attractive, and which I hope the Government will consider, is that all air rifles and air pistols should be kept only in clubs, which will be charged with keeping all the air guns and ammunition at their establishments, with all the necessary associated security. Club members would not therefore be able to take those weapons out of the clubs, and we could be secure in the knowledge that they were not in general circulation. Having

29 Jan 2003 : Column 273WH

corresponded with a local gun club, I know that they already keep some people's guns, so why should they not extend that as a general rule?

Another suggested measure is to tighten up on the sale of weapons by restricting sales to registered dealers. Internet sales are a problem, and banning those altogether would be good, but perhaps even they could be registered. If all the guns and ammunition were kept in gun clubs, only registered dealers could deliver those guns directly to the clubs. We could therefore be assured that we were keeping guns out of general circulation.

Mr. Paice : I am listening with interest to the hon. Lady's proposals. However, they seem to be based on the misunderstanding that all airgun users use them solely for target practice in clubs. Does she not understand that, in large parts of this country, airguns and air rifles in particular are used for pest control and other field sport activities, and are not used in recognised clubs or ranges but out in the open countryside, perfectly safely and often by very young people?

Ms Drown : I recognise that, but such sporting activity could be organised only through clubs to keep control of the guns and ammunition. Clearly, pest control and more rare exceptions such as use in film making and theatres would have to be subject to exceptional procedure, licensing and so on to allow that to continue. The wish for sports to continue, however, must be balanced against the real needs of residents whose fear of guns and what can happen as a result of them is increasing daily.

I discussed with local police in particular the complicated existing legislation for firearms. I was shown one of the "easy-to-read" handbooks, which went on for page after page. The more complex the existing legislation, the harder it is for the police to use and implement it. There is a disincentive for them to use it as it becomes more complicated. Again I urge that we completely replace the legislation to make it easier and more streamlined. I know that the Government are keen to reduce bureaucracy in the police service, and this seems to be one area in which that can be done. For example, there is a discussion about whether airguns should be included as firearms, as some people could argue in court that they are not really lethal. Simplifying those issues could be very helpful to police officers whom we entrust to enforce the law.

The police are concerned that they are increasingly tracing the origin of weapons to people's houses and that when they visit those houses they find not just one or two weapons but whole walls covered with replica guns, antique guns and so on. The police ask whether in the face of such huge dangers to our community such displays should be allowed. Of course, some of those guns are, supposedly, decommissioned and the Home Office is reasonably sure that the most recent decommissioning rules allow people to have confidence that once weapons are decommissioned they cannot be brought back into use. However, what are we doing with guns decommissioned under previous rules? I am told that many of those weapons can easily be converted to take live ammunition. That is a huge concern.

My final concern is about the number of weapons on the market that look like pens or cigarette lighters. I realise that if they are actually guns, they are already

29 Jan 2003 : Column 274WH

outlawed, but is there any law to stop airguns, which cause the same fear as real guns, being marketed in that way? Perhaps the practice is already illegal, but many of my constituents express concern about it. There is no reason that people should have cigarette lighters that are guns of any sort and we should do what we can to ensure that they are not available.

I very much welcome this debate. The Government are right to take the steps that they have outlined. There is a real problem, not only in our cities but throughout the country. It is certainly clear to me that residents in my constituency, public servants and the police are increasingly concerned and that the problem must be addressed. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety will tell us that we shall go even further than the existing proposals so that we can all go back to our constituents and assure them that everything possible will be done to reduce this real and growing fear that affects so many people in our country.

10.22 am

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) for bringing us back to the problem of gun crime, about which she and I have talked often. She has been up-front about confronting the direct issue of how we deal with guns. However, she also knows, because I have told her privately, that one of the most impressive events that I have attended in recent years was the conference that she organised at the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre, which addressed the educational underperformance of young black males. In reality, the two issues go together.

I want to be positive and optimistic. Of course we have to deal with the villains—the criminals and the adults who set bad examples—but if we do not at the same time deal with the youngsters and give them alternative routes to success, we shall never turn them from the directions about which we are so unhappy.

