Previous SectionIndexHome Page

15 Oct 2002 : Column 53WH—continued

15 Oct 2002 : Column 54WH

Option 5 Funding (Devon)

1 pm

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes): It is fitting that one of the first debates after the return of Parliament should highlight the unfair treatment of Devon schoolchildren in the educational funding that they receive from central Government. Mr. Deputy Speaker, I thank you for allowing the debate to take place.

The national average spending per pupil in England is £2,567, but a school child in Devon receives only £2,372, which represents a shortfall of £195 per pupil. Devon's 95,896 pupils are getting a raw deal, and the county is being deprived of £18 million per annum. If one multiplies £195 by 95,896, one gets a total of £18 million, so we are receiving £18 million less than the average county.

Last June, the Government issued a consultation paper on local government finance. Consultation on the document ended on 30 September. As part of the review, several options for change in education funding were proposed. The debate provides the opportunity to put the unfair and inequitable system of educational finance right once and for all.

The Government do not like discrimination, and neither do the Opposition. I do not like the postcode lottery in the health service or discrimination in education funding based on which county people live in. The current system for the funding of local education depends on a variety of factors. The Minister must excuse me if I am unclear on the matter—he may be an expert on it, but I am not. However, as I understand them, the factors are as follows: 26 per cent. relates to the number of pupils in schools within the local education authority area; 37 per cent. relates to the number of pupils in the catchment area; 10 per cent. relates to sparsity and reflects the added cost of school transport; and 27 per cent. is based on additional educational needs for deprived areas, which takes into account poor language skills and parents on income support.

The Government have proposed four options for the funding of education in the consultation paper. Regrettably, those options continue to discriminate against schools, pupils and teachers in Devon. Of the four options, only option 2 has a small financial advantage for Devon; the other three would make the funding gap considerably worse for Devon and would mean that the shortfall per pupil was even greater than £195. However, option 2 would result in £2 million of additional funding, which would translate to an additional £21 per annum per pupil. That would reduce the shortfall to £174—but there would still be a shortfall. The four options proposed by the Government still provide Devon with less money than the average county.

The consultation document introduces the concept of using the working families tax credit as a measure of deprivation. That is most welcome, as it recognises the effect of low pay on educational needs and the fact that the number of people on income support is not the only measure of financial deprivation in an area.

In conjunction with the F40 group of the lowest funded LEAs, I ask the Minister to consider a fifth option, which could be an improved version of option 2,

15 Oct 2002 : Column 55WH

and would achieve a fair financial settlement for Devon schoolchildren. The Government claim to be spending more money than ever on education since they came to power. Fine. Well done. I am all for it. However, option 5 would provide a more equitable funding system by shifting from the additional educational needs criteria towards a basic allowance per pupil. For those who say that that would be unfair, especially as the additional educational needs criteria deal with those who are more vulnerable, I would point out that there are real problems with the criteria.

An independent study by PricewaterhouseCoopers shows that the average funding given to a school to support a child with additional educational needs is £1,150. However, some £550 of that can be provided through what is called unmet needs, which is neither defined nor subject to any scrutiny; it is simply a wish list that allows the local education authority to claim more money from the Government, whether the child needs it or not. That sounds like gobbledegook, and that is where the problem lies—the present criteria are gobbledegook. Additional educational needs funding should be made available entirely on a needs basis, set out and scrutinised by the Government. It should be excluded from the general education funding formula.

The consultation paper did not offer any solution or mention the problems of funding for school transport. Only 10 per cent. of the Government's block education grant is dedicated to that under the heading of sparsity. Yet Devon has more roads than Belgium, and less public transport than almost any other county. It spends over £16 million a year of its education budget on transportation to and from school. If it did not do that it would contravene the Education Act twice—first by not getting the children to their schools and secondly by not providing full-time education. The matter has been festering since 1944.

Option 5, backed by the F40 campaign, has the support of Devon's parents, governors, teachers and teaching union representatives and councillors, over 200 Members of Parliament and all Devon MPs, whatever their political affiliation. My postbag has been overflowing for the past few weeks with hundreds of letters from concerned parties, who are desperate for a change in what they recognise to be a totally unfair system. In July, a delegation of teachers and parents, led by the admirable Helen Nicholls, head teacher of South Brent primary school in my constituency, presented a 60,000-name petition to the Prime Minister, when he accidentally came out of the door of No. 10.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman intends to mention the fact that it took less than a week to get those 60,000 names. Had we had slightly longer, the number would have doubled.

Mr. Steen : Well, we can put that right. If the Government feel that it would be helpful, I am sure that we can oblige. Miss Nicholls gained the Prime Minister's attention and he listened carefully to her explanation of the fact that the system of funding penalises Devon's children. The Government, like others, listen carefully; we hope that that listening will yield some productive and constructive results.

