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Mr. Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): It is an honour and privilege to follow the impassioned and excellent maiden speech made by the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main). She mentioned Queen Boudicca, and I must say that I can see a lot of similarities. I wish her a long and happy time in the House.
My first wish in this new Parliament is to thank the voters of Hartlepool for returning me as their Member of Parliament for a second time. I congratulate not only
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the hon. Member for St. Albans, but all hon. Members who have delivered their maiden speeches both today and in the previous few days. It is just a few short months since I made my maiden speech from this very spot in the Chamber. At the time I was overwhelmed by the kindness shown by hon. Members on both sides of the House, staff and officials. I only hope that I am able to show the same sort of consideration that was shown to me now that I am a parliamentary veteran of some considerable weeks standing.
I have been in the Chamber for all today's debate and most of Thursday's, and several things have struck me: first, how young all the new Members look; and secondly, the high quality of maiden speeches made. The intake of 2005 will be seen as having a major impact on the affairs of the House and the country, as did the intakes of 1945, 1983 and 1997. I wish all new Members well.
The focus of the Queen's Speech on safer communities and continuing to cut crime, antisocial behaviour and the fear of crime is welcome. There is a good story to tell in my constituency. Crime in Hartlepool has gone down by some 22 per cent. in the past 11 months, which is one of the sharpest falls anywhere in the country. Burglary has gone down by a half in little over 12 months. In 1997, burglaries were at an alarming levelsomething like 270 a monthbut the number of burglaries is now down to fewer than 50 a month. The disruption to the supply of class A drugs has increased by some 30 per cent. The fall in crime by more than a fifth equates to 2,900 fewer victims of crime in my town.
Despite all that good news, fear of crime remains. People's perceptions of how safe our streets are have not kept pace with the official statistics. It must be said that that is largely down to kids hanging around on street corners or in shopping precincts. People going about their business who have to walk past those gangs feel extremely intimidated. The risk of actual violence or criminal activity is low, but it is likely that a person might get a bit of lip or some swearing directed at them. Younger people who walk past such gangs face a greater threat of violence than others.
I am not suggesting that there was a golden age of youth when the rain was always warm, the sun shone constantly in summer holidays and adolescents were fully respectful of adults and authority. For example, for relaxation during the election campaign I watched "Quadrophenia", a film by The Who about mods and their battle with rockers in the early 1960swell before I was born. It is a good film that demonstrates that youth violence has been with us for decades. I remember reading in history classes about punks, and was especially taken by the headline in the Daily Mirror at the time about the Sex Pistols: "The Filth and the Fury". Similarly, I was 18 in 1990, when apparently civilisation was about to end with the rise of dance culture and groups such as the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays. It is a natural sign of youth that adolescents will rebel against authority to a degree.
The difference now seems to be that there is a small hard core of youths who have grown up without any apparent acknowledgement of the rules of societyand, yes, with a lack of respect. These kids are 11, 12 or even older, and are taking the mick out of the rest of us. In many cases they are the consequences of generations
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of unemployment and benefits, and a lack of responsibility. They have not had appropriate parenting and are left to run amok. These kids are not stupid, but refuse to participate in the educational opportunities available to them, and that sort of attitude becomes the acceptable or fashionable stance in the rest of their peer group.
I have seen that myself in my constituency caseworkcases in which a kid of 10 is making the lives of an entire street or estate a misery. This kid is not daft. He can manipulate the criminal justice system as astutely as any Philadelphia lawyer, but I can see his life bleakly mapped out now, if his behaviour is not dealt withbreaking windows and setting fire to wheelie bins at 10, petty crime and burglary by 14, a drug habit by the age of 17, more serious crimes and a lifetime of custodial sentences by the time he is 20.
I sincerely hope that this cycle of thuggishness can be halted by the pieces of Home Office legislation outlined in the Queen's Speech. I believe that the legislation will play a part, and I am confident that the three principles to reduce antisocial behaviour and the fear of crimethe three P's: parenting, policing and punishmentwill play a major part in the detail of the proposed legislation. I shall consider each of these principles in turn.
As I mentioned, effective parenting is the foundation stone of being a decent citizen, yet for a variety of reasons, in many communities, parenting skills are not embraced or have been eradicated. Some parents do not know the basics, such as how to prepare a nutritious meal. That is why initiatives such as Sure Start, which we as a party do not shout about loudly enough, are so vital. The proposed child care Bill, which will extend children's centres to every community by 2010, is much needed. That will give assistance to parents and provide all children up to the age of 14 with the prospect of safe accommodation in which to learn and play. The work and families Bill will increase scope for parents to stay at home with their children, and that also should be welcomed.
But parenting is much wider than the immediate family unit. Society and its associated organisations also play a role. In the north-east, Cleveland fire brigade has initiated a young firefighters scheme, which takes kids who appear to be heading towards a life of crime and antisocial behaviour and uses the fire service as a role model for discipline, teamwork and social skills. The results are astonishing, with offending and reoffending dramatically reduced. I would like to see such an initiative widened.
We need to be ever bolder and more radical. Ninety-five per cent., if not more, of kids are decent, but may be drawn into gangs and related antisocial behaviour through boredom. I have heard countless times that there is nothing for kids to do and nowhere for them to meet where they feel safe. I urge the Government to be bold in their third term and provide free sports and social facilities for young people. The benefits in terms of reduced antisocial behaviour, less fear in our communities and healthier children would far outweigh the costs. I would welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate following the publication of the Green Paper on youth provision later in this Parliament.
This is a non-confrontational, supportive question. When I was up in Hartlepool, for
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obvious reasons, last year, one of the big pressures from the youngsters was for a skateboard park near the middle of town so they would not have to be round the war memorial and elsewhere. Can that idea make progress? If the hon. Gentleman needs help, he has only to ask.
Mr. Wright: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. There is a skateboard park in the centre of town, next to the football groundHartlepool United is in the play-off finals this Sundaybut it is not used because people do not feel safe there. That is a key issue, on which I am grateful for cross-party support.
The next principle that I mentioned was policing. In this, the Government are heading in the right direction. My constituents want to see the emphasis on neighbourhood and community policing. Neighbourhoods wish to recognise and be able to contact quickly a local police officer who knows the area and the local troublemakers and criminals well, and who is able to police the community effectively. That is already happening in Hartlepool to some extent, with greater numbers of constables and community support officers having a positive effect on people's feelings of reassurance and safety.
However, policing cannot be truly effective unless an appropriate punishment system is in place. People need to see that justice is being done and criminals are being appropriately punished. In many cases, the sentence should be served in the community. I fully agree with moves by the Government to link crimes such as graffiti and damage to the local environment with sentences specifically designed to rectify that crime. Some sort of consistency across the country when sentences are handed out is equally vital. Measures in the Queen's Speech such as the violent crime reduction Bill and the management of offenders and sentencing Bill will help to develop that.
Custodial sentences play a vital role in the justice system, and I was disturbed to read in my briefing pack that with regard to the management of offenders and sentencing Bill, the Sentencing Guidelines Council will take capacity into account when sentencing. That seems to suggest that if the prisons are full, an offender whose crime warrants imprisonment will not go to jail. I hope that I have misinterpreted that passage, which seems to fly in the face of other Government measures, and that my concerns will be dealt with by those on the Treasury Bench.
In general, I support the home affairs measures in the Queen's Speech. They continue to push the criminal justice system towards supporting the victim, and I look forward to debating them in greater detail in the weeks and months to come.
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