People who have had a formative influence on me include Lucy Cope, who is known to Ministers. She has lived in Southwark for many years and experienced the tragedy of losing two sons during the past few years. One son died a violent death, accidentally, at the hands of his brother. Last year, her second son was involved in a minor disagreement in Southwark one morning and, as a result, was shot and killed in the evening of the same day.

Lucy Cope and people like her who have been through such experiences are members of Mothers Against Guns. She is a white woman, married to a black husband, so the family is mixed race and she understands the background of both communities. We need to listen to such people—as the Government and others are increasingly doing—who have important lessons for us.

We also have to listen to the police. Like the hon. Lady, I, too, recently received an update from the people running Operation Trident, who have done extremely good work. Police forces throughout the country and the National Criminal Intelligence Service all have an important role to play and we must learn from their experience.

One positive result of the tragedy that occurred on new year's eve was that young people from the inner city wrote eloquent and relevant newspaper articles to

29 Jan 2003 : Column 275WH

communicate their experience. The next generation are telling us how it is and we need to listen to them. One of those articles was written for the New Nation by Akosa Annobil Dodoo, a 21-year-old woman. We should read the work of such people and listen to them. They are the neighbours, sisters, nieces and friends of people who suddenly find themselves caught up in something that they dislike and about which they are angry but which is often overpowering.

On the day after the tragic death of the detective constable in Manchester, which was not a gun crime, I was at a meeting at my local police station. Afterwards, I had an informal conversation with officers who had not attended the meeting; they were just changing shifts. We need to listen to them, too. They told me that we must be careful not to exaggerate the figures. Indeed, I try never to misrepresent figures.

The figures show that gun crime is a minute proportion of all crime, even though it is growing and unacceptable, but officers are increasingly worried about it. When they are called out to Southwark estates after reports that someone has been seen with a knife or a gun, they often never find the person or cannot identify them. That greater propensity to use weapons is not reported, so although there is significant growth in the number of gun crimes recorded, we must also realise that there is much more that the police cannot manage to tackle.

I want to read from two sets of figures. They are all in the public domain so it would not be helpful to read them ritualistically. According to last year's figures, 2001–02, firearms, including air weapons, were used in 0.4 per cent. of all recorded crimes and in 0.2 per cent. if air weapons are excluded. That gives us some perspective, but the recent growth must give us real cause for alarm. I shall give two figures. In 2001–02, there were nearly 10,000 recorded crimes in which firearms were used—up 35 per cent. from the previous year; and there were nearly 12,500 in which air weapons were used, which is the highest number ever recorded.

I want to share some of the Trident figures with Members as I hope that they will serve to disabuse some commentators of their myths, although it is true that the level of offending was serious in 2001–02. In London, gun-related murders rose from 15 to 24 and other shootings from 35 to 118. Some boroughs are especially badly affected. Sadly, Hackney has the worst problem, with 15 per cent. of gun incidents; 13 per cent. took place in Brent and 12 per cent. in my borough, Southwark. Of course, I am not trying to underplay the problems in places such as Westminster, Birmingham or Manchester.

Contrary to what is often thought, the highest number of gun incidents—18 per cent.—took place inside people's homes, according to the latest figures. The second largest group, 16 per cent., took place on the street and a further 16 per cent. were related to night clubs, bars or pubs. As the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington pointed out, those crimes happen in social contexts where a disagreement or a word or jealousy spark something and people overreact.

The motive for such crime is unknown in the majority of cases. Where the motive is known, 16 per cent. of incidents were gang-related—the highest number; 14 per

29 Jan 2003 : Column 276WH

cent. were robbery-related; and 13 per cent. related to drug rip-offs or arguments about drug sales. In 11 per cent. of cases, the motive was disrespect—just an argument about status.