15 Oct 2002 : Column 56WH

There are 95,896 pupils in primary and secondary schools in Devon. An increase of £195 per pupil, bringing them up to the national average, would result in a net increase of just over £18.5 million a year to the education budget. The practical difference that option 5 would make would be in the provision of funding to cover the immense burden faced by Devon in transporting pupils from home to school—some £16 million. For an average secondary school in Devon, that would mean an extra £250,000 that could be translated into 16 classroom assistants or eight teachers. That would be a godsend for Stephen Jones, the head teacher of King Edward VI community college—KEVICC—in Totnes, who is beside himself with concern as to how he will manage under the present financial arrangements. For an average primary school of around 200 pupils, with six or seven teachers, it would mean an increase of around £40,000 per annum. That money would pay for an extra teacher or two classroom assistants, dramatically reducing the pressure on the existing teachers. Dartington Church of England primary school has almost double the average number of students in Devon. Its head teacher, Annie Tempest, would be over the moon if extra money were to come her way each year.

In Devon, as I believe that the Minister knows, standard attainment test results in both primary and secondary schools, as well as GCSE results, are consistently higher than the national average. That is thanks to the dedication of the teachers and the quality of the students. I should also mention the outstanding contribution of that talented county councillor, John Hart, who, as executive portfolio holder for education, has put education above politics. All schools in Devon follow a national curriculum and national targets for pupil attainments. They work hard to meet national political expectations, employ staff on national pay scales and purchase additional resources from national educational companies, but Devon does not receive equal national funding. An increase in funding to the average level per pupil in England through option 5 would ensure that Devon schools could build on the excellent standards that they have achieved and make rapid progress. Conservative Members believe in excellence—in the highest common denominator—not in trying to level downwards to the lowest common denominator.

In a House of Commons debate on 26 April 1999, the present Secretary of State rightly stated that this Government are committed to fair funding for all schools and to a process of phasing out unfair funding. That is just what we wanted to hear, and no doubt the review will give her the opportunity to put things right.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Edward O'Hara) : Before we proceed, several hon. Members have made arrangements with the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) and with the Minister to make contributions. It may help them to gauge the length of their contributions if I say that it is desirable that the Minister be called to speak not later than 1.22 pm.

1.11 pm

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on the case that he made on behalf of Devon schools, which I completely endorse.

15 Oct 2002 : Column 57WH

I want to pick up a couple of points. First, my hon. Friend rightly spelt out the critical situation of the Devon local education authorities in having to provide for school transport in a large rural county. A letter from the Department in August, in response to a chairman of governors in my constituency, stated:

I do not think anyone would disagree with that statement, but if one of the criteria for determining affluence and poverty is to be car ownership, I should tell the Minister that although car ownership in Tiverton and Honiton—my very rural and not very wealthy part of Devon—is one of the highest in the country, the two and three-car families mostly own old bangers, not new Mercedes, and so on. I hope that the Minister will analyse carefully the rather rigid criteria that determine affluence and poverty.

Secondly, there are schools with genuine problems that the Minister's Department would not determine as being in areas of poverty. Earlier in the year, I wrote to him about one such school, Uffculme, a school for 11-to-16 year olds, saying that it could not meet its statutory requirements now, never mind under the proposals for changes in the formula, but the Minister declined to meet my local education authority, the school and me. I raised the matter in the summer Adjournment debate and I hope that the Minister will reconsider my request, not least out of courtesy to a Member of Parliament. If good schools in areas not deemed to be of known poverty fail to meet their statutory requirements—we are not talking about a sink school, but about an excellent school—I hope that the Minister will take into account the difficulties they are suffering.

1.13 pm

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon): I shall limit my brief remarks to the issue of village schools, of which there are many scattered throughout the county of Devon. I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Totnes (Mr. Steen) and for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) on the points that they made.

I know the Minister to be a reasonable man who is probably very sympathetic to the cases being made today; however, it is not the Minister's Department but the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister that will decide on the new funding formula and I hope that the Minister will put our comments robustly to the Deputy Prime Minister.

By and large, educating children in small village schools in Devon is a success story, but the cost of so doing is significantly higher than educating children in urban areas. The cost of school transport has already been covered excellently by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes. The cost of maintaining old buildings is a serious issue and the cost of providing many local services—people have to travel large distances—can also be higher, yet the quality of education that many of Devon's primary school pupils receive is of the highest level. Our village schools produce not just excellent standards but young citizens who have a responsible,

15 Oct 2002 : Column 58WH

informed approach to society, most of whom will go on to become responsible adults and play an active role in this country.

Village schools hold local communities together. They are what parents want, and their existence is vital in maintaining those communities. However, they cost more, not less. That the children of Devon receive £195 a head less to maintain their education than children in other areas creates a huge problem.

I was part of the delegation—I believe that all colleagues from Devon were there—that handed the petition to the Prime Minister, who listened carefully to the points that Helen Nicholls made to him. That was on 16 July and, as far as I was aware just a few days ago, no reply has been received from Downing street three months later. It is one thing to listen carefully to the points made by responsible senior head teachers from Devon, but it is a pity that Downing street, with all its resources, cannot even find the time to write a letter in response. I hope that that does not sum up the extent to which the Government are listening to the very real concerns of those who live in the countryside.

