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20 Nov 2002 : Column 708—continued

7.33 pm

Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford): My constituents in Romford are increasingly concerned that crime is rife in their community and they live in fear of becoming the victims of crime. The London borough of Havering is the second largest borough in the Greater London area, but we suffer the lowest number of police officers per square mile, the third lowest number of police officers per head of population, and the 11th highest number of crimes per officer.

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Last week, I met the local borough commander for Havering and the chairman of the Metropolitan Police Authority, Lord Toby Harris. From my postbag and surgeries, I knew that the biggest concern of my constituents was crime, but my fears were confirmed in that meeting when the results of a recent consultation were revealed. No fewer than 80 per cent. of respondents were worried about being burgled. Some 77 per cent. were worried about being mugged and 76 per cent. were worried about experiencing antisocial behaviour. Massive concern is also felt in the borough about becoming the victim of vehicle-related crime. In addition, 46 per cent. reported that their fear of crime had worsened in the past three years, with only 36 per cent. of people feeling safe at night. Some 78 per cent. of people said that they were dissatisfied with the police provision on the beat.

I hope that the Minister will agree that those responses suggest that the problem is indeed serious. We need proper resources and enough police officers to have an active presence on the streets to deter antisocial and criminal behaviour, and sufficient officers in the police stations to answer the phone and deal with the public when they need help.

One of the biggest problems in Romford is criminal activities in the town centre, especially in the early hours of the morning. Romford has been described as the night club capital of east London, with the most night clubs and entertainment premises outside Soho. The town attracts thousands of youngsters every Friday and Saturday night, but most of them come to enjoy themselves and cause no trouble. However, there are those who take part in yobbish behaviour, causing damage and being abusive towards others. With such a volume of pubs and clubs, that creates a very intimidating atmosphere for local residents.

I welcome the Government's realisation that antisocial behaviour is a huge problem and their attempt to address it through the antisocial behaviour orders has been a start, albeit a small one. However, when the Government came to power in 1997, police numbers in Havering stood at 326. By September 2001, following a massive fall to 297 in December 2000, the 326 figure was restored. Today, we have only 320 officers, when the bare minimum it is estimated we need is 334. My borough includes three parliamentary constituencies—Romford, Hornchurch and Upminster—and 240 million people. [Hon. Members: XThousand."] I am sorry, I mean 240,000. We have lost a police station in Collier Row, in the north of my constituency and the Romford station is now the only 24-hour station serving the entire borough—all three constituencies. It is no wonder that confidence is so low and crime is increasing: the yobs know they can get away with their behaviour because there is little there to stop them.

If the Government are serious about law and order, I suggest that they tackle the problem at the root and give the police the numbers and the power they need to have a noticeable presence and the authority, once more, to fight back. We must also give the police the confidence to get on with the job, and cut them free of unnecessary paperwork and the culture of political correctness that is so damaging.

The drug problem is becoming rife. If we are to classify anyone as antisocial, those who deal in and take drugs must be prime targets. The Government's

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confusing approach to drugs will make our streets no-go areas for the decent majority of law-abiding citizens. If the Government want to stamp out antisocial behaviour, the message must be strong and clear. Drugs cause crime. Drugs destroy the lives of our youngsters. Drugs are simply wrong. I fear that no progress will be made until that message is sent out and real action is taken to stamp out drug use.

Police numbers and resources are not the only problem. On 14 December last year, Scott Young, a 14-year-old from my constituency, was set upon as he walked home with friends from a nearby fish and chip shop. He was punched in the face and, terrified of further assault, ran into the paths of two cars. Tragically, he died from multiple injuries after the incident, but the perpetrator of the crime was given a sentence of only three years' imprisonment.

When I heard about that, I was appalled. That repulsion and disbelief is shared by the thousands of people who have already signed a petition organised by Scott's parents to mark their disgust at the way in which the law appears to display more understanding for criminals than for victims and their families. How can our constituents have confidence that the rule of law is being upheld, and that their lives and their loved ones' lives are safe, when such judgments are made? I sincerely hope that the proposed Bill on criminal justice and sentencing takes careful note of cases such as that involving Scott Young in Romford. I hope that it strengthens punishments and creates real deterrents.

Crime in Romford and Havering has been at unacceptable levels for far too long. It is nothing short of a disgrace that the Government have failed to give police in my area the officers and resources needed to tackle the problem. The people of my constituency demand a better law enforcement service, and I completely—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. The hon. Gentleman has had his time.

