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Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts). I agree with what he has said and want to deal with one or two of those issues myself.
This is an important debate because, of course, communities collectively make up the nation. I want to refer to the fact that a community is more of a spirit; of course communities are created in many ways and pubs, churches, village shops and post offices make them up, but the social interaction that takes place is also important.
I fully accept that the Government and local government have roles to play in engendering that spirit and in improving the lives of people in their local communities. However, we should remember that the social interaction that I mentioned springs from self-responsibility and from people doing things for each other, not just leaving it to the Government or local government. Too much influence from central and local government can break down communities; that is evident in many areas.
People should feel that they have stake in the community. That is a matter not only of owning their own houses, although that is important, but of taking pride in existing institutionsin the churches, pubs and shopsand in each other and in their neighbourly behaviour. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe gave many examples of how antisocial behaviour can break down communities. Ownership of communities and of the institutions and spirit within them is extremely important.
In a constitutional context, too much government can break down community spirit. Where possible, local councils should be made smaller to make them responsible and responsive. Many parts of the country have parish councils and town councils, which are more local and more responsive. Local people who sit on them often feel a sense of ownership and responsibility in doing
I urge the Government not to go down the road of regional government. In the south-west, it matters little to people in Tewkesbury whether decisions are made in Exeter or Bristol or in London. If possible, decisions relating to Tewkesbury should be made in Tewkesbury; if not, it makes no difference whether they are made in London or in Exeter, as neither would bring local benefit to the community.
On developmenthouse building, in other wordsit is important when providing housing not just to build houses. Several places in my constituency started off as pretty villages where there was a community spirit. More houses were built, but not a balanced community, because there were no amenities to go with them. People who live in them have to go elsewhere to shop or to use leisure facilities. That does not build up community spirit: it breaks it down. Any development that has to take placealthough we should question whether certain areas should be developedshould be sustainable. We hear a great deal about sustainability, but what does it mean? It means building a balanced community and having respect for it, so that people can both live and function in it. They should not just go home to sleep, and have to go elsewhere to do other thingsthose amenities should exist within the community.
Decisions on where to build houses should take account of towns and cities, which require regeneration. That can by done by building on brownfield sites, or by using flats above shopsand by ensuring that shops do not close in the first place, as they often do. That has the dual effect of not destroying green belt sites or greenfield sites, which are quickly being swallowed up.
We could also regenerate towns and cities by not taking so much money out of them. We should be imaginative about what used to be called enterprise zones. If there are serious problems in an area, perhaps instead of taxing people who live there and then feeding them the money back under a scheme that was designed in London the Government should take less money out of that area in the first place. It might be a revolutionary idea. Perhaps we should have tax-free zones in those areas for two or three years, to encourage enterprising people to move there to live, to set up businesses and to employ local people. On second thoughts, I do not think that it is a particularly revolutionary idea, but it is an imaginative idea, which I have had for a long time. I would like the Government to engage in that type of thinking.
Many hon. Members have spoken about the destructive effect of crime and the fear of crime on local communities. It eats away at the spirit and the performance of a community. Tolerance of crime is not an option. People who have studied what has happened in New YorkI have not done so in detailhave found that the successes that they have had in that city seem to have come from the opposite of a tolerance of crime: a zero tolerance of crime.
That brings me to the subject of drugs, because we hear reportsI do not know how accuratethat in certain areas tolerance is shown to the possession of cannabis. I declare straight away that I oppose the legalisation of cannabis, on practical as well as moral grounds, because when I speak to the police in my area, they tell me that a very high percentage of heroin addicts started off on cannabis. It is no use going down the politically correct route of saying that cannabis is okay and is the same as drink or cigarettes; it is not. It is very different, and if we are going to start tolerating crime in that way, it will be the thin end of the wedge. It is no use having antisocial behaviour orders if we are to tolerate illegal acts. That cannot be the way forward.
We all know how much crime is committed in the pursuit of money to buy drugs. We should move in the other direction; we should stamp out drug use and the drug trade because it is destroying the lives of very many peoplenot just those who take the drugs but those who are affected by the crimes committed by people who want to purchase them.