The countryside has suffered greatly in recent years, as the Minister knows. Farming is in crisis, and we are still trying to recover from the foot and mouth crisis in Devon. It will be another body blow if the fair funding formula is not a vehicle for putting right the shortfall in education funding for the children of Devon. The message to the Minister today is simple: stop the discrimination, give us fair funding, and give us option 5.

1.15 pm

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon): I shall keep my comments brief, but I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) for securing this debate so early. It is an extraordinarily important debate for all of us who represent constituencies in Devon. Since I have been a Member of this House—just over a year—I have never had so much correspondence on any other subject. I was part of that delegation on 16 July, and I heard the Prime Minister tell Helen Nicholls that he would study the situation carefully and get back to her. I suspect that all Members in the Chamber today overheard that, as did Alastair Campbell who was also there. He will therefore find it difficult to wriggle out of it.

As a fair man, I compare and contrast that lack of a response with a reply from the Minister, to whom I wrote on 30 September. He had the courtesy to reply to me by 6 October, for which I thank him. He gave some hope in that letter, saying that he was open to other ideas and that he would take on board our strong representations for option 5. I hope that that is the case, and that decisions have not already been made.

My constituency has one of the largest secondary colleges—Exmouth community college—in the country. It also has one of the best grammar schools—Colyton grammar school. Each school is affected by the new proposals in its own way, as are all the primary and secondary schools in the more rural areas. I have raised several times in the Chamber the question of rural sparsity and the incredibly high costs of transport in our part of the world. As we have heard, the bill is £17.5 million. In real terms, that means that more than 6 per

15 Oct 2002 : Column 59WH

cent. of our education budget is committed before a single child is taught. The Government currently provide £12.8 million towards that, which leaves a gap of £4.7 million. If the cost of school transport were fully funded centrally, that would mean an extra £50 for every pupil in Devon.

That is just one of the points that we seek to highlight. Other factors will be discussed later in this morning's debate. I earnestly hope that the Minister will take on board this cross-party alliance, which represents all primary and secondary school teachers in our part of the world. As David Birch, the principal of Sidmouth college, who now chairs the Devon Association of Secondary Headteachers said:

1.18 pm

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. David Miliband) : Many congratulations to the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on securing this debate so early. I am happy to engage with him, as I did with one of his colleagues at our meeting last week. I will address the specific issues of sparsity and transport that were raised about the development of the new funding formula, but I also want to present a broader picture.

I start by thanking the hon. Gentleman for his support for the Government's policy of increasing expenditure on schools. I hope that it will not bore him if I at least put that discussion into context by explaining the increased investment in education in Devon. I do not want to trespass into party political territory, but if the hon. Gentleman could also persuade some of his party's education spokesmen that increasing investment is a good idea, he would have not only my thanks but those of his constituents.

I was struck by the figures when they were produced for me. Since the local government reorganisation in 1998, Devon local education authority's expenditure has changed. Its standard spending assessment, which is the key part of local government spending, has increased by about £60 million over four years, which is about 25 per cent. Real-terms funding per pupil from that block has increased from £2,750 per pupil in 1998-99 to £3,220 this year, which is an increase of £470 or 17 per cent. Those figures are rather different from those that the hon. Gentleman gave. I hope that he will accept it if I ask my officials to write to him to explain the disparity so that we can proceed on the basis of similar figures.

Of course, the standard spending assessment is only part of the picture. The amount that Devon receives through the standards fund, which is a central allocation, has increased from £7.6 million in 1998 to more than £26.5 million this year. That money supports a range of features of school improvement.

Those moneys are not the only two categories of increased spending in Devon. Payments from the school standards grant, which is sometimes known as the Chancellor's grant, go directly to head teachers and are announced at the time of the Budget. The grant was introduced two years ago and more than doubled from £3.6 million in 2000-01 to more than £8 million this year. I know that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased by the

15 Oct 2002 : Column 60WH

Chancellor's announcement in the spending review that a typical 250-pupil primary school will receive more than £10,000 more next year due to the increase in the schools standards grant, which is a rise from £40,000 to £50,000. A typical 1,000-pupil secondary school will receive £50,000 more, which is a rise from £115,000 to £165,000. There is much greater investment in Devon's schools.

I know that the hon. Gentleman will be keen to have it on the record that capital investment in Devon, which reached the shameful level of only £13.1 million a year in 1997, was £26.6 million last year and is more than £45 million this year. That includes a private finance initiative project—

Mr. Burnett : We are interested in the present and the future rather than the past.

Mr. Miliband : I understand that and I promise the hon. Gentleman that I shall respond to the points that were made. It is worth putting on the record that the rising spend is being given to every LEA throughout the country. We are discussing how that should be distributed—the spend has gone to Devon.

The main focus of the debate is the local government finance review. Hon. Members know that it is easier and more popular for a Government to announce a review than to announce a review's conclusions because a review gives hope throughout the country but its conclusions do not necessarily meet all expectations.

