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2.14 pm

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): Antisocial behaviour is a blight on our communities and the Government make no apology for taking the action needed to tackle it.

We have been tough on antisocial behaviour. We have not only increased resources going to the police and local authorities, giving them the tools and the powers they need to crack down on troublemakers, but we have also been tough on the causes of antisocial behaviour. This Labour Government have also worked to tackle social exclusion and bad parenting, to relieve poverty and to improve poor housing. I reject the allegation that we are not keen on tackling the causes of antisocial behaviour.

Along with many other Members, I am sure, I receive letters and e-mails from constituents who feel that their community is blighted by low-level crime and irresponsible behaviour. In Wakefield, we are lucky to have some extraordinary people who have stood up to antisocial behaviour and transformed the community—and I would like to make special mention of three of them.

Sue Thomson lives on Aysgarth, which is part of the huge Lupset housing estate in west Wakefield. In 2002, Aysgarth had a nickname—the Bronx. It was gripped by antisocial behaviour, with residents enduring trouble
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almost every night. People’s lives were blighted by burnt-out cars, vandalism, and loud music. Drug-taking took place openly on the streets and fireworks were let off as a signal to drug addicts to come and get their fix. Sue set up the Aysgarth community association and badgered the local council and police for help. The council has now refurbished many of the squalid one-bedroom flats that used to house the drug dealers. The rest were bulldozed. Four years on, the estate is almost trouble free. People used to sympathise with Sue about living in Aysgarth, but now they want to live there. Sue’s tenacity has transformed her area and she is a credit to her community.

Hazel Chowcat is another woman who has made a difference. Last year, the Calder Grove area of Wakefield saw large groups of young people loitering on street corners, drinking, being unruly and generally causing traffic problems. A parish councillor for West Bretton, Hazel worked with the local neighbourhood police teams to identify the young people involved. They met the parents and agreed acceptable behaviour contracts—and they worked. The Home Secretary visited Calder Grove in May 2006 and saw for himself how those teams had reduced the problems in their community.

I have received many complaints about young people riding mini-motorbikes, which terrorise older people, younger children and pets. Mini-motorbikes are dangerous, antisocial and illegal. Councillor Ron Halliday represents Wakefield East ward, which covers the Eastmoor and Portobello estates. Ron took me out to Portobello to show me the damage that those bikes had caused. They are simply a death-trap for children, yet I have never seen any young rider wearing a helmet. Ron has been campaigning to stop young people riding mini-motos and to educate parents about the dangers of letting their children ride them. Mini-motos cost at least a couple of hundred pounds and I cannot understand why parents insist on buying them for their children. Ron’s work is improving lives and could even save lives.

I would like to turn now to the problems that we face in our city centre. Wakefield’s Westgate area is famous for its clubs and bars, but recently it has become a magnet for drink-fuelled antisocial behaviour, particularly on Friday and Saturday nights. Wakefield, known as “the Merrie city” since mediaeval times on account of the quality of its pubs, was getting a terrible reputation. Families were afraid to venture out after dark and the Wakefield theatre and restaurants claimed that brawling drunkards were scaring people away.

I therefore went on the infamous Westgate run myself in February last year, accompanied by Inspector Dave Westwood and Chief Superintendent Mark Whyman. I stayed out till 2am on Sunday morning—the latest I have been out since I was elected to this place.

David Davis: Get a life!

Mary Creagh: I began by visiting a CCTV control room— [Interruption.] It was all quite entertaining: it is certainly a different city after 10 o’clock at night. I visited the CCTV control room, which is linked to officers on the ground. At 1.30 in the morning, it was fascinating to recognise people that I had seen from the
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control room at 9 pm now sitting in the cells and the booking area having been arrested. From the CCTV and the radio-ing backwards and forwards, it was easy to spot the troublemakers about four hours before it all started. It was a revelation.

I saw that arresting people takes huge amounts of officer time. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister visited Wakefield last summer and is aware of the booking-in problems at Wakefield station. We cannot tackle 21st century crime in 19th century buildings. Right at the end of the evening, outside the police station, I also witnessed the arrest of an extremely drunk and highly aggressive young man. I will not repeat the language that was used, Madam Deputy Speaker, but it was a stream of four-letter words—the worst two that can be thought of, so I will leave it to your imagination. When he was told to stop, he repeated the words insistently. Later in the cells, he indignantly demanded to see a senior officer to complain about his detention. However, he soon piped down when it was pointed out to him that he had been arrested by the chief superintendent, accompanied by an inspector and witnessed by his MP.

