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7.5 pm

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington): People in my constituency, both young and old, are trying to do something about crime and disorder to supplement the Government's actions since being elected and their plans for the new Session.

At Stockland Green secondary school, members of a youth crime prevention club have used a £4,000 grant from millennium quest funding to learn how to fit mortice locks, and are now doing so in the homes of vulnerable members of the local community. That crime prevention work provides another message, as most of the club members are girls.

In Castle Vale--a thriving former tower block estate where residents are helping to lead regeneration--young and old are involved in a series of groups combating domestic violence, drug abuse and anti-social behaviour, in conjunction with local police, council officers and people from the Castle Vale housing action trust, which is leading the efforts. Only this morning, I received a letter from the trust telling me that, after an 18-day trial, it had successfully gained five out of five possession orders against the homes of those who have committed offences against the community. Nobody wants anyone else to lose their home, but everyone must understand that there is a limit to the mayhem and chaos that families--whether individual members or whole families--can and do cause to their community.

The interesting thing about today's news is that, if the trial had even been contemplated five or seven years ago, there would have been a public demonstration on the estate to protect those residents who were stealing the security and safety of others, because the residents would have thought that they had to stick together. For the first time, 26 residents--many of them neighbours--the

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police, the remarkable head teacher of Castle Vale comprehensive school, contractors and others have gone to court to back up evidence and make statements regarding misbehaviour, anti-social behaviour and crime committed by those against whom the possession orders were sought. I pay tribute to the people of Castle Vale, who have now insisted that they will take back to themselves the safety and security that has been stolen from them. They are not waiting for others to prevent or solve crime. They understand that we all have a responsibility.

In her calmer moments, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) knows that, however many officers there are, the police alone cannot prevent and solve crime, hence the importance of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and the community safety partnerships that are developing between communities, councils, police, the voluntary sector, businesses and others. The development of policing based on operation command units underpins that by giving local police--more local under that policy--full responsibility for crime, its prevention and detection in the areas they serve. The House knows that additional officers and extra money do not, by themselves, guarantee a lower crime rate. It is not numbers alone that are critical; leadership, equipment and links between the police and the local communities that they serve are the more important key to combating and reducing crime.

I agree with the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) that we should make it clear that we do not regard being young as being an offence. All but a small handful of young people are law-abiding and want to take advantage of the extra opportunities that teachers work so hard to offer in our schools and colleges, and which employers offer in the workplace, to make the most of their lives.

But that said, small, thoughtless groups of yobs can and do combine to steal the safety and security that everyone has a right to expect in and around their own homes. There are many areas of my constituency, not all of them facing severe deprivation, where the few cause nuisance, annoyance and fear to the many. That is why I welcome measures in the Gracious Speech to make our high streets and town centres safer--safer for young people who are the main victims of crime as well as for others--and to get in early to try to divert young people from anti-social behaviour and petty crime.

The anti-social behaviour orders and the new plans for fixed-penalty offences, such as being drunk and disorderly and using insulting words, are wanted in communities in my constituency and, I suspect, throughout the country, by the police and public alike. But those are only a few of the tools available to the courts to deal with persistent young offenders. However, they have the advantage of insisting that parents take proper responsibility for the behaviour of their children when they are away from home, and of providing the help that they need to do so if necessary.

The present and new powers have to be seen against the fact that the Government have helped 250,000 young people, left to rot by the previous Government, off the dole and into jobs and training. About 1,300 young people in my constituency have been helped off the dole by the new deal, off benefits and into jobs and training, and most of those have gone into what I would call properly paid jobs, not subsidised ones.

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I especially welcome the moves in the Gracious Speech to crack down on cowboy clampers, an issue ignored by the previous Government, and, if the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) is anything to go by, one which they thought was completely unimportant. In and around the centre of Birmingham, cowboy clampers operate from mobile phones, publishing no business addresses and using tactics, including terror, to extract cash from helpless victims. In one case, a young woman was asked to hand over jewellery when she could not produce a credit card to obtain cash from a cashpoint. In another, a woman suffering from severe diabetes, who did not know the city and did not have a credit card but needed to get home to take her medication, was held up by cowboys until she managed to contact a friend and raise money. Those are abuses of our constituents.

I am also pleased to welcome what has been proposed for security guards--bouncers--on club doors. Much progress has been made in Birmingham and elsewhere in that regard, and I am delighted that that will be extended throughout the country.

The Opposition make much of the fall in police numbers. In fact, as we heard from my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, that started in 1992, when the Opposition forget that they were in office. It is also when they took responsibility for setting police numbers from the Home Secretary and gave it, properly, to chief constables. I am surprised that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald did not explain her apparent change of mind. It follows from all that she said that she wants the Home Secretary to be given the powers to set police numbers in 43 police forces throughout England and Wales--an impossibility.

It is extraordinary that not a single member of the shadow Cabinet is on the Opposition Front Bench. The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald has just returned, but it has been empty for some long time. The right hon. Lady comes back just in time for me to remind her that, despite having been in office for 18 years, Conservative Members think that it is enough just to say sorry. It is not enough for those victims of crime which doubled when the right hon. Lady was in the Home Office and the Conservative Government were in power. It is not enough when they presided over a regime when, although there was more crime, fewer people were sent to prison. We had more crime and fewer criminals. It takes a brilliant Government to achieve that.

In my constituency, under the Government whom the right hon. Lady supported, the chance of being burgled rose from one in 32 to one in 13--and it happened--and the chance of being a victim of violent crime trebled. That was the so-called golden inheritance with regard to law and order.

In contrast, during the next year alone, the police are being given an extra £10 in every £100 to build their strength. The crime fighting fund, targeted to deliver results, has the cash for an extra 9,000 officers over and above what chief constables planned for this year and for the following two years. In the west midlands, that will mean about an extra 1,300 officers during the next three years.

But at a time when 1 million extra people are in jobs, with unemployment at its lowest for 25 years, the police will find it harder to recruit, as will other public sector employers,

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such as the health service, schools, the fire and ambulance services, and so on. In such a labour market, it is not so much cash which will attract the recruits likely to be of most value to the police force, as commitment, wanting to be part of a body helping to restore pride among the different communities in the areas where they live.

Miss Widdecombe: During my time in the Home Office, crime fell year on year, the prison population rose to record levels, and the number of constables rose year on year. How does that compare with this Home Secretary's record?

Mr. Corbett: The figures of the Government of whom the right hon. Lady was a member speak for themselves.

As other employers in the new high-tech industries have found, money is not enough to secure and retain the recruits that they need. We should learn the lessons where we can. It is not for nothing that Japanese companies operating here test for commitment before giving people the opportunity to apply for a specific job.

It is good to know that people in my constituency now have a lower fear of crime than they had a few years ago, although for too many it is still too high. More is being done to build links between the communities and those agencies which can help them to reclaim the safety and security that too many have had stolen from them. The Bills in the Queen's Speech are part of that process, but the real difference will be made by people in local communities who get the help that they need when they need it to reawaken that sense of belonging and community which is the best guarantee of safety and security.

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