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2.20 pm

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire): Sometimes there are pleasant surprises in politics. When I came into the House at 9 o'clock this morning, I looked at the Order Paper and was disappointed to see that the Bill promoted by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) was listed as No. 4. I concluded that we would not reach it and would therefore be unable to debate it and express our support for this excellent measure. As luck would have it, we have reached the right hon. Gentleman's Bill, and I congratulate him on his speech proposing it to the House.

I found that I agreed with everything that the right hon. Gentleman said. It was not the first time, and I am sure that it will not be the last, that he spoke sound common sense. I am sure, from what he said, that antisocial behaviour is a growing problem in Birkenhead, but it is also a growing problem in towns such as Bridlington because many unemployed troublemakers go to seaside resorts during the summer months to enjoy the sea and the sand. I know that this measure will be warmly welcomed by many good landlords in my constituency whose lives, and those of their tenants, have been made a misery by one or two bad tenants. The right hon. Gentleman is right to say bad tenants are in a minority—it is the bad few who make life a misery for the many.

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's indication that he is prepared to be flexible, which was confirmed by the nod of his head in response to the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). As well as his Bill is drafted, it could be broadened to include orders made by the civil courts, to which I referred in an intervention, and convictions on indictment. It would be bizarre if a tenant who had been convicted of murder could not be dealt with under the Bill, but a tenant who had committed a minor offence that was dealt with before the magistrates could. I am therefore pleased that the right hon. Gentleman is prepared to keep an open mind about suggestions that Opposition Members may make to improve and strengthen the Bill. With those words, I wish the Bill well in its progress.

2.22 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) is to be

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commended for introducing this Bill, which seeks to withhold the housing benefit of those whose antisocial behaviour can have a devastating effect on the local community.

In this brief debate, my right hon. Friend and other hon. Members have mentioned their constituency experience. I shall briefly wear my constituency hat and say that, sadly, what they have said rings all too true of my constituency of Croydon, North, which is not far from Bromley. As I came here this morning, I reminded myself of the experiences faced by some of my law-abiding constituents. Those include intolerably loud music, sometimes with neighbours deliberately placing speakers so as to harm the well-being of my constituents, rubbish thrown in gardens, continual shouting, threats of violence and actual violence against neighbours, cars that have been deliberately scratched, graffiti and unruly children. The children of honest citizens are often afraid to go in the gardens because things are constantly thrown over the fence. When tabloids talk about neighbours from hell, for once they speak some truth.

The Government see no reason why the activities of unscrupulous landlords and antisocial tenants should undermine the work of local authorities that are trying to stabilise and regenerate neighbourhoods in decline and to tackle crime. The Government have just published a consultation paper, "Tackling Anti-Social Tenants" in the social sector of housing. We have also proposed new discretionary powers for local authorities to license all private landlords in all or part of their area. Those powers will be available alongside licensing of houses in multiple occupation. Another consultation paper, on the selective licensing of landlords, focusing on areas of low housing demand, was issued last October.

In the few minutes remaining, I shall emphasise the issues that I believe are important. The Government remain sympathetic to the Bill's objectives, but it deals with a complex subject and, as has already been acknowledged, careful drafting is required. The Government are concerned that, as the Bill stands, considerations relating to the European convention on human rights remain to be addressed, necessitating substantial amendment in Committee.

Consideration has to be given to dependants, especially children. We should not seek deliberately to make children homeless—and therefore, in extremis, taken into care—just to punish their parents. We must ensure that all dependants are fully protected.

The Bill accords with ideas that we have been considering in relation to the licensing of landlords and houses in multiple occupations, but, although it is not right to pay housing benefit to landlords who operate illegally, nor would it be right to expect landlords to house people rent-free. How we deal with antisocial tenants depends on the responsible management of the properties in which they reside. Under our proposals, if a landlord ceases to be licensed, a local authority may seek alternative management, with any housing benefit being paid to the new managing agent instead. Fundamentally, we look to landlords to take a measure of responsibility for their tenants and to take action against those who act antisocially. Many landlords already do so, and they deserve the support of their local authority.

There is much to be considered in the wording of the Bill, which will require amendment if it is to achieve its aims. Above all, human rights issues must be addressed.