The police city centre team, led by Inspector Dave Westwood, has transformed the landscape of Wakefield city centre. There has been a 25 per cent. reduction in violent incidents on Westgate in the last two years. I know that anecdotes do not make evidence, but that fact represents a real reduction in the levels of violent crime. Wakefield’s Labour council also deserves praise for playing its part. It has introduced a traffic order banning cars from Westgate on weekend nights better to manage the flow of people and taxis and to stop people who have taken too much to drink falling under the wheels of cars. It has also brought in an alcohol exclusion zone to stop street drinking in the city centre during the daytime.

The church, too, has played its part. A pilot street angels scheme involves volunteers patrolling the city centre to offer help to those who may be vulnerable or in danger because of drugs or drink. They provide a reassuring, sober presence on busy weekend nights and their interventions are estimated to have saved the lives of four people in the last month alone. I am delighted that that scheme will be formally launched next month. I would also like to highlight the work done by our local newspaper, the Wakefield Express. In December 2004, it launched a campaign called Streetsafe to improve the safety of the city centre, improve the city’s image and reduce alcohol-related violence. Its campaign was nominated for a national press award and given a commendation from the divisional commander of West Yorkshire police.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I am interested to hear about the hon. Lady’s experiences. I certainly pay tribute to West Yorkshire police for all that they do. However, does she agree that often they are battling against the odds and that it would certainly help their efforts if there were a much tougher approach—perhaps a zero-tolerance approach—to breaches of ASBOs and if persistent offenders were taken off the streets so that the police do not end up arresting and re-arresting the same people and moving the same
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people on time after time? Does she agree that we need to have a zero-tolerance approach to breaches of ASBOs so that the police can deal with these problems properly?

Mary Creagh: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I know that he takes an interest in the police, because I bumped into him in the force training school in August last year. He and I were both spending time with West Yorkshire police force. I have heard anecdotal evidence from the police that things such as drinking banning orders are incredibly effective because they divide people from their drinking buddies and they know that they are banned from their own local clubs. I do not know what the rate of breach of ASBOs is in Wakefield. I know that the council has issued 155, but I do not know how many have been breached. It is obviously important to take into account the reasons for those breaches and their nature. We need to look much more creatively at how we use ASBOs and at making them more personalised to the individual. I will come to that later.

I pay tribute to everyone who works tirelessly against antisocial behaviour in Wakefield by standing up for decency, running sports and youth clubs and standing up for the silent majority. They are a credit to our city. But the success of their work in tackling antisocial behaviour is also a credit to the measures that the Government have brought in. I am not going to rehearse the police numbers. Suffice it to say that West Yorkshire police have seen 600 more police officers in the past 10 years and the successful introduction of police community support officers, which Opposition peers voted against in the other place.

This is about the police engaging with communities. The introduction of neighbourhood policing has been a step change in the way in which we deal with antisocial behaviour. Last summer, as I said, I spent three days attached to Wakefield police. I went out on the beat with the safer neighbourhoods team in the Agbrigg, Belle Vue and Portobello areas to see how their new working methods are helping to restore respect by providing reassurance, and tackling antisocial behaviour and low-level crime. I visited the Portobello estate with neighbourhood beat officer Eddie Davis. We spotted a mini-motorcyclist. The officer did not give chase, because it could have been dangerous, and potentially fatal, for that young person. Eddie Davis did not need to give chase to that young person. To my amazement, he already knew the child’s name and address. He had confiscated one mini-moto already from the boy and that child was about to lose his second mini-moto. Those new seizure powers were introduced by this Labour Government and they are helping the police to make life better on the Portobello estate.

I also took the officer to visit people in a street where I had conducted a roving surgery and where they had complained to me about the activities of drug dealers. Those people’s lives are being ruined by people turning up late at night and people sleeping in cars outside the houses. One of the residents told me that a drug user had come knocking on his door at 1 o’clock in the morning, looking for the dealer’s house, accompanied by a three-year-old child. When we talk about the help that parents need, there can be no excuses for a civilised
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society to say that it is acceptable for any three-year-old to be out at 1 o’clock in the morning while his carer, father, uncle or babysitter—whoever that adult was—is out looking for drugs to get a fix. Anything that we can do to make the lives of those children better is to be welcomed.

