Building Safer Communities

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Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda): Would the hon. Gentleman like to tell the Committee that his party is now in favour of legalising drugs?

Mr. Thomas: The hon. Gentleman did not listen to what I said. I said that this was my personal view. If we cannot have an open debate on an issue that is affecting hundreds of people and thousands of young people, then we really should not be here at all.

Just because there is a general election on the horizon, we do not need to be trading party political points about something that needs cross-party work. If the hon. Gentleman is only going deliberately to misinterpret everything that I say in order to return, in a totally unsatisfactory way—[Interruption.] I cannot accept any interventions.

The fact is that the public attitude towards drugs—the hon. Gentleman may not be of the generation that has this attitude towards drugs—is related directly to the perceived health-related dangers of particular drugs; it is not related to the illegality or otherwise of those drugs.

Mr. Rogers: Just answer the question.

Mr. Thomas: I have already answered the question. The hon. Gentleman may have been sleeping when I made that statement. The Police Foundation report made it clear that the experience in other countries—not so much the Netherlands where drugs are not legalised as decriminalised, but particularly in the German Lander—is something that we should be looking at within the UK. In that context, I think that the Government's response so far has been somewhat disappointing.

My final issue is the use of antisocial behaviour orders—a matter on which I intervened in the speech of the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael). On 7 February, I had an answer to a written question, which revealed that, to date, there have been just two antisocial behaviour orders in Wales; one in north Wales and one in south Wales. As I said in my intervention, I can think of two areas where certainly the communities and the police are seriously thinking about this now.

I do not know what the problem is—other hon. Members have mentioned costs—but we really need to work through this problem because the antisocial behaviour orders have a real role to play in the criminal justice system, in rural areas and on the council estates that I represent. I can think of many areas where they would have a huge effect. Whatever is holding us back, I say to the Minister: Can we please, please move to get them working better between local authorities and the police constabulary?

5.23 pm

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy): I am sure that we would all agree that building safer communities in Wales has to be a close partnership between all agencies, including the public. A crucial element, however, is the police. A dedicated police force with high morale and self-respect is the lynchpin of any successful policy for a safer community. So, for a few moments, I shall share with the Committee recent developments in north Wales, which I believe will greatly contribute to that goal.

I understand that this is the only scheme in Wales and could be the first of its kind in the UK. A week ago, a long-term partnership was launched between north Wales police and the employment service—a powerful partnership, in my view. They will be working together on a number of projects. They began a new campaign supporting the national police campaign to recruit more officers to the service. The Employment Service is the largest recruitment agency in Wales. It has a network of 25 offices in north Wales. Access to its services has recently improved through the introduction of a website. Later this year, it will introduce job points to allow job seekers to use touch screen technology instantly to access vacancies.

That advanced and powerful service is to be used to build on the already successful recruitment of new police officers to the North Wales police. Since 1 April 2000, 92 officers have been recruited in north Wales following Home Office funding allocations. Those officers will be on probation for two years, starting with 35 weeks intensive training. During that time, they will visit one of the national police training schools in England and Wales, and will also be training in one of the local police divisional training units at Bangor, Rhyl and Wrexham. Following the initial 35 weeks, the officers will progress their training by carrying out duties in different parts of north Wales. They will also be involved in further training into a different aspect of police work, for example CID or traffic.

That partnership has been cemented at the highest level in north Wales by our new chief constable, Richard Brunstrom, and the Employment Service Wales director, Sheelagh Keyse. That is how we in north Wales intend to strengthen our police force, by taking a positive attitude. We shall then be able to build on the foundations that we have laid since coming into office in May 1997 for the most determined attack on crime in a generation. The police, local councils and others throughout north Wales are already working together successfully. In north Wales, recorded crime has fallen by 11.4 per cent. and domestic burglary has fallen by 28.3 per cent. since the election. My constituency of Conwy has additional funding for anti-burglary projects and for CCTV schemes. I was born in the constituency that I now represent. I have been particularly pleased to see Ministers taking an interest in areas that have been neglected for longer than the lifetime of many youths in my constituency. The Maesgeirchen area of Bangor was visited last year by the Select Committee on Welsh Affair. It had been ignored by Westminster until this Government took office. Since then, the former Secretary of State for Wales, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael), my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and the First Minister for the National Assembly for Wales, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan) have had discussions with local residents and bodies representing them, such as the healthy living centre steering group, the tenants and residents association at Maesgeirchen and police representatives. There is now a new policing initiative for that area, something that was badly lacking. I pay tribute to the tenants and residents of Maesgeirchen and look forward to further fruitful discussions with Ministers, so that my constituency will never again be forgotten.