The nationality of Trident victims is important: 58 per cent. were British, 28 per cent. Jamaican, and 7 per cent. Nigerian. However, that is not the perception. We must get the figures clear, right and in the public domain. The figures show that most victims were British, followed by Jamaicans, and then, miles behind, come the other categories. According to Trident, the most common category of violence is British on British, with Jamaican on Jamaican further down the league table. We must be careful to get those messages across.

Saddest of all, if inevitable, is the age profile. The bottom end of the graph of gun crime victims shows 14-year-olds with 19 and 20-year-olds at the peak. That is often the age of people who get shot outside the pub or their house, or in the street. They are the flower of our youth, the next generation, the guys and girls—mainly guys—with energy, strength and ability. On victim injury rates, 45 per cent. of victims involved in such crimes were shot, while 33 per cent. were not.

One important issue that I have discussed with the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington and Home Office Ministers is that of getting people to say what happened. Of 174 offences reported last year, in 115 cases 67 per cent. of victims were willing to substantiate what had happened, but in 46 cases—26 per cent.—the victims were not willing to do so. Where people are willing to substantiate, the clear-up rate is nearly one in four, which is as good as anything in London—the average rate in London is 12.5 per cent.

The police statement of the criminal profile reveals deprived environments, school exclusion, social exclusion, and elder siblings involved in crime. The process starts at a young age, with 10 to 12-year-olds engaged in acquisitive crime, 13 to 17-year-olds beginning to get involved in robbery, "steaming", carjacking and running for drug dealers, then, by the age of 18 and above, gun crime and drugs.

We now have the information and the profiles and we understand the score. I agree with the hon. Lady. I am not trying to make a party political point, because the issue is much bigger than that, and we are all striving for the best solutions. First, we must deal with the dealers, the big guys, the criminals, the drug traffickers, the profiteers and the money launderers who are making money from exploiting other people and getting them involved on their side.

Secondly, the police want long-term initiatives. Trident is beginning to be really successful, but it has only been going for two or three years. I think that in Birmingham or Manchester, the police have just closed down a specialist gun initiative. The police say, "Please don't give us an initiative in January, another one in June, then another one in December." Dealing with this sort of crime is a long, steady process.

Thirdly, we have to be honest, as I have tried to be, about the colour, race groups and backgrounds of those involved in gun crime, because then we can target it. We have to make people understand that it is not exclusive to one group—there are predominant categories, characteristics and backgrounds.

29 Jan 2003 : Column 277WH

Fourthly, there is a big glamour issue, but it is marginal. Every American film that I have seen since I was a kid has had guns and violence in it—guns are often part of their cultural background. There is a responsibility not to glamorise violence. The tragedy in Britain is that we have an increasingly violent society. Violence is more acceptable, but it should not be—we have to take it on and pull it down.

My only criticism of the Government is that, having done lots of preparatory work—I pay tribute to the Minister, to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth) and to their colleagues—they got into a terrible muddle over the new year. They announced that they were going to make proposals, then the five year minimum sentence, then that they were going to have a summit—which obviously should have come first—then backed off from the five-year mandatory sentence. I hope that that was a lesson in realising that it is less important to go for the soundbites and tough-sounding headlines than to get the policy right having spoken to the right people. I hope that we do not go down that road again.

Where do we go from here? An amnesty is a good idea. There should be a common border force involving much more effective Customs and Excise and police work on controlling guns coming into the country from eastern and southern Europe and elsewhere. At the moment, the situation is very poor. I have been told horror stories about how we are not catching people coming through the system. We need a national policing response through NCIS.

The age limit for airguns should be raised to 17. I share the view about replica guns—we should ban their sale through the internet and mail order so that they are available only through authorised outlets, and introduce an offence of possessing them without authority. At the moment, people do not know whether they are replicas and respond as if they are real.

There should be a presumption of custody for everybody caught on the streets with a gun or a knife without a lawful excuse, but I do not agree with the five-year mandatory sentence, because such sentences never work. There is a huge difference between a 16-year-old holding a gun for 10 seconds for his cousin and a person who is going out for the first time with a machine gun or other serious weapon, intending to use it. Once somebody has been sent to prison, there is no stronger response that can be made, and people do not normally come out of prison less likely to commit crime. That is not the experience of black or white young men, who normally come out more likely to commit crimes.

