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2 Nov 2009 : Column 654

I absolutely agree with that sentiment, and a lot of my speech has been about that. There has also been talk about Frankie's law. I think that the term was coined by a newspaper. Councillor Hazel Smith is a close friend of the Pilkington family, and she is a great councillor in Barwell. She has asked why we cannot have a law whereby, if 10 people sign a petition, the local agencies have to take note. That would be so simple. Why should 10 local people not get together and sign a petition to say that they are unhappy about something? They could stick it in the council's letterbox or the police letterbox, and someone would have to reply. Let us empower the local people.

We have had a terrible tragedy in my county in the small town of Barwell in my constituency. I honestly believe that that tragedy, which reached the national and even the international media in the autumn, will bring good. I earnestly believe that good will come out of it, that we will have a better focus on policing and that that will make our communities safer.

8.1 pm

Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): I hope that the hon. Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick) will pass on my condolences-and, I am sure, those of everyone in the House-for what happened to Fiona Pilkington. I can assure him that that case has given me some sleepless nights as I worry whether I have taken into account everything that my constituents have told me at my weekly advice surgeries. Whatever the headlines might be, and whatever opprobrium might be considered to attach to MPs at large because of the problems with our expenses, many people come to see us to express their serious concerns and private anxieties. Sadly, we are often the people who take up the cases of those who are the most voiceless, and of those who are ignored by the authorities. Because of the case in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, I am conscious of the need to do so even more.

For everyone in the House, this is the epitome of the bottom-up debate. It is because our constituents were concerned about antisocial behaviour that we have any antisocial behaviour legislation at all. Ten years ago, it was Back-Bench MPs of all parties in this House who, understanding their constituents' concerns about this issue, forced legislation through and demanded action in the face of hostility and jeering in the national media and in much of the political establishment. Antisocial behaviour was not a fashionable subject at the time, and it was only because of the interaction between constituency MPs and their constituents that we understood that it was a priority for them. As a result of our constituents' anxieties, police safer neighbourhood teams have been introduced, along with a whole range of new powers for councils, housing associations, the police and other public bodies.

This has to be a source of continuous revolution, however, if we are to tackle the problem. That is why I would like to concentrate on some of the areas in which we fail. We do not fail in all areas, but we need constantly to get better. We need to understand when we are resting on our laurels or failing to take the direct action that we need. It is a matter of concern to me that we are all developing an antisocial behaviour industry-a bureaucracy that sometimes blocks progress in favour of its own cosy meetings and cosy time scales. Too
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often, formal processes do not lead to satisfactory outcomes, and more flexible, direct, informal and decisive action would be quicker, cheaper and better.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Does the hon. Lady think, as I do, that a directly elected police commissioner might cut through that bureaucracy and provide the more direct, focused response that local people want and demand, and which successive Governments have failed to deliver?

Siobhain McDonagh: That could be one of the means by which we could do that, but no structure will necessarily give us the entire answer. In our communities, the elected representatives-the MPs, the councillors, and those in regional government-need to be concerned with the day-to-day experience of our constituents, many of whom feel voiceless and powerless. People who know that the remedies for antisocial behaviour exist tell me that they are going to the services that should be providing respite but not getting the necessary action. The public respect our good intentions, and are pleased that the powers have been put in place, but, on occasion, they have found the industry better at delivering excuses than solutions.

I checked my casework system today, and discovered that, in the past year, I have written 171 letters about antisocial behaviour. Like the hon. Member for Bosworth, in preparation for today's debate, I contacted my local police commissioner. I also contacted the chief executive of my local council and the chief executive of a major local housing association. I did this mainly because I felt that this could help to get some cases resolved, but I was surprised that all their responses were defensive. They blame other organisations, or loopholes in the law. They say that they could resolve the problems if only they had more money and power. Worst of all, they sometimes do not see the point in trying.

One of the most revealing comments came from a group director of London and Quadrant Housing Trust, one of the largest housing associations in my area, and a brilliant organisation in many respects. He said:

First of all, it is not futile to take action against antisocial behaviour. Action against tenants who are causing a nuisance can make a difference. Secondly, why would a housing association not make its top priority the welfare of its law-abiding tenants who simply want to live in peace and quiet?

The chief executive of Merton council was similarly revealing. I have written to him many times about antisocial behaviour. It is one of people's top concerns in my constituency, if not the top one. He passes every single case that I have personally written to him about to a more junior officer. He feels that I "misunderstand" his role. He says:

Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. She clearly shares my utter frustration that, when the tools have been given to local authorities
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and the police to do the job, they fail to use them. Does she agree that some of those officials who appear to be ducking the issue would be well placed to suffer some of the antisocial behaviour that our constituents suffer?

