Violent Crime Reduction Bill – nearly there!

The Violent Crime Reduction Bill came back to the Commons for Lords Amendments. All over bar the shouting really! The Government had finally realised that it had to lay amendments lengthening the sentence for carrying a knife or bladed weapon in a public place. There had been a Tory amendment to lengthen it to 5 years and a Lib Dem one to lengthen it to 7 (same as for a gun) – but the Government had voted against previously. However, it is often the way that the Government just won’t vote positively on an opposition amendment. They vote against and then bring it back themselves later in the process. So who cares – so long as they finally saw sense.

That having been said – it ain’t just the sentence. The real proof of pudding will be less young people carrying – and that needs a mix of police work, prevention, education, making kids feel safe on the streets, giving them life chances, working with them to show it’s not ‘cool’ – as well as the deterrent of a longer sentence and the actual custodial detention itself. It isn’t quick, cheap or easy to change a whole culture – but that’s what we are up against.

The other highlights were around imitation firearms, Drink Banning Orders and Alcohol Disorder Zones. We support totally the tackling of the twin challenges of weapons and alcohol – but it’s how these laws are enforced that will matter. Anyway – now that one is on its way to the final stage of legislation. Whew!

Knife crime

Managed to get called during Business Questions – which is a quaint way of bringing constituency issues to the fore and asking the Leader of the House (Labour MP Jack Straw) for a debate. The debate I asked for was on the rate of grant from the government for statutory support for asylum seekers.

In Haringey we happily provide support for a very high level of asylum seekers. But if you take even just one element of Government funding support – the rates for looking after unaccompanied asylum seeker children – the grant doesn’t come anywhere near the actual cost. And even worse – not only does the Government funding not cover the costs, but the costs racked up by the Government’s failure to make asylum decisions quickly – because much of the cost in that maintenance is due during the period whilst the Home Office (that oh so fit for purpose establishment) takes years to process the legality or otherwise of the asylum seeker.

It is completely unfair and unsustainable on those areas where asylum seekers naturally congregate.Jack Straw’s answer – he would pass on my remarks to the Home Office and a slagging off for the LibDems in general. That really raised the tone!

In fact I have just written to Jack Straw over his outburst last week on knives. My Lib Dem colleague, Mark Hunter, raised the issue of lengthening sentences for carrying a knife in a public place and Jack just ranted about Lib Dems opposing longer sentences for knife crime. This is misleading Parliament in the first degree (i.e. untrue! and you can check in Hansard from report stage of Bill in Commons). Not only is this assertion factually incorrect but also completely unwarranted. In response to the recent surge in knife crime, a Liberal Democrat sponsored amendment was laid down in the Violent Crime Reduction Bill (on which I lead for my party) that would increase the sentence for carrying of a knife in a public place to seven years. This amendment was not voted on as a Conservative amendment, take before it ,which would have increased the sentence to five years was defeated by the Government. So the truth is – Labour voted against increasing the penalty for carrying a knife in a public place.

The Bill is coming back to the Commons for Lords Amendments next Monday and Labour will be tabling an amendment to make the sentence four years (which is better than the current tariff), and although it doesn’t extend it far enough in my view it is a step in the right direction. I will go into this further when I write up my blog after the debate next Monday.

Wood Green development

Surgery all morning at Wood Green library followed by meeting with the council officers involved in the Wood Green Master Plan.

Master Plan is a bit of a misnomer – as this is really a Wood Green Planning and Business Improvement document. It’s early stages – but as far as I could glean this was a bit of strategic assessment of what might improve the regeneration and status of the area. There are a number of big sites that will be developed in the relatively near future – like Heartlands and the old Civic Centre site. The issues of jobs in an area of high unemployment, planning, sustainability and so on need to be handled sensibly to bring in the sort of retail that will provide more trade and attract more people – whilst taking into account in the needs of local residents whose services – such as transport, schools and health facilities – will need to cope with any growth. And the confidence of residents is dented when ghastly looking buildings from lowest common denominator developers get built.

