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5.43 pm

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd): I am pleased to contribute to this St. David's day debate, even though I have to turn my 13-page, 15-minute, well-researched, finely crafted and perfectly delivered speech into a five-minute ramble.

Mr. Ainger: Get on with it.

Chris Ruane: Indeed.

I will confine my comments to town centre renewal. All hon. Members will have empty shops in their constituencies. It is a national issue, but in particular it affects the poorer communities in Wales. First, however, I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) on his fantastic victory in the recent by-election. Well done—llongyfarchiadau.

I intend to draw on my constituency experience and on recent research by the Joseph Rowntree trust, an excellent organisation that has produced a research paper called "Local Shops for Local People". It researched 14 centres around the United Kingdom, including one in Ferndale in Wales, that have reinvigorated, renewed and regenerated their town centres. Lessons can be drawn from that. I urge the Minister to ask his civil servants to study that document. There is a copy available in the Library, which I have used.

I pay tribute to the Labour Government for what they have delivered in our communities and town centres. First, objective 1 funding will allow our local economies to regenerate so that our people are employed, have money in their pockets and can spend it in our town centres.

Secondly, there have been changes in heritage lottery funding since Labour's victory in 1997. Members may recall that, prior to that, £12 million of heritage lottery funding was spent on the Churchill diaries, and £5 million was spent on improving playing fields at Eton. Labour changed the rules so that such money is now used in areas where there is architectural merit and poverty. As a result, Denbigh town centre in my constituency is to benefit from £6 million of heritage lottery funding and Rhyl town centre, which is in Rhyl west, the poorest ward in Wales, is to receive £6 million. So, we have made big inroads into improving our town centres.

The main threat to our town centres, as everyone will realise, has come from out-of-town shopping centres. They are built on cheaper land and because of that benefit from a range of economic factors to the detriment of town centres. The main thrust of my speech is not to turn the clock back 25 years—I shop in those centres on a weekly

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basis, as I am sure do many hon. Members—but to create a level playing field to ensure that we have the means to regenerate town centres.

The Joseph Rowntree trust research said that we should be creating town centres and not shopping centres in our communities. There is a difference. The town centre should be part of the town and should include the voluntary and community sectors. I opened the Clwyd Coast credit union in my constituency two weeks ago. Because it is located in the centre of Rhyl, its 1,000 members go there weekly and spend money there. The benefit advice shops and citizens advice bureaux are also in Rhyl town centre, which increases the footfall. Not only that: together with the welfare rights unit, their advice brings an additional £4.5 million in benefits into Denbighshire each year. That money is spent in our communities. So it is vital that we create town centres and not shopping centres.

There are other ways in which local and national Government can help our town centres. They can locate employment services in town centres, as they have in Rhyl. Healthy living centres, doctors surgeries and libraries could all be located in town centres.

"Local Shops for Local People" also revealed that for success we need partnerships—not just the traditional partnership of shops and offices in a commercial centre. We are blessed in my community with such business associations in Denbigh, Prestatyn and Rhyl—the three principal towns in my constituency. We need wider partnership and to consider the best examples around the country. The Borough Market renovation, not three miles from this House, enlisted the support of the Churches, residents' associations, the voluntary sector, the community sector and local authorities. We should be aiming for such wide partnership.

Another key factor in reviving our town centres is a safe environment. The Labour Government need to be given credit for creating partnerships to tackle crime and disorder, which bring together the community, local authority and voluntary groups. A month ago in Rhyl, I jointly opened a project to ban the drinking of alcohol on our streets. It aims to convince street drinkers that the areas around the railway station and the piazza are not the places to do their drinking as it deters shoppers.

Labour should be given credit for the closed circuit television that we have introduced in towns and communities all over Wales and for other initiatives such as club safe in Rhyl, which aims to monitor antisocial behaviour in clubs—there are 10,000 clubbers every weekend—and pub watch. It is vital that we create safe communities in which people can shop.

We need to co-ordinate employment, training and education for the work force who will work in our shops. If we regenerate our communities, our local people must benefit. We should target the unemployed and economically inactive in our communities. We should do so carefully, taking a long-term approach to families suffering inter-generational unemployment who have lost confidence. We must reach out to those people, give them training and restore their confidence so that they can go back into the community to be employed in our shops.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to look into a key factor in many of the 14 regeneration projects around the country, which is the use of simple kiosks. They are low cost and low rent, so for a minimal outlay people can use

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them to set up their own business: if successful, they can go on to fill our shops; if they fail, no harm is done. Two national chains were first established in my home town of Rhyl—Iceland and Kwik Save. I believe that there are many more Albert Gubays out there in our communities—people who if they were given the opportunity could make great innovations in British retailing.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider three fiscal steps to help town centres, the first of which is to enable flexible rates to be set in depressed communities and town centres. That has been done for the post offices and shops in small rural communities, and I want it to be extended. Secondly, I want the Chancellor to consider re-rating out-of-town shopping centre car parks, and ring-fencing the money for use in revitalising the communities that such centres have done down over the years. Thirdly, last April, the Prime Minister made an announcement about business improvement districts, which would allow local communities to use part of their rates to improve their town centre. I believe that taken together those three fiscal policies would do a great deal to revive our town centres.