We need more police, and armed response vehicles in every command unit area in the inner city, so that the police can come quickly. Protective clothing must be worn on all occasions.

We need to encourage communities to speak out. Women will lead the way in that, and thank God that they are now doing so, because it is often up to them to make crime unacceptable to their male colleagues.

We must improve witness and victim protection. Above all, we have to encourage young people to have self-respect and take advantage of opportunities from the beginning.

29 Jan 2003 : Column 278WH

There are ways forward—it is not a dire picture—but it is urgent to have a united response that learns the best of the lessons from all of us.

10.37 am

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): I am anxious that the Minister should have time to respond in depth, so I shall endeavour to keep my remarks brief.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) not only on attaining the debate—she knows the standard practice on these occasions—but on her whole speech. She showed a huge depth of knowledge and understanding of the issues. With one minor exception, to which I shall come in a moment, I agree with everything she said. She may recall, because I notified her beforehand, that I was in her constituency last week, at the Groundwork initiative. I would not pretend that it gave me a huge insight into her whole constituency, but suffice it to say that I realised that she is dealing with problems that are very different from those that I have to deal with in my constituency: it would be foolish to pretend otherwise.

The statistics on gun crime are well known, and I shall not detain hon. Members by repeating them. Such a statement is usually followed by a "but". I have a short "but", which is simply to reflect on the shift in the types of firearm that are being used.

I have statistics that go back a long way. In 1985, 27 per cent. of firearm-related robberies were committed with shotguns and rifles, although the latter have always constituted a minuscule proportion. That is well below 10 per cent. of firearms offences. However, there has been a compensatory increase in the use of handguns and, sadly, automatic weapons. The ground therefore periodically shifts, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington is right about the development of gang culture—I shall not say the advent because gangs have always existed; we had them at school—on the fringes of criminality. Gangs often serve as a pseudo-family, especially in areas where family breakdown is rife.

We must reflect on what needs to be done. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) made some suggestions but we need to keep it at the forefront of our minds that a gun lying in the middle of the Chamber would not cause problems until it reached somebody's hands. We should concentrate on ensuring that guns do not get into the wrong hands rather than worrying about all guns.

The Centre for Defence Studies at King's college clearly states:

That is important. The increase in handgun crimes, despite the reaction to the Dunblane tragedy, demonstrates beyond doubt that there is no direct link between removing legally owned handguns and reducing their illegal use for criminal purposes. We

29 Jan 2003 : Column 279WH

should learn that lesson to the extent of reversing the legislation on Olympic sports and thus end the absurd position whereby members of the British team have to go abroad to practise.

Most hon. Members referred to replica guns. As the hon. Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) said, many replicas cannot be distinguished from a real gun. Whenever anyone has considered the matter—that includes Labour and Conservative Governments and the Home Affairs Committee—definition has caused a problem. A replica could be a cigarette lighter that happens to resemble a pistol, a child's pistol, an antique pistol, a starting pistol or an expensive, technical, state-of-the-art object that is impossible to distinguish from a real gun unless one tries to pull the trigger. Some replicas can be converted, as can the Brocock. However, I am worried by the suggestion that we should ban all replicas, their manufacture and import, and even prevent someone from having them on the wall. That is an overreaction. I do not especially want a collection of replica guns, but I understand that some people do. They do not cause a problem of themselves, but we have to ensure that they are not improperly used.

A similar point can be made about airguns. Those who use them illegally almost invariably own them illegally—the level of crime for which a person who legally possesses a gun is responsible is generally low, apart from an extreme tragedy such as Dunblane. That applies to airguns to a lesser extent. The statute book already contains a large number of criminal offences that apply to all sorts of guns. There are 28 criminal offences that involve prosecution for using an airgun. It is an offence for a person under 17 to have an air weapon in a public place, yet in the past few years there has been no change in the number of prosecutions or convictions for such offences. Indeed, a marginal decline has taken place.