It is fair to point out that there are strong passions about the local government review throughout the country. The so-called F40 group has circulated many petitions, as have groups in other parts of the country that hold equally strong views. I am meeting representatives of each group and I met the F40 group on 25 September—a head teacher was present although I am not sure whether she was Ms Nicholls. There was a constructive exchange of views and I made it clear that the Government have not made decisions about the final outcome of the local government funding review and that we are listening seriously to consultation.

As the hon. Member for Totnes said, education is only part of the scene. There are four education options but I confirm that they were there for discussion and not simply for choice. We are happy to take representations on other options and I shall address his description of option 5 later.

We would all agree that the current system has problems—the hon. Gentleman said that that dated back to 1944. I hope that we can all agree that we want a fairer and clearer system that is based on clear elements.

Mr. Steen : Before the Minister moves on to the future, may I get his agreement because my figures were somewhat adrift from his? Does he accept that as things stand there is a difference of £195 per pupil between Devon and the average county? Can we at least get that clear?

Mr. Miliband : Those figures are not in my notes. I think that the figures to which the hon. Gentleman referred represent average spend across the primary and secondary sectors relating to other counties. It would not be wise for me to say that I recognise the figures

15 Oct 2002 : Column 61WH

when I have not seen them. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman to clarify what we are discussing. It is clear that Devon's funding is not above average.

A formula for the future that will command confidence and respect will include a basic entitlement, and will recognise additional educational needs—the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) referred to poverty-related indicators—and the extra costs of running the education system in some parts of the country, including Devon.

The Department for Education and Skills has guaranteed that there will be no real-terms losses as a result of the process. Floors in the system will ensure a real-terms guarantee for LEAs. That is important. The consultation process began on 8 July, just after the presentation of the petition, and closed on 30 September. The options discussed today centre on deprivation and area costs.

I do not wish to breach confidentiality so I cannot announce the outcome of the review today, but let me give the Chamber some idea of the direction of our thinking. We are not limited by the options set out in the consultation paper, but we want to achieve a fairer match between needs—a word used by at least two, possibly three, Opposition Members—and spending. That is not the same as saying that we should set an artificial target for the funding gap between authorities. The F40 campaign's option 5, which is not a distinct option but asks for more of one option and less of another, adds up to taking money from the deprivation element of the formula and putting it into the basic entitlement. That obviously has significant implications for other authorities around the country, but we take seriously the case for a higher basic entitlement. However, Devon will benefit from some of the extra money allocated for additional educational needs.

I appreciate that some areas, such as Devon, have substantial areas of sparse population. That is why we propose that the new formula should contain a sparsity element to reflect the costs of home-to-school transport in rural areas and to help rural primary schools. Let me explain this carefully because the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) raised the subject previously.

Authorities with sparse populations want us to introduce a sparsity factor for secondary schools, too. We have examined the issue in some detail, but we found no evidence of a connection between secondary school size and sparsity. Small schools are as likely to be found in densely populated metropolitan authorities as in shires, such as Devon, but we recognise that secondary

15 Oct 2002 : Column 62WH

school pupils often have to travel further to get to schools in authorities with sparse populations. That is why we examined the transport expenditure of each LEA to assess the impact of sparsity. We estimate that, in the new formula, 60 per cent. of the transport element of the LEA block will be distributed through the sparsity index and 40 per cent. according to the number of pupils living in the authority.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): Option 5 is supported by many counties, not just Derbyshire. I know that the Minister has received many representations, and he has told us today that he will consider all of them, but the tight timetable for implementation is causing concern. What consultation period will there be after the Government have put forward their final option, or will it be a matter of take it or leave it?

Mr. Miliband : I give way to the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon.

Mr. Burnett : Will the Minister confirm that the Government intend to provide in the formula for primary and secondary school transport?

Mr. Miliband : The consultation on the Government's final proposals will proceed in the usual way for a local government finance settlement in late November, early December. The transport indicator in the LEA block relates to both primary and secondary schools, but the schools block covers only the primary sector.

Finally, on the definition of deprivation, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton referred to the number of cars in a household. I do not know where she got that idea. We made it clear in the consultation paper that there are two options for measuring deprivation. The traditional income support measure includes people on incapacity benefit, so it is a measure of non-employment that targets a particular group of families. However, we flagged up in the consultation paper that we also want to recognise those children who live in working families on low wages. That is an issue in places such as Devon where many rural workers are on low wages. We take that seriously and want to recognise need in a proper not an arbitrary way.

To conclude, this has been a useful debate. I take seriously the points that have been made. However, I reiterate that spend is rising in all LEAs throughout the country. I hope that the Opposition will support us in that.

15 Oct 2002 : Column 61WH

15 Oct 2002 : Column 63WH

Crime (North Wales)

1.30 pm

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd): I shall split my speech into two parts. First, I shall briefly describe my experience on the parliamentary police placement scheme, which I am currently on. Secondly, I shall focus on the crime and disorder partnerships in Denbighshire, which are not working.

Earlier this year, colleagues and I formed a Labour group of north Wales Members of Parliament. The three issues on which we are concentrating are crime, attracting quality jobs to north Wales and improvements to the North Wales railway line. I took up the issue of crime in north Wales as a member of that group.

