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Session 2000-01
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Standing Committee Debates
Welsh Grand Committee Debates

Building Safer Communities

Welsh Grand Committee

Tuesday 13 February 2001


[Mr. Barry Jones in the Chair]

Building Safer Communities

Motion made, and Question proposed [this day],

    That the Committee has considered the matter of building safer communities in Wales—[Mr. Paul Murphy.]

4 pm

Question again proposed.

The Chairman: Before we proceed, I appeal for brief speeches so that all hon. Members who seek to take part in the debate can do so.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): On a point of order, Mr. Jones. I was asked this morning whether I would ask for Councillor Simon Glyn to be sacked from his post as chair of the housing committee in Gwynedd. In response, I said that I would find it personally difficult, but that this was a matter for ``the local party to decide'' and the local party alone. The Under-Secretary and his hon. Friends have construed that to mean that I called for that person to be sacked. I did no such thing. If the Committee is to be worth anything as a forum, it should not allow such misconstruction or outright lies.

The Chairman: That is not a matter for the Chair.

4.1 pm

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): I note your appeal for brevity, Mr. Jones; if only you had made it this morning at the start of our proceedings.

I listened to the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) with some amazement. Given the doubling of crime under the Conservative Government, the axing of many of the resources of Customs and Excise, the fall in the number of police officers, the disaster of the Tories' care in the community policy, which led to the death of at least one of my constituents, and their apparent failure to act successfully on drugs in prison, and given how adamant the hon. Gentleman claims to be about law and order, I am surprised that he is still a member of the Conservative party. As an aside, I must say that my amazement turned to almost irresistible curiosity about where the £16 billion might be found; I presume that the Tories have a convincing photocopier at party headquarters, because the figures do not add up.

Although we have heard many statistics, safety is as much about hard facts as it is about attitudes or a state of mind. In essence, it has four elements—jobs, health, the dangers associated with daily life, and crime. On jobs, I need not emphasise how easy it is for people to feel insecure if they do not know whether they can provide for themselves and their families. On health, knowing that one has to care for oneself as well as for others can lead to insecurity in the community, especially if one fears that vulnerability, pain or other debilitating factors will get in the way. In essence, health is about quality of life, and the fear that health provision will be insufficient is every bit as debilitating as the absence of health provision.

The dangers of living include matters such as pollution, and road transport. In the absence of the relatively safe methods of public transport that are enjoyed in many urban areas, rural Wales is laid open to danger by the dangerous state of some of our roads. With crime, we should think not only of the victims of crime but about what happens to them after the crimes have been perpetrated. Only yesterday, I was speaking with two constituents, one of whom—Mrs Crompton—has seen her family collapse as a direct result of the murder of one of her offspring.

Safety goes far beyond the crime itself; it includes the aftercare received by victims of crime. The criminals themselves are sometimes victims of circumstance, and the community should also seek to rehabilitate rather than to punish those who fall by the wayside and engage in disreputable means of living.

Let us consider how we are doing in those four elements. It seems clear that the loss of a job is one of the greatest strains that one can experience. We have talked much of the considerable job losses associated with Corus and other big employers. Let us not forget that small companies such as that formerly known as BSK in Llanidloes also employ Welsh people. All individuals in small or large companies who lose their jobs have the same right to feel concerned about their future. When we think about jobs in the context of building a safer community, we have to consider big and small companies, the macro and the micro. The same is true of farming, which now has the highest suicide rates of any industry.

Wales is an ageing society. There are some good reasons for that, such as the fact that we live longer. The ageing of our population will exacerbate the strain on social and health services. Sparsity has been alluded to already. Waiting lists and the insecurity of not knowing whether treatment will become available before a condition worsens add to concerns about vulnerability and security in local communities.

My next points are about living dangerously. Transport safety might be a weakness. A more effective means of transport might be expensive for Wales, but we have some way to go to provide a public transport service that means that individuals can safely travel round Wales, and that those who do not have private transport do not live in isolation in their homes. That often leads to insecurity and a sense of tremendous vulnerability. The treacherous Llanymynech road, the main north-south road in Wales, goes through a small town. It is a real danger to the residents, who feel that the population has been cut in half by a road that carries more than 10,000 vehicles a day.

Crime figures vary. It is to the credit of the Government that we are blessed with encouraging conditions, as things seem to be getting better. Certainly in mid-Wales, I thank the Government for having spent sufficient money to herald a genuine decrease in overall crime. Violent crime is a concern, as it forms a high percentage of crime in rural Wales and Wales as a whole. One reason why the percentage is so high is that overall crime is quite low. That is not a reason for complacency, but we must reassure the listening public, who will no doubt read the report of our proceedings assiduously, that Wales is not an especially violent place to live. Police are doing well, but rural crime is another concern. The remoteness of farms and so forth leads to specific threats to livelihood and resources.

