Building Safer Communities

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Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): Many of us will have visited the statue of Robert Owen in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. Does he agree that Sir Brian Moffatt could do no better than to visit the hon. Gentleman's constituency and learn about Robert Owen, which would not only do something for the communities of Sir Brian's employees but might actually make him into a businessman of Owen's stature?

Mr. Öpik: I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman. We all have a lot to learn, and I would gladly give any hon. Member a free guided tour should they come to Newtown.

Our goals should to be similar to the laudable goals of Robert Owen. He had a vision, and he turned it into action. His actions could be regarded as building a safer community, as at New Lanark. Let us take his example and use it to make our communities better, stronger and safer, with true partnership between the Government and the people of Wales.

4.15 pm

Mrs Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire): As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State pointed out in his excellent speech this morning, creating safer communities involves a range of issues. Those include creating the climate for full employment, providing people with decent wages rather than poverty pay, and helping people to buy their own homes or to rent decent houses. It is important to recognise that fact, since the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) started his speech by apparently denying it, seeking instead to restrict the debate to a narrower area.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): Surely that is wrong. We were talking about building safer communities, and I concentrated on policing. There is nothing wrong with that. I did not seek to deny anything else.

Mrs. Lawrence: I refer the hon. Gentleman to the point of order that he made at the beginning of this morning's sitting.

Creating safer communities must involve bringing together all elements of those communities to work together. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy has personally condemned the divisive, not to say racist, comments of Councillor Simon Glyn. It is one thing for an individual Member of Parliament to reject the comments on a personal level, but what is needed is action by the party to prove its rejection of them. So far, that has not happened. That can only mean that protestations about what Councillor Glyn said are merely crocodile tears. Only action by the party to censure its senior member will demonstrate that such racist comments must not be tolerated.

Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent): Although I am sure that we all agree that the utterances of the person to whom my hon. Friend referred are repugnant and alien to any kind of libertarian movement, I do not think that she should be particularly surprised by them. Does not such behaviour simply reflect the history of the movement, which began some 75 years ago? The two big hates of Saunders Lewis were the English and the Jews; his big loves were Hitler and Mussolini. During the second world war, the Welsh nationalist party protested against children coming into Wales to escape the bombing in England. They claimed that that was one of the greatest threats ever to Welsh civilisation and culture. Should we therefore be surprised by recent events? If the man in question is repugnant, all he is doing is reflecting the history of his party.

Mrs. Lawrence: My hon. Friend has a background in researching such things, but I am afraid that I do not share his knowledge. I came into Wales, married a Welshman and learned the Welsh language. My children are educated through the medium of Welsh and my son was, until recently, a member of a Welsh rock band. I think that I have demonstrated my commitment to the country in which I live. However, if one is committed to the country of Wales, one must acknowledge that the future of the language relies on winning the good will of English-speaking people in Wales, whether they come from elsewhere or are English speakers who have lost the Welsh language over generations.

There are three main elements involved in building safer communities in Wales—or anywhere else for that matter. Those elements are the police, the local authority and other agencies, and the community itself. They form the basis of the crime reduction partnerships introduced by the Government to help combat crime and the fear of crime, which, for some people, is just as important.

The police force in my corner of Wales—Dyfed Powys—has an excellent performance record. Crime in Dyfed Powys is less than half the national average and the force's clear-up rate is 95 per cent. Those figures were published in the Western Mail last month, and have been referred to by other hon. Members.

Since I arrived in Westminster, I have pursued the issue of sparsity in police funding because I well recall the discussions and evidence that showed the extra costs involved in rural policing from my time as a member of Dyfed Powys police authority. For that reason, I was pleased that the Government gave £4.5 million to Welsh police forces to cover the extra costs of rural policing. Dyfed Powys, which covers more than half of the landmass of Wales, has benefited considerably from that funding. West Wales anticipates taking on extra officers with that money and there are plans to reopen some rural police stations in order to provide the permanent police presence that has been missing for so long because of Tory funding cuts.