However, that having been said, I am heartened by the fact that strategic thinking is going on – so long as it is followed by strategic consultation before it gets to a stage where we all feel we have no effect on outcome. I was delighted to learn that the new Haringey Chief Exec – Ita O’Donovan – has been having a go about design quality of the built environment. In my first meeting with her, I made it clear that I felt Wood Green was being damaged by ugly buildings that people then had to live with for years. In fact my first speech in Parliament talked about this – as it is always those in areas of deprivation who get the most badly stuffed by this sort of crappy design and materials.

I also lobbied at the meeting for improvement to Wood Green station – which can barely cope with the numbers already using it. It is not just a lick of paint that is needed but a redevelopment and expansion of capacity. And my last thrust was on sustainability – this is an opportunity to bring some real meaning to sustainability and also to be innovative. Why not bring some real green-ness to Wood Green High Street – water, trees, landscaping, planting street furniture of a real high standard – would all make such a difference! And the front of the library … need I say more?

Last issue of the day is the tragic knifing of schoolboy Kiyan Prince in Edgware. Carrying a knife in a public place should carry the same sentence as that for firearms. If you are murdered by a gun or murdered by knife, the outcome is the same – you are dead. In the Violent Crime Reduction Bill going through Parliament the Lib Dems did put an amendment at Report Stage asking for this. Labour voted against increasing the sentence. The Bill will raise the age at which you can buy a knife from 16 to 18 – which we supported (despite Labour’s attacks on us to the contrary) – but wanted Labour to put in what types of knives were prohibited. As it stands the new legislation means you will be able to get married at 16 but not buy your cutlery from John Lewis until you are 18!

The 7-year tariff for carrying a gun has reduced gun crime. Knives should be the same. I don’t take the view that we should automatically have scanners in every school – that is not the answer to knife crime. I heartily approve of teachers being given the powers to search those kids they suspect of carrying – but don’t believe we should treat all children as criminals. Even more importantly, as knife-carrying is epidemic, is to work on the why and the causes to change behaviour. The culture means that kids believe it is cool to carry a knife – a fashion accessory to gain status. Supporting teachers, the school police person, acceptable behaviour contracts (ABCs) which target behaviour improvement – we need a long sustained and well-resourced emphasis on working on children to turn this around. Punishment, strong sentencing and enforcement all play an important part – but they are not enough on their own to counter the ills of society.

Ming Campbell visits Haringey

Menzies Campbell MP launches Haringey local election campaign

Ming comes to launch our local election campaign in Haringey – where we have a real chance to take Haringey Council after 35 years of Labour rule. The Leader coming confirms this position!

I and Neil Williams (LibDem Council Group Leader) meet Ming at Harringay station. He arrives at 9.15am on the dot. I love people who are on time and organised. We go to the Tottenham side of the station – to Harringay ward – to photograph Ming with the Harringay candidates and then to the Hornsey & Wood Green side for photographs with the Stroud Green candidates. Both sides are to emphasize our campaign for CCTV on the scary entrances both sides of the bridge.

Ming (Sir Menzies Campbell to give him full title) is looking very dapper and smart. We proceed to the campaign HQ at The Three Compasses where Ming will launch our campaign, meet local members and activists (all stuffing envelopes – and boy there are a lot to stuff) and do one-to-one interviews with the journalists covering his visit.

One of the journos lets it be known that a hastily scrambled together ‘launch’ by Labour Minister Hazel Blears is now to take place at 11am same day having heard about Ming’s visit. I know Labour are terrified of losing the Council – but please!

If it’s true – then Hazel (who is my opposite number as I am her Shadow Minister) will do her duty and attack the LibDems and me as usual. It doesn’t matter which way we vote on anything – be it the police budget at the GLA or the Violent Crime Reduction Bill.