A great deal of crime is committed by people with little or no education. I cannot quote the statistic exactly, but between 50 and 60 per cent. of people in prison are illiterate or have very low literacy. That is not an excuse for crime, however, and we cannot say that because someone is illiterate they should not go to prison. I am not making that case; I have said that I believe in the tougher control of crime. I believe in tougher sentencing for many crimes. However, we should recognise why crime is committednot tolerate it, but try to understand why it is committed by some people in the first place, with a view to stamping it out. If we can, we should not only provide better education for those who go to university but turn our attention to those who have an alleged education for 11 years and yet leave school without any literacy or numeracy skills. That cannot be right, and we should try to find out why it is happening.
Geraint Davies: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that about 70 per cent. of people now in prison had been permanently excluded from school? When such youngsters, who are already disruptive, are excluded from school they get about five hours' tuition a week and then roam around, stealing mobile phones and the like. They end up in prison, and within two years of being released they are back inside again. It costs £34,000 a year to keep them in prison. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the extension in September of pupil referral units, which will provide such youngsters with at least some level of concentrated education, should help the drive against criminality?
Mr. Robertson: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Like other hon. Members, I have discussed such issues with teachers and head teachers. However, they do point out that the inability to exclude such pupils easily enough causes great disruption to schools. That problem must be dealt with, but I recognise what the hon.
Should they end up in prison? When someone ends up in prison, it is a tragedy for them, for their family, for the taxpayer, and even for the victim of the crime. We should do our utmost to prevent people from getting into the situations that lead to their committing the crimes that result in going to prison. One method is to improve education at school age. As I said, I am delighted that many people go to university and get a good education, but we also need to consider those who are slipping through the net and not getting any education at all.
A great many people are in employment these daysas my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) said, we handed the Labour Government a very sound economy, which they have not quite managed to destroy just yetso to some extent there is a skills shortage. However, I speak with some experience when I say that the collapse of certain industries has destroyed many communities. The mining and steel industries are the obvious examples, but we should remember the textile industry, in which I worked for many years. Many people in that industry, who were low paid to start with, lost their jobs. It is very difficult for such communities to share in the general wealth of the nation, given that they started from such a low base, only for their industries to be destroyed. That has proved a terrible problem, particularly in the farming industry.
We have concentratedprobably rightlyon many of the problems in towns and inner cities, but I want to touch on those affecting rural areas. I represent a constituency that is, by and large, rural, and its communities have experienced many difficulties. They suffer because of their rurality, which is not adequately compensated for because of the way that local government grants are assessed. However, there are also problems with transport. Rural areas suffer from very poor transport links, and there is also much poverty and crime.
More and more people from rural communities are complaining to mein person and in writingabout crime in their areas. We should not ignore that issue. Although my constituency is not considered an area of deprivation, pockets of deprivation exist. We have awful problems with drug dealers and with theft in certain parts of the constituency, and I am rather peeved that the national lottery grants do not adequately reflect that fact. Areas are assessed in terms of overall deprivation, but it is not recognised that certain pockets of deprivationperhaps such as those in my constituencydo not have the full amenities and levels of wealth that other parts of the country enjoy.
To some extent, the Government have recognised the problem. They intend to concentrate on improving national lottery grants for 51 areas that they have identified throughout the country, but I should point out that 50 of those areas already receive more money than Tewkesbury does. As the Member of Parliament for Tewkesbury, I find that a little difficult to understand and hard to take. I have initiated one Adjournment debate on that issue already, and I am applying for another. Although Tewkesbury has applied for about a sixth of the money that has been applied for in Gloucestershirethere are six constituencies in the county, so that is about
On the theme of rural communities, farms are not only family businesses that generate sources of income on which people rely for their living, but a crucial part of the countryside. Farmers are the custodians of the countryside and have suffered terribly not only from the BSE crisis, but from the foot and mouth crisis as well, which hit my constituency hard. In addition, although I do not want to make a party political point, the Government are ignoring some of the bigger problems in the country and are determined to ban hunting.
I do not hunt and never have. Indeed, I have not always lived in a rural area. I lived in Bolton in Lancashire for 33 years and did not have a view on hunting because I knew nothing about it. I remind the Government that the Burns report, which they commissioned, identified that events and organisations like gymkhanas and pony clubs are dependent on people who participate in hunting. Hunting is important to some parts of our communities, such as my constituency, and in a few areas, it is crucial. It will be a further blow to those rural areas if it is banned.
A community is not just about a physical area; it is also about a community spirit. Many communities, each with their own spirit, are what make up a country. I am delighted to have been present for this important debate. I am glad that the Government introduced it and that I have been able to participate.