Siobhain McDonagh: Absolutely. I hope to provide such an example later in my speech.

The chief executive of Merton council went on to say:

For me, however, it is important that he knows what his officers are doing. How does he know that his strategic decisions are being implemented on the ground? It seems to me that the word "strategic" is often the last bastion of those who do not want to roll their sleeves up and get their hands dirty. After all, it was his authority that removed a dispersal order from Mitcham town centre earlier this year, despite protests from local residents. Everyone in Mitcham supported the dispersal zone. It did not make everything perfect, but it certainly helped. Yet, for Merton council and the police, the improvement in crime and antisocial behaviour meant that it was not needed any more.

I did everything that I could as an MP; I do not think that I have ever felt so frustrated about one single issue. I went to see my local neighbourhood team, I went to the council, I went to see the inspector and I went to the area commander. Eventually, I wrote to the Metropolitan police's commander of territorial policing, Maxine de Brunner. I am delighted to be able to make this speech tonight, just to let hon. Members understand some of the content of her response. She told me that

I was under the misapprehension that we lived in a democracy-clearly not. Liberty is not what it says on the tin-at least, not for the Mitcham residents who wanted the liberty to walk through their town centre without being intimidated by groups of troublemakers and who wanted to be asked their opinion about this order. Later in the letter, Maxine de Brunner says:

She does not say that the decision was unanimously opposed and that these groups did not accept that rationale because she knew that the most vulnerable people sometimes do not make the complaints that we hear from those with greater confidence and the courage to complain.

Where was I to go from there? I persuaded more than 100 residents to give up a Saturday morning to meet the police and state the obvious; within a few weeks, the dispersal zone was back in place. However, the decision to remove it was symptomatic; it lacked common sense and local knowledge and it was more to with acting in the interests of a tiny minority of protest groups and going through bureaucratic hoops than acting according to the welfare of the people of Mitcham.

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I would like to mention a few more individual cases, because they highlight where we can improve what we are doing. Gilpin close is on a 1980s housing estate of about 200 properties; the majority are privately owned, with some operated by housing associations. The estate is in a cul-de-sac just off a main road. Nobody walks or drives through the estate other than the people who live there and their family and friends. It is often off our radar. This summer, a couple came to my advice surgery and they described how two or three neighbouring houses were terrorising the estate. Over the next few weeks, local councillors and I met more of their neighbours and heard more about abuse, threats of violence and doors being kicked in. One man who simply lived alone and went to work long hours every day had his windows kicked in three times in three successive weeks. People were followed and shouted at in their own homes and there was low-level drug taking and vandalism. One couple were actually assaulted. This had been going on for 18 months.

Much of the trouble was caused by one particular family, including a nine-year-old boy. All the agencies had got together-the police, the safer neighbourhood team, the council, the housing association, the school and the child in need team-and they had all plodded on through the process. All the while, however, the people in Gilpin close had to live with it. They were prisoners in their own homes for months and months on end.

The chief executive of Merton would not have lived like that; the commissioner of police would not have lived like that; the head of London and Quadrant housing trust would not have lived like that; I would not, and you would not, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Because, however, the antisocial behaviour industry we created did not stop the trouble in its tracks, the poor people of Gilpin close had to live like that or move out. In fact, some residents tell me they do not report antisocial behaviour because they are worried about becoming victims themselves by complaining or, worse still, because they fear they will not be able to use the ultimate sanction, which is to sell their home if they cannot resolve the problem.

It is interesting to note that it is not just elderly or young people or middle-aged people who suffer from these problems. The people suffering from antisocial behaviour come from all ethnic backgrounds, all ages and all classes. One particular case provides a stunning example. An elderly lady of 89 came to me recently, together with a young Tamil couple with a baby. They live on the same ground floor of the same block and suffer from the same problem-a 19-year-old guy deciding that whatever time of the day or night he wishes to play football outside their door, he can do so. In spite of years of complaint and in spite of this amazing elderly lady being brave enough to complain-on one occasion this young man even kicked her stick away in the high street because of her complaints-this problem could not be solved. I do not know about other hon. Members, but I do not pretend to be the brightest person in the world, and what should be done seems obvious to me: a few pyracanthas should be planted in the middle of the lawn so that this man cannot play football. He would then simply have to move less than 100 yards away to play football in the pitch next door to his block.

