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Mr. Laurence Robertson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Skinner: I think the hon. Gentleman wants to go there as well.

Mr. Robertson: The hon. Gentleman knows that he is my parents' MP and that my father was a miner. Will he not respect the right of rural communities to live the life they have lived for many years, just as he wanted mining communities to be able to do?

Mr. Skinner: It is a false distinction to separate mining communities from rural communities. Most mining communities are rural communities, with each pit separated from the next by 20 or so fields. I was born in a rural community, and I know that we should not get the impression that the drive to ban foxhunting emanates from city dwellers. The ban is supported by a majority of people in my constituency and all the rural areas as well.

We will have the right to roam. Tomorrow marks the 70th anniversary of the mass trespass at Kinder Scout. We shall celebrate the fact that, after all those years, all the

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Labour party resolutions and all the previous Labour Governments, the current Labour Government have passed the legislation giving people the right to roam. I think that that, together with jobs, the health service, other public services, housing and all the rest, will improve the quality of life of all our people. Those are the things that improve the quality of life.

Improving the quality of life is not an abstract concept. It is about doing things and having the brass to do them with, and in the past five years we have had a bob or two to spend. I want us to spend the next five or 10 years doing the exact same things.

1.38 pm

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), although he is a hard act to follow—

Mr. Laurence Robertson: Impossible.

Mr. McCabe: I quite agree.

Like my hon. Friend, I was bemused by the synthetic anger displayed by the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss). Only after reading the press release and hearing the rest of his speech did I realise what he was doing. There were two elements, the first of which was an innocuous but fairly good press release that pointed out that certain Government activities were addressing some of the problems that people consistently bring to the attention of Members of Parliament from all parties. There was a little good news about some progress being made after a bit of work, but the hon. Gentleman could not bring himself to acknowledge that. Instead, he used it as a hook for a party political broadcast. Quite a broadcast it was too. He told us that rail privatisation was a good thing. Anyone would have thought that Mrs. Thatcher had been a friend of the railways. He relied on quotes from 1995 to tell us how well Conservative councils are doing now.

That was a shabby attack. The second element is that a pattern of opposition on the part of Conservative Members is emerging. It is not only that they cannot bring themselves to acknowledge any good news, or that they constantly want to denigrate what is happening, just for the sake of it. We know now that it is a strategy. The person who let the cat out of the bag was the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). He did not intend to do that. Instead, he intended to tell members of the Conservative party in secret what the strategy was. Unfortunately, he was taped and the Daily Mirror blew the gaff.

We know that the hon. Gentleman's strategy is to persuade the public that the health service will not work. That is phase 1 of a four-phase strategy. The idea is to denigrate the health service and demoralise people generally, including those who work in the service, so as to be in a position to do away with it.

I wonder whether the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire is widening that approach. Is the Conservative strategy on every other subject the same? If so, they will tell people who are worried about crime that we cannot solve the policing problem, and people who are worried about housing that we cannot do anything about that either.

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I suspect that that pattern is emerging from a party that does not have any real engagement with the issues that concern people, but does have a clear desire to denigrate and smash public services. That is supposed to provide the platform for the Conservatives to remove the investment that the Labour Government have been putting in. I suspect that that is what we saw demonstrated by the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire.

I had intended to talk about what is happening in some of our communities, including the progress that we have seen through the strengthening of the economy, the jobs that are coming back and the money that has been put in, as well as some of the difficulties that we are still trying to confront.

As I was travelling to the House on the bus this morning, I read the report of an interview with a 13-year-old girl in the estate in which Damilola Taylor died. As I read it, I realised that the truth is that however much progress we are making and however many things we are doing that are making a difference, we must accept that for many people there is still a long way to go. We read about youngsters growing up in estates who at the age of 13 can say, "I've handled a gun. I know a 13-year-old boy who regularly walks round with one stuffed into the waistband of his pants." That should cause us all concern.

The problem is not confined to estates in south London. Only the other week there was a drive-by shooting in Birmingham. I know that the number of offences involving guns is creeping up all the time. They are becoming a regular occurrence. I know also that it is far too easy for people to gain access to guns.

I feel that the time has come to review gun laws. We should seek to stop guns coming in from external sources, and we should investigate the mail order business, the internet business and those who sell apparently "safe" guns—air pistols or replica guns, for example—that are re-engineered in back-street workshops and used in crimes.

If we want to show concern for the quality of life in our communities, we must tackle the big things that are destroying our communities. We must say that the gun lobby has had its day. It is time we tightened up and did everything in our power to take guns out of our communities.