We supported the funding for the police and the Violent Crime Reduction Bill – but whatever we say or do – Labour’s mantra is always the same and always untrue. In politics, as opposed to pretty much every other walk of life, lying is just shrugged at and you are just meant to grin and put up with it – but I think that is why politics is in the state it is in – because people can’t be sure that what they read is the truth.

I know I digress – but there is an absurd letter going out in Stroud Green. It purports to be from a Bernard E who lives in Stapleton Hall Road (curiously there’s no-one with the first name Bernard on the electoral register in that road). It basically attacks me for supposedly being a known right winger and supporter of the Orange Book. (A think tank book of essays and ideas by LibDems – one of which was a ‘right-wing’ suggestion about funding in the NHS – thrown out robustly by the party at the following conference).

This would make the party laugh – as that is hardly my reputation or position in the political spectrum. Anyway – there are two versions – one with a Labour imprint and one without (although election law requires all leaflets to have an imprint) – and the writer says he is an old friend of one of the Labour candidates, though doesn’t mention that said person is already a councillor in another ward but was deselected by the Labour party there and so has had to find another ward to stand in.

I mention all this because – whilst we are standing at Harringay Station with Ming – a man comes up to Lib Dem Cllr Laura Edge and me and asks if we have seen this anonymous (in the sense there is no surname and no address) letter going out and how awful it is and how obviously a Labour smear letter. I am heartened by the public’s ability to see through this type of rubbish.

What is odd about the attacks on me is that I am not even a candidate in the local elections as I am stepping down after eight years as a local councillor and five as Leader of the Opposition. But I know that for Labour (and the defunct Tories who have no seats on the council at all) I am a symbol of all of their troubles and political losses.

So at the Three Compasses and into the working room where the stuffing tables are. A big cheer from quite a crowd gathered there and Ming delivers a rallying speech to encourage the troops – as does Neil. Ming clearly thinks we can do it – if we do the work between now and polling day.

Then the series of one-to-ones with reporters. Ming is in fine form – and truly a professional. Interviews over – a couple of members take him for a short tour and then off to Euston to get a train to Manchester for the next big launch. The cry is that we will make great gains across the board – more votes, more councillors and more councils!

Straight back down to earth and surgery at Jacksons Lane Community Centre. Run into Melanie – the Director – who is in happy mode as Haringey ‘found’ the funding to save the centre. I knew they would. Having made it explicit that I would turn this into an election issue if they didn’t I think that may have played a part in focusing their attention on resolving the matter quickly and before the election got under way – although they will undoubtedly claim that had nothing to do with it. That’s where politics works! A situation where Haringey has ignored or not responded on such an important matter – and suddenly with a political spotlight about to shine and me poking my nose in – then things happen.

I remember a similar thing when Labour Haringey wanting to close Muswell Hill library. But the library campaigners, local residents and the LibDems turned it around – with the fortuitous advent of a local ward by-election at that very moment.

In the evening I go to meet Linda Alliston who leads the Coldfall Woods Group. There have been huge problems with gangs of youths on motor bikes ‘buzzing’ dogs and walkers and then burning their no doubt stolen bikes. There is raw sewage (long term problem) being fed into the stream.

The solution to the bikes is to make the woods and football pitches secured by ‘kissing’ gates so that motorbikes can’t enter. For this they need to access the Section 106 money (£500k) from the Lynx Depot development. Cllr Martin Newton (Lib Dem, Fortis Green) comes with me and he has already secured a promise that they would have no problem with a bid for the gates – so they need to write in and I will support that bid. Also – Martin has got the new Safer Neighbourhood police team (which is just in place) to agree that they will come and look at how they can tackle the youth/bike problem.

In the meantime however, Haringey needs to deal with the perennial dumping – and to notify the allotment owners and houses (whether Haringey or Barnet) that back onto Muswell Hill playing field that throwing their BBQ waste over into the fields is not acceptable behaviour. Sadly, there’s an anti-social minority who do this. The good folk who love the fields and the woods have two major clear-ups a year.

