HC Deb 19 December 1975 vol 902 cc1933-9

11.12 a.m.

Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich, East)

I am glad to have this chance of focusing attention on the problem of vandalism, because I believe it to be in many parts of the country the most pressing social evil and the most immediate threat to the quality of life. I am referring not just to the headline-hitting vandalism of the football hooligans, but to the ever-rising tide of pointless, mindless, senseless destruction which threatens to engulf whole areas of our major towns and cities.

At its most trivial, this sort of vandalism takes the form of inscribing the virtues of "Millwall bootboys", "Chelsea shed" or "Charlton rule" on virtually every square inch of blank wall. It includes the systematic pulling up of street trees, the smashing of windows, the dumping of rubbish and the slashing of tyres. At its most serious, vandalism extends to wholesale attacks on public buildings and deliberate arson.

As I hope to show, this appalling trail of destruction is costing all of us gigantic sums, which we can ill afford in the middle of an economic crisis of the utmost severity. It is reducing some urban areas to little more than battlegrounds, and in the most serious cases it is actually endangering life. What I find most worrying about the situation is the lack of any nationally-directed strategy for dealing with the problem, or even any concerted attempt to quantify the extent.

I appreciate the difficulties. A great deal of vandalism goes unrecorded because there is little point in reporting minor acts of damage and destruction. The costs are spread over a great many individual authorities and no one is responsible for adding them up. That is why I warmly welcome the recently published Report of the Home Office working party, "Protection against Vandalism", which aims to focus public attention on … the damage and disorder which can only be described as a national disgrace. The growing scale of the vandalism menace is revealed to some extent by criminal statistics. There is, of course, no such crime as vandalism, and it is abundantly clear that many incidents are not in any case reported to the police. But the trends of acts of criminal and malicious damage known to the police give us a clear warning about the growth of the problem.

Between 1965 and 1971, the number of cases of malicious and criminal damage exceeding £20 in value and known to the police in England and Wales more than trebled from 6,956 to 23,433. Over that seven-year period, the numbers of offenders prosecuted rose by 30 per cent. and the number cautioned as an alternative to prosecution went up by 61 per cent. Of 150,000 offenders dealt with during the seven years, about 25 per cent. were under 17 years of age, and the 17 to 21 age group accounted for 30 per cent., which means that well over half the offenders were under the age of 21.

These pre-1972 figures cannot be compared with those for later years because of the passage of the Criminal Damage Act 1971, which altered the method of recording. Nevertheless, the figures for the three years from 1972 reveal the same sorry trend. Cases of criminal damage exceeding £20 in value and known to the police rose from 35,816 in 1972 to 59,198 in 1974. Of the 103,000 offenders dealt with by magistrates' courts in those three years, well over half were again under 21 years of age.

In the Metropolitan Police area, the situation worsened even more dramatically. In 1972, the 7,237 cases known to the Metropolitan Police represented about one-seventh of the national total. By 1974, the metropolitan figure had increased to 13,243, almost a quarter of the country-wide total. This seems to bear out the suggestion that vandalism flourishes most rapidly in areas where police manpower is most fully stretched.

But it is when one starts digging into the costs of making good the damage that the extent of the problem is most starkly and frighteningly revealed. The Home Office report gives some examples. In 1971–72, the Post Office suffered in 12 months no fewer than 160,844 attacks on telephone kiosks and the repair costs amounted to £426,000. In the same year, British Rail estimated the cost of making good wanton damage at £1 million.

The building industry has always been a particular target for the vandals. Nothing on building sites seems to be safe. Windows are smashed, electric wiring ripped out, pipes cut, water turned on to flood the premises, sanitary fittings smashed, brickwork pushed over, unused materials ruined—the list is almost endless. On one housing site in my constituency the builders could not keep pace with the daily smashing of windows. They had to fit plywood shutters over the glass.

The cost of all this is enormous. Some building contractors put it at 3 per cent. of the contract price. The direct labour building force of Greenwich Council tells me that vandalism costs it £50 a week for every major contract. That adds up to £25,000 a year, plus another £25,000 for special security and other preventive measures.

But perhaps the biggest victims of vandalism are local authorities. To get some idea of what it costs them to repair the ravages, I asked my own council in Greenwich to undertake some research. I chose Greenwich deliberately. It is an inner London borough but with little of the housing, racial, or social tensions of the harder-pressed central areas. As such, I thought that it was reasonably typical of Greater London as a whole.

Greenwich also has a great deal of public open space and a high level of provision for leisure and recreation. Yet it is just these facilities that come in for some of the worst attacks. Vandalism in the parks is costing the council £15,000 a year. Damage to play centres, swimming pools, public halls and other recreation centres is put at £9,000 a year.

Perhaps the saddest example at this time of the year is the case of the Christmas trees. Greenwich, like many other councils, was in the habit of providing half a dozen illuminated Christmas trees in public places throughout the borough. The cost of the deliberate damage to those trees during three and a half weeks last Christmas amounted to £985. Not surprisingly, there are no Christmas trees in Greenwich this year.

The biggest single instance of vandalism to council property occurs on the housing estates. Greenwich officers estimate that 60 per cent. of all repair works to the communal areas of the estates is the direct result of deliberate vandalism. The overall cost to the council is breath taking. The council's building manager estimates that the equivalent of 40 men are employed full time all the year round repairing deliberate damage to council-owned buildings, including housing.