As a participant in the police service parliamentary scheme this year, I was privileged to spend some time with Carmarthen police division on operational duty just outside my constituency. For a week, I worked the same shift patterns as the police officers and accompanied them on a variety of duties. It was enlightening. Comparing Carmarthen at midnight on a Friday with its sleepy market-town image during the day brought to mind Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

As well as accompanying officers on night shift in Carmarthen, I accompanied a rural officer on his round of villages, meeting local people and discussing their concerns. We visited the homes of individuals who had applied for shotgun licences; we had to interview them or walk their land to ensure that no danger would be posed to passing walkers or motorists. That work took a large chunk out of the officer's day. It seems sensible to suggest that the Home Office should consider employing retired police officers to do that administrative work. They have the necessary training and background as police officers, but serving officers would be relieved of the bureaucracy and be free to deal with crime and other policing issues.

I spent a day with criminal intelligence officers and half a day with a police patrol vehicle. I observed a meeting between social services staff and the divisional superintendent, Bill Horne, who has since been appointed assistant chief constable in Gwent—Gwent's gain is our loss in west Wales. That meeting was held to discuss contingency measures for monitoring sex offenders who are released into the community. As a politician, I was reassured to see both agencies working together to protect our children. I accompanied acting inspector Carol Evans and some special constables on traffic duty at the United Counties agricultural show.

During that week, I gained first-hand knowledge of the difficulties and demands that our police officers have to face. I congratulate them on their dedication and on the service that they deliver to the people of Wales. That experience was an eye-opener; it was the other side of the coin from my experience as a member of the police authority. It was good to see the police implementing the policing plan for which that authority had been responsible.

The police, in dealing with the prevention and detection of crime, are only part of the story. Our local authorities have a major role. Housing and environmental health, social services and economic development departments of local councils have a crucial role in creating safer communities.

I am sure that every hon. Member here today will be aware that a major factor for many people, particularly those who live on council estates, is neighbourhood nuisance. Before 1997, as a county councillor, I recall hearing of the frustration of people who had to cope with the noise and nuisance of neighbours. I also knew of the difficulties that faced the environmental health departments when trying to bring such cases to court. The perpetrators would often have their noisy equipment confiscated by the court, but they would simply buy more equipment and continue to make their neighbours' lives a misery.

The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 gave us antisocial behaviour orders and parenting orders, which we thought might deal with such problems. Indeed, the mechanics exist to deal with antisocial behaviour, but it is extremely disappointing that local authorities and the police do not appear to be pursuing such cases as vigorously as one would wish. I understand that Wrexham is the only local authority in Wales to have implemented such an order.

Some residents in my constituency are up in arms following a tragic incident on their estate. I shall not mention that case because it is sub judice. Suffice it to say that it could have been avoided if the local authority had taken action sooner by implementing the powers in the 1998 Act to tackle neighbour nuisance. It is not an extreme measure; it is a tool to make people realise that they and their entire families have a responsibility to behave decently to their neighbours. In recent discussions, Pembrokeshire county council confirmed that it intended to pursue tenancy conditions vigorously in such cases in the future and to work with the police to use ASBOs as a preventive measure. I shall be monitoring that in my constituency.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Mr. Ruane) mentioned this morning another interesting development—acceptable behaviour contracts and parental control agreements. Those are being introduced by the Islington crime reduction partnership as an easier way of implementing ASBOs. They will be used as a tool rather than a weapon. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) was at pains to point out that Islington council is controlled by the Liberal Democrats, but my constituents will not care who is responsible for the ideas, so long as they are effective. Perhaps it is a real example of consensus government. I shall forward details of that initiative to my local authority in the hope that our local crime reduction partnership will consider following that course, particularly in areas like The Mount in Milford Haven.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), who is not here this afternoon, referred to his recent visit to council housing estates. I know that one of the estates that he visited was in my constituency. He said that tenants and residents wanted more say and complained that antisocial residents were located among decent families. That is indeed the compliant of many of my constituents, and I have dealt with it in some detail. However, the hon. Gentleman should have known that the years of cuts to council housing budgets in Wales were caused by poor local government settlements during those Tory years.