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We will be happy to work with my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead to ensure that his Bill adequately caters for such issues.

All hon. Members are concerned to ensure that rights in society and the welfare state are matched by proper responsibilities and duties. It is important to safeguard the right to decent housing: many of our poorer constituents depend on the provision of council and social sector housing. The housing benefit system means that people have the right in practice to be able to afford their rents. We must protect and cherish those rights.

Rights demand responsibilities. The responsibility demanded in the context of the Bill is to be a good neighbour. Many of us, and most of our constituents, take for granted the good fortune of living with good neighbours, but when responsibilities are ignored, decent citizens should be able to seek the state's protection. All of us feel strongly that in the past we have not struck the right balance between people's rights and people's responsibilities.

I know from my constituents that too many of our decent citizens are plagued by neighbours from hell. They feel that in the past the state and the courts have not had the powers needed to deal with unruly neighbours. Now, we are taking measures to get the right balance between rights and duties. I hope that the Bill can be amended in Committee to contain the proper safeguards, so that it can become law. I wish it well.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills).


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Not moved.


Order for Second Reading read.

2.29 pm

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Although I shall not have much time, I should say that I introduced the Bill because another issue has arisen—

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 21 June.

Remaining Private Member's Bill


Order for Second Reading read.

Hon. Members: Object.

To be read a Second time on Friday 10 May.

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Policing (Bedfordshire)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Woolas.]

2.30 pm

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): I am grateful for the opportunity to hold my third Adjournment debate since being elected to the House nine and a half months ago. Both my previous Adjournment debates were on subjects of vital interest to my constituents in South-West Bedfordshire, and this debate on policing is no exception.

Earlier this year, Bedfordshire police responded magnificently to the fire at Yarl's Wood detention centre, and I pay tribute to Bedfordshire's chief constable and all the officers who came to Yarl's Wood's assistance. I also put on record my thanks to Chief Superintendent Ivor Twydell, Inspector Tony Kimble, Inspector Steve Barrett and Inspector Melvin Hartley, with whom I frequently correspond on behalf of my constituents and with whom I have had many meetings.

I have asked the Home Secretary on the Floor of the House to ensure that he does all in his power to resist attempts by various insurers to reclaim from Bedfordshire police and local authorities the costs of repairs to the detention centre. That is a source of enormous concern to my constituents, and I seek reassurance from the Minister on the subject today.

In my opinion, the costs of repair to national facilities such as Yarl's Wood should be borne by the country as a whole, not by the communities in which they happen to be situated. The extra policing requirements in the aftermath of such incidents should also be borne by the country as a whole. At present, Bedfordshire supplies 39 police officers and 13 civilian staff in the follow-up operations. Bedfordshire is a small force, and that is a considerable drain on our reserves of police officers.

In the past 15 months, Bedfordshire has also been dealing with the work associated with 12 murders and four manslaughters; I understand that they are tying up 94 police officers and 14 civilian staff. Together with Warwickshire, Bedfordshire has had the largest rise in unlawful killings in the past 15 months, which is a considerable strain on Bedfordshire police resources.

The most serious issue affecting Bedfordshire police is retention. Recruitment has improved recently, and I applaud the police authority's decision to budget for an extra 56 police officers in the year to March 2003. I understand that the constabulary needs to recruit 192 officers to reach that target, but that it believes that it will be doing well if it manages to recruit 140 to 150.

It has been brought to my attention that the current batch due to start the training course for Bedfordshire police officers should consist of 14 officers, but the course cannot go ahead at present because there are only 12 potential recruits. That is a source of concern.

In the year to 31 March 2000, five officers transferred out of Bedfordshire police; in the year ending 31 March 2001, 21 officers transferred out; in the year to the end of March this year, 45 officers wanted to go. Today there are 22 officers awaiting transfer out, and we are only three weeks into the current financial year.

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Those trained officers are all experienced and have an average of 10 years' service. The result of their transferring out is that roughly 20 per cent. of Bedfordshire police officers are probationers. There are 200 probationer officers in Bedfordshire constabulary, 63 in Bedford, 75 in Luton and 62 in Dunstable D division, which includes Leighton Buzzard. Probationers are available for duty for 77 working days in a year or only 56 working days if they are on a driving course, which means that they can provide only a third of the manpower of a police officer who has completed his training. The Bedfordshire force is short of a further 136 officers because of the 200 probationary officers in its profile.