I am taking part in the parliamentary police placement scheme. The scheme lasts for 25 days, of which I have so far done 18. I have visited dog handlers and the North Wales police helicopter crew, which works with the health service and has saved hundreds of lives since it began. I have worked with the armed response unit and I have been on the firing range at Rhewl in Denbighshire, which is the eighth best in the world. The North Wales police force is very proactive and uses the range to create income for Denbighshire. Indeed, it is doing great things in Ireland and it has got the RUC and the Gardai using the firing range, so it is doing its bit for the peace process. I have also visited the police driving school in Colwyn Bay, in north Wales, which is one of the best in the country. It offers a rolling programme of three-week driving instruction courses for 900 officers, which will make the force's drivers the safest in the UK.

I have spent three days on the beat in Rhyl, in my constituency, three days on the beat in Llandudno, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams), and one day on the Maesgeirchen council estate in Conwy. I have been very impressed by the dedication and commitment of the police officers that I have been with over the past five or six months. Perhaps I was deliberately placed with positive people, but I can honestly say, hand on heart, that I have not met one jaded police officer. In our consultations on issues such as "Justice for All", such police officers will act as a valuable source of information, ensuring that we achieve best practice and tilt the scales of justice away from the criminal and towards the victim.

My experience has helped me as a constituency MP, and I have visited some excellent schemes. The youth offending team in Wrexham is one of the best in Wales. Mobile CCTV cameras can be strapped to a lamppost centre wherever there is a problem in Conwy town, and images can be relayed to police headquarters. They can also be used around the whole of Conwy county. Although the traditional location for CCTV is in the high street, where it is used to look after property, I have also seen it installed on council estates such as the Maesgeirchen estate in Bangor, where crime levels have dropped as a result. There is only one road in, so the police know when a drug dealer comes in and they can identify him.

I have also been impressed by the Conwy houses in multiple occupation team, which takes a joint approach to fighting the problems presented by HMOs, involving

15 Oct 2002 : Column 64WH

not only environmental health officers but fire officers, the police, welfare rights units, social services and education. The whole team is involved, and landlords who do not perform properly or who short-change the county and their tenants will be made to pay, because the team will go through their affairs with a fine-toothed comb.

I believe that my experience will help me in parliamentary debate, which is one of the prime purposes of the scheme. Forty colleagues have been on the parliamentary police placement scheme, including my hon. Friend the Member for Conwy. Perhaps the best thing that I witnessed on the scheme was the Aquarius project, which is run by North Wales police. It is cutting edge stuff. There are 43 police authorities in the UK, and North Wales police are probably No. 1 at using technology and record management systems. They are piloting a Canadian model in north Wales, which I hope will be rolled out throughout the country when it proves successful. That is a Welsh solution to a Welsh problem, and a UK one.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): I am sure it is a very worthy scheme, but while the hon. Gentleman was on that scheme was it explained to him why the number of specials in north Wales has declined from 388 to just 125, or why violent crime in north Wales has increased by 36 per cent. while detection rates have dropped to 28 per cent.?

Chris Ruane : I am aware of that fact, and I share the hon. Gentleman's concern. That is a snapshot perhaps of the whole of Wales, but in certain parts of Wales—again I refer to Llandudno—there are specials who have been there for 11 years. I was out on a Saturday night at two o'clock in the morning with a special who had been there for 11 years. In areas such as Rhyl—my home town—the number of specials is just one or two. It is a patchwork across north Wales.

On the issue of crime detection and combating crime, I believe the following to be the solution. Within any police authority there are 26 separate silos of information. The Aquarius project will allow the computer to go through those silos and pick out all the relevant information on one household, individual or whatever, and convey that information to the palmtop computer of a police officer going to an incident. It can give a picture of that person. If the officer asks a person who he is, and he says John Jones, or whatever, and gives his name and address, the officer can say, "No you're not—that's John Jones." It is a fantastic system, which will cut down dramatically on bureaucracy. Police officers spend 43 per cent. of their time in the police station. Officers can do reports on their palmtops, which can be sent off to the 17 different points to which they need to be sent. That is a fantastic tool. I urge my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Wales to come to north Wales and judge that fantastic project for himself.

The next part of my speech concentrates on crime and disorder and it is not a positive tale. I have not got a positive story to tell on crime and disorder partnerships in my constituency in Denbighshire. The partnership is not effective, and it is having a devastating effect on my constituents, especially those in social housing. I would like to give some graphic details of how ordinary people

15 Oct 2002 : Column 65WH

are terrorised in their own homes, and left without any help or support. I give you the example of a young single mother in my constituency with a nine-year-old daughter, who lived in fear and terror of a local gang who victimised her. They actually urinated over her daughter. The woman went to the council for help, and it told her that she would have to stand up and be counted, go to court and get those people prosecuted. That council is not living in the real world.