Drugs, within which I include alcohol, are a terrible scourge. I am sad to see that drug abuse is beginning to creep into our small towns. I shall consider the causes of that briefly, but we must tackle head-on the reasons why people take drugs if we are to ensure safety in our communities. That involves more than simply punishing individuals for doing something that is occasionally the only way out of a miserable existence.

I was interested in the genome project, because the question was asked whether crime was genetic. If it were, we could not do much about it. I read with fascination that all human beings are apparently almost identical, which means, I am sorry to say, that we are almost identical to the hon. Member for Ribble Valley. I have to believe that political affiliation is environmental, not genetic, otherwise there is no hope for the hon. Gentleman. On the assumption that crime has environmental causes, it must have environmental solutions.

What can we do to fix the problem? We must build a partnership in Wales between politicians and the people. That means that we must sometimes build partnerships between parties on issues such as crime. I do not enjoy the ceaseless efforts of some individuals to score party political points about crime, given that the Conservative Government failed to make anything about the issue a reality other than its doubling. If we stop reminding people of that, perhaps others will stop trying to score points as well, so that we can make crime a cross-party issue. I am sure that when people's houses are burgled, they do not find interesting party politicians' attacks on one another. We need, first of all, to tackle the actuality of crime, including bullying, child abuse and so forth. The Children's Commissioner for Wales is a great step forward. On drugs, we must work with the probation service, which regards itself as underfunded in Wales, so that it can prevent as well as cure the problems, by reapplying its knowledge to those at risk of offending.

We should also create some sort of crime link, whereby communities help those who have fallen into drug use, mainly through depression or despair, to find reasons not to reoffend. We should make the incentive not to reoffend more powerful than the incentive to backslide. We should consider restorative justice, whereby one builds a community that helps itself, and helps those who have previously been involved in crime to develop a sense of responsibility and respect, and to feel rewarded for doing what is right.

Closed circuit television is much demanded. I have doubts about that, because it simply displaces the problem. Nevertheless, there is some evidence that it works in Cardiff, and we should consider that. I am against extensive DNA testing on a continuing basis, because we might begin to assume that we can judge criminals by their DNA, and that we do not have environmental solutions for the problems.

With regard to any potential violence during the FA cup, we should all support Leicester City, because the club has some of the most docile and supportive fans in the country. Were the club to go to Wales and to Cardiff, it would not only win the FA cup but bring peace and tranquillity. I note the shocked expression on the face of the hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards), whose football allegiance clearly differs from mine.

My underlying point on crime is that we need to find solutions to the causes, not just to the symptoms. With jobs, we must ensure that there is true investment. As I said before, we should consider both macro and micro—not only Corus, but BSK; not only farming but individual farmers. I am working on the assumption that it is cheaper for us to stop job losses than to support the individuals concerned through social security and sometimes through bankruptcy, which often ensues.

We must give the Assembly the money that it needs to provide the health service that Wales requires. In Scotland, thanks to the Liberal Democrats convincing their Labour partners, there is now a commitment to free health care. Perhaps we should consider that for Wales, too, but the money needs to come from Westminster.

On transport, we require better roads and more projects like the Sarn-y-Bryn Caled junction, which I worked to secure in partnership with the then Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain). Statistically, that roundabout saves probably six lives a year. We need more projects like that, which recognise that if one values a human life at £1 million, as the NHS does, one quickly gets one's money back by investing in better roads.

Hon. Members will be interested to hear that I am shortly to introduce a ten-minute Bill on rail compensation. That should provide a good incentive for safer, but faster and more reliable rail links.

Robert Owen believed in all the things that I am describing, and believed that human behaviour was a condition of the environment, as the conclusions of the genome project imply. He was born not in the last few years, not even in the last century, but in 1771. He was the architect of the co-operative movement, and in many ways, he was the father of much of what was socialism for over a century, although his ideas were somewhat stolen by others, for which I will not forgive them. His concept was the same as that which I have described. He believed in giving people work, good health, safe living conditions and an education, and he believed that if he did those things he would generate a community of good citizens with a sense of mutual respect and values. In New Lanark, he achieved that model—it was more than just theory. To him, the duty of the Government towards citizens was to educate people to aspire to be the best that they could be, and to build safe communities in which they felt comfortable. That is our goal as well.


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Prepared 13 February 2001