Allowing for materials and plant used, the cost is put at a staggering £280,000 a year for one borough. Adding other costs directly attributable to vandalism including those on the council's building sites, it becomes clear that Greenwich ratepayers are contributing at least the product of a penny rate to make good wanton damage.

If Greenwich is anything like typical of the rest of London, the vandalism bill for the whole of the London boroughs may be as high as £8 million a year, and if we add the Greater London Council, London Transport, British Rail, and all the other public bodies, the figure for Greater London alone may well exceed £10 million a year.

Nor should we forget that other public bodies suffer too. The Spastics Society recently drew attention to the fact that attacks on workshops, hostels and other facilities for the handicapped has cost £50,000 over a period of 18 months. The society's statement quotes one example. At one workshop, ambulances used to take spastics to work have had tyres slashed, windscreen wipers torn off, windscreens shattered and headlamps dismantled. Bricks are repeatedly hurled through windows. The callousness of people who can launch such attacks on the most vulnerable members of our society is almost beyond belief.

Faced with this appalling panorama of damage, destruction and violence, I believe that certain action must be taken urgently. First, we need far more reliable information about the extent of the problem. That means more reporting of incidents and separate recording of the costs of vandalism. Having done that, we must use the most modern publicity techniques, including radio and television, to bring home to the public the fact that they are meeting the bill for the ravages of the vandals and that they are the casualties of these attacks on our environment.

Second, we need much more research into the motivation of the vandals. I know that many people will argue that more opportunities for the young to use their undoubted energies constructively will lessen the problem. I accept that this may be part of the solution, but in many places the very facilities provided for the young are the first targets for the vandals. There is in my constituency an adventure playground which has been attacked so many times that it now looks more like a prisoner-of-war camp.

A play leader in West London was quoted in the Evening News on 15th December about one playground which has been completely destroyed twice in 18 months. She said: When we first opened it, the Fire Brigade was called two or three times a week. Sometimes there were up to 10 fires burning in the playground at any one time. The play leaders came back after the Bank Holiday … All the structures, the slide, the swings, were gone—just a charred, smouldering mass. They said they did it because they were bored. They are not sorry to tell you. This play leader goes on to say: These kids think everything's a big joke. They think their parents are a joke, they think the law is a joke. They have no respect for themselves and no respect for other people. They seem totally insensitive. They're violent towards each other, towards play leaders. They do not seem to have any emotions. They do not even know fear. I believe that we need to know a great deal more about what makes children behave in such a frightening way.

In the meantime, better efforts must be made to detect and prevent vandalism. I appreciate the manpower problems of the police, but I believe that there must be more co-operation with local authorities to concentrate at least on the more vulnerable areas. To be successful such efforts must have the active support of the public, and that means reporting cases and, even more important, it means that members of the public must be willing to come forward and give evidence.

Once they are caught, the punishment for the vandals must be more effective. Fines are easy to impose but are not always easy to collect. The collection of fines involves a great deal of costly time and effort on the part of the courts. A wider use of community service orders might be more effective, because that would require young vandals to spend their own time and effort clearing up their own mess. Courts have the power to order compensation, but with young offenders this can be as difficult to collect as fines. This is one more reason for placing much greater responsibility on the parents.

Although I have been an inner London magistrate for nearly six years, I was not aware that courts had the power, under the Children and Young Persons Act, as amended, to order a parent or guardian to pay any fines, damages, costs or compensation imposed on the offender unless the court is satisfied that the parent or guardian cannot be found or has not conduced to the commission of the offence by neglecting to exercise due care or control of the child or young person. Unfortunately, it is not possible to find out how often this power is being used, but it is very unlikely that it is being frequently exercised.

As a matter of urgency we should draw to the attention of magistrates the fact that they have these powers and that these powers should be used. Some well-publicised cases in which parents are required to pay for the rampages of their children might do wonders for making some mothers and fathers more interested in what their children get up to.

The urgent need for that is underlined by a statement from a policeman reported in the Evening News of 16th December as follows: A lot of parents round here hardly see their kids until 10 o'clock at night. They are out at work in the daytime and playing Bingo or down the pub of an evening. I asked a crowd of rowdies, riding motorbikes inside the flats, why they did not go to one of the youth clubs. They said they did not like them because they chased you about there. They meant there was a bit of discipline. You get chucked out if you break windows. These kids aren't used to discipline. If their parents can't, or won't, deal with these kids, how can you expect a policeman to do it? I recognise that there is no simple, easy solution to this problem, which threatens to engulf many parts of our towns and cities under a tidal wave of destruction. But if we are to have any chance of halting that tide, there must be some co-ordinated, determined national campaign embracing the Government, the local authorities, the police, schools, courts and, above all, the general public, who have most to gain from the success of such a drive.

The number of complaints that I receive from my constituents indicates that many people are worried about these problems, and some, particularly among the elderly, are genuinely frightened. Unfortunately, all too often they do not feel that those in authority really care about the problem of vandalism, or are really determined to stop it.

If there is no sign of some speedy concerted action, there is a risk that people will become even more cynical. They will merely shrug their shoulders and come to regard vandalism as a fact of life that has to be lived with. That would be a tragedy. It would condemn many of our inner city areas in particular to a slide into becoming a sort of "Clockwork Orange" battleground. It would herald a total abdication of any sense of pride in the cities in which we live.

The fight back against vandalism must start now, and Members of Parliament must give a lead in that fight. That is why I have sought to initiate this debate. I can only hope that it will contribute something to the national campaign which the problem requires and which the nation increasingly demands.

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