Anyway – it was nice to meet the group who look after and love the fields and the woods – a wonderful local amenity – and Martin will pursue the issues and I will also be writing to support the case.

Go back to campaign HQ for a last hour of stuffing envelopes to sooth me down to sleep mode!

Violent Crime Reduction Bill

The critical parts of the Violent Crime Reduction Bill are proposals brought forward by the Government to deal with alcohol-fuelled disorder and the rise of weapons (use and carrying) on our streets.

I am right behind the Government on the overall aims. I may well be critical of some of the detail – and am very critical of the way they may use the new powers – but drinking and gun and knife crime need tackling. I also think that this legislation (as ever) just deals with the symptoms of the dreadful malaise that stalks (mainly) our young people – some of whom drink to oblivion and some of whom in believe that carrying a weapon makes you cool.

However, one of the key point of the Bill is Drink Banning Orders. They are a bit akin to parents grounding their children – a short sharp punishment which would stop them from being able to go to their favourite pub or club for a couple of months. The grounds for dishing one our are problematic – as one Labour MP seemed to think that running down a street and calling to a friend would be enough to constitute disorder. There was no definition of disorder – but in the end the proposals try and target behaviour which by ‘normal’ standards would be unacceptable but not criminal. Difficult – but we will see how it works. It will need close monitoring.

Another proposal is that – in areas where there are lots of establishments serving alcohol – a local authority or a police chief can impose an Alcohol Disorder Zone (ADZ). This will be a defined area where all the establishments where alcohol is a prime reason for their existence will have to pay extra for policing.

The idea is good – but the difficulty in this part of the legislation is that well-behaved good landlords with model establishments will have to pay too. The Government as a consequence of opposition concerns has promised a variable charging scheme – so that culpability is relative to charge. But so far we have seen nothing concrete.

Also the Government has refused to cap the charge that can be made – so businesses don’t know how much they may be in for. I think there may be some real unjust actions as a consequence of ADZs. For instance – each area has an opportunity to put together an 8-week action plan. If the plan is also agreed by the Local Authority and the police they will then have 8 weeks to take the actions and demonstrate that they do not need to have such a zone imposed.

However, take the example of a good landlord within the action plan area who does everything asked of him by the plan, spends money, puts in lighting, hires more door staff – whatever required by the agreed plan. If others don’t do what is required the local authority will still impose the plan and the good landlord will have to stomp up despite doing everything that was asked of him. That is bound to breed resentment and become a disincentive to good behaviour.

The other part of the Bill is mainly about weapons. Basically the Bill, quite rightly, seeks to address the rise in knife crime and the use of imitation weapons along with some new limits on legal weapons. LibDems support the Government on this – and during the course of the passage of the Bill we have sought to address the rise in knife crime to give it parity to gun crime. The 7-year sentence on carrying a gun has seemingly produced a drop in gun crime.

We table an amendment that will impose an equal sentence on carrying a knife as a gun. You are equally dead if murdered by a knife as a gun – so we are seeking parity of sentence. Unfortunately, Labour voted against increasing the charge for carrying a knife. They have a measure in the Bill that raises the age from 16 to 18 for purchasing or selling a knife. But there is no description as to what sort of knife – which leaves the unsatisfactory position of being able to get married and have children at 16 but not buy cutlery!

Imitation guns have become a real problem – but the whole of the re-enactment brigade and airsoft players (a game) are up in arms (so to speak) in case their pastimes are inhibited. All of us on the Bill across all parties have been trying to bend over backwards to ensure that the games can continue but that the mischief of imitation weapons is ended.

So the Bill, supported by both Lib Dems and Tories, now goes on its way to the Lords. The measures will curb some of the excesses we all hope – but we all know that deep down this Bill just doesn’t begin to address what lies beneath: what is the root cause of the disaffection of our young people so that they drink themselves stupid and aspire to carrying weapons? That is the nut we have to really crack.

