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18 Jan 2007 : Column 979

The point that I was trying to develop before that series of interventions is that antisocial behaviour orders have a role to play. They are one of the clubs available to the golfer, to use a golfing analogy, but they are not the sole solution to the problem. The problems are much greater, as other hon. Members have said, and tackling them when an offence has already been committed and the people who have had their lives blighted have already suffered is too late in the process to be ideal. That is not to say that they do not need to be tackled at that stage, but we need to try to intervene much earlier in the process.

I remember taking part in a church debate in my constituency during the general election campaign, in which a couple of hundred people took part. The question of police numbers came up, and of which candidates supported additional community policing. Unsurprisingly, all the candidates claimed that they supported additional community policing, but I was in the enviable position of being able to make that claim more plausibly because my party was committed to abolishing identity cards and using the money to resource extra community policing over and above what the Labour party was able to offer. None the less, we all talked in those terms.

I then asked the audience of 200 churchgoers, “What is it that will prevent you from vandalising car wing mirrors as you walk back to your homes this evening? Is it the prospect of being caught by the police?” The chances of being caught red-handed by the police and being convicted for that offence are extremely small. Even if police numbers were doubled, or quintupled, it would still be extremely unlikely that anyone would be caught. So why did those 200 people not choose—I assume that they did not—to vandalise any car wing mirrors? It was because they knew that it would be wrong. They knew that it would be an inconsiderate way to behave towards other people.

We need to imbue in people a sense of neighbourliness, community spirit, fraternity and awareness of other people’s suffering. There are a number of ways in which we can do that. There is no magic solution, however. If it were that easy, the problem would already have been solved and we would be discussing something else this afternoon. Schools have a role to play, with the leadership and discipline that they provide and the example that they set. Parents also have a crucial role to play in setting an example as they bring up their children. National role models, such as those whom children and young people see on television, also have an important role to play, although some have not been as impressive as they should be recently. Role models in people’s homes and communities are also important.

Mr. Kevan Jones: The new Liberal Democrat policy that we all need to love one another to solve crime is most enlightening. Clearly one of their former Front Benchers is taking that a bit far at the moment, even to the point of loving one of our European counterparts from Romania. In regard to the golf bag analogy that the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) raised earlier, if he did not vote for any of the measures that the Government have introduced, would not his golf
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game be rather short? There would be very few clubs in the bag to play the game with.

Mr. Browne: I am arguing precisely the opposite. The point has also been made in relation to Europe, to which the hon. Gentleman alludes. With regard to tackling antisocial behaviour, he is the one-club golfer and I am the fully-rounded Tiger Woods. Having been good enough to give way to him, I am sad that he chose to trivialise the matter. This is an important issue for my constituents and those of many other Members, including the hon. Member for Wakefield who, to be fair, spoke before the hon. Gentleman came into the Chamber and started to take an interest in the debate. She made some important and worthwhile points about children’s upbringing and how the examples set by adults have the potential to lead to antisocial behaviour if not addressed at an early stage.

Mary Creagh: In the past, the hon. Gentleman’s party’s policy has been to allow 16 and 17-year-olds both to purchase and to appear in hard-core pornography. How does objectification of women contribute to the work of schools, churches and parents in providing effective role models to encourage young people away from antisocial behaviour? Does his party still have that policy?

Mr. Browne: I and a record number—since the second world war—of my colleagues were elected on the 2005 general election manifesto. I do not recall—although I do not have the manifesto to hand—that proposal being in our manifesto, or in the Labour or Conservative party’s manifesto. The hon. Lady has entered a non-debate.

I was talking about the crucial role that intervention at an early stage plays in schools, in parenting and in relation to role models. It is crucial that people exercise responsibility in their community and do not take a passive approach. I have met many local action teams and neighbourhood watch schemes, some of which are more successful than others. What unites them, however, is a willingness to stand up and say that the problem is not for the police to sort out for them, but for them to address. They recognise that they need to care about what their community is like and what children are doing in it. In my constituency, I have attended fetes, jumble sales and other events held by local action teams to raise funds to support local youth projects and such like. Those have been extremely effective in letting people know who is trying to solve problems in the community in conjunction with the police.