I give another example. A family with children aged from five to 13 terrorised a whole street. Their activities went unchecked for two to three years. They drove out an elderly couple who had lived on that estate for 50 years. The house became vacant and the housing association bought it. It put in a single mother with an eleven-year-old son fleeing domestic violence. The antisocial family said that they were going to kill the 11-year-old son. She turned to the council for help. It said that she should stand up and be counted and go to court.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside): My hon. Friend has rightly raised antisocial behaviour as a crime, and a very serious one, which blights many of our communities. In my constituency there is a meeting in Sealand tonight to discuss what is happening at St. Andrew's church. That church is being targeted by young vandals, who are not only destroying the church but attacking the people who visit it, and putting them in a terrible state. We have antisocial behaviour orders. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should use them more than we are at the moment?

Chris Ruane : I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I will come on to the issue of antisocial behaviour orders in a moment.

After her 11-year-old son's life was threatened, the young mother left the house immediately. She had spent £1,500 on fixtures and fittings in her house, but she left it and had to go back to a violent relationship. She went to the council and asked it to rehouse her. It told her that there was nothing immediately available, and she had to wait for nine months before she was rehoused. When a council house in my constituency becomes empty, the council is prepared to spend vast sums of money on boarding up the house with steel frames, repairing the smashed porcelain and replacing the systems that have been taken out. According to figures supplied to me this morning, it spends £40,000 a year on one estate, on boarding up and repairing houses and on lost rents. I would say that that sum, for that one estate, would be better spent employing two or three dedicated officers with the job of combating crime. That £40,000 is a year-on-year cost, which, I believe, will escalate.

Figures supplied by the local county council this morning are inaccurate. They tell me that an average of four houses are boarded up on that estate, but there were 16 in June, and eight at 11.30 am today when I sent a councillor round to investigate. I am currently making inquiries about something that I have been told—that houses have been repaired and that young hooligans have then gone in and re-trashed them. That has happened on five occasions, and police were informed only on the fourth. That is not partnership in Denbighshire.

I have suggested to the council that if it knows that a council house is becoming empty, it should work around the current tenant and hand over the keys on the day on

15 Oct 2002 : Column 66WH

which the tenant moves out. If major work is needed, it should have workmen in there, working through the night if necessary and, again, hand the keys over. For the 2,000 people on the council house waiting list who are desperate for homes, that seems a sensible measure to cut down vandalism and the cost of repair, and to re-invest in the community.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the major concerns in north Wales is the absence of police at night on the streets where rowdy behaviour and vandalism occur? I am thinking in particular of areas in Llandudno, Llandudno Junction, Conwy, Penmaenmawr and Llanfairfechan, which I know my hon. Friend has visited.

Chris Ruane : Absolutely. Police numbers are important, but I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the fact that in 1997 there were 1,300 officers in the North Wales police; there are now 1,500. We must ensure that the extra officers going in are frontline officers. I refer again to the Aquarius project, which I believe will help to achieve that.

Mr. Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South): Does my hon. Friend agree that the money that councils such as Wrexham spend on youth offending teams to nip such behaviour by young people in the bud is much better spent than the money that he has described as being used for boarding up houses and so on?

Chris Ruane : Absolutely. I referred earlier to the excellent example of the youth offending team in Wrexham. That is a more positive, proactive measure and it saves money and, more importantly, communities.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Will the hon. Gentleman be interested, as I will be, to hear what the Minister has to say about how the causes of crime are being addressed? Much of what he says is about enforcement, but enforcement will cure only symptoms, not causes.

Chris Ruane : Yes. That is my point. It is no good sending police officers to those estates to chase young criminals round. The answer is a co-operative partnership approach involving the social services, education, housing, the police, the local community, the MP and the Welsh Assembly Member. The problem must be looked at in the round. I shall give a graphic example in a moment of how that has failed in my constituency.

I suggested four years ago that such a measure should take place—that houses should be repaired straight away to cut down on antisocial behaviour. The county council never took up the suggestion. It has a range of weapons in its armoury to combat antisocial behaviour. It can use strong tenancy agreements, rigorously implemented. There has been, I think, only one eviction due to antisocial behaviour in my constituency. Evictions should not simply take place in the first instance. We should give help and support to those vulnerable families, but if that fails, fails and fails again, eviction should be considered. I do not think that it has been used as a powerful weapon. Antisocial behaviour

15 Oct 2002 : Column 67WH

contracts and antisocial behaviour orders could be used. Not one single antisocial behaviour order has been used in my constituency.

I have highlighted the financial cost to the council, but a greater human cost is borne by people who live on the estates and watch their communities being torn apart through inaction. That inaction helps to breed current and future crime by failing to tackle boarded-up houses and burning houses and cars. The council is creating mini-adventure playgrounds within those estates, where kids—from five-year-olds to 15-year-olds—are able to get away with crime. With each burning, young children become emboldened, learn the tricks of the trade from older children and become toughened for a life of crime.