It seems that we have guns in our communities because of the scourge of drugs. I am astonished that we should find ourselves in a position where debate is reduced to narrow arguments about which policing tactic is effective. People who are using guns and killing other members of the community, often in drive-by shootings, are locked into the heroin and crack cocaine trade, and they are ravaging communities across the country. We should go after those people with a vengeance and root them out.

We should use the powers in the Proceeds of Crime Bill to strip those people of every asset that they acquire from that illegal trade. I served for months on the Committee that deliberated on the Bill, and I was astonished how often Opposition Members sought to weaken the powers in it so as to preserve the interests of the folk who are wrecking our communities. I am not trying to make a desperate party political point; I am warning Opposition Members that if they are serious about dealing with the problems that ravage our communities, they should support us when we give the

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police and other agencies the power to make a difference. They are out of order when they try to whittle away those powers.

Finally, there is a debate to be had about the nature of policing in this country. It would be a terrible mistake if that debate were reduced to the details of police numbers, or how police co-operate with other agencies that may engage in support activity. In my community, the crime fighting fund has been beneficial in establishing small squads in particular areas to tackle the antisocial criminal behaviour with which we are all familiar. A substantial reduction in crime and antisocial behaviour on the Pitmaston Estate in Hall Green is the result of work by a dedicated squad funded by the crime fighting fund. We should encourage and welcome that kind of activity.

If we are serious about trying to tackle ongoing crime, we must recognise that the police themselves want intelligence-led policing. Neighbourhood wardens and community support officers, for example, can provide them with assistance. When a house is burgled it is probably a waste of time sending a police officer, but it is a good idea to send a forensics team, which is much more likely to be of assistance in catching the people involved. I am sure that most Members know that 90 per cent. or more of forensic teams are civilians, not police officers, but work hand in hand with the police to boost the detection rate.

That is the kind of mature debate that I want on policing; it is the kind of debate that my constituents understand and are happy to engage in. They do not want slogans, they do not want our public services denigrated, and they do not want people to talk tough and then, in the privacy of Committees, water down Bills that would make a difference. They want real action on the things that concern them, and I hope that our activities in the months and years ahead will focus on that.

1.48 pm

Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central): The contributions to our debate have been wide ranging—not least that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who rightly made the point that unless the economy is in shape and we are delivering an extra 1.5 million jobs instead of spending money on debt and the dole, we cannot deliver the services in health and education that people want for a basic quality of life.

I shall not focus on those important wider issues, but on the quality of life on the street and in our communities. We have made enormous progress in providing better education, more jobs and a better health service, but in many of our areas people still have a fear of crime as they walk down their street.

Particularly in my area, one of the reasons why some people might experience such fear is the presence of graffiti, abandoned cars, and other signs and symbols of neglect and vandalism, which make people scared to walk their own streets. Much has been done by councils and by the Government to tackle the problem through lighting, CCTV, more police, street wardens, efforts to design out crime, and investment in youth provision.

In the brief time available, I shall focus on some of the pioneering work that is being done in Croydon and suggest what more might be done. In my home patch, there is enormous co-operation between the council, the police and the community to clean up the area and make

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it a safer place to be. We have six teams of two who go out and scrub off graffiti. We have action against young offenders, which does not necessarily mean a hard-line approach that pushes them through the courts and puts them in prison. The aim is to find out who is responsible for the graffiti and go to their homes, tell their fathers and get the culprits to clean off the graffiti. That is working, in co-operation with the youth service, and it is more effective than pushing people through the prison system.

Earlier, I mentioned the problem of the 70,000 people in British prisons. Many of those people had in the past been permanently excluded from school. I am glad, as I said, that the Government have decided to provide excluded children with permanent education. I believe that they deserve more and better education than the average, to ensure that they do not end up in our jails and become repeat offenders, causing mayhem on our streets. It is not value for money to spend £34,000 a year to keep someone in jail.

Other preventive measures implemented locally include the introduction of climbing plants and pre-grown ivy on flank walls that tend to be attacked regularly. That has eliminated the problem of graffiti and improved the local environment. There has been heavy investment in CCTV and we have asked local retailers to lock away aerosol cans. We found that as most of the paint that is used to spray graffiti is stolen, that has reduced the amount of graffiti locally but has not affected trade or the viability of local shops.

By the very nature of the crime, the offender leaves his signature on walls to show how clever he is. That allows us to create a database of tags and eventually identify the offenders. I believe that there is much mileage in advertising hefty rewards to discover whose the tags are. In the world of competing graffiti vandals, it is known whose the tags are—that is the whole point. If a reward of £1,000 leads to the identification of an offender through his tag, and Scotland Yard gets a warrant, enters his flat and finds the evidence—aerosols and so on—he should be charged with everything it is possible to charge him with.

