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The latest crime figures were released last week. In north Northamptonshire, crime figures were down in every area—except Wellingborough. Crime was up 4 per cent. last year on the previous year’s figure. One in eight people in Wellingborough is a victim of crime. In adjoining Kettering, the figure is one in 11. In the adjoining area of east Northamptonshire, it is one
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in 16. In other words, a person is twice as likely to be a victim of crime in Wellingborough as in an adjoining area.

It is not just so-called low-level crime that is on the rise. The surrounding areas of Kettering, Corby and east Northamptonshire had a reduction in violent crime; in Wellingborough, it increased. The other three areas also had a decrease in criminal damage; in Wellingborough, it increased. Crime is, unfortunately, out of control in Wellingborough, and something must be done to protect its law-abiding citizens. It is proven that a strong local police presence works. We need it in Wellingborough, and we need it all the time.

We also need local, accountable chiefs to run our police forces. We need sheriffs, directly elected by the people, to run our police service. If they fail, they can be held directly accountable. At the moment, that just does not happen. What we do not need are the Government’s superforces, which will take even more power away from our citizens, who should have a voice in how their service is run. How can a chief of police be accountable to the people of Wellingborough when he is based in Nottingham? It is all well and good going back to having a sheriff of Nottingham, but I want a sheriff of Wellingborough as well.

The Government need to stop spending money on police community support officers and start putting more money into having more real police officers. When senior police officers are asked whether they want more PCSOs or more real police officers, I think I know what the answer is. If the people of Wellingborough are asked what they want more of, the answer is more real police officers patrolling the streets, catching criminals and deterring crime.

I wish to put a number of suggestions to the Minister. Does he accept that top-down policing, with national targets, has failed? How can the priorities of Wellingborough, Nottingham, Lincoln and Market Harborough all be the same? Does he accept that the woolly minded liberal thinking on yob culture of the past 30 years or so has failed us? The liberal excuses are that it is all the fault of poor education, that these young yobs will grow out of it, and that it is always the community’s fault and never that of the individuals responsible. Is not all that absolute rubbish? If the Minister does not accept that, will he explain why the policies of the last decade have failed so miserably?

On a more positive note, I suggest that the Government take the problem seriously; that they set up proper, long-term consultation; that they abandon their plans for super police forces; that they look at least at the possibility of elected sheriffs; that they look at mergers of police forces based on operational needs, not regional boundaries; that they look at the case for an office of homeland security; and that they consider running pilot schemes of density policing with a zero-tolerance approach to low-level crime. If they think that such pilots are a good idea, may I volunteer Wellingborough as the first?

Would not it be a good idea to reconsider penalties for yobs, thugs and vandals? Let us have policing based on the needs of local people. It is not rocket science—we do not need a totally remote superforce, costing the taxpayer millions of pounds, to solve the problem of crime. We need more police, out on the beat. We need our chief superintendent restored to
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Wellingborough. We need our police station open and manned full time. We need zero tolerance of thugs, vandals and yobs. We need to be surprised if we do not see a police officer patrolling the streets—at the moment, we are surprised if we do see one.

7.34 pm

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con) rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that although we have more time for the debate than might have been anticipated, it is strictly about Wellingborough and antisocial behaviour.

Mr. Hollobone: I am grateful for your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I am delighted to support my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) on the subject of his debate tonight. He and I share a local paper, the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph, and are delighted that it is, this week and in recent weeks, featuring a series of articles on crime and antisocial behaviour in Wellingborough, Kettering and Corby. We have seen stories about residents in Wellingborough and the sad circumstances of the crime and antisocial behaviour from which they suffer. We should congratulate the paper on its initiative. In raising the issue, it is probing the details of how the problem can be tackled. That goes alongside another campaign that the paper is running on the “seven social sins”, which include the graffiti, vandalism and yobbery that my hon. Friend so excellently described.

I have also recently spent time with the local police force I share with my hon. Friend. On two occasions, I have come into direct contact with crime and antisocial behaviour in Wellingborough. On the first occasion, I had the opportunity to telephone my hon. Friend from the Wellingborough library, to which I had been driven, with the police scientific support unit, to try to find fingerprint and DNA evidence of someone who had broken in. After an extensive search, some very good footprints, fingerprints and DNA samples were indeed found.

The chances are that the person who broke in, causing extensive damage to the library, is probably a persistent and prolific offender who is very well known to the local police. It is my view that such persistent and prolific offenders should, when caught—as they are by our local police—and when they are sentenced—as they are by the courts—should serve their time in jail in full. Those persistent prolific offenders are basically extremely bad people, most of whom are incapable of being reformed. They commit 85 per cent. of local crime in Wellingborough, and my point is that the police spend all their time chasing persistent prolific offenders when they are released from jail. If they did not have to do that, they could spend their time and resources on introducing zero-tolerance the policies on crime and antisocial behaviour that the people of Wellingborough want.