I would like publicly to thank the officers from the neighbourhood policing team who have started to accompany me on joint roving surgeries, both in our city centre tower blocks and on the Eastmoor estate. It is clear that Sergeant David Monaghan-Jones, PCSO Helen Pickles and PCSO Victoria Mann have established warm and productive relationships with the local communities and tenants’ organisations, particularly in the city centre. I went out and about with them last November. One lady who answered her door said to me, “It’s just like the olden days. We know who our officers are. We know that they are around. We recognise the work that they are doing in the city centre.” It was clear from listening to the interaction of the police with those tenants that they knew what the tenants could see—and how they could help the police to tackle crime in the city centre—from their tower block windows. They could see the drug dealers in the city centre car parks, where the dealers know that CCTV does not reach. There was a true spirit of co-operation. The men and women who serve as police officers or PCSOs in Wakefield do an incredibly tough and often harrowing job with professionalism, enthusiasm, dedication and good humour.

The council also deserves praise for taking the problem of antisocial behaviour seriously. It uses the Government’s neighbourhood renewal fund to put teams of neighbourhood action patrollers on to the streets. In Wakefield, we are fortunate that people have one telephone number that they can call to report antisocial behaviour. There are joint patrols and there is a police inspector permanently based with those neighbourhood patrollers to ensure that information is shared effectively. Antisocial behaviour, whether it is fly-tipping, drug dealing or noise nuisance, can be reported. That enables problems to be tackled from both a council and a police perspective so that powers can be combined and information shared more effectively.

Opposition Members may dismiss ASBOs as a gimmick, but they are not. They are a vital tool to tackle antisocial behaviour. They help to protect young people, individuals and the community from the harms caused by antisocial behaviour and they are effective. The Government have not only brought in measures to tackle antisocial behaviour, we have done a huge amount of work in tackling the underlying causes. We know that poor housing can blight whole areas and create a bad reputation. The Government’s commitment to make all council and social housing fit to live in and decent by 2010 is one of our least praised policies. However, it is transforming the lives of Wakefield’s residents by giving them warm, safe and modern homes in which to live. Such physical regeneration, together with the growing role for tenants in shaping their own environments, is transforming communities. Last week, I was delighted that regulations were laid before Parliament that will give tenant management organisations powers to apply for ASBOs. That is another step towards making social transformation a reality throughout the country.

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I called my local neighbourhood police yesterday to ask their opinion of what more is needed to help them in their fight against this scourge. Inspector Karen Bailes was keen to impress on me the importance of parents taking responsibility for their children’s actions. I have already mentioned the child who had one mini-motorbike confiscated, yet whose family seemed to think that it was acceptable to buy him another one and for him to continue to break the law. Many children’s first brush with the police is through low-level antisocial behaviour—a bit of graffiti here, some verbal abuse there; or perhaps throwing stones at a window. Neighbourhood police officers can identify problem children, but they are most successful when working with parents who take responsibility for their children’s actions and help their children to learn that such behaviour is unacceptable.

Philip Davies: I totally agree with the hon. Lady. The community support officers in her constituency and mine, whom I have had the pleasure to meet, do a fantastic job. However, when I spent time out late at night with CSOs in my constituency, I noticed that some of the yobs and thugs whom the officers try to move on and disperse do not treat the officers with the respect that they should because they do not see them as real police officers. Many CSOs to whom I have spoken have encountered that problem. If they had more powers, such as the ability to use handcuffs, more respect for them might be fostered. Has the hon. Lady given any thought to whether CSOs should be given more tools so that the yobs and thugs will treat them with the respect they deserve?

Mary Creagh: No police community support officers have raised that point with me. However, on my night out with the chief superintendent and the inspector, I noticed the general lack of regard in which they were held as police officers by people going past. They told me tales of people saying, “I smell bacon,” meaning, “Here come the pigs.” That general lack of respect for police officers, despite their high visibility, shocked me. The problem affects not only PCSOs. The police officers whom I know would back me up in saying that there is a lack of respect for police officers across the board.

We need to keep the powers under review. PCSOs sometimes undergo further training to become police officers. They are an important conduit for training and recruitment. If PCSOs were given additional powers, it might create a disincentive for them to progress to become fully qualified police officers. The hon. Gentleman’s idea is interesting, but I do not necessarily think that it would work in practice.