Two years ago, a serious incident occurred in the north of the county in which a police officer was hospitalised after she was set upon by young thugs. I called a meeting, and the county council responded positively. It was represented at the meeting, along with senior officers, and £20,000 was thrown into the pot to tackle the problem. A working group was set up, which met every three months and at which action minutes were taken and reported back on—I attended the last meeting in January—and local councillors thought that we were going forward. Then, in March this year, a letter was sent from the chief executive's department stating that because the initiative had been so successful and crime on the estate had fallen, the council had decided to end the partnership. That is not an example of a working partnership; there was no consultation with people involved in the group. Consequently, in June this year a house and two cars were set alight—not on the outskirts, but in the middle of the estate, so that black, swirling smoke circulated around it. What sort of message does that send out to that community? It says, "We don't care that you are by yourselves; as long as you are paying your rent, we're happy." That can no longer be tolerated.

The view that the partnership in Denbighshire is not working is shared not only by me and the majority of my constituents but by the Home Office. The Minister will be aware that the west ward of Rhyl is one of the five wards in the UK that has become a designated policing priority area. The main theme of the report on the policing priority area was that better partnership is needed, with commitment from the top and sufficient resources and staffing. Partnerships, especially at community level, must be supported—training and secretarial help is required. That is not happening, and some members of the local crime and disorder partnerships are tearing their hair out because of the lack of progress. When I contacted the police standards unit yesterday, I was told that meetings held with the Minister responsible for the police included senior representation from Denbighshire county council and the police. That was not the case when workshops on the nitty-gritty of the partnerships were held. Senior police officers attended, but council officials did not. Commitment is needed both at the strategic and the working levels. Three weeks ago, the police and the county council agreed to a joint operation to crack down on late night fast food outlets in Rhyl, where there is a great deal of associated violence, but on Thursday it was called off unilaterally by the council. That is not participation.

15 Oct 2002 : Column 68WH

Modern crime strategies look to sport to create positive diversionary activities for young people. I am conducting surveys across my constituency, on council estates and beyond, and those communities are crying out for sports facilities so that youth can be diverted into positive activities away from a life of crime. I shall give an example from my county. For two years, I participated in a sports partnership to develop a £4.5 million bid for much-needed sporting facilities in Rhyl, the largest town in my constituency. We worked away, drew up outline plans and garnered facts and figures. In the middle of the summer recess of 2001, we received a letter saying that the bid had been cancelled because it did not have the county council's support—despite the fact that it would look after young people right next to the poorest ward in Wales. The council unilaterally pulled the plug on the first phase, and a £1.5 million lottery application was ended without any consultation with the partners. A similar story can be told in Prestatyn, where a tennis courts complex was lost to a neighbouring town.

Denbighshire council often claims that it does not have the finances for those initiatives, but £600,000 of "communities first" money set aside in Cardiff for the west and south-west wards of Rhyl has remained unclaimed for the past year. Those communities are crying out for that money to be used through crime and disorder partnerships to create sports facilities, but it has not been claimed. Rhyl West is the poorest of the 865 council wards in Wales, but it has not received one penny piece of the money because the council has not drawn it down. The situation is so serious that the Assembly Member for the Vale of Clwyd, Ann Jones, has raised the matter with the Minister for Finance, Local Government and Communities, Edwina Hart, who has had to intervene in the matter.

I have raised a local issue from a local perspective to show that crime and disorder partnerships are not working, and I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to ensure that they are properly monitored. Currently, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary looks at the input of the police while the district auditor looks at the input of the county council or local authority; they do not use common timetables, standards or formats. I ask him to take the issue back to the Home Office and the National Assembly for Wales in order for one team using a common format to look at crime and disorder partnerships in the round. That team's report should be readily understood by the public to allow them to identify which partnerships are working and which are not both in their local authority and between local authorities. If partnerships are not working, the public can then get involved in the democratic process and put pressure on the Assembly Member, the council, the police and me.

I invite my hon. Friend the Minister to visit North Wales to look at the Aquarius project and talk to people on estates in my county and constituency to find out how they feel about crime and disorder.

1.51 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) on securing the debate. The issue is important and it is good that it has been aired this afternoon.

15 Oct 2002 : Column 69WH

At the outset of my remarks, it is important to make it clear that recorded crime in Wales is down by 16.4 per cent. since 1997. Although we can congratulate ourselves on that, there is no reason to be complacent. The Government will not be complacent because we are determined to reduce both crime and the fear of crime. I am sure that my hon. Friend recognises that the fear of crime is often a great problem, particularly among older people, and we have to be careful about the perceptions that we create. I recently took part in a BBC programme, which produced a poll that showed that 20 per cent. of people over the age of 55 were afraid to go out after dark. The fact that 80 per cent. of such people—four out of five—were not afraid was lost. The perception created by the discussion was that people over 55 were afraid to go out after dark.

Research consistently shows that a sensible approach using a variety of crime reduction methods is the most effective way in which to improve our communities. I know from my constituency experience that partnerships between the community, the police, the local authority and others are the most effective way of building more stable communities, reducing crime and engaging young people who are perhaps involved in criminal activities. Too often, there is a problem on a particular estate because kids are gathering and causing grief, nuisance and upset to local people, and along come the police who move them from one end of the village to the other. That does not cure the problem. The only way in which we are going to tackle it is to engage with young people by giving them ownership and finding solutions with them.

