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Mr. Betts: My hon. Friend agrees with that. However, I sat in amazement when a constituent described what happened one evening when he was sitting watching television. He lives in a flat in a relatively small block. At the back, a verandah runs along from one flat to the next, which is probably a slight design fault. As he sat there, someone burst in through his back door, breaking the lock, and ran past him as he watched television, pursued by two or three other people. He went to the housing department and to the police, and after the police had made inquiries, they advised him not to lock his back door because they thought that it would get broken down anyway when these people came back. All that he could do was accept that. He did so, and one night afterwards, they came back on three occasions.
The problem was that the intruderthe boyfriend of the next-door tenantwas involved in taking drugs. He owed the drug dealers money and they pursued him. I obviously complained to the housing department and the police, and wanted to know what was going on. The housing officers invited me to walk round the estate with them and have a look. Before that happened, there had been a shooting on the estatepossibly connected to the other incidentsand a rent strike had been threatened. It became clear to me that the problems there were on a much wider scale.
I decided to go there with the housing officers and to make it a public event, so we invited the press along and took the local chief inspector and the area housing manager. We also met people from the tenants and residents associations. Fifty-odd people turned up, and many of them said to me, "We don't want to leave the estate, but we know who we want to leave. There's a handful of people causing mayhem and disruption." When we went round, we saw tenants living in properties that were boarded upnot as empty properties but to protect those living inside. That is completely unacceptable.
We quickly set up a taskforce. The police got involved again, along with the housing officers and the local tenants and residents associations. Sheffield's long tradition of good-quality tenants and residents associations dates back to the 1970s. It was strengthened by the changes that we made in the 1980s to establish them as part of the consultation arrangements. We now have increased police presence in the area and we are starting eviction processes. A clean-up is going on, security measures have been put in place, and a general attempt is being made to improve the estate and to make the environment better for people to live in.
When I talked to people on the estate, I was told that it was not the whole estate that was the problemit is a 1970s estate, but it is in quite a nice environmentbut pockets where certain individuals lived, and it was those individuals who were causing mayhem. An old lady said to me, "Why should I have to move, Mr. Betts? I've lived here for 20 years and I know my neighbours. By and large, we are happy, but our lives have been blighted."
We need a better, quicker and more effective eviction process. I therefore very much welcome the consultation document that the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions has issued on tackling antisocial tenants. It is an excellent document, and we shall look at some of its proposals with interest and give them our support. In particular, I welcome the proposals to speed up eviction procedures by giving local authorities the power to establish inquiries and investigationsyes, there would be a right of appealbefore taking issues to court. The courts would be assured that the local authorities had pursued the right procedures, which would mean that the whole case would not have to be conducted in court.
I do not know whether those measures would be introduced for all tenanciesI understand that they currently apply to introductory tenanciesor whether they would be used as a first stage in the process of dealing with antisocial problems, by saying to people, "We have put you on a different status of tenancy and we can now evict you without having to have the case heard in court. We can speed up the procedures and deal with them internally." That might be a way forward, but, one way or another, I and many others will welcome the introduction of a speeded-up process of eviction in cases of substantial antisocial behaviour.
We need not only speed but certainty in the process. We need to protect witnesses who are simply too frightened to come forward. People who experience substantial harassment from their neighbours that often involves threats of violence are often the last people in the world who can face going to court and giving formal evidence. We must find ways round that, and the consultation document is excellent in that respect. We should support the proposals that it contains, and I look forward to their implementation as soon as the consultation period is complete.
I make no apology for talking about taking action against people involved in antisocial behaviour, because I feel really strongly for those on the receiving end. Of course, people must have rights, and spurious complaints are sometimes made about people. Sometimes, a dispute between two neighbours is simply six of one and half a dozen of the other.
I am amazed that people take so long to come to me and wonder how they have put up with things for so long. It is those peopleoften elderly, often vulnerablewhom we have a duty to protect. The procedures must be robust; the courts must be sure that the revised procedure has been followed properly, and there will be a right to judicial review. I believe that the process is correct and must be put in place as soon as possible.
Of course, we must consider measures of prevention. If mediation is appropriate, let us offer it. We should look more carefully at lettings policies; we must make sure that we do not put a young person straight out of care, with relatively few social skills, who might be noisy and a bit
I welcome the changes to the letting system, such as the choice-based experiment taking place in my constituency. We must make sure that the points system is fair and equitable, and does not discriminate against tenants who have a good record but find it impossible to move because they can never get the number of points that will allow them choice in their housing.
Antisocial behaviour problems do not apply simply to the tenants of local authorities, registered social landlords or owner-occupiers. The private sector has its own difficulties, and I welcome the proposals to license certain private sector landlords. I wonder whether we should go further and make landlords of all kinds responsible for dealing with antisocial behaviour and giving individuals the right to sue landlords who do not fulfil that duty properly. That would be a wider power. I understand that the common law means that cases that have been taken to court have generally been lost.
