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Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): The hon. Gentleman could have made that point 10 minutes ago. He has had nothing to say, and should sit down.

Mr. Rammell: If the hon. Gentleman cares to intervene on this issue, I will be happy to take his intervention. The issue of homes to rent is important to constituents in Harlow and elsewhere in the south-east, and they want to hear it articulated in the House of Commons.

That point needs to be made in a constituency context. In my constituency, the local authority has a waiting list of more than 3,000 people, some of whom have waited five or 10 years for a decent home to rent. We must face up to that problem. There is a huge north-south divide: this is a much bigger problem in London and the south-east than it is elsewhere in the country.

Mr. Edward Davey: Does the hon. Gentleman regret the fact that the Government put a cap on council tax benefit and housing benefit? As a result, many people who require affordable housing in London and the south-east do not have the rent subsidy to enable them to get that housing.

Mr. Rammell: The Government are reforming the system, and intend to reform it further. All of us in the Chamber need to face up to the problem of an acute lack of rented housing. Linked with that is the difficulty in recruiting key public sector professionals in London and the south-east. I share the view of the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey). However, the solutions that he proposes, which merely tinker with the cost of living allowance and the London allowance, lack credibility. If the salaries of teachers or nurses in London and parts of the south-east were doubled overnight, they would still not be able to afford the cost of homes in those areas. We need a far more radical strategy to deal with that problem.

The final quality of life issue that I want to highlight is community safety. One of the dispiriting aspects of the debate is that we all bandy about the figures on crime levels, instead of reaching cross-party consensus on the fact that crime was falling under the last years of the Conservative Government, and has continued to fall under this Government. However, the real concern of my constituents is not about the absolute level of crime but about what I would describe as low-level, neighbourhood nuisance, aggravation and vandalism, which blight the lives of so many people. In my community and elsewhere, people too often feel that the police and the local authority do not give those problems a high enough priority. The Home Office needs to move forward on that issue, and I know that it is doing that.

Much has been done, but we need to face up to other problems. Those watching the debate and the public at large will form a judgment on whether the Government are moving forward credibly—I think that they would say that they are—and whether the Conservative party has a credible alternative. From what we have heard in the

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debate, I think that a credible alternative is singularly lacking. We have not heard one substantive proposal. The only alternative on offer for the underground is privatisation. The Tory party is stuck in the days when the answer to every question was to cut taxes and public spending, and to move towards 35 per cent. of gross domestic product. That provides none of the answers to the problems that we face.

5.44 pm

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): The first duty of any Government, no matter which party, is to protect their citizens from harm. The Government are signally failing to do that in London and the south-east. As we sit here in relative comfort, bandying statistics, the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, especially but not exclusively on the big inner-city council estates, are being made a daily hell by thuggery, intimidation, violence, vandalism, drugs, threatening behaviour and neighbourhood disputes. That is going on in a concentrated fashion on big estates, and in a less concentrated but still distressing fashion in rural areas. It seems to me that every agency shrugs, and no one gets to grips with the problem.

Statistics bandied across the House are not the answer to any of these problems. We must ask ourselves how we tackle such crime. Much of that crime—not all of it—is carried out by young people, some of whom are below the age at which the courts have sufficient remedies to deal with them. Why is that coming about? Part of the problem stems from family breakdown. Many of the youngsters who get into that way of life have not had a father or have had a succession of men called "uncle" passing through their household. They have precious little parental supervision, and from the moment they are old enough to go to school unaccompanied they start to play truant, missing vital education. They fall between all the agencies, none of which take absolute responsibility. They learn to idle before they are even at secondary school, and some bunk off secondary school altogether.

When I have visited the education department of Her Majesty's prisons, I have seen fully fledged adults doing the modern equivalent of "the cat sat on the mat". I ask them, "What happened at school?" and I wish I had the smallest coin from the poorest realm for everyone who said, "Didn't go to school, Miss". That is a crying indictment—I am not saying that it is specifically and exclusively an indictment of the Government—of our failure to get to grips with that problem.

Truancy enforcement should be a major priority and concern for any Government if we are to get on top of this problem. If kids want any dealings with the labour market, and are not so rooted in crime that they do not prefer that way of making money, they will have difficulty if they have no skills and are illiterate or innumerate. The labour market increasingly wants the skilled and semi-skilled, and has fewer and fewer jobs for the unskilled. Idling, truancy and an inability to present for jobs when the time comes add up to crime and trouble. Those youngsters find ways of filling their time that make them menaces, nuisances and sometimes serious threats to the law-abiding in their area.

