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Ms Keeble: I completely agree with my hon. Friend. We must ensure that we do not alienate young people by sometimes looking in two directions at once, which might be part of the problem in Sheffield.

It is important to recognise that community involvement does not mean the involvement of the residential community alone. The Government's business improvement districts, a programme announced by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister last year, will enable authorities and businesses to work together to deliver cleaner streets, better pedestrian environments, new green spaces and improved security. The role of the business community involves looking after the environment of town centres and becoming involved in the wider regeneration debate, not only by investment but by support, advice and mentoring, as well as all the other things that the business community is extremely well equipped to do. Its role has been very important.

The Government believe that everyone has the right to a high-quality living environment. People have the right to walk the streets without fear of crime or without encountering litter, graffiti, abandoned cars and drug paraphernalia or without running the gauntlet of antisocial behaviour. They have a right to a public realm that enhances private comfort, stimulates community pride and boosts local economies.

We are taking action to ensure that our towns, cities and villages have cleaner and safer environments, and to ensure also that local communities have that sense of ownership and pride that is the best defence against urban decay. This approach will make our towns and cities places where businesses choose to invest and where people choose to live.

We still have much to do but we have made a start. There are now lower crime rates in some of our most disadvantaged areas; there are more people living in some city centres, thus stemming the flight to the suburbs; there is better management of our public realm; and in some instances, there are truly inspiring developments in town centres. Above all, there is a better quality of life for local communities.

10.14 am

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): We believe that, judging by the Government's atrocious record on such issues since they came into power, this debate should have been entitled "The Decline in Quality of Life since 1997". The timing of the debate is yet another feeble attempt by the Government to create a platform for Labour party press releases prior to the local elections next Thursday.

True to form, the Minister has this morning issued a press release, which we believe is a clear and serious breach of the guidance for civil servants during local elections. I shall quote from that guidance, which states:

that is, the run-up to local elections—

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Ms Keeble: That slur on the press office of the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions is outrageous. Staff prepared the press release as professional press officers, and they have acted in a completely proper way. It is disgraceful to imply that they have in any way breached any code for civil servants during this period.

Mr. Moss: I am not accusing civil servants. I am accusing the Minister. Presumably she decides which press releases go out and which do not.

The guidance continues:

In this case, that is from 11 April 2002. That was endorsed in a reply by the Prime Minister to a written question from the hon. Member—

Geraint Davies: Is the hon. Gentleman saying that at a time when people are concerned about graffiti and street crime, for example, and everyone is talking about them, the Government should suspend all activity in the run-up to local elections? Is that not completely ridiculous?

Mr. Moss: The hon. Gentleman displays the fact that he is completely ridiculous. If he reads the guidance, he will find that what I have read out is exactly what it states. The Government will still be in power, whatever the outcome of local elections. It is incumbent on the Government, with all their resources, not to involve themselves in publicity and press releases about local issues—yet that is exactly what the Minister has done

Geraint Davies: My constituents would certainly want me to continue the fight against graffiti and local crime, and to improve the quality of life, irrespective of elections—and also irrespective of the silly things that the hon. Gentleman is saying.

Mr. Moss: The hon. Gentleman should remain in his seat. Yet again he has missed the point. I am arguing that the Minister issued a press release as a member of the Government. What the hon. Gentleman does in his constituency is up to him. That does not breach the code. However, the press release issued today certainly does. The Minister should give the House an explanation when she winds up.

All we heard in the Minister's—

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Moss: No, I am moving on.

All we heard in the Minister's contribution was the usual list of Government initiatives, schemes and interventions, many of which have been announced over and over again. Of themselves, these do not deliver on quality of life. The key is to measure—

Mr. McCabe: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the hon. Member for North-East

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Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) to refer so extensively to a press release that the rest of us have not seen? Would it not be appropriate to read it out?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): The press release to which the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire has referred is a public document. Therefore he is in order in referring to it.

Mr. Moss: If the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) wants to see the press release—I do not intend to read it out because that would take far too much time—he can go behind the Chair, collect it from the Opposition Whip and read it himself.

The key is to measure outcomes, and on that basis, the Government's record since 1997 has been woeful. The national health service is far worse with longer waiting lists and increasing litigation against a declining service. Our transport system is entirely inadequate. There is increasing congestion on our roads, and the rail system has become worse under Labour. Crime is still the No. 1 issue in many of our communities, and the electorate no longer believe Government statistics on crime.

Under Labour, despite soaring taxes, our streets are becoming more dirty and dangerous. Precious green spaces are under threat. Our rural economy is in tatters and there is no end in sight to the misery endured by our rural and farming communities.

Under Labour, council taxes have increased by more than three times the rate of inflation, with little or no improvement in services in many local authority areas. Only Conservative councils are delivering value for money, public services and the cleaning up of our streets.

Despite the Minister's platitudes, violent crime is soaring throughout the country. Before the 1997 election, Labour promised to be tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. However, under Labour, there have been 500 fewer police officers in England since 1997 and 39 per cent. fewer special constables.

Street crime is soaring. Labour has hit the police with red tape and bureaucracy, taking police off our streets which, combined with their plans for more interference from Whitehall, has resulted in plummeting morale in the police force. The latest crime figures for the year ending 31 March 2001 show that in the past three years violence against the person has increased by 20 per cent., robbery by 42 per cent. and violent crime in total by 21 per cent. across England and Wales. A comparison between the last nine months of 2001 and 2000 shows a 26 per cent. increase in street crime across England and Wales and a 39 per cent. increase in London alone.

There are, however, enterprising initiatives to combat crime by Conservative-controlled councils. Kent county council has introduced rural community wardens in partnership with Kent police. Wardens are the eyes and ears of the police in the countryside, linked with local shops and businesses, neighbourhood watch schemes and county council services like schools and youth groups. Westminster city council has launched a city guardian initiative to reduce crime, antisocial behaviour and breaches of public safety.

Adequate street lighting is crucial to the fight against crime, particularly theft and assault. Conservative councils spend more on street lighting; they spend £66 a year per street light compared with £61 in Labour councils and only

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£60 in Liberal Democrat councils—[Interruption.] Labour Members may scoff, but those figures were worked out under best value indicator 95 introduced by their Government. I shall come to other indicators later, but according to any indicator, Labour-controlled councils do far worse than Conservative ones.

The fact is that our streets are becoming dirtier, and there is a clear link between urban decay and crime. In a speech in Croydon before the election, the Prime Minister promised to tackle abandoned cars and urban decay, claiming that such issues were

Yet our streets are becoming dirtier, thanks to the Government's incompetence and poor administration by Labour councils. Dirty streets, graffiti, fly tipping and abandoned cars are all symptoms of urban decay, which has worsened under Labour. The degradation of our neighbourhoods fuels more crime.

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