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9.7 pm

Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham): I join my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) in underlining the fact that crime in Kent has fallen by 23 per cent. However, that is not matched by the perception of what is happening, or by a fall in the fear of crime. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) referred to her local newspaper, which comes from the same stable as my local paper. Both papers said that crime was increasing in our areas, although it has been falling.

We must pay tribute to the work of the Government since 1997 in providing mechanisms for the police. We must commend also the work of the police, the partnerships between the police and local authorities and the way in which the police have operated, particularly in Kent. Under the leadership of Sir David Phillips and with an intelligence-led approach, we have seen some dramatic changes.

Extra resources are important and Kent police has earned the extra 6.9 per cent. that was announced recently; for the second year running, Kent has received the largest

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increase of any police force in the country. My local superintendent was able to provide me with a briefing as to what he will be able to do with the extra funding. In Dartford and Gravesham alone, 23 additional officer posts will be provided, including seven officers to work in rural areas and an extra two on rural crime, plus a team of eleven operating strategically for north Kent and Medway.

All this is part of the initiatives on the crimefighting fund and on dealing with rural crime; it will mean that, by 2002-03, Kent will have an additional 250 officers. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) said earlier, however, it is not simply about numbers or resources but about how those numbers and resources are used.

I want to highlight two initiatives in Kent that I hope Ministers will not only encourage but build into legislation as the Bill develops. The first is an initiative on cell intervention: going into the cells and providing advice on debt and employment to people in police custody. That small-scale project, piloted by my local police force, has had dramatic results in leading people away from a life of crime and towards a life of more productive employment.

Alongside an overall reduction in crime, there has been a worrying increase in racially motivated crimes in my area. I am pleased that the Government have been tough on such crimes. One of my constituents noted a catalogue of incidents over two years, which included:

We have to be tough on the perpetrators of such activities, but we must also be tough on the causes by making sure that young people understand the implications at an early age. The second initiative that I commend to Ministers is the project which my local police force hopes to develop of working closely with schools on issues of race and the effects of racial crime.

My constituents will certainly welcome the Bill, and in particular the fixed penalties. Opposition Members have made some criticisms, but my local police have welcomed the fixed penalties and think that they are a useful additional weapon to deal with the one in six crimes in Gravesham and Dartford that are not serious enough to take the offender through arrest and the court process but which can create a climate of anxiety, fear and yob rule. We must deal with those crimes, and if the Bill can take us further in that direction, I welcome it.

9.13 pm

Helen Jones (Warrington, North): The Bill is wide-ranging, but I intend to confine my comments largely to those aspects that directly affect the lives of the people whom I represent, and to the problems that most concern them.

Civil liberties objections have been made to the Bill, and that is an important issue that deserves serious consideration. We should be very careful about restricting

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civil liberties unless there is good reason to do so, but we must not confuse liberty with licence. When I see some of my constituents who are tormented in their own homes and fear to walk the streets because of the abuse and intimidation to which they are subjected, or who are insulted and abused when going about their lawful business, I have to ask whose civil liberties are being restricted. We must be concerned not about the perpetrators but about the ordinary, decent people who are subjected to such torment.

I see the Bill through the eyes of my constituents. I mentioned earlier an elderly gentleman who was subjected to abuse, night after night, by a gang of youths, usually fuelled by alcohol, often bought for them by an adult and handed to them outside the shop in return for a share of the goods. Decent, honest shopkeepers in my constituency who try to prevent sales to minors say that they are powerless when such incidents occur. They will welcome the provisions that prevent people from buying alcohol for minors in that way.

We also welcome the provisions that require those who sell alcohol to take reasonable steps to satisfy themselves of the age of the person to whom they are selling. That strengthens the hand of decent, honest people in the trade and helps to get at rogue traders, who do not care about the damage that they cause to others when they flout the law. I suspect that hon. Members could point to such people in their constituencies. I can do that in my constituency, and so can local people. The police know about the problem, but it is difficult for them to take action. Strengthening the law is therefore important.

I have believed for some time that we should extend to trading standards officers the power to use minors in test purchases. No honest shopkeeper or licensee has anything to fear from that. If we fail to tackle such problems, we abandon people such as the elderly gentleman who was tormented day in, day out, week in, week out. It is not my role as a Member of Parliament to protect his persecutors. We need swift action to deal with causes, and we also need fixed-penalty notices, which will enable the perpetrators to be tackled quickly and efficiently.

There is merit in the argument that orders should apply to 16 and 17-year-olds. The groups of youths are often of mixed ages; some may be 18 but others are not. We should not underestimate the problems that harassment causes. The damage to people's health can be incalculable. I, like other hon. Members, have seen the victims of harassment in my surgery.

I remember two, quiet, middle-aged ladies, who had been tormented day after day in their homes by a neighbour. They could not even go into the garden without being sworn at and abused. They had never caused trouble in their lives; they had never owed the council a penny in rent. They deserve better protection from us. So do people who have been threatened, had graffiti daubed on their houses, objects thrown at their windows, and their children threatened, often for no apparent reason, except that some local group had decided to target them, sometimes because they were from a different area, sometimes because they had intervened when people were behaving badly. They need the full protection of the law.

Child curfews and action on the sale of alcohol will help the people whom I described. Extending the criminal law to cover witnesses in civil cases is also important.

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Those witnesses are often afraid to give evidence in harassment cases or applications for antisocial behaviour orders. I cannot blame them for that. If I had been subjected to some of the torment that they suffered, I would also be afraid. The provision will give them more security.

We are not simply considering law enforcement. That is important, but, in tackling yobbish behaviour, the Bill stands alongside other measures that the Government have introduced to promote social inclusion and to tackle poverty. It is often rightly said that, when we were younger, any passing adult would probably have intervened if we were behaving badly. However, it is not often said that in those days, that passing adult would have known our mums, our dads and most of our relatives. That community spirit has broken down in many areas. It was destroyed in the 1980s and early 1990s by poverty and unemployment, which was caused by a Government who said that there was no such thing as society. We have to remember where the blame belongs. As well as tackling yobs, we should encourage the people who are doing their best to repair that damage and to rebuild a sense of community. Members of residents associations in my area--in places such as Blackbrook, Grasmere and Greenwood--invest a great deal of their time in such activity. Their work should be supported and valued by the Government.

Most of all, we need to offer our young people an alternative and to realise that most of them are not badly behaved, but have much talent and potential. It is no use complaining that they hang around the streets if we offer them nowhere else to go. It is no use saying that they are irresponsible if we do not help them to accept responsibility.

Last Friday, I had the privilege of opening a new youth centre at Birchwood in my constituency. The young people put on a marvellous display--dancing, singing and poetry. They showed what a wealth of talent is available. The people who set up that club deserve our congratulations. Sadly, however, such facilities are extremely rare. We need to invest in our young people and to show our confidence in them. As well as introducing measures such as this Bill to tackle crime and antisocial behaviour, we need to start seeing our young people as part of the solution and not just part of the problem.

The Bill goes a long way towards tackling the problems that affect my constituents and it will be welcomed by many of them. However, I hope that, when my hon. Friend the Minister replies to the debate, he will put the measure in the context of the Government's overall strategy. We need to recreate a civil society in which people can feel safe in their own homes and on the streets. That is about taking back our communities and regaining control of them. I hope that the measure will help decent people to do that. I commend it to the House.

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