I am also extremely supportive of community policing, and am pleased that there is a growing political consensus about that. People are seeing in their neighbourhoods a regular, identified police officer. They know that person and what they are doing, and they know that he or she knows the schools in the area, speaks to the head teachers and pupils, knows the local vicars and shopkeepers and is closely involved in day-to-day activities. The local action team and neighbourhood watch have close contact with that police officer. In some cases, they have that police officer’s mobile phone number, which they can ring if they have a particular concern or problem to bring to
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his or her attention. The police officer might have a small neighbourhood budget, which can be used to supplement the local action team’s activities, perhaps by funding community or youth projects. That is an extremely successful model. Not only do such police officers get to know the opinion formers and pillars of such communities, but often, to put it bluntly, some of the persistent troublemakers.

I am also extremely supportive of police community support officers. So many people say that they want visible policing. They want people working in conjunction with their community police officer, and they want people whom they know and empathise with, and who understand the area and get down to the nitty-gritty of problems. Most of the time, people do not want armed response units, although, on rare occasions, those may be the necessary and appropriate response. Most of the time, people are worried about low-level issues such as late-night noise, graffiti, vandalism and even litter. What they want is someone who they feel has a finger on the pulse and understands their concerns. Police community support officers can hold surgeries. People can go and see them, and can feel that they have a direct link with them.

For all those reasons, I greatly regret the Government’s decision to renege on their manifesto commitment and reduce the number of community support officers. In Avon and Somerset, the police authority area in which my constituency falls, the chief constable and chief superintendents carried out a large amount of consultation with community groups, local action teams, neighbourhood watches and others. They said “You will have all these extra PCSOs. We want to use them effectively, and we want them to be part of the community. We will start recruiting soon, and we want to hear your thoughts.” We were told that we would be given 541 PCSOs, which would be our share of the overall 24,000.

After all that consultation, the police in my area and across the country have been left looking stupid. They have had to go back to those community groups and say “We are awfully sorry; we told you that you would have an extra five PCSOs in your neighbourhood, but we have had to scale it down to three. And we are afraid that all the ideas for which we asked you have gone out of the window. We will have to go back to the drawing board.” Avon and Somerset’s allocation of new PCSOs has been cut from 541 to 346, a reduction of 195, which has had an extremely significant and detrimental impact on police plans for my area.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): I am listening with interest to the hon. Gentleman waxing lyrical about police community support officers. I recollect that when we first announced that we wished to introduce them, they were widely derided in the House by the hon. Gentleman’s party. Could he possibly explain the conversion?

Mr. Browne: I do not recall that. I do not know whether I should use the defence used earlier by a Labour Member that Members are not allowed to have any interest in business that took place in the House at a time when they were not present, but as far as I am aware, the Liberal Democrats have always supported community policing and, indeed, pioneered it.

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I do not want to stray too far from the beaten path, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I understand that people in my constituency and elsewhere look back to a period 30, 40 or 45 years ago when there was a high level of community policing. People knew that there was a bobby on the beat, knew who that person was, and had an affinity with them. I think it is fair to say that there has subsequently been a departure from that model and a greater concentration on larger-scale “macro” policing at the expense of community policing, which is a source of great regret. Having criticised the change for many decades, I am pleased that it has now become a political consensus that community-level policing is effective in tackling crime and antisocial behaviour.

Mr. Burns rose—

Mr. Browne: I will give way for, I think, the fourth time to the enthusiastic intervener from Chelmsford.

Mr. Burns: I am only intervening because I am fascinated. The hon. Gentleman said that his party had “pioneered” community support officers. I would be grateful if he could share with the House how his party pioneered them and why, having pioneered them, it did not support them when the Government announced them.