Local authorities used to set aside specific areas for particular tenants—pensioners' bungalows are a prime example; elderly people like to live in relative quiet—but the previous Government's refusal to allow local authorities to invest in new homes and to repair property resulted in fewer homes being available for pensioners. The pressure on housing stock meant that the councils did not have the opportunity to allocate housing for specific purposes. The council could only struggle to provide homes. That is the real cause of many of the problems that ordinary, decent people on housing estates are forced to endure.

Perhaps the most important element in creating safer communities is the involvement of the community itself. One of the reasons why Dyfed Powys has been so successful in combating crime is that we in west Wales have a good sense of community. People care about others who live in their village, street or neighbourhood. By tapping into that good citizenship, communities can prevent and combat crime. That can be done either though neighbourhood watch schemes or the projects now being funded by the Welsh Assembly on council estates. Those projects give tenants and residents a real say in how their estates should be managed.

Further co-ordination is needed between the community planning aspects of crime reduction, which are the responsibility of local government and therefore of the Assembly, and the Home Office crime and disorder strategies. The community planning aspect works on a four-year cycle, whereas the Home Office crime and disorder strategy operates on a three-year cycle. Dyfed Powys police say that it is important that those two strategies are co-ordinated on either a three or a four-year cycle as quickly as possible, to ensure that they operate fully in tandem.

I am delighted to say that Milford Haven has recently been successful in gaining funding from the National Assembly to establish a project to help residents on The Mount estate. The tenants and residents there are keen to improve their area; they now have the funding to make it happen and to restore confidence in their community. At lunchtime, I spoke to a representative from Dyfed Powys, who said that the future looks good. However, he raised three small points about that funding that need further examination. First, we need to make the money available to all communities. Some communities that would benefit from the funding are too small, and do not reach the criteria. Will my hon. Friend the Under-Secy investigate that problem?

Secondly, the representative stressed that funding should be available for a minimum of three years rather than one. Capital funding is fine, but it sometimes has revenue implications for the local authorities. Finally, he believed that we need to know for how much time communities have to submit bids in specific funding rounds. I ask my hon. Friend to raise those matters with the Home Secretary and the First Minister of the Assembly.

Those things can happen only if the Government are committed to the principle of safer communities. They will not happen if there is talk but no action. The Opposition may talk today about crime and dealing with crime, but their record in office was appalling. Many of my hon. Friends will be keen to remind the Committee that crime doubled between 1979 and 1997. At the same time, cautions and convictions decreased by 6 per cent. In 1979, the chance of being burgled was one in 32, but in 1995, before the Tories left office, it was one in 13. In 1979, the chance of being a victim of car crime, a subject raised this morning by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley, was one in 11, but in 1995 it was one in six. The chance of being a victim of violence was one in 213 in 1979, but one in 73 in 1995. The hon. Gentleman talked about the continued rise in violent crime figures, but he will find that the rate of increase has fallen.

Is it entirely surprising that during those years more people resorted to crime? Our young people were left on the scrap heap. They could not find work and faced a bleak future with no prospects. Some households in my constituency had had no one in full-time work for three generations. Unemployment throughout the United Kingdom topped 3 million. Some unscrupulous employers thought nothing of paying their workers £2 an hour and relying on the state to boost their income to minimum levels. Interest rates hit 15 per cent., with record mortgage repayments and house repossessions.

I notice that, unfortunately, the right hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) is not with us this afternoon. He mentioned the need to remove the differential in the minimum wage. Where were Plaid Cymru Members when the issue was voted on in the House? I recall that Labour Members sat through the night to secure the implementation of the measure for our constituents, but Plaid Cymru Members appeared to have gone home, by all accounts. They certainly did not stay to vote at 8 o'clock the next morning.

I shall return to the impact of the Tory years and the detriment that they caused our communities and society. Margaret Thatcher may famously have said that there was no such thing as society, but it was society that paid the price during those years. For two decades, people were in fear for their jobs and homes, and feared being victims of crime. The key to safer communities is partnerships and real jobs. Youth unemployment in my constituency has gone down by 81 per cent. since 1997.

The minimum wage and the working families tax credit have led to decent incomes; the Tories opposed both measures. Investment in housing and measures introduced in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 could restore the right to decent homes with considerate neighbours, and, under this Government, we are at last starting to achieve a well-resourced police force in Wales.

4.32 pm

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Prepared 13 February 2001