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20 Nov 2002 : Column 705—continued

7.18 pm

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): First, I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Cannock (Tony Wright) on saying things that deserve and need to be said. His speech built on the contribution of the right hon. Member for Llanelli (Denzil Davies), which I admired, and at least part of that of my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson). There is indeed a great weakness at the heart not only of the Government's programme as enunciated in the Gracious Speech, but of society's approach to law and order.

I am fortunate in having in my constituency three prisons that provide an excellent service and many jobs. One is Albany, which is one of the foremost prisons in the country for dealing with sex offenders. The section of Hampshire constabulary that covers my county is 10th in the league table in terms of the ratio of registered sex offenders to population. Given that statistic and the prison, it is not surprising that many of my constituents are concerned about the number of people living in the constituency who have a record of sex offences.

Of course, the problem is that my constituents do not know—they can only assume. When the governor tells me that no prisoner released from Albany remains living on the island, I believe that absolutely, because part of a prisoner's release programme involves the giving of treatment on the mainland. There is a further problem, however, in that it is believed that many former prisoners come back, and of course, many other former prisoners from elsewhere also come to live in my constituency.

I want to discuss Sarah's law. In my view, the Government and my party have entirely the wrong approach to trusting parents with the knowledge that is necessary to assist in ensuring the safety of their children. Nobody can expect parents to bring up their children effectively without having as much knowledge as can be provided of those into whose hands their children might fall. I was greatly privileged to meet Sara and Michael Payne after the murder of their daughter. I congratulate them on the courageous and dignified way in which they have advanced the cause of Sarah's law. If we are to enable parents to do their job, it is essential that we give them information and—more importantly—that we trust them with it. Even more importantly, we must enable them to trust the authorities—be it the police, the probation service, or indeed ourselves—to do what is best for them and their children.

I use that issue as an illustration. I do not believe that the riots in Paulsgrove and the attacks on a paediatrician would have occurred, had parents been able to say to the police with reasonable cause, XI am worried about this individual—can you set my mind at rest?" The point is illustrated by the release of a former sex offender on to the Pan estate in my constituency. He was known to local parents. Parents were quoted in the Isle of Wight County Press as saying, XWe have no need to attack him. All that we have to do is to warn our children to beware of him." That is the kind of sensible

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reaction that one gets from sensible parents on a council estate when they are given information. There is no hysteria or riot—that happens when they cannot trust the authorities, and when they are unsure of the circumstances in which they are forced to raise their children.

I fear that, too much of the time, too many of us share this lack of trust in ordinary people. It seems that the Government do not trust ordinary people on Sarah's law, or to serve on juries. The Liberal Democrats do not want to trust them with information on previous convictions when serving on juries. Many of us, and many of our constituents throughout the country, do not trust groups of youngsters standing around on street corners. We fear to walk past them, when perhaps the best thing to do is to say, XHello, how are you?" Such lack of trust is becoming endemic, and we must reverse it if we are to turn society back into one that is more comfortable to live in.

The Government do not trust the people on capital punishment, and nor have many previous Governments. I deeply regret that. This Government do not even trust Parliament on capital punishment—they have signed a treaty that deprives parliamentarians of our right to represent our electors on it. In my view, the murder of the only witness to a crime is a crime itself deserving of capital punishment.

The erection of a panoply of complaints procedures has made the lives of police, prison officers and teachers impossible. A great machine of children's rights is determined to impose those obligations on parents as well, making their lives more difficult. As the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) said, there is an increasing sense of rights, and a diminishing sense of responsibilities, in our society. I would increase the rights of those placed in lawful authority, in line with their increased sense of responsibilities. They and our community leaders are the front line against chaos. They are the people whom we must reinforce, and whose contribution we must reinforce, if we are to make society pleasant.

The pendulum has swung far too far towards what the Americans call liberalism. In the nature of things, it will swing back, and for that I am thankful, but let us not swing it back by adopting a kind of authoritarianism. To do that would be to swing it far too far in the opposite direction.

7.26 pm

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): On Monday, I was pleased to attend a Xplanning for real" session in Edlington, a community that I represent that is full of decent people, with decent hopes and aspirations for their families and their village. To aid the session, local school children made a large-scale model detailing the whole village, complete with cardboard houses. However, the houses in two particular streets were depicted as blackened lumps, representing the demolished or burnt-out houses that have been virtually destroyed by the actions of a few families.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Denzil Davies). They are right to point out that we need to discuss how these extreme situations can arise in such communities, and the ways

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in which the life we live and the culture in which we operate add to the problem. However, while doing so—and while supporting employment programmes and projects such as sure start, in order to tackle the behaviour that leads to such problems—we must deal with the here and now, and the few families who cause havoc in our communities.