What sort of people are committing those offences? Historically, graffiti vandals tended to be hard-core criminals. Increasingly, however, we now find that they are first-time offenders who think that they are participating in some sort of popular culture largely imported from the United States. We need to confront that at the core and demonstrate to people that they are destroying their own environment.

Speaking to primary school children in an area that I represent, I found that many young children said that they were scared by the emergence of more graffiti and abandoned cars. It is not true that the vast majority of young people tolerate vandalism. They want to stamp it out as much as we do. That is why Croydon is spending £250,000 a year on anti-graffiti measures. Across London the figure is more than £10 million. The Government have made some headway on the problem in terms of antisocial behaviour measures, and the Greater London Authority is asking, in clause 18 of the London Local Authorities Bill, that under-18s should be prevented from buying aerosols or marker pens.

In Germany a new anti-graffiti law was brought forward in January to extend the powers against graffiti vandals and ensure that less evidence was needed to

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exercise them. In the United States it is already obligatory to lock up spray paint in shops and restrict its sale to adults. In Chicago, there is a complete ban on the sale of spray paints. I have written to the Home Secretary suggesting that we simply ban the production, sale and import of aerosol cans of paint.

Some people may lift their eyebrows at that proposal, but we are dealing with a balance of costs and benefits, and we must consider the reasons why people use the sprays. People who legitimately want to spray over a scratch on their car can use other means of applying the paint. Professional painters of cars have mechanisms other than cans at their disposal, which leaves only artists. Restrictions apply to guns and restrict their use to clubs. Perhaps artists should join clubs so that the items in question, which are used to destroy our environment, are kept under close guard. In my area a gentleman called Philip Ditton is running around the residents' associations trying to gain support for that idea, and I certainly think that it is worth while.

The least that we should do is impose very tight controls on the retail and manufacture of these devices, which are largely used by young people and are sold on the internet explicitly for the creation of mayhem and damage. The paints are also dangerous; many of them contain especially dangerous solvents, gas and resins. Some contain nitrocellulose and acrylic elements that bite into the painted surface to which they are applied.

Aerosol cans should be locked up in shops and kept away from children, and there should be local laws against their possession by children. The police should have greater powers to stop and search, so that they can deal with somebody who is walking along the road with aerosol cans clearly sticking out of his trouser pockets, while fresh graffiti has just appeared around the corner. When the police see such people, they should be able to demand that they turn out their pockets.

We could also introduce dry mineral cleaning equipment of the sort currently used in France, and there are some possibilities with anti-graffiti coatings—chemicals that are applied to signs and the like, and stop graffiti staying there and allow it to be wiped off. Also, as I said, there should be a more comprehensive tag database that the police can use to hunt down the perpetrators using the incentive of rewards.

Warrants for entry into property should also be available, and we should consider banning the advertisement of imported products, especially those coming from Spain and Germany, that are designed to be sprayed on walls and public spaces. They are mainly advertised on the internet. I wonder whether, if a ban were agreed to, some of the stuff coming through the post could be detected by X-rays and the like.

The private sector, too, has a duty to clean up its space. It is disgraceful that when people travel to London on the train, they pass massive areas of derelict railway land that has been completely vandalised and is covered in graffiti. It would be better if such places were covered in advertising, which would pay for itself, cover the areas and pay for some sort of clean-up. In general, there is an argument for the principle that the polluter pays. The manufacturers of aerosol paints should pay to repair the damage that misuse leads to.

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There is a lot to think about in all those proposals. Members of my local community are sick and tired of having to see signs of graffiti when they walk down the road. They are also aware that council tax is being used to eliminate some of the problems. Croydon council is doing a marvellous job in fighting back to clean up the streets, but more measures need to be taken.

We also have a problem with abandoned cars. It is largely created by second-hand cars that have a negative value, partly because the scrap steel is no longer worth anything. The Government gave local authorities greater powers to clear up abandoned cars after the Prime Minister made a speech in Croydon. We are now clearing up approximately 5,000 abandoned cars every year. Last month the figure was 450.

There is a peculiar mystery involving the hon. Members for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) and for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), who recently visited Croydon—without notifying me, of course. They appeared in the news beside a burnt-out abandoned car that had not been reported to the council. However, when the council went to remove it, it had already gone. There was some suspicion that the visiting Conservative dignitaries put it there. We are still looking into that rather strange matter.

Contrary to the impression that those Conservative Members gave in the local newspaper, Croydon is second to none in clearing up abandoned vehicles. As I said, last month we cleared up 450, compared with 350 in Tory Bromley and 160 in Liberal Democrat Sutton. We take the problem seriously, as does the local community. We are grateful for the Government's support and wish them well in giving us more powers to tackle that difficult problem.


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