5.52 pm

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): I congratulate the Chairman of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs and wish him many happy returns of the day. I congratulate the new hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) on a first-class maiden speech.

Before speaking about violent crime in Wales, I wish to discuss the death of my daffodil. I put it on this morning and was complimented on it throughout the day, but during the speech of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), my daffodil died. I suspect that it may have been the slightly sanctimonious nature of his speech that did for my daffodil.

Lembit Öpik: The whole point of my remarks was that everyone, including the Liberal Democrats, needs to be more humble and more positive. I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me the chance to make that clear.

Mr. Wiggin: I am grateful for that intervention, but I wonder what else about me will die next.

Statistics recently released by the Home Office have revealed an increase in violent crimes against the person across Wales. That type of crime now accounts for 17 per cent. of all recorded crime across the four police areas in Wales. My constituency borders Wales, so I know that the Welsh people are fed up of living with the threat of violent crime. They are being let down by a Government who must focus more energy and resources on reducing those figures. The good people of Wales cannot be allowed to live in constant fear of attack.

I am sorry to say that that fear is compounded by the continuing fall in the number of special constables in Wales. Since 1997, that eventful year, the number of serving specials has fallen from 1,140 to 811 in 2000—a fall of 41 per cent. More specials are needed in Wales for the fight against violent crime. While the Government claim that overall police numbers in Wales have gone up, they can no longer ignore the rapid decline of that important part of the force.

Recent Home Office-funded research made several recommendations on how to reduce the high wastage of special constables. Among the recommendations to

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prevent many specials leaving the force in Wales are plans such as local monitoring of wastage and improvements to management structures. Those recommendations are laudable, but they smack of new Labour's increased bureaucracy. The people of Wales need real policies to keep quality men and women in the force. Such policies would improve the pay and conditions of specials in Wales and complement the essential recruitment drive in that area. I am pleased that the Government have expressed commitment on that issue, but that must be backed by practical results for the distressed people of Wales.

Another major problem is the availability of treatment, or lack of it, for victims of crime in Wales. It is not comfortable to be confronted with a situation in which millions of pounds are spent rehabilitating offenders, yet the victims of crime are ignored. Statistics published by the Home Office itself reveal that only 3 per cent. of victims see the person who has targeted them charged and put through the courts. A further 1 per cent. receive some kind of monetary compensation for violent crime.

Those pathetic statistics mean that the Government are overlooking the needs of 96 per cent. of Welsh people who become victims of crime. The same report highlights the fact that insensitive treatment by some official bodies ends up making things far worse. The Government spend tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money on rehabilitation schemes for people convicted of crime. Victim Support points out that only a tiny fraction of that sum goes towards support and help for those unfortunate enough to be victims of crime.

Research by Victim Support confirms that most victims of crime, violent or otherwise, receive little or no help from the state other than services provided by volunteer groups. The chief executive of Victim Support, Dame Helen Reeves, said that that negligible level of support is unacceptable. She said:

About 23 per cent. of the population are affected. Dame Helen is referring to the lack of awareness in agencies such as the NHS and housing departments. Some great things are achieved with rehabilitation, but it is not just the criminal's future activities in society that deserve consideration. The lives of the victims of crime can be changed radically. Coming to terms with such upheaval can be difficult and traumatic, so it is as important from a sociological perspective to ensure that the victims can interact positively in future as it is to do so for the criminals themselves. Rehabilitation for the victim may include involvement with official bodies such as the NHS or housing departments, so it is essential that such organisations are equipped with the finances and the training to be helpful, rather than damaging, to the unfortunate victims of crime.

That principle is true anywhere, but it is particularly applicable in areas with unacceptably high levels of violent crime, such as Wales. Violent crime in Wales unfortunately permeates all aspects of life across the border. It is a sad fact that nearly every major hospital in

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Wales has its own police officer to protect medical staff from the threat of violence. The Western Mail carried out a survey which revealed that NHS trusts in Wales are:

As the University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff recorded 788 incidents of violent crime in a 10-month period, the new measure is hardly surprising. Statistics show that the employment of those police officers is proving to be effective. Indeed, Ysbyty Gwynedd, which had recorded 508 incidents of violent crime in a year, managed to reduce that figure by 35 per cent. following the employment of a police officer by the North West Wales NHS Trust. That sounds like an improvement, but surely such a move should never have been necessary. There is still an average of almost one violent incident per day at the hospital. When violent crime prevents doctors and nurses from doing their job, the situation is clearly out of hand. I recognise the good work that has been done to reduce crime in Wales, but the figures for violent crime are still distressing. Not enough attention is being paid to reducing these upsetting incidents.

In 1997, the number of crimes of violence against the person in Wales was 17,386. After almost five years of Labour government, that figure stands at 38,230, which represents an increase of 120 per cent. The total figure for violent crime in Wales in 1997 was 20,071. That figure has increased by more than 100 per cent. to 40,880 in the past five years. Why is Labour neglecting to rectify such an unacceptable element of Welsh society?

I know that the Government will point to an increase in police numbers in some areas of Wales. Some types of crime, I am happy to report, are being reduced, but violent crime—from preventing the incidents, right through to conviction and victim support—is not receiving the attention in Wales that it needs. Will the Government pledge today to start to right that wrong? Will they give some assurance of practical solutions to the present frightening situation, which is a reality for too many people in Wales?

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