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7.59 pm

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury): May I be the first to congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (Mr. Robertson) on his maiden speech? As he rightly said, his predecessor was regarded with great respect and affection in the House and outside. He is and will continue to be sadly missed. Having heard the hon. Gentleman's comments, I am sure that he will be listened to with interest and respect whenever he is fortunate enough to catch the Speaker's eye.

My constituency surgery last Friday began with a lady to whom I will refer as Mrs. A. She expressed concern that her young son, who is 14, had been walking home from school in October when he had been set upon by two youths, one aged 14 and the other 15, and for no apparent reason beaten up. She said that what was particularly horrifying about the attack was that the assailants had deliberately sought to cause the maximum injury to her young son's head--to cause the maximum pain, but with the minimum visible bruising.

Mrs. A went to the police. Her son was seen by a surgeon and was photographed. Statements were taken. The assailant was well known: her son knew who it was and the police knew who it was. That was October. In the middle of December, she does not know what has happened in that case, whether the youth has been charged or whether he has been taken to court. She has heard no more from the police.

A little later in my surgery, a couple came to see me. I shall refer to them as Mr. and Mrs. B. They live on the same housing estate in Banbury. They are public-spirited people who act as foster parents. They had bought their foster child a bicycle. That foster child, who is also 14, had been riding on the estate when he had been attacked suddenly by the same youth. He had been beaten up and his new bicycle had been damaged.

Mr. and Mrs. B told me that the youth was well known to them, too. He was frequently seen driving around the estate in a motor car, or riding speed bicycles around the estate. He had vandalised their garden and broken down their fence. He was well known to the police and had caused much difficulty to a lot of people.

Mr. and Mrs. B had come to see me because they were particularly upset. They had just heard from the police that the Crown Prosecution Service had advised that no proceedings should be taken against that youth as, ultimately, it had been decided that it was their foster child's word against the youth's word.

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It was the same assailant in both cases. The attacks happened on one housing estate in Banbury, which could not be more middle England. What was particularly disconcerting was that Oxfordshire social services, which had placed the foster child with the foster parents, advised that it would be inappropriate to place any other foster children with them for the time being because they could not provide a safe environment. If a safe environment in which to bring up children cannot be provided in housing estates in Banbury, something serious is happening.

When I took the matter up with the local police, I was told by Inspector Choudhary of Thames Valley police Banbury sector:

People living in Ruscote and Banbury want policemen on the beat now. They do not want to have to wait until January, but I suspect that the situation will get worse, rather than better. For the first time in the 17 years that I have been an hon. Member, I and other parliamentary colleagues in the Thames valley have been written to by the chief constable of Thames Valley in these terms:

for resignation

No wonder the Oxford Mail carries headlines such as

Inspector Martin Elliott, who represents the Police Federation locally, said:

Assistant Chief Constable Paul West said:

The Police Federation has put a lot of the blame for the staffing crisis in the Thames valley on the lack of a rent allowance to offset high living costs in the area and on the fact that many officers recruited in the last big drive are reaching retirement age.

I, too, share the view that it is pointless ping-ponging statistics across the Dispatch Box, but we have a problem on the ground in the Thames valley. I hope that those on the Treasury Bench will listen to the case that has been put by the chief constable for a housing allowance for officers in the Thames valley. Otherwise, we will have a serious situation.

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In relation to curfew orders, David Marchant, secretary of the Thames Valley Police Federation, said:

There is no point in the Government introducing further criminal justice legislation if the police officers are not in place to enforce existing legislation.

My other concern is in relation to anti-social behaviour orders. One would have thought that the youth who appears to have brutally attacked two young people on the Ruscote housing estate and to have created considerably more mayhem on the estate was an ideal candidate for an anti-social behaviour order. However, for whatever reason, I have been told by Superintendent Reeve and Grahame Handley, chief executive of Cherwell district council, that when they sought the advice of the clerk to the justices of North Oxfordshire magistrates they were told that his advice to magistrates would be that, unless it was a persistent offender, an anti-social behaviour order should not be granted.

Corroboration for that came to me today in a letter from the chief executive of Banbury Homes, which has much of the social housing in Banbury. He wrote about some evictions that it had succeeded in obtaining against some anti-social tenants on another housing estate in Banbury. His letter states:

The Secretary of State said that, in his view, Oxfordshire magistrates had misdirected themselves on anti-social behaviour orders. All I know is that the Home Office has responsibility for issuing guidance to magistrates courts on such orders. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 has been in place for more than two years. It is incredible that, in my area, not a single anti-social behaviour order has been issued and that, throughout the country, only 140 have been issued. If that legislation is to work, surely the Home Office should seek to discover from magistrates courts, the Magistrates Association, the police and local authorities why they are not making more use of legislation that the House passed at the beginning of the Parliament. If they do not make greater use of it, all the new legislation is simply posturing. When the Government say that they will bear down on yobbish behaviour, it is simply posturing if they do not also provide sufficient police numbers to police our streets and ensure that the magistrates courts effectively implement legislation that has already been passed by the House.

On Third Reading of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, the then Minister, the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael), said:

What has happened in my patch is precisely nothing, and it is time that that changed. I do not believe in demonising young people, and I firmly support the work of organisations such as the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders. I also think that, whenever possible, one should seek alternatives to custody for young people, and that the work of groups

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such as NCH Action for Children on replacements for custody is excellent. However, I also think that we have to recognise that, sometimes, there are persistent young offenders who cause a disproportionate amount of mayhem in our communities.

The House has a duty to those communities to ensure that there are sufficient police numbers and that the courts have sufficient powers to deal with those young people. Unless the Government are prepared to do that, all the measures in the Queen's Speech on law and order are simply posturing.

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