Let me return to my point about parenting. Inspector Bailes told me that the problem arises when parents do not take responsibility, put their heads in the sand, swear that their child is innocent and blame other people’s children or the police—they blame everyone but themselves or their child. It is the children of such parents who cannot learn respect. They learn that they can escape the consequences of their actions and get away with it. Inspector Bailes told me that those children move on from nuisance behaviour to criminal behaviour. They go from spraying walls to attacking other children or older people. In many cases,
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those children become adults who are lost to society for ever simply because their parents would not face up to their responsibilities.

Chaotic parenting can have a terrible impact on the lives of children and young people. The failure to set boundaries early teaches children that they can keep pushing, which can lead to antisocial behaviour. When I was out with the police, I met a woman in a hostel for victims of domestic violence. Although she did not really want to say what had happened to her, in the end she said, “I love my son, but he beat me and I could not stay.” That is where antisocial behaviour can lead: beating up one’s own mother so badly that she has to leave her own home.

I was delighted when the Home Office announced that Wakefield council would receive £50,000 to help to pay for staff dedicated to helping local parents. When the Wakefield Express announced that news, my office took several calls from distraught mothers who were desperate for help with their unruly teenagers. I am glad that Wakefield parents will get more of the help and support that they need, whether they are dealing with toddler tantrums or teenage tearaways. However, I urge Ministers to continue to look for ways to improve parenting and to support difficult families. The Children Act 2004 states that all agencies should work together to support a child.

The Youth Justice Board published a report in November on the use of ASBOs among under-18s. Although I take on board the Minister’s point that only 40 per cent. of ASBOs go to children aged between 10 and 17, those people make up only 13 per cent. of the population, so we can argue that ASBOs are disproportionately focused on that age group. However, I reject the badge of honour theory that has been widely reported in the media and repeated in the Chamber today. Any schoolteacher or parent of a teenager knows that what children or young people say, and what they actually feel, can be two totally different things.

If a young person is answering a question, or talking in a braggartly way to their family, they will say those things to make themselves feel hard, and to make themselves feel better about what is essentially a shameful experience. Children feel such things deeply. In addition, the review focused on only 10 of the 156 youth offending teams in England and Wales, and that cannot be described as a representative or statistically broad sample.

I wish to offer Ministers some constructive criticism as they review their policy on antisocial behaviour orders. First, we need to make sure that it is not impossible for young people to comply with the conditions that magistrates impose on them, and that young people can remember what is expected of them. There are two prisons in my constituency: New Hall prison, for young offenders and women, and Wakefield prison, which is a serious, high-security prison. In my conversations with prison staff, they have told me that six or 12 months is an eternity to a young person. Those periods need to be broken down into much smaller, more manageable slots, so that they are not set up to fail by magistrates. Instead of talking about six months, we should say, “The conditions will apply for
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six months, but there’ll be monthly reviews.” Perhaps we could incentivise—encourage, rather, as I know that we are not allowed to use the word incentivise—young people to work towards complying for smaller, more bite-sized chunks of time, so that they feel that they can achieve what they are asked to do.

We need to include positive, alternative activities to enable the rehabilitation, reconciliation and reintegration of young people. The Secretary of State for Education and Skills talks about the personalisation of learning, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) talked about individual support orders, but we could consider the personalisation of ASBOs, too, so that as well as there being a negative and punitive side, we could consider forcing young people to engage in a tailor-made programme of positive behaviour that would promote their welfare and curb their bad behaviour. I pay tribute to the many organisations, such as the YMCA and Rathbone Training, where I served as a trustee for seven years, who take on the challenges of reintegrating the most difficult, disadvantaged and disaffected young people.

The Government care about communities. We listen to communities, and we are serious about empowering them to resist antisocial behaviour. People in Wakefield know what respect is and they know how to behave well. They understand what common standards of decency are, and they uphold them, but a small minority will not obey the rules, and they undermine the lives of the decent, law-abiding majority in Wakefield. I am proud that the Government are in solidarity with that law-abiding majority, and that the police, whom I have met and shadowed, have the tools and resources to do their job of making sure that young people get the help that they need to change their lives. I am proud that the Government are in tune with the decent majority.

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