Previous SectionIndexHome Page

20 Nov 2002 : Column 729—continued

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): Does the hon. Gentleman support compulsory identity cards? The Government rejected that idea.

Andy Burnham: As I said, I advocate compulsory identity cards and ask the Home Office to consider them. People who misbehave can thus be identified immediately, and the necessary action can be taken against them.

My final point goes beyond the Home Office remit, but I would like Ministers to consider balancing the tough regime with opportunities for children to engage

20 Nov 2002 : Column 730

in constructive activities outside school hours. In towns such as Leigh, which are away from the big city centres, facilities for 11 to 16-year-olds constitute a missing link. There is no cinema, no bowling alley and there are no skate parks, but I am repeatedly told that young people are interested in them. We badly need more investment in modest facilities for young people, such as places to meet and listen to music.

Although I welcome and admire the proposed legislation, I urge Home Office Ministers to do more about activities for 11 to 16-year-olds. Such provision is a missing piece of the jigsaw. If we do not act, there is a danger that society will perceive all young people as apprentice hooligans when they have talents that have never been brought out. If we do not show an interest in young people, we cannot be surprised when they start to rebel.

9.1 pm

Vernon Coaker (Gedling): I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), who made several points with which I agree.

Like other hon. Members, I want to concentrate on the criminal justice Bill and the proposed antisocial behaviour measure. As many hon. Members said, antisocial behaviour is the main problem that we face. A sense of disorder and increased fear of crime pervades all our areas. The Government are right to propose further measures to tackle those problems. However, as other hon. Members said, we must also try to understand what is happening in our society.

Why does a sense of decline pervade our society? Why is there a decline in respect for authority? Why do some families not appear to care about the problems that they cause others? Why do not our police command the respect that we would wish when called to specific incidents? What has happened to parental control? Those are important questions about genuine problems. They set the context for our debate on some of the problems on many of our estates.

As well as laws, crime and the courts, all hon. Members should consider the social issues that feed the different problems. Perhaps Ministers will consider a royal commission to examine that. Many hon. Members said that those problems confront us all, whether we represent urban or rural seats.

We must also tackle the problems that our communities face now. I therefore welcome the criminal justice measure, which tries to restore a proper balance between the rights of the accused and those of the victims and witnesses. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh said, the Bill has been described as an attack on civil liberties. However, people in the communities that I represent are fed up with what they perceive to be an attack on their civil liberties. They want their civil liberties to be asserted over those of the drug dealer. They want their rights to be asserted over those of people who cause persistent criminal damage. They want their civil liberties to be asserted over those of the thug and the joyrider. These are not the rantings of the hangers and floggers, although it is easy to portray these people as such. They are the voices of ordinary, law-abiding citizens who are sick and tired of what is going on in their communities, and of the apparent failure of those in authority to deal with the problems.

20 Nov 2002 : Column 731

How can we wonder at the disillusionment of these people with us? How can we wonder at the increased apathy that we see around us, or at the fact that the extreme right sees this as a fertile breeding ground? If we do not protect the rights of the majority, and if the state is not seen to stand up for these people, that sense of disillusionment with us, that sense of apathy, and the possibility for the extreme right to make gains in those communities will grow. I welcome the Home Secretary's efforts to rebalance the criminal justice system, and my constituents will welcome it as well.

I also welcome the antisocial behaviour Bill, which is to tackle what is supposedly low-level nuisance. It is not, however, low level, and we all need to adopt the zero tolerance towards graffiti, litter and noise nuisance, that has worked so effectively elsewhere. In trying to solve these problems, rather than to score political points, I must ask my right hon. Friend the Minister and other hon. Members how we can ensure that laws and regulations are used. We do not appear to be short of laws or regulations. Indeed, sometimes there seems to be an unwillingness to use existing laws. When people come to me and say, XThese people are joyriding round the estate and causing criminal damage", we do not need a new law passed in Parliament to get something done about it. There seems to be inertia in the system that prevents the law from being used, and if we cannot get something done about that we will continue to experience these problems.

How can we ensure that the laws and regulations that we pass are enforced? How can we ensure, for example, that something is done about persistent offenders, who are still being bailed, despite all that we have been saying? How can we get councils to take action against antisocial tenants who have been warned time and again about antisocial activities such as noise, when the councils are often unable to—or fail to—take such action? There should be no untouchables in our community, but many of our communities feel that such people exist. Those people believe that they are above the law, and that undermines all of us.

For all the criticisms of the police, and the arguments that have been made about the numbers of police in our communities—the numbers are increasing and I hope they will continue to do so—it is incumbent on us as the Parliament of this country to congratulate them on their work in some of the difficult situations to which they are called. In Nottingham, the police face particular problems with gun crime, and I salute the bravery of many of the men and women who face the real problems that many of us would not like to face.

My philosophy on this subject is summed up by the term Xtough love". If people do wrong, they must be caught and punished, but, alongside that, we have to consider how we should rehabilitate them and how, when they are in prison, we can prevent them from reoffending. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will consider that. The youth service has also been underfunded for several years, and we need to do something about providing more facilities for our young people.