The group of tenants and residents that I met on the Westfield estate said that they strongly supported the idea of neighbourhood wardens and wanted them in the area. I was surprised because I have in the past been sceptical of neighbourhood wardens. I have my reservations; I do not want to them to take on the job of the police, pushing the police out and being used as an excuse for having fewer police officers. However, the local chief inspector said that that was not the case and that, because we are getting extra police officers in Sheffield and south Yorkshire, wardens are seen not as a replacement but as an additionas complementary. He said that he would welcome them in the area and would like to work with them.
We tend to expect too much of the police. When I go to public meetings with the police, constituents say to them, "Our big complaint is that you don't come quickly enough when we have an emergency. We dial the number and expect you within five or 10 minutes, but sometimes it takes half an hour or you do not come until the next day." We know that the police are under pressure. Then the next person will say, "We never see a police officer in our area; we don't see them on the beat. They're not around any more." We know that, by and large, police officers walking the beat do not catch criminals. That is not their function; they are there for reassurance, prevention and deterrence.
With the wardens' support, the police could carry out their response activities as well as a bit of beat-walking. In that way, there would be more people in the area wearing uniforms. They would be there for deterrent and preventive purposes, for reassurance and to give people a feeling of safety. I would welcome such a measure. I hope that more money can be found in the spending review for community wardens and that the Westfield estate will benefit. I am sure that such a measure would stop many problems in their infancy, rather than allowing them to get out of control.
I welcome the increased investment in housing, which is badly needed. There is, by and large, very good council housing in my constituency, but some houses still have no proper heating systems, with the same sink units that they had 30 years ago and the same windows that they had 50 years ago. For a bit of extra moneythat money is starting to come in, with the doubling of investment that the local authority has seen since 1997they could be even better places to live.
I want the Government to reassure me that, if the tenants in my constituency and in Sheffield generally vote against the stock transfer, for which the Liberal Democrat-controlled council is pressing although there is substantial resistance, it will not prejudice future investment in my constituents' houses. I welcome the Government's commitment to bring all public sector rented housing up to a decent standard by 2010, but it should be honoured for all tenants irrespective of whether they vote for a stock transfer.
People come back to that issue time and again because Liberal Democrat councillors are telling people that their houses will not be repaired or improved if they do not vote for a stock transfer. Those threats are wrong, and I hope that Ministers will clearly resist them and say that it is wrong to make such threats to try to force the vote in a certain direction. The vote should be fair and people should be able to make their choice without intimidation.
I agree with what the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) said about the importance of local councils having the freedom to act in raising the quality of life of the inhabitants of their areas, but the Liberal Democrat party, which he represents, happens to be in power in Sheffield and is using those freedoms to bad effect in my constituency.
I have already referred to the cuts in the youth budget. We should be worried about such cuts. Not having enough to do is not a reason for young people to engage in antisocial behaviour, but it certainly does not help if they have no alternative to standing around on street corners. Those cuts represent a serious attack on my constituents' quality of life.
There have been substantial disturbances in another poor part of my constituencyTinsleybut the police and the community have worked effectively to sort them out during the past six months. A facility for local peoplethe local recreation groundhas remained derelict for the past two or three years. We were promised that the Tinsley recreation pavilion would be restored last summer, but it remains unusable and unoccupied, as the council still has not got around to carrying out its promise.
The local advice centre that works on behalf of many poor families in the area was shut two months ago. The council took away its £32,000 grant, closed it and told people to travel two miles across an industrial valley to the nearest advice centre, despite the fact that there is no direct bus service.
The Darnall community nursery makes a valuable contribution to my constituents' quality of life, but its budget has been cut this year. The Handsworth community nursery's budget has also been cut. However, the chief council officers have received a £30,000 pay increase and the publicity budget has been boosted to £1 million to publicise the work of the ruling group. Those are ways in which the freedom for local authorities to act has been used to the detriment of my constituents.
I support the principle of freedom, but not what the Liberal Democrat council in Sheffield is doing with that freedom. It is destroying the quality of life of my constituents in many ways, despite the fact that it has received grant increases this year at twice the rate of inflation and a council tax increase of two and a half times the rate of inflation. The council simply has its priorities absolutely wrong.
As I said at the beginning, there are many respects in which my constituents' general quality of life has improved during the past five or six years, but there are still real problems. A handful of people cause mayhem and disruption for whole communities. I welcome the Government's proposals to deal with those matters through changes to the antisocial behaviour order arrangements and eviction procedures for tenants who behave badly.
I would tell my hon. Friend the Minister that we need speedier and more effective procedures, but the changes to those procedures need to be introduced speedily as well. We must remember that every day of delay in Parliament is a further day of misery for thousands of people not just in my constituency, but throughout the country. We must act urgently on those issues.