Mr. Browne: Perhaps I can explain. The position may be different in London, but the hon. Gentleman’s colleague the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) said earlier that he takes holidays near my constituency. In my constituency, a warden system was adopted which covered a number of villages. The hon. Gentleman can come and visit them if he likes. Lots of Conservative Members do come to my constituency, and he is more than welcome to join them. The wardens were introduced when the Liberal Democrats were running Taunton Deane borough council and Somerset county council. It was a very good arrangement.. The wardens wore yellow tops, and were closely involved in a number of local initiatives. I do not think that there was any party-political significance in the colour of their tops.

Those wardens have now become community support officers—they have become part of a wider scheme—and both the council and I, as the local Member of Parliament, have been extremely supportive of that initiative throughout. PCSOs have made a substantial contribution to community policing in my area, and it is a source of regret to me that the hon. Gentleman is trying to make a political point. I thought that we had a consensus. I would like the hon. Gentleman to join me in raising concerns about the reductions in the numbers of new community support officers in Somerset, Hampshire, Yorkshire and elsewhere, rather than making trivial points.

Mr. Burns rose—

Mr. Browne: Let us now hear a fifth intervention from the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Burns: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I fully agree with anyone who is critical of the reduction in the number of police officers, because my party has spent a considerable amount of time not only increasing them when in government, but
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calling for more of them since we left office. The only reason why I intervened on the last occasion was that, true to form, Liberal Democrats make claims that do not necessarily have much in common with what actually happened. To claim to support PCSOs when they condemned them when the Government announced that they would be introduced seems rather difficult to do—and amazing even for a Liberal Democrat.

Mr. Browne: I do not think that I could have been clearer. The hon. Gentleman talks about rewriting history, but he claims that his party increased the number of police officers when it is widely accepted as fact that when the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard)—the leader of the Conservative party at the last general election—was Home Secretary, the number of police officers was cut. He might not wish to repeat the point he has just made, as he is skating on thin ice.

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): My hon. Friend is, perhaps, letting Labour Ministers off a little lightly, because the situation in Hampshire is even worse than that which he describes in Avon and Somerset. Hampshire constabulary made announcements on PCSOs and carried on hiring them at a time when the Home Office had decided to cut them back by a third—from a total of 536, I believe. That happened even after community groups had been consulted—as I understand was also the case in Avon and Somerset—and after the PCSOs had been hired and had started patrolling the areas to which they had been allocated. They were making an extremely useful contribution to tackling antisocial behaviour in my constituency—for example, in Eastleigh town.

Mr. Browne: I am genuinely shocked to learn of what happened in Hampshire. Perhaps I was too generous to the Labour party when I said that there was consensus on this issue; perhaps Labour Members need to consider whether their party needs to take more effective action on crime and to listen to accounts of some of the strong examples that we are setting.

My speech would have been much briefer if so many Members had not intervened—particularly Labour Members—to make fatuous points, but let me conclude by saying that my party takes the whole issue of antisocial behaviour extremely seriously. We are supportive of ASBOs where they are necessary and where they are likely to be effective, but we do not regard them as the absolute litmus test and the only effective measures in this area. Plenty of other measures have been pioneered by Liberal Democrat councils and others and have a vital role to play, such as acceptable behaviour contracts. We are in favour of community policing, of stimulating and supporting local community groups, and of trying to tackle the root causes of the problems that blight our communities.

The British public have tired of the Government’s tough rhetoric, as there is such a great contrast between what they hear being said in Parliament and what they see happening in their own neighbourhoods. They have
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tired of what the Prime Minister called eye-catching initiatives, which are designed to get headlines in tomorrow’s newspapers and to get Labour Ministers on to television but which have little or no effect in their communities. They do not want tough talk; they want effective action, and that is what my party is offering the people of Britain.