My other direct experience of Wellingborough yobbery happened in a car park in Burton Latimer, just over the border. I was on patrol with the local police as part of the police parliamentary scheme when we came
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across a car at dead of night. Six Wellingborough youths were hanging around outside it. The car was full of drug smoke—it was almost blue—but no one was actually in the car. Because the six youths involved were not in the car, there was little the local police could do. They took names and addresses and searched the youths. They came to the conclusion that the vehicle was a stolen one. Clearly, some kind of crime had been committed, but the police decided that they simply could not take action against the six youths because they were not sitting in the car when the police arrived.

The point is that the law somehow needs to be changed and the system adjusted so that common-sense policing can take place. Despite the best efforts of the local police in Wellingborough and Kettering, it is becoming increasingly difficult for our local officers to present evidence to courts that courts will accept. The burden of proof is simply, in many cases, too great.

In that case, the police took names and addresses and let the youths go. The car was taken to the Northamptonshire car pound and reported as a stolen vehicle. I asked the officer concerned, “What will happen now that these youths have to walk back to Wellingborough?” and he said, “Well, another car crime will probably be committed tonight.” That is the sad and sorry state that we have got into in Northamptonshire.

My fundamental point is that, as my hon. Friend said, the police and the authorities know who the yobs and the criminals are and they are doing their very best to sort out the situation, but when those people are caught and sentenced, they should serve their time in full.

7.40 pm

The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety (Mr. Tony McNulty): I congratulate the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) on securing the debate and commend him on his eloquence. These are hugely important issues. I take the point that he made at the start: of course, these offences do not rank with the most serious crimes—murder, manslaughter and so on—but the impact on our communities is none the less quite severe, and blights communities every day.

May I, through the hon. Gentleman, pass on my commiserations to the family of Councillor David—I did not catch his second name; I do apologise—the recent mayor of Rushton? I commend his sadly now deceased colleague for his public service and all his endeavours. I say without fear or favour that councillors of all parties throughout the country are doing a fine job for their communities, day in, day out, and very often with little reward.

David Taylor: The Minister says that councillors throughout the country are doing just that sort of job, but does he acknowledge that some councils appear reluctant to tackle antisocial behaviour and all that goes with it in a systematic and adequate fashion? Does he welcome what the Prime Minister has said today about the funding of councils that do not get to grips with that as the three Back Benchers who are in the Chamber are urging tonight?

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Mr. McNulty: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, because I agree wholeheartedly with all that he says. We must get to a stage where all the agencies involved in such matters take them as seriously as our assorted communities in various constituencies do, and I fully concur with him in that regard. Again, beyond any sort of party dimension, there are councils up and down the country that work very closely with their crime and disorder reduction partnerships to great effect and do get it—to use the modern parlance—with regard to the impact of such apparently low-level crimes and yobbery on our communities. So I commend what my hon. Friend has said, as well as the comments made by the hon. Members for Wellingborough and for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone).

The exasperation of many people in our communities, not least that of the hon. Member for Wellingborough, may well lead them, at least in passing, to think of taking the law into their own hands. I am sure that he will join me in trying to exhort people not to do so, regardless of their frustrations. As my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) suggests, this is about invoking the local machinery and stakeholders to ensure that things improve.

The hon. Member for Wellingborough will know of examples of such improvements in Wellingborough and elsewhere. None the less, as he suggests, the starting premise is that yob culture, low-level crime, vandalism and all that is wrapped up under the label of antisocial behaviour are unacceptable and should not happen. That is very much on the agenda for all of us, and the Government have tried to do any number of things in that regard.

Before I go into some of the detail about Wellingborough and Northamptonshire, and the national plans, let us take one step back. There are things that can and should happen regarding the responsibilities of the individual citizen and the family rather than the state, whether locally or nationally. The hon. Gentleman will know that many of the things that we outlined in the respect action plan relate to parenting, education and how people should learn effectively to be good citizens, and if not to respect, at least to tolerate one another.

As my hon. Friend suggests, the more people who condemn such behaviour as unacceptable and against the grain the better. The notion of a culture that says that such behaviour is acceptable, and just the way things are these days with young children, is simply unacceptable, in Wellingborough and elsewhere. It is clear in Wellingborough and elsewhere that people of all generations and backgrounds are united in wanting antisocial behaviour to be tackled head on, as it directly affects their quality of life.