Most people in former mining villages such as Denaby Main, Edlington, Conisbrough and Rossington—the latter still has a pit, but less than 300 people work there, compared with the many thousands who did so years ago—mention the pit closures of the 1980s as one reason for the decline in their communities. Those closures occurred without the necessary economic and social regeneration to rebuild their communities. People started leaving the villages, property prices stagnated, private landlords bought up former right-to-buy houses, and social cohesion declined as the number of workless households rose. Moreover, drug taking increased. I do not mean the trendy drug taking by certain people in the media to enhance their sexual performance, but drug taking in order to blot out the daily experience of life, and what people see in their communities. Decline in incomes, in work and in community morale is accompanied by physical decline: closed shops, boarded-up houses, graffiti and the antisocial behaviour that many hon. Members have talked about.

In such an environment, a few families in one street can wreck a neighbourhood. Small-time nuisance escalates into fear, intimidation and arson, and before we know it a whole area is blighted. A climate of fear exists, and the authorities—be it the police, local authorities, councillors or Members of Parliament—look powerless. Imagine the impact on a neighbourhood when a family associated with drug dealing, nuisance and all that comes with it—the late-night visitors, the fights, the disturbances—are evicted from their council property, only to move into a private rented house three doors away. The young people in these families appear to live almost unattended lives, bereft of any guidance or parental control. They drift in and out of the family home, or between two relatives' homes. They keep irregular hours, stay out late, and are virtually independent of their parents.

Local residents say that they want more police on the beat. In Doncaster, we do have more police, but perhaps that is not enough—perhaps more police on the beat is not the only answer. These antisocial families demand a more comprehensive response—from the police, from local authorities, and from the courts. We need to establish new jobs in the community, such as neighbourhood wardens and community safety officers—people who will be available for community liaison and who can ensure that information given to the police or the local authority is followed up. We need to ensure that we use new technology so that intelligence is gathered together. In that way, if a police officer whom a resident speaks to is not on shift the next night, the police officer who is on shift knows what the resident is talking about. We need joined-up thinking and a co-ordinated response. Otherwise, those families run rings round local agencies, soak up enormous time and energy, and still continue a reign of terror.

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If other parts of the country are initiating good practice, we should also ensure that people in the community have access to that information so that they can place demands on the people who are empowered to ensure that they get it right at least some of the time, if not all the time. That is how we could give confidence to the people whom we represent.

I have always supported antisocial behaviour orders, but they could be more effective. There are still professionals in the police, local authorities, social services and the courts who believe that ASBOs should be the last resort rather than a power that can be used before the worst is done. Those professionals also do not consider using the other powers that the Government have provided to enforce the ASBOs. Parenting orders are a good example.

We need wider use of ASBOs and that can be helped by a swifter system for obtaining orders and a consistent response to breaches by the courts. In one notorious case in my constituency, the authorities took nine months to obtain an order against a 14-year-old involved in a string of incidents. A fortnight ago, the authorities went back to court when the order was breached. The breach alone can carry a custodial sentence of up to five years. Instead, for incitement to abusive behaviour—serious abusive behaviour in this case—the court imposed a 12-hour community reparation. That teenager will spend a few days caring for dogs at the local RSPCA facility. That is ridiculous. Breaches of orders should be seen as the final steps in a sequence of offences—not as isolated minor incidents. The Crown Prosecution Service should get its act together to better represent the community when dealing with such breaches.

Truancy is another issue. Some 25 per cent. of burglaries are committed by truants. Worryingly, truancy sweeps frequently show that truants are often with a parent or supported by a parent in their truancy. We must tackle that. Dragging the parents to court takes a minimum of 13 weeks—a full school term of truancy—and the parents would most probably receive only a fine. We need to consider withholding child benefit until a parent is willing to co-operate with the school and education welfare officers. As one head teacher told me, it is not just about poverty. The very same children who play truant with their parents' consent are often taken on holidays abroad by their parents. We need to tackle truancy.

As has been said, it is when people step outside their homes and see chaos that they feel that the agencies that exist are not supporting them. That is when they ask why they should vote and that is why we need national legislation that changes lives on our doorstep, and why the situation that people face on their doorstep should inform the legislation that we pass here.

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