January 29, 2003
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.
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 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.
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, currently 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.