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Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking): I declare an interest as a recorder of the Crown court and a former acting metropolitan stipendiary magistrate. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on initiating this important debate and I agree whole-heartedly with him about the need to tackle the causes of crime. From my experience, I believe that a great proportion of youth crime is connected with drugs and alcohol. Does he agree that the more work that can be concentrated on that problem, the greater the prospect of improvements?

Mr. Burstow: I agree with the hon. Gentleman's good point. I am keen to stress that we need to do more to deal with the problems of solvent abuse and other forms of drug abuse.

I should like to describe how the initiatives taken in my area have borne fruit. A local shopping centre, Stonecot Hill, suffered from a number of minor crimes, which caused a considerable amount of damage to the premises of local retailers. In the spring of 1996, the council called a meeting of those businesses, which was also attended by the local police and representatives of the probation service as well as youth workers and representatives of the Sutton youth awareness programme.

As a result of that meeting, a strategy was agreed to increase the number of police officers patrolling the area. Outreach staff have also started to talk to young people

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hanging around the streets. A graffiti project has been successfully implemented to engage those young people in productive work. The probation service, through its community services programme, has cleared up the area and painted and made repairs where necessary. Local traders suggested where murals might be painted and the first was completed in March 1997. The outreach teams have spent time with the young people for the past six months. Drug information and advice services have also been offered to young people, and those with more acute drug dependency problems have been referred for more extensive counselling and support.

The council is also supplementing that initiative with the introduction of a closed circuit television camera at the local shopping centre, which is connected to the local control centre. It is important to note that that strategy has focused on the causes of crime, and in recent months the crime level has fallen to zero. In addition, it has helped to upgrade the area. It has brought together the traders and statutory agencies, who have agreed a programme of action. It has also diverted a significant number of young people from drifting into a life of crime and has prevented the inevitable spiral that leads to more serious offences.

So far, I have described initiatives for young people on the verge of crime, but it is vital to try to work with those young people who have already fallen over the edge. One scheme in which my local authority of Sutton has become involved in recent years is the youth at risk programme. It was the second local authority to engage the youth at risk team. The team works with some of the most difficult children in our society and it has now run three programmes targeting persistent young offenders in Sutton. They are intensive programmes: residential courses are followed by a nine-month programme of training and one-to-one support. The programme was described in The Observer as

Young people involved in the initiative are able to reveal their backgrounds and experiences--many for the first time. The initiative often reveals very damaged children who have been abused, sexually and physically. Many of them have been through the care system and many have never experienced normal family life and the love of parent or parents. I do not say that to seek the House's pity for the children and I do not wish to pretend that the youth at risk programme turns them into angels--it does not. But it makes a difference to their lives and, as a consequence, to the communities in which they live.

In National Volunteers Week, I want to pay particular tribute to the dedicated partners who play a part in the youth at risk programme. The volunteers allow the programme to succeed. We should pay tribute to them for riding the incredible roller-coaster of emotions involved in the programme.

The youth at risk scheme has delivered positive results. It has shown that a large number of children with such problems in Sutton and other parts of the country can be diverted from offending--it has substantially reduced the level of offending. Many young people move back to employment or return to school as a result of the programme.

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I do not believe that it is enough simply to address the problem of young offenders; we must also work with the victims of crime. In Sutton, the council has recently completed a survey of young people as victims of crime. It produced interesting findings which I have had the opportunity to study in the past few days. More than 1,000 young people responded to the survey; more than two thirds of them said that they had been the victim of crime. More than 20 per cent. of women had been subjected to sexual harassment. Some 33 per cent. of black respondents and 61 per cent. of Asian respondents said that they had been the victims of racial harassment.

I wish the Home Secretary and his ministerial team the best of luck in tackling the legacy of the Home Office team in the previous Government. I hope that the Home Secretary and his team will not pander to the right-wing dogma that believes that prison works. A rising prison population is not a sign of success, but an admission of failure. Of course we need prison for serious and violent offenders, but the fact that 90 per cent. of young teenagers who are sent to prison are reconvicted within two years shows that that system is clearly not working.