Then there is the case of Mrs. A of Lilleshall road, who complained to me after her safer neighbourhood team told her that they could not do anything about the
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kids shouting, screaming and drinking from her street corner. Again, I sensed the whole industry crunching into gear and about to spend months consulting on what action would be most appropriate. Would it not be better to spend a fraction of the money that that would cost on landscaping the corner to make it a less attractive hangout?

What about Mr. K of Malmesbury road, who came to me complaining about a nine-year-old throwing stones at his house late at night? The police said that they could not do anything because he was below the age of criminal responsibility-but he is nine years old and out late at night! He is surely not too old to be taken home and it is surely not too difficult for the police to have a tough word with his parents. The boy is not too young for a parenting order. The creation of safer neighbourhood teams is absolutely fantastic, but we have to be able to empower our police officers with doing the work of getting involved with antisocial behaviour and publicising what they do as much as doing it. Sometimes, not unreasonably, our police officers do not have those skills. For a long time I have thought that it would be a fantastic idea to use those people who we know are great marketers in our society to use some of their time to help the police in the work they do. That would be doing a great community service.

Let me provide a particular example, which my sister told me about. My hon. Friends will know my sister well and are aware of what a tough character she is. She is not a woman to be crossed. When she was at our local shopping centre one weekday morning at 9.30, she stood on the corner and watched two PCSOs walk around the perimeter of the shopping centre-not talking to the mums with their kids in the buggies, not introducing themselves at all. When they had finished, my sister went up to them and said, "I am really sorry. I watched you do that. Don't you think it would be a good idea if you shook the hand of everybody you met, talked to them and gave them your card so that they would know how to contact you?" They looked completely bewildered at her question and just said, "Oh, people do not like to be bothered when they are shopping." We all know that that is nonsense; we all know that people are crying out for a return to the mythical Dixon of Dock Green-the police officer who knew every blade of grass on their watch. We know that those PCSOs, who were probably very good officers, need to be given the skills so that they know how to react and connect with people to build that relationship of trust.

One thing I would ask my right hon. Friend the Minister to look at is the reintroduction of the old Respect taskforce. It used to be a real help, particularly as Members became increasingly frustrated that the council, police service and housing association were not dealing with antisocial behaviour. It was possible to contact that taskforce and ask its members to come and talk to the services involved. These people were often experienced practitioners who could cut through the miasma of bureaucracy and come up with a solution. I would seriously like to ask the Minister to reintroduce this taskforce.

Caroline Flint: My hon. Friend may be aware that the Home Secretary has said that he is going to produce some more guidance on good practice. Does she agree with me that the Respect taskforce took that guidance
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and actually helped MPs, councillors and others to find the means to get things put into practice directly on the ground?

Siobhain McDonagh: I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. This taskforce also struck a note of fear. The fact that an expert was coming down to the local authority from the Home Office often produced results that had not been possible up to that time.

Mr. Hanson: I am grateful for that point, and we will certainly look at it. We are trying to ensure that we get the level of support we need in areas where there are challenges to overcome. Officials and other colleagues from the Home Office will, under Louise Casey's direction, visit and support local authorities that need that help.

Siobhain McDonagh: I thank my right hon. Friend for that, which will provide an important resource for all MPs who are concerned about antisocial behaviour.

The fact that there are many Members present this evening and that no one is scoffing at our discussion of antisocial behaviour shows that we have come a long way forward from 10 years ago. I am sorry that my speech has been mainly negative, but my desire is to produce better results than we are achieving at present. My desire is to break out of a bureaucratic setting, and to think about how we can resolve problems. That does not always involve the most expensive or difficult remedy.

My intention is to encourage people who are involved in the practice of dealing with antisocial behaviour to look for the quick and the cheap solutions, but also to understand how desperate people's lives can be when their next-door neighbours frighten them, do not allow them to sleep, and generally inhibit their enjoyment of life. I hope that if the debate pushes the matter back up the agenda and prompts a look at new, real solutions to the problems, we shall have earned our money today.

8.20 pm

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): I shall brief. Let me begin by declaring my usual interest as a practising lawyer and as one who sits part-time, traditionally, in a number of criminal jurisdictions.

A week or two ago, in the middle of the afternoon, I was on a train 20 or so miles south of the centre of London. A group of about five young people got on. I think that there were two or three young girls of 13 or 14, and a couple of young boys of about the same age. They had been drinking. They sat almost next to me. Within seconds all their feet were on the seats, and within seconds the language was becoming fruitier and fruitier and less and less pleasant.

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