We must get on top of that problem. We must ensure that, when those young people are apprehended and brought before the justice system, adequate remedies are

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available to deal with them that will get them away from the environment that is causing them a problem and in which they are causing a problem, and that will give them secure training that is specifically directed at the needs of the child. They must have a shared interest in the outcome, which can be built into the system through incentives. We must make some attempt to put those youngsters back into a better way of living. If we do not do that, the quality of life for the people who have to live in their neighbourhoods will continue to deteriorate.

People who live on those big, inner-city council estates have an ambition to lead a normal and decent life. But they cannot escape from what are sometimes very troublesome and threatening neighbourhoods, because they have not the necessary resources. They have a fraction of the resources possessed by those of us who stand here pontificating today. They are trapped. I am not talking just about the archetypal old lady who is afraid to go out after 6 pm. In the run-up to the last election, I travelled up and down the country meeting people living on estates, not only in London, who simply could not live in that environment any longer.

In Hartlepool I met not the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), but a young man who had bought a modest little house on the edge of a council estate. It was all he could afford, although he had aspirations. He had experienced so much antisocial behaviour—there had been graffiti, vandalism and attacks on his property, just because he owned it and was trying to make a better life for himself—that on the morning I met him he had put the keys of his house through the door of the building society, although he knew that that would prejudice his chances of ever owning a house again. He could no longer live in that house, and he could not sell it for exactly the same reasons.

Two hours after I left, there was a shooting on another estate. I do not think it was a case of cause and effect. I spoke to a large number of people—and I mean a large number—who told me that each time they tried to create a pleasant little front garden it immediately became a target for every vandal in the neighbourhood, not because they had made enemies of the neighbours but simply because it was a nice little front garden.

What are the Government doing about that sort of thing? One answer, although it is not the only answer, is highly visible policing. The Minister spoke of strategies to deal with graffiti. I am all for that, but the best strategy is to have a few policemen about when it is happening. Many people living on estates, including rural estates, complain that they never see a policeman in the neighbourhood. Worse still, when they summon the police they do not arrive.

That is not because the police are not interested. It is not because they do not care tuppence. It is because the police are so overstretched that they must prioritise constantly. Nevertheless, people's confidence in the rule of law is lessened, and as a result their whole quality of life is diminished. The main thing that citizens need to feel—something we all used to take for granted; many of us still do, but too many cannot now—is that they are safe in their own neighbourhoods. They need to feel that they can venture abroad from their own houses, and live in harmony with their neighbours. That basic quality of life should not be beyond realisation, but for far too many people it is.

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I think that John Stevens is one of the best things to happen to London. We should listen to him when he says that no end of police effort will work unless it is backed up by the courts and, moreover, is sustainable because there are enough police to sustain it. I am not going to oppose the proposals for community support officers in a knee-jerk fashion, but they are not and never will be a substitute for proper policemen with proper powers, properly trained, properly funded and available in sufficient numbers to make neighbourhoods safe, reliable and pleasant again.

So far I have concentrated on inner-city estates. As some Members will know, that is partly because in a previous incarnation as shadow Home Secretary I took a particular interest in the Arden estate in Hackney. Although it is by no means the worst example, it has enormous problems. Time and again, what I heard from those living there was, "No one cares, no one is here, no one is doing anything. We have been asking for closed-circuit television for goodness knows how many years, and we still do not have it. We have been asking for extra coppers for years, and we still do not have them." It was a crime that no one listened. If we are serious about improving quality of life, that is the issue with which we must deal.

Let me say something about rural areas, and about my constituency. I hear increasingly about problems there. There are farmers living in remote farmhouses who say that people brazenly steal farm vehicles, knowing that even if the farmer can see them and is telephoning the police, it will be a nice long time before the police arrive—unless they are exceptionally unlucky and there happens to be a police car in the neighbourhood. Then there are villagers who say that, particularly in the evenings, people do not feel comfortable moving around the village after dark. What sort of indictment is that? The English village used to be a haven of safety; now too many have become seas of vandalism and antisocial behaviour.

I do not entirely buy the Government's line that antisocial behaviour orders are a rip-roaring success. How many were imposed in the first three years of their existence? The Government have finally, grudgingly conceded that they got it all wrong and must handle it differently in the hope that it will work in future, but only last week—not in my constituency, but nearby in Kent—three 13-year-olds who had defied an ASBO were due to appear in court. They face a period in detention if they are found guilty, but the fact that they defied the order raises serious questions about how effective such orders are in cases of that kind. Again, policemen are needed to ensure that people do not break ASBOs.

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