20 Nov 2002 : Column 732

This is the most important debate that we have had on the Queen's Speech. If we cannot resolve some of the problems relating to crime in our communities, apathy and disillusionment with us, the Parliament of this country, will only increase.

9.9 pm

Clive Efford (Eltham): Tonight's debate has been punctuated by the odd speech from those on the Opposition Benches. No doubt they have been trawling the Tea Room trying to get enough people to speak, but when we get down to debating the legislation they will be in here complaining that there is not enough time to consider the issues.

We need to look at the background to our communities' concerns about antisocial behaviour. The Government came to power against a backdrop of rising crime—crime had doubled and police numbers were going down. Today, police numbers are reaching record levels in England and Wales and approaching record levels in London. The British crime survey published in July showed that crime had gone down 2 per cent., and we in London have seen the restoration of the housing allowance, which was taken away by the Conservatives. The training centre at Hendon is bursting at the seams with new recruits, which means more police officers.

My community of Eltham in the borough of Greenwich is one of the safest places to live in London and crime has consistently gone down over the past few years, but Eltham has recently suffered detrimental criticism at the hands of the media following a number of racist attacks during the summer. My constituents resent being vilified as racists by virtue of their postcode. That is done largely by feeble-minded journalists who are eager to create sensational headlines. The hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) spoke up on behalf of the fourth estate, but if my constituency has been given a fair hearing in the media over recent months, I would like to see it.

The media claim that they are standing up for victims of racism, but they have never considered at any stage the effect of their inaccurate reporting on the people of Eltham, especially the black members of my community. I must be the only Member of this Parliament who has black constituents come to his surgery to ask what is going on and whether they are safe to continue living in the constituency. People have lived there unharmed for more than 30 years, but when they see the media coverage they do not recognise the community being described.

No Member of the House can deny that they have racists in their community, and Eltham is no different, but I appeal for a more reasonable approach that deals with the issue of racism across all our communities without just describing it as a pocket—a localised problem—and sweeping aside the serious, endemic problem that we have in our society among a minority of people who are capable of carrying out serious racist attacks.

In dealing with issues involving racism and antisocial behaviour, I have discovered that what is needed locally is a better co-ordinated response from all the agencies involved. I have come across cases in which people have been moved to other parts of my borough to avoid harassment, only to find several months later that the

20 Nov 2002 : Column 733

very people they were moved away from have also been moved to that community. The same problem starts up again, but that would not happen if there were an effective local method of tracking people who have been involved in antisocial behaviour and harassing their neighbours.

Such records would have to be accurate to avoid the innocent being wrongly criticised in those situations and to avoid malicious accusations being put on people's records, but where there is clear evidence that such behaviour has taken place councils should be able to act to protect their tenants from families who refuse to behave in a reasonable manner.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety recently announced measures to streamline the process of obtaining antisocial behaviour orders and dealing with antisocial behaviour. That must be welcome, but I believe that local authorities need guidance on how to manage the process of obtaining ASBOs. To deal with antisocial behaviour, they need to start keeping records from the first intervention, whether it is a letter from the council or a visit from the local police. The process must begin immediately. That could streamline the gathering of the information necessary to go for an ASBO, should it be decided that that is the best course of action.

There should be one point of contact for all information gathered at local level. Guidance could ensure that local authorities and the police take the same approach in exchanging information about what is going on in our local communities. In my experience, beat officers have a very detailed knowledge of what is happening on their patches, but even where relationships are good, that sometimes breaks down when the police's objectives conflict with those of the local authority. A lack of co-ordination can also lead to individuals falling between two stools, whereby both the police and the local authority are aware of what is going on, but are not actually dealing with it. Better co-ordination at this stage would reduce the time and effort required to obtain antisocial behaviour orders, and would shorten the time taken to obtain an ASBO once the decision is taken that that is the only course of action.

The failure of ASBOs is that they have proven unwieldy, and it has also been difficult to gather evidence. Too often, residents are terrified to come forward and give evidence to the relevant authorities, which results in unacceptable delays, or people being forced to continue to live in misery. Two areas in my constituency have particular problems. In Eltham Green road, the local post box had to be blocked up because the Post Office could not guarantee the safety of the postal workers who emptied it. In Alnwick road, people have been forced into a curfew. They cannot come out after dark because of large groups of young people who act in an antisocial way, terrorising the neighbourhood.

The situation needs to be tackled through a co-ordinated approach and better exchange of information with the police. Local people need to be kept informed and given the confidence to emerge from their front doors and stand together against those who terrorise their neighbourhoods. Resources are needed to gather independent evidence, and we have the technology to assist us in doing so. We also need to send expert

20 Nov 2002 : Column 734

witnesses into communities to identify the individuals involved. Such witnesses could stand up in court and give evidence to ensure that effective action is taken against the perpetrators.

The measures set out by the Government in the Queen's Speech could result in effective action being taken against the perpetrators of antisocial behaviour, who terrorise—

Next Section

IndexHome Page