That highlights the fact that we need not to create more crimes but to make more effort to find out who uses airguns, deal with the gang culture that instigates their use, and of course, education, about which the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington spoke so excellently. I shall not even try to repeat her words, which are rightly on the record.

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke to a retired black Metropolitan police superintendent. His view was similar to that of the hon. Lady—that the police know who holds many of the weapons, but even when the police know the identity of those who have guns they are impeded by a lack of witnesses. There is no doubt that the Macpherson report played a part, but so has general unwillingness to risk accusations of racism. The police therefore do not harass those who have guns. The superintendent said, "If you go to bed with a gun under your pillow, you should lie awake all night worrying that the police are going to bang on the door." However, that does not happen.

Much more effort needs to be made to discover the source of the guns. The important King's college report states:

29 Jan 2003 : Column 280WH

The report continues:

There is no central record of weapons in this country. Everyone who has a certificate for a firearm or a shotgun registers the weapon. The police have the serial numbers and all the necessary information, but that is where the matter ends.

First, we need to establish a national register of all firearms so that if any police force in any part of the country found a firearm that had been used in a crime, it could immediately undertake the necessary research to ascertain whether it had ever been legally owned in this country. I believe that the 1997 legislation provided for that. It would be a first step towards stamping out the supply. Not only the culture needs to be tackled—although that is a priority—but the supply of illegal weapons. We need to stop them getting into the hands of those who are inclined to use them.

We need to leave alone the very large number of people who use guns regularly for sporting purposes—field sports, target sports, clay pigeon shooting or whatever—who do not pose a risk to the public and who take as a huge offence the implication that they do and that they should be penalised for their own activity.

I hope that when the Government introduce their legislation in the next month or two they will bear that in mind. I also hope that before considering more legislation—I have not reflected today on the specific Government proposals—they will think much more carefully about what we can do to stamp out the supply of guns and alter the mindset of those who would use them.

10.50 am

The Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety (Mr. John Denham) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) on obtaining this debate. She made an excellent speech, which needs to be reread. I shall think about a number of the issues that she raised, even if I am not able to reply to them all today. I shall respond to as many points as I can.

My hon. Friend was probably the first Member to advocate the mandatory minimum sentence. She will be pleased that that campaign of hers has succeeded. As always, she is now moving on to new issues, which is quite right.

My hon. Friend graphically described the problems experienced in the community that she represents. She rightly stressed that although this has been predominantly a crime that has been seen as black on black it is by no means confined to the black community, and indeed is likely to spread if we are not successful in tackling it.

I agree with the stress that my hon. Friend laid on the long-term need to tackle educational under-achievement to raise aspirations and opportunities for success, in particular among Afro-Caribbean young

29 Jan 2003 : Column 281WH

men. That critical issue was raised at the gun crime summit in January. It was stressed in particular by Lee Jasper from the Mayor of London's office, and it is one that we must build into our long-term planning.

Under many of the initiatives, such as excellent schools, the behaviour improvement programme, extended schools and so on, the investment will be concentrated predominantly in inner-city areas and areas with the same type of deprivation. We must make sure that we reach those parts of the community in most need of success.

It has not been touched on a great deal in this debate, but what has also been stressed to us in all the work that we have been doing on this issue—by the police, local authorities and community organisations, and again at the gun crime summit—is the importance of supporting and working with members of local communities who want to stand up to and speak out against gun crime. We have some very good initiatives—the "Not another drop" campaign in Brent, which has significantly reduced gun crime in Harlesden, and the similar initiative being run in Haringey. But I do not think that we can say at present that we are running such campaigns in every community where we need to get across such a strong message.

Mr. Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr): Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the partnership against crime in my constituency, which has done a great deal of work in persuading some of the young people to move away from gangs and drugs back into the mainstream of society?

Mr. Denham : I am very pleased to do so. Indeed, I look forward to discussing this issue with my hon. Friend and members of the local community in his constituency next Tuesday, when I come to Birmingham to discuss these very matters.

