Building Safer Communities

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Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): I welcome the opportunity to speak about building safer communities, because I have a good story to tell. According to the most recent statistics, my constituency is the safest community in south Wales and one of the safest in the country. People are less likely to be attacked there than anywhere else. We should be proud of that. In the mid-1990s, there were a total of 15,000 recorded crimes in the Vale of Glamorgan. We are waiting for the Vale of Glamorgan division to publish its latest statistics, which will show a dramatic reduction of 33 per cent. to a total of 10,000 recorded crimes. That would have been a good story in itself but there is more: the real story is that 10 years ago, E division, the old Vale of Glamorgan division, had one of the worst crime rates and one of the highest incidences of violent crime in Barry. We have therefore seen a dramatic turnaround of that situation over the past five to 10 years.

I would love to be able to say, ``Well done'' just to the Labour Government—if it had not been for the Labour Government, we would not have seen those dramatic changes—but there are several other important reasons for that improvement. We have talked about the causes of crime. There is no doubt that the major causes of crime in my constituency are poverty and deprivation. Between 1979 and 1982, there was an 80 per cent. loss in manufacturing jobs—the most sought after and best paid jobs in Barry and the Vale of Glamorgan—so it was little wonder that eight years later we had one of the highest crime rates. There was a direct correlation between that loss of jobs and those crime rates. The first question any good copper asks—or used to ask—a suspect is, ``Have you got a job?'' The second is, ``Where do you live?'' If the police associate a suspect with a certain area, it is almost invariably associated with social deprivation. Police officers know the causes of crime.

I am not excusing crime, but explaining it. To quote a statistic that I have quoted before—I repeat it because hon. Members may simply not believe it—in north-east Barry in the mid-1990s, according to the most recent comprehensive housing needs survey, the gross domestic income in a household including all non-housing benefit was less than £60 a week. That family income had to provide food, clothing and support a way of life. Do not tell me that there is no direct relationship between people having to live on such a low income and the sudden, dramatic increase in crime, especially among young people—that is where unemployment, especially youth unemployment, contributed massively.

Over the past few years, there has been a dramatic improvement in all those indices. In my constituency, unemployment is no longer a problem. We have other problems. We do not have the right kind of employment or employment that pays enough, but unemployment as such is back down to the level it was more than 25 years ago when that great economist John Maynard Keynes referred to ``frictional'' unemployment: an unemployment level caused by people simply changing jobs. That has had a dramatic effect.

The working families tax credit and the minimum wage have improved the situation dramatically, and there has been a reduction in crime, but there is more to it than that. We are changing the way in which we police our communities. That has had a dramatic effect in my constituency over the past few years in particular. Ten years ago, as many as one in three of my constituents would raise with me an issue not necessarily about a crime, but about the fear of crime. Now, as my hon. Friends have rightly said, crime is still a major problem among constituents, but nothing like it was before: it is now down to perhaps one in eight or one in 10. One of the problems is people's perception of crime, especially the elderly and young women, who are afraid to go out at night.

The partnership approach has made the difference, as efforts in the Vale of Glamorgan over the past few years show. There has been partnership with our schools. Police officers, such as PC Bill Fletcher, have gone into our schools as part of the anti-racist and anti-bullying campaigns. He has tried to tackle the problem at the root cause, that has had an effect over the years. We have the largest number of neighbourhood watch groups in the whole of Wales, so it is no coincidence that we have seen a dramatic improvement.

I pay tribute to the role of the good copper, and to the good leadership in the local police force. I believe that the dramatic change in my area in the past couple of years is partly due to Police Superintendent Colin Jones, and I pay tribute to him. Some people may not accept that, and I hear a few sniggers in the Committee Room, but he has made a big difference to policing in our area. He lives in the community, which makes a huge difference because he knows and lives in the area he polices. His officers are allocated to the known communities throughout the constituencies--the wards. He knows the local business and elected leaders, so he picks up where the problems are very early on. A higher proportion of his recruited officers live in the community, so they have a vested interest in ensuring that crime is brought down. They get married in that community, they bring their children up in that community and they do not want to live in a community that is dominated by crime.