The Government are funding an extra 104 police recruits for north Wales over the next three years, over and above the chief constable's existing plans. The Government are well on the way to delivering a key election pledge, which is to half the time from arrest to sentencing for persistent young offenders. By June 2000, the north Wales figure had fallen to 65 days, from 124 days in 1997.

I thank the Secretary of State for his endeavours on behalf of the people of Wales, and ask him to pass our thanks to the Home Secretary and his Ministers for listening to our requests, and for providing the welcome generous additional resources that will enable our police forces in Wales to protect our communities in the correct manner.

5.29 pm

Ms Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): In his opening speech, the Secretary of State talked about the wide issues that affect, and make safe, communities. The issues of jobs, benefits, child care and transport all affect public safety and have been well covered in the debate. The Government have made huge strides with the minimum wage and record increases in child benefit and child care strategy. All those measures help to make safer communities. However, crime and safety and the fear of crime is one of the big issues that people discuss when they come to our surgeries, and it is among the most important issues that we deal with. Much of today's debate has concentrated on how much of an improvement there has been, and whether or not there has been an improvement, but the general consensus is that crime is falling and police numbers are rising. The public want to see bobbies on the beat, and we are making progress.

For some areas, it is particularly important that the greatest progress has been made on domestic burglary. I have been burgled many times, as I am sure many members of this Committee have, and it is a very upsetting experience. The decrease in domestic burglaries by 28 per cent. since the election is a huge stride forward. Vehicle theft has also gone down.

Much progress has been made. In my police area in south Wales, recorded crime has declined by 24.5 per cent. since the election, which is a huge drop. That is good news, but there is still a long way to go. It is important to recognise not only that progress has been made, but that we have a long way to go. Hon. Members have expressed concern that violent crime continues to rise, and it is important that we get to grips with the problem of violence.

Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth, I pay tribute to Cardiff violence prevention group and to Professor Shepherd, who has been very successful in working with agencies in partnerships to try to reduce violent crime. Some of the methods used are very simple, such as putting a free phone in accident and emergency departments so that the police can be contacted, because there is a huge problem of under-reporting of violent crime. Other measures could be used to encourage more people to report crime, because only 25 per cent. of violent crimes causing the victim to have medical treatment are recorded, and only 10 per cent. of assaults in pubs and clubs are recorded. We know that 30 per cent. of people who suffer such injuries develop severe psychological problems, and the trauma of experiencing an attack cannot be underestimated.

I felt huge sympathy for the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) when I heard what he went through when he was attacked. We have to remember the victims, and the crime prevention group has worked with the victims. We should concentrate on that area.

Another useful measure is to educate and train doormen in clubs, because some of the violence in city centres is due to their lack of training. The use of toughened glass is also important. I am pleased that some of the hon. Members present have signed early-day motion 245, which calls for bottles to be made of toughened glass. People often drink directly from bottles, and using toughened glass would reduce injuries enormously. I hope other Members will consider signing that early-day motion.

Domestic violence is an extremely important issue that has not been mentioned in the debate. It is a serious problem for the whole family, but especially for the children who experience domestic violence first hand. It is estimated that one in four women suffer domestic violence. It is a crime that is also massively under-reported. On those figures, more than 20,000 women in Cardiff may experience domestic violence, but less than 2,000 incidents have been reported. We must do something about this problem.

I have to declare an interest as the chair of the Cardiff domestic violence forum. When women experiencing domestic violence seek help, they often have to go to about 10 places. We have put a bid in to the Home Office for a women's safety unit. Will the Minister pursue that on our behalf, as well as any other bids from Wales.

On the issue of whether more people should be sent to prison and the debate that we are having with the hon. Member for Ribble Valley, I agree that persistent offenders make life miserable for their neighbours and cause problems for decent law-abiding citizens, but I believe that maximum use should be made of community sentences, and I support the Government's moves in that direction. I support the tracking system, which has been overwhelmingly successful. However long sentences are, prisoners ultimately have to leave prison, and the more that can be done to help them in that process the better.

I feel particularly strongly about women in prison. The number of women in prison has risen disproportionately, but most women have committed offences that do not make them a risk to the community. Their imprisonment causes enormous problems to their families and children. Women have to leave Wales to go to prisons in England, causing additional problems for their families, but I do not support the proposal of building a women's prison in Wales. Our aim should be to reduce the number of women in prison, and I believe that building a women's prison in Wales would be counter-productive.

The Government have made great strides, but there is a huge amount still to do. I am confident that we will tackle the issues, particularly violence crime, violence against women and women in prison.

5.36 pm

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Prepared 13 February 2001