The last time I had the pleasure to share such a forum—upstairs, I believe—with the hon. Gentleman and his colleague the hon. Member for Kettering was in a debate specifically on the restructuring of the east midlands police force. With respect, I will not go down that route today, except to repeat that I am more than happy to meet all the MPs from the east midlands, on a county basis or any other basis, to speak directly to that policy, which, as I have been saying over the past couple of days, involves important issues.

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Crucial to the direction that policing will take in this country, with or without superforces, as the hon. Gentleman describes them, is the continued implementation of what we are trying to do with forces throughout the country in relation to neighbourhood policing. We are trying to determine—this is already well advanced in some ways in Wellingborough—how such neighbourhood policing will dovetail with all the assorted local stakeholders, for want of a better phrase, including the crime and disorder reduction partnership, so that those involved can give the best of their resources to help local people. I am know that the hon. Gentleman is aware of that, and that he works well with Wellingborough’s antisocial behaviour co-ordinator and others in that context.

The truth is that whatever the Government do in offering resources for policing and in setting out our agenda and legislation on antisocial behaviour and the respect action plan, we cannot impose those things on communities to assist them. We must all work together locally and nationally across assorted agencies to ensure that people get the protection that they deserve.

Notwithstanding my hon. Friend’s comments, communities, councils, police forces and other authorities throughout the country are increasingly taking a stand against such behaviour. There are examples up and down the country of the sort of tipping point that is reached when sufficient effort and resources are put in by assorted local agencies—when we get to the stage where people say, “We won’t put up with this sort of behaviour any more.” At worst, the antisocial behaviour moves elsewhere; at best, it is not displaced in that way, because the people next door, too, make dealing with it a priority.

We want to get to a stage where CDRPs, local police and local councils all work together successfully to move towards precisely the sort of zero tolerance that the hon. Gentleman suggests. It is almost a cultural change, and that takes time. As my hon. Friend suggests, it has taken time to break down some barriers between those assorted agencies, but in the end more and more people are moving towards an acceptance that although such crimes may be low level, they are increasingly important.

I do not want to quibble with the hon. Gentleman about crime rates. The latest information that I have for Wellingborough CDRP area and Northamptonshire is that many of the figures that he has quoted are not accurate about the measures taken in 2003-04 compared with 2004-05, when burglary, theft, fraud and criminal damage all went in the right direction—down—in Wellingborough and Northamptonshire. However, I am sure that we can talk about statistics after the debate.

I still accept that even if crime levels are moving in the right direction, because of the malaise of antisocial behaviour, the perception in our communities is that crime is being anything but reduced. I have attended meetings similar to those that the hon. Member for Wellingborough has organised, and I can say until I am blue in the face, “Yes, but Harrow is the safest but one borough in the whole of London,” only to be told time and again, “Well, it doesn’t feel like it.” So it is not just a question of dry statistics, although I would contend
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that the statistics are going in the right direction; we must do all we can with all the agencies concerned, to improve the situation.

The hon. Member for Wellingborough referred, perhaps a tad unkindly, to the Caspar project in Queensway. As he will know, it involved not just a police presence but a whole series of other important elements that, in some cases, sought to re-establish the fabric and infrastructure of the local community. It did not, as the hon. Gentleman implied, provide “something for the kids to do” in a liberal, woolly, wishy-washy way; rather, it turned round that estate and improved the situation. The project has not been 100 per cent. successful in eradicating all the difficulties associated with antisocial behaviour, but I hope that he will agree that it has improved the situation in Queensway, and that the collective behaviour is far better than it was. Such interventions are important. They may seem to be as low-level and unimportant as many of the activities that we are discussing, but the hon. Gentleman will know that they have led to significant improvements in the community.

Following the hon. Gentleman’s discussions with residents in Abbey road and Priory road, the police are at least considering the use of measures such as cameras and additional patrols. That shows that, through a partnership in which the community and individual agencies collectively recognise that such behaviour is no longer acceptable, the situation will improve.

There are record numbers of police throughout the country, and there has been an equivalent increase for Northamptonshire. While that should be taken as read, it is important that local constables use the record level of resources to the best of their ability in servicing local communities. We are examining ways of ensuring that civilians do the jobs that civilians should be doing, so that we can increase the number of uniformed officers on the streets and reduce the number in police stations. I should point out that that project has the full indulgence and active participation of the police forces themselves, who are keen to get officers out on the beat. I take issue, however, with the notion that police community support officers have no real place in the equation; they do, and they can work very well with the police. They are not, and were never meant to be, substitute policemen, but they do act as their eyes and ears and complement what they do in a particularly productive way. [Interruption.]

Despite the fact that, as instructed, my phone is on “Boothroyd” mode, the vibration is particularly loud and I cannot turn it down. I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

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