For every £50 that the Government spend today on catching, prosecuting and imprisoning a criminal, they spend just £1 on trying to prevent the crime in the first place. That is a bizarre sense of priorities. While the Home Secretary and his team are putting the finishing touches to their zero tolerance plans, I ask them to consider the many examples, some of which I have given today, of crime prevention and multi-agency projects where councils and voluntary organisations have worked with young people and delivered results. If the Home Secretary, Home Office Ministers or Home Office staff want to see for themselves the success in Sutton, I invite them to the borough to talk not just to those who run the projects, but to the young people themselves.

In this debate I have tried to highlight the success of programmes that the Liberal Democrats have introduced in my local authority area. I have done so not to praise my colleagues in particular, but to persuade the Home Secretary and his Ministers that being tough on crime also requires action on the causes of crime and action to engage young people in positive activity rather than to lock them away. Prisons, while necessary, only seem to prepare young people better for a life of crime. This country needs to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime.

1.44 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Alun Michael): I was delighted by the compliment paid to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow), when he used the words that my right hon. Friend made famous when he was shadow Home Secretary. The words are considerably more than a soundbite: they stand the test of time, which is why they are being used now, several years later, just as the hon. Gentleman has done. They can be unpacked and tested for their meaning, which is basically what the hon. Gentleman has done in today's debate.

I welcome the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam to the House. I am having to say that more than once as many of us in the House became used to responding to

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his predecessor's contributions--contributions which were different in tone and nature from the speech that we have heard today. I welcome the constructive and positive way in which the hon. Gentleman has approached the topic. His manner invites positive engagement, which I am happy to undertake.

In making his initial remarks, the hon. Gentleman said that he was drawing on his continuing experience as a local authority member in Sutton. It is right that he should do so--all of us bring our experiences to the House. For two years after I entered the House, I continued as a city councillor in Cardiff. I drew on that experience as well as the experience that I gained when I chaired the juvenile bench in Cardiff and when I worked with young people for many years before entering Parliament. All my experiences have informed my debates. As I worked in and represented local areas, I also saw crime at its worst and saw how it affects and damages the lives of individuals, families and communities. We must consider the problem of crime as a whole in order properly to understand and tackle it. The hon. Gentleman is right to emphasise the importance of tackling youth crime--as well as the importance of tackling crime generally and the fear of crime.

I have also spent the past few years as the Labour representative on the board of Crime Concern, where I worked alongside the former Member of Parliament, Sir Ivan Lawrence. Between us we made some interesting contributions to those meetings.

I was glad to hear the hon. Gentleman emphasise the balance to be struck between being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. I can assure him that I have no doubt about either side of that equation. I am glad that he accepts--everyone should--that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be tough on crime. My right hon. Friend is equally keen to be tough on the causes of crime. The hon. Gentleman will see that balance in everything that we do.

The hon. Gentleman referred to zero tolerance. I think that that idea is sometimes misunderstood or subjected to an alternative interpretation. One interpretation of zero tolerance amounts to intolerance. Another interpretation means not allowing things to drift--one takes note of the first pane of glass that is broken instead of waiting for many panes to be broken, or one takes note of and does something about the first piece of graffiti instead of waiting until the town is covered with it. It is that sort of interpretation that is important.

It was interesting when the chief constable of Thames Valley, Mr. Charles Pollard, expressed his reservations recently about zero tolerance which, he said, could end up with conflict on the streets, particularly in those communities that are most suspicious about police motives and actions. He went out of his way to stress that he agreed with the sort of zero tolerance argued for by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) shortly before the election. Many other senior police officers have supported that sort of approach.

The evidence from the United States must be treated with caution. Many lessons can be learnt--indeed, last year I spent time looking at policing in Chicago, Washington and Baltimore. The example that impressed me most was Baltimore, where the city authorities, led by a vigorous, young, black mayor, thoroughly supported the chief of police's view that they should reclaim

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communities so that there would be no no-go areas, the recreation areas would not be taken over by drug pushers and a sense among young people of seeing the police in a positive role would be encouraged and developed.

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