We are also very keen to make sure that we can have a more strategic approach to working with local communities and supporting local community organisations, particularly local black organisations, which can work in partnership with the other agencies to tackle gun crime. The Home Office is, for example, looking at ways in which the expanded active communities unit can help us with that work. That is a very important part of the overall strategy to persuade those who are carrying guns at present not to do so.

The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), speaking for the Opposition, said that it was not the gun but the person who used it that was dangerous. I can see his point, although, had there been a gun on the floor and had the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) spoken for much longer, I think that the risk presented by that gun would gradually have risen. This is a light-hearted way of making a very serious point. We must not only address the issue of those who carry guns but take very firm action to remove guns from those who might use them not in a planned or organised crime, but in all of the situations that have been described in the debate.

The reason why we have been persuaded of the case for introducing a mandatory minimum sentence for carrying a firearm is precisely to reduce the number of

29 Jan 2003 : Column 282WH

those who are carrying guns. We fully recognise that some of those who are going out with organised criminal intent carry guns. It has always been against the law and they have always faced penalties. Armed robbers and the like are likely to continue. We need to send a most powerful message through influential groups in the community to those who have only begun to carry guns in the recent past. We need to make it clear that it is not worth the cost.

The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) raised a point on which I disagree. He said that the issue was enforcement of the existing laws. When Operation Trident was established by the Metropolitan Police, I think the underlying analysis was that there would be a certain number of people in London carrying guns for criminal purposes, often associated with the drug trade, and that their removal from the scene by effective policing would on its own turn the rising tide of gun use.

The case that the Metropolitan Police has put to us and others is that Trident has been quite successful in the number of arrests and the number of individuals who have been targeted. It has been successful in increasing and improving detection rates, particularly for gun murders and so on. It is a real success, and we should never let the impression be given that nothing has been done. That action, targeted on the hard-core element within gun crime, needs to be supplemented by measures that will reduce the wider number of people carrying guns, which can lead to the type of tragedy that occurred in Birmingham. The two approaches—a mandatory minimum sentence plus the targeting of individuals—go together.

I want to concentrate now on the witness issue, which is very important. We have been working, for example, with Waltham Forest on what we regard as something of a model programme called SafetyNet—a partnership between the London borough of Waltham Forest, the housing association and the Metropolitan Police, to support vulnerable and intimidated witnesses. At the heart of that is the need for fast-track relocation for some witnesses at risk.

My hon. Friend asked whether we can go further than that. We have issued guidance to the police on tackling witness intimidation in the past. In May 2001 we urged the police to prosecute instances of witness intimidation wherever possible. We have also recommended that, in partnership with local authorities, community-based support schemes should be set up for witnesses.

My officials, in conjunction with the Association of Chief Police Officers and leading police practitioners engaged in the highly sensitive area of witness protection, are reviewing the existing arrangements. I do not want to go too much in public into details of what that might be, but I can say that we are planning a conference with chief constables to raise awareness of this issue and to examine ways forward.

My hon. Friend made some very important points about co-ordination and reciprocity between different housing organisations across a wider area. I shall take the opportunity, as part of the review, to ask my officials to look at those issues and see what further can be done, and also to see what can be done to strengthen community-based support and the lower level of support that is on offer—for example, the installation of

29 Jan 2003 : Column 283WH

panic alarms, the making available of mobile phones with a direct connection to a police support line, the regular use of police patrols and so on, so that we can increase the number of those willing to be witnesses in gun crime cases by having them feel the support that they deserve for being willing to come forward.

The question of guns from the Balkans was raised. There is no evidence of large-scale trafficking of guns, although there are criminals associated with that part of the world who are undoubtedly bringing guns in. We take this seriously, and my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Foreign Secretary hosted a conference in London in the autumn looking specifically at organised crime issues in the Balkans and their links with this country. It is an issue that we shall continue to work on.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. I ask Members not wishing to stay for the next debate to leave quickly and quietly.

Next Section

IndexHome Page