Many officers want to transfer out of the Bedfordshire constabulary principally because of the extremely generous allowances offered by the Metropolitan police and the City of London police. For example, a probationer with 18 weeks' service would be £7,220 better off in the Met or City of London police; a police constable with 10 years' experience would be over £5,000 better off; and an inspector with two years' experience would be £6,300 better off in the Metropolitan police. The difference in income is the result of a combination of London weighting, London allowance, central allowance housing and transitional rent allowances. In addition, there is free travel within 70 miles of Charing Cross and, for Bedfordshire officers, a guarantee, more or less, of a posting to a north London station. The problem is not unique to Bedfordshire; the chief constables of the Essex, Hertfordshire, Thames valley, Surrey and Kent forces face the same difficulty.

Much as I sympathise with the recruitment demands of the Metropolitan police, I urge the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), to bring about the end of the continual poaching of Bedfordshire officers by other forces. The Met can offer unfair additional allowances to police constables from neighbouring forces, including housing allowances for officers living in Bedfordshire. It is anomalous for Bedfordshire officers living in the county to be offered the London housing allowance plus free travel. I do not seek retrospective changes, but I urge the Minister to consider the issue very seriously indeed. The allowances for Metropolitan police officers and those for neighbouring forces must be evened out.

I turn to the issue of travellers which, I know, is of concern to many hon. Members. Bedfordshire, like many counties, suffers from the behaviour of elements of the traveller community. Of course, some travellers are thoroughly law abiding and respect the communities through which they pass. However, south Bedfordshire is on established traveller routes, which makes the problem all the more urgent for my constituents. My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) has introduced a ten-minute Bill, the Trespassers on Land (Liability for Damage and Eviction) Bill, which I very much hope the Government will support. It addresses the issue of evicting travellers on highways, which was omitted from earlier legislation, and would assist with evictions from a traveller encampment at Stanbridgeford in my constituency.

There is area in which the law is deficient, to which I ask the Minister to pay attention. In my constituency, land currently classed as agricultural has been bought by travellers and has been turned into a virtually permanent encampment, with hard standings, tarmac roads, kerbed

19 Apr 2002 : Column 885

pavements and sometimes street lighting, which is of huge concern to the surrounding settled communities, especially the village of Billington. I understand that Ministers in the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions are starting to look at that important and urgent problem. I hope that the Minister will understand my raising this issue, although it relates to the DTLR, in this debate. I have done so in the interests of joined-up government and in doing something about the problem to which I have referred.

All Governments have spent more on police forces over the years. Much of that expenditure has gone into technology, equipment and call centres, for example. However, the public want officers on the beat, and especially the same officers on the same beats so that they can get to know the communities that they serve. They can then get to know the law-abiding people in their communities and come to know extremely well those people who are causing trouble. It is a subject on which my hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary has spoken. I hope that we can see progress towards the situation that I have described.

The manning of police stations is extremely important for members of the public. It is important also that they are fully functioning. Houghton Regis police station, which is in my constituency, is now open for only limited hours. Dunstable police station, the headquarters of D division, has recently decided to close its doors between 11 pm and 7 am. Leighton Buzzard police station is also a shadow of its former self.

I shall read from the lead letter that appeared on 22 January in the Leighton Buzzard Observer. It states:

the police station—

Our constituents are entitled to ask why things have gone backwards to such a degree since 1988, despite more money being spent by all Governments since that time.

It is a sad reflection that that is the case. Are we best serving the communities that we are charged to protect when police stations offer so much less of a service to the public than they did a few years ago?

I shall refer briefly to the work of the Family Matters Institute, which is situated in Bedfordshire, at Mogerhanger. The institute has worked tirelessly over the years to strengthen family life and to run parenting courses. Indeed, it has worked in association with Bedfordshire county council and with significant elements of the Islamic community. It is of great concern to me that the Home Office has recently refused to pay grants for the institute's work, and has called into question the excellent work that it has done over the years. I place on record my concerns as a Bedfordshire Member. I ask whether the Minister could take back my concern to her Department, and ask that the matter be reconsidered.

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