Remembrance Sunday

I go to lay the wreath at the Wood Green War Memorial. The sun shines down brilliantly. I am, as always, concerned about not falling or tripping as you walk back from laying the wreath and backing down three steps before bowing my head. However, no accidents occur. My concern is not to detract from the solemnity of the occasion. I am, as ever, moved to tears by the Last Post and indeed by one of the hymns at the church service afterwards. It is good to stop and remember. Somehow it always reminds me of a finer time when people certainly seemed more decent. Whether that is reality or not – it seems so to me.

After the ceremony and the service, I rush home to hours and hours of preparation for tomorrow’s Violent Crime Reduction Bill Report Stage and Third Reading which I am leading on the floor of the House.

Airsoft guns

Three sessions (extended) of the Violent Crime Reduction Bill in committee – non-stop pleasure today! Broken only by lunch with ITV execs who are trying to get to know me. It was very pleasant and spent some time discussing the X factor – which I have to say is fabulous!

In committee we ranged through imitation guns, air weapons, knives, searching pupils and so on. I thought I did quite well during what was a long day. Even Hazel Blears looked bleary at the end of the last session, which terminated at 9 at night – as did I probably.

In terms of imitation guns, I think the show-stopper was around airsoft. For those who haven’t a clue what this is – as I didn’t only a short time ago – it is a game played with pellets by adults who shoot each other with imitation weapons. The speed or power is measured in ‘joules’. As I understood it, one joule is regarded as lethal. The Tories put down an amendment suggested that up to 4 joules should be allowed. The logic of which I still don’t understand.

However, the show-stopper was that I had asked my researcher to phone AirSoft and see if they minded if their weapons were painted with a day-glow orange ring around the muzzle so that they would be obviously not for real. They said no probs – basically. Hazel thought that was extremely helpful – and I surmised that – despite the mountain of lobbying mail we had all received from airsoft players – no one from Government had talked direct to the relevant organisations.

Imitation arms are a menace – and whilst you don’t want to catch out re-enactment societies, plays etc – I totally support the increased penalties and crack down on the sale and manufacturer of such arms.

[UPDATE: Thanks for all various feedback on this topic; see my latter blog posting.]

Another really good amendment of ours (if I say so myself) was about the searching of pupils for knives. The Bill will allow supervised and senior teachers, never alone, to search a pupil for knives. This is now prevalent in our schools and much preferable in my view to having a metal detector as you walk into school. However, the Government had completely left out Further Education colleges where lots and lots of youngsters under 18 now attend for a variety of courses. So they graciously acknowledged that this was the case – and hopefully will come back with their version of our amendment at Report Stage. Report Stage is when the same, but reduced process we have just been through in Committee comes to the floor of the Commons for all to have their say. It then goes straight into 3rd Reading – and either it passes or not.

So we finished around 9pm at the end of three sessions today. Glad to be to it and through it. The first is the worst. It wasn’t bad – but being the first time I had led a Bill through a committee it was very challenging as I was unfamiliar with the processes – which in Parliament are bizarre – as well as concerned to make sure that I got all the right amendments down and argued them properly. One thing I don’t yet understand – and maybe never will – is why the Tories write out speeches on every point and burble on for very long periods adding nothing whatever to the point. Perhaps it is because they were all lawyers and are used to charging by the hour!

Aircraft noise in Hornsey and Wood Green

Spent most of the day working on the Violent Crime Reduction Bill. But highlight of the day was a rally in Westminster over night flights, organised by HACAN Clearskies and others.

The relentless drive by airlines, airports and Government for bigger airports and more flights rolls on – and the current proposals are for more night flights. Funnily enough – when I started campaigning in the Hornsey & Wood Green area – quite a few people had complained to me about aircraft noise in Muswell Hill. I had gone to Heathrow to the noise unit to investigate why there seemed to be an increase in flights over Muswell Hill. What I discovered was that there is a northern stack where aircraft wait. Whether that was the cause or not – unknown.