Police officers must, of course, be on the beat, and I take my hon. Friend's point that that is very important. Police numbers are now at a record high in Wales, with 7,193 officers, and, as he pointed out, North Wales in particular has had extra officers. We must ensure, however, that those officers are actually out on the beat. The planned introduction of 1,000 community support officers will help to raise the police's profile. Chief constables now have the power to accredit organisations' employees in the same way as community support officers in order to raise the visibility of policing. The use of civilians in police stations will also be of benefit because that will hopefully allow more officers to go out on the beat.

My hon. Friend made a number of points about the good practices and technologies that are being used in the Aquarius project in north Wales, but we must not get away from the fact that too much of police officers' time is spent on paperwork. The recent study "Diary of a police officer" clearly demonstrated that too much time was spent on paperwork and not enough out on the beat.

I welcome the point that my hon. Friend made about the introduction of information technology and palm computers. I know how successful palm computers have been, and I would be pleased to go up to north Wales at his invitation to see them, and also to talk about the crime reduction partnerships that cause him concern in Denbighshire. I am delighted that North Wales police are at the vanguard of investing in a general packet radio spectrum link, which means that information can be transferred from existing mobile communication systems four times faster than at present. Clearly, that is the sort of benefit that investment in new technology will bring.

15 Oct 2002 : Column 70WH

Since the introduction of the crime reduction programme for England and Wales in 1999, £22 million has gone into crime and disorder reduction partnerships in Wales. The investment is important, but we must see outcomes if we are to make progress. I am aware that many such partnerships work well, but if there are difficulties in the one to which my hon. Friend referred, I will ensure that his comments are brought to the attention of my colleagues in the Home Office. Again, I accept his invitation to go to north Wales to discuss the matter with him.

The first set of statutory local crime and disorder reduction strategies have been reviewed, and new strategies will be put in place for 2005. Several other initiatives such as CCTV, neighbourhood watch schemes and anti-domestic violence projects also contribute to reducing crime and building more stable communities. Some £2.8 million will go into partnerships this year in the communities against drugs programme. In my hon. Friend's area, as in mine, there are no doubt serious problems with drug misuse, and we have to put in serious resources to tackle them.

Good partnerships have been funded in Ynys Môn, and £30,000 went towards a shopwatch scheme in Holyhead and Llangefni. Total bids submitted by Wales for the second round of funding under the scheme are around £772,000. The bids have been put in, and money will be forthcoming as we develop the schemes. We await further announcements on them.

It is also important that we consider some of the causes of anti-social behaviour and crime in our communities. Drug and alcohol misuse is a major factor. I have seen that in my constituency, as I am sure that my hon. Friend has in his. To tackle that, we need to work through strategies with agencies, the voluntary sector, local authorities and the police. I am pleased that the Wrexham community safety partnership has impressively led the way in Wales through its use of anti-social behaviour orders. The powers exist to impose ASBOs so ASBOs should be used, and far more frequently than at present.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham): Will the Minister also commend the initiative taken by the Communities First group in Wrexham? It works to involve young people who are not involved in crime in the planning of youth facilities in difficult areas in the town. The idea is to ensure that young people do not slip into crime, by providing adequate facilities for them to use before they become involved in it.

Mr. Touhig : My hon. Friend makes an important point. All too often, we on the outside in government, the police or local authorities tend to think that we have to impose solutions on communities. We need to consider ideas from the communities themselves, so that they have ownership of the projects. That can provide much greater benefits, as I am sure he will agree.

Partnerships work well in sharing best practice in many parts of the country. It is important that we build on those good practices. Acceptable behaviour contracts can often be issued. They are a last chance before ASBOs, and sometimes they do the trick. They are another tool in the armoury of partnerships to tackle antisocial behaviour. Denbighshire local council has

15 Oct 2002 : Column 71WH

drawn up about 15 such contracts, as I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) is aware. Their effectiveness will depend on the response from the wider community in support of the efforts of the police and partnerships.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): When the Minister goes to north Wales, will he ask the chief constable, Richard Brunstrom, why he seems so intent on magnifying the number of speed cameras in north Wales? The Minister has rightly talked about the anti-social problems of violence, damage and muggings. Why is there not a huge concentration on that? Why has there been such a decline in detection rates in north Wales?

Mr. Touhig : The police have made considerable effort in north Wales, but I take the point. [Interruption.] As one of my colleagues has just said, speed kills. It is

15 Oct 2002 : Column 72WH

important that we get that message across to those who have campaigned about speed cameras. Speed reduction in urban areas saves lives.

I have also been pleased about the on-the-spot fines that have been introduced in north Wales. The fines of £40 and £80 are working effectively, and are getting the right message across. I am aware of the project in the west ward of Rhyl to which my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd referred. It has been greatly beneficial, and I would like to see it continue. It has widespread local support.

Many good initiatives have taken place in north Wales. We have to ensure that the partnership that we have put in place is properly reviewed and kept under scrutiny, and that it works effectively. If there are deficiencies such as those that my hon. Friend pointed out, we must get together to overcome them and put them right.

Question put and agreed to.

 IndexHome Page