3.18 pm

Meg Hillier (Hackney, South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): First, let me acknowledge the contributions of previous speakers, particularly for the benefit of those Members who have been unable to be in attendance throughout the debate. Of course, we heard first from my hon. Friend the Minister, and I should apologise to him—and to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—for arriving a tad late for that contribution as I was coming from a Standing Committee sitting.

We then heard from the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert). I could say many things about his speech, but let me pick up on one point that he made in particular. I see that he is leaving the Chamber; he must be very afraid about what I am about to say about his contribution. He suggested that Labour Members do not think that antisocial behaviour is something to be treated seriously; he suggested that we think of it as a soft alternative to tackling crime. The reality is that Labour—as the Government’s actions have demonstrated—sees both of them as part of the solution. We need to tackle crime and the causes of crime, and to tackle antisocial behaviour. In fact, it was the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis)—the lead Conservative Front-Bench spokesman on this subject—who described antisocial behaviour orders as gimmicks. We have got to remember where those who are prepared to tackle antisocial behaviour really are to be found in this House; actions speak louder than words.

I was very impressed by the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), and particularly by the inspiring stories that she told of people working from the bottom up on these issues. As we all recognise, it is the people whom we are here to represent, and it is the tools that the Government have put into their hands that are helping them to tackle such problems in their neighbourhoods. My hon. Friend gave some great examples in that regard.

I do not want, in effect, to prolong the already lengthy comments of the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) by commenting on the many points that he raised, but I should point out that we need a reality check. Forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for raising the issue of crime—even though this is a debate about antisocial behaviour—as other Members have done. I want to draw Members’ attention to yesterday’s Evening Standard, which highlighted London’s crime figures. Between 2005 and 2006, there was a drop in every single area of crime except robbery. Homicide and violent crime are down, racist crime is down by 12 per cent., and homophobic crime is down by nearly 9 per cent. Gun-enabled and Operation Trident gun crime are both down by more than 14 per cent. The evidence shows what is really going on; the scaremongering is irresponsible.

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While we recognise that crime is a continuing problem that is never going to go away—we still have a lot to do in our constituencies, and the police and the Government have problems to tackle—we must not overplay the problem and argue that crime is so rampant that we are not seeing any progress. I pay testament to my police force in Hackney, who have made great progress; I shall touch on that issue shortly.

I have risen to speak on this issue because of its extreme importance to my constituents. We know that problems still exist, and I want to highlight some of the complex issues associated with antisocial behaviour. We have heard too much debate just about antisocial behaviour orders—I want to talk about some of the other issues, as well. I want to stress that in discussions about rights and individuals, we must not forget the rights of the community: the rights of the majority of decent folk, who just want to have a quiet life at home without having to deal with antisocial behaviour and crime. As I have mentioned, tackling crime is key, and it is only fair to highlight the progress made in my own borough. Between April and November last year, house-breaking declined by 39 per cent., to the lowest level since 1998. Muggings are down by 7 per cent., gun crime is down by 34 per cent. Overall, crime is down in the borough of Hackney by 15 per cent. Between April and November last year, 2,700 fewer crimes were committed. We must recognise the important work that has been done in that regard.

The Government’s aim has been to put antisocial behaviour on the national agenda. Until the Labour Government were elected in 1997, antisocial behaviour was something that people had to put up with. It was not mentioned, and people lived with it daily on their estates and streets; they had no tools to deal with it. I was a councillor during the 1990s, and I remember sitting in many a meeting with residents, and trying to bring together the different agencies, council officers, the police and other enforcement officers to tackle many of the day-to-day irritants of antisocial behaviour. We had some success, but—by gum!—it was a long and tortuous process. We could have done with some of these tools then.

In 1997, a Government were elected who were committed to providing those tools. They have also introduced the excellent neighbourhood policing model, and I pay testament to the Mayor of London, who has progressed that model faster than in other parts of the country. We have seen a real difference. In Hackney, by and large, people know who their neighbourhood policing teams are. I regularly refer problems to those teams, and I usually find that they already know about them and are tackling them. We are therefore beginning to nip such problems in the bud.

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