Curiously, after thumping the metaphorical table – I was told there had only ever had 8 complaints submitted over the previous 10 years from the Muswell Hill area. Now, I had received many more complaints than that just myself in a year! It didn’t mean there wasn’t a noise issue – but it did mean they were very smug about the level of complaint. It’s clear most people who are unhappy about the issue in my constituency don’t know who to complain to about the issue – something I will remedy!

Recently, there have been a lot of complaints locally about increased aircraft noise. In fact last night, my daughter and I counted four in one hour, really low and really loud. Anyway – on the back of this new spate I emailed out to my local lists to try and find out if this was particular sensitivity on the part of a few residents or a more widespread and general view about an increase. Judging from the response – it is much, much wider than before. I’ve put a map of the responses up on my website – and will make sure that people get the address details of the noise unit at Heathrow so everyone can also lodge a formal complaint – otherwise they will carry on saying, problem – what problem?

Back to the night flights rally. About 500 people turned out to oppose the proposals to expand night flights. A stream of politicians from the South West of London came and went to the podium – and then they let a North London girl (me) have my say. I told them about the complaints here in the north and about the survey. And about what seems to me the real crux of this problem – the continual expansion driven by the predict and provide approach of both government and supplier to an ever-increasing market. I remember at the London Assembly responding on behalf of the Transport Committee to a consultation about Heathrow. The constant drone of the government is that if we don’t expand – we die. Or rather Frankfurt or Paris will be then the preferred destination and inward investment will cease. Rubbish. Of course – there’s lots of money involved. And BAA, the airlines and the government want it. Before the ink on the paper was dry from the 5th terminal enquiry at which BAA had promised no need for a third runway – guess what – they started wanting a third runway.

So I rallied – for us – for North London!

More gesture politics from Labour

Back to the Violent Crime Reduction Bill. Last thing yesterday dozens of amendments were published for the weapons part of the bill. But first we have to finish up on Alcohol Disorder Zones. This is with an argument from the Lib Dem about an absurd bit of the proposals which gives the area proposed for a disorder zone an opportunity to put forward an action plan and sort things out first – but then says that if the Local Authority doesn’t like the way the things are going it can step in and impose the zone anyway. You can’t have a mechanism for giving people a chance to do things the right way and then not give them that period. Unless you’re a Labour Government!

So then we arrive at guns. My Lib Dem No.2 on the Committee (there are only two Lib Dems) is a gun using Scot. He has lawful possession of a number of guns and is expert on the ins and outs of firearms certificates and the like. I have some relationship with alcohol – but none with guns.

We are arguing with the Government on a number of aspects. First there is an issue with tightening up on the transport of guns. As John Thurso points out, if he had his gun locked in his boot (which is the only way you are allowed to transport guns) and he popped out from the car to buy something and his friend was left in the car, he could then be had for this ‘crime’ – and moreover he could get 5 years minimum mandatory sentence for the pleasure – under Labour’s proposals, as currently written.

Latter on I argue against minimum mandatory sentences – partly because we believe law makers should not lay down what should rightly be decided by judges as to particular circumstances of each case, but also because it is another example of Labour being ‘tough’ without thinking things through. In this case, we’d have a dog’s breakfast of some offences having a mandatory five-year minimum sentence but equivalent acts with other firearms had completely different penalties. The whole structure would become a nonsense – and the Government has promised and promised a reviews and consultations – and then nothing. Sentencing is already becoming nonsense with Charles Clarke letting prisoners go because the prisons are too full. It’s all ‘gesture’ and ‘message’ with existing laws not enforced properly and a whole pile of new laws instead.

Anyway – Labour have a right go at me – but I stick to my guns (so to speak)!

We finish around 5pm and will resume where we left off next Tuesday – just before which pagers vibrate to bring us the news that Cameron and Davis will fight it out.