We have known about the professionalism of our police for a long time, but it is the style of leadership that is important. It is a great honour for me to pay tribute to Superintendent Colin Jones. I can tell the Committee openly that I have a vested interest in doing so, because I know that he is coming up to retirement age. He will shortly have to decide whether to continue policing our community or to retire. I do not want to lose him or the magnificent team we have in the Vale of Glamorgan, because they have done such a good job over the last four years.

5.44 pm

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend, who paid tribute to one of the outstanding police officers in the area. I am sure that all members of the Committee can identify police officers and others in the police force who have made a significant contribution to reducing crime in their area. It gave me great pleasure just a few months ago to meet the chief constable of Gwent, Mr. Keith Turner, who had formerly been at Dyfed Powys police force, and to give him a copy of a letter from the Prime Minister congratulating Gwent police on its 10 per cent. reduction in crime in the earlier part of this financial year. That improvement has continued. Gwent, none the less, remains a comparatively high crime area. It has the smallest police force in Wales, which has the second highest detection rates of all the police forces in England and Wales. That has been an historic achievement, and the Committee should pay tribute to Gwent for that.

The high crime rate remains. I am disappointed that the increase to be allocated for Gwent in the police funding formula for the distribution of new resources to the police forces of England and Wales is below the national average. When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I met the chief constable of Gwent a couple of weeks ago, we discussed some of the problems of policing in Gwent. The part of Gwent that I represent, B division, is a largely rural area where there is a problem of sparsity. There are police stations in Chepstow, Abergavenny and Monmouth. There is a beautiful little police station in Usk. It must be one of the prettiest police stations in the entire country or indeed the world, especially during the Usk in bloom festival. I urge hon. Friends to come to see it.

There is a concern among my constituents. I happen to live next to Monmouth police station. Visitors turn up to the police station at 8 or 9 o'clock in the evening and find it closed and have to make a phone call to Pontypool. People expect police stations to be staffed most of the time, just as they expect ambulance stations to be staffed and to have ambulances most of the time. Until recently, they did not have that in Monmouth. Through good representations we have now changed that.

There is a particular problem in rural areas because of the sparsity and the distances that have to be travelled. The farming community has been concerned about crime on isolated farms, such as the stealing of farming equipment and plants. People living in isolated areas do not have the same access to neighbours as other victims of crime. I had a fruitful meeting about that with members of the National Farmers Union Wales. To its credit, Gwent police force has now designated additional police officers to serve the rural areas, following a good model that has been developed in Gloucestershire.

Gwent police area is also characterised by high levels of social deprivation, as shown by the fact that much of Gwent is in an objective 1 area. Hon. Members who represent Gwent, such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies), recognise the problems of social deprivation in the area. We honestly believe that the police funding formula, which is supposed to have some element of weighting, is not adequately weighted for social deprivation. That was a matter that the chief constable was keen to impress upon us.

I reiterate the comments of other hon. Members about the use of antisocial behaviour orders. I have made representations following one or two incidents involving antisocial behaviour, and I have been disappointed by how slowly they have been considered. It may have been right not to instigate antisocial behaviour orders, but my impression was that the agencies were slow to respond. Housing associations on estates do not have the same powers as local authorities to instigate antisocial behaviour orders. I know that these problems are difficult to deal with, but my impression was that they could have been considered more quickly.

Yesterday in the House, in the debate on prison conditions, I spoke about Usk prison, which is a model of a progressive prison. It has a very high commitment to inmate training, behaviour modification programmes, sex offender treatment programmes, training and education. It was a great pleasure for me to visit Usk prison recently and see some of the developments that have occurred there. Three years ago, there were two or three people working in the sex offender treatment programme, and now there are 11, including probation officers, specially trained prison officers and psychologists. They are making a great difference. There has been a 46 per cent. non-reoffending rate among people who have been through the sex offender treatment programme, which is available only to prisoners in their last year of sentence. It is important that such prisoners do not reoffend when they come out of prison and back into society, as they inevitably will. A 46 per cent. rate is good, but 100 per cent. would be the ideal, and that is what we are working towards. I am delighted to commend the work of Usk Prison.

5.51 pm

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Prepared 13 February 2001