7.41 pm

Peter Bradley (The Wrekin): Antisocial behaviour has become the most serious issue in my constituency, if visits to my surgery and the letters that I receive in my postbag are to be believed. It is clearly the same for hon. Members of all parties. The problem is not confined to the urban part of my constituency. Antisocial behaviour takes place in urban Donnington, in the market town of Newport, and in the village of Wrockwardine. Every part of my constituency is a source for the same complaint.

My constituents complain about abusive and aggressive behaviour, vandalism, hooliganism, graffiti, litter, noise, including a particular problem at this time of year, as other hon. Members have noted—fireworks. However, they also complain that the police do not respond adequately to their calls for help, that the council or their landlords do not care, and that the onus on them to gather evidence for prosecution is too heavy, and to give evidence as a witness in court too intimidating. As other hon. Members have noted, it is a simple truth that one individual—never mind a family or a gang—can blight the lives of all the people living in whole streets, estates or neighbourhoods.

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It is also true that the police have been too slow to acknowledge that low-level crime can have a high-level impact. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) said so eloquently, the erosion of quality of life can lead to an erosion in people's confidence in the police's preparedness and ability to protect law-abiding citizens. It is not a problem only for the police, local authorities and landlords, however, although I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) that they often do not do enough to respond to public priorities. The key issue is not just about the incidence of crime, or even people's experience of it. We must also tackle people's fear of crime.

In 1996, I conducted a survey in two market towns in my constituency. I found that two people in five were too fearful to walk the streets at some time during the day, and that one person in four—25 per cent. of the people surveyed—were too frightened to remain alone in their own homes.

A great deal has been achieved over the past five years. We have heard about reductions in the incidence of crime. In my police area of West Mercia, there will be 300 additional police officers by the end of the year. A senior local officer told me that the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 was the best piece of legislation to have been passed in the 25 years that he had been in the force. We have slashed youth unemployment, and introduced ASBOs, crime reduction partnerships, neighbourhood wardens and on-the-spot fines, and it is clear that such measures can work.

In the target areas, street crime has fallen by 16 per cent. in recent months. I welcome that, but the job is only half done if people do not feel safer. As has been noted, it is important to recognise that although our constituents are worried about the state of the world and our nation, they are most concerned about what happens outside their own front doors. If people believe that their neighbourhood is down at heel and uncared for, that is how they feel too. If their neighbourhood looks good, they feel good. We need to learn that lesson quickly.

We need a cultural change, as other hon. Members have said, that recognises that, in this affluent age, quality of life is a key priority for constituents. It may be that antisocial behaviour has not increased in recent years. It is a difficult thing to measure, but it is certain that people have grown more sensitive to it.

I support the Government's programme wholeheartedly. I am not in favour of illiberal legislation that simply catches the tide of public opinion. We in this House should be jealous of this country's civil liberties, and we will need to scrutinise the legislation that is put before us. However, it is surely right to shift the balance in favour of the citizen, and in particular of the victim.

It is a fundamental principle that social order is based on a balance of rights and responsibilities. People who refuse to fulfil their responsibilities cannot be allowed an absolute freedom to abuse the rights of others. It must be right to broaden the powers of police, local authorities, landlords and the courts. We need to get the message across to offenders that their antisocial behaviour will be tolerated no longer.

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We need to get the same message across to parents as well, as other hon. Members have noted. We cannot force them to love or cherish their children, but we can oblige them to accept some basic responsibilities. As has been noted, there are 40,000 to 50,000 truancies each day. Truancy sweeps show that 80 per cent. of truants are found with an adult, who is often a parent or relative.

The link between truancy and crime hotspots is also difficult to argue against. As has been noted, a quarter of young offenders are former truants. I therefore agree with what other hon. Members have said about the importance of parenting orders and the withdrawal of benefit from parents, where that can be justified. We also need to support head teachers and other teachers in our schools. Putting police officers in schools is an extremely unfortunate step, but it is inevitable and in many cases welcome. I hope that there will be time in the legislative programme for us to hear more about the need to teach the fundamentals of citizenship in classrooms.

However, young people are not the only offenders; they are often the victims of antisocial behaviour, as well as its perpetrators. I spoke earlier about perception, which nowadays, with the help of the press and the media, often overwhelms reality. Young people are often perceived to be a problem when they are not. They gather on street corners and represent an intimidating presence for many people, but that is often because they have nowhere else to go. It is a great shame that our investment in public services contains too small an element for youth services and facilities.

There is little that is more important for hon. Members and our constituents than making neighbourhoods fit to live in. That is what people in our communities expect us to do. We must focus our resources on prevention as a priority, but we must act decisively when offences occur to detect and convict the perpetrators, and to protect our citizens and the quality of life to which they are entitled.

I therefore welcome the priority that